Keeping Track of Your Time

In my sermon on Sunday, I challenged y’all to do a personal time evaluation. I saw a lot of blank stares when I talked about it, so let me explain what I was talking about:

 John Wesley’s diary from his time in Georgia; note the shorthand he uses to make his entries briefer.

John Wesley’s diary from his time in Georgia; note the shorthand he uses to make his entries briefer.

Start by taking a blank piece of paper. Write the time you usually get up in the morning at the top on the left of the page. Then go down the side of the page, listing each hour of the day until the time you usually go to bed.

My page, for example, would have 6 am at the top, with 7, 8, 9 and so on down the side until 10, which would be the last entry.

Then make copies of that page so that you have a week’s worth of pages.

Throughout each day of the week, keep a record of how you spend each hour of the day. Use whatever notation scheme you like. I actually write actual times in which I started a task, then the time when I did something else.

Don’t worry — this is only for your eyes. You don’t have to let anybody else see it. This is only for self-evaluation.

When the week is over, spend some time looking over how your time was spent and reflect. If it’s helpful, tally up the number of hours you spent in the big categories: work, sleep, family, rest and relaxation, church, etc.

Then compare those numbers and look for the surprises. Do you spend more time working than you thought? Are you getting enough sleep? How much time did you spend with your family?

Obviously, I want to encourage you to think about how much time you spent intentionally working on your discipleship. Did you spend time with God in prayer? Did you do any spiritual reading, either of the Bible or some other book that deepened your understanding of God? Did you have any deep conversations with others about things that really matter?

At this point, you may decide to stop reading this column in anger. “What right does he have to question my use of time?” you might think.

The truth is that the Methodist heritage contains a strong strain of Christian time management.

John Wesley was particularly concerned that he and his Methodist preachers managed their time well. In fact, he left behind a set of questions used to determine whether someone was fit to be of service. We call them the Historic Questions and use them in “examining” ordination candidates. The last of these questions, asked of every ordinand, reads like this:

Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

If a preacher couldn’t honestly answer, “Yes,” Wesley wouldn’t commission him. And neither will our bishops.

 A page from Wesley’s Oxford Diary; the entry for March 17, 1734.

A page from Wesley’s Oxford Diary; the entry for March 17, 1734.

Wesley himself kept to a very rigid schedule, as evidenced by the fact that he kept a detailed diary throughout his life. He didn’t do this because he wanted to leave behind a record of everything he had done; this was part of his own spiritual journey, part of the way he hoped to develop a “holy” lifestyle.

While attending Oxford, Wesley developed a rather intricate method for determining how well he was doing spiritually. First, he made up a list of 16 questions about his spiritual life. For example, one question was, “Have I prayed with fervor, by myself and at Chapel?” Another was, “Have I thought or spoken unkindly of or to anyone?”

Then he listed the hours of the day down the left side of his journal page, and made four columns across the top. In the first box, he wrote the details of what he had done at each hour. In the second column, he kept a record of his “Temper of Devotion,” which he kept on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 being the most religiously devout and focused. The third column was labeled “Resolutions Broken,” in which he wrote down the number of any of the questions he had not kept; the fourth column was for “Resolutions Kept,” in which he wrote down the questions to which he could answer “Yes.”

If that sounds like a lot of work, it was. Wesley was unable to keep that up over his lifetime. However, it may also sound like an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder! I like to think that Wesley gradually came to understand the meaning of grace and accepted the idea that he didn’t have to be perfect in order to be loved.

I’m not at all commending Wesley’s diary style to you. I don’t do it, and wouldn’t want to.

But Wesley certainly understood that the way we spend our time says something significant about our spiritual condition. What we do with our time says a lot about who we are, what we think of God, and how seriously we take our faith.

Let me close with this quote from Father Richard Rohr:

Time is exactly what we do not have. What decreases in a culture of affluence is precisely and strangely time—along with wisdom and friendship. These are the very things that the human heart was created for, that the human heart feeds on and lives for. No wonder we are producing so many depressed, unhealthy and even violent people.

What will you do to allow yourself to enjoy the gift of time once again?

Landing On Your Feet

After Vacation Bible School this summer, Rev. Kay gave me a gift. It’s a little wind-up plastic monkey. When it’s wound up, it does backflips. Backflips!!!

And here’s the amazing thing — it lands on its feet every time. EVERY. TIME.

It’s become my favorite desk object.

Anytime I go through a rough patch, I wind that monkey up and watch him flip. I’m always amazed that he lands on his feet. In fact, there’s always a little bit of dramatic tension just before he jumps, because I worry that maybe this time he won’t make it.

But he always does.

I don’t know how he does it. Yet that’s how I want to be.

I always want to land on my feet. I never want to be brought so low by a circumstance or piece of news or life situation that I can’t get back on my feet and keep moving forward.

Compared to most people, I am extremely fortunate. I have been blessed with good health, and my family and friends have, too. My parents are still alive, and I’ve never lost anyone close to me yet. I have always had employment, and I’ve never worried about feeding my family. We’ve always lived in a secure and stable environment, and we’ve reaped multiple benefits from being American citizens.

However, I have had professional disappointments. Having to leave Cameroon was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, and it caused me some personal distress. It took me several years to get over the pain of leaving early.

Somehow I “landed on my feet,” and regained a sense of purpose and meaningfulness again.

After leaving Cameroon, I experienced another major disappointment in my appointment to the church in Rowlett. As I rebooted my pastoral ministry in America, I ran into another obstacle when part of the congregation resisted my interactions with the Muslim community, as well as some of my public social justice work.

This, too, took the wind out of my sails, and I found myself reeling yet again.

But I “landed on my feet,” and found myself with the appointment of a lifetime — Kessler Park!

Ministry isn’t easy, of course. The grind of church politics and administrative minutiae sometimes makes me want to reconsider my life choices, but in the end, I come back to the call of God on my life. I remember that I am tethered to that call, and that it gives me meaning and purpose.

One of the Scriptures that has helped me “land on my feet” time and time again is a story at the end of the Gospel of John. Poor Simon Peter denied knowing Jesus three times on the night of his arrest, and he is still wrestling to absorb the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead. He finds himself sitting on the beach, when Jesus leans over and asks him, “Do you love me?” Peter is quick to respond, “Yes!” Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep.”

This exchange takes place three times. Each time, Jesus’ question is met by Peter’s “Yes!” Each time, Peter’s “Yes!” is met with Jesus’ command to feed his sheep.

Jesus concluded the conversation by saying, “Follow me.” Peter did, and it’s fairly obvious that he landed on his feet quickly. He weathered the personal storm, the shame of having denied his Lord, by becoming the de facto leader of the nascent Christian movement. He got on with the business of feeding the sheep, of leading the flock with a gentle and deft touch.

Every time I feel shame and insecurity, I imagine that Jesus is asking me, “Do you love me?” I always answer, “Yes of course, you know I do!” And he always replies, “Then feed my sheep, and follow me.”

You have to be on your feet to follow Jesus. That’s why I’m confident I’ll always find myself standing in the end.

Discernment and Dreams

How do you make important decisions?

Not what you’re going to wear in the morning or what to fix for dinner, but the big questions of your life. For example, how do you decide where to live or what person to marry, or even when it’s time to move on in your job?

These are matters that can’t be left up to chance; you have to engage and invest some energy into making such decisions.

Ironically, the early Christians seemed to make at least one major decision in an entirely random way. In Acts 1, the disciples “cast lots” to replace Judas Iscariot in the inner circle. Scholars don’t know exactly what it meant to “cast lots” but it was likely akin to flipping a coin or choosing straws of different lengths.

But the disciples didn’t make decisions like this for very long, because in the next chapter of Acts, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and this changed the way they went about things. To be “filled with the Spirit” means that one has the very presence of God in one’s being, which means that each one of us can access God’s wisdom. Each of us can seek God’s will for our lives.

We call this practice of listening to the Spirit “discernment.” Sister Mary Margaret Funk wrote, “This is discernment: to sort our thoughts and follow the impulse of grace given by the Holy Spirit … We learn to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than our own voice, self talking to the self. The voice of the Holy Spirit is a dynamic voice that we hear and heed through our interior senses.”

Throughout the centuries, Christians have offered and embodied a number of different ways to understand and develop a discerning spirit. St. Benedict offered instruction on discernment in his “The Rule of St. Benedict”; St. Ignatius did the same in his “Spiritual Exercises”; Quakers introduced Clearness Committees to help persons find clarity in their vocation.

Discernment is not just for individuals, however. Groups can also approach God and ask for direction. In fact, using spiritual discernment for making decisions in a church setting is probably a much better process than the way we usually do things.

Thanks to U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert, most of us do things in an extremely parliamentary way. Robert’s Rules of Order predominate most church meetings, regardless of denomination.

While Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in all sorts of settings. They ensure that everyone has the right to be heard, and insist that things be settled democratically. Majority rules for Robert, as long as the correct procedure is followed.

But Robert’s Rules were not designed to hear, or respond to, God’s voice. In this matter, they are only helpful insofar as each person in the meeting is also hearing and responding to God’s voice.

Of course, the truth is that, using Robert’s Rules of Order, rarely is everyone able to agree on what God’s will is. In the end, Robert insists on a vote, and when there’s a vote, there are winners and losers.

Authentic Christian community is not about winners and losers, but it is about compromise, mutual subjection, and humility. I believe that there must be a better way to go about answering the difficult questions — and there is. It goes by the name of group spiritual discernment. And it’s not simple … or easy.

The practice of group spiritual discernment creates a sacred space where people can listen for God’s voice together, as well as listen to each other intimately and intently. The group enters into the space with a confidence that God will speak and lead the group to consensus. Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous vote, nor does it mean complete agreement. It simply means that the group has agreed to move forward in a particular direction, and that all are on board to support that movement.

I’m currently doing quite a bit of reading and research on this model, because I am convinced that it is an excellent way to go about pursuing God’s will. In fact, I’m using a group spiritual discernment model for a new task force which meets this Sunday night to discuss the long-term future of the church building and property.

I can’t wait to see what God reveals to us, because God’s dreams are always bigger than our own. The key is learning to dream God’s dreams …