How will you grow spiritually in 2018?

December 28th, 2017

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s I often settle on and commit to a plan for growing spiritually in the year ahead. Yes, there is value in being spontaneous. Yes, God often meets us in the unscheduled. And yet the Lord also honors our seeking to be in a faithful place where we are more likely to experience God-sightings. Think of Simeon and Anna in the closing verses of Luke 2.

Over the years I have approached this in different ways — as an individual, in a small group, in an on-line group, with other clergy and with clergy and laity. Having an intentional process for growth and discipleship is important. And having a built-in framework for accountability is essential.

So I write not out of boasting or pride (“look what I am doing!”), but for two reasons:

By being specific, you may develop a specific plan or method for your own life
By going public, I am more likely to keep this intention, and, thus, I am more likely to be closer to God when 2018 concludes.

So here is my plan. It’s not perfect. You could improve upon it. There are omissions. It is not a path for everyone, but it is my path. You are welcome to pursue it or get started in your walk with God.

1. I use the Moravian Daily Texts. You can also get the Daily Texts (free) by email. The Moravians had a profound effect on John Wesley, and were a vital Christian presence in the piedmont of Western North Carolina, where we served for twenty years. There is a verse from the Old and New Testaments each day, the lectionary passages each Sunday, and a way to read the Psalms in a year. To go a bit deeper, I try to frame the daily text as a focus sentence. And when I can go ever deeper, not often enough, a word or phrase can become the basis for centering prayer. I realize this started simple and may feel complicated, but start where you are. I love the small book and give it as a Christmas gift. It is also easy to carry with me when I travel.

2. I use a blank journal to write in each day. Anything I write is in this journal — minutes from meetings, to-do lists, packing lists, notes in preparation for sermons. I write the beginning date on the first page and the closing date on the last one. I have these journals dating back to years in pastoral ministry. So if I want to see the notes I took during the orientation to serving as a bishop, or an intercessory prayer list, or reflections during a cabinet meeting, or the baptismal homily for my granddaughter, I know where to find them.

I do attempt, at least three times a week, to write a spiritual reflection in the journal. I end up sharing some of these reflections on Facebook. And fairly frequently I try to use an outline for the daily entry that includes:

Gratitude: three specific things for which I am grateful
Struggle: a matter about which I feel some anxiety or confusion
Action: one to three actions that are the most important things I must do on this day…preferably, if I am journaling in the morning, by lunch
Intercession: I keep an ongoing list—for example, the current one still includes a couple of clergy families who were affected by Hurricane Irma, and the Way Forward, and friends who have requested prayer, and the aftermath of Charlottesville.

Note: It is possible to do # 1 and 2 completely online. My own preference is to use physical books and paper. The tool that suits your own lifestyle and practice is the one you should use.

3. In my Scripture reading I follow the Revised Common Lectionary. This gives, for each week, a passage from the Old Testament, the Epistles, the Psalms and the Gospels. The readings can be found in the UMC program calendar, and on the Discipleship Ministries website, on each Sunday in the Moravian Daily Texts. You can also subscribe (free) to a homily by the Abbott of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert (New Mexico) that is based on the readings. Another resource is the Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word, Cycle B. In full disclosure, I was a contributor to this series.

I generally read from the NRSV, but I have close friends who are drawn to the NIV, CEB and the NLT. This year I also plan to read the new translation by David Bentley Hart. But, really the translation you use is your own preference.

A word about the lectionary: I realize that most congregations and pastors do not follow this pattern in their preaching or worship planning. I still commend it as as a daily and weekly discipline. It can either be a practice that is consistent with the preparation of sermons or one that supplements sermon series (for clergy and laity).

So, what does all of this look like in actual practice?

Each day I am reading two verses, a Psalm fragment and one of the lectionary readings. I am reflecting on the day in a very basic way. I am keeping a prayer list. Three times a week I am writing a spiritual reflection. For most people, even the busiest people, this is manageable. You might decide that you will do most of this before you turn to reading social media or responding to email. This is my practice. In fact, I try not to turn on electronic devices for the first 30 minutes of the day.

The basic tools are the Moravian Daily Texts, a blank notebook, and a Bible.

Finally, why is all of this important?

I am writing to United Methodists who want to discover a more faithful and disciplined life in the new year. If Methodism is to be a vital and meaningful movement in the coming decades, it will be the result of many women and men who seek and practice a method in their Christian lives.

I am also writing to people who are formed (discipled) by the media that we consume. In a politically-polarized culture that feeds on cycles of violence and retaliation, even followers of Jesus can be shaped by our environment. A method of discipleship is essential if we are to avoid being “conformed to the world” and instead if we might be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12).

Our mission as a church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The word disciple (mathetes in Greek) is found in the great commission of Jesus (Matthew 28). A disciple is one who learns, who serves as an apprentice to one more skilled. To be a disciple of Jesus is to learn from him and to be be an apprentice in his way of life. The activities that constitute this way of life are sometimes called “spiritual exercises.”

So, as we begin a new year, what spiritual exercises might become a part of your life? I have offered a plan, but again, you can design your own. I have not spoken about the active life (how we serve) or generosity (how we share our blessings with others) or health (how we care for our bodies) or sabbath (how we manage our time) or advocacy (how we use our privilege on behalf of those who have little power). I have not spoken of the wider reading that we do, for spiritual growth or pleasure or learning. I have not spoken about podcasts and audio books, which can be very helpful, or the need to limit the consumption of television, which most of us (I) need. I have not spoken about spiritual directors, covenant groups and retreats. In focusing on three practices and the tools that relate to them, I have tried to keep this simple and achievable.

If this is helpful to you I encourage you to respond in three ways:

  1. Work on your own plan 
  2. Share it with it least one other trusted person, or a small group 
  3. Share this in social media

To be a disciple is to lead a more intentional life. It is to put ourselves in places where we are more likely to experience the grace of God. John Wesley called these the “ordinary channels” by which God’s mercy flows.

At the end of the second chapter of Luke, two faithful servants, Simeon and Anna are waiting for the coming of the Messiah. They are deeply committed to God and have been looking for the signs that God’s promises will be fulfilled. In God’s own time there is an in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven. There is a God-sighting!

My prayer for you is that you will see the glory of God in your daily life, and a path will unfold for you, to follow Jesus in the year ahead.

Bishop Ken Carter serves the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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