Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Month: February 2023

Time & Attention

“Everything that wants your attention doesn’t deserve your time.”

Shavoris Brown

The beginning of the day, the week, the month, or the year seems ripe with opportunities. We manage to convince ourselves that all is possible, and there’s plenty of time to do it all. 

Then reality hits: unplanned interruptions, unwanted calls, unexpected sickness, unwelcome salespersons, unrealistic expectations, unforeseeable delays. You know what I’m talking about.

When these time wreckers intrude on our well-planned schedules, what do we do? We hit the pause button and ask ourselves, “What’s the most important thing I need to do right now?” Our ability to be productive depends upon our ability to determine what’s most important and to pursue that above all else. It’s a matter of eliminating the unnecessary and concentrating on the essential. To extend the opening quotation, some matters are not only unworthy of our time, they’re also unworthy of our attention.

The same mentality applies to spiritual life. Spiritual life can become cluttered and clotted with unnecessary, attention-grabbing distractions. Not a day passes that I don’t get some kind of invitation to attend a religious or church event. Not a day goes by that I don’t get an offer to buy another religious book. Hardly a day passes by that I don’t get asked to participate in another conference, another online study, another elders’ meeting, another mentoring session, or another church social. After a while, my head wants to explode. 

But the biblical solution is simple. Determine what’s most important and forget the rest. While the Bible isn’t a time management manual, it does speak to the issue of our priorities. Consider:

  • Psalm 39.4: “LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am.”
  • Psalm 90.12: “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
  • Ephesians 5.15-16: “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”
  • James 4.14, 15, 17: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’… Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
  • Matthew 6.33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

For today and every day, determine what deserves you attention and your time, then pursue it with all you’ve got.

Which Way?

I’ve always had a fascination with maps. My dad was a land surveyor for a power company. He frequently drew maps and would sometimes bring home old ones that had been changed and were no longer accurate. Early on I discovered a kind of pleasure in looking at and reading maps.

Maps are representations of reality. They’re designed to help you find your way in the reality that we call the world. Maps can tell you about all kinds of things: Distances, directions, locations, climate, precipitation, crops, economics, elevations, businesses, etc.

For most of us, we use maps to tell us how to get from one point to the next. They give us an idea of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about printed maps, hand drawn maps, or digital maps, they function in the same way.

In the moral sphere, we also need maps to help us get from one point to the next. Like their physical counterparts, moral maps are representations of spiritual realities. To that end, one of the best ways to think about the Bible is to view it as a map of the spiritual world. 

In many of its historical narratives, the Bible refers to geographical features of the land, including highways and streets: “The way of the wilderness” (Joshua 8.15) or “the way of the Red Sea” (Numbers 21.4) or “the street called Straight” in ancient Damascus (Acts 9.11). These were roadways used by travelers in ancient times.

The Bible also uses the same kind of terminology to describe the moral road that God’s people should travel. Psalm 1 says (verses 1 & 6), “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers… For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Notice the terminology: “walk… the path of sinners… the way of the righteous… the way of the wicked.”

The psalmist is saying that the difference between the wicked and the righteous is the map that each one follows. The righteous man follows God’s map while the wicked man follows his own map. Consequently, their destinations couldn’t be more divergent.

But we need to remember that a map is good only to the extent that it accurately represents reality. A road map that tells you that Nashville is west of Memphis isn’t reliable. But that’s why the Bible is the ultimate spiritual road map: It represents things as they really are.

So, make sure you’ve got a copy of God’s road map, make sure you examine it regularly and carefully, and above all else, make sure you’re following it.

The Silence of Sibelius

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was arguably Finland’s greatest composer. Perhaps his most famous work was the patriotic symphonic poem “Finlandia”, which is one of Finland’s most important national tunes. If you’re familiar with the hymn, “Be Still My Soul,” its melody is based upon choral melody of “Finlandia.”

Sibelius was a prodigious composer, producing seven symphonies and numerous other orchestral works from the 1890s through 1926. His last known piece was “Tapiola”, written in 1926. For the remaining thirty years of his life (1926-1957), he apparently wrote or finished nothing. During this same period, he said virtually nothing about his music. Sibelius went silent.

One possible explanation is that he lost his intrinsic motivation. In 1897 he was awarded a government pension which, in theory, allowed him to work on his compositions without having to worry about his finances. He bought land in the country and with his wife Aino built a house where they lived out the remainder of their lives. The theory is that over time since he had all his extrinsic needs met, he gradually lost his inner motivation. Dangling a large carrot (in this case, a lifelong pension) in front of him eventually stunted his motivation to challenge himself.

Whether this is true or not is debatable. Sibelius lived large, frequently running up debt. He loved drinking, smoking, and partying. His tendency toward alcoholism was well known. Many believe that these were factors in his sudden silence. 

Sibelius was also a perfectionist who was notoriously self-critical of his work. He often would rewrite and tweak portions of earlier works and was rarely completely satisfied with his music.

I suspect that the silence of Sibelius involved many factors. However, the notion of intrinsic motivation is important. The highest form of motivation for mature, responsible, productive people comes from within.

What does this have to do with being a Christian? Jesus said that the greatest command for God’s people is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your might” (Deuteronomy 6.5). This kind of commitment comes from within – from the heart, from the soul. In a culture like ours, which so strongly emphasizes external rewards, we forget that the most important things don’t have price tags attached.

What is it that really moves you? What gets you going and keeps you going? If the answer doesn’t come from your heart’s commitment to God, you’re looking in the wrong places at the wrong things. 

God deserves better, and so do you.