asking good questions

i don't know when it started, but somewhere along the way i started collecting "good questions." i do know how it started. i would be reading a book, usually along the lines of spiritual formation, & the author would pose a question that struck me somehow. sometimes with conviction, sometimes because i'd never thought of it before, sometimes due to an interest in the topic -- but all good questions.

i think one characteristic of a student of Life is the asking of good questions. a student, by definition, seeks to learn. one of the most common ways we learn is by finding answers to questions. we glean these answers in various ways -- reading, experimenting, exploring, asking others older &/or wiser than we, observing, listening, practicing, failing, succeeding. life is full of lessons for those willing to pay attention. looking for the lesson in all of life's experiences, the extraordinary & the mundane, is crucial for the student of Life. and we have open eyes to see those lessons all around us, every day, by asking questions of our experiences. what was significant about that circumstance? why am i drawn to that person? why do i avoid another? what am i afraid of? what's stopping me? how did i see God's presence through that situation?

i started noting questions that made me more aware of the importance of day-to-day happenings in the big picture of my life & the world, or that made me more reflective on myself, who i am, & who i am becoming, whether intentionally or not. i actually jot down "good Q" in the margins of my books & bible studies. i don't know that i originally intended to go back & review these questions or just wanted to note my thought in the moment. over time, i have gone back & looked at them. i have even started occasionally journaling about my answers to the questions that strike a chord with me. i've started recording them on index cards so i can keep them all together in one place.

and i thought another appropriate place for these good questions might be here on this little acreage of cyberspace. i'd like to share with you the questions that mystify me, inspire me, & convict me. sometimes, i might even share what my current personal answer is to a particular question. i'd love to hear your answers. because another characteristic of a student of Life is learning from the answers of others. there is much wisdom in community. may we become the wiser together!

today, i'd like to pose this question:

how can we be certain that we are growing spiritually?

this was asked during our prayer team meeting this past week, & i'll share with you our collective thoughts.

>> how others perceive us [they may see things in us that we don't]

>> answered prayers can indicate increased effectiveness & growth

>> how our reactions to certain situations evolve over time [do we become more or less reactionary? are our reactions calmer &/or more mature?]

>> having increased amazement in who God is & what He does

>> when being like God & with God becomes as natural as breathing

i know there must be many more insightful thoughts about this question, & it's one i'll be chewing on over time. i hope you'll share your thoughts!

how do you know when you're growing spiritually?


words to LIVE by #3

since i'm focusing this year on agape, any mention of the word catches & absorbs my attention. my sister, rachel, posted this on her facebook status today, in honor of the late dr. king. on this day, i can think of no better words on which to ponder & by which to LIVE. read them. appreciate them. absorb them. ACT on them.

for myself, i know what an impossible challenge this will be. and i am overwhelmingly grateful for God Most High who specializes in doing the impossible. may He extend His mighty power on my behalf by creating in me a new heart that is able to forgive & agape my enemies & every person He brings into my life.


words to LIVE by #2

this is something i frequently talk to our teens about. i always want to encourage others & myself to follow dreams! but sometimes life doesn't work out the way you planned. okay, lots of times... but sometimes a better dream comes along.

when i was in high school, i planned to be an architect who ran my own design-build company, living in a big city & traveling the world. i went to design school for architecture, & while i wasn't extraordinary, i was good at it. and i loved it. but i learned during those undergraduate years & since then that enjoying something isn't the same thing as it being your passion. of course, i'm the kind of person who's passionate about lots of things, so this becomes hard for me to decipher sometimes. but i learned to ask these questions:

is it something i'm good at? 
is it something i would enjoy? 
is it something that evokes passion in me?
is it something i can do [realistically]? 
and most importantly, is it something i will sustain for more than 1-2 years?

because i like to do so many things, that last question is key. that's actually the reason i chose architecture as my major -- i thought it would combine all my various interests [art, building, math, literature & language, photography, etc.] so it could be a long-term career for me.

but my life doesn't look anything like i planned as a teenager. and i'm so thankful for that! not that i can't still see myself being a successful urbanite architect. but it wouldn't have fed my deepest passions. instead, i'm married to a farm boy professor, living in a large town/small city, & doing ministry in various forms as my vocation. when we were working with the youth ministry, i often told the teens that had my life not taken a different course from my teenage dreams, i would have never known them. and i wouldn't trade being with them for anything in the world. they are my passion. sharing the life in Christ with them & others is my deepest dream. i just didn't know it back in high school.

i still have a life planned or dreamed of for myself, although it has changed drastically from the one i planned all those years ago. i want to continue in formal ministry. i want to have a houseful of children in some way [whether by birth, adoption, or youth ministry!]. i want to live my days in the companionship of my husband. i want to live closer to all my sisters. i want to travel. i want to write books. and on the list goes. and if none of those dreams comes true, it won't be because i didn't pursue them! but it will be because there was a different life waiting for me.

one of my favorite verses in the bible is after the israelites have recovered the ark of the covenant & samuel sets up a memorial stone to the Lord. He names it ebenezer, saying "thus far has the Lord helped us." and the implication is that He will help us again. God will continue to guide me in this life, in the Life of Christ, as He has yet faithfully done. and i will follow.

what life do you have planned? what life is waiting for you?


marking my time by a different calendar

i mentioned in a past post how i make 12 goals each year that help me live & grow intentionally as a student of Life. this year is no exception, & i'm especially excited about one of my spiritual goals.

observe the religious calendar.

having grown up in church, being a preacher's daughter, & going into ministry as a vocation, you would think i would have experienced the religious holy days, observances, & celebrations. but this is completely new to me. even celebrating christmas as the birthday of Christ is something we didn't do in our family. but in recent years, through various books & studies, i've grown in my curiosity about the religious calendar -- not just christian, but jewish, too.

to clear something up real quick, i don't want you to think that i believe observing specific special days is necessary to one's faith walk or that i want to make a rule of this for myself or anybody else. i'm not jewish, but my christian faith is rooted in a jewish heritage. i'm not catholic, but the catholic church has a gift for savoring the sacred. these things peak my curiosity, & i believe experiencing them can enrich & deepen my faith walk & understanding of Christ. 

so, i researched all the christian & jewish holy days, & i've chosen to observe most of them. there are a few that i may not partake of for various reasons & personal beliefs. i've put them all in my calendar along with alerts beforehand to prepare as needed. and i'm so excited i can't stand it! i was so thankful that the first observance was only six days into the new year!

and that's what i really want to share with you. on january 6, shaun & i celebrated epiphany. what is epiphany, you ask? i'd heard of it before, but i had no clue what it was. so i read alot about it. as i understand it, epiphany is the celebration of Jesus manifesting Himself as the Son of God. depending on the sect of christianity, this centers on the visit of the magi, Jesus' baptism, &/or the miracle at the wedding of cana. i decided to do all three. there are various ways of observing epiphany, both religious & cultural, depending on denomination & country. i just chose the traditions that most spoke to me.

first, shaun & i observed the religious rituals attached to epiphany. [disclaimer: these are often performed by a priest. i am not a priest, so please don't be offended or forgive me if you think it sacrilegious that we did them ourselves.]

i arranged the coffeetable with the necessary elements. you can see i left our christmas decorations in the middle. 

candles are my addition. i just really like candles to be included in anything ritualistic. these reminded me of the Trinity, one Person of which was sent to earth in flesh to dwell among men.

i marked the three stories in our small [esv] bible. i like the nice cover & the older more formal language of this translation. we alternated reading the stories & experienced a different element on the table in between each.

first, shaun read about the visit of the magi. this we remembered by the three gifts they presented to the Christ-child. i don't own any solid gold, so i used a gold dollar coin to represent it. the small pottery crock holds myrrh gum which smells sweetly divine. and the incense is frankincense which when lit filled the room with a wonderfully earthy aroma.

then, i read the account of Jesus' baptism. afterwards, we enjoyed the epiphany tradition of blessing the house in which you use chalk to write the words Christus mansionem benedicat, which means "Christ bless this house." [obviously, shaun did the writing & i did the spelling!] we also read a prayer of blessing for the house from the book common prayer for ordinary radicals. it was beautiful.

and finally we came to the wedding at cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. we commemorated this by taking communion. [the picture just shows a cracker. i actually made a simple unleavened bread, but i took these pictures afterwards, so the cracker is a stand-in.]

shaun said his favorite part was taking communion & taking it in the small wine glass. this small detail was a reminder that the event of communion is not to be mundane. i loved all of it, but ironically, my favorite part was the anticipation & preparation! it reminds me of something i once read about sabbath -- that it was meant to be the centerpiece of the week, something we look forward to & live for then live off of. sabbath helps us focus on God, the Creator, once a week, but the preparation for it keeps the living for God on our minds even before the day. that's how i felt getting ready for epiphany. every day i was more excited about experiencing it & making sure i had everything necessary. i loved every minute of it!

well, after the more religious traditions, we enjoyed the cultural tradition of eating all things spicy! specifically, two epiphany favorites: spice cake & wassail.

i made a spice cake with a caramel glaze that i found via martha stewart. it was delish! shaun said he wants it to become a regular beyond once a year at epiphany.

we make wassail regularly throughout the fall & winter in the casteel casa. essentially, it's a hot, spiced fruit drink. i use a simple recipe that my momma passed onto me. you can find it on my recipe blog if you're interested.

and the last epiphany tradition we participated in was the taking down of the christmas decorations. kinda sad undecking the halls, but twelve days after christmas, it needed to be done.

i hope our epiphany experience has intrigued you into exploring the religious calendar yourself. i'm already looking forward to candlemas on february 2nd. this annual goal is already accomplishing what i have hoped from it, better said by shane claiborne:

every sturdy society has created its own calendar according to its own values. for some time now, western civilization has used the julian and gregorian calendars, which are influenced largely by the roman empire's traditions... but if we in the church are going to take our citizenship in heaven seriously, we must reshape our minds by marking our calendars differently. we must remember the holidays of the biblical narrative rather than the festivals of the caesars... the church's calendar weaves in and out of the world around us. it is not that we need a "christian" calendar because we want to separate ourselves from the "secular" world... the point is not to be sectarian or to try to put ourselves at odds with non-christians. the point is to keep God's story at the center of our lives and calendar... without liturgical time, we can easily forget our eternal identity. we can get lost in the hustle and bustle of business and efficiency that shapes our culture and society. likewise, without the cosmic calendar, we can become so heaven-bound that we ignore the hells of the world around us. and the glorious goal we are headed toward is not just going up when we die but bringing God's kingdom down -- on earth as it is in heaven. 


2013: focusing on LOVE

every year i choose a theme word to guide me; by which to filter my goals, thoughts, & actions; to help me live & grow intentionally. i've been working through an inspiring list found in 2 peter 1:3-8 --

His divine power has given us everything we need for life & godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory & goodness. through these He has given us His very great & precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 

for this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; & to goodness, knowledge; & to knowledge, self-control; & to self-control, perseverance; & to perseverance, godliness; & to godliness, brotherly kindness; & to brotherly kindness, love. for if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective & unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

it is this divinely inspired list that i have been working through for the last seven years. i am now at the eighth & final characteristic -- love. agape.

as i center on this most basic, most beautiful characteristic of christianity, i chose 1 john 3:16-23 as my theme passage --

we know what real love is because Jesus gave up His life for us. so we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers & sisters. if someone has enough money to live well & sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion, how can God's love be in that person?

dear children, let's not merely say that we love each other, let us show the truth by our actions. our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, & He knows everything. 

dear friends, if we don't feel guilty, we can come to God with bold confidence. and we will receive from Him whatever we ask because we obey Him & do the things that please Him. and this is His commandment: we must believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, & love one another, just as He commanded us. 

of course, the book of 1 john is filled with a plethora of verses on love that my theme passage doesn't include -- God is love, perfect love drives out fear, etc. i plan to spend time studying the whole book with the help of warren wiersbe's book, be real.

also, i don't think i can adequately [or accurately] focus on agape through this passage alone or 1 john alone. it must be partnered with Jesus' exhortation: love your enemies! pray for those who persecute you! do good to those who hate you. lend to them without expecting to be repaid. while it is challenging enough to love those in the body, it is all the more difficult to love your enemies. and sometimes, they are one & the same...

so, here's to a year focusing on love. loving all people, in ACTION, like Christ -- agape.