Running with Plan A

plan-a

Recently, a few of us have been discussing an article about guidance written by Jill Carattini entitled, Running With Plan B. This has stimulated a lot of discussion and has prompted us to think more deeply about guidance. The following are some thoughts I’ve had about the article:

I like the emphasis that there isn’t a divine blueprint for one’s life and that it’s false to think if you make a ‘misstep’ you’ve screwed up God’s plan. That is very healthy and biblical. I also appreciate how she says that God works with us and that life is dynamic. I especially like that she points to Pascal’s message that our ultimate ‘destination’ and good is God Himself. I wish she elaborated further on that, because I think that is actually the most important point in the whole article.

Where I have difficulty is the inference that God has a specific, particular plan for each of us, rather than a general purpose with the particulars being worked out as we seek to apply gospel truths to our lives and labor to bring His love to others. The GPS example kind of gives the idea of a determined endpoint. I think she says something like this: God has a goal and plan for your life and He is able to re-route you to that goal even if you get side-tracked along the way. This metaphor implicitly implies that there is a destination or concrete outcome that God has for us. It leans too much toward the concept of fate and diminishes the creative responsibility of humans.

This can lead people to be uncritical about their life choices and assume that the direction they’ve taken and the circumstances they’re facing are somehow going to play into God’s ultimate plan for them. In effect, it leaves us passive in relation to our life’s direction and ultimately tempts us to put a good spin on just about any choice we make. It focusses the attention too narrowly on our own life.

Through the life of Christ, God has shown us a vision of humanity and life that we should emulate. What Jesus says about things is what is truly good. He, indeed, is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s ‘plan’ for us is to be fully human in happy communion with Him and others. This includes joining Him in the mission of bringing His truth and love to others, living a life of self-giving love.

In a sense, the ball is in our court to collaborate with God to undo the effects of selfishness and destruction and promote human flourishing wherever and whenever we can. This is a wide open opportunity, truly dependent on our own creative choice, that even God is anxious to see unfold. The normal way of being human is to make plenty of missteps and mistakes. That’s how we learn. These aren’t diversions off of some planned route. They’re part of the normal learning process God intends for us. During this process of learning we’re constantly trying to understand and make sense of reality (through reflection on the life of Christ) and make application of the truths we learn to promote blessing in the lives of people. This is God’s plan A. There is no plan B.

Useful Friends

“Friends do not love one another because they find the love useful to their pleasures—that is a contradiction. They wish rather to be useful to one another because of their love.” Anthony Esolen

The Fire Hose

We’re starting a new regular posting that will share the links, books, and articles we’ve been reading and thinking about in the community. I call it the “Fire hose” because it’s the collective unedited and unrelated blast of ideas and thoughts flowing through our fellowship. We don’t necessarily agree with everything we read or watch, but we find these sources interesting and they contribute to our dinner conversations and general discussions. Hopefully, you’ll find them interesting, too.

Well, I hope you find the Fire Hose helpful. We’ll try to post the things we’re talking about on a semi-regular basis from now on.

How to Create a Nightmare

pumpkin

If you find the horror genre fascinating then this blog post is for you. I am about to reveal the secrets for creating your own ghoulish drama, all from the comfort of your own life. This fiendish formula works if you personally want to experience terrifying chills and thrills or if you wish to visit a nightmare on others. It’s simple, legal, widely accepted and doesn’t require the use of graveyards, blood, or fake vampire teeth. It can be used in almost any circumstance, with any type of person, and with little effort. The two ingredients for this dark potion is responsibility and authority, and to release the hideous effect just mix in unequal amounts.

Ingredients
Firstly, let’s acquaint ourselves with the ingredients. Responsibility is the obligation to act (or not act) to ensure the welfare of a person, place, or thing. Authority is the right and ability to bring about that welfare. Responsibility says you should do something and authority enables you to do something. When mixed in with equal portions the outcome is beneficial and promotes the health and happiness of all concerned. But when combined unequally, the resulting elixir is poisonous and gives life to an ugly monster.

Examples
To have the responsibility for something, but not the right or power to carry out that responsibility is a hellish nightmare. For example, a teacher who is responsible to educate her students, but cannot give homework assignments or discipline an unruly student, is doomed to a life of grief. She will be held accountable for the failing grades of her students, but she lacks the authority necessary to direct the students in a meaningful way that would lead to their academic success. In this case a large measure of responsibility has been mixed in with a small dose of authority. The result of this concoction? A nightmare for the teacher.

But imagine another scenario. Suppose a referee at a football game can call a foul regardless of whether the play actually violates the rules of the game. Additionally, he can’t be fired for any call he makes. In this case there is nothing stopping him from placing a bet on the game and shaping his penalty calls to favor the team he has put his money on. He can randomly make calls if he wishes, or make no calls at all. Perhaps, he is obligated to show up for the game, but he has no responsibility to ensure that the game is played fairly. Here we have a large amount of authority blended with a small dash of responsibility. This particular mixture will produce nightmares as well, but for others not the referee.

Magic Recipe
So, we have the magic recipe: if one wishes to experience a nightmare, make sure that you are in a circumstance where you have a greater amount of responsibility than you have authority. Alternatively, if you want to inflict nightmares on others, try to get into a situation where you have more authority than you have responsibility. It only takes adjusting the proportions one way or the other to direct the flow of terror.

On the other hand, if you hate nightmares and strongly desire to promote happiness and well-being in yourself and others, all you have to do is make sure that responsibility and authority are kept in balance. When accepting an assignment, be sure to clarify the expectations of the assignment and the resources available to you. If these don’t agree, then kindly decline the assignment. When giving an assignment to another, be sure to make explicit the desired result of the assignment and what means and capabilities are available to them for producing that result. By keeping responsibility and authority in balance you will produce a mixture that has a salutary effect on them and will increase their chance of success.

Summary
By misunderstanding human nature many inadvertently become evil alchemists. They create nightmare situations by mixing unequal portions of responsibility and authority in the assignments they give. Others live a torturous nightmare because they are accountable for things they cannot change. We were created to be happy and fruitful in life’s endeavors, but if care is not taken to balance responsibility and authority the chances of that grow dim, and instead we sink into a frightful dream.

Know Thyself

?”Only when one is aware of one’s own human predicament can one then begin on the path toward personal moral development and true social betterment. A misunderstanding of the self leads to disastrous results. It fosters a degenerative forgetfulness of one’s own limited nature as well as a dehumanization of the other.” Gerson Moreno-Riaño

Here’s the link to Dr. Moreno-Riaño’s paper.

Human Insufficiency

?”Perhaps the most basic [fact], one on which every community is built, is that of human insufficiency. To put it differently, every human being needs other human beings. To deny this natural fact of human existence, so Aristotle teaches, is to confirm that one is either a beast or a god. Human life occurs within a context of human needs, and it is the natural duty of human beings to assist each other in the fulfillment of these.” Gerson Moreno-Riaño

I was delighted to hear Dr. Moreno-Riaño speak yesterday. Here’s the link to his paper.

Healthy Introspection

doreviewimprove

Previously, I wrote about applying the TQM management philosophy to our personal growth and relationship development. In essence, this means seeing maturity as emerging from a process of acting, evaluating our successes and failures, and then making adjustments to improve our behavior as a result of the evaluation. This cycle of, “Doing, Reviewing, and Improving,” involves us in a routine of continuous improvement that advances our sanctification and relational competence. Rather than dismissing this concept as a Pelegan self-effort scheme, I believe it is the natural way we develop any skill and is perfectly legitimate to understand how we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. God is at work in us as we cooperate with His design patterns, including the way He has made us to learn and grow. It’s no use trusting God for a crop if you won’t plant the seeds.

What Works?

But what does it mean to review our successes and failures? It simply means to assess how well we have handled life and what the overall quality of our relationships is like. Has our management of circumstances, responsibilities, and resources been effective in producing good? Have our relationships been strengthened and is our communion with others deepening? If so, what worked? If not, why not? We are trying to determine which attitudes, behaviors, and actions are more likely to stimulate maturity and increase relational blessing.

Look Ahead

The whole reason for doing an evaluation is to enable us to improve our behavior in the next round of circumstances and contact with others. The focus is preparation for the future, not to wallow in regrets. We only look at the past in order to be informed for the future. If you have ever driven a car you know that the important thing to look at is the view through the windshield, not the image in the rear view mirror. The rear view mirror serves a limited purpose, but the real show is ahead of us. That’s why the windshield is big and the rear view mirror is small. Our attention is to be forward looking and evaluation is useful only to the degree that it assists us for what is to come.

LBNT

A helpful method for doing a review is to ask ourselves after an event, encounter, or time period (like the end of the day) what we liked best about it and what we could do better next time. I learned a acronym from a business seminar that captures this method: LBNTLiked Best, Next Time. Listing what we liked best about what happened helps us to take encouragement in the things that were good and reinforces the behaviors that produced them. It also opens our mind to God’s goodness and strengthens our faith. Itemizing what we would like to do differently next time keeps our focus forward and gives us insight how to adjust our behavior for the next go around.

Evaluating our past need not become an exercise in beating ourselves up or a referendum on our value. To err is human and so is learning from our errors. Healthy introspection can be the path toward more happiness and a better relationship with God and others, in other words, a path of “salvation,” which is what biblical salvation ultimately aims for.

Do, Review, Improve

doreviewimprove

Years ago there was a lot of talk about Total Quality Management (TQM), a management philosophy that aims to create an environment of continuous improvement. I have found the essential idea of TQM to be helpful in thinking about personal growth, and in particular, the development of relationships. While the basic concept is simple, it’s surprising that Christians often don’t view their own sanctification and maturity in such terms.

The idea is to see things as a cycle. As we go about the business of living and interacting with people, we should regularly reflect on our successes and failures, looking at both the surface and root causes of problems we faced, and then seek ways to calibrate our behaviors in order to increase the likelihood that our next round will be better. In other words: Do, Review, and Improve. I suggest that this is one way to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

On the one hand this seems like a rather obvious process we should be involved in, and yet I find that some either think of it as simply human effort and natural thinking (and therefore not spiritual) or as an undesirable thing to do because it might reveal our weakness and possibly threaten our identity in Christ. It’s as if we are supposed to treat our spiritual and relational growth in a completely different way than we handle every other skill and ability we seek to develop. When it comes to the things that matter most (our relationship with God and others) we’re not supposed to think intelligently about how to make progress. That’s just crazy.

We need to see that God’s grace includes the guidance to courageously examine ourselves and evaluate how we’re doing on a regular basis in order to work out the bugs that hinder our personal growth and prevent our relationships from becoming deeper and stronger. As His beloved children, we need not worry what we’ll find. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Self-examination is a normal and natural activity that doesn’t threaten our sonship, but enables us to cooperate with God in obtaining what we really want – warmth in our relationship with Him and others.

Why Chastity is a Virtue

Wedding

Chastity has historically been considered a virtue in almost every segment of Christianity. It has sometimes been, however, the only test of holiness for some Christians, while today there are a great number who hardly see it as necessary. I want to explore why it is a virtue and yet show that it is superficial to make it the sum of all righteousness.

Definitions
Firstly, let’s consider some definitions. Virtue is generally defined as moral excellence. It is righteous behavior and godly character. Chastity, as I mean it here, is sexual behavior that conforms to Christian values. It is sexual faithfulness in marriage and sexual abstinence outside marriage. Chastity as a virtue, therefore, says that sexual activity conforming to the Christian vision of humanity is a moral good. But why is it a moral good? The answer to this question solves the problem of ignoring it as a virtue as well as having a myopic obsession with it as a moral litmus test.

Morality – How we treat people
The biblical understanding of righteousness and sin is always from a relational perspective. In other words, right and wrong have to do with how we treat people. Righteousness is behavior that respects and honors people, whereas sin is a violation of relationship. Morality isn’t about some abstract code written on a tablet in heaven, but is simply the reasonable requirement of how to conduct oneself toward others.

What matters most in this world is people. In fact, things only have meaning in relationship to persons. Morality, therefore, has to do with the welfare of people. Behavior that diminishes a person’s humanity is wrong. Behavior that respects and contributes to a person’s worth is right. Chastity is a virtue because it respects the person and contributes to their welfare.

Intimacy = Vulnerability = Responsibility
Sexual union is about as intimate as you can get with another person. The more intimate we are with someone, the greater obligation we have to them since intimacy is vulnerability. The more vulnerable you are to me, the greater power I have to jeopardize your welfare, and so the greater moral responsibility I have toward you.

Intimacy is probably the most fulfilling experience a human can have because with it you are partaking of the greatest treasure in this world – the soul and essence of another person. Like Wesley says in the movie The Princess Bride, “This is true love – you think this happens every day?” Intimacy is the grand prize that everybody wants. But something so valuable must have an equally great cost, and that cost is commitment.

Solemn Gift, Solemn Commitment
Chastity basically acknowledges that if you’re going to entrust me with your soul, the most valuable thing possible in this life, I must be willing to commit to you in an equally valuable way. That’s called marriage. If I won’t bind myself with the most solemn of commitments when entrusted with the most solemn of things, then I necessarily cheapen what’s shared. And to cheapen a person is immoral.

Chastity is preserving the value of people. It’s saying that you can’t be treated lightly, that you are more important than a cheap thrill, and if I want to draw irrevocably close to you, I must irrevocably care for you. This affirms both your value and mine, and thus, chastity is a virtue.

Conclusion
Sex has been divorced from its meaning and has either been treated too lightly or been focused on in a way that eclipses the real story behind it. Sexual sharing isn’t simply about biological impulses and taking your clothes off. It’s an act of soul sharing that allows people to commune in a profound way. Sex matters because people matter. Making sure that people matter is what virtue is all about. Chastity ensures that the most sacred thing a person has, their very self, is treated in a most sacred way.

Course Adjustments and Bug Fixes

Software Development

Two analogies that have helped me to better understand personal growth are airline flights and software development. The first analogy I learned from Stephen Covey. The second I gleaned from my work as a software engineer. Rather than think of growth in dichotomous terms (pass or fail) it is more helpful, and true to life, to see it as course adjustments and bug fixes.

Correcting the Deviations
In his excellent “Seven Habits” material Covey discusses maturity and how to view failure. He explains that a plane is often off course from its destination due to wind and other factors. It arrives at the intended goal, however, because the pilot is constantly making course adjustments.

The significant point in this analogy is that the plane almost never is headed in a perfect direction, but that there is consistent attention given to correcting the deviations. The goal (destination) serves as a beacon to enable the plane to properly navigate the vicissitudes of the flight.

Iterate Towards Perfection
Software is developed through a process known as beta testing. Unfinished versions of the software are released to a group of testers prior to bringing the final program to market. The hope is that the testers will find problems in the software before it is released to the public. The software has to be put through numerous scenarios to really see if it works properly.

Even after software is turned into a final product and sold to the public there will inevitably be updates that fix bugs that surfaced as the masses start to use the software. A larger audience means more opportunities to work the software in ways the engineers couldn’t anticipate. Software is so complex that iteration is the only way to perfect it.

Humility is the Key
These analogies help me to see that human growth requires a process. We learn mostly through trial and error and so failure (error) is an integral part of the journey. Wrong doesn’t necessarily mean bad. If we have a dichotomous view, however, all shortcomings are seen as fundamental flaws and failure as tragic.

Life is much more complex than software and learning to be a loving person is quite difficult. Iteration is needed (i.e., living life and relating to people) to shake out habits of heart, mind, and action that will ultimately get us to our destination. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. They key is to be humble enough to make course corrections (and apologies) when needed and to learn from our errors.

Having this view of maturity and growth is helpful and productive. A pass/fail approach to growth doesn’t comport with reality and will actually hinder us from reaching our destination – to become kingdom citizens who reflect the love of God.