Book Club Channel
Life-Giving Practices: Identifying What Matters Most
Name one thing that gives you life. A pastor friend gave this assignment to congregants and she heard impassioned stories from a birder, a lover of poetry, a woodworker, and a farmer.
I liked her example so much that I asked spiritual disciplines students to answer the same question in a short paper. "This does not have to be especially spiritual or traditionally pious," I said. But several students were stumped by the phrase, "gives you life." So I borrowed an idea from another friend, Albert Borgmann, and told them to write about a time when they could say:
There is no place I would rather be.
There is nothing I would rather do.
There is no one I would rather be with.
This I will remember well.
Then they got it and reported experiences of walking in the woods, enjoying the garden, reading scripture, knitting, traveling in a new place, cooking (and eating), bass fishing. Experiences such as these can ground and center us, knit us together, and remind us of what is most important.
Early in a new year is certainly a good opportunity to think about what is energizing, life-giving, and meaningful. Many of us lament how little time we have. We wish we could give more of ourselves to family, hobbies, church, charities. Rather than remain frustrated about busyness and rather than assume that retirement will be better (retired friends assure me it is not), we can begin now to make sure that we give priority to key practices. By putting them in a primary place, other temptations and distractions are more easily set aside or even ignored.
I make regular room for prayer and reading, walking and kayaking, eating dinner with my wife and hosting guests for meals. My wife's list includes ample time for knitting, strolling with the dog, and baking. Since she and I cannot dictate priorities for each other, I certainly am not about to suggest priorities for you.
Nevertheless, all of us can experiment in ways that help us to know what is most important, what counts. Here are some ideas. (This list is not prescriptive but evocative; let it suggest other possibilities for you.)
- On a walk, during prayers, or in your journal ask yourself: What do you understand by the term the good life? How would you answer Borgmann's focal affirmations about preferred places, worthwhile activities, good company, or memorable experiences? Which one of those can you honor soon? What's stopping you?
- Consider walking this week to one of your regular activities—work or school, church, the gym, the library, the grocery store. Go slowly and try to see, smell, touch, and/or hear something that you never noticed before between your home and that destination. Tell a friend—or talk to God—about what you experience.
- Commit yourself for one week to watch every sunset and sunrise. What are the challenges? The rewards?
- Take a 24-hour communication technology fast. Turn off the TV and radio, ignore email, and put the phone where it is not readily accessible. What was hard? What, if anything, was good about this?
- Make a meal with someone who is dear to you. Cook together if possible. Set the table neatly. Light candles or put something pretty on the surface. Start the meal by saying thanks to God. Silence all communications devices; put them out of reach.
- Strike up a conversation with a stranger—at the bus stop, in a grocery line, while waiting in the doctor's office.
- Invite a neighbor for tea.
- Visit an art museum or cathedral and sit in silence for 20 minutes before one object or vista that intrigues you.
- Draw a picture. Write a poem.
- Surprise someone with an actual old-fashioned letter.
Yes, life is busy and full, and, yes, we never quite get everything in neat and in order. Bruce Cockburn sings: "I never live with balance, though I've always liked the notion." But circumstances do not have to be out of control.
When you consider what gives you life, what would help you to prioritize those choices? What would make it easier for you to do them more often? For walking, it helps that I have good walking shoes and layers and rain gear for all kinds of weather. Lorna has special knitting needles. My friend Stan determinedly bikes to work all year round and devised a chart that he hung by the back door to remind him what he needs to wear for particular temperatures. The point is to do whatever possible to lower barriers to the choices we really want to make.
It's a cliché now to talk about how quickly New Year's resolutions break down. It's often just too hard to impose and live by restrictions. Oughts, musts, and shoulds are all important, no doubt about that, but I for one do not find them very motivating.
Naming and honoring what gives one life is far more attractive and winsome. So, choose life.
Visit the Patheos Book Club on Arthur Boers's newest book, Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions, for more conversation about life-giving practices.
Arthur Boers (DMin, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor and R. J. Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario. He served as a pastor for sixteen years and is the award-winning author of numerous articles and six books, including The Way Is Made by Walking and The Rhythm of God's Grace. He speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and retreats.