Paved with Good Intentions

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I came across the concept of “intention” for the first time in 2007 in an infomercial for Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention.  The infomercial showed Dyer teaching a huge crowd of people who seemed to hang on his every word.  Many sought to scribble notes as he talked about “emanating from the source” and energy.  My husband and I chuckled every time he talked about “the source” and gestured in the direction of a paper lantern on the stage.

In this excerpt from a 2005 interview with New Age retailer, Dyer spoke about one particular intention:

The No. 1 principle in the universe is “I intend to feel good.” Feeling good is what you should be doing every day of your life.

A friend of mine visited Swami Muktananda back in the 1970s in India. As my friend was going into the ashram, Muktananda stopped him and said, “Do you know the difference between good and God?” and my friend said, “Zero.” Muktananda held up a zero and said, “That’s right. When you look at God and good, the only difference between them is one little zero.”

So, when you are saying you want to feel good, what you really are saying is you want to feel God….

Dyer shared that same story about “God” and “good” and the difference of one little “o” in his talk.  Our trained-in-the-Biblical-languages brains could not handle any more of his nonsense, so we turned him off, likely to binge-watch Lost or whatever Netflix DVD had most recently come in the mail. But I think there could be some small nugget of wisdom, at least in his title—there can be something powerful about setting an intention.

I came across “intention” for the second time that same year, this time in Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, one of the first required books for our pastoral residency.¹  In it, Willard lays out a pattern for spiritual transformation: Vision, Intention, Means (VIM).  According to Willard, personal transformation begins with a biblically-informed vision of the kingdom of God.  Next, we must “intend to live in the kingdom as [Jesus] did.”  And we need the means (for example, the skills, resources, and community) to do so.

Willard does not explicitly define “intention,” but he does describe it.  To him, intention differs from a wish or a want because it implies a decision to act to bring about what we hope for. Willard states, “[T]he robust intention, with its inseparable decision, can only be formed and sustained upon the basis of a forceful vision.”

Nowadays I hear the word “intention” in yoga class.  As we begin our yoga practice in prayer pose or child’s pose, our instructor invites us to set an intention for the practice.  Inwardly, I am anything but calm and quiet.  My sit bone, or toes, or forehead—whatever is closest to the floor presses into the mat not to ground myself but because I am angry and want to yell, “Can we cut the new age lingo? I have no idea what you’re talking about!”  (Okay, who couldn’t benefit from a one- or two-sentence explanation of the yoga jargon?)

Merriam-Webster to the rescue!  Of the six definitions listed in my dictionary, I think the first is the definition I am after: “a determination to act in a certain way: RESOLVE.”²  Here is the list of synonyms: intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, and goal.  When you parse out the definitions of these words with similar meanings, you discover differing degrees of determination, deliberateness, and ability to measure what has been accomplished.

On December 31, 2017, I chose to set intentions for 2018 instead of resolutions or goals. I did so because I liked the freedom of intentions.  To this perfectionist, broken resolutions are failures, as are unattained goals.  And I do not need that type of failure right now, not when I trying to live into what I perceive God calling me to be and do.

But, as Willard says, we have to decide to act our intentions, or else they stay in the wish-and-want realm.  Failure to act on our intentions gets us nowhere. 

In 2018, I have paved my road with good intentions.  But I am not merely standing on the road, staring at the scenery, pondering my awesome intentions.  I am acting on them–not every day, but often enough to see that my road is going somewhere good.

I wrote my intentions on a pale blue Post-It note and stuck it to the wall in my office.  It’s at eye-level.  Even if my laptop is open, I can still see my intentions. When I sit down at my desk to grade a paper, look up a recipe, study the Bible, or check Facebook, I see four words in all caps in teal ink: FLYWHEEL, INQUIRE, WRITE, and WALL.  Each word represents one intention for this year.

If you want to know more about those intentions—what they mean, why I set them, and what I am learning as I act on them—then stay tuned for the rest of this series.


¹ Willard, D. (2002) Renovation of the heart: Putting on the character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress, p. 87-89.
² Intention. (1993) In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (10th Ed.) Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc, p. 608.

Photo Credit: Lisa Fotios (via pexels.com)

Killing Flounder

Where Theology Meets Consumption

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For the past few weeks, I have had a crisis of conscience every time I go to the grocery store, every time I prepare a meal, every time I give a snack to my kids. I am no stranger to these food-related troubles. Jamie Oliver has me scrutinizing school lunches. Documentaries like Forks over Knives, Super Size Me, and Food, Inc. have me increasing plant-based foods, reducing processed foods, and being vigilant against GMOs.

My newest food crisis is less about what is in my food and more about what my food is in. I am concerned about food packaging.

Recently, I read a news story about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an 80,000-ton floating jumble of mostly-plastic trash floating in the ocean between Hawaii and California. This massive, maritime dump covers an area double the size of Texas.

Since reading this story, I scrutinize every package. My awareness of how much non-recyclable, non-biodegradable packaging overwhelmed me in my dinner prep last night. The organic ground beef—packaged in plastic. The ground turkey—packaged in plastic. The egg noodles—packaged in plastic. The vegetables—packaged in plastic. The croutons—packaged in a foil bag. None of it could be recycled.

I am grateful that I live in a city that encourages recycling. Grand Rapids encourages its residents to recycle by making it free plus allowing us to earn points toward free services at area business when we recycle. The city charges us each time a truck collects our garbage, and our rate is set by the size of our can. Plus, Grand Rapids recycles far more items than other cities where I have lived. We can recycle plastics numbered 1 through 7, including two types of plastic bags, and glass.

Yet this Great Pacific Garbage Patch makes me want to do more. Beyond the financial incentives to recycle, I have a theological rationale to change how I consume and dispose of food packaging. The Psalmist declares, “The earth it the LORD’s and everything in it” (24:1). God created this world, and he tasked people to care for and cultivate it. Instead of intentionally caring for and cultivating our world, we often carelessly contaminate and clutter it with our waste. To borrow a phrase from Tish Harrison Warren, our garbage is “not theologically neutral.”¹

In addition to being acutely aware of the waste created through our family’s consumption, I am contemplating taking these three steps:

1. Read labels. I often shop at Aldi, and I am grateful that Aldi-brand products contain information about what parts of the packaging can and cannot be recycled. Cereal box—yes. Plastic bag in the cereal box—no.

2. Educate myself about what can be recycled. I intend to spend more time investigating specifically what can be recycled in my community. Where can I take lightbulbs? What about old cell phones and other electronics? Does it make sense to save and ship my empty broth and stock cartons to be recycled?

3. Buy fewer products that come in non-recyclable containers. My sons have loved the foil squeeze pouches that contain all manner of fruit and vegetable purees. Honestly, I have loved their convenience. But convenience can have consequences. I shudder to think how many of those little pouches in the local landfill came from our family. We do have some refillable, recyclable pouches, but I often forget about them, opting for convenience instead of the chore of filling them and later washing them.

4. Buy more in bulk. I live close to a grocery store that sells many pantry staples—nuts, grains, and dried fruit in bulk.  Granted I often use the store-provided plastic bag to get my dried pineapple, oats, and bulgar wheat home, but those plastic bags are recyclable in my area. I could also investigate bringing my own containers or reusable bags to the store with me.

5. Cook more from scratch. I have neither the time nor the expertise to cook everything from scratch.  But I can make some small, easy changes. Just last night my son asked if we could make homemade croutons. Sure! That would also take care of the “heels of the bread loaf” problem around our house.

Whole life discipleship means allowing God’s priorities to shape every area of my life. This week, that includes my grocery cart and my pantry. If I believe that the earth belongs to the LORD, then I need to pay attention to how my actions hinder its flourishing. In the case of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, my floundering about consumption and recycling could actually be killing flounder.


References

¹ Warren, T. H. (2016) Liturgy of the ordinary: Sacred practices in everyday life. Downers Grove: IVP, p. 70.

Litany of Sadness: A Holy Week Meditation

 

While I finished cooking dinner, my son quietly slipped into my office and sat at my desk with a single sheet of white paper in front of him.  A little while later, he emerged with a picture.  Climbing up into the breakfast nook, he brought his drawing close to me and laid it near my cutting board.  He had drawn a heart.  Not a red heart. Not a pink heart. But a black and blue and green heart.

“Tell me about your picture.”

He pointed to the blue.

“Are you sad, honey?”

A nod.

“Can you tell me what made you feel sad?”

A head shake.

Maybe at five years old, he didn’t have the words to tell me what made him sad.  Or maybe, like me, he couldn’t bear to speak it.  All afternoon I had fought back my own tears, swallowing the pain until I felt sick to my stomach.  How could I cry when I needed to be strong for him? When I needed to manage the afternoon chaos, get dinner on the table, and make it to bedtime so that I could finally share my litany of sadness with my husband?

There was a clear and present sadness.  Sadness that we live in a world in which kindergartners experience stress and anxiety at school; in which their closest friends leave school due to bullying and other issues; and in which five- and six-year-olds mimic the destructive words and actions that they have seen in their own homes.

Sadness that I realize my own complicity in the brokenness, that I overlooked a seemingly innocuous song in a funny movie—a song that my toddler and kindergartner now sing without understanding why the lyrics demean women.

Sadness that I cannot protect my child from the pain of this world.  Pain that is my fault and the world’s fault.

Sadness that I cannot fix it.  I don’t know how.

Lord, have mercy.

There was a past and present sadness.  Sadness that I have seen too much sexual sin among pastors.  Four pastors in three churches over two-and-a-half decades.

I have kept my distance from the #metoo and #churchtoo conversations.  Perhaps I have done so out of self-preservation. But the allegations against Bill Hybels and Willow Creek have been too much to bear, and all of the sadness has surfaced.

Not so long ago, I watched the church we attended nearly fall apart because of the senior pastor’s sin and the elders’ dispensations of cheap grace instead of restorative discipline.

Sadness comes when I think about the destruction wrought in that congregation.  Sadness multiplies when I think about Willow Creek—twenty times the size and a thousand times the influence. Whether or not the allegations are true, the sadness remains the same.

Lord, have mercy.

There was a present president sadness.  Sadness that I could not avoid on the TV monitor as we left the public library—a headline that read “Porn Star Sues President’s Attorney for Defamation.”  We had gone to the library to return a book, to find a new one, to play, and to escape momentarily from our sad, sad day.  But sadness found me there—too much sadness in one headline.  Who can bear to watch the news?

Lord, have mercy.

And that was my litany of sadness.  As I laid my head on my pillow, all I could pray was, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  That’s not a Holy Week prayer, is it?

Before the waves of sadness hit, I determined to enter into Holy Week.  Observing Lent had been so hard, I complained.  I hadn’t been able to attend the Ash Wednesday service and wouldn’t be able to attend the Good Friday one.  We didn’t have a Lenten sermon series.  I stuck with a Lenten Devotional for two days.  I failed at Lent when I probably needed it most, hence my resolve to make up for lost time during Holy Week.

As I read part of the Holy Week narrative and then sat in silence and stillness, I had no idea that, only hours later, I would be drowning in deep sadness.  

The world is too broken.  I want to throw up my hands.  What can I do?

In Visions of Vocation, Steven Garber raises the question “How can we know and still love the world?”  He wonders why we find ourselves implicated in the mess when all logic says we should turn and run away.  How can we press through the sadness when it threatens to overtake us?

Why do I keep my child enrolled in his elementary school where children are mean and his best friends are leaving? Why do I remain committed to this messy project called evangelicalism when many of its leaders make poor moral and political choices?  Why do I continue to reach out to millennials when they are leaving the church in droves?  Why do I keep equipping pastors and ministry leaders in a world that increasingly sees them as irrelevant?

Everything is so messed up.  Why shouldn’t I throw up my hands and run away?

Because Jesus didn’t.  He had every reason to but he didn’t.  My litany of sadness pales in comparison to his.  He wept over Jerusalem, overturned tables in the temple, was betrayed, mocked, denied, and sentenced to a gruesome death.  Instead of running away, he kept moving forward: “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Her 12:2b-3).

Three days into Holy Week and I am weary.  I am tired.  I am reluctant to press through the sadness.  Why shouldn’t I throw up my hands and run away?

Because, in the week that he died, Jesus endured much worse because he knew that joy lay on the other side of pain.  And the hope of that joy for us and for others is why we labor in hard places among broken people.  Jesus’ love compels us to know this messed up world and still run to it instead of away from it.  Jesus’ love compels us to fight for the oppressed, serve the poor, and befriend the lonely.  His Holy Week litany of sadness reminds us that redemption is possible, and it can come through those with black and blue (and green) hearts.