So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.— Psalm 90:12
I don’t have enough time to live my own life!
I reached this conclusion after trying to follow all the advice given on a morning news show one week in January. It seemed like a smart way to start my day. I figured I’d tune in, get the forecast, learn the headlines, and maybe hear a celebrity interview. I wasn’t expecting all the show segments telling me how to live my life better.
Most of these segments offered the promise of deliverance: “Freedom From Finances Is Closer than You Think” or “Four Secrets to Better Communication.” Others, I decided, were designed to scare the socks off of me: “Six Health Risks Every Person Faces” or “Thieves You Cannot See — Avoiding Identity Theft.” Motivated by this combination of hope and fear, I compiled a to-do list of ways to improve my life and its management according to the experts. The more I listened, learned, and listed, the more behind schedule I felt.
The topics on my list ranged from health maintenance to home maintenance to car maintenance. I was informed I need to eat certain foods every day: four veggies, three fruits, two proteins (preferably chicken or fish), and I think a partridge in a pear tree. I also need to get enough fiber, calcium, Vitamin D, B, C, and Beta-something-or-other.
I need thirty minutes of cardio a day (but apparently with the right exercise product this can be done in ten), fifteen minutes of strength training, and ten minutes of stretching. Plus, some extended time for meditation so that my body and mind could align. I’m told a germ-resistant mat is needed for that. I need to bust my stress, nurture my creativity, and improve my posture.
I need to pay attention to my finances. Save and invest. Spend frugally — yet somehow also buy the cool gadgets they review on the show. Apparently extreme couponing is the way to afford it all, but it takes a lot of time to save 80 percent on your grocery bill. I need to check my credit report regularly. Shred important documents. Back up my computer. Meet with my financial planner. And read the information that comes with our kid’s (underfunded) college fund. That, by the way, is forty pages of legal and financial mumbo jumbo in eight-point font, single-spaced. I suppose I need to meet with my attorney to understand it. And that creates two prerequisite tasks to add to the list: find an attorney and find a financial planner. They assume every regular Joe has a CFP, a CPA, and a JD on speed dial. I have Domino’s on mine.
The list continued…
Looking at the list of things I was supposed to do to live my life right, or well, or whatever all this was going to do for me, I felt defeated. The list that was going to improve my life left me overwhelmed. In my moment of defeat all I wanted to do was go surf. ’Course the list said I should put on a high-SPF sunscreen and take along a BPA-free water bottle to keep me well hydrated. Filled with filtered spring water, of course.
Dropping the Ball
I’m sure you can relate; you’ve made lists too. Lists of things you want to start doing or stop doing — things you want to change about yourself. Lists of ways to improve your life and your character. Maybe you’ve only listed them in your head. But I bet they come to mind each January. Nearly two-thirds of America’s population has made New Year’s resolutions. I am one of them.
And you’ve probably found, like I’ve found, that each day keeps blurring into the next while we try to make some progress with our many good intentions. Yet very little actually changes. That ball keeps dropping in Times Square each New Year’s. And we keep dropping the ball on our resolutions to improve.
Only 20 percent of resolution makers report achieving any significant long-term change.
When I open my Bible, I find more lists. Things a follower of Christ should do. Things a follower of Christ should resist doing. Traits a follower of Christ should display — all the truly important stuff that never makes it onto morning show segments. When was I going to get to any of this?
I decided to drop my list of ways to get the most out of my life. I realized I needed to find a new way to approach personal change.
Losing the List, Picking a Word
My first journal entry in 2004 was a single word: FLOW. Not merely written on the page, but etched in bubble letters about three-quarters of an inch tall. The letters are heavily outlined, surrounded by a thin border, and colored in gray. It took me about ten minutes to draw and color the word FLOW. But it took three weeks to narrow all that was bubbling up in me down to that single word.
I’d been writing in a journal for years, but here was something I had never done before. Instead of blasting paragraphs on a page to capture my thoughts and insights, recording my steps and setbacks, I decided to meditate on just one word.
I wrote this word FLOW in response to something Jesus said. He said,
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38 ESV).
That struck a nerve.
There were times when I felt the living water flowing with ease from my heart. But there were other times, more times, when it felt forced.
The idea of FLOW drew me forward. It didn’t have the trappings of regret or the pressure of sweeping promises to change like my resolutions did. It awakened something in me. Not a compulsive desire to change born out of being sick of the way I was, but a desire to live an authentic life that flowed from my relationship with Christ.
Could my life really flow from my heart? The question sent me on a search anchored by the four letters of this one word.
If what Jesus said was true — pause for the obvious answer to arise — then I’d need a way to pay attention to my heart on a daily basis.
I decided looking at and concentrating on this word FLOW would remind me to do that. In the months to come, I paid attention to FLOW and used it to gauge my heart and my life. I discovered I could tell the condition of my heart based on what was coming out of it into my life.
And slowly, over time with this word FLOW, I learned to reverse that process. Instead of looking at my life and actions to realize the state of my heart, I proactively addressed the condition of my heart. That changed my life.
In looking through the lens of a single chosen word, I found a new approach to personal change and spiritual formation — one that is doable, memorable, effective, and sticky. The results have been greater than I expected.