Acceptance does not mean approval

 

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Over the past few months, I have been meditating on this idea of acceptance as it relates to other people and how, as a Christian, I should be thinking about this.  I believe that we have this idea in our minds that if we do not approve of the behavior of someone that means we do not have to accept them and that my friends are just plain wrong.

There are three instances in Scripture that I will use to illustrate my point.

  1. The calling of Matthew the Tax Collector (Matthew 9:1-13)

Matthew was a tax collector and, therefore, was not an honorable man.  Tax collectors, by their very nature, were considered liars and cheats by the population and a Jewish tax collector were seen as cooperating with the government and also taking more than they should.  Jesus comes along and calls Matthew simply with the words, “Follow me.”  Scripture tells us that Matthew “arose and followed him.”  Notice that Jesus did not call him out as a sinner.  Jesus did not say change your ways and follow me.  Jesus invited him, and he accepted the invitation.  Jesus never judged him nor called him a sinner.  Jesus asked the sinner to come and change his life.  Jesus accepted Matthew in love and understanding and asked Matthew to come and follow.  Matthews’s life was changed, but he first was accepted by Jesus.

  1. The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11)

Jesus was in the Temple, and the Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to him who had been caught in the act of adultery.  By the law of the day, the woman should have been stoned for what she had done.  Notice that there is no such penalty for the man just for the woman.  Of course, the Scribes and Pharisees were testing Jesus to see if they might catch him in a transgression of the law.  But, Jesus being Jesus, he knew this.  He stoops down and begins to write in the sand with his finger.  Some commenters on this passage say he is writing their names and their sins next to it, but we do not know.  They press him for an answer while he is writing this, and he says to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (v 7).  He then returns to his writing on the ground.  Scripture then tells us, “those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience went out one by one” (v 9).  When Jesus looked up there was no one there but the woman and himself.  He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers if yours?  Has no one condemned you?”  She answered him, “No one, Lord.”  Jesus tells her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more” (v 10-11).  This is amazing!  He accepted he; he did not condemn her.  He did not tell her that unless she changed her ways she was going to hell.  He told her that he did not condemn her, but he also told her to sin no more.  He accepted her, but he did not approve of her conduct.

  1. The Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-30)

This is one of my favorite pericopes and one I have written and preached on before.  Jesus has been traveling and stopped by a well to get a drink.  A woman of Samaria comes along, in the heat of the day to collect her water.  She notices Jesus there and is not sure what to do.  Samaritans and Jews did not get along.  Jesus asks her for a drink, and an amazing dialog begins.  She questions him about not having anything to draw the water with and that she is a woman, and a Samaritan and why is he asking her for a drink?  He tells her that he is the living water, and she responds by telling him that she wants this water.  He invited her, and she has accepted.  There has been no judgment although Jesus knows all about her.  Jesus tells her to go and call her husband, and she replies that she has no husband.  She has come face to face with her life and were in sorrow for it at this moment.  Jesus has given her an opportunity to come clean with him, and she has taken it.  He has shown her love, and no condemnation, and that has paved the way for her to open her life to him and for a desire to change.  Her life changes right there at the well.  She leaves her jar behind and returns to the city to tell those there what had happened.  Her life was changed because of love!

These are but three examples of many from the Scriptures that witness to us this concept of radical, unconditional love.  This love is central to the spiritual life, and dare I say is what our spiritual life hangs on.  Jesus did not accept the behavior of the three people from these stories, but he showed them love and compassion and in fact he only told one of them to sin no more!  By his loving example, the others were compelled to change their lives but he first showed them love and compassion and when they were ready, they changed their lives.

All of us are in need of this unconditional compassionate love, and it is what we are required to show others that we might come into contact with.  We are the only Bible that most people will ever read what do we want those pages to say.

Having Eyes, They See Not

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This past week we were present with the Gospel story of the man who was born blind (John 9:1-38).  In this story, we see Jesus healing them man by placing the clay on his eyes and directing him to go and wash and when I man did as directed he was healed.  We also come face to face with the Pharisees who objected to the healing because it did not follow the proper usage of the law.  They could see the miracle before them, but they were blinded by the fact that it was done in accordance with the law.

A tourist took one look at the Grand Canyon and said to the security guard standing nearby, “Where is the golf course?”  When the guard told him that there wasn’t any, he said, “What do you do around here all day?”  In the presence of one of the most sublime and awe-inspiring spectacles of the world, this man saw nothing. He had eyes, but his capacity to see beauty and grandeur had not been developed.  Having eyes, he saw not.

The problem for most of us is not our physical sight but our spiritual sight.

Much of our blindness is willful.  We shut things out that we do not want to acknowledge.  It is as if we don’t see it then it does not exist.  Things are happening all around us, and we are blissfully unaware of it all.  How many times have we been driving somewhere and when we arrive we do not remember the journey?  We get so caught up in our stuff that we miss what is around us.

All around us are people living in distress, in despair, in loneliness, in sorrow, in sickness.  Do we see them?  We have learned to walk down the street and never see any of them.  When we do walk down the street, do we look at other people or do we keep our eyes focused somewhere else so as not to catch their attention?

Even more than the blind man in today’s Gospel we need to ask Jesus to restore our sight that we may see the suffering and afflictions of our fellow humans.  We refuse to see the image of God that abides in every human being.  Sometimes we are blind to the things that close to us; we can only see what lies ahead in the distance.

We are farsighted. We can easily see the sins of others but not our own.  We condemn those whose lifestyle we do not agree with but all the while we are living a life that the church does not agree with, it is much easier to point out others sins than deal with our own. How desperately we need to pray Lord, let me receive my sight that I may see and remove the log that is my eye before I concern myself with the speck in someone else eye!

We miss the many miracles that take place all around us.  The new growth of spring, the cry of a baby, the laughter of a child, the rain, the wind and we fail to see that Christ is present with us, right here in this very place, in the form of bread and wine, but if we are spiritually blind we do not see it and miss out on a tremendous opportunity.

Perhaps we miss seeing God in the world because we do not have enough of God in our lives.  We have failed to cultivate this vision; we have trained our eyes to see things, but we neglected the most significant capacity that belonged to a man, the ability to see God in prayer and worship!

If we are to see again, then a miracle must take place in our lives.  Jesus must touch our eyes just as he touched those of the blind man in today’s Gospel.  Then slowly we will begin to see, and then we will come to realize that without Jesus we cannot truly see and that without him we will continue to be blind.

Jesus is the opener of the eyes of the soul and with him there will always be darkness.  I am the light of the world, Jesus tells us, He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

There is a story of a lonely man who felt so rejected by the cold city in which he lived that he decided to kill himself by throwing himself into the river. As he left his room, he told himself, “If I meet someone on the street whose eyes catch mine, which somehow takes notice of me as a human being, I’ll turn back. Only then.” So he began his walk to the river.

Here the story ends. But is poses this question: suppose he had met you on the street, would he have turned back?

Fr. Peter-Michael Preble is the pastor of St. Michael Orthodox Church in Southbridge Massachusetts and blogs at www.frpeterpreble.com.  Follow Fr. Peter on Twitter @frpeterpreble

PODCAST: The Woman at the Well

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What do you do when you’re confronted with your sin face to face?

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It’s Not Just about the Numbers

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Recently, the Pew Research Forum released a study concerning the religious landscape in America.  The results are sobering for those of us in church work and require much thought and consultation moving forward.  I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone but the numbers of Christians, or rather people who consider themselves Christian, has fallen in the time from 2007 to 2014.  The numbers are down across the board, and it is not confined to just one denomination.

But it is not just about the numbers!

Since the start of Christianity, people have been coming and going in the Church.  People join and then for some reason, perhaps marriage, perhaps they move, perhaps the grow out of their faith, whatever the reason people have and continue to move on from one Church to another.  Should we be concerned?  Sure, those of doing the work of the Church should always be concerned about how and why people leave our congregations.  But the question I have to ask is, are we listening?

Sometimes I feel we spend way too much time on those who wish to not be part of our congregations.  I read in one of Rick Warren’s books that if someone leaves follow up with them, but they know where you are and what time your services are, why spend time on people who do not wish to belong?  This is a serious question that needs some serious thought and meditation.

All the time we spend on trying to get those back what are we doing for those who remain?  I believe that quality is better than quantity.  But we do have to listen to why people are leaving the Church.  Sometimes we might be able to make some slight changes, I know Church folk don’t really like the “C” word, but sometimes we cannot.

Are we afraid to ask the question why?  Are we afraid of the answer?

If the young people are saying that the Church is not relevant to their lives what are we, or can we, do to change that?  Are we convening meetings with them to see what their needs are and how we can fill them?  Are we focusing on the wrong things?  Where is our attention and where is our focus?  Are we using Church property for the benefit of the community as a whole or are we merely maintaining great museums.

There was a time in New England when the Church was the center of life in the Town.  In many places, the Church also served as the Town Hall.  The meetings of the “Sons of Liberty” was held in pubs in Boston but also in Churches.  Are we opening our doors to those in need?  Are we preaching sermons that move people to action or are our words filled with judgement and condemnation?

It’s not all about the number but we have to listen to what the numbers are saying to us and yes, we have to be willing to change, or the Church will indeed become irrelevant in not only people’s lives but in the world.

Those Pesky Pharisees

 

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Read John 9:1-38

A long time ago, in a writing class I was in, the teacher said that every good story has a hero and an antagonist.  In the Gospel story from the 9th chapter of John presents just that the hero, the blind man or perhaps Jesus (although he is the hero of all biblical stories) and the Pharisees.

Jesus and walking along the road and he meets a man that has been blind since birth.  Biblical commentators say that the man is known to Jesus and his Apostles and would have known his story and that he was blind from his birth.  Being blind from birth is essential to the story as sometimes there was a question about healing and the fact that perhaps the person was not sick.  In any case, the Apostles asked who had sinned the man or his parents.

The ancients believed there was a direct correlation between sickness and sin.  In some way, this might be true.  When we sin we do not always make the best choices, and this can lead to severe consequences but, in this case, since the man was born this way, it is unlikely this happened.  However, Jesus provides us with the answer in verse 3, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”

Jesus makes clay with some of his spit; this harkens back to the creation of the world and put the clay on his eyes.  He then directs the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam, which was located quite a distance from the Temple.  The man had to participate in the gift that Jesus was giving him.  Sure Jesus could have just healed the man, we see this on several occasions, but he asked the man to participate in his healing as a way to show us that we too need to take part in our healing.

Now this is where the story gets good.

Later on the man’s neighbors see him and they start to ask if this was indeed the man who had been born blind.  He tells them that yes it is he, and they ask how he was healed.  He tells them the story of Jesus; he is evangelizing his neighbors, and they were so interested in the fact that their friend could now see that they take him to the Pharisees.

The Pharisees question the man about his healing and when they discover that it was Jesus, who they apparently knew about by this point in His ministry, and when they realized that it had been done on the Sabbath they become enraged.  It was unlawful to perform any work on the Sabbath and the action of Jesus “making the clay” was considered work.  Since he broke the Sabbath, he was. Therefore, a sinner and this “healing” could not have been from God.

The bring in the man’s parents to verify the story and the parents tell the Pharisees that he was in fact born blind, but they have no idea how he was healed in fact they tell the Pharisees that the man in “of age” go and ask him.  They were so terrified of the Pharisees and being thrown out of the Temple, that they were willing to sacrifice their son!  This is what religion can do.

So they bring in the man again and ask him for his healing.  The man answers that he had already told them what had happened in fact he scolds them because they did not listen the first time.  I am sure that went over well with them.  He then asks them if they too wish to become a disciple of Jesus.  Well this sets them off, and they become indignant and they proclaim that they follow Moses, they condemn the man and cast him out of the Temple.

The Pharisees were the truly blind ones in this story.  Their lack of faith so blinded them; their hatred of Jesus so blinded them, their fear of Jesus so blinded them and perhaps their loss of position, which they missed the miracle for the rule.  The law said you cannot work on the Sabbath, and that is all they were able to see.  A man who had been blind from birth had received his sight and had been made whole and rather than giving God the glory and rejoicing they were giving the law the glory and used it to condemn not only Jesus but the poor man who had been healed.

This happens more than we would like to think it does in the church today.  We get so caught up in the rules and the laws that we forget about the people.  We see their sin, and not ours by the way, and all we wish to do in condemn them for it.  We enshrine the law in gold and use it a weapon against the people.  We cast them out, maybe not as the Pharisees did in the story, but we cast them out with our words and with our actions.

But the story does not end there.  Jesus finds the man and asks him what happened and asks the man if he believes in the Son of God.  The man asks who he is that he might believe in him.  Jesus responds that it is himself, and the man believes.  Jesus responds in verse 39, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see and that those who see may be made blind.”  Blinded by the law they threw out a man who could see because of his faith.

Just Hold My Hand

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Dementia is a horrible disease that robs the person of their memory and their life.  Dementia is not a specific disease, but it describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory and an inability of a person to perform daily tasks.  Alzheimer ’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases of dementia.  It is estimated that 5.3 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease.  Most of the patients, I see in my work as a hospice chaplain suffer from this horrible disease.

I first met Richard about a year ago when he became a patient under my spiritual care for hospice.  He was an 88-year-old man who had only been at the nursing home or a very short period.  He had fallen at home and broken is hip and during his recovery his dementia became more than his family could handle and they had to put him in the nursing home.

Richard spent most of his days in a wheelchair and when I would meet with him it was next to impossible to carry on a conversation with him.  He was a very religious man in his days prior to his admission, and he would often say he wanted to go to Church.  I assume that Church was a great comfort to him and even in his present state he desired that happiness in his life.  I would sit with him, and he would often reach out and take my hand and just hold it.  On occasion, he would look at me and smile and for a minute I would think I was getting through to him.  Perhaps I was and perhaps just holding his hand, the touch of another human being, was what he needed at that moment.

As I sat with him, I would wonder what he was thinking and what he thought of his surroundings.  Was he just trapped in his mind with no way out?  Was his mind still working as it was prior to the disease taking over, and he just could not let us know?  He would look at me with a look of helplessness in his eyes like he was trying to tell me something but could not.  So we would just sit, and I would hold his hand.

I learned that Richard was a veteran and that he served in the Army.  He would often call out that he had to get to someone who was over there, and he would point.  He would struggle against the tray that was in place to keep him safe as if he was fighting against his thoughts in a feeble attempt to help whoever it was that he was trying to help.  I would walk over and touch his shoulder, and he would start to settle down a little.  Once again, the touch of another human worked its magic if you will in calming him down.  Since I started this work, I have been amazed at what a simple touch will do for another human being.

This past week Richard was nearing the end of his journey, and he began his transition to the next phase of his life.  His daughter was sitting by his bedside in the now all too familiar family vigil.  I stopped in to see her one afternoon, and she was sitting by his side talking to him.  Richard was in his bed sleeping and for the first time in the year that I had known him he seemed at peace and sleeping.  He was no longer agitated and just peacefully sleeping as we all do from time to time.  His mind had calmed down, and he was able to get the sleep he needed for the rest of his journey.

Richard was a family man who lovingly raised four children who had all gone on to be successful in their lives and had children of their own.  His daughter shared with me how difficult it was for her children to come and see him in this state, and it reminded me of my feelings of my grandmothers passing many years before.  Richard was dying of the same disease that took her and I was suddenly filled with feeling of regret that I did not spend more time with her when she was transitioning.  My hospice work has taught me the beauty of helping someone when they are in the final stages of this life and assisting the families cope with their loss.  Being with someone as they take their last breath is truly a blessing, and I am very happy to be able to be part of this work.

Richard died the next day with his daughter by his side just holding his hand.

4 Key Concepts of Spiritual Resiliency

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We began this series with and essay outlining the 4 Dimensions of Spiritual Resiliency and then outlined the 12 Questions for Spiritual Awareness.  In this essay we look at the concepts of Spiritual resiliency. Building of our spiritual resiliency involves our understanding of the concepts that underlie our spiritual: meaning, values, transcendence and connection.

  1. Meaning

Meaning refers to making sense of the situations that occur in our lives and then from those situations we gain experience and a sense of purpose for living.  Meaning may be found in a number of ways for example;

Assigning responsibility for the event.
Interpreting the experience through your philosophical or religious beliefs.
Believing that something positive has come from the event.

The researcher Abraham Maslow would identify people who found meaning in their lives as people that were self-actualized.  These people seemed to be fulfilling their dreams and being the best people they could be.  They were able to reach their full potential, to the goal of all of us.

  1. Values

These are cherished beliefs and standards that provide us with a moral compass and help us steer toward a right ethical behavior.  Values provide a person belief system and give us principles to live by and a moral path to follow.  In essence, values establish the foundation for our behavior, and they guide us in shaping our thoughts and our decisions.

There is a difference between a perceived value and an actual value.  Perceived is how you think that something is, and actual is how something is.  For example, a person might say that their family is the most important thing in their life but they tend to spend little time with them and most of their time is spent at work or somewhere else.  This person has a perceived value to his family not an actual value of them.

  1. Transcendence

These are the experiences and appreciation for what is beyond the self.  And awareness and appreciation of the vastness of the universe is an example of this.  A sense of transcendence can be noted in the awe and wonder of Apollo IX astronaut Russell Schweickart looking back to earth from space:

You realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you. All of history and music and poetry and art and birth and love; tears, joy, games. All of it on that little blue spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.

Transcendence may also be an awareness of, or indeed a belief in, a force greater than we are.  This can be a creator, an infinite being or beings, or some cosmic force.  We may accept the universe as a mystery. Have faith in the unknown and feel like a vital component of some large scheme.

  1. Connection

This is the increased awareness of a connection with the self and others around us.  Being connected also includes the notion of selflessness, a love for the greater good and a desire to help others.

Being connected can include:

Sharing our lives.
Sharing our values.
Celebrating our symbols and ceremonies.
Singing, exercising, meditating or praying with others.
Participating in activities of mutual support and assistance.

As mentioned at the start of this essay all of spiritual resiliency begins with an understanding of these concepts but also of us.  Start working on this today and if you need help seek a guide to assist you.

Special Litanies on Mother’s Day

 

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Today is the celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States and although I will not be preaching about Mother’s Day today I will be adding the following petitions to the Great Litany at the start of the Divine Liturgy.

For mothers, who have given us life and love, that we may show them reverence and love, let us pray to the Lord.

For mothers, who have lost a child through death, that their faith may give them hope, and their family and friends support and console them, let us pray to the Lord.

For women, though without children of their own, who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us, let us pray to the Lord.

For mothers, who have been unable to be a source of strength, who have not responded to their children and have not sustained their families, let us pray to the Lord.

Blessed Mother’s Day!

*Adapted from the Methodist Book of Worship

Be One of God’s Miracles

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These last few weeks the news has been filled with tragic circumstances.  Not that the news is not always, or perhaps it just seems that way, filled with bad news but it seems these last few weeks it has been especially difficult.  The nation of Nepal was hit by the worst earthquake that the country has ever seen and at the time of this writing, the death toll is not complete but stands somewhere around five-thousand lives lost.  This is not to mention all of the injured and those who are now left homeless.  What transpired in Baltimore has also been part of the news cycle.  The death of a man in custody and the subsequent riots has captivated us and proves that race relations in America are still not resolved.  Sometimes the situation is so complex that we just don’t know what to do.

On the Fourth Sunday after Easter we read in the Gospel of St. John the story of a man who has been paralyzed for thirty-eight years.  He is lying by a pool, a pool that has been known to contain healing powers.  At certain times the water moves, and it is believed that an angel of the Lord comes down to the water, and the first person who enters will be healed by that same angel.  The man is lying there with no way to get into the pool when the water stirs.

Jesus finds him there and asks him if he wishes to be healed and the man replies that he was no one to put him in the water and others step over him when the water stirs so he just lays there in the hope that someone will come by to help him.  This is a tragic situation for the man because he is paralyzed but also because no one will help him, and they just step over him like he is not even there.

But Jesus does not just simply heal the man.  First he asks him if he wants to be healed.  God does not force us to follow Him he asks us we have to choose to follow or not to follow and, as I have mentioned before; we have to make this conscious choice daily.  The man desires to be healed, so Jesus tells him to rise, take up his mat, and go.  Jesus does not say that the man is healed he tells him to do something; miracles happen when we work together with God.  The miracle of the healing took place when the man rose, maybe unsteady at first, but he rose and did as he was told.

When we chose to follow Jesus, we also agree to follow a set of standards or rules.  We cannot follow Jesus and do it our way as if we knew better than God what we needed and how to obtain it.  This is when the wheels come off the wagon for us, and we get tempted by the Evil One.  We must do as we are told, as this man did, in order for our healing to take place and we all need healing.

But let us focus for a minute on the others, the ones who stepped over this man as if he was not even there.  How many times have we done this in our lives?  How many times have we witnessed someone on the street holding a cup, or maybe walking along the side of the road with a sign collecting spare change, and we just look away?  If we do not make eye contact, then that person is invisible to us, and we can go on our way without being bothered.  Perhaps we are the miracle for that person and by us cooperating with God will enable the healing of that person to take place.

We are called if we truly desire to follow Christ, to love and assist our neighbors and this is not just the guy that lives next door.  It is the man lying by the pool looking for someone to pick him and help him with his healing.  It is that beggar (I hate that word but not sure what else to use) on the street looking for whatever we have to offer other than a dirty look.  It is that person who has just moved into the neighborhood and knows no one and just needs a friend.  Or maybe it is that friend who calls us up at midnight just to talk.  We never know what miracles we will be part of.

The tragic situations I mentioned at the start of this essay are filled tiny miracles.  Stories of people trapped for days under the rubble that somehow survived long enough to be rescued.  The story of the police officer that went to the aid of a protester that was having a seizure on the streets of Baltimore.  He pushed his way through the crowd and held the man’s hand until the medical personnel arrived to help him.  And in a million other small ways that never make the news.

Be open to the miracle that God can work through us, it just might change your life!

12 Questions for Spiritual Awareness

How to Become Spiritually Aware

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Following up on my last essay concerning Spiritual Resiliency I thought I would now look at some ways to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves so we can better handle what comes next.  After we decided that we want to change, remember there has to be a desire to change, then we need to become aware of ourselves.  Self awareness is the first step in any kind of improvement that we would like to make in our lives.

Here is a spiritual inventory that should give some insight into your present state of spirituality.  Like any inventory the more honest you are with yourself the better off you will be.

Answer yes or no to the following question:

  1. I am willing to forgive myself and others.
  2. I have a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose in life.
  3. I have a belief system (such as spiritual, religious, atheist).
  4. I participate in regular spiritual activities with people who share my beliefs, and I am open to hearing about others’ beliefs.
  5. I accept my limitations without embarrassment or apology.
  6. I keep the purpose of my life clearly in mind and let it guide my decision-making.
  7. I freely give to others.
  8. I am comfortable about knowing things without knowing precisely how I know them (intuition).
  9. I allow others the freedom to believe what they want without pressuring them to accept my beliefs.
  10. I look for and work toward balance when my life is out of balance.
  11. I continually explore personal beliefs, values, principles and priorities.
  12. Principles, ethics and morals provide guides for my life.

If you answered yes to:

9 or more that is excellent and your habits are enhancing your health.

6 to 8 is average and you are obviously trying, but there is room to improve.

5 or less is below average and there is room for improvement in your daily life.

Remember this is just one tool that can be used to make you more aware of your spiritual situation.  Share these results with your spiritual guide, if you have one, or with a trusted friend and seek help in improving.