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Reading 1 and 2 Corinthians for God's Mission

Reading 1 and 2 Corinthians for God’s Mission

“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor of the 20th century. “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I bet Paul’s community in Corinth would have gotten a kick out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sometimes the Church is its own worst enemy. Life in community, even Christian community, especially Christian community, is a messy thing. It’s messy because we don’t walk away from it. We commit to making good things in the mess.

These two letters in the New Testament are a profound witness for us today in participating in God’s mission in the world. They show us that even the messiest, ugly, hopeless Christian community can be a compost pile of God’s new creation.

After Rome, Corinth was the largest, wealthiest, most cosmopolitan city in the Roman Empire. Located on the coast of Greece, it was like a modern day New York City—a melting pot of immigrants, cultures and religions. According to Acts 18, Paul visited Corinth on his second journey, establishing a small group of believers. Between AD 50–55, it is thought Paul wrote as many as five letters to the Christians in Corinth.

While in several of his letters in the Bible Paul confronts enemies outside the churches, all of the conflict he addresses in 1 and 2 Corinthians has to do with issues inside the church. Maybe we could title these “Christians Gone Wild” or “Believers Behaving Badly.” No fewer than 11 problems are talked about in 1 Corinthians, from suing one another to visiting prostitutes to abusing spiritual gifts. Clearly, the life of Jesus didn’t come easy for these people. Maybe there’s hope for us, too, when we see problems in our own church.

Second Corinthians may be one of the most difficult of the New Testament books to read because it’s Paul’s most personal correspondence. It’s like turning on a movie half way into it, not knowing what’s going on or who the characters are. Still, this letter speaks powerfully to the character of God. It contains some of the most memorable language in the Bible about the new life found in the way of Jesus.

These are extremely practical words for the church today. How can we live together? How can we all get along? How should leaders talk? What kind of leadership should be trusted?

Here are some things to keep in mind as you read 1 and 2 Corinthians:

What’s the backstory?

According to the account in Acts 18, Aquila and Priscilla are a couple of refugees from religious persecution in Rome who cross paths with Paul in Corinth. Together, along with Silas and Timothy, this group spends time preaching Jesus in the synagogue until they’re kicked out.

Titus Justus, a Gentile who lives next to the synagogue invites them in and hosts this house church. In time, the synagogue leader joins their group. Imagine those awkward encounters coming in and out of such a personal worship space right next the folks who kicked you out. It’s to these people that Paul writes about reconciliation.

God tells Paul in a dream, “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” No doubt, an encouraging word in such a cosmopolitan, pagan place. When Paul is finally dragged before the Roman authorities by the Jewish leaders, it’s his accusers that wind up getting publicly beaten. In time, Paul with Aquila and Priscilla then travel on to plant a church in Ephesus.

The big ideas

First Corinthians is a letter about community life. It’s about how Christians should play well with one another. It’s quite clear that getting along doesn’t come easily this group that’s believed to be no more than 60 in number.

If there’s a thesis statement to 1 Corinthians, it’s this:
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose” (1:10).

Unity is the big idea. Apparently, the community has communicated with Paul about a variety of specific points of conflict to which he’s responding. This is real life. This is messy church life. Notice how many time Paul writes, “Now regarding your question…” Consider what questions your community might ask Paul. How do you think he might respond?

If there’s a thesis statement to 2 Corinthians, it’s this:
“You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2:17).

Paul’s leadership has been called into question, and he is defending his reputation and credentials against his critics. Boasting and clever speeches were the measure of important people in the world of Corinth, and Paul maintains that his authority comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth, and not his own techniques. There’s a powerful lesson here for leaders today about what Christ-like influence looks like in an age of social media and platforms.

Bodies and resurrection

First Corinthians differs from most of Paul’s other letters in the New Testament. Many of them—Romans is a clear example—lay a clear theological foundation before coming to the practical working out in real life with real people. This letter focuses heavily on behavior, community life, and ethics.

But there is a theological frame that holds it all together. It starts with a discussion about the importance of the cross and it ends with the resurrection. This frame emphasizes how much our bodies matter—our appetites, whether food or sex—because our bodies will be resurrected just like Jesus’s body.

The world isn’t split into physical and spiritual worlds. There’s just one world that is both physical and spiritual. Matter matters. Bodies matter. The physical person of Jesus in the Incarnation and Resurrection prove it. As Paul writes, if there’s no Resurrection, the Christian faith is a sham.

Reading somebody else’s mail

Working through Paul’s second letter to Corinth is one of the more challenging reads in the New Testament. Paul writes with intense passion and emotion. Reading this is like walking into the middle of a heated discussion between two arguing parties. Apparently, over time the community has started to doubt Paul’s credentials and authority as a leader. If you’ve ever been a leader and had your people turn on you, you know what a crisis this can be.

Second Corinthians reminds us how removed we are from the New Testament. This isn’t a letter to or for us. We’re eavesdropping. And yet, the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully through this letter. It contains some of our most powerful biblical images of new creation, reconciliation, and strength in vulnerability. As wounded and defensive as Paul is in this letter, he never loses sight of Jesus and the good news that God is putting the world back together.

If you want to dig deeper, I recommend you check these out:
Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians by N.T. Wright
Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington

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Why Food Tells the Story of God

Why Food Tells the Story of God

How is it that so many of my own profound experiences with God happen when food is around? Is it just coincidence? I don’t think so. There’s something deep, profound, and mysterious about the role food has in the story of God.

When I was in my 20s and I’d shipwrecked my faith, it was weekly meals with a caring family that I experienced firsthand the hospitality of God. Community dinners that I’ve experienced both in the context of a church small group and in my neighborhood have been some of the most significant spiritual experiences of my life.

In fact, we might say that as we pay close attention to God’s story in the Bible, wherever God is, there is a snack, a meal, an overabundant feast. At every major plot point of the story, there you find God and food. Alexander Schmemann, in his book of sacrament of Eucharist, begins with the line, “You are what you eat.”

Here’s how the story of the Bible unfolds.

Creation

In Genesis 2, we find God’s first command and prohibition. Before Moses, before the 10 Commandments, before even sin and death enter the world, God gives Adam one thing to do and one thing not to do: “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die” (Genesis 2:15–17).

In other words, God’s first directive to a human being is, “Eat this. Not that.” Of all the things God might provide instructions to human beings about life, God begins with eating.

Fall

Likewise, food plays center stage when everything goes terribly wrong. There are three curses found in Genesis 3—first to the serpent, second to the woman, and third, and most extensively, to the man. The Hebrew of verses 17–19 is three lines of poetry with the verb “to eat” central in each line.

“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
     whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
     All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.
It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
     though you will eat of its grains.
By the sweat of your brow
     will you have food to eat
until you return to the ground
     from which you were made.
For you were made from dust,
     and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17–19).

Acquiring food, eating, having enough to eat—it will be a struggle. Just take notice of all the places in story of Genesis 2 and 3 that the words “eat” and “ate” show up. There’s something fundamental about the both the right and wrong orderings of universe that have to do with eating. It’s what’s broken, and it’s what’s being restored.

Passover

We come to the book of Exodus and story of God’s people in slavery. God, one by one, clobbers the Egyptian deities, and at the grand conclusion, just before the big finale at the Red Sea, we find an interlude around a meal.

“These are the instructions for eating this meal: Be fully dressed, wear your sandals, and carry your walking stick in your hand. Eat the meal with urgency, for this is Yahweh’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11).

Again, take note of every time the word “eat” shows up in Exodus 12, outlining instructions about how to celebrate the Passover meal as an annual holiday. God wants to commemorate this victory with a yearly party.

Torah

God leads his people to Mt. Sinai where they’re given the Law. Among the more obscure individual laws for modern people are the food laws found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Most notable in these lists is no pork.

Why does God care what Israelite’s eat? Of all the things a deity could make seemingly arbitrary rules about, why food? In one sense, it echoes the Genesis story (“Eat this. Not that.”) Another way of considering is God placing limits on humans’ consumption of God’s creation. As if God might be saying, “I really like these. Don’t eat these.” Notably, it’s only animals that get ruled out. There are no prohibitions about eating plants.

Sacrifices

And yet another, and perhaps more significant way of considering it, is that the animals that are prohibited from being eaten are also excluded from being offered on the altar as sacrifices to God. If it’s not appropriate on the altar, it’s not appropriate for the human body.

And the sacrificial system given to Israel was concerned with what they ate but also who they ate with. To being a sacrifice to the altar was to initiate a meal both with God and with the community. As John Goldingay writes, “Israel’s worship thus combined the order of a banquet and the celebration of a barbecue.” Eating was central to the worship of Israel.

Jesus

And then we come to Jesus. I’ve heard it said that Jesus eats so much in the Gospels that if he hadn’t walked everywhere, he would’ve been fat. The Gospel of Luke, especially, portrays Jesus as eating everywhere he goes, a bit like Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s 11.

When a crowd of 5,000 follow him to a rural place, Jesus is most concerned about what they’re going to eat, and he feeds them all. When he tells a story about what the end of everything will be like, he describes a banquet. He eats with the wrong people. He invites himself to a meal at Zacchaeus’s house. When the disciples walking to Emmaus encounter the resurrected Jesus, somehow, they don’t recognize Jesus until they all sit down to eat. Jesus and food go together like peanut butter and jelly—or maybe better, bread and wine.

Eucharist

Most important in the Jesus story is the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples the night before the crucifixion. The death and resurrection could have happened at anytime, but it gets tethered explicitly to the Passover story and the Passover meal.

And so, it’s the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist that has become central to Christian worship ever since. Each week we rehearse the words, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is coming again,” all while remembering the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. We remember the eating in the garden, the eating at Passover, and we look forward to eating at the banquet in the kingdom of God.

Revelation

Finally, we come to the end of the story. Sure, there are a lot of crazy images throughout Revelation, but the most significant one is where it all lands—an epic feast.

Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the times has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself” (Revelation 19:7).

The story begins with two trees: Eat this, not that. The story ends around banquet table. How fitting.

It’s with this in mind that church potlucks are one of the most spiritual and theological things we can do together. They point us towards the imagery of Exodus 25:11, Isaiah 25, Luke 14, and Revelation 19.

It’s with this in mind that we make space to eat with one another. We make space to eat with our neighbors. We make space to eat with strangers. We make space to eat with them and with God.

I once visited a Jewish Shabbat service, and the rabbi closed with my most favorite benediction ever:

They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.

If you want to go deeper, you should check these out:

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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How to Prepare to Meet with Your Spiritual Director

How to Prepare to Meet with Your Spiritual Director

Let’s imagine you’ve made the plunge, you’ve made meeting with a spiritual director a regular rhythm of your life. You’ve found a director. You’ve met for the first time and decided they’re a good fit and you want to continue meeting.

Now what? What’s next?

Henri Nouwen writes, “The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation—the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart…. Almost anything that regularly asks us to slow down and order our time, desires, and thoughts to counteract selfishness, impulsiveness, or hurried fogginess of mind can be a spiritual discipline.”

While certainly not necessary, it can be helpful to carve out some margin to consider what you want to cover when you meet with your spiritual director. That could look like spending some time scanning your journal, or it could look like turning the radio down in the car on the drive to the meeting.

Here are some ways you can get ready for a meeting with your spiritual director.

Prayer

We want to be mindful of not out-sourcing our spiritual life, our listening life, our prayer life. A spiritual director is not a mediator. They are not Moses, coming down from the mountain with a word for you. A director is a partner in listening with you.

We must listen. We must make ourselves available to God. The agenda for the meeting comes from the Holy Spirit, from the ways the Spirit provokes, nudges, inspires, stretches us, not from the director.

We need daily patterns of prayer. Paul says, “Never stop praying” (1 Thess 5:17). This can look like a regular rhythm such as the daily office. It can be habits like talking to God in your car or while you brush your teeth or before meals. God is unlikely to ignore the sincere prayer, “Show me what you’re rearranging inside me. Show me where you’re at work in the world around me.”

Remember that the role of the director is like a midwife, helping give you words for the life that God shaping within you. When I begin a meeting with a directee, we start with reading the daily psalm. We give God the first word. Then we sit in silence, listening together, and I invite them to break the silence whenever they’re ready, whether it takes 20 seconds or 20 minutes. Prayer is the best way to prepare to meet with your director.

Journal

There may be artifacts from the past month—encounters, conversations, stories, insights from Scripture or other devotional reading or hearing sermons, moments of prayer, thoughts, dreams. If you’ve written them down, whether they felt important at the time or not, pulling them out before your spiritual director like items from a suitcase, or jigsaw puzzle pieces from the box, your director can assist you in connecting the dots between them. If you haven’t been writing them down, they may be lost opportunities.

Make the space to listen how God responds to your prayers, especially when God responds in unexpected ways. Regular patterns of spiritual practices give us plenty of subject matter to bring to the direction meeting. Waiting until the day before or the day of is like cramming the last minute for a big test.

Work to capture your thoughts on paper as they happen throughout the month. It doesn’t need to be elaborate or lengthy. Michael Hyatt provides a simple template for daily journaling. Sacred Ordinary Days has resources for a weekly rhythm of spiritual reflection. One of the foundational pieces to the Getting Things Done methodology is the weekly review. The Examen, a daily practice started by St. Ignatius, is yet another tool for self reflection. Whatever you do, write it down. There is no better way to keep track of and pay attention to your own growth over time.

Notice your anxious places

As a director myself, I send each of my directees an email a day or two before we meet. From a practical stand point, I do this to confirm the details of our meeting. But it also serves a deeper purpose.

I borrow a paragraph from Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations:

When we meet tomorrow, I want to explore with you whatever you feel most deserves our attention, so I will begin our conversation by asking, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?” I will rely on you to tell me. If the thought of bringing up an issue makes you anxious, that’s a signal you need to bring it up. I’m not going to preempt your agenda with my own.

It’s helpful to begin to think about those things that threaten your peace, that ignite your shame, and incite your anger. That place of anxiety often reveals the growing edges of God’s work in our lives. The creation story of Genesis states, “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” It’s one of my favorite verses. Formless and empty. That’s where God’s creative work happens.

Where are you feeling formless and empty? It’s my hunch that’s where God’s creative work is about to break out.

And often it’s okay to have not prepared at all. Some times it’s a bad month. Some times we get swept away by the onslaught of activities and obligations. That’s okay. All the more reason to keep your appointment with your director, so that, for that one hour, you hold the franticness at bay, and you listen. You sit still and you be with God.

Allow yourself to enter into the story of the panicked disciples, sitting in their fishing dinghy in the middle of a violent squall. Shake Jesus awake, who has the wherewithal to be taking a nap amidst the noise. Listen deeply as he stands and shouts out into the rain, “Peace! Be still!” And sit in silent wonder as he crawls back into his nap.

Your spiritual director will be with you. You are not alone.

Be still and know that I am God.

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Reading the Book of Psalms for God's Mission

Reading the Book of Psalms for God’s Mission

“If you bury yourself in Psalms, you emerge knowing God and under- standing life…We learn from the Psalms how to think and act in reference to God. We drink in God and God’s world from them. They provide a vocabulary for living Godward, are inspired by God himself. They show us who God is, and that expands and lifts and directs our minds and hearts.”
—Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Ever written a poem or a song? There’s something unique about a lyric. You’re not trying to communicate facts or data. It’s all about feeling and emotion. It’s art. It’s just the right words in just the right order. And so we find in the Pslams imaginative metaphors, and we find dramatic hyperbole that inspires our emotions.

The Book of Psalms just might be the most important book in the whole Bible. Like the anchors of a mountain climber that keep their line attached to the rock face, the psalms keep us anchored to the heart of God and God’s mission in the world. Without them, we float away in the churn of our own self-centered chatter and busyness.

I grew up in a tradition where prayer was something that happened spontaneously. Authenticity was key, and so, it mattered deeply that it be off the cuff, not rehearsed, top of mind. Hear me that it’s not wrong to pray this way. It’s not bad. But there’s more.

Imagine the churn of things floating in a stream or creek—leaves, sticks, trash. That’s just the surface. There’s so much more happening beneath. We can pray from the churn of our mind and heart, but those things are so temporary. They come and go. We can find those thoughts and emotions aren’t nearly as important to us as we begin to give them space. Psalms provide us an on-ramp for diving beneath the surface of our hearts and minds.

The psalms help us understand both the Old and New Testaments.

We find the entire story of God in the Old Testament throughout the Psalms: creation, sin, wickedness, righteousness, salvation, the law that brings life, the hope for Messiah (the “Christ” or the “Good King”). Then, along with Isaiah and Deuteronomy, Psalms is one of the most quoted Old Testament books by the writers of the New Testament. The psalms helped them make sense of Jesus.

The psalms are not a random collection, but rather an ordered manual of prayer. There are five “books” (they would have originally been scrolls) that parallel the five books of Moses, the Torah:

  • Book I: 1–41
  • Book II: 42–72
  • Book III: 73–89
  • Book IV: 90–105
  • Book V: 106–150

John Goldingay notes, “The five Moses books teach people how to live; the five David books teach them how to pray and praise.

In this way they call back to God’s story with Israel, but they also look forward. In Acts 4, we see the early church gathered together in prayer and interpreting their situation in the words of Psalm 2. The first Christians were soaked in the worldview of the psalms.

The psalms help us understand corporate worship.

From the time that the Psalms were first complied, they came to be the structure for the corporate worship of God’s people. They weren’t for individual devotional reading, but for praying together.

Anne Lamott suggests there are really only three prayers that we come back to again and again: Thanks, Wow, and Help. This is evident as we make our way through the psalter. There are psalms of praise. There are psalms of lament. We do well to make space for the whole gamut of these emotions in our worship gatherings. Not only this, but as we pray these prayers we find ourselves praying with the universal Church throughout history, rightly centering our lives together around God.

The psalms help us understand spiritual disciplines.

The psalms are our teacher for prayer. They give us a vocabulary for talking to and about God. They aren’t magic words, but they are words that generations after generations of God’s people have used as good and true words about God. When we pray, we pray like the psalms. They are time-tested, almost like a collection of “greatest hits.” It’s good to pray these prayers.

Prayer is easy and natural enough for children to do it. Prayer is also a skill we hone and craft over time. The psalms teach us to pay better attention to state of our own emotions and the emotions of others over time. I can submit myself to the rhythm of the daily office and find that the psalm for the day gives me words my state that I didn’t know I needed. Or the daily psalms may lead me to pray in solidarity with a someone I know who may be in crisis.

The psalms help us understand theology.

We can find the entire continuum of human emotion—joy, despair, fear, celebration—in the psalms, but in the end, they always come back to the character of God. God is king. God can be trusted. God is faithful. God is with us. These prayers are always about God, first and foremost.

There are several key words to be on the look out for as you read Psalms. Depending on your translation, these are “unfailing love” (or lovingkindness) and “faithfulness.” Often they show up together as defining marks of what kind of deity the psalmist experiences Yahweh to be.

Let your unfailing love and faithfulness always protect me” (40:11).

I praise your name for your unfailing love and faithfulness” (138:2).

This is who God is. This is true, good theology.

It helps us understand God’s mission in the world

Through the psalms we come to understand God’s hopes and dreams for the world, for our neighborhoods. Psalms, like 146, highlight God’s desire for justice, for God’s presence with the poor. In addition, Psalms like 2 and 138 illustrate God’s sovereignty over the rulers of the nations, even in the most unexpected places.

Psalm 1 functions as a lens through which we can understand the rest of the book. This is God’s vision for all the people of the world—thriving, flourishing trees, whose life is rooted in God’s goodness and beauty. God is present with us and our neighbors in our ordinary day-to-day affairs. The psalms keep us anchored in the ordinary everyday goings-on between our neighbors. To draw near to the heart of God, leads us to the hearts of our neighbors.

We can more fully become people of God, people of Jesus, by becoming people of the Psalms.

“Praise Yahweh forever! Amen and amen!” (89:52)

If you want to go deeper in Job, be sure to check out:

Psalms for Everyone: Part I & Part II by John Goldingay

Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer by Eugene Peterson

Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight

Psalms by James Luther Mays

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If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

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Forgiveness, reconciliation, and the Enneagram

Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and the Enneagram

It’s messy being human beings. Perhaps the reason Jesus prays for our unity is because he knows just how difficult—how seemingly impossible—unity between people can be. We offend one another. We hurt one another’s feelings. We reject one another. Sometimes intentionally, but more often not. One tool we have to help us repair the damage and work for reconciliation and forgiveness towards one another is the Enneagram.

David Fitch writes, “Reconciliation is so central to the good news of what God has done in Christ that to see no reconciliation in our churches suggests there is no gospel in them. Reconciliation marks our presence in the world.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.” If this is so, you don’t get have warm fuzzies with God if there’s unresolved conflict between you and a Christian brother or sister. Reconciliation and forgiveness are fundamental practices in the Christian life.

Why do you seem to click with particular types of people? Why do you always seem to find yourself in a fight with other types? What is it that you truly get out of being part of a community? The Enneagram helps provide answers to questions like these.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Enneagram, I recommend reading this first. Some things to keep in mind about it: YOU ARE NOT YOUR TYPE. Your type describes you. It does not define you. Furthermore, it’s not a label to slap on someone else. Your type does not give you license to be a jerk. It describes tendencies. It has an uncanny way of giving words to gifts and weaknesses you knew you had but didn’t know how to articulate it.

So what is it that blocks you from experiencing community? What in you breeds conflict and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation? Riso and Hudson write, “One of the most important skills we must acquire as we embark on the inward journey is the ability to ‘observer and let go’ of the habits and mechanisms of our personality that have trapped us.” The Enneagram helps us to observe and let go. Here are some of the ways that each type can find themselves mired in conflict and how they can work towards reconciliation within a community.

Type 1

Principled and idealistic, Ones are prone to perfectionism. Healthy Ones improve the world. They can engage in constructive criticism within the community.

The biggest block for a One in community is anger—anger at themselves that they don’t meet their own standards, anger at others that they don’t meet them, either. If you’re a One, value those in your community as they are and let go of your wish-dreams of them. If you’re learning to live with someone who could be a One, create space for their spontaneity and fun—the positive attributes of a Seven.

Type 2

Twos live to serve, often at the expense of their own self-care. They want to help and have an intuitive sense of reading others’ emotions. They have the superpower of knowing how people feel and how to fix it.

The obstacle for a Two in community is pride. They want to be the one to fix everyone. A person in your community who could be a Two may feel slighted when all their efforts to serve go unnoticed. If you are a Two, you may be hiding from your community your own needs. Express them. You need others, too. If you’re learning to live with someone who could be a Two, genuinely thank them for all they do. Help them look in the mirror to help themselves as enthusiastically as they help others.

Type 3

Fluent in efficiency and productivity, Threes eat to-do lists for breakfast. They are high achievers. They like to win. If there’s a shortcut or a hidden advantage, a Three will find it.

The obstacle for a Three in community is deceit. They can be obsessed about their appearance, and so they may project a false identity to the community, or even lie to themselves about who they truly are. If you are a Three, lean into the authenticity and messiness of life. Substance means more than appearance. If you’re learning to live with someone who might be a Three, remind them that they’re valued for who they are, not what they do or what they bring to the group.

Type 4

Fours live in the world of beauty and creativity. They can sense what’s missing in the community and then bring that to the table. They can make every gathering unique and different.

The obstacle for a Four in community is envy. When their sense of noticing what’s missing gets turned on themselves, they may fall into a vicious loop of comparison, fearing they may never be complete. If you’re a Four, pay close attention to how your moodiness or melancholy affects your community. You’re not an island. If you’re learning to live with someone who could be a Four, make space for them to see outside themselves. Clearly communicate to them how their actions affect you.

Type 5

Analytical and cerebral, Fives observe everything in your community. They see it all, and they’re constantly making connections. They’re a wealth of wisdom and insight in a community.

For a Five, avarice or greed tend to spark conflict in their relationships. They tend to live with a scarcity mentality. Fives tend to think their feelings, which may leave them unaware of how their actions affect your feelings. If you’re a Five, you may overestimate your need for boundaries. Participate. Don’t merely observe. You may find yourself in conflict simply because you’re not making yourself available. If you’re learning to live with someone who could be a Five, make space for them to express themselves. Ask. Show them the curiosity that comes so naturally to them.

Type 6

Loyal and dependable, Sixes get the job done, whatever the job may be. Healthy Sixes work for the safety and security of the community. Maintaining the status quo can be their priority.

The biggest obstacle for Six experiencing community is fear. Sixes tend to anticipate the worst. Driven by anxiety, they can be “glass half empty” people. If you’re a Six, try expressing gratitude for the gifts and ideas that others bring. If you’re learning to live with someone who could be a Six, give appropriate space for their concerns. Sometimes simply saying those outlaid can diffuse them. Above all, cultivate trust with a Six.

Type 7

Fearless and adventuresome, Sevens are the life of the party. They’re already geared up for the next get together. Spontaneity is their middle name, and they have a story for every occasion.

The obstacle for a Seven in community is gluttony. They want to gorge themselves on experiences and thrills, while minimizing pain and negative emotions. If you’re a Seven, work to be present in the moment with others, knowing its enough. Especially if your community is experiencing any kind of turmoil or grief, resist the urge minimize the hurt that others feel. If you’re learning to live with someone who might be a Seven, give space to their joy and enthusiasm. Make space for them to reflect rather than just consume.

Type 8

Intensity and conflict are the lifeblood of an Eight. They live for a good debate, argument, or fight. It may be easy to misconstrue their aggressiveness as a personal attack when that’s not the case.

The obstacle for an Eight in community is lust, not so much in a sexual sense, but rather objectifying and using others. An Eight may be so caught up in fighting the cause they forget the people. If you happen to be an Eight, work to notice the humanity of others. See them as people rather than issues. Know when you’re a bull in a china shop. If you’re learning to live with someone who might be an Eight, lovingly remind them that there are more colors in the world than black and white. Match their intensity with intensity and see if it doesn’t diffuse the situation.

Type 9

Easygoing and peaceful, Nines have an intuitive gift for seeing through the eyes of every other type. Healthy Nines listen deeply with empathy. They value the perspectives of everyone in the table, and are excellent at mediating conflict.

Sloth is the greatest obstacle for Nine in community. For the sake of avoiding conflict, they fade into the background. If you’re a Nine, make yourself known. Express your gifts, your thoughts, and opinions. You’ll likely find them embraced rather than rejected. If you’re learning to live with someone who might be a Nine, you may never know that a conflict exists. Go out of your way to tease out their wants and desires and dreams. Don’t let them get away with simply going with the flow.

The Enneagram is a helpful tool in our journey of spiritual formation. Don’t use it as a weapon in your community or in our relationships. A knife is a useful tool for carving wood, but it can also lop off your thumb. Don’t use the Enneagram to label, belittle, or manipulate others. It’s most useful in paying attention to your own soul and learning how to listen to others with a more discerning ear. It can be particularly helpful in the Christian practice of reconciliation, as it shines a spotlight on our own complicity in strained relationships. It reveals to us the long, slow work ahead of us in healing those relationships.

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19).

If you’d like to learn more about the Enneagram, it’s best to start with Self to Lose – Self to Find: A Biblical Approach to the 9 Enneagram Types by Marilyn Vancil or The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile.

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9 Movies for Spiritual Formation

9 Movies for Spiritual Formation

At various times in my life, I’ve hosted “Faith & Film” discussion groups. I love movies because I love stories, and it’s in these stories that intersections between my story and God’s story become clearer to me.

When asked what a director does, filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski responded, “I help.” Indeed, I’ve found that movies help me sort out my life, including my spiritual life.

One thing I’ve learned around conversations like this is how deeply personal and subjective experiences with any kind of art can be. Some hear God in the profane; some in explicitly Christian art. Your mileage may vary in taking any of these as recommendations that you’ll “like” them.

These are just a few of the films where I’ve encountered God and felt invited deeper into faith:

Magnolia

“Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again.” That’s a line from the song “Deathly” by Aimee Mann. Her album Bachelor No. 2 provided the inspiration to writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson and so this line also shows up in a pivotal scene in the film.

Magnolia is a series of stories about people in dire need of reconciliation with one another. There’s Stanley Specter, a child prodigy and quiz show champion, and his overbearing father. There’s dying Earl Partridge, a television producer, his trophy wife Linda, who’s not coping well, his estranged son motivational speaker T.J. Mackey, and the male nurse trying to mediate between them. There’s officer Jim Kurring, a cop and man of faith, who happens to fall in love with the wrong girl. And in the end a half dozen or so short stories converge with a reference to Exodus 8.

At one point, a character cries through a bloodied mouth, “I have so much love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” Magnolia displays a cavalcade of characters who need grace in the midst of their broken lives.

Dogville

Dogville isn’t for everyone. If you’ve ever seen a stage production of “Our Town,” Dogville is its cinematic equivalent. All of the action takes place on a blank stage with the actors pantomiming the sets. It requires some good imagination.

It’s the story of Grace, a stranger in a Colorado mining town at the beginning of the 20th century. At first, the locals hospitably welcome the young woman, but over time, suspicions enflame into outright hostility, rejection, and finally abuse against her. Among the right crowd, there’s lots here to take in and talk about regarding the town’s response to “Grace” and the consequences.

Wreck-It Ralph

Yes, this movies pushes all the nostalgia buttons if, like me, you grew up playing 80s video games. Wreck-It Ralph is the story of Ralph, the bad guy in a Donkey Kong-style vintage arcade game. He’s sick and tired all the rejection and alienation of being the bad guy and longs to be a hero. This leads him on a quest where he finds himself in a Mario Kart-style candy racing game where meets Penelope “the glitch.”

But underneath all this is the story of a good world corrupted by a virus that threatens to destroy the whole world and an antagonist who has “re-programmed” one of the central characters so that she can’t remember her true identity. There’s a lot to unpack here about the nature of sin, identity, the “false self” that we talk about in spiritual formation, and new creation.

Calvary

Calvary gutted me the first time I saw it. And the second time I saw it. The first time, I saw it in an arthouse theater in the suburbs of Chicago with a cohort of pastors as we were in the midst of a class all about pastoral theology. We all sat in silence as the credits rolled before someone finally asked, “Are you okay?”

The story begins in a small Irish town, the confession booth of the Catholic parish, camera on Father James, as an unseen confessor says that because he suffered abuses as a child at the hands of a priest, he’s going to murder Father James in seven days. As the film unfolds we meet the inhabitants of the village. (There happen to be twelve of them.) And we wonder, which one?

And we see how Father James interacts with each of these very selfish characters, all but one of whom are oblivious to what both Father James and we the audience know. This film is for anyone considering a vocation in pastoral ministry.

Babette’s Feast

With refugee crises happening in multiple parts of the world, Babette’s Feast continues to be an important movie. Like Dogville, it’s the story of a stranger in small community. In this case, the story takes place in 19th century Denmark. Babette is a refugee taken in by a deeply pious, but deeply repressive community. Two elderly sisters, daughters of the town’s pastor who has died, take her in as a servant.

Years go by, and Babette wins the lottery. With her winnings she decides to cook a gourmet French meal for the village. There is abundance and extravagance and rich luxury that the town has never encountered before. It’s a perfect illustration for sacraments, communion, and the banquet in the kingdom of God.

The Mission

The Mission is the story in 18th century South America of a Jesuit priest Father Gabriel and his new recruit Mendoza, who’s attempting to atone for the sins of his past. They’re working to bring the work of the Gospel to a remote village tribe amidst the political squabbles between Spain and Portugal.

It’s a story for considering cross cultural ministry, overcoming one’s personal baggage, drawing boundaries between church and politics, and working through violence and pacifism on behalf of the marginalized.

The Seventh Seal

This makes for great watching and discussing for Good Friday and Easter. The title itself is a reference to the book of Revelation. If you’ve ever seen references to the Grim Reaper playing chess, it comes from this Swedish film from the 50s. A knight of the crusades returns home with his squire to find the land ravaged by the plague and what they perceive to be the end of the world.

Death himself comes to the knight, demanding his life, and the chess match begins. Throughout the film we encounter various people of the village. The final image of The Seventh Seal, Death leading away everyone we’ve encountered, makes for a great reminder of the stakes of Easter.

Silence

Silence is what you get if you cross The Mission with Apocalypse Now. Two Jesuit priests in 17th century go on a quest to find their mentor who has gone missing amidst the severe persecution in Japan.

The two priests find an underground church, that when exposed, is threatened to deny the faith or be killed. It sucks us in to ask the question of what we as the audience might do in such a scenario to either face martyrdom or witness it. Father Rodrigo is presented as a pious hero, but also deeply flawed to the point that we’re led to ask: At what point does our idealized “relationship with Jesus” itself become an idol?

Arrival

Arrival is a thinking person’s sci-fi movie. It’s a about a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, as she’s recruited by the government to figure out why twelve mysterious pods have landed in various locations around the globe. She’s partnered with a theoretical physicist to make first contact with the aliens on their ship.

It’s a movie about the meaning of time, language, and encountering “the other”—whether that “other” is different people or even God. I’ve written more elsewhere about the themes in Arrival for spiritual formation.

When it comes to movies and faith, that’s far from a comprehensive list. What about you? What are some films that have deepened your experience of faith and grace?

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A Beginners Guide to Centering Prayer

A Beginner’s Guide to Centering Prayer

As a teenager I visited San Diego, so, of course, I had make an attempt at surfing. I count trying to stand on a surfboard, in the ocean (the ocean never stops moving, which sounds obvious now that I type it, but wasn’t at the time), among the most difficult things I’ve attempted. And there’s something to surfing that’s like the practice of centering prayer.

Prayer takes on many forms. Sometimes we talk out loud. Sometimes we sit quietly, thinking thoughts in our mind to God. Sometimes we follow a pre-written guide like the daily office. Centering prayer, also called listening prayer or contemplative prayer or meditation, is another method of orienting ourselves around God’s presence and activity in our lives.

Life is relentless. We live busy lives marked by to-do list items that like Medusa’s snakes multiply each time we cut one down. Our lives are oppressed by the tyranny of the urgent.

Where does one find God in all of that frantic, frenzied mess?

Centering prayer is a means of sitting still in the chaos, of setting boundaries against multi-tasking, so called “productivity” and defiantly crying, “You shall not pass!” Centering prayer is a way of embracing quiet and making ourselves available to God. Centering prayer teaches us how to actively listen to God.


Eugene Peterson writes in his book The Contemplative Pastor:

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this sentence: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.

Centering prayer gives us “feet out of idleness.”

Stillness in the Bible

One of my favorite Jesus stories is found in Mark 4 (also in Matthew 8 and Luke 8). Jesus falls asleep in a boat. A violent storm comes up. In a panic, the disciples wake up Jesus. Jesus tells the wind and waves, “Silence! Be still!” While the text doesn’t say this, I envision Jesus curls back up on his pillow and falls asleep again while the disciples stand there slack jawed. And I think that the point of the story is to have a faith, not so much that stills the storms, but rather to have a faith so overwhelmingly peaceful that storms don’t wake you. Stillness conquers storms.

To the prophet Elijah, God invites him to witness his presence. But it’s not in the overt, powerful, obvious places. Not in the storm. Not in the earthquake. Not in the fire. It’s in a gentle whisper where Elijah finds God. It may not be in the podcast or the praise music or the big, loud worship service that God speaks us. It may be in the quiet of our own inner life.

The various psalmists write, “O God, we meditate on your unfailing love as we worship in your Temple” (48:9). Also, “Help me understand the meaning of your commands, and I will meditate on your wonderful deeds” (119:27). And again, “I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor and your wonderful miracles” (145:5). Mindfulness to God’s presence and activity in our lives is marker of God’s people.

Centering prayer is a method that leads us in this mindfulness. Here are a few simple steps for beginning a habit of centering prayer.

Choose a word or phrase

Choose something simple, like “grace” or “love” or “abba.” It might even be the Jesus Prayer. The intent is not to ponder on this word but rather to have an anchor when distractions come. This word or phrase draws our attention back to the God who is present before us.

Centering prayer is a method. It’s a method that facilitates a relationship. There is no wrong way to pray. We are simply attempting to make ourselves present and attentive to the God who made the universe. This word or phrase is a symbol of our intentionality and consent to God’s presence with us.

Sit comfortably

Close your eyes. Turn of the TV and the music. Eliminate as much visual and auditory distractions. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly. When my kids get wound up and need them to settle down, I start by asking them to take deep breaths. Pay attention to your breathing deeply. This simple practice is the first step in quieting the frantic “monkey brain” we constantly endure.

If you’re just starting out, set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes. That just might feel like an eternity. It may go by as fast as you blink. See if you can gradually work your way to 20 to 25 minutes. You may find that it takes you the first five minutes just to get the “hamster wheel” in your head to stop.

When distractions come, re-center on your word.

Distractions will come. The next thing on your to-do list. The grocery list. A conversation you had yesterday. An email that needs to be sent. Don’t resist these. This is normal. But set them aside. Come back to your word or phrase. This may feel like balancing across a tightrope.

When stray thoughts come to mind, return to your word as a means of training your brain to sit still. Don’t beat yourself up when your mind wanders. Distractions themselves aren’t necessarily a hindrance to us but the emotional frustration for not getting it right certainly is. This is a practiced skill of learning to turn down the inner noise. I’ve never seen a baby quit trying to walk because it fell down. Get back up. Come back to your word.

As rational beings, we default to thinking our prayers. But in prayer we encounter God, not only with our minds, but also our bodies and hearts. In centering prayer we pull back the reins on the participation of our minds that so often tend to run away with how we attend to God. And it may be that we find thoughts coming to mind that are God’s part of the conversation.

Conclude in silence

When the timer goes off, resist the urge to jump back up and out into the fray of activities and busyness. Sit in the quiet. Notice your breathing. Feel the presence of your own body.

Aim to re-enter the thoughts and activity of your life from a place of God’s presence rather than your own initiation. Know the true source of your life. Remember that centering prayer is about cultivating a relationship with God. Active listening is necessary for every relationship we experience. God is not “the Force,” but a personal being.

Like surfing, centering prayer requires practice. You’ll fall down. You’ll likely get frustrated. It’s a skill that requires constant practice and yields transforming benefits. Commit yourself to it each day for a week and see what happens.

If you want to go deeper, check out Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating.

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Why Ordinary Time Matters for God's Mission

Why Ordinary Time Matters for God’s Mission

Rogers Hornsby was one of the greatest second baseman every to play the game of baseball. He won Most Valuable Player awards while playing for both the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the 1920s and 1930s. A reporter once asked him what he did in the offseason, and he replied, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Don’t do Ordinary Time like Rogers Hornsby did winter.

We currently find ourselves in the season of Ordinary Time (or Kingdomtide, in some traditions) in the Church calendar. It comprises the six months from the end of Easter season all the way to Advent. If we’re not mindful, we might find ourselves thinking something like Rogers Hornsby. Advent and Christmas are beautiful and amazing. Lent and Easter are deep and rich.

And now we stare out the window and wait for Advent again.

But nothing could be further from the reality of Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time isn’t “boring time.” It’s not “nothing time.” To borrow the immortal line from The Shawshank Redemption, Ordinary Time is “get busy livin’ time.”

Because we’ve allowed ourselves to be enveloped in the darkness of Advent, in the waiting, in the hope, in the anticipation that God has something to say about the broken state of the world…

Because we’ve shouted with the angelic chorus at Christmas “Glory to God in the highest!” to celebrate the unfathomable miracle of Almighty God becoming a human being…

Because we’ve turned on all the lights at Epiphany as our defiance against the darkness in declaring that Jesus the Light of the World will have the final word…

Because we’ve drawn near to the heart of Jesus during Lent, making our souls vulnerable to the grief and sorrow of our neighborhoods, crying out in lament at the horrific reality of the sin that corrupts the world and that is lodged deep inside our selves…

Because we’ve thrown the raucous, champagne-soaked party of Easter celebrating the empty tomb, that Death is toothless and incompetent, that Life beats Death…

Because we’ve been caught up in the whirlwind and tongues of fire at Pentecost, witnessing the new story of life breaking out all across the world, that the Church is God’s plan for making the whole world new again…

…now we live.

Ordinary Time completes the cycle of the year.

Ordinary Time is the great “so that” of the Church calendar. For six months we live into the story of what God does in Jesus. For six months we live into the story of what God does in us, the people of Jesus, the Church. Ordinary Time represents what’s next.

We revel in the story of the Incarnation during Advent and Christmas. When God made the world, he spoke, “Let there be light!” And God became a human being, in all our frailty and vulnerability: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:15, The Message).

We soak in the story of Resurrection as we journey with Jesus to the cross in Lent and then through the empty tomb in Easter. As Paul writes, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.” (Romans 8:11, NLT).

These two pillars of Christian faith—that God became a person, and that in the life and death of Jesus, God undoes all the evil in the world—lead us to what’s next. Incarnation and Resurrection are not the end of the story.

Ordinary Time invites our participation.

The plot of the biblical story is not about people going to heaven but about heaven coming to earth. So, our Christian lives on earth are spent not in waiting until we go to heaven, but participating with God as God brings heaven to earth. Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we participate in this subversive work.

In the book The Drama of Doctrine, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer uses the metaphor of the theater to talk about the work of theology and the life of faith. At one point, he discusses improvisation in acting. An actor receives an offer from another, and spontaneously builds on it. The mantra in improv is “Yes, and now…” Vanhoozer writes, “What we do with our freedom at any given moment is not an arbitrary ad-libbing but rather the result of who we are. Our spontaneity reveals our spirituality.”

And this is Ordinary Time. We receive the offer from the God of Incarnation and Resurrection, and we take the next step. “Yes, and now…” Our lives as Christians are lived by faith and freedom in continuity with what God has already done and will continue to do in reconciling all things to himself.

The council at Jerusalem, found in Acts 15, is a perfect example of this kind of improvisation. How do Gentiles becomes Christians? I’m baffled why Jesus didn’t just give explicit instructions about how to deal with this crisis before he left. But he didn’t. The apostles and elders discern together, make it up in the moment, how to move forward in this new cultural moment for the Gospel. They received what Jesus had offered and came to a conclusion together, something brand new. Again,Vanhoozer writes, “Theology is thus a matter not only of thinking God’s thoughts after him but of improvising God’s improvisations after him.”

Ordinary Time invites us to make stuff.

Why did God think human beings were such a good idea? Why does God keep filling the earth with more and more of them? That we are made in the image of a creating God, as Genesis 1 describes, implies that our own creativity reflects God. We are made to make. When we are making stuff, we’re being like God. We’re doing the stuff God does.

The story of God in the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. The city represents the end result of the creativity, ingenuity, and hard work of human beings bearing the stamp of God’s image.

This is the culmination of God’s invitation to human beings: “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground” (Genesis 1:28). We receive from God and do something with it. We leave the places and things and people we encounter better than we found them. God’s desire for the world isn’t scripted. We each get to play our part.

It’s Ordinary Time.

Throw parties. Tell stories. Listen to stories. Go to weddings. Write poems. Learn musical instruments. Watch live music. Make children laugh. Grow food. Plant gardens. Take naps. Meet your neighbors. Be reckless with forgiveness. Be generous with grace. Play. Love deeply.

Create something no one has ever seen before. Make something beautiful. Do cool stuff. Go on adventures. Solve a problem in your neighborhood. Surprise someone. Relentlessly pray for others. Invite strangers to your table. Advocate for the marginalized. Serve the poor. Proclaim the year of Jubilee. In the words of poet Wendell Berry, practice resurrection.

It’s Ordinary Time—time to get busy livin’.

If you want to learn more about the Church calendar, you should check out Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year by Robert Webber.

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How to Find a Spiritual Director

How to Find a Spiritual Director

Nearly eight years ago, I moved across the country to take a job at a church. I knew right away that I would need a spiritual director to help keep me grounded amidst the onslaught of tasks, activities, and competing demands that come with receiving a paycheck from a church. I’ve heard Stanley Hauerwas say, “Being in ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” In my book, committing to the work of spiritual direction is much preferable to death by ducks.

“Though good advice lies deep within the heart,
    a person with understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5).

I wanted help keeping the most important things the most important things—having eyes to see and ears to hear the fresh activity of God’s kingdom around me amidst the cacophony of busyness. I needed help staying close to the heart of Jesus.

The church happened to also employ a “director of healing ministries,” so I approached him. Jerry wasn’t a spiritual director in the traditional sense, but he was a licensed counselor with extensive background in Celebrate Recovery and Alcoholics Anonymous. Prayerfully, he agreed, and we’ve been meeting every other week now at a local coffeeshop for the past eight years. Long after he retired and I left that church setting, he still asks me tough questions and helps me pay close attention to the Spirit’s work in my life.

Thus far, I’ve had good experiences in finding a director by having some good people in my social network. But what if you don’t? How do you go about finding a spiritual director to walk with you in this season of life?

Here’s a couple of options:

  • Ask people you know. Do you currently know any directors? Do you know people who are meeting with a director that they’d recommend? Does someone in your church offer direction? Like my experience with Jerry, is there someone in your church that may not know they are a spiritual director but has the reputation of doing what a director does?
  • Look for retreat centers located in your region. Monasteries and seminaries can be great resources for connecting with local directors.
  • Some spiritual direction schools provide a directory of alumni who are available to new directees. Sustainable Faith provides such a directory. So does Equipping Lydia. Because of technology, many directors (myself included) offer direction via video services like Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.
  • Other online directories for someone in your area include Spiritual Directors International and Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association.

You don’t have to be in ministry to seek out a spiritual director. You may be looking for an ally in discerning your next career steps. You may work in a service profession, like teaching, where you constantly give yourself for the sake of others, and you need some self care. You may simply desire to take some deeper steps with God.

Once you reach out to a director, you’ll want to set up an initial consultation. You want to know that this is a good fit, that is director is a person you can trust. You should treat this like a job interview, where you’re asking questions. As a director, I have particular questions I have in mind during a first meeting, and I hope that the prospective directee has some intentionality in the meeting.

It’s my hope to leave that meeting with some confidence whether or not to go forward. A good director can provide referrals if it’s just not a good fit. Spiritual directors are human beings, and sometimes things just don’t click. Sometimes it’s personality, sometimes theology, sometimes schedule. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still pursue spiritual direction.

Here are some helpful questions to bring in a first meeting:

  • Tell me your story. Everybody has a story. It’s a always a gift to hear someone’s story. It may very well cover many of the questions below.
  • What qualifies you to be a spiritual director? Have they done a school program? Received a certificate or degree? What’s their life experience as a spiritual director? And for how long?
  • Whose sheep are you? I had a colleague ask me this once, and I’ve never forgotten. This is a question about accountability. Do they have a supervisor? Are they part of a church? Are they accountable to a community and pastoral leadership? Who do they belong to? Stay away from lone gurus.
  • Who is your community? Who are your most important relationships? Similar to the above question, we are to whom we belong. To whom do they belong? Family, formal associations, neighborhood, church? Who is their support network?
  • What standards or ethics do you abide by? Spiritual Directors International provides a code of ethics for all its members, and a spiritual director should be able to communicate their standards.
  • What are your rates? Be ready to pay for spiritual direction, even if it’s not asked. It’s worth paying for. Money has a way of adding “weight” to the relationship. It adds to your own commitment to the process, and more often than not, a director is a trained professional who should be treated as such.
  • How frequently? Monthly? Bi-monthly? Every six weeks? You’ll want to be clear about expectations.
  • Who is God for you? What is the Bible to you? What does spiritual direction mean to you? At face value, these may appear to be obvious, but particularly if you’ve found this person outside of your usual network, you may find their spiritual experience to be very different from your own.
  • How does technology affect how you do direction? You may explore together the pros and cons of doing direction by video.
  • What commitments do you have in direction? For myself, prayer, confidentiality, and presence are commitments I make sure to communicate up front.
  • How does direction end? There are any number of reasons for ending a direction relationship, and you may want to discuss what those might look like.
  • How does your commitment to particular social issues or theology influence direction for you? Social and political issues are polarizing in our culture, and you and your potential director want to be honest about how your (and their) passion for such issues might creep
  • Do you give homework? This is something I’m frequently asked. I invite directees to journal. When appropriate, I may invite to read a certain book. Direction is about noticing what God is doing, and it’s between you and your director to discern how you best engage.

If you’d like to talk about what spiritual direction might look like for yourself, your team, your church staff, or your church as a whole, send me an email and let’s explore that.

If you’re just getting started with spiritual direction, I recommend these books:

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Don't Let Your Mission Trip Sabotage Your Spiritual Life

Don’t Let Your Summer Mission Trip Sabotage Your Spiritual Life

It’s summertime, and you know what that means? Mission trip season. Having the opportunity to go on a mission trip—whether across the country or across the globe—can be an eye-opening, life-changing event. It can also be something that sabotages your spiritual life, and you don’t want that.

I was 5 years old when my parents went to Jamaica on our church’s first ever mission trip. They got bit by the missions bug there. Hard. And so did the church.

A year later, my dad took a six-month sabbatical from his job and moved our family from Tulsa to El Paso, Texas. Our church sent a series of teams to build a dormitory for an orphanage across the border in Juarez, and my dad acted as something like the project manager. I started the first grade there, and some of my earliest memories are these people from our church coming and going through our home.

As a teenager I went with our youth group to partner with a ministry in San Diego working among the poorest barrios of Tijuana. The ministry had relationships with missionaries across the globe, some of whom were on furlough there. One spoke to our group and that opened a whole new world to me. That’s what I wanted to do. As a college student I was able to go to Estonia and Chad and Cameroon. Later in life, as a college minister I led students on trips to Honduras, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and north Africa.

In all those experiences, I’ve seen the profound ways people are transformed and grow deeper in their life with God. I’ve also seen how these trips can undermine and short-circuit a person’s spiritual life. Jesus’s parable of the four soils is an appropriate illustration for the various ways we may respond to a mission trip. Here are a few real obstacles you’ll want to watch out for.

You come to despise home after your mission trip.

In other words, you become dishonest about the weaknesses of the local culture and dishonest about the strengths of your home culture. It’s so different and exotic and exciting. You decides that different is better. You compare cultures and you judge. But this is unhealthy.

Culture is a complex and dynamic thing. We often take it for granted. Imagine a fish attempting to describe water. But when we encounter a different culture, like we do on a mission trip, we begin noticing things about our own culture we may have never noticed before—things like who makes decisions, avoiding uncertainty, or primarily finding identity in community. You come to have different eyes for your home culture, for better and worse.

Traveling overseas can also highlight to us ways that being a Christian and a being from our home culture are not the same thing. They can even be at odds with one another. The Gospel affirms and speaks the native language of every culture. The Gospel also critiques every culture, exposing it’s sinful systems. Jesus tells the truth about humanity in every culture. Every culture reflects God’s image, and every culture is corrupted by human sin.

You leave your experience there.

You don’t let it change you. You took a lot of pictures to broadcast on social media, and you consumed an experience. You had warm fuzzies in the moment. You can go back to life “as normal.”

The call to “change the world” lures us like a siren song. But if we don’t give ourselves permission to be vulnerable and be changed ourselves, we’re simply tourists. And a tourist is the last thing we should be on a mission trip.

Some years ago I took a group of students to the Dominican Republic. One day we visited an orphanage for physically disabled kids. I was wrecked as I fed a little girl her lunch, and I raced a boy in his wheelchair up and down the long hallway. There happened to be another group there from the United States, and I watched as they “oohed” and “aahed” from bed to bed, room to room, as if they were at a petting zoo. And I remembered thinking that’s the last thing we need to be doing.

We want to open ourselves so that our humanity touches the humanity of another person. When that happens, God transforms us both.

You loved a place more than people.

I heard one of my students on that trip quote our host saying, “You’re not called to the Dominican Republic. You’re called to Dominicans.” The commandment in the Torah, that Jesus underlined, is “love your neighbor,” not “love the nations.” A neighbor is a person, with a face and a story. A place is an abstract concept.

It’s much easier to fall in love with “the nations” or a particular country, even neighborhood. It only exists in your head, so you can control it. It exists on your terms, but people aren’t like that. Loving people is harder. Loving people is slow work. Loving people is messy work. Loving real people exposes all of our selfish places, and that can be incredibly uncomfortable. And we can very easily build walls to protect ourselves by retreating into loving our abstract idea of a place.

You put the “Great Commission” before the “Great Commandment.”

Why on earth would we spend so much time and money to go on a trip for the sake of the Gospel but never cross the street where we live for the sake of the Gospel? Why go across the world if we won’t go next door?

The Gospel of Matthew closes with the words, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matthew 28:19-20). These are words often called “The Great Commission” and referenced as why Christians do mission trips.

But in the very same gospel, when Jesus gets quizzed about the most important commandment, he responds, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37–40).

When I led trips, I often ended them by reminding my students that everything we did—being with kids, building a house, feeding the poor–all of these things need to be done in our own community. Poverty and illiteracy and violence and injustices of so many kinds exist right where we live, and God is actively doing something about it. And they can join in and participate without having to learn a different language to do them. Yes, it’s fun and exciting to travel and see new things, but loving our neighbors, as God adventurously invites us, also means our next-door neighbors.

You take discipleship out of the “Great Commission.”

You cannot forget the one thing is to like and to do the things that Jesus likes and does. Talk like Jesus talked. Think like Jesus thought. God’s dream for you, his will for your life, is that you reach maturity in Christ, that you become a person full of the love of God. A mission trip is one piece of that puzzle.

A mission trip is a way you submit to God in your own discipleship. A mission trip provides an opportunity to learn to listen to others, to stretch to the breaking point your humility muscles. One point of a mission trip should be to grow deeper into becoming a person who is always on mission. Mission should not be an extracurricular activity of Christians. It’s who we are.

Jurgen Moltmann says, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.” We don’t have a mission to do something. God’s mission has us.

 

Mission is not a function of our being Christians. It is our nature. God is a mission God, and entering the life of God makes us mission people. This is a part of what makes us Christians.

The adventure doesn’t begin when you got off the plane in the foreign country. The real adventure begins when you got off the plane at home. A mission trip is an extraordinary opportunity to wake up to all that God is doing around us everyday. Don’t waste it.

If you’re looking for something to read as you prepare for or process your trip, I recommend these. I’ve led groups through a couple of them:

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