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A Theology for Something More than Time Management

A Theology for Something More than Time Management

“We have all the time in the world.”

Whoa. Stop right there. Back it up. Say that one more time. Just what are you talking about?

This is an actual conversation a friend and I had a few weeks back. I was in midst of an onslaught of urgent tasks that was keeping me running from one thing to the next to the next. I constantly felt two, three, four steps behind. She said that, and something dropped in me. It got me thinking that there has to be something better than time management as it so often gets talked about.

Throughout my work life, I’ve experimented with a wide variety of planners and schedules and journals. I’ve done GTD. I’ve done bullet journaling. Still, no matter how much I plan or write things out on paper, nothing quite gets me free from that compulsion if I could just be a little more disciplined, if I just knew a little more, I could master the to-do list. Maybe I’ve been going about it all wrong.

The Creation of Time

In the beginning, God made stuff. But not only stuff. God also made time. The climax of the creation story in Genesis 1 is not humanity, though humanity is made in very image of the Almighty. No, the story reaches its highest point with Sabbath.

Abraham Heschel writes:

“It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the disctinuished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.”

The sun and stars, fish and birds and animals—they’re all good. Humanity is very good. Time is holy.

Sabbath is not a what but a when. Sabbath represents time in its right place.

Our brokenness with Time

But sin and death have twisted and corrupted God’s good, very good, and holy world. One popular way of talking about the Fall includes four spheres of broken relationships. Our relationship with God is broken. Our relationships with one another are broken. Our relationship with ourselves is broken. Our relationship with creation is broken.

But what about time? Notice the many ways we talk about time. There’s never enough time. A race against time. Beat the clock. Tyranny of the urgent. Solutions to time management and productivity are big business.

Time is something we manage. We parse our schedules into detailed sections. We divide it. We assign it. We parcel it out. We spend it, like it’s a commodity. We attempt to beat it into submission. We try to domesticate it as if it we’re a wild animal. Being busy is a status symbol.

What if we have it all wrong? What if, instead of a beast to be trained, time is a friend?

What if there’s a fifth broken relationship, our relationship with time?

Jesus and Time

The gospels tell a story about Jesus and a frantic father who needs Jesus to heal his sick daughter. She’s dying. Jesus agrees to go with him. A crowd joins in along the way. Jesus’ reputation attracted spectators.

A desperate, sick woman works her way through the crowd and stretches out to touch Jesus. And Jesus recognizes that something significant has just happened in that moment. He stops. He asks the disciples who touched him. They cop some attitude at such an absurd question. But Jesus persists.

“But he kept on looking around to see who had done it.”

Meanwhile, there’s a frantic father freaking out about his daughter. When I enter the story as this father, I’m turning from worried to angry. How could you, Jesus? How could you be so distracted? Don’t you care?

Jesus is so nonchalant in this story. Like he has all the time in the world. And maybe that’s the point. Death is ultimate clock we all face. Death is the name for our broken relationship with time. It’s not supposed to be this way. And that’s what Jesus models to the disciples, to the crowd, to the worried father. Jesus isn’t concerned about not having enough time.

Piecing together a theology of time

God made time. God calls time holy. God likes time.

In Egypt, the Israelite slaves measured their value in productivity within time. Sound familiar? At Mt. Sinai, when God provides the Ten Commandments, in essence the manual for Humanity 2.0, Sabbath is the bullseye right in the middle. The commandment is to make it holy. There’s that word again. Human worth and value is not in productivity—the way of Egypt and Pharaoh. Human worth and value is in being with God. A right ordering of time matters.

God cares how we talk about time. So how do go forward, cultivating practices that make us more friendly with time?

1) We are creatures made in time. We have 24 hours every day. Seven days in a week. Three hundred sixty-five days each year. Swim with the current. Don’t fight it. Extend grace to yourself. You’re not made to do everything. You are a finite creature. A poem is beautiful because of it’s parameters. Learn to be content within the boundaries of time.

2) Embrace margin. Fight for time, not against it. Say no to the “empty calories” in your schedule. Slow down. Ruthlessly eliminate the unnecessary.

3) Explore the Daily Office. We can’t escape time. We are not made to master time. We are made to submit to its rhythms. The Daily Office is one way of entering and submitting to a rhythm of prayer that embraces time. The Daily Office uses time to consistently draw us back to God, to name God in our lives, and to be filled to the brim with gratitude rather than anxiety.

God is never in a hurry. Ever. God is never busy. Busyness is simply not necessary for God. So why should it be for us?

Again, Heschel: “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments… We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

Be a friend to time.

We have all the time in the world.

~~~~~

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A Beginner's Guide to a Band Meeting

A Beginner’s Guide to a Band Meeting

It’s been five years ago this month that my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She had an inoperable tumor the size of a softball in her chest. Five years of prayer and experimental medication and chemotherapy, and to meet her today, you’d never know she had cancer. But if she hadn’t gone to the doctor about a nagging cough and just wouldn’t go away, she wouldn’t be with us today. One of the very necessary spiritual practices available to us is the band meeting.

There is evil stuff at work in every one of us. It hides in the darkest corners of our hearts. In spiritual formation, we call this the “false self.” In the New Testament, Paul calls it “the sinful nature” (in Greek, sarx). It’s that piece of us that’s gone haywire, the inherent code that’s been corrupted, the infection in our souls.

When it goes unnamed it festers and sabotages our lives. We go through our lives with a nagging cough, all the while, there’s a fatal tumor in our chest. It seems that everyday in the news another celebrity is having the ugliness of their private lives exposed as insidious. But it’s not a celebrity problem. It’s a human problem. It happens in church, too. We all know Christian leaders who have fallen from grace.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Roman Catholic church has a mechanism for confession. For Protestants, though, the place of confession is less clear. In our protest against clergy authority, we lost our means of confessing sin. The band meeting is a way of recapturing that practice of grace and forgiveness and healing from habits that often sabotage our lives.

What is a “band meeting”?

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

The genius of the Wesley brothers—John and Charles—was not in their theological innovation. Rather, it was in the way they organized the people in their movement, which came to be called Methodism. Research has shown that the rise and fall of the Methodist movement is directly related to role of the band meeting in the movement.

To be part of a Methodist society required membership within something called the “class meeting.” But if one desired to pursue an even deeper experience of God’s holiness, they could join a band meeting. Bands were groups of 3–5 individuals of the same gender and marital status who met weekly to confess their sins to one another, so that they might grow deeper with God.

 

Step 1: Pray

If you don’t have a space to regularly confess your sin, begin by asking God. This is something God wants for you. Prayerfully consider those in your life. Who shares your eagerness to love God and neighbor? Who else is looking to be emotionally and spiritually healthy? Who do you trust and who trusts you?

The journey begins with prayer. Don’t rush into this. It’s not for the faint of heart. Confidentiality must always be maintained. You’re working to cultivate a safe environment of loving trust. Very few of us have ever experienced such a non-judgmental community. It’s a gift we can share with one another. But it only happens as a gift from God.

Step 2: Meet

Once you have 3–5 people and you’re on the same page about your expectations. Some months back I was at a conference where three guys invited me to join their band. We all live in different states but every Tuesday at 2:15 we meet for an hour over Google Hangout. There’s a couple minutes of small talk about the week, and then we dive into the questions.

There’s no limit to the ways you can meet. It can be in a home. It can be in a meeting space at church. It can be a restaurant or a park. It can even be over the phone or by video chat. The point is having a consistent time and place to meet.

Kicker and Watson write:
“To be part of a band meant being willing to shuck pretense before a brother or sister in Christ. It meant acting as a priest one to another, acting in love toward someone whose sin you know. It meant allowing someone, who knows your sin, to act in love toward you. It was training in Christlike compassion and humility, in holiness.”

Step 3: Ask the questions

These are the questions:

1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?

2. What temptations have you met with?

3. How were you delivered?

4. What have you thought, said, or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?

5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?

Step 4: Name your false self

Your false self does not want to be named. It will slide and slither in the shadows as long as it can. Many of us have a low, what I’ll call, “spiritual intelligence.” We just don’t know how to name sin. I’ve been in small accountability groups with guys where the ability to name sin began and ended with lust. All the while, pride and gluttony ran rampant in our lives.

One starting place is with what the medieval church called “the seven deadly sins”—anger, pride, deceit, envy, avarice, lust, and sloth. The Enneagram can be a particularly helpful tool in community to name those things that prey on your weaknesses and insecurities. Your false self wants to be justified and normalized.

What we do in private matters in public. Jesus says, “For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” Our false self will get named. We get a choice. Either we get to expose it. Or others will, to our humbling and humiliation.

Step 5: Extend forgiveness

Grace is powerful. “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” are some of the most powerful words in the English language. In the group I meet with, we close with words of affirmation, encouragement, and forgiveness to one another. It’s not in the original questions, but we’ve found it to be a beneficial piece. We’d probably do a group hug, but Google Hangout hasn’t yet made that a feature.

We all need to hear that we are loved. That even with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we are not abandoned. It’s risky being known. When some one opens up about their darkest secrets, it’s crucial to acknowledge that risk and respond with care. Resist the urge to fix. No one in the room needs to wear the Superman cape. That’s God’s role. This is what it is to bear one anothers’ burdens.

You don’t have to be a Methodist to have a band meeting. It’s not some proprietary method. Sin and grace are universal experiences. Shame has a way of corroding our souls. We’re not made to hide things in secret. God did not make us that way. A loving community, if we can receive it, keeps us from justifying our favorite sins, whatever they may be.

We all need to know where to go when we feel sick. If we feel sick to our stomach, and we don’t know where the restroom is, we wind up throwing up in places we really wish we didn’t. The band meeting gives us a healthy place to put the things that make our souls sick.

If you want to know more, you need to pick up The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformation Community by Kevin Watson and Scott Kisker.

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6 Novels to Shape Your Soul

6 Novels to Shape Your Soul

Tell me a story. Tell me a good story. If you have an idea to change the world, wrap it up in the best story you can put together. This is reason I find the reading of fiction and novels to be so necessary for ministry leaders of all kinds.

Tell an enthralling story, and you change a person.

Eugene Peterson writes:
The Holy Scriptures are story-shaped. Reality is story-shaped. ‘I had always,’ wrote G.K. Chesterton in accounting for his Christian belief, ‘felt life first as a story, and if there is a story, there is a storyteller.’ We enter this story, following the story-making, storytelling Jesus, and spend the rest of our lives exploring he amazing and exquisite details, the words and sentences that go into the making of the story of our creation, salvation, and life of blessing. It is a story chock full of invisibles and intricate with connections. Imagination is required.”

Novels teach us imagination. I live in a community still scarred by the largest race massacre in my country’s history. I’ve read a lot about the event. But recently I picked up a novel that puts the reader right in the middle of the events, and I was gripped in a wholly different way. Fiction, whether books or movies, punches you in the emotions in a way factual statements never can.

In seminary, I read all kinds of theology, biblical scholarship, practical ministry how-to’s. But precious little fiction. If we want to learn the shape of the story of the Scriptures—its many characters, setting, movement of plot, themes—we do well to sit with as many good stories as we can. As I’ve continued to read, I’ve learned to always keep a novel as a part of my current stack of books.

Not just any novel will do, though. I’m not suggesting that a leader seek out what’s marketed to Christian sub-culture. One should seek out novelists who tell the truth about what it means to be human while taking the Christian story seriously. Writers like Walker Percy, Flanner O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Madeleine L’Engle, and Wendell Berry can lead us deeper into the life of God every bit as much as Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, or Thomas Merton do.

Here are six of my favorite novels that, particularly, have deepened my life with God.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

“Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

When I first read Silence, it made me think of a cross between the movies The Mission and Apocalypse Now. It’s the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Guarpo, in 1639, who, upon hearing news that their mentor Ferreira has committed apostasy, journey to Japan to investigate the truth.

The authorities in Japan have driven the church underground. Rodrigues and Guarpo are captured and imprisoned where they witness believers forced to recant or be tortured. It’s a gripping story about faith and leadership, hope in the midst of suffering and cruelty. It’s not an easy read, but it raises the question of God’s presence in the middle of suffering. This book completely changed my take on the New Testament character of Judas. It was made into a film by Martin Scorsese in 2016.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

“When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

The Power and the Glory shares many common threads with Silence. It follows a Catholic priest, flawed in his own right, in an environment hostile to the church. The setting is Mexico in the 1930’s. The unnamed priest—known only as the “whiskey priest” to the reader—is hunted by the also unnamed lieutenant, who despises the church.

The Whiskey Priest goes town to town, ministering to people as best he can, carrying a heavy sense of penitence with him everywhere he goes. This is a story about grace in the presence of all the frailties and weaknesses of humanity.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”

Gilead is the account of a rural pastor John Ames, written as a memoir to his son, explaining the lives of his own grandfather and father. John hopes to communicate vocation to his son through the exploits of the generations to which he is connected.

Robinson captures the slow and patient work of a small town preacher, the deep satisfactions, wonder, and loneliness. There is sorrow in broken and lost relationships. There is hope, redemption, and contentment in the most unexpected places. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

“The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflied that fly up in flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail.”

Berry’s work includes fiction, poetry, and essays. All of it centers on what it means to be human in a world constantly at odds with what makes humans human. And like the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, all of Berry’s fiction builds one single world, that of Port William, Kentucky. Each of his novels or short story collections follows a different character through Port William over multiple generations.

Twice widowed, Hannah, now in the seventies, remembers all those that meant the most to her, the men she loved and the children she raised. As most of the Port William collection, this is a story about what it means to be part of a community over time, what it means to belong others.

All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams

“Why isn’t one taught how to be loved? Why isn’t one taught anything?”

Williams belonged to a writers group called The Inklings made famous by its more recognized members Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While you might find this fantastical intersection of the natural world and the supernatural world familiar to the work of Lewis or even the fiction of G.K. Chesterton, Williams has a unique voice all his own.

The story follows two women who have recently died as they come to grips with the afterlife. In the world of the living, there’s a magician with nefarious plans. It’s a story with a thick theology of life and death and everything in between, of evil magic and divine love. It’s like Lincoln in the Bardo but takes seriously a Christian view about death and the communion of saints.

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

“Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. There is a chattering part of the mind which continues, until it is corrected, to chatter on even in the holiest places.”

Perelandra is the second book in his space trilogy series, though you don’t necessarily need to have read Out of the Silent Planet first. Imagine traveling to a different planet, finding Adam and Eve, and witnessing the temptation scene of Genesis 3. This is the set up for Perelandra.

Ransom (the protagonist of the space trilogy) journeys from Earth to the planet Perelandra (in the story, the native name for Venus). There he encounters a pair of perfect, angelic beings as well as the human Weston (the antagonist from the first story). Weston appears possessed and bent on destroying this world.

If you’ve read and like Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, you’ll likely enjoy this as well. It covers similar themes of the nature of temptation and the nature of humanity.

There’s a popular manta, “Readers are leaders, and leaders are readers.” Whatever your field may be, make fiction a regular part of your spiritual practices. Use it to grow and deepen your imagination.

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

~~~~~

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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The Role of the Holy Spirit in Spiritual Direction

The Role of the Holy Spirit in Spiritual Direction

A month ago, I planted some sunflowers around my front porch. Yeah, I knew I was taking my chances as it was late fall already. Maybe they’ll bloom. Maybe not. When it comes to planting anything, there are elements within my control and elements outside my control. Up to a certain point, I have to trust nature’s processes. In spiritual direction, “trusting nature’s processes” comes when I relinquish control and open myself to the work of the Holy Spirit.

When it comes to spiritual direction, the primary actor doing stuff is the Holy Spirit. Not me. The Holy Spirit is the initiator, not the director, not the directee, of the conversation. The Holy Spirit sparks ideas. The Holy Spirit inspires words and phrases. The Holy Spirit pulls out meaningful memories. The Holy Spirit leads. It’s my work—as director, or as directee—to respond obediently.

Just what exactly is the the Holy Spirit?

Better question: Who is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is always a who, not a what. We’re not talking about an impersonal force, like in Star Wars. The Holy Spirit is a person. In fact, when we talk about the Holy Spirit, we’re talking about one of the persons of the Christian Trinity.

Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity highlights the oneness and deference of the persons of God to one another. The Father looks to the Son. The Son looks to the Spirit. The Spirit looks to the Father. They are one, and they are three, and from the earliest days, this is how Christians have talked about God. Community is a fundamental part of God’s nature.

I grew up in a faith tradition where we didn’t talk about the Holy Spirit. There was God the Father who made the world and sent Jesus. There was Jesus the Son, who died on the cross for my sins. And then there was this dove that we didn’t really know what to do with.

In college, I suddenly found myself in a setting making friends with people who turned that upside down. The Holy Spirit was everything, and Jesus and the Father took a backseat, if they got a seat at all. The Holy Spirit gave people all kinds of crazy superpowers at church.

It took some time to find a healthy balance between these two places. I had to sit with the Scriptures and soak in those stories that spoke about the Holy Spirit.

The creative work of the Holy Spirit

I’ll argue that the most important chapter in the Bible is Genesis 1. In the very opening verses of God’s story we find the Holy Spirit at work:

“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” (Genesis 1:2).

The earth is a mess. And God is there. This is a profound theological truth. The Genesis 1 is not story of creation from nothing. It’s rather a story of order from chaos, and the orderer of that chaos is the Holy Spirit.

The word “hovering” in this passage looks like a mother hen expectantly guarding her eggs, or like a chef creatively stirring his pot. Before we see God as a shepherd or king or judge or father, or any other of the many metaphors the biblical writers give to God, we see God as a maker. We see God painstakingly putting everything in its right place, taking the chaos and crafting a beautiful order.

The Holy Spirit as “breather”

But that’s not the only story of creation in Genesis. Chapter 2 offers another take. There’s a lot of overlap in the Hebrew words that get translated into English as “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.”

“Then Yahweh God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7).

God takes a ball of dirt, breathes into it, and it becomes a living human being. The breathing of God animates life. Breath creates. Spirit generates.

The Holy Spirit in the story of Jesus

The writer of Luke makes particular emphasis on the work and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and then the life of the Church in the book of Acts.

Reminiscent of the Genesis stories, this is how the Jesus story begins in Luke:

“The angel replied [to Mary], ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you'” (Luke 1:35).

At this point in time, as far as the story of Israel goes, things are formless, void, and darkness covers the land. There is no king, no prophet, and the promises to Abraham, Moses, and David seem like fading memories. The Roman Empire rules with an iron fist.

And God’s subversive act in the darkness, in the chaos is to overshadow Mary. To hover again. The Incarnation begins with the creative work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit as “breather,” redux

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church is an epic scene as Luke tells it in Acts 2. But the Gospel of John gives us a very different take on the way the disciples first encountered the Spirit, one more intimate with echoes of Genesis 2.

It’s Easter day. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearful of what happens next, uncertain of what to believe. Jesus appears.

“Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (John 20:22).

As God animated the lifeless mud ball by breathing to make the first human, Jesus animates the fearful disciples to make them the Church. The presence of the Holy Spirit brings new life, resurrection life.

The Holy Spirit makes three in the room

One crucial way spiritual direction is different from counseling or coaching is that there’s much more happening than two people having a conversation. There are always three persons in the room. It is spiritual direction, after all.

Francis Kelly Nemeck and Marie Theresa Coombs write, “The spiritual director, therefore, helps bring into consciousness and explicate the already existing spiritual direction in which the Spirit is leading the directee.” The Spirit is constantly working. Direction begins to name the shape and form and emerging life that the Holy Spirit brings.

Often in spiritual direction sessions, I’ll light a candle as a physical reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our space. I’ll begin with silence and invite the directee to breathe deeply, notice their breathing, and remember how God breathed into the mud ball, making the first human being. Remember how the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples, inviting them to receive the Spirit.

The Celtic Christian communities formed by St. Patrick and those following had a hard time accepting the biblical image of the Holy Spirit as a dove. It was too tame for them. Too domesticated. Too quiet. So they chose instead the image of a goose. It was wild. It was noisy. It couldn’t be controlled or contained. This was a picture for God that inspired them.

Do you feel stuck in the formless void? Fumbling in darkness? Do you need to be overshadowed? Do you need life breathed into you?

May your journey in spiritual direction be a wild goose chase of the Holy Spirit.

~~~~~

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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Reading Jeremiah for God's mission

Reading Jeremiah for God’s Mission

When we feel the world unraveling around us, the Old Testament book of Jeremiah is a particularly relevant book for us to go and listen to God. The book of Jeremiah shows us what God is like when everything around us seems to be falling apart. For this reason, it’s a perfect place for shaping our imagination for God’s mission in the world.

Jeremiah is a sobering read. It’s a tragic story. The events that make up the backdrop of this material can be read in 2 Kings 22–25 and 2 Chronicles 34–36. Jeremiah reminds us what sin is. Jeremiah reminds us that their are consequences for unfaithfulness to God. Saying “no” to God over and over and over again isn’t without tragic results.

Abraham Heschel writes, “A prophet’s true greatness is his ability to hold God and man is a single thought.” It’s a common misconception that prophecy in the Bible is about predicting the future. This isn’t the case at all. Prophecy is about telling the truth. I like to think of the prophets as the “Deuteronomy police.”

The book of Deuteronomy was the covenant—the official agreement defining the relationship between God and Israel. Deuteronomy concludes with a list of what good things that happen as a result of keeping all the terms of the covenant, and a list of what bad things happen when the terms are violated. And this is what the prophets do. They’re like the alarm bells going off, announcing to the nation that the terms of the covenant have been broken and consequences are coming.

Books like 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings give a straight forward account of Israel’s history. The books that make up the prophets shows us how God feels about these events. They are largely poetic and the words grab us by the emotions and shake us.

Jeremiah can be a difficult read largely because it isn’t structured like a 21st century story. Chapters 1–25 are a collection of prophetic pronouncements against Judah organized topically rather than chronologically. Chapters 26–36 are stories that provide the background for those pronouncements. For instance, chapter 26 tells the story behind chapter 7. Chapters 37–45 tell the story of the fall of Jerusalem. Finally, chapters 46–51 are a collection of prophetic pronouncements against the surrounding pagan nations.

Jeremiah in the story of Israel

The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the end of the world it—at least that’s how the people of Judah probably would have described it. But it wasn’t always terrible. As a young priest, Jeremiah would have had a front row seat to the religious revival under King Josiah. The spiritual renewal that happened as a result had no precedent in Judah or Israel.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. King Josiah was killed in battle and what follows would rival a George R.R. Martin plot. To Judah’s east, the nation of Babylon was overtaking Assyria as the dominant political force, and for the next generation, Judah would swap its allegiance back and forth between Babylon and Egypt for its very survival. Like it or not, politics are front and center throughout the book of Jeremiah.

In 598 Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, taking Judah’s best and brightest (such as Ezekiel and Daniel) across the Fertile Crescent into exile. Twelve years later, Babylon would return, this time razing the city, burning the temple, and marching the remaining survivors to Babylon. A small remnant of Jews, holding Jeremiah as a political dissident because he advocated surrender to Babylon, escape to Egypt. For the Jewish people, this was the end of the world. It’s why the book of Lamentations functions as an appendix to Jeremiah.

Jeremiah in the story of Jesus and the Church

The prophet’s legacy stretches into the New Testament. When Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say he is, one response is Jeremiah. And it’s no wonder. When he’s not directly quoting the Old Testament prophet (“You’ve turned [my Temple] into a den of thieves!”), he’s riffing on his sayings (“You’ll find rest for your souls”).

In fact, that “den of thieves” line in the gospels comes when Jesus famously cleanses the Temple. For the first century Jews witnessing this guerrilla theater of Jesus, their minds would have immediately called to mind the scene in Jeremiah 7. This is Jeremiah’s famous Temple sermon. Though a priest himself, Jeremiah calls out the rot and hollow hypocrisy of the religious establishment. More than any other Old Testament character, Jeremiah is the sharpest critic of the religious establishment. Jesus isn’t acting impulsively, losing his temper. He’s standing in an ancient tradition of calling out corrupt leadership. Israel’s leaders, just as in Jeremiah’s day, are on notice.

Add to this, when Paul talks about boasting in the Lord to the church at Corinth, he’s quoting from Jeremiah. The book of Hebrews makes a critical argument about a new covenant made in Jesus that the writer builds from words in Jeremiah. The fingerprints of this prophet are all over our New Testament story.

Jeremiah as a guide in the contemplative life

One major theme throughout the book is that things are not what they appear. It’s what’s inside that matters most. Just because the Temple (God’s dwelling place) is found in Jerusalem doesn’t make it safe. Just because the people have the Law, doesn’t excuse them from not keeping it. The state of one’s heart before God matters. God promises to provide a new heart. God promises to change us from the inside out.

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Isarel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).

In addition, Jeremiah provides a model for the spiritual practice of lament. The prophet mourns and weeps over the state of his community. He takes on the posture of lament and intercession before God on behalf of the corrupt and broken people around him. He holds this sorrow before God. Lament, the acknowledgment before God that things are not okay, is a much needed spiritual practice today.

Jeremiah as a guide in the mission life

An important passage related to missional theology is found in Jeremiah. The prophet sends a letter from Jerusalem (before its fall) to the first wave of exiles living in Babylon. Apparently, there was a contingency that believed this was a temporary situation, and they would return any day.

But Jeremiah tells them to plant themselves where they are, in the pagan land, surrounded by pagans: “Work for the peace and prosperity [in Hebrew, shalom] of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare [shalom] will determine your [shalom]” (Jeremiah 29:7). In fact, the prophet continues with the popular, though most often quoted out of context, statement, “I know the pans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good [shalom] and not for disaster, to give you a hope and a future.” And then Jeremiah says they are to stay for 70 years.

The idea of shalom is all over this passage. It shows us that shalom is God’s vision, not only for the exiles, but also for the people of Babylon. Shalom, the creation work of Genesis 1 where everything is in its right place, is the goal of God’s mission. Our invitation is to something bigger than growing our churches or committing ourselves to discipleship. It is to work for the shalom of our neighborhoods.

Even when the world feels like it’s unraveling all around us, the book of Jeremiah reminds us that God is ever-present. God doesn’t abandon us. Though our circumstances are dire and make no sense, we are not alone. In that, we have hope.

If you want to go deeper:
Jeremiah for Everyone by John Goldingay
A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming by Walter Brueggemann
Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best by Eugene Peterson
The Prophets by Abraham Heschel

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4 Questions for Discerning Your Enneagram Type

4 Questions for Discerning Your Enneagram Type

The Enneagram is an age-old tool for spiritual transformation based on nine personality archetypes. It can cut to the quick of all our mental and emotional vices. It unmasks us. It’s so much deeper than a personality quiz or evaluation. The Enneagram digs deep, peeling back layers as we grow in our own self awareness, shining light on pieces of ourselves that lay hidden to us.

Popular culture has long played with the idea that we have a “good self” and a “bad self.” Whether it’s stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Fight Club, we’re enthralled with the idea that we contain within us competing voices. Peter Jackson’s  adaption of The Two Towers portrays a powerful scene depicting the inner conflict of Gollum/Smeagol.

In spiritual formation, we call this the “true self” and the “false self.” This concept of true self/false self is crucial in rightly understanding the Enneagram and applying it to our lives. The Enneagram helps us wake up to our “false self” that can often be our default operating system, pulling the strings in the background of our consciousness.

When I teach the Enneagram, whether in groups or individually, it’s not an uncommon experience for someone who’s learning this for the first time to struggle in identifying with a single type. They relate to two, three, even four different ones and they can’t decide. There are numerous online tests you could take. Sometimes that’s helpful. Sometimes not. Your discernment with the Enneagram deserves more than a 5-minute online quiz.

So how do you figure out what you’re type is? Here are four questions you can use to slowly start discerning what your type might be. Sit with these. There’s no hurry. Be patient with the journey.

What’s your inner strategy for getting your needs met?

In other words, what’s your operating system running in the background of all your mental chatter to get what you want? Do you make demands to get what you want? Do you attempt to earn something to get what you want? Do you withdraw to get what you want?

Perhaps you make demands. You’re direct and assertive. You go after what you want. The false self of these types wants to go big or go home. This can be the experience of the Three, Seven, or Eight.

Perhaps you strive to earn. You’re looking for the right thing to do, what’s responsible and expected. You know the rules and work to figure our how to function within them. This can come across as people pleasing. The One, Two, and Six are marked by these characteristics.

Perhaps you withdraw and disengage. You have an “inner world” you can retreat to where you feel secure. You may feel more at home in the fantasy world in your head than the real world around you. You may walk into a room and hover around the fringes, more comfortable watching than participating. This can be the experience of the Four, Five, and Nine.

Where is your intelligence center?

In other words, from where do you make your biggest decisions? Do you use your head, analyzing and thinking things through? Do you use your heart, engaging your emotions and considering how others’ feeling will be impacted? Do you use your physical body, your gut or instinct, you just know that you know that you know?

Thinking types see the world through their heads. They think their feelings. They live in the land of ideas and are sponges for knowledge. Decision-making is a chess match of pros and cons. They’re also particularly tripped up by fear. This is the experience of the Five, Six, or Seven.

Feeling types see the world through their hearts. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’re often intensely relational. They thrive on connections with people. They’re natural in social situations. They also uniquely struggle with shame. If this sounds like you, you could be a Two, Three, or Four.

Intuitive types see the world through their physical bodies. All their physical senses are engaged. They make decisions instinctually. They can be impulsive. They are particularly tripped up by anger. These characterize the Eight, Nine, and One.

How do you respond to disappointment and loss?

In other words, what’s your coping mechanism when you don’t get what you want? How do you deal with conflict and difficulty? What’s your defense mechanism when you find you’re not in control?

You may try to spin a positive outlook. You turn lemons into lemonade. Put on a good face and make the most of it. Perhaps you focus on cultivating a positive self image. This describe a Two. Perhaps you focus on reframing it as positive experiences. This describe a Seven. Perhaps you focus on striving to see a positive environment. This describe a Nine.

You may put aside your feelings and be objective about the situation. You detach and disengage. You try to think your way out of it. There’s a logical explanation for this. Perhaps you strive for organization and correctness. This may characterize a One. Perhaps you respond with what’s practical and efficient.This may characterize a Three. Perhaps you respond by trying to be an expert with insightful information. This may characterize a Five.

You may respond reactively with your emotions. You may need others to mirror your emotions. You want your concern to be shared. Perhaps you just want to be understood and seen. This looks like a Four. Perhaps you want independence and, at the same time, need someone to depend on. This looks like a Six. Perhaps you keep your guard up and crave self-reliance. This looks like an Eight.

How do you listen to the wisdom of others?

Maybe this is less of a question and more of an exhortation to don’t try this alone. Do this journey in the company of a mature and experienced Christian, your pastor, a mentor, a spiritual director. How would they answer the above questions about you? How would your spouse or partner?

A very wise friend once told me, “Facing one’s dark side alone without a guide is like trying to give birth alone. You could do it, but seriously you’ll get better results doing it with a host.

As Gollum might say, your false self is a tricksy thing. It doesn’t want to be found. It doesn’t want to be exposed. It will lie to you. It won’t go quietly or without a fight. You need a community on your side.

My kids are blissfully unaware of danger. It’s one of my jobs as a parent to teach them proper respect of dangerous things, like cars on our street. One piece of their growing up is growing in understanding of what’s dangerous in the world and why. Our false self is dangerous to us. It stunts our growth and sabotages our relationships. So ask for help.

These aren’t definitive questions. They’re meant to be a kind of preliminary sorting mechanism to help you find a starting place for your journey of self-discovery and growth with God.

A couple last disclaimers:
You are not your type. You are not a One. You are not a Four. You are not an Eight. You are a human being made in God’s image. You’re a human being characterized by the tendencies of a One, or of a Four, or of an Eight. The Enneagram types are more adjective than noun. They describe you. They don’t define you.

Don’t weaponize the Enneagram. This is for you. This is your journey. This is your work. Not everybody is ready to go tackling their shadow false self. And it’s not your job to do it for them or to shove them into it.

This is just the beginning. It’s not enough to simply know your type. Now there’s work to be done letting go of your false self and becoming all that God has made you to be.

Many of the ideas here have been inspired by reading The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. My favorite primer for beginning with the Enneagram—especially for the way she unpacks the false self/true self in relation to it—is Self to Lose, Self to Find by Marilyn Vancil.

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How to figure out your vocation

How to Figure Out Your Vocation

Who are you? What are you doing here? These are two of biggest questions we tackle in life. That first question is one of identity. The second is all about vocation.

How do you know what you were put on this earth to do? Your vocation may include your job, but it is not your job. It’s bigger. Your job might be the means for funding your vocation. Your vocation is not your major. It’s not your resume. You don’t clock in and out of it. There’s no vacation from it. Your vocation is what you do. You are your vocation on your days off and in your free time.

When I spent some time with a job transition ministry, I listened to a guy encourage the group to put the words “so that…” on their resume. This stuck with me as a reminder that I’m not my work experience or my education. All those are means to an end. We’re often tempted to confuse our job with our identity or our vocation. But jobs come and go. Frequently. But not our identity. Not our vocation.

Being a doctor isn’t a vocation. Bringing healing to peoples’ lives is. Being a financial advisor isn’t a vocation. Helping people lead lives of freedom is. Being a pastor isn’t a vocation. Helping people discern the presence of God in their lives is.

What is all your work for in the end? What is that college education for? It has to be more than a paycheck. In this way, vocation is related to Sabbath because in Sabbath we live into the purpose of our work. In Sabbath we lay down that which gives us a paycheck and participate in that for which God has made us.

If you don’t know your vocation, how do you figure it out?

Ask God about your vocation

As you practice spiritual disciplines like centering prayer or fasting or silence and solitude, ask God about your vocation. Make it part of your dialogue with God. In addition, ask those who know you well and that you trust—your pastor, your spiritual director, wise peers and thoughtful family. God often speaks to us through the wisdom of faithful believers around us.

Your vocation goes far deeper than the contemporary platitude “Be yourself.” If being “true to yourself” is your highest goal, what happens, then, when you discover your darkest shadows, your self-destructive tendencies, your narcissism? As followers of Jesus, we learn to lay down our “false selves,” our “flesh” as Paul frequently calls it.

Paul says, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” And Jesus says, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”

Seeking our vocation isn’t about self-fulfillment or self-enlightenment as if we are individuals existing in a vacuum. If it is God who made us and the world, there is wisdom in going to the source and simply asking. Before stubbornly staking a claim in what you want, listen. Listen patiently.

Consider your vocation in terms of what you love

What do you want to be when you grow up? J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan the boy never wanted to grow up, writes, “Nothing is really work unless you’d rather be doing something else.”

Your vocation isn’t something God wants for you that you just have to endure, as if it were like eating vegetables or running for exercise. Your vocation is where you get lost in the flow.

Some people love spreadsheets. Some love animals. Others love making music or creating stories. Still others love helping people. What do you love? What do you spend your time daydreaming about? What do you get lost in doing? What are the things that people wish you’d stop talking about because you get so excited?

I remember seeing the band Wilco in concert. Watching Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, and Glenn Kotche getting so lost in their music reminded me of the popular saying of Irenaus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Consider your vocation in terms of what you’re good at

You are a human being made in the image of God. There are things you know how to do like nobody else. You have a voice that no one in the world has. You have a unique perspective of the world that no one else has. And the world needs you and what you’re good at.

So what are you good at? Are you uniquely gifted making people feel listened to? Are you good at creating systems? Are you skilled at public speaking and presentations?

You may very well experience some painful rejections as you learn what you’re good at by learning through experience what you’re not good at. There may be callings you passionately desire, but you just don’t fit. It can sting learning lay down those desires. Pruning promotes growth in plants, and we’re the same way. It’s not unusual to find that a painful “no” leads you one step closer to the most satisfying “yes.”

Consider your vocation in terms of the unique challenges of your time and place

Why are you here in this place right now? If God could have made you in any time, in any culture, in any place on earth, why this one? The story Esther in the Old Testament includes the oft repeated line, “Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” In the context, Esther is being challenged by her cousin to stand up against the powers that threaten to destroy her people. There is a purpose that you are right here right now.

Today in North America, we live in a time and place in which money is a necessary part of our reality. It costs money to eat, to feed our families, to a pay for a house or apartment. When was the last time you went an entire day without spending money? Acquiring money is a necessary part of our lives. Unfortunately, many of us endlessly confuse acquiring money for our vocation. But falling into this trap is one of many ways we find ourselves stripped of our humanity.

Fortunately, when we know how to solve someone’s problem effectively and efficiently, they are more than happy to give us money for our time and skill. In the best of worlds, this is what a job is.

So whose problems do you know how to solve?

Maybe your community needs passionate mentors for children. Maybe they need websites built. Maybe they need stories told or financial management. Or perhaps you’re able to apply your passions and skills to larger issues like community health, climate change, or political leadership.

You are a human being made in the image of God. And so, first and foremost, your vocation involves reflecting the bold creativity of the God who thought heaven and earth (and you) were a good idea. It’s only in embracing this calling that we find a satisfaction with our place in the great and wonderful universe.

Parker Palmer writes, “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.”

If you’d like to meet with a spiritual director to begin discerning your vocation, send me a note.

If you want to dig deeper:
Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation is indispensable reading on the subject of calling. Two books on the topic of how work and career relate to vocation I recommend are Jeff Goins’ The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do and Jon Acuff’s Do Over: Make Today the First Day of Your New Career.

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A Beginner's Guide to Lectio Divina

A Beginner’s Guide to Lectio Divina

My kids are now old enough to notice their skin wrinkle during bath time. They are equal parts freaked out and delighted by this. The more they sit in the tub, soaking in the water and the bubbles, the more they find their skin changing. The practice of lectio divina is a method of reading the Bible that similarly changes us the more we sit soaking in its stories.

Do you have a regular rhythm and practice of reading the Bible? And then once you do, how do you read? How we read the Bible is every bit as important as the fact that we do. Having, first of all, a desire to encounter the living God when we open the Scriptures is important. The Bible is more than just another book. It’s an opportunity to experience the Almighty God who made heaven and earth and you and has known you since the day you were born. By opening these pages of Scripture, we create a space of God to reshape us over time. Much like centering prayer, lectio allows us to slow down and make ourselves present to receive from God in the moment.

Consider this passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“‘Oh, Kitty, how nice it could be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting though into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—‘ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

“In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.”

In one sense, lectio divina allows to do something like Alice does here. We step out of our world and become immersed in a new world, God’s world. In another sense, lectio divina opens our eyes to see the Holy Spirit stepping out of the pages and working in the world around us.

The term lectio divina means “spiritual reading.” It is a contemplative way of reading the Scriptures. Most of us in the modern world have been trained to experience the world first through our heads. And so, when we read the Bible, by default, we’re thinking about it, attempting to figure it out and explain it. We study the Bible.

Lectio divina flips this. In lectio, we give the Holy Spirit consent to study us as we read the Bible. We make space to simply be with God. In this way, we open the Bible as a means of transformation, not merely information. We read not just with with our minds, but our hearts, also.

As Robert Mulholland writes, “Lectio is a posture of approach and a means of encounter with a text that enables the text to become a place of transforming encounter with God.”

In the classic method of lectio divina there are four stages:

Reading (lectio)

In this first stage, we prayerfully and carefully read. We lovingly take in the words on the page. We notice them. We observe them. We take them in, often reading them more than one or two times. Perhaps it’s a chapter. Or a paragraph. Or a sentence.

The idea is to read until something captures your attention. Read for quality. Not quantity. If you find yourself distracted by your own inquisitive questions, write them down in your journal so you can come back to them later. While a daily reading plan is often a helpful tool, if we’re not careful, it can devolve into checking a box. Lectio divina is not reading to check a box.

Thinking (meditatio)

The second stage flows out of the first. Once you put the food in your mouth, then you chew it. We think about these words. Our minds are engaged. We trace the flow of the plot. We follow the logic of the argument.

Why does one scene follow the next? Why does that character respond this way? How does this sentence build upon this last one? Why did the author write this? More deeply, why did the Divine Author write this?

Conversing (oratio)

In the third stage, we listen to how God may be speaking. To continue the eating metaphor, once we swallow our food we trust our stomachs to continue the process of digesting the food. I don’t ever think about digesting my lunch. It simply happens. I trust a process.

How is this word, phrase, passage working on me? What does God have to say to me through this? What do I want to say to God about this? This is a place of dialogue. It requires patience. It means waiting for God. And that can be hard. We’ve been conditioned for instant gratification, even in our spiritual disciplines. But lectio divina is a way of reading that slows us down.

Resting (contemplatio)

In the last stage, we open ourselves to a posture of receptivity from God. We allow God the final word. How do we respond to this word? Be silent. Don’t try to figure it out. Sit still and wait for God. Listen, and be okay with the quiet, even if it feels awkward. Allow yourself to rest in God’s presence.

In his book Invitation to a Journey, Robert Mulholland suggests two additional stages for those of us in the modern world to frame the four classical stages of lectio divina.

Quiet (silencio)

We live frantically busy lives. We submit ourselves to never-ending to-do lists. In order to even enter the holy space possible in lectio divina, we need to turn all that off.

We need a moment to shut off the monkey brain—those thousand thoughts constantly bouncing around in our heads. Sit in a comfortable place. Breathe, slowly and deeply. Let go of the distractions so that you can be fully present to God. And then begin reading. Take a deep breath and dive in.

Responding (incarnatio)

This is a final step following resting that leads us back into the ordinariness of our world. If our encounter with God in the Scriptures hasn’t marked us in some way, reshaped our loves and desires so that we can better cooperate with God’s activity in the world, we’ve missed the most crucial piece.

If we walk away merely saying, “That was interesting,” we’ve missed it. We now respond to God. As Jesus says, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me.” Like my wrinkled kids in the tub, soaking in these stories transforms us. It changes us by growing our hearts to love God and neighbor so that we look more like Jesus.

François Fénelon writes, “As you read a passage from the Scriptures, pause after each verse or phrase to hear what God might be saying. Consider how Jesus practices what you are reading.

If you find your Bible reading practice has fallen in a rut, commit to a rhythm of lectio divina for the next 30 days and see what might happen. If you’re new to lectio divina, start with one of the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John—and let yourself soak in and be changed by the words and deeds of Jesus.

Make a consistent time and place for it. Schedule it on your calendar. Use a journal write down what happens, what words or phrases jump out, what the Spirit shows you, what your conversation with God looks like.

May you be at once a little bit freaked out and a little bit delighted at how you find God changes you.

If you want to go deeper, Sacred Reading: The Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey.

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What Wendell Berry Teaches Me About Living Missionally

What Wendell Berry Teaches Me About Living Missionally

I was in seminary, part of a small, neighborhood church in a blue collar neighborhood of north Lexington, Kentucky, when the pastor of our church handed me a xeroxed copy of a Wendell Berry essay. I had studied literature in college and had come across the name before, but had never read any of his work.

Something about this stuck with me, though I don’t remember the particular essay. My experience in this church was deeply forming me in regards to what it means to love my neighbor, my next-door neighbor in my neighborhood, what it means to be a church in a particular place, that relocating to a place for the sake of God’s mission was something people did.

It was some time later that I finally picked up a collection of Berry’s essays, The Art of the Commonplace. There was something to this worldview of his that made complete sense to me. Maybe it was living in Kentucky. Though I’ve read extensively in the missional theology literature of the last twenty years, I don’t think any of it has hit me and shaped me to think about God’s mission in a place quite like the essay “On Native Hill” that appears in that volume.

It’s not an essay about missiology or theology or ministry. Rather, it’s about coming home, about culture, about farming. It’s about soil and land and people and being a faithful steward of the place where you live. And yet, in the same way Jesus’ parables used agriculture to communicate the ways of God’s kingdom, this speaks to me powerfully about the ways God works in the world.

My family and I have recently moved with the purpose of joining God in the neighborhood, feeling it’s rhythms, rooting ourselves in its soil, living into a place. We do this to be witnesses of God’s presence here, and so I find myself going back to “On Native Hill” to remind myself why we’re here.

“We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits.”

I often come at the world with the assumption that what is good for me is good for the world, so I appreciate Berry flipping this script. What if what’s good for the neighborhood is what’s good for me? Can I revel in the necessary humility to receive from the world around me, to listen, and to admit that I don’t yet know what’s best for me, much less the neighborhood?

Jeremiah 29 has been a formational passage in this regard. As we seek the shalom of the neighborhood, we “cooperate in its processes, we yield to its limits.” There are natural, sustainable, slow rhythms of life in which God is already at work. Do I give in to them? Do I fight and resist them? Does the church plant plan or the new ministry initiative take into account the ways God is already at work?

“It was in the woods here along Camp Branch that Bill White, my grandfather’s Negro hired hand, taught me to hunt squirrels…. The rule seemed to be that if I wanted to stay with him, I had to make no noise. If I did he would look back and make a downward emphatic gesture with his hand, as explicit as writing: Be quiet, or go home…. He taught me to look and to listen and to be quiet.

What an image of the role of the Holy Spirit in our missional work—the guide that teaches us to look and to listen and to be quiet. I imagine the Holy Spirit has a tremendous affection for the world, for our neighborhoods, for the places in which we find ourselves.

There’s a sense of wonder I want to learn, a deep love for the beauty in this place and its people. This is the Spirit’s garden where I am a guest. How do I make space for the Spirit to teach me in this place rather than acting out my own favorite strategies and techniques and plans? We tread lightly. There’s so much to learn. Be quiet or go home.

“I have grown able to be wholeheartedly present here. I am able to sit and be quiet at the foot of some tree here in this woods along Camp Branch, and feel a deep peace, both in the place and in my awareness of it, that not too long ago I was not conscious of the possibility of. This peace is partly in being free of the suspicion that pursued me for most of my life, no matter where I was, that there was perhaps another place I should be, or would be happier or better in; it is partly in the increasingly articulate consciousness of being here, and of the significance and importance of being here.”

I’ve spent much of my life wishing I was somewhere else—planning for the next phase, begging and pleading for the next season, eyes ever on what happens next. There’s a craft and skill to sitting peacefully in the present place and moment, to relishing where I am.

To be wholeheartedly present here. I recently heard someone say, “Why do I always assume that the grass is always greener where you, God, have not watered it?” There is purpose in my presence here and now. There is peace in being present here.

“Though Heaven is certainly more important than the earth if all they say about it is true, it is still morally incidental to it and dependent on it, and I can only imagine it and desire it in terms of what I know of the the earth. And so my questions do not aspire beyond the earth. They aspire toward it and into it. Perhaps they aspire through it.

Substitute “the neighborhood” for the “the earth” in the above paragraph and it hits home. The prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles urges them to seek the shalom of the city. Their spiritual work is physical participation in the life of the city, to work for its thriving.

Do my questions lead me into the lives of those who walk up and down the sidewalk in front of my house? Do they lead me into the homes of my next door neighbors, into the imaginations of the children playing outside, into the stories of the elderly who have lived here their whole adult lives?

“[The topsoil] is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of season over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.”

What grows in this place? What grows here is determined by the unique soil and climate. Consider this topsoil as a metaphor for the local neighborhood church—a faithful, patient, peaceful presence generation after generation: “It increases by experience, by the passage of season over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness.”

This reminds of Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Over the long haul, faithful commitment to the gospel in a place outlasts demographic trends and fads, strategies and techniques, consultants and gurus.

It’s also reminiscent of the creation story of Genesis 2 when out of the topsoil (adamah), God creates the first human being (adam). We are soil. We are earthy beings. We grow and we offer life. In fact, these creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 have much to inform and guide living missionally in the neighborhood.

“A man ought to study the wilderness of a place before applying to it the ways he learned in another place.”

To be a Christian in a place, especially a pastor or church planter, is to be a student of that place. We hold in one hand the stories of God from Scripture, and in the other, we hold the stories of the neighborhood. We learn the history, both the good and the bad, the popular and the untold and forgotten. We learn the wounds and scars and the gifts and graces.

While theological education programs, conferences, podcasts, and certifications all have their place, the neighborhood shows us how the Kingdom of God grows in this place. We may very well find that we learn how to articulate the gospel in the neighborhood more from the local elementary school than from the seminary in another state.

“Too much that we do is done at the expense of something else, or somebody else. There is some intransigent destructiveness in us. My days, though I think I know better, are filled with a thousand irritations, worries, regrets for what has happened and fears for what may, trivial duties, meaningless torments—as destructive of my life as if I wanted to be dead. Take today for what it is, I counsel myself. Let it be enough.

“And I dare not, for fear that if I do, yesterday will infect tomorrow. We are in the habit of contention—against the world, against each other, against ourselves.

It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.”

We will learn to be better than we are from the presence of Jesus among us. If the gospel stories are any indication, his presence may be hidden in plain sight. It may be that flicker on the edge of our field of vision. But we know it when we see it around our tables—our local church communion tables and our dining room tables.

To follow the news, our neighborhoods are desperate for healing. We find this healing not in our own clever and innovative ideas, but in joining up with the God who is putting all things back together.

There is much wisdom in these words.

Find yourself a place that you love the way Berry loves these acres near Port Royal, KY. But don’t love an abstract place, the disembodied idea of things. Love people. Love neighbors. Love children. Love shut-ins. Be available. Be vulnerable. Be embedded in the community fabric of that place. Be nourished in the unique soil of the place.

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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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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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