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?

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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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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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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 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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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 at weekly meals with a caring family where 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 about 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 within Genesis 2 and 3 that the words “eat” and “ate” show up. There’s something fundamental about both the right and wrong orderings of the universe that have to do with eating. Within the context of God’s relationship with humanity, it’s what’s broken, and it’s what’s being restored.

Passover

We come to the book of Exodus and the 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 us modern people today are the food laws found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Most notable in these lists is no pork.

Why does God care what the Israelites 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 this 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 not only about what they ate but also about who they ate with. To bring 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 Passover 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 a banquet table. From the garden to the 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 in our busy lives 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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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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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.

Read more