Why Food Tells the Story of God

Why Food Tells the Story of God

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

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

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

Here’s how the story of the Bible unfolds.

Creation

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

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

Fall

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

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

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

Passover

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

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

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

Torah

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

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

Sacrifices

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

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

Jesus

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

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

Eucharist

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

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

Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba

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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.

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Why Ordinary Time Matters for God's Mission

Why Ordinary Time Matters for God’s Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…now we live.

Ordinary Time completes the cycle of the year.

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

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

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

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

Ordinary Time invites our participation.

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

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

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

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

Ordinary Time invites us to make stuff.

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

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

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

It’s Ordinary Time.

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

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

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

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

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Don't Let Your Mission Trip Sabotage Your Spiritual Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

You come to despise home after your mission trip.

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

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

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

You leave your experience there.

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

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

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

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

You loved a place more than people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You take discipleship out of the “Great Commission.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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A Beginner's Guide to a Rule of Life

A Beginner’s Guide to a Rule of Life

A few weeks ago, we had to swap the kids’ carseats from the minivan to our Corolla for the weekend. One of the kids discovered the road atlas tucked into the seat pocket. Inevitably, a fight broke out over which of the two of them got to hold it.

I forgot I had a road atlas. Is that what I used before I became dependent on my phone’s GPS? I use that maps app for everything—finding the quickest route to a friend’s house, finding the hotel from the airport when I travel.

Writing a rule of life is like choosing a route on a road atlas or a GPS. It’s about mindfulness. It’s about intentionality in our days. Writing a rule of life helps us when the “tyranny of the urgent” colonizes our schedules. A rule helps us by clarifying our “yes’s” and “no’s” before we’re pressed by the onslaught of life and we’re forced into being reactive in our decision making. It helps us be proactive. It helps us order our way.

A rule of life written well invites you deeper into the question: What kind of person is God forming in me right now?

The practice of designing a rule goes back to the communities of St. Benedict in the 500s. This purposeful way of sharing life ordered his monastic groups. It provided a shape to their common life.

A rule can be fashioned either for personal or corporate use. It can be particularly useful in seasons of anticipated transition such as graduating from school, beginning a new marriage, or looking forward to retirement. It helps you get from where you are to where you want to be, or perhaps better, where God is inviting you to be. 

A rule is about habits rather than goals. A rule of life is a habit system. When we talk about habits, we’re talking about spiritual disciplines and spiritual practices. A sustainable system of healthy, spiritual habits is better than goal setting. Our habits make our days, and our days make our lives. Map out a system of habits you can do and then show up everyday. Commit to your rule. You can see a variety of rules, some exceedingly creative, on this website.

A rule of life shapes us for Christlikeness

I make cages for my tomato plants. I make them not to keep my tomato plants from escaping, but to provide them support as they grow so they can be most fruitful. Likewise, a rule is a support that helps me grow the fruit of the Spirit in my life. As a cage focuses the growth of my plants, a rule focuses my personal spiritual growth.

A rule of life is simple and sustainable

A rule should be designed to be helpful. Oftentimes, goal setting and resolutions become exercises in wish-dreaming, and that’s not what we’re after. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew in the particular season of life we find ourselves in. If you’re a student or a parent with young children, your rule of life may look drastically different than a empty nester eyeing retirement or single, young professional. Consider what fits the current rhythms of your life.

A rule of life is shared in community

Don’t do this alone. The spiritual life is not about “just me and Jesus.” If you find yourself writing a rule of life in community, see what rhythms you can share together. As the African proverb says, “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.” A rule of life is about running far, right into heaven.

A rule of life is a road map

You want this on paper, preferable a single-sheet so you can easily glance and take in the whole thing. This is the 10,000-foot view of your life. You don’t get from point A to point B by hoping it just happens. It takes deliberate intention. You choose your route. And then you put one foot in front of the other. You make adjustments as needed.

Step 1: Set aside time on your calendar

Chances are, life is busy. Who has time to think this through and put it together? If that’s the case, you can’t afford not to. Make an appointment with yourself. Block the space on your schedule in the same way you would a meeting with a friend or client. Make it non-negotiable. If you can, make a personal retreat out of it.

Step 2: Pray

Make space to listen to God, really listen. Be quiet. Be patient. Wait through all the churn of thoughts on the surface of your mind and invite the Holy Spirit to take you deeper. What kind of person is God inviting you to be in this season of life? Don’t simply list all the things you feel guilty about not doing. Listen deeper. Be patient and allow yourself to be led by God.

Step 3: Identify your “big rocks”

Think of some of the big categories in your life. They may be family or work. They may be related to personal development or church life. When I attended a church that invited us to write a spiritual plan, these categories were worship, formation, community, and mission. More recently, I’ve used Michael Hyatt’s “accounts”: God, self (health, growth, rest), marriage, kids, friends, career, finances, and ministry.

Step 4: Put everything on paper

There’s not a wrong way to do this. Brainstorm. Give a word to every idea. Get everything out of your head. Put it on paper (or digital document). Worry about editing it later. That stray idea hovering in the corner of your mind you may discover is essential. In this step allow yourself the luxury of bad ideas. They’re just ideas. Don’t judge them just yet.

Step 5: Prioritize and eliminate non-essentials

Okay, now you can judge your ideas, once they’re all out in the open. Once you see them all together, like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, you can start to sort them out. This is a step that may be helpful to experience with a spiritual director or mentor. Is that prayer practice really connecting with you? How is that mission trip you’re anticipating going to form you? Look for the patterns and connections. Ruthlessly cross things out and commit yourself to the most important things.

Step 6: Share it with someone

Talk it out with your spiritual director, your spouse, your trusted peers. Listen to their feedback. Are you being realistic? Are you being gracious to yourself? Where are you challenging yourself? Are there blindspots you’re missing? Is this a religious self help wish list or is it truly a plan for being drawn deeper into the heart of Jesus? Ask for help. Welcome accountability.

Step 7: Revisit it over time and revise

At its best, a rule of life is a fluid document. As you grow and change, so will it. Take 10 minutes once a week to check-in with yourself and look over your rule. What’s working? What’s not working? What can be tweaked? Maybe you do this check-in once a quarter or once a year. Set a reminder on your calendar. Don’t forget to actually do it. This may be the most important step.

When he talks about the life of discipleship, of God-ordered living, Jesus says, “But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). And this is what a rule of life is all about: counting the cost towards a God-ordered life. We commit to say yes to everything we need to say yes to, and to say no to everything we need to say no to.

If you want to go deeper, here’s a couple resources I recommend:

Sacred Ordinary Days is a liturgical day planner that includes crafting a rule of life as one of its anchor pieces.

Crafting a Rule of Life by Stephen Macchia is a 12-session workbook designed for individuals or small groups. It’s companion website is ruleoflife.com.

Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want by Michael & Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy is a resource for developing a life plan. It’s a non-religious way of talking about many of these same principles.

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Why Church Matters

Why Church Matters

Is it okay to be “spiritual but not religious?” Why do we need the church? If we believe in God, and we’re nice people, what is the church for? Why does being a part of a church matter? If I post a Bible verse on social media and listen to a sermon podcast, I’m good for the week, right?

If the music is boring, sermon uninspiring, and the people unfriendly, then why bother? What value does church have?

I have found myself within the gravity of the church pretty much since the day I was born. My grandfather was a preacher. My parents continue to be extremely involved in church. I’ve been to megachurches. I’ve been to house churches. I’ve been to seminary, and I’ve been ordained.

Despite my experience, perhaps in part because of it, I’m not naive about the pain and disappointment some experience. Churches are terrible places. Churches are beautiful places. Church has been a place of my greatest joys. Church has also been a place of my deepest wounds. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself in a place, feeling fully justified to walk away and shake the dust off my feet. But I don’t.

How do you know the real Jesus?

I have a friend who likes to ask his undergraduate classes, “How do you know that the Jesus you know is the real Jesus?” The classroom buzzes with discussion, and eventually he leads them to a place of wondering, what if we know who Jesus is because of the Church. We know Jesus because of the mentors and pastors and regular people we rub shoulders with every Sunday as they live out the Christian life in front of us. Church is a people—a people in which we are embedded.

The Church as a gathering of people

The Church isn’t a building. The Church isn’t a one-hour, once a week show, a sing-and-speak, the sage-on-the-stage. The Church is people.

In the New Testament, when we find the word “church,” we’re looking at the Greek word ekklesia, which had political, and not spiritual, connotations. An ekklesia was a gathering of people. We first see it in Acts 5:11. It’s not until Acts 11:26 that we find the word “Christians.”

This is important. It’s the Church that makes Christians, not Christians that make the Church. Becoming a Christian is not a decision I make on my own. It’s not a belief I individually hold. Becoming a Christian happens slowly over time in the context of a community. There’s something to Jesus’ metaphor of being born again. Nobody simply decides to be born on their own. It happens in the context of a family. The Church is the place where I am spiritually formed.

The practice of the first churches

So if the Church isn’t a rock concert and a TED talk about God, then what does it do? In many ways the practices of the early church may look familiar to us, and in other ways they may seem entirely foreign.

Our best glimpse into what a church service looked like comes from Justin Martyr, perhaps a generation removed from the book of Acts. Here’s what he writes:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time allows;

then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbal instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen;

and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

To recap,

  • They met on Sunday (in a Roman world that worked 7 days a week) because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday.
  • Scripture is read aloud.
  • A leader affirms and comments on the Scripture, encouraging the congregation to do what it says.
  • They pray together.
  • They experience some form of communion or Eucharist.
  • A portion of the bread and wine is set aside to sent to those who are absent.
  • A collection is taken for the poor—orphans, widows, those in jail, immigrants, any needy person.

This is what some of the earliest church services looked like.

Church as the evidence of the Gospel

Lesslie Newbigin spent his career as a missionary in India. When he “retired” and came back to England, he found himself a stranger to Western culture. He then wrote several books about mission and culture and church. In one essay called “Church as a Hermeneutic of the Gospel” he lays out six markers of the Church. I think these make a compelling case as to why church matters.

The Church matters because it is a community of praise. Gratitude moves mountains. The practice of thankfulness uniquely marks the church in a culture of cynicism.

The Church matters because it is a community of truth. In a world where “fake news” and “alternative facts” exist, the Church offers the gift of truth.

The Church matters because it is a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood. The Church cultivates neighborliness in a way not found anywhere else. A local church is devoted to local places. The Church loves neighbors.

The Church matters because it is a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of priesthood in the world. It’s the place where we’re taught how to bring the needs of our community to God and how to take the Word of God into the needs of our community.

The Church matters because it is a community of mutual responsibility. When I receive the Eucharist in my community, I can’t escape the thought, “I belong to you, and to you, and to you,” as my eyes scan the room. We belong to one another.

The Church matters because it is a community of hope. In a world prone to bad news, despair, and anxiety, hope is a precious, subversive, and beautiful gift. Hope changes the world. The Church knows hope.

There’s no Jesus without Church

When I’ve been hurt by the Church, and chosen not to walk away from it all, it’s not because of some idealistic notion or abstract theological commitment, vision, or idea. Rather, it’s because some flesh and blood human being cared deeply enough about me to make space for me.

If you find yourself hurt by the Church, I’m so sorry. God has chosen to build the Church with frail human beings, some more broken than others, and broken people break things. The Church is very big. While in some of its corners you may find mean, spiteful, and petty individuals, in other places you’ll find kind, generous, and helpful people sincerely pursuing God.

A commonly shared metaphor of Church is the bride of Christ. Now if you wanted to hang out, but you didn’t want anything at all to do with my wife, I’d have say that we probably weren’t going to work out as friends. We can’t be a part of Jesus and not a part of a local expression of his Church. It’s impossible. There’s no groom without a bride.

It is through all these local expressions of Church that God has chosen to remake the entire world.

This is why Church matters.

If you’re looking for some good resources to refresh your imagination for what church can be, I’d recommend these:

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Faithful Presence by David Fitch
The Ministry of the Missional Church by Craig van Gelder
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight
The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider

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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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A Beginner's Guide to the Enneagram

A Beginner’s Guide to the Enneagram

To get a job done, you need effective tools. One of most effective tools I’ve found for answering the question “How has God uniquely wired me,” naming my gifts, coming to terms with my limitations, and cultivating compassion and empathy for people around me is the Enneagram.

We are human beings. We are a mess. We are amazing. To be human is to be this complex bundle of emotions and desires and gifts and shadows. To be human is to be made in the image of God, and yet we are scarred and fractured by the presence of sin and death in the world.

The Enneagram (which literally means “the nine drawing”) is a system of articulating this complex human being-ness. It’s about understanding the image of God in people. What does it look like to be an Image Bearer? What does it look like being a broken Image Bearer? What do healing, restoration, and redemption look like?

The Enneagram and the true self/false self

Regarding story of Israel in Exodus, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write,

[The Exodus] was about an exchange of masters, the false for the true. We were created to be God’s good lovers, but everywhere we find we have been enslaved by our choices…. Part of the problem is our current presumption that freedom is choice rather than desire. God created us as passionate beings. We rightly desire. The problem is when our desire becomes disordered by desiring what is desirable as if God does not exist. The result is slavery.

This is the work of the Enneagram. It describes our desires, both rightly and wrongly ordered. As Imager Bearers of the Almighty, we are made to be windows to the Divine. Yet, we as humans miss the mark on this time and again. We resonate with Paul’s words in Romans 7, knowing we should be one way but feeling incapable of getting there. We can live as two divided selves, warring internally.

The Enneagram names our unique hurts, habits, and hang ups. At the same time, it names our unique gifts, strengths, and abilities. Each type has a positive and negative side to it. Each type possesses healthy and unhealthy qualities.

How I discovered the Enneagram

I’d been in my role on a church staff and I was struggling. Big time. Getting out of bed each morning was an accomplishment. I was accumulating all the symptoms of depression, and I was beginning to wonder if I needed to seek out professional counseling, maybe be prescribed some medication. The doubts and insecurity were constant, thick, over-hanging clouds.

It was during this time that I was involved in spiritual direction training, and our cohort was reading and discussing Richard Rohr’s The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective.

It wasn’t just a light bulb that went off for me. It was fireworks.

The description of the Type 1, the Idealist, resonated with every part of me. There wasn’t something wrong with me. I had a relentless inner critic that I was letting eat my soul alive. I set impossible standards for myself and those around me and then raged on the inside when those standards weren’t met.

I experienced a new freedom in learning how to have grace for myself.

The Enneagram Types

Each type of the Enneagram is like a different facet of a diamond. Taken together, they reflect the image and character of God, and each individual type highlights particular qualities of God.

For the sake of an introduction, I’ll simply name the types here. I written elsewhere how each type may respond uniquely in spiritual direction, for Sabbath, and in Lent. More detailed descriptions can be found at the Enneagram Institute and in the books I recommend below. Every book you find will name and nuance the types slightly differently. I particularly appreciate Marilyn Vancil’s approach that defines them as they relate to God’s character.

  • Type 1, the Perfectionist, reflects God’s goodness and rightness.
  • Type 2, the Helper, reflects God’s love and nurture.
  • Type 3, the Achiever, reflects God’s hope and radiance.
  • Type 4, the Romantic, reflects God’s creativity and depth.
  • Type 5, the Observer, reflects God’s wisdom and truth.
  • Type 6, the Loyalist, reflects God’s faithfulness and courage.
  • Type 7, the Enthusiast, reflects God’s joy and abundance.
  • Type 8, the Challenger, reflects God’s power and protection.
  • Type 9, the Peacemaker, reflects God’s peace and oneness.

You are one type; you are many types

From the day you’re born until the day you die, there is one type that describes you. You don’t change over time from one to another.

In the Pixar movie Inside Out, the character Riley has four emotions pulling the levers inside her psyche. I think of this movie when I think of the Enneagram because we have all nine types inside us. Only one is driving the bus, but all the other eight chime in from time to time.

As there are kids I like my kids spending time with because they bring out the best in them and kids I wish they’d stay away from because they bring out the worst, each type is connected to others in stress and security. A healthy functioning One can look like a Seven. Or an unhealthy Nine can look like a Six.

All of them are related to the others, and we learn over time how to negotiate our social settings by acting out as a particularly type, even if it’s not our core type, almost like a costume. We can feel the pressure to act as a particular type. We had parents that were particular types and we learned to adapt accordingly. We live in an ethnic culture that rewards a particular type (for white Americans it’s Type 3). We may live in a religious sub-culture that takes on a particular type.

Over time we learn to adapt and survive in each of these environments by reflecting what we see. This is what makes discerning your core type such work. It can be confusing sorting through all the layers of expectations you’ve accumulated.

Go slow discovering your type

The work of discerning your type takes time. It can be difficult being honest with ourself. I read a book and was convinced I was a One. I read it with a cohort of spiritual directors, and they all thought I was a Five, but I wouldn’t listen. I spent the next couple of years narrating my life through this grid of a One.

I then spent some time with a counselor, that included talking about the Enneagram, and I came to realize I really was a Five. I was just being stubborn and unwilling to listen to the input of others.

If you know your type, hold it loosely. This is hard, inner, discernment work. Invite the feedback of your spiritual director, your spouse, your siblings, your close friends. While you might interpret one way, they may see something else. At the same time, the Enneagram unmasks our motivations, not our behaviors, and only you know your motivations.

The Enneagram cuts through stereotypes

The Enneagram has existed for centuries, and its insight penetrates all of our stereotypes about race and gender and generation and ethnicity.

“Oh, you’re just being a guy.” “That’s what millennial do.” The Enneagram exposes the shallowness of these judgments. A white American female in her 60s can be a healthy Four, as can a Brazilian male in his 20s.

Be wary of tests

Multiple online assessments exist for the Enneagram, but take them with a grain of salt. You can take one such test (and here’s one helpful one), but treat it as an invitation to a journey, and not as the final word. Learning your type is a journey and exploration. Resist the urge to tell someone else what you think they are. Don’t rob them of their own journey.

It’s important to always remember that the Enneagram describes you. It does not define you. It’s more adjective than noun. This sets it apart from typical personality tests and Buzzfeed quizzes. It describes and then offers a path for spiritual growth and development.

The point isn’t mastering the intricacies of the Enneagram. The point to is to be a whole and healthy human being. As one friend recently told me, “We have laughed more in our marriage because of the Enneagram.” What she and her husband were learning was how to be themselves and recogizine their personal quirks as the absurdities of their type and show grace for one another.

The Enneagram allows you to be you, and you can be healthy

Two recently published great books for getting started with the Enneagram are Self to Lose, Self to Find: A Biblical Approach to the 9 Enneagram Types by Marilyn Vancil and The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Cron and Stabile also host a podcast where they interview guests about their Enneagram types.

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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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What GTD teaches me about prayer

What ‘GTD’ Teaches Me About Prayer

Getting Things Done (often abbreviated GTD) is a methodology for productivity and time management. It comes from David Allen who wrote a book by the same name, which has become a whole brand about taking the stress out of life and business.

I’m also finding it has some things to teach me about prayer rhythms that stick.

If you’re an Apple user, as I am, you may be familiar with the “spinning pinwheel of death.” It’s that multi-colored icon on your Mac that shows up whenever your computer freezes because it’s thinking too hard.

Sometimes my prayer life feels like the spinning pinwheel of death. I just get overwhelmed and paralyzed by the stuff of life. Work. Marriage. Two kids. Ministry. And did I email and call everybody I was supposed to communicate with today? My brain and my soul just get jammed up.

Sometimes my prayer life needs a trellis. I planted some tomatoes last week and I put cages around them—cages not to keep them from escaping, or to keep them repressed, but to keep them from falling over so they stay healthy and produce fruit.

I want to be a healthy person who produces fruit in my life with God. I need a cage. I need a trellis. I need a structure, a guided rhythm that keeps me on track, that helps me say no to the seemingly infinite onslaught of distractions, that keeps me anchored and secure and peaceful.

Prayer can take on a great many different forms. The daily office is one good form. There are very few, if any, wrong ways to pray. I think about prayer like time spent with my kids. Sometimes they talk my ear off, telling me every detail of their day. Sometimes I’m trying to point something out to them they’ve never noticed before. Sometimes they just want to snuggle. And sometimes they even fall asleep.

(Sidebar: Never, ever beat yourself up for falling asleep in prayer. Think of all the people in the story of Scripture who had profound encounters with God in a dream.)

It’s no accident that when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, Jesus goes to parenting language. Prayer is about deepening the relationship between ourself and God, the way a child bonds to a parent. That’s the end goal.

Michael Casey says, “Prayer cannot be measured on a scale of success or failure because it is God’s work—and God always succeeds.” Prayer is God’s work and we get to help.

At the core of GTD are five practices: collection, processing, organizing, reviewing and doing.

Prayer as “collection”

Last week I sat down with a blank sheet a paper wrote out all the things that were making me anxious. It was cathartic. I put it all on a single sheet a paper, could hold it in my hand and say, “God. This.”

In the Harry Potter stories, Professor Dumbledore uses a Pensieve, pulling memories from his mind and collecting them in a bowl to come back to later. It’s a perfect image for this practice.

Collection is simply taking the thoughts out of our heads and making them words on a piece of paper. Maybe this takes 15 minutes, maybe an hour. There’s power in writing things down. Having a journal for this is great. Maybe this is a weekly or monthly or quarterly (or daily?) practice of emptying your brain of all the pesky, anxious little ideas. Get them out and on paper.

Prayer as “processing”

Eugene Peterson writes, “Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interest. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray.”

It might be tempting to try your hand at collection and be content with that. If we’re in a hurry, it’s an enticing siren’s call. But there’s more work to be done. We can slow down, as Eugene Peterson urges us.

In the practice of processing, we take stock of the items we wrote on that sheet of paper and begin to sort them in two buckets: things I can do something about and things I can’t. This may take some slow discernment and brutal honesty. I often find that things I have no control over like to disguise themselves as things I do, and vice versa. The things out of our control we now let go and trust to God.

Prayer as “organizing”

We’ve acknowledged there are things we can’t do anything about. We’ve let go of those. Now we ponder those things of which we can do something about. What do they have in common? Are there ways in which they’re related? Are there themes that connect them?

Organize between big ideas (maybe wishes or dreams or big projects) and next steps. There’s a big difference. I may feel some rising anxiety about being a better dad. I can bring that before God. But if I don’t wait with that until it can be converted into action, it’s lazy wishing.

I can want to be a better dad, and I can imagine committing at least 10 minutes each day to sitting on the floor giving each of my kids my undivided attention. In this space we can imagine the conversation, the give and take with God. It’s safe to express, “I know I need to act, but I don’t know how,” and then wait in quiet for the response.

Prayer as “reviewing”

One of the big pieces that David Allen advocates is The Weekly Review. In some ways, it’s not much different from the Ignatian Examen. How is this system actually working? What happened? How do the outcomes compare to the original goals or hopes? What went right? What went wrong? What can be tweaked?

The goal of all this is our secure contentment in the love of God. GTD isn’t a rigid twelve step process but rather these general movements that allow you to make them your own as you find what works in your unique life situation. Prayer is very similar. There’s no magic bullet or perfect program, but there are some general movements that most human beings share in common that keep us on track.

It can be helpful to identify several areas of your life—they could be family, work, ministry, neighborhood, finances. They could be any number of things. Each week review them: How is the shalom of God growing in them? What tensions or anxieties are bubbling up?

Prayer as “doing”

Prayer leads us to living well. It’s not a mechanistic way of manipulating God or our circumstances. It’s not something we do so that we get something else.

We practice prayer. And we practice it more, because it leads us deeper into the life of God. Prayer is action like breathing is action. Prayer leads me to living well in God’s good world.

I like to think of putting my hands to this work together with God. It’s our work together, parent and child, God’s and mine.

My 4-year-old son loves his Legoes. “Daddy, play Legoes with me!” he says. And that becomes me rummaging through the box, “Okay, we need one of these pieces. Can you help me find it?” and “Put this piece right here. And that one put in the same place but on the other side.” And he’s so proud and excited about what we’ve made.

Teresa of Avila writes, “The important thing in prayer is not to think much but to love much.” The point in embracing a system like this—a trellis—is to stretch the muscles that help us love much.

The language and process of Getting Things Done is just one way that gives me handles to sit still and be present with God in prayer.

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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