Why Not Simplify?

Drawing our life journey

Yesterday I mentioned that I am currently at the Overseas Ministry Study Centre in New Haven CT teaching a class on spiritual renewal in the missionary community. I always start my sessions by asking participants to draw a picture that represents their spiritual journey. Each student then has the opportunity to share their journey focusing on the questions: What has made you feel close to God? When have you felt distant from God? and What are you most grateful for in your journey?

For me this is the most enriching part of the course. I always learn new things about myself and about God from the journeys that students share and this year’s class is no exception. One participant mentioned that he felt closest to God in times of poverty because then he was totally dependent on God. Another share that self satisfaction and comfort often make him feel distant from God because then he doesn’t really need to trust in God.

These two comments really impacted me, partly I think because Tom and I are currently participating in The Overflow Project’s 50 Day Challenge which I shared about in my post Simplicity is Not Simple on the MSA blog this morning.

These two converging events has been a great incentive for me to evaluate my own life and the issues I struggle with. The clutter of my life, the accumulation of possessions, the comfort of always having enough money for shelter, food and the essentials of life make it so easy for me to trust in myself and not in God. It is so easy to make the maintenance of those possessions my primary life focus. Time for developing intimacy with God is crowded out by preoccupations with money and possessions. No wonder the desert fathers and mothers withdrew into the desert and made vows of voluntary poverty in order to further their journey with God.

It is important for all of us to regularly and honestly evaluate our priorities and reflecting back on our life journeys is a wonderful tool to use to accomplish this.

My challenge for you this morning therefore is to reflect on your life journey – maybe draw a picture or use words and arrows to sketch it out. Then take time to reflect. Often these types of memories provide the richest material for strengthening our spiritual journeys.

What has drawn you close to God? What has distanced you from God? What are you grateful for in your life journey?

Now take time to consider what God is saying to you through this exercise. How can you use the journey of your past to strengthen your spiritual journey into the future? What practices should you nurture in order to grow in intimacy with God? 

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One Size Does Not Fit All – Teaching Spiritual Formation in the Midst of Diversity.

Overseas Minsitry Study Center New Haven CT

I am currently in New Haven Connecticut at the Overseas Ministry Study Center where I teach a course on spiritual renewal each year. This is one of the most enriching and challenging teaching situations I am ever involved in. My students come from across the globe. Methodist ministers from Myanmar and Korea sit together with Anglicans from Kenya and Ghana. Catholic sisters from the Philippines rub shoulders with Pentecostals from India and Brazil.

How do you teach in the midst of such diversity I am often asked? How do you help each student find renewal that suits their needs?

I must confess it can be a challenge. What one student finds refreshing another might find offensive. What is acceptable in one faith tradition is anathema to another. What renews and enriches my spiritual journey may do nothing for someone else.

I learn something new each year not just about how to renew faith in the midst of this kind of diversity, but about how to approach spiritual formation in any context. I thought that you might appreciate some of the insights I have learned.

1. Learning to see with fresh eyes and to hear with unstopped ears. Probably the most important skills we can teach people is the ability to look and listen, not telling them what to believe but opening their eyes and ears to perceive what God’s spirit wishes to communicate through their encounters, their activities and their interactions with God’s created world..

2. One size does not fit all. Whenever I see a piece of clothing that advertises “one size fits all” I know I am in trouble. It will definitely not fit me. Similarly with spiritual practices – one size does not fit all.

I often feel that my purpose in spiritual formation is to provide a rich smorgasbord of spiritual practices and ideas which participants can taste and experiment with. Many of the practices I talk about in my book Return to Our SensesLectio divina, vision divina, prayer walks, breathing prayers, exercises in gratitude and thankfulness, labyrinths and prayer flags are just a few of the tasty dishes that God gives us to choose from. Allowing people to choose what suits their palates without expecting them to eat everything on the table is a liberating and faith strengthening process for all of us.

3. The power of story. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer talks about using stories that encourage people to come at the truth slantwise. What he means is that we can use stories effectively to draw the truths that the Spirit of God is stirring within a person’s soul. We can use a person’s own story. We can also use as stories that sometimes seem on the surface to have no relationship to what we are discussing yet trigger thoughts and understandings in peoples’ minds.

Jesus used parables in this way. Often they had many possible interpretations, all of which could contain Godly truths and so might speak to people from a broad array of backgrounds. No wonder what Jesus said excited not just Jews but also Greeks, Romans and other nationalities.

4. Enabling people to ask the right questions. I once heard British theologian John Stott say The answers we get depend on the questions we ask. And it is true. New experiences, new encounters, new reflective exercises all raise new questions in our minds. Our purpose in spiritual formation is to give people the freedom to ask the right questions. Not so much why does God allow this to happen but rather what is God doing in the midst of this situation?

These are only a few of the tools that can assist any person’s spiritual journey. We are meant to lead gently from behind, encouraging the footsteps of our followers along the pathway God has chosen for them.

Practicing Resurrection – Being Radical by Brian “Wolt” Wolters

Easter Sunday has come and gone and its time to practice resurrection living! As I mentioned in my post Practicing Resurrection yesterday, Easter is not just a day it is a season, in fact it is the framework for the rest of our lives. Over the next few weeks I plan to share a number of stories of creative ministries and initiatives that do just that. Today’s post is written by Brian “Wolt” Wolters, director of The Overflow Project.  It was first published as Being Radical, Good Friday on the MSA website as part of a series on the Overflow Project. The MSA team are all joining the initiative this year and we hope you will too.

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bracelet-small

Over the past several weeks I have found myself coming up with excuses to drive to work instead of ride my bike.  Even before I get in my truck I tell myself, “Oh, one more day of driving and then I’ll start riding my bike,” or even on a sunny day I’ll say “Oh, it may rain today, so I’ll just drive.”

Why is it that we often have good intentions of doing something we think is best, but then opt for something easier or more convenient? Why do we form habits as human beings that prevent us from being radical?

Many books explore these questions. Some prescribe easy “steps” or even “recipes” for breaking out of patterns and molds that develop over time. On the flip side, other materials suggest creating new habits for life change like setting aside time for prayer and exercise daily.

Insert Good Friday.  Jesus’s death on a cross is radical I think.  He does not conform to culture or take the easy, most comfortable option.  He also does not say oh today, I’m going to start “effective habits.”  He even goes against his own desire and chooses to die!  If you want a vivid reminder the horror of his death, pick up the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of Christ.

The reminder of Jesus death on Good Friday inspires me to be more in tune with God’s voice for my life – instead of my own desires –  and explore being radical by forming new habits and breaking old ones. I pray I am who God made me to be and that I my eyes open to see my comfort zones.

I shared these thoughts about Easter with MSA last year, and am just as excited about The Overflow Project’s initiative this year.  The opportunity is great: to join with others in a unified effort to live with a little less and be able to give a little bit more, following the mold of Jesus death on the cross and celebrating on Easter his resurrection.

Perhaps today is a day to break a habit or start a new one. Jesus leads us in His way and with His death.

An opportunity to celebrate his resurrection on Easter exists.

Join in a challenge for the 50 days of the Easter season.


This is the fourth post in a Friday series about The Overflow Project that was published on the MSA blog, leading up to the 50 Day Challenge starting on Easter.

Periodically during the 50 days, various Challenge participants with share how they are taking the challenge and what they’re learning.

If you decide to take the challenge, please register on their page and share your story!

The Overflow Project is an initiative committed to a new way of living, a way of living that breaks down the walls that divide rich and poor. Using a 50-Day Challenge, The Overflow Project helps individuals, groups and churches simplify their lives in order to give generously. Donated funds provide clean drinking water – a vital resource for community and economic development.

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Leading From Within #2

Leading from within

Leading from within

The following post is another contribution to the series on Leading Spiritually. Thanks for those who have commented and encouraged the continuation of this series.

Check out the other posts:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning Together

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning on Your Own

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning a Shared Rhythm of Life Together

Leading Spiritually from Within #1

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This post is a continuation from my post a couple of days ago Leading Spiritually from Within so don’t be confused by the numbering.

5. We must take our faith practices and discernment processes seriously. It is often easier to discern the will God than it is to implement it. I am embarrassed at how often I make the same list of resolutions at my three monthly retreats and then go home and forget about them. Old habits die hard. We get out of a discernment meeting and immediately head back to our busy schedules ignoring completely the implications of our decisions. Unfortunately sometimes there is no one except God to keep us accountable to those decisions.

Keep a discernment journal for both your personal and group discernment sessions and revisit it regularly to see how seriously you have followed the promptings of God’s spirit.  What has God said? How has that changed the way you lead? How has it changed what you do and your leadership community do? I suspect that many good Christian ministries and churches fail because they don’t take seriously enough what God is saying in their midst.

6. We must be acknowledgers of doubts and uncertainties. According to Thomas Merton faith means doubt It is our doubts and uncertainties that keep us questioning and learning. They keep us flexible and creative – two essential characteristics of good spiritual leaders. The story of Thomas teaches us that Jesus comes to us in the place of our deepest fears and doubts and reveals himself to us. If we pretend we know everything we stop growing in our relationship to God and to others. We become set in our ways and become rigid in our leadership.

7. We must be seekers after the joy of gratitude. Gratitude opens us to the enjoyment of new aspects of who God is and what God is doing. Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts, comments: learning to live in joy is learning to be grateful in all circumstances even in the midst of pain and suffering. The psalmist says: Giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honours me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. (Psalm 50:23) What is the path that reveals the salvation of God? It is the path of gratitude and thanksgiving. To grow in intimacy with God and move deeper into that loving union we all so desperately crave we must learn to live in gratitude.

Gratitude has other benefits that undergird our spiritual leadership too. It boosts our chance of success and keeps us flexible and resilient. It also increases not only our chance of happiness but that of our colleagues too. It even boosts our immune system.

8. We must be seekers after trust in God. That may sound like a strange thing to seek after, but to grow in our ability to trust God we also need to grow in our knowledge and connection to the deep and abiding love of God for us.

In his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr says:

We will not trust spiritual power until we have experienced a God who operates in the same way, a God who is willing to wait, allow, forgive, trust and love unconditionally. (p89)

Do we really believe that God is trustworthy and wants what is best for our lives? Do we really believe God loves us? If we did we would seek to model that love rather than the critical, taskmaster, threaten God that our hierarchical leadership styles model.  Do we really believe that God’s purposes are higher than ours? If we did we would take discernment and direction from God far more seriously. We will learn to relax and allow God to move and like the children of God in the desert we will learn to stay put until God says so.

I think one of the reasons we so often surge ahead with our own ideas and plans is because deep down inside we don’t really believe that God loves us and wants what is best for us. We don’t really believe that God has either the desire or the power to fulfill the dreams he has placed in our hearts. We can easily start to believe that we, not Jesus are the saviours of the world and so we take on ourselves heavy burdens of responsibility that God does not intend for us.

9. We must learn to relax in the limits of who God has made us to be. A person who knows their own limits and those of the people with whom they work lives a life of balance, freedom and productivity. So many leaders leave pathways strewn with burnout for themselves and for others. they stray from God’s path because in their work consumed lives they have lost the ability to listen to the still small voice of God.

To me the best biblical example of burnout is the prophet Elijah as he flees into the desert running away from Jezebel. He has just defeated the prophets of Baal and yet here he is running away from a single woman. I love the gentle way God deals with him. He is fed, given shelter and allowed to rest. Then God gently tries to talk to him, but all Elijah can say is “I have been zealous for God”  (1 Kings 19). It seems to me that he is so consumed by all he has done for God that he can no longer hear what God is saying.

10. We must be seekers after the love of God and love of neighbour. Central to our understanding of the Biblical story is the knowledge that God is love. Jesus reminds us that the central commandment is “love of God and love of neighbour”. The epistle of James affirms that God’s royal law is: love your neighbour as yourself. (James 2:8) and Paul confirms that without love we are nothing but a noisy gong. (1 Corinthians 13:1-9) Theologian N.T. Wright says that the language of God’s kingdom is the language of love.

A leader who is not loving towards those he or she works with or lovingly concerned for those in the broader society is not a leader at all. This goes far deeper than just having a kind word to say to our colleagues. It means that to lead well spiritually we must be willing to lead as servants, put the needs of others before our own and be committed to the ways of justice, peace and generosity for all.  This means being concerned about issues of inequality, poverty and environmental justice to name but a few.

11. We must be seekers after the promised land of God. In my post on Where are we heading? I talked about the fact that God’s destination for us is his promised shalom world in which we find abundance and peace for all. We are all journeying towards this incredible new world and our central responsibility as leaders is to learn to live into that world and bring others into that world too. Does your leadership draw others towards a place of shalom, abundance and rest? Does it make your leadership community feel fulfilled, rejoicing in the presence of God?

Leading Spiritually from Within

 

Cross with candles

The following post is another contribution to the series on Leading Spiritually. Thanks for those who have commented and encouraged the continuation of this series.

Check out the other posts:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning Together

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning on Your Own

Leading Spiritually from Within

I mentioned last week that writing this series on leading spiritually has been something of a process of self examination for me. Listening does not come easily to me. I am a great multitasker and can easily get distracted from what I am supposed to be focused on.  So I don’t always take the time to give God or others my full attention. In a world that applauds multitasking especially in leaders, I know I am not alone in this but to be good spiritual leaders we need to be able to focus.

Spiritual leadership is about giving full attention to all that is happening in the moment in which we are living. So how do we equip ourselves personally to be good spiritual leaders?

When I think of leadership Jesus style of think of washing feet, hugging kids, embracing lepers, healing the marginalized. I also think of desert retreats, nights spent in prayer, walks with his disciples. The attributes of a good spiritual leader that I see expressed in Jesus life are contemplative, activist, servant, spiritual director, generosity, justice and love.  Some of these may sound contradictory but for me they imply balance. Activism should always flow out of a contemplative centre. Spiritual direction should always flow out of a servant heart that is committed above all else to the nurture and fulfillment of others. And a heart full of the love of God will always be generous and just.

This type of leadership places huge responsibility on us as individuals. In fact the more I have written, the longer the list seems to become so I have decided to break it into two posts. Today’s post talks about intimacy with God and seeking our true and authentic self. Tomorrow’s post addresses listening, acknowledging doubts and uncertainties, gratitude and seeking after love of God and neighbour.

1. We must above all else be committed to a journey into deeper intimacy with God. This sounds obvious but I have noticed that I can easily be fully engaged in my regular spiritual practices of prayer and bible reading and still not be moving closer to God.  I have mentioned in the past that the chronic randomness of our prayer and scripture study often disconnects us from the presence and purposes of God. It can become more of an intellectual exercise than a journey into intimacy.

What we need most are intentional and disciplined patterns to our prayer life and to our reading and study of God’s word that deliberately draw us into God’s presence and into a deeper understanding of God’s purposes. My blog series last year on Tools for Prayer was an attempt to identify some of the tools that can help with this. If, like me, you like variety you may enjoy experimenting with one tool for a season and then trying another. Just remember however that the goal of this is not experimentation itself but intimacy with God.

2. We must be seekers after our true and authentic self. Salvation is a journey from death into life, from blindness into sight, from solitude into community, from false self into true self. If, as spiritual leaders, our responsibility is to enable others to become all that God intends them to be, then we too must be committed to the process of becoming who God intends us to be. This is often a very painful journey of self discovery in which God slowly brings us face to face with the distorted and dysfunctional being at the center of our being. It is also a very liberating journey that brings healing not only for us personally but often for those we lead as well.

One of the reasons that I see activism and contemplation in balance is because it is often activism that uncovers our dysfunctionality. It also usually births within us a deep craving for the newness of life that God wants us to experience. It is this that hopefully drives us into the secure womblike safety of contemplation where we can be transformed and reborn. One of my guiding passages as I started to allow God to work his transformation in me was Isaiah 58:6-12. Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness. (v10) Reaching out to heal and make others whole is often part of the pathway into our own healing and wholeness. 

Contemplative practices like retreats, regular use of the prayer of examen, regular check in times with a spiritual director or soul friend are some of the keys to this journey, but obviously this is a topic that could give rise to an entire blog series on its own.

3. We must never be too busy to listen, never be too tired to pray. This prayer which I wrote a couple of years ago is a good mantra for me to go back to when I feel overburdened, overstressed or aware of another area in my life where I need transformation. Its intent is reflected in Ruth Hayley Barton’s beautiful discussion of Moses’ turning aside to the burning bush. “The practice of ‘turning aside to look’ is a spiritual discipline that by its very nature sets us up for an encounter with God.”(Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership p52).

Encountering God in the midst of heavy responsibilities requires these moments of deliberate turning aside, retreating into ourselves so that God can permeate our being.  Often a repeated centering or breathing prayer enables us to retreat in this way without being in a place of physical solitude.

4. We must be willing to listen to all the voices through which God speaks. As a keen organic gardener I know that diversity is an important priority in maintaining a healthy garden. I think that it is also an important priority in maintaining a healthy, spiritually leadership team. Jewish philosophers believe that argument is the highest form of discourse and that we cannot have a true discussion unless there are dissenting voices.

God often speaks loudest to us through those who are different theologically, culturally or socially and if we are not open to voices outside our own little enclave then we will never hear the voice of God clearly. Particularly if we are making major decisions we need to make sure that the voices we listen to are as diverse and varied as possible. This is just as important for personal discernment and spiritual growth as it is for group discernment and spiritual leadership.

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning on Your Own

Cross and candle

Discerning alone

The following post is part of a series on Leading Spiritually. Check out the other posts in this series:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning Together

Discerning on Our Own

Being part of a discerning community means a commitment to discerning the will of God in our own individual lives too. It means growing into habits that encourage listening to all the voices through which God speaks to us. The art of listening to God doesn’t come easily or naturally to any of us, but we will never hear God clearly in a group if we have not learned to listen and respond to the voice of God in our personal lives. Unfortunately I think that many of us don’t take this responsibility seriously enough. Even when we know there is something wrong with the state of our souls, rather than pausing and listening to the guidance of God, or taking time to get away for some good solitary listening to God, we push on into the very activity that crowds out God’s ability to speak to us.

God speaks to us in many and diverse ways. Some hear God clearest through scripture and prayer. Others respond better to the voice of God through interacting with nature. Still others hear the voice of God through their interactions with friends, family, their faith community or their spiritual directors. God speaks through many other ways too – through our own brokenness and struggles, through the broken and marginalized in our world wide community, through our busyness and irritability, through the demands of our bodies and the weariness of our spirits.

Writing this series on leading spiritually has been something of a process of self examination for me as I have taken the time to discern how well I am doing in my own personal spiritual discernment. One tool I have found useful is this spiritual audit process I wrote several years ago. Another is the regular retreats that Tom and I take every three to four months. This has become an essential part of my own spiritual journey and in fact this season of soul searching and reevaluating for me personally, has come out of the retreat that we held at the end of last year. I would heartily recommend this process to others. The third essential process to keep my life balanced and my spirit in that place of discernment is the keeping of Sabbath and a time of journalling and checking in with God (and with Tom).

There are many signals that tell me I am not in a good spiritual state and therefore not likely to do a good job of discerning in a group. These usually surface during our retreat or journalling times. Busyness, irritability, not sleeping well at night, putting on weight, constantly feeling overwhelmed are all good indicators for me that all is not well with my soul. There are other indicators too that I don’t always take notice of – cutting back on my Sabbath observances, losing the balance between work and rest, community and solitude, secular and sacred are all indicators of a dysfunctional life that I know can destroy my ability to discern well within our leadership group.

The best book that I read in 2011 was Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Learning to live in a place of gratitude, where we are fully attentive to each moment, seeing in that moment the revelation of a God who loves and cares deeply for us is revolutionary but it is also incredibly freeing and spiritually rewarding. I think that it should be the goal of all of us who sincerely desire to discern the will of God for our lives and our organizations.

How is it with your soul? When was the last time you took a spiritual audit or went on retreat to check in on your spiritual state? What are the distractions that cloud your ability to clearly discern the will God? What are are you doing to overcome those?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where are We Heading?

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom

This post is part of series on Leading Spiritually. Before reading it you may want to check out the first two posts in the series:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

Where are We Leading?

Dysfunctional images of God and of God’s purposes for us have created dysfunctional view of spiritual leadership. In my last post I said: The central purpose of spiritual leadership is to become co-creators with God in bringing into being a community that is at one with God and with each other. Together we can shine with the presence of Jesus and model the love of God in such a way that others are drawn to believe in God. If we truly believe that at the heart of the universe there is a loving, caring Creator whose deepest longing is to draw us into into intimacy with himself our leadership will reflect that. If we really believe that God’s central passion is the restoration of all creation into a restored community of love and mutual care, that will become our central passion too.

About five years ago the MSA team started a journey into this type of leadership model. We began in a time of retreat asking a question we continue to ask and discern that I think is at the core of all spiritual leadership is: What is God’s vision for the future and what part of this vision does God want our community to grab hold of and live out together?

We started by reflecting on God’s vision for the future. The rich imagery of the creation story introduces us to a world where God, human beings and the creation live in harmony and mutual concern. Theologian Howard Snyder equates this beautiful, mutually dependent world with shalom. He explains: “On the seventh day God created shalom – the crown and goal of all his work.”

The crown and goal of all God’s work was a community of people living and working together in harmony and mutual trust, caring for creation and relating personally to their God who walked in the garden with them.  And God looked at all that had been created with complete satisfaction. (Gen 1:27,28,31)

Shalom is a corporate vision embracing the entire world community.  The segregation into small ethnocentric cultural groups that occurred at Babel is reversed and all people are reconciled and again walk in harmony and understanding together.  As we walk together toward God’s mountain, the instruments of war become the instruments of peace (Is 2:2-5, Mic 4:1-4) the lame are healed (Is 35: 4-7), the oppressed set free and justice comes for the poor.  Shalom even encompasses and our rediscovery of God’s call to be stewards of creation.  God did not create us to live as isolated individuals but as men and women together, in a harmonious interdependent community, caring for each other and for the entire created order.

From the time humanity was excluded from the Garden, the object of all of God’s work has been the recovery of shalom in creation and the restoration and renewal of all that was ruptured at the Fall. Amazingly, God asks us to be a part of that restoration. All Christ followers have a new job to do, to join with God in restoring, renewing and healing all that was distorted and broken by sin. We are heading towards a world of shalom. Our shared journey can show people how to live in shalom, how to share God’s shalom, and how to bring God’s shalom to the world.

What would the shalom of God look like if it was fully realized in our midst and how does God want us to live and operate to bring that into reality?