Imaginative Learning or Contemplative Action.

imagination first

Tom and I have just returned from vacation, and as per usual, I took a stack of books with me, some of which I will share with you over the next few days. One is Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon. I was particularly struck by Capacities for Imaginative Learning they share. Originally designed for arts and education, the authors feel however that they are guides for life.

It is an inspirational and thought provoking book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to increase their creativity.

What struck me is how closely these “capacities for learning” parallel contemplative practices and the spiritual discernment process we have used for many years in MSA. They open our eyes and ears to new ways of interacting with the world. They help us become creative, imaginative, able to solve problems in out of the box ways. From a faith perspective they open us up to the presence of God in all things and increase our awareness of God’s involvement in all the creative processes we engage in to shape our work and daily life.  I thought you would find them interesting:

Noticing deeply: identifying and articulating layers of detail through continuous interaction with an object of study

Embodying: experiencing a work through your senses and emotions, and physically representing that experience.

Questioning: asking “Why” and “What if” throughout your explorations

Identifying patterns:  finding relationships among the details you notice, and grouping them into patterns

Making connections: linking patterns you notice to prior knowledge and experience (both your own and others)

Exhibiting empathy: understanding and respecting the experience of others

Creating meaning: creating interpretations of what you encounter, and synthesizing them with the perspectives of others.

Taking action:  acting on the synthesis through a project or an action that expresses your learning

Reflecting and assessing: looking back on your learning to identify what challenges remain and to begin learning anew.


Run With Purpose In Every Step

Celtic retreat 2012 Morning worship

Celtic retreat 2012 Morning worship

This morning I am preparing for our MSA staff retreat time this weekend. We will use the Quaker Discernment process and organic strategic planning to discern God’s future focus for our ministry. At core, our MSA team is a spiritual leadership community that discerns and implements the will of God for our organization. and these processes have become the keys to our development both as individuals and as an organization.

As we enter this retreat we know that we need to focus more acutely on what God is leading us into. We are in a time of growth and transition, grappling with issues of how to sustain our current ministry, launch CCSP Cascadia and build the Mustard Seed Village.  In this time constantly coming back to God to discern God’s will becomes more important than ever.

In preparation for this time I have looked back over previous discernment sessions to catch a sense of what God has said in the past and how well we have responded to those promptings. I have looked at our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and our failures, our joys and our challenges.

I have also looked back and been encouraged by what others have said about what MSA has meant in their lives. Most are drawn by the invitation to join a community that is journeying together towards God’s kingdom of peace, justice and abundance.  Shane Claiborne once told us that he thought we were great “cross pollinators” and others to have appreciated the connections we help them make to people and organizations they feel they can identify and hang with.

Others have told us that they appreciate our encouragement to reimagine life and faith and create new possibilities for how we live in every aspect of our life. Brian McLaren shared that through MSA he was given permission and encouragement to think new thoughts, dream new dreams and see the gospel in a fresh, new life-changing and world-changing light.

Others have appreciate the modelling of a simpler, more festive and hopefully more Christ centred way of life and our willingness to share openly the ongoing journey it involves us in, even when it reveals our warts and wrinkles. Added to this is an appreciation of the resources we develop to help move all of us in this direction.

So my question this morning is what draws you to this blog and the other aspects of MSA? What would you like to share that could help us focus the ministry of MSA? I would love to hear your thoughts and also appreciate your prayers for this weekend. 


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 – Discerning Together

Candles help us centre ourselves

Candles help us centre ourselves

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?

Team Meetings as Discerning the Will God

I have shared the process that we use in the MSA team meetings and when we go on retreat, on previous occasions but have expanded it here to make it a more useable tool. You may also like to read Practicing Discernment Together by Lon Fendall, Jan Wood and Bruce Bishop which is a great book on the Quaker discernment process.

The amazing thing is that this process has not only drawn us closer to God and to each other but it has also made us more sensitive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives and those of our colleagues at other times. And it has made us more creative as we listen to the diverse ideas and possibilities that God is unveiling through others.

  • Centering – (Recognizing the presence of God). It is always helpful to start with a centering prayer or activity that stills our minds and brings us into a place of attentiveness to God. Centering is an intentional way to gather the group and help us begin to leave behind our busy schedules and the demands on our time. We each arrive at a meeting with an entire world dragging behind us. For each of us, that world is unique. So taking time to make a conscious choice to set aside those demands and distractions is helpful. That’s what this opening exercise is all about. Here is a prayer that I wrote last year to help me with this process:

May the centre of all things be Christ

May the way of all things be Christ

May the truth of all things be Christ

Behind, before, within, without

May the life of all things be Christ

  • Other suggested centering exercises are: to light a candle as a representation of Christ’s presence; join hands in a moment of silence; sing a song; say the Lord’s prayer or another prayer and then sit in silence. I have also written several breathing prayers that we have found useful in this process.
  • Gathering silence before the meeting. Sitting in silence for a few minutes extends this time of stillness before God. This is a time for each of us to let go of our grip on ourselves and our desire for control over both the process and the decisions that come out of it. We each need to acknowledge that we know nothing and must trust in God for all that comes out of the meeting. In this place of stillness we remind ourselves that God is in a different dimension beyond cognitive knowing.
  • Relating – (Checking in with each other) Since business is now a practice of discerning God’s desires, our ability to be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit must be encouraged. This step a spiritual practice that enables us to reconnect with one another in a way that grounds us in the Holy Spirit, connecting us more deeply to the presence of God. This is an extremely important part of the process in which as we actively listen to each other share we become aware of who the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.

There are many ways to do this and we are finding that as we grow together as a community that we want to expand and deepen the ways that we listen to each other using this as a time to affirm and strengthen the work that God is doing to draw us into a more intimate relationship with himself.

Possibilities include:

  1. Prayer of Examen on your experience of God this last week: Consolations (those things that have given you a deep sense of life-giving connection to God, others & yourself) and Desolations (those things that have made you lose your connection to God)
  2. Sharing the transforming edge of God’s activity in your lives. Where are you most aware of God’s transforming work in your life? What would give God the greatest opportunity to continue that work? What is the greatest hinderance to what God is teaching you?
  3. How is it with your soul? This is a question we can only ask when we are in a long term trusting relationship with our discernment group. Sharing our sense of our own spiritual state places each of us in a very vulnerable position. The willingness to keep this confidential is an essential element in this depth of group sharing.
  4. Lectio Divina.  This is a very ancient contemplative prayer technique practiced at one time by all Christians and kept alive by the monastic tradition.  It draws us into the presence of God opening our hearts and our minds to the activity of the Holy Spirit in and around us.

A second step in relating is to anticipate the week that is coming. What are you looking forward to? What are you less excited about? This step increases our sensitivity to the issues colleagues are struggling with as well as the joys they are anticipating. All of these might influence our ability to be fully present to God, our colleagues and our work during the coming week.

  • Receiving, listening and reflecting. (Attending to God, listening) Once we have shared we take time to consider what God is saying in our midst through our personal situations. This step works from the assumption that God is busy in our midst. We spend time in silence listening to God looking for directions, threads and common themes considering how God is moving in our personal lives.  We then ask the questions: Given what we’ve heard and shared, what is God doing among us or calling us to? How is that related to our vision as a staff or board? What are the implications of what we have heard for our lives and ministry?

If your staff or board has some directional/identity questions before it, you could introduce them here, even if at this point you don’t answer them, but merely see how your sharing might relate to any of them.  “What is our calling as a staff or a board? What is God’s heart around our mission? What characteristics of God should we endeavor to represent to the world? Where are we experiencing energy but not doing anything about it? Where are we pushing forward and finding resistance?”

  • Prayer of thanks for God’s activity in our midst. It is good before moving into the business for the day to spend time savouring the preciousness of all that has been shared, resting in the contentment of knowing that our lives are in God’s hands and giving thanks for both the good and the bad. Then we pray for request that have surfaced during our sharing.
  • Responding (With this focus on God and God’s activity, we do the business at hand in a spirit of attentiveness) This is the point where we finally get to business.  Oh wait, we’ve been doing business all along! This is simply the point where we introduce specific items that need discussion or decision.  Once the foundation of feeling connected to one another and to God has been laid, then we can move forward with confidence into the tasks at hand…always keeping an eye on our attentiveness to the Spirit. If at any point we feel distracted from being rooted in Christ, we need to push ourselves back from the agenda, take a deep breath, recenter and reconnect.
  • Returning and closing(offering ourselves and our efforts to God) are the final steps.  Before rushing back out into the world, take a moment to prayerfully reflect over the course of the meeting. Ask yourselves where you felt close to God; where there seemed to be shifts in the discussion that opened you up to new ways of thinking; where there were blocks; where God seemed most present.  Celebrate your experience of doing the work of the Church in the presence of God by naming some of these times and being grateful together.  Allow your closing prayer to express your thanks and joy.

Knowing God’s Purpose For Your Life

This morning I was reading a book that talked about discerning God’s call on our lives.  It reminded me of the active listening process in Living on Purpose which Tom and I wrote together several years ago and so I thought I would share this here.


  • Jesus carried the weight of the world on his shoulders yet He never seems overwhelmed or stressed out.  – “Come to me ye who labour and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, for my burden is light and my yoke is easy.”
  • Jesus had a clear, precise mission statement – Lk 4:17-19Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God – All of Jesus actions demonstrated to his disciples & followers what God’s shalom Kingdom was meant to look like. As a result of that focus He knew exactly how to allocate His time & resources – and His life seems to have flowed to a rhythm that attracted all who knew Him
  • Our lives need to be as focused as Jesus was – Jesus gave all of humanity a clear and overarching mission statement – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.  Out of this foundation we need to use Jesus priorities & life example to develop a Kingdom focused personal or family mission statement for ourselves
  • Work on a personal or family mission statement – A mission statement is a short phrase or sentence that provides an individual or group of people with a sense of purpose for their life.  It expresses what we see as the reason for our existence and defines the focus for all we are and do.

Biblically based mission statements begin with scripture study and an understanding of God’s shalom purposes for our lives as a foundation for defining that focus.  They are centred on relationship to God not on our personal happiness, dreams or ambitions.  They are outwardly focused on care for others not inwardly on our own needs   They are clear, concise & easy to memorize.  It should have broad enough wording to incorporate every area of our life.  Make it purposeful & inspirational – A sense of meaning that wakes you up in the morning and sends you striding enthusiastically into the day ahead


    1. Write down your earliest memories of a sense of the call of God on your life
    2. How has God been speaking to you through scripture – write down significant scriptures that give you a sense of God’s call on our life
    3. How has God been speaking to you through prayer – write down those things that you feel called to pray for on a regular basis
    4. How has God been speaking to you through the needs of others – Write down the areas of human need, suffering and pain that most make you want to respond
    5. How has God been speaking to you through community? – write down the ways that God has spoken to you through the advice & counsel of others
    6. Make a list of your own gifts & talents –
      1. spiritual:
      2. physical or intellectual:
      3. creative:
    7. In what ways have your educational opportunities helped to develop these gifts?
    8. How could these contribute to your sense of Christian calling:
    9. Write down your broken areas – God often uses our weaknesses to change the world
    10. What are your dreams & hopes for the future.  Write these down – even our self centred dreams may hold elements of God’s purposes for our lives:


    1. Look back over all that you have written in the active listening process – prayerfully consider ways in which these could come together in a beginning mission statement that flows out of your sense of Biblical purpose.
    2. Incorporate scripture where possible or write the scripture that has inspired your mission statement beside your mission statement
    3. Make short, concise and easy enough to memorize
    4. Make inspirational – this statement is meant to fill you with enthusiasm for the future that God has planned for your life
    5. Examples of good mission statements –
    • “To be a voice for the voiceless and bring glimpses of God’s shalom Kingdom into peoples’ lives”  Prov 31:8,9
    • To be a mediator of reconciliation between God and people with broken hearts, bringing them to growth and maturity in Jesus Christ” Eph 4:11,12
    • “To be an expression of God’s Jubilee in my community and throughout the world”  Lev 26:10-13
    • “To be an instrument of God’s healing bringing restoration to the land and to people’s lives” Is 58:6-9

    Use your imagination & creativity to bring all the steps from the active listening process  together in your own beginning mission statement:


    Work in the Spirit – Becoming the Change our World Needs

    As many of you know the MSA has spent the last two days in planning meetings working towards a three year strategic plan.  I wrote yesterday that one of our challenges has been that the usual strategic planning methods do not apply to an organization like ours.  As we have grappled with that I realize that the challenge is bigger than that.  Our real challenge is that the ways of God and the ways of the world are really meant to be very different when it comes to our work.

    First our goals are meant to be different.  Whereas the bottom line for a secular business is its economic profitability, I believe that the bottom line for Christian ministries and businesses is how well do we model and enable others to grow into God’s kingdom ways.  In his helpful book Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf comments:

    Human work properly understood theologically is related to the goal of all history, which will bring God, human beings and the nonhuman creation into ‘shalomic’ harmony.

    Often our most effective work from God’s perspective brings no economic profit, in fact it may do the exact opposite as when we work for justice amongst the poor and the marginalized who are penniless.  And work in this context cannot be isolated from the rest of life.  We are recognizing this more and more in the ways we work here at MSA.  Our spiritual disciplines, our personal joys and struggles, our financial challenges and provisions, our health and physical fitness all impact the ways we work. So we need to take all of these into account as we discern together, plan and work towards God’s shalomic harmony.  Our work is a part of our lives that is meant to be interwoven through all else we are and do.

    Second, our way of working is meant to be different.  In his book Whole Life Transformation, Keith Meyer talks about the fact that churches should have spiritual formation at the centre.  I believe Christian ministries and business should too.  I am more and more convinced that one of the important roles of a Christian leader is akin to that of a spiritual director.  Spiritual direction is a contemplative practice in which we help others look and listen for the mystery of God in all of life, and enable them to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment.

    Even in the secular business world there is a growing recognition that effective leadership is not meant to be a hierarchical authoritarian position.  There is a growing understanding of leadership as a process in which we mobilize others around a shared vision and work together for societal and personal change in a way that meets people’s enduring needs.  From a Christian perspective, leaders are servants, those who encourage, nurture and enable others to become all that God intends them to be and in the process we often discover who God intends us to be as well.

    This form of leadership frees Christian leaders from the need to know everything and be everything to their co workers.  It also hopefully frees us from feelings of superiority and prestige.  It frees us to recognize that we are merely part of a community in which God can speak through any and all members.  This also places tremendous responsibility on us as leaders to nurture and grow our own spiritual lives.  We cannot be effective Christian leaders if we do not have good spiritual disciplines, or if we are not open with others about our struggles and shortcomings.  We grow together as a community not as isolated individuals.

    Keith Meyer encourages the development of a corporate rule of life in which together as a community we develop guidelines and practices that grow both their individual and corporate spiritual maturity.  Here at MSA the Quaker discernment process has enabled us to accomplish that.  It takes our focus away from us as the ones who accomplish the work to God.  It enables us to relax because we are more aware of the fact that God is in control.  Every success or failure becomes an opportunity to listen to God and learn from God.

    It is not surprising therefore that we have become a very organic organization, more a community of like minded believers who God has brought together to accomplish common goals.  We truly are aware that in sharing our dreams together and listening to God together we are all empowered to co-create with God.  And it is my hope that as we do so others will be enabled to become co-creators with God too.

    As a result we all left our planning meetings yesterday inspired, energized and excited about the future.  It was not anything I as the executive director of MSA said or did.  It was more the sense that in our place of planning we had been in the presence of God.  And as we listened to God speak through other members of the team, through the changes and challenges of our society and through the serendipitous encounters and activities that have come our way we became more aware that God is leading us together towards something that bears the fingerprints of God.

    What has become clearer for us is that MSA is becoming a birthing centre that reflects something of God’s loving purposes for our world.  As we see our world changing at lightning speed, we want to use our imaginations, and encourage others to use theirs, to develop new ways to live, serve and celebrate into the future that God is bringing into being.

    We can easily feel threatened by the changes occurring in our world, which usually results in insecurity, anger and violence.  Or we see these changes as a design opportunity to work together with our Creator God to bring glimpses of God’s shalom eternal world into existence.