“Stay focused! Disruptions are coming!”

“Stay focused!  Disruptions are coming!”

I recently returned to yoga.

Though I’m not a big fan of most forms of exercise, I do really love yoga!   Yoga provides a teacher-led, group-based, meditative practice, building strength from head to toe, burning fat, increasing flexibility and balance – all things I desperately need.  For an hour, or so, yoga consumes the full focus and effort of my whole being.  I generally leave a yoga class physically depleted, emotionally centered, and soulfully re-charged – not to mention, pretty sweaty!

My Monday instructor is a young, petite woman, named Ariel.  She has a gentle voice, clear instruction, a steady pace, logical movements, and she challenges me to push my limits.  I’ve had a number of yoga instructors, and she rates among the best.

This morning, Ariel had us begin, lying on our backs, relaxed, slowing our breathing, and finding our “center.”  All of a sudden, the classroom doors banged open, as chatty students from a different class returned exercise mats they’d borrowed.  Then, some students showed up late to our class.  Then, a maintenance guy came in, drilling something.

Chaos, rudely interrupting our feeble efforts to achieve inner peace.

In the midst of the noisy disruption, Ariel quietly arose, walked to the center of the room, and with a strong, clear voice said, something to the effect, “Stay centered.  Focus on your breathing.  Life is full of distractions and intrusions, just like these.  You have to learn how to stay relaxed and centered – in life and in yoga – even when there are interruptions.  Hold on to your peace.  Stay focused!”  Then she returned to her mat, and continued the class.

I have to say, I was very impressed with her composure, focus, and ability to turn a challenging situation into a teaching moment.  She saved our class, and provided a great life lesson.  “Life is full of disruptions.  You have to learn to stay focused.  Don’t lose your peace.” 

Honestly, if Ariel hadn’t taken control, I was on the verge of getting up and walking out.  I’d quickly lost my focus, and was becoming increasingly irritated.  Her strong, clear instruction calmed me, helping me regain my center, leading to a great – though challenging – workout.

The truth is, that kind of thing happens to me all of the time.  I begin everyday with prayer and meditation.  I start every day centered and spiritually grounded, or try to.  But, as they say, “stuff” happens.  Something on the news or social media irritates me.  Someone misses an appointment.  A driver offends me.  I feel stressed by my “to-do” list.  I spill coffee on my freshly-ironed shirt.  Unexpected crises disrupt my well-planned schedule.  The car won’t start, or I get a flat tire.  Whatever the issue is, the peace I worked so hard to establish, and wish to maintain, flies out the window, leaving me in a frenzied state of irritable distress.

I lose my peace, all of the time.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t take much.

I bet you do, too.

As Ariel took control of today’s class, I wondered if she could possibly follow me around, everyday, reminding me when the disruptions come, over and over: “Stay focused.  Stay centered.  Breath.  Don’t lose your peace!”?  But, I’m guessing that might seem a little strange.  And, she might actually have other commitments and obligations – like yoga classes to teach.

Maybe I need to learn how to stay centered and focused on my own.

How about you?

God Speaks: are you listening?

God Speaks: are you listening?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Does God really speak to us?

Is it possible to hear, recognize, and comprehend, the voice of God?

Jesus says we can.  “My sheep listen to my voice.” 

Throughout the Bible, God spoke…

  • God spoke to Adam and Eve, face-to-face.
  • God told Noah to build a big boat.
  • God told Abram and Sarai they would become parents in their old age.
  • God spoke to Joseph in dreams.
  • God spoke to Moses via a burning bush.
  • God spoke to and through the Prophets.
  • God spoke to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”
  • God spoke to Mary and Joseph through an angel.
  • God spoke, and the “Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
  • God spoke, through Jesus, to the multitudes.

“For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”  (John 12:49)

If God speaks, and if it’s possible to recognize God’s voice, inevitably the question is, “how?”  How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?

I suppose the different ways God might speak to a person are innumerable.  Sometimes, God might provide a literal “sign.”  I have a small sign, that sits on a shelf in my office, that says, “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.”  It’s funny – but, probably not the sign most are looking for!

Sometimes God speaks through a person.  Pastors call that “incarnational” ministry: when we become the human vessels through which Divine speaks or acts.

Sometimes God speaks through a painting, a song, a line from a book, a billboard, a dream, a movie, a TV show, a Social Media post, a “coincidence” – you name it.  The possibilities are endless!

But, a word of caution is needed.  Even the most experienced, godly, spiritually-gifted “listeners” hear God incorrectly, sometimes.  Your “signs” might be from God, or they might just be wishful thinking!  Your “signs’ might be from God, but you may not be very good at interpreting the signs.  After all, we’re all biased by our hopes, desires, fears, and limited by what we don’t know or understand.  If we want a sign badly enough, we will likely see one, whether it’s from God or not.

If and when you believe you’ve heard from God, before acting on what you think you’ve heard, I suggest the following…

  • Pray more, and wait on the Lord for further confirmation, clarity, or instruction.
  • Read the Bible.  Is what you heard consistent with Scripture?  God never contradicts his Word!
  • Seek “wise counsel.”  Go to the godliest people you know, share what you think you’ve heard, and be open to their feedback.  Hopefully, they won’t just affirm what they think you want to hear!
  • Consult with a Spiritual Director: someone who has training and the spiritual gifting to help you discern God’s voice.
  • In seminary, a nun taught me to apply the Great Commandment to what I think I’ve heard God say.  Does acting on what I think I’ve heard cause me to love God and my neighbor more, or less.  “If more,” she said, “do it.”  If an action fulfills the Great Commandment, we should act, whether God told us to, or not!  Of course, if it doesn’t, don’t.
  • One of my dearest friends always asks, “Is it the brave thing to do?”  Often, God challenges us to move past our fears, doubts, insecurities, and complacency, requiring bravery to act.
  • Pray and listen some more – it never hurts.

Like I said, God speaks, and may speak to anyone at any given moment.  But, if you want to become more familiar with God’s voice, and to hear God’s voice more frequently, and with greater clarity… well, that takes faith, practice, time, and trial and error.

I begin every day (almost) with God.  Sundays are a bit of an exception, as I’m preparing to preach (I consider this God-time too – it’s just different).  Every other day, my morning routine begins with God-time.

Though my exact routine varies from day-to-day, most days begin with Scripture and devotional reading.  Sometimes, I believe God speaks directly through Scripture, as a particular word or phrase seems to “leap” from the page, drawing my focus and attention.  The same happens in my devotional reading.

I usually spend some time in relaxed silence.  Silence can be hard for some people.  Internal and external noise can be a distraction.  For some, repeating a word like “love” or “peace” can be a helpful aid to focus – sort of like a mantra.

Throughout my silence, my primary focus is on God’s presence.  Because I believe God is both intimate (within me, through the Holy Spirit) and transcendent (greater, higher, mysterious, ineffable), I focus my attention on God’s loving presence in me, and all around me.  Usually, as I do this, I feel a gentle weight in the center of my chest.  I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.

Then, I move into a time of listening.  I simply ask God, “Is there anything you want to say to me?  Please help me hear your voice.”  Sometimes, I ask specific questions, or bring up issues I’m praying about.  Then, I listen.  I find that using a journal helps.    I write down what I bring to God.  Then, as I sense a voice, other than my own, speaking within me, I write down what I “hear” (this is rarely audible – more of an impression).

Let me be clear about this.  Just because I sense God speaking, and just because I write it down, doesn’t mean I am 100% confident God has spoken.  But, I do write down what I “hear.”  I simply trust – by faith – that God is speaking.  Time will tell if God actually has, or not.  To me, the important thing is having sufficient faith to believe God DOES speak, and sufficient humility to recognize my limited ability to listen.

There have been a few, rare times I’ve heard an audible voice, that I believe was God’s.  I can’t prove it.  For the most part, I’ve not sought those occasions.  Rather, it’s seemed I needed to hear a particular a word from God, that I didn’t know I needed.  More often than not, what I’ve heard has been quite humbling, and usually uncomfortably challenging.

My personal belief is, God is constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.  As God is essentially relational, and desires a relationship with each of his children, and relationship requires communication, it only makes since God is constantly striving to initiate a conversation with each of us.

The challenge is, God rarely shouts or screams.  God is far more subtle.  In my experience, God mostly whispers.  So, while any of us could hear from God, at any given moment, most of us aren’t paying attention.

One of the questions I wrestled with, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, “If God speaks – which I believe – why didn’t God warn anyone about Nikolas Cruz?  How could family, peers, teachers, administration, DCF, FBI, and law enforcement all miss it?  Wasn’t God speaking to any of them?”   I obviously don’t know the answers to those questions.  But, I’ve come to believe God was speaking – because God is always speaking.  Perhaps no one was listening.  How tragic is that?

I try to listen for God’s voice, every day.  I’m not a prayer expert, or a super-spiritual mystic.  I just believe God speaks, and I don’t want to miss out, if God has something to say to me today.

Are you listening?

 

 

Fruitfulness

Fruitfulness

One of the trees in my bonsai collection is a calliandra – more commonly known as a “pink powder puff.”  “Pink powder puff” doesn’t sound particulalry manly, so let’s stick with more scientifically precise terminology!

My calliandra bonsai ought to look like the one pictured above.  But, it doesn’t.  I’ve owned the tree for almost ten years, and it hasn’t yet produce a single pink powder puff yet.  I’ve watered.  Fertilized.  Pruned.  Re-potted.  I’ve tried more sun and less sun; more shade and less shade.  I’ve begged and pleaded.  I’ve done everything short of singing to it.

Still no puffs.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad looking bonsai – not my best, but not bad.  But, a calliandra is SUPPOSED to produce pink powder puffs… and, dang it, I want my powder puffs!!!

My non-blooming calliandra reminds me of a teaching of Jesus,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”  (Matthew 7:16-18, NIV)

“By their fruit (or pink powder puffs) you will recognize them.”

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree and it’s fruit as a warning against false teachers.  You may recall, Jesus was frequently critical of religious leaders, who appeared outwardly pious, but were inwardly mean, stingy, and ungodly.  Basically, to paraphrase, Jesus said, “Look for the fruit.  If the fruit is good, trust the source.  If the fruit is bad, no matter how religious or pious the person outwardly seems, be wary.  Be very wary.”

This teaching could also be applied in reverse.  Sometimes, a person may not seem particularly pious or religious.  But, “look for the fruit,” and you might discover more in them than immediately meets the eye.

What fruits?

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5, NIV)  He was talking about love.

Galatians 5:22-23 says, “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)

You might think of other “fruits” of the Christian life – tithing, service, study, worship, and varieties of other “Christian” behaviors.  But, at least according to these two passages, the fruit of abiding in Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, is mostly related to our character.  And, character has everything to do with how relate to others; how we treat others.  The bottom-line seems to be, a fruitful Christian has a character something like Jesus’.

As you may recall, the people most condemning of Jesus’ religious behavior (healing on the Sabbath, associating with sinners, touching the sick) were specifically the ones Jesus warned us about.  The religious leaders, who constantly opposed and criticized Jesus, “appeared” perfectly religious – they tithed with exacting precision, they prayed loud eloquent prayers in the public squares, they associated with the “right” people, they avoided sins and sinners like a plague, they washed their hands vigorously, and they dressed impeccably.  But, Jesus compared them to freshly white-washed tombs – fresh and clean on the outside, but filled with death and stinking decay.

In stark contrast, Jesus was open-handed and open-hearted with EVERYONE.  He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.  His followers were commoners.  He embraced the sinful and the sick.  He honored outcasts – like Samaritans, gentiles, and even a Roman Centurion (the commander of the enemy occupiers!).  Jesus was consistently welcoming, kind, and compassionate.  He spoke of love, demonstrated love, and embodied love.  He even loved and forgave the ones who nailed him to a cross.

Recognize the goodness of a tree, by the good fruit in produces.  Recognize a godly person by their character.  Is a person’s character more like Jesus’, or like the Pharisee?

My point isn’t to judge – the Bible is pretty clear about that.  My point is, perhaps we place so much weight on outward morality and behavior, and far too little on character.  Though I strive to live a consistent, faithful, obedient, moral life, I would much rather be known for my kindness, generosity, mercy, and love, than how much I tithe, or how little I cuss, or how many verses of Scripture I’ve memorized.  I do tithe.  I don’t cuss… very much.  And, I do know a fair amount of Scripture by memory.  But, do I love?  Do I love like Jesus?

What kind of fruit am I producing?  What kind of fruit are you producing?

 

Recalibrating Your Soul

Recalibrating Your Soul

Among my favorite memories are early morning walks on the beach, alone, with my Panasonic RX4920 Stereo Boombox resting on my shoulder, playing my favorite reggae music.  Those were High School and college years, in the 1980s, on random Florida beaches, playing mixed tapes of my favorites songs by Bob Marley, UB40, and a lesser-known band, Steel Pulse.  Something about those early morning, walking alone, the sound of waves lapping the shore, and those reggae rhythms, recalibrated my heart and soul to their proper and preferred tempo.

It was good for my soul.

Riding my motorcycle is a similar experience.  When I find a long stretch of empty road – especially ones with some gentle wind and curve – cruising around 70 mph (give or take), my feet resting on my highway pegs, I relax, take a few deep breaths, and find my inner RPMs returning to their ideal operating speed.  I don’t have a stereo on my bike, and I don’t want one.  The mixed-tape I need has been permanently stored in my head.

I remember an opening scene of the Sons of Anarchy series: its night, and the Sons are riding a California highway, and, in the background, Jax says, “Something happens at around 92 miles an hour – thunder-headers drown out all sound, engine vibrations travels at a heart’s rate, field of vision funnels into the immediate and suddenly you’re not on the road, you’re in it. A part of it.  That’s why I love these long runs. All your problems, all the noise, gone. Nothing else to worry about except what’s right in front of you. Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold on to these simple moments.” 

I rarely go 92 mph.  But, I get his point.

I’ve experienced the same in a rocking chair, on my porch, on a cool Spring morning.

For some, it’s running or yoga.  For others, it’s fishing or canoeing.  For others, it’s horseback riding.  For some, it’s swinging a hammer.  For many, it’s keeping a Sabbath day.

Whether or not you’ve found a time, place or activity that uniquely settles your heart and soul, I think we all need it.  I know we do.  It’s just so easy to get out of whack.  Just like a motorcycle engine operates at an ideal speed and RPMs, but may need an occasional recalibration, I think the same is true for the human soul.

The stressful demands of life and work; the competing demands on our focus and attention; the countless distractions and interruptions; the flood of meaningless data; the barrage of incessant noise; the push and pull of wants, desires, and needs; the pressure to perform and measure-up to some ridiculous standard; countless worries and sources of anxiety; the external and internal critical voices; all muddling your brain, driving your heart-rate, and clouding your soul.  We all need moments – regular moments, frequent moments – and practices, to let it all go, to find your centered-place, to breath deeply, and to return to your best God-intended rhythm.

My soul needs it – demands it.  I bet yours does too.

 

Spiritual Insanity

Spiritual Insanity

I love the world of fantasy films and literature.  Ranging from comic books and movies, to the Arthurian legends, to Harry Potter; I love stories of superpowers, magic, and mythical creatures (especially dragons!).  Though I’m clear about the line between reality and fantasy, I find that an immersive story can blur the lines where the worlds of sorcerers and superheroes feel just as real as this one, at least for a moment.

I’m currently reading Wishsong, the third installment of the Sword of Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks; a series of stories set in the far future, following Great Wars that annihilated the Earth as we know it, and the emergence of a world populated by humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, druids, evil… and magic.  Brooks is an excellent writer and, as with all great fiction, the characters and story-lines begin to feel “real.”

Yesterday, I saw “Avengers: Infinity War” in 3D.  Though I’m a sucker for superhero movies, and have never seen one I didn’t love, this particular movie, in my opinion, crosses new thresholds.  The storyline, cinematography, animation and special effects blended perfectly to create a truly immersive experience that felt like reality.  As 18 Marvel movies preceded “Infinity War,” the characters comprising the Avenger team have, for fans, become personal heroes and friends.  The shocking end of the movie (spoiler alert), for a true fan, felt utterly devastating – even if it’s only a fantasy story.

Then, this morning, I came across an interesting verse of Scripture…

“It is by faith that we understand that the ages were created by a word from God, so that from the invisible the visible world came to be.”  (Hebrews 11:3, New Jerusalem Bible)

The “Study Notes” in my New Jerusalem Bible add, “Creation seen with the human eye of faith reveals ‘unseen reality’: before creation everything real existed in God from whom everything comes.”

For a person of faith, talk of “unseen reality” seems completely reasonable and rationale.  We read passages like this without a nano-second of doubt.  Of course there’s a God.  Of course God created everything.  Of course there are unseen realities.”  But, try to imagine reading those words without faith, and they begin to sound a lot like fantasy.

In 10th grade, I had a teacher that talked about the difference between sanity, insanity, and unsanity.  Sanity, as she described it, is a 100% accurate perception of reality.  Insanity is a completely distorted perception of reality.  Unsanity falls somewhere between sanity and insanity.  She taught that we’re all unsane.  As evidenced by conflicting witness testimonies in court trials, and the vastly contradictory reporting by the news media, we all see “reality” from vastly different perspectives and interpretations.  No one is capable of 100% accuracy.

We’re all unsane – hopefully falling closer to sanity than insanity.  But, we’re unsane, nonetheless!

Saying I enjoy escaping into fantasy movies and literature should sound entirely sane, even if you don’t appreciate the genre.

On the other hand, if I say I believe the Avengers actually exist, in real life, you might think I’m insane, or at least very naive.

But, what do we do with faith?  Where does faith fall on the spectrum of reality and fantasy; sanity, insanity, and unsanity?  After all, to unbelievers, talk of a spiritual world – filled with angels, demons, prophets, and miracles – likely sounds like fantasy.  Belief in an unseen God, who is the invisible source of everything “real,” likely sounds insane!

But, what if Hebrews 11:3 is right?  What if reality includes both the visible and invisible, spiritual and material, ordinary and extraordinary?  What if ignoring or denying unseen spiritual realities is actually insane – a complete distortion of reality?  And, what if, most of us – including believers – spend most of our lives completely out-of touch and out-of-sync with the most important aspects of reality – the unseen and spiritual?

What if denying God, and unseen spiritual realities, is insanity?

What if believing in God, but rarely actually engaging the invisible world of the spirit, is unsanity?

And, what if those who deny the existence of God are actually insane?

I choose sanity.  I choose mystery.  I choose faith in a God I cannot see.  I choose to believe a man named Jesus was the “visible image of the invisible God.”  I choose to believe prayer and contemplation connect me with deeper spiritual realities.  I choose to believe the line between heaven and earth, seen and unseen, is quite “thin.”  I choose to believe that love, compassion, sacrifice, beauty, goodness and “Truth” are far more real than the distorted half-realities this world values so dearly.  I choose to embrace the fullness of reality; including faith and science, seen and unseen, reasonable and unexplainable.  I choose to believe that what I am only able see partially in this life, I will someday clearly see “face to face.”  I choose ALL reality.

I choose spiritual sanity.

So, what about you?  Sane, unsane, or insane?

 

 

Let it rain

Let it rain

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”  Hebrews 6:7 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And God permitting, we will do so.”  Hebrews 6:1-3

In essence, some spiritual teachings are foundational, even “elementary.”  Repentance, faith, etc. are the basic materials for establishing a foundation of faith.  Good, strong foundations are important.  But, foundations are meant to be built on.  A solid foundation is essential.  But, a foundation is only a foundation.  Therefore, “let us move beyond elementary teaching about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

My particular brand of Christianity is Methodist.  One of my favorite things about Methodism is our belief that, following conversion, God begins a new work in us, growing us toward full maturity in Christ.  We believe, with God’s help and our active participation, we will become like Jesus.  According to Hebrews 6:1-3, the “elementary” teachings about Christ are simply the raw materials for establishing a foundation for a life of faith.

For years, I’ve participated in home construction in a small Mayan village in Guatemala, called Chontala.  Most families in Chontala have traditional homes, made of adobe brick, like ones built by Mayans for millennia.  The main benefit of adobe is it’s free – just made of mud and straw.  The problem with adobe is it becomes brittle and unstable in earthquakes.  The homes we build are concrete block construction, which tend to be more stable in earthquakes and storms.

Before we can build the walls of a concrete block home, land has to be cleared, trenches have to be dug and leveled, and foundations have to be created from rock, sand, re-bar, cement, and concrete blocks.  Those are the elements of a solid foundation.  But, as Hebrews describes, the foundation is just the beginning.  Upon the foundation will be added walls, doors, windows, electrical, and a roof.  Then, families will add furnishings and personal belongings to make a new house a home.  Of course, most important are the beautiful families who will live in these homes.

Surrounding most of these homes are corn fields.  Corn is the primary crop of Guatemala, and a mainstay of a Mayan diet.  Corn seed, saved from last year’s harvest, is planted in fertile volcanic soil, and grows rapidly throughout the rainy summer months.  For countless generations, corn has been annually planted, harvested, and dried.  Some is eaten, and some is saved to be planted the following year.  It’s a simple, reliable, dependable, repeatable process, vital to Mayan life.

Daily, corn is ground and cooked into tortillas, tamales and atole (a corn-based hot drink, I don’t particularly like) – the basics of the Mayan diet.  From infancy to old age, corn nourishes the daily life and work of every Mayan.

This is how I imagine the metaphor Hebrews 6:7 describes,“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”   Our spiritual lives can be like those Mayan corn fields; abundantly fertile, sown with ancient seed, watered with dependable rains, producing fruitful harvests, nourishing the daily lives of many, passing on seed to generations of planting and harvesting yet to come.

Mayan corn is a dependable crop.  It always has been, for countless generations

Likewise, spiritual growth and maturity is a dependable process, with God’s blessing and our participation.

The question is, are we still focused on“elementary teachings?”   Or, are our spiritual lives growing, like “Land that drinks in the rain?” 

As Paul writes,I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

My Mayan friends have no control over the rains.  They simply plant their crops, and trust the rain to come and do its work.  Similarly, we have no control over the “spiritual” rains that fall upon us, or the crops we produce.  Our job is to faithfully plant the seeds of God’s word in the soil of our souls, and to place ourselves under God’s rain as much as we possibly can.

And, where does God’s rain fall?  Worship.  Christian friendship.  Prayer.  Study.  Sacraments.  Contemplation.  Service, mercy, and justice.  Silence and solitude.  Spiritual direction.  Place yourself where the rains of God’s grace flow, with an open heart and mind, and we will grow.

We will become like Christ.  We will become who we were created to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done.” 

What do you desire?  Elementary teaching?  Or, to become like Christ?

 

 

Spirituality, Calling, and Ministry

Spirituality, Calling, and Ministry

Today ends my first year, of a three-year “Certificate in Spiritual Companionship with Practicum in Daily Life,” at St. Thomas University (for more information, https://www.stu.edu/theology/programs/spiritual-companionship-certificate-program).

This year’s focus was on Christian spirituality, faith development, and the basics of Spiritual Companionship (also known as Spiritual Direction).  Starting next fall, year two will focus on the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.”  The third, and final year, will focus on the actual practice of being a Spiritual Companion/Director.

Some enroll in this program simply to deepen their own spiritual practices.  Some do so to enhance the ministries they’re already doing.  Some will actually become professional Spiritual Companions/Directors.

But, what about me?  Why am I, after 24+ years of ministry and two seminary degrees, taking a course in Spiritual Companionship?  For several reasons….

One, I love learning, and felt like a specific program would be good for me.  And, a program focusing on prayer and spirituality was very attractive.

Two, though I’ve never technically been a “Spiritual Director,” I feel like I’ve done a lot of spiritual direction in my ministry, and would like to do it better.

Three, my current ministry role is not nearly as personal as previous ones have been.  As the “senior” pastor of a large church, there are more administrative responsibilities, less one-to-one contact, and fewer opportunities to be in ministry with parishioners more personally.  Hopefully, also offering the ministry of Spiritual Companionship/Direction will help me find balance in my ministry role and my pastoral calling.

What is Spiritual Companionship/Direction?  A Spiritual Companion/Director is a trained guide, who assists a spiritual traveler on their journey toward knowing Christ, and themselves, better.  A Spiritual Companion/Director is a listener, an encourager, a resource, a fellow-traveler.  A Spiritual Companion/Director is not a therapist or an advice-giver, or even necessarily a pastor.  The task of the Companion/Director is to know Jesus, and to walk beside, pointing the way, for another to discover Jesus and themselves.

As I come to the end of this first year, one particular thought has become clearer to me.

Though I met Christ as a teen, at a Christian summer camp, I didn’t really begin my spiritual journey until I graduated from college.  But, then, my life turned in a surprising direction.  Almost as soon as my spiritual journey began, I sensed a call to ministry.  Within months, still early in my spiritual development, I became a youth director.  Before I read most of the Bible, or understood much about Christian theology, I was enrolled in seminary.

From the beginning, my spirituality, my calling, and my ministry have been intertwined, as if they were one in the same.  Though we never discussed this in class, I’ve recently realized, more clearly, that my spirituality, my calling, and my ministry are three distinctly different things.  Though they’re interrelated, and overlap, they’re not same.

My spirituality is not dependent on my calling or my ministry.  My calling, though important, is only one aspect of my spirituality.  And, my ministry is simply the context/role where I strive to be faithful to my calling and my spirituality.

Too often, I’m guilty of conflating the three.  Many pastors do.  We act as though our primary duty is our ministry role and responsibilities, sometimes losing touch with our actual calling, and treating our spirituality as an afterthought, or something we do to fuel our ministries.  But, that’s backward.

Spirituality – meaning a growing relationship with Jesus – has to be first, even for ministers (I would argue, especially for pastors!).  Pastors may have abundant knowledge of theology, Bible, and Church management.  But, if they don’t have an active, personal, current relationship with Jesus, how can they lead spiritually?  If my role and calling are to lead people to Jesus, to grow in spiritual maturity, to discover their callings, and to know Jesus personally, then all of those things must first be true in me!

How can a pastor offer something he/she doesn’t have?  And, knowing Christ and myself is the goal, whether I’m a pastor or not.

I value my calling.  I’m committed to my current ministry role and performing it as faithfully as I possibly can.  But, both are secondary.

My spirituality must come first.  Knowing Jesus must come first.

That’s true for me.  That’s true for you.