There are at least five benefits of taking time off and being away. I'm talking about the wonderful deposits we place into our souls when we take a vacation. I’m returning from four weeks off of work. Four weeks might seem like an extravagance that you cannot afford. I understand that. But for me—for us—we simply had to take this time off and had to be away. Here’s why…Read More
You’ve most likely heard the expression, “God works in mysterious ways.” But the problem with this statement is that it’s not found in the Bible. It sounds as if it should be. It sounds like a Proverb—like a very, very wise statement. But this often quoted statement is nowhere to be found within our pages of Scripture. It is inferred in a hymn which William Cowper penned in the 19th century. There he says, "God moves in a mysterious ways; His wonders to perform; He plans His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm." But Cowper uses the metaphor of ocean waves and white-capping stormy seas to help us grasp how mystery happens—how God rides the wings of mystery to help us know him and to know God’s ways. But just because we can’t find something in the Bible does not mean that it is not true—that God does indeed move in a mysterious way. I confess that I’m at a point in my life now where I am seeing the “mysterious ways” of God more than I ever have before. Circumstances, events, divine appointments, sacred interruptions, and more can call converge in our lives to give us the distinct impression, if not realization that God, indeed moves in mysterious ways. Take a look at the image I've posted here. This huge, sweeping cloud enveloping our big, red barn at the Potter's Inn retreat. This photograph is iconic for me because just looking at it causes something to stir in me. How about you? I heard a friend describing an accident that he narrowly avoided. What could have been a fatal car crash was avoided by slowing down to avoid a deer in the road only to have “just barely” missed being T-boned by a driver texting on their cell phone. Was this a mysterious way? What if I had not been at the Christmas party where I had met Gwen 40 years ago? Was that a mysterious way? We met. I knew on the spot and right in that place that she would be my wife. I did marry her and that night is etched on my mind as clear as the sun is in the sky from the place I am writing this today. What can you recall in your own life about a “mysterious way” where circumstances or events so aligned to bring providence at your feet and the clouds parted and fog lifted and somehow you just knew that the next step was an ordained step that you simply “had” or were privileged to take? In our sophisticated, technologically driven world, there seems to be little room for the mysterious movings of a clandestine God who arranges circumstances as he arranges planets in their orbit. We are logical. We are linear. We are rational people for crying out loud. So what room do we make for mystery? An event has happened in my life that has no real explanation except for mystery. We’ve prayed. We’ve asked for clarity. We have sought discernment. We have gotten counsel. Yet, in all the things we’ve done and not done, no one could have orchestrated what has happened. No one. A mystery has unfolded. A mystery has swept across me that is larger than the cloud sweeping over the barn. I will tell this story soon in another post but for today I just want us to sit in the mystery. A mystery explained takes the bones out of the body of a mystery. I am only left to conclude that mystery has been at work. I am left to believe, yet again that God is loving and his ways are loving despite what my present circumstances might say. My pain and suffering does not absolve this mystery. What seems awful; what seems negative; what seems catastrophic may really only be the fodder for the brooding of the Mystery. What seems like chaos; what seems like rejection, what appears to be evil may in fact be good yeast in the leaven of the loaf of my life. After all, the story of Joseph, the brother who was betrayed by his jealous siblings; beaten and left for dead, reveals the mystery that I am trying to explain here. Joseph was taken in by people who put him in the high places of govenment and in those very and precise, high places, Joseph was able to take care of his very own family who had done him in. How can we grasp today what Joseph teaches us? In the end, Joseph confesses the role of mystery in his life—a mystery that helps inform our own. We read: “Joseph replied, “Don’t be afraid. Do I act for God? Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people. Easy now, you have nothing to fear; I’ll take care of you and your children.” He reassured them, speaking with them heart-to-heart” (Gen. 50:20-22, Message). God used what was intended for evil and morphed it into good. I call this mystery. The mystery to consider is this: What was intended for evil actually—mysteriously—morphed into good. Embracing the MysteryThe work of spiritual discernment is to plow up the fallow ground of our lives; to do the inner work of spiritual awareness and spiritual awakening to see God in all things. Joseph saw and awakened to God’s movement in the circumstances of his life in a way he could have never, ever imagined. This is what it means to awaken. This is what it means to become more aware. This is what it means to behold and witness the mystery of God moving.Ignatius of Loyola founded a movement, 400 years ago, that embraced this core value to those who began to call themselves, Jesuits. “Finding God in all things” became their motto—their mantra—their own invitation to see God in mystery and not in just a rational, linear and logical way of experiencing God. It takes a bit of mystery to find God in ways we could never envision finding God. In a journey of investing twelve months of plowing up my own fallow ground, I could have never imagined how the answer to my prayers would have unfolded. What has happened is beyond me. It is beyond words. It is mystery.Followers of Jesus in the past embraced more mystery than we do today. We are an educated people today. We disdain the ignorant ways. In our quest to know everything, we may have attempted to de-throne the Spirit of God.Our spiritual parents lit candles to signify the mystery. Today we use our iphones.Clouds are always a suggestion of mystery in the Bible. Today, we are more concerned with the iCloud.We use to walk in nature to behold the mystery. Today, we scroll through pages of social media.Churches use to be called "sanctuaries" where we would sing, confess and bow to the Mystery. Now we watch, perform, and are talked at--and alot.We use to talk about being "spoken to" in church. Today we are Powerpoint driven and perhaps even addicted. Mystery has been replaced by the world that is driven by our left brains: logical, linear, rational and lined up. Yet in all of this, where is the space for mystery.Questions for Consideration: 1. How would you define mystery?2. When have you encountered mystery that literally changed your life or the direction of your life?3. How can you make room for mystery in your life now?
400 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola crafted a genius way of prayer. His method helped a person reflect back upon their day and their life in terms of how one experienced God. He developed a prayer called, The Daily Examen. It is both a challenging and comforting way to trace the movement of God in one’s life. After having spent a solid year in study, reflection and prayer using Ignatius' method of prayer, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ignatius was a genius. I only wish now that I had known about this decades earlier. Never before, had anyone in the history of the church, shared such a bold new way of spending time with God, ourselves and our own hearts. This Great Annual Examen is based on Ignatius' way of reflection and prayer.Ignatius developed a prayer called, the Daily Examen. It’s a method where we take the past 24 hours to think and pray through our day to raise the awareness of our own hearts of how God has moved within the past 24 hours. This method was something I made a commitment to do for one hour a day during every day of 2017. It’s been revolutionary. (At the bottom of this blog, I offer you a link to some resources that i recommend). But I wanted something more as a review of our year--a way of thinking and praying through the past 12 months as a way of giving us a sort of GPS--a way to really see where we are right now on life's journey and by God's grace and help--to get to where we want to go!As we all have our pro’s and con’s with New Year Resolutions, I wanted to see if I might develop what I want to call The Great Annual Examen. It’s a simple question and answer exercise where you work through some questions to help you reflect on the past year and anticipate the next year to come. It’s called the “examen” because in this exercise we take an examination of how we’ve “done” in life—on the journey and in different aspects. In some ways, many of us will admit that this past year has “undone” us—we’ve felt spent, done or only surviving and perhaps barely surviving at that! However you reflect upon this past year, it’s my hope that you’ll have a GPS—a sort of marker that will help you discern where you are and how you are and where you want to go this next year.It is a way of reviewing the past 12 months but in doing so, to allow ourselves to evaluate our life in 5 major categories: our physical health, our emotional health, our relational health, our vocational health, and our spiritual health. While every part of life is indeed spiritual, we may find it helpful to break down life into a few major categories. I’ve done this for you here and given you a final category of your spiritual life to help you reflect more in a focused way on you and God.Sit with each category and work through the questions slowly. Slow is the key. This is not an exercise where the “first response is the right response.” In fact, in thinking more deeply about each question, you will probably find that a longer look—and a lingering reflection will allow issues and concerns to rise that a quick response will simply negate.Take a few days to do this rather than one sitting. Take the days between Christmas and the New Year for example. By looking back and gaining insight, we will not be so apt as to repeat the mistakes we made this past year. Section 1: General Examination of My Life These 10 questions will help prime the pump for you to be reflective and mindful of your past year1.What are the most important events that have happened to me or in me this past year? 2. What are the greatest breakthroughs in any category of my life this past year? (physical, emotionally, relationally, vocationally, spiritually, with other people) 3. What has been my greatest struggle in my life this past year? 4. What has been my greatest and deepest loss this past year? 5. What has been the area that has consumed my thinking, attention and focus this past year? (health, relationship, future, etc) 6. Where have I felt most vulnerable in my life? (What area of your life do you feel the most naked, susceptible, and exposed?) 7. Where I have I most experienced the presence of God this past year and why? 8. In the past 12 months, where I have experienced the greatest sense of consolation (peace, happiness, contentment, shalom, serenity, beauty, etc). 9. In the past 12 months, what area of my life has given me the most desolation (pre-occupation, distress, sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, brutality, etc) 10. What ONE word would tend to sum up this past year? Section Two: Five Categories of My Life
- My physical health:
List five words that describe my physical condition and well-being this past year. How many hours of sleep can I honestly say I get each night? (8 is recommended). What choices have you given attention to regarding your health this past 12 months? What specific goals do you want to achieve in the future 12 months (better blood pressure, weight management, exercise, etc)
- My Emotional Health
List five FEELINGS that you believe had dominated (positive or negative from your perspective) your life this past year: What were you doing; who were you doing this with and where were you physically when you believe you were the HAPPIEST this past year: What were you doing; who were you doing this with and where were you when you experienced the greatest feeling of SADNESS this past year: What area of your life gives you the greatest sense of internal stress? How do you feel about your emotional well-being this past year?
- My Vocational Health
List five words which best describe your job/vocation/career? This past year, have you lived to work or worked to live? Circle one or the other. How are you feeling about your vocational journey: I want to make a change this next year.I want to continue as I am and just as I am.I would like to use this next year to study and prepare for a vocational change.I want to reassess and evaluate my vocational journey this next year.I want to re-position myself in regard to my work this next year.I believe I work ____________ hours a week. Next year, I would like to work ___________ hours a week. To do this, I will need to : Is your job right now giving you a sense of contentment and satisfaction? Why or why not? 4. My Relational Health List the names of people who have been life-giving to you this past year: Give a letter grade to your over-all sense of having community—a sense of sharing life with a few other people. A-Excellent, B-Very good. C-Average D-Really lacking in friends If your life style and work schedule and present realities conducive to having the relationships you feel you both want and need. Explain more in a few sentences.
- My Spiritual Health
List five words that would describe your spiritual health: (distant, intimate, excellent, very poor, no time for God, etc) How would you describe your prayer life this past year? How do you feel about how you have worshipped this past year? Describe how you are feeling about your church experience: What feels lacking to you in terms of your relationship with God? How has your image of God changed or matured this past year? List five words that would characterize your image of God? How has your relationship with God been challenged this past year? What are the 3 most important spiritual take-a-ways from this past year that you never want to forget: Where was your deepest spiritual struggle—the place of the greatest wrestling with God or the place of your deepest lament? What people do you feel the most spiritually connected to in your life: Prayer of Gratitude:End your time of The Annual Great Examen in a time of prayer. Express your heart in gratitude for all the specific things, events, people, and growth you've experienced or witnessed. Be specific in your thanksgiving. Consider doing a Prayer of Gratitude using an acrostic of G-R-A-T-I-T-U-D-E. With each letter of GRATITUDE, express thanks for something specific. Example: G- I am grateful for my sister G-loria.Prayer for the Future Year:Spend some moments asking for God's blessing on the future 12 months.Consider praying the beautiful prayer of Thomas Merton:
Resources:Here is a link where I recommend the top books I believe are good for the soul to read; and I give several spiritual exercises including the Daily Examen for your consideration: Here's the Link for Resources Developed by Stephen W. Smith, President and Spiritual Director of Potter’s Inn (The Great Annual Examen is version 1:1, December 2017, All rights reserved and Copyrighted @2017. Stephen W. Smith Links are provided for further reading and study and books recommended are found at the bottom of this document).PLEASE FEEL FREE TO PRINT THIS AND USE IT AND SHARE IT WITH YOUR FRIENDS!