Embrace the Mystery: Being Embraced by Mystery

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?

The Great Annual Examen

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 

  1. 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) 

  1. 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? 

  1. 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.  

  1. 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:

My Lord God,I have no idea where I am going.I do not see the road ahead of me.I cannot know for certain where it will end.nor do I really know myself,and the fact that I think I am following your willdoes not mean that I am actually doing so.But I believe that the desire to please youdoes in fact please you.And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.Therefore will I trust you always thoughI may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.I will not fear, for you are ever with me,and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Consider the Blessing by the Irish Priest, John O'Donohue:
For LongingPoem by John O’Donohueblessed be the longing that brought you hereand quickens your soul with wonder.may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desirethat disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own uneaseto discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.may the one you long for long for you.may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.may your mind inhabit your life with the surenesswith which your body inhabits the world.may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

  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!    

The Journey of Discernment: Moving from Partly Cloudy to Clarity

How can we ever know God’s will? This has been a question people have muddled through for centuries. Our angst comes when we are faced with a particular conundrum—a dilemma of competing choices that impacts us personally. We need to make a decision but it feels more dark than light; more cloudy than clear. We live in the mud rather than experiencing a break-through. We want to know--but just can't figure it out with certainty.Should I marry this person? Should I take this job or that job?   Should we move to another city or stay put here? Should I retire or keep working? These questions force us to stop and think through a particular cross-road in life before we move on to acting. It’s those of us who have the tendency to bulldoze our way through doorways of possibility that get into trouble. People have regrets and have to live with regrets.Just last week when I was speaking to a group of business leaders, a man in his 70’s came up to me and said, “I’ve been reading your blogs. I have one thing to say, “Don’t retire. It’s the greatest mistake of my life. I should have never stopped working.” I was stunned to hear him say this but realized that his comments were really an invitation for me to pray more about my decision ahead. It was a signal to think very carefully about my own decision to “reposition” (read the blog I wrote about 'repositioning or retiring) myself. When we make quick decisions, we come to realize that we would have done better and been better had we thought the decision through more deeply.Discernment comes from the Greek word, “diakrisis,” which translated means “to separate” or “to sift through.” We need to learn how to “do” discernment because so many of us want the answers and we want to know on our timetable. It's like we have in our psyche, the erroneous idea that major decisions can be made in 15 minutes or less--then announced--then followed.  Discernment is a lost practice in today's quick world of quick answers and living by Twitter.  It's as if, we want to know God's will but want it sent in 140 characters. We are more shaped by our culture than truth and when it comes to making good decisions, we need to exercise great caution. We want to be able to “sort through” experiences, lists of pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses and then come to a conclusion based on our reason, logic or gut.  Spiritual discernment does not offer us easy answers but invites us into a process of laying down what we thought and how we thought good decisions are made to a journey--a journey of discernment.I am being cautious because, I have spent a life-time building what is my work. A wrong decision could be disastrous and impact people I love and care for a great deal.  I am a "founder" meaning that I have pioneered this work along side of Gwen and there is this disease called, "founder-itis" that I know I have. This disease says, "It's hard to let go of what you started." I'm in a process of working through laying down and repositioning. Some of you are as well.It is my observation that men, in particular find it hard to lay down their work.  Perhaps this is a part of our curse.  Our work gives validation, significance and love, to be honest.  And as a man ages, perhaps some women as well, it is just plain hard to lay down our work. So we choose mantras like, "I'll die with my boots on.But the journey of discernment is not just a left-brain exercise. When may seem linear and logical may not be very spiritual. This journey is moving from a Western mindset of “figuring out” a way to go forward to developing a posture of listening. It is moving away from needing to know—to needing to be in the presence of God. This is the all-important shift we need to make in learning to discern and I needed to shift my own need to know—to learning to be with God to listen—to listen to His voice and to listen to my own true self telling me what door is right.As I entered my 60’s , I began to notice more clouds than clarity. I remember having great clarity in my 50's. But almost on my entree to my next decade of life, the clouds came and the sun seemed to go away and hide. Things, that I once felt sure of seemed to be shifting to a certain unknowing. I suppose I thought that in time that I things would clear themselves up. But after a couple of years of walking in the forest more than in the light, I knew I needed something—or someone to help me. Confusion, lack of peace and anxiety bubbled up within me—more than at any other time in my life or work. For the first time in my life, waves of depression would wash over me leaving me lifeless and limp.  Finally, the straw that broke the camel's back happened on our Staff Team, when a key staff person resigned leaving it back on my shoulders. I was losing confidence. I was losing my grip that I knew I needed to have as a leader, founder and guide to many others. I knew I needed help. I needed a companion to walk with me through the clouds and into more clarity.An Intentional Journey of DiscernmentFor ten months now, I have been on an intentional journey of discernment. I chose to engage an ancient retreat method where I would slow down my need to know the future and enter into a long, slow, season of prayer where I would learn how to listen. I would learn how to listen to God. I would learn how to listen to my own heart and my own desires. I would learn how to distinguish the movements of God within my own four-quadrant heart and notice God moving me forward and through darkness to more clarity.So, I chose a trained, seasoned veteran of such things. I began to work with someone out of my box—out of my comfort zone—out of my normal way of thinking through things.  I had grown tired of groups, denominations and labels of people who think they know everything and have their act together.  Such arrogance and pride disturbed me greatly.  I became suspicious actually and wanted help in a different way--a way no one in my circles was talking about. I needed something more that a 10 week Bible study on ‘Knowing the Will of God.” I had done those kind of attempts and led those studies. This felt more raw for me. It feel more desperate. I was thirsty to really know and I needed to enter my thirst and not allow my thirst to be quenched by anyone or anything else.My Guide and My JourneyI chose to walk with a man who was trained in Ignatian Spirituality and someone who knew how to walk with someone who was a bit lost in the woods and couldn’t find his way out. I learned the old, ancient, tried and proven ways of listening to God’s voice within me. I began to distinguish and sift through the confusing feelings of self-preoccupation, worry and anxiety to the more trusted ways of experiencing a deep sense of peace, shalom and well-being. I began praying—every day for an hour—something that I had never really done before because I considered myself to be too busy and too involved—perhaps even too important. In this hour, I would listen to God in all of my life and as I practiced this, I became more comfortable with the process—even to the point of noticing a marked shift in me: I wanted to have this time. I needed to have this time. I wanted a God-listening heart.Then I went and sat in this person’s office every Wednesday at 4:00pm to talk and process together about what was happening in me and around me. With no doubt, this is the deepest journey I've ever walked to date and I have been so helped through my own rawness and clouds to a great sense of well-being. I am so glad to say, that I have moved from being partly-cloudy and into more light. It’s been like a parting in the woods where I found my path to walk in more light than I though possible. The result has been all gain and no loss. I’m still in this process at this very moment however and have not been “released” or “graduated.” I don’t think I will ever be graduated now that I am learning how to listen more deeply than ever before. I don’t want to be released from what I know now to be so true and so deeply meaningful. It’s a big shift for me to quit thinking of “moving on” or moving to the next thing to simply relaxing and staying in this posture of heart muscle that I have been exercising for these past ten months.A God-Listening Heart is Actually Possible!When King David of Israel had died, his son Solomon had a dream where God came and said to Solomon that he, God, would given him anything he wanted. Read the text for itself and see how Solomon responded:“And now here I am: God, my God, you have made me, your servant, ruler of the kingdom in place of David my father. I’m too young for this, a mere child! I don’t know the ropes, hardly know the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of this job. And here I am, set down in the middle of the people you’ve chosen, a great people—far too many to ever count.“Here’s what I want: Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well, discerning the difference between good and evil. For who on their own is capable of leading your glorious people?”--I Kings 3:7-9, the Message.Solomon wanted a “God-listening heart.” As I have spent this year in discernment, I am realizing, perhaps more than ever before that I, too, want a God-listening heart. I need that kind of heart. I needed to move away from all I knew and amassed to be a beginner again in the deeper ways of God's Kingdom.I want to live believing that God still speaks—still has important messages to convey to me and I want to not be so busy, so involved, so committed that I can’t listen. Henri Nouwen reminds us that when life begins to feel absurd, we are losing our ability to listen to God. The root word in Latin for “absurdity” is deafness.  Life doesn't make sense anymore when we are deaf to the Voice of God. When we’re deaf to God, life feels absurd. We grown in cynicism, suspicion and are prone to burnout. I see this all the time in my work with leaders in the church and the marketplace.The once soft hearts for God have been hardened and calloused by disappointment, disillusionment and private despair. I say private because where does a leader go these days to confess their own despair at what is happening in the world today?  We all need such places to keep soft and impressionable hearts. This is what a major part of soul care is—to keep a soft, pliable, malleable heart and soul in the midst of such stress, angst and world-wide despair.When Benedict of Nursia began his humble attempt to form Christian communities after the fall of Rome, in the 5th century, he wrote to all his would-be monks, that the first rule to live by is this: “Listen with the ears of your heart.” In our world today, we are clamored with so much inner noise of shame, blame, quilt and self-talk that we can’t hear the truth.  We can't hear the Voice. It's all buzzing sounds. It’s also noisy on the outside: meetings, traffic, emails, Twitter and text. We barely have time to make sense of anything anymore.  Whoever speaks today of the ears of your heart?  That's the kind of language that captured me and still does. It is the language Solomon wanted. It is the reality I have witnessed in thirsty souls who simply want more than easy answers to pressing dilemmas.When we feel the need to move from the cloudy days of life and experience more clarity and inner freedom, this journey begins with learning to listen—trusting that the God who made us in His own image and who loves us, wants to speak with us.It’s a very big year for me. And this will be an important year in the ministry of Potter’s Inn that Gwen and I founded 17 years ago. As I begin to “reposition” this will mean that Potter’s Inn will be impacted and influenced. So I want to be careful. I want to be wise. I want to know that I do have a “God-listening heart.”It’s important when we make decisions to allow affirmation to come. Every affirmation is really an important re-enforcement that we are on the right track—that the pathway we now see with light and clarity is, indeed right. So, I have asked the Board of Potter’s Inn to join me in a “Day of Discernment.” We have asked a Benedictine Monk to spend a day with us as a Board to do group discernment. I’m excited because our Board enthusiastically agreed to have this day retreat and all look forward to this time coming up soon. We will spend a day together in the collective posture of having a “God-listening hearts” to discern—to sift—to separate the many options to seeing greater clarity the way God has for us to walk—and to walk together. It is always a comfort to walk with a few other people when making decisions gaining insight, wisdom and perspective and above all trusting the wonderful process of building authentic community with a few other people.Pray for us in the days and weeks ahead, would you?  Please continue to pray for Gwen and me in the journey ahead--the journey of discernment.Here are some trusted books I'd recommend on discernment:The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin. Martin gives several chapters that are outstanding to discernment.Seeking God Together by Alice Fryling