Sacred Synchronicity: When Life Comes Together

Synchronicity is "the coincidence of events that seem related". It is a coming together of events, people in places and in time that could not manipulated or “MANiuplated.”(Emphasis entirely my own and intentional.)As we look back on our lives, we can most likely remember times in our lives when a door opened that changed our direction or perhaps our entire life.  Somehow and in some unimagined way, things came together and this coming together was a good thing--a very good thing. Before THAT precise time, life looked cloudy—foggy and it was hard to find the way. There was no coming together. There was no synchronicity.  But then the fog lifts or the cloud separates, the light comes and we see...oh, do we see.For those of us have have been raised in the church, there is some church language which speaks of a similar kind of synchronicity. But in the church world, it is called, “divine providence.” Divine providence "is the governance of God by which He, with wisdom and love, cares for and directs all things in the universe."  Honestly, it's easy for us to get tripped up on words like "governance" and such and in the getting tripped up, alas we have over 250 Christian denominations who cannot agree on the amount of water to baptize someone or the alcoholic content of grape juice or wine. It's sad that we cannot major on the majors and minor on the minors.I think perhaps because most of my work is with people have suffered at the hands of hair splitting doctrine and pulpit pounding preachers, that I feel at liberty to choose another way to explain what I want to give a witness to at this important stage of my life.I once heard a very distinguished theologian say that there is no such thing as “divine” providence for all providence is divine. That, again, seems more to me like splitting hairs and fighting about words which folks in the church world are experts at. What's important here is to expand our thinking and our experience a bit and to wake up to some of the mysterious ways of God that we cannot explain in a PowerPoint presentation or in a bullet point list of explanations.Synchronicity helps me embrace mystery more than logic. It helps me live in the clouds of the transfiguration moments of my life rather than choosing to be like Peter in that precise moment of a cloud enveloping him and choosing to do a logical, manipulated, developed strategy of build three, mind you, monuments.  And Luke gets us to laugh at the Peter in each of us when he says, "He, Peter did not know what he was saying" (Luke 9:33).One of the great malady's of our particular day and age is that we have left mystery and embraced  a more left brain approach to knowing God. It's a desolation for sure. Because what embracing mystery and synchronicity teaches us is that God is in love with cloud like moments in our lives and in the clouds is where we can experience God most deeply. It is in the clouds where the transfiguration moments happen or they do not happen at all, perhaps.But the more I sit with with the word “synchronicity” the more I am liking this term: Sacred Synchronicity. By this I mean, that when things in life come together in such a way that there is no real human explanation for it is just as a sacredness to it.It felt like sacred synchronicity when Gwen and I met each other and finally realized that “we” were meant to be. We attended the same high school. Raided in the same town. But I never knew her until sacred synchronicity unfolded.  It felt other worldly. It felt, as I look back on it as sacred synchronicity.It felt like sacred synchronicity with Gwen and I had a vision to move out west from North Carolina to pioneer and envision an entirely brand new ministry called, Potter’s Inn. There was a "done-ness" in me that invited me to leave all I knew and to embark on a journey with great risk and danger. Yet we did it and that moment of choosing to follow the unknown path has made all the difference in my life, marriage, family and heart. That "done-ness" led us to a synchronicity of beginning Potter's Inn and again at this important time of envisioning a new chapter of our lives as we reposition and prepare ourselves to slow down and throttle back. You know, "retire."It felt like sacred synchronicity when on a frigid, cold, windy day in January 2018, I met a man who I just somehow knew would one day buy our very own retreat that we have labored so hard to establish and build for these 20 years. His heart and my heart met while climbing the summit at the retreat and I felt a deep, surreal—impression that “this” was the person to take the retreat and to continue to use the retreat for God’s glory.The sacredness of events in our lives that truly do “come together” in a way that there is no real, logical, left brain, linear way of explaining the coming together but by God.This is really a foundational principle taught by Paul, the writer of most of our New Testament about a God who cares and who is able to orchestrated events in a way that is beyond the human capacity to do. One verse that we often quote or go to for comfort was penned by Paul when he said:"Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good" (Romans 8:26-26, Message).This is a foundational principle that Ignatius of Loyola expounded upon in his brilliant treatise four hundred years ago. It is simply this: In life, we learn to see God in all things. God in all things becomes our heart beat. God in all things becomes our heart's desire. For once you've tasted the good wine of tasting God's goodness in this, I'm not sure you can ever go back.We see God in the details or our events. We see God in the movement in nature and in the movements within the human heart. We can learn to trace his movement to see a sort of sacred synchronicity happening and we are humbled by it. We drop to our knees because of it. We wind is knocked out of us and we breath both shallow and then sigh in magnificent relief.The journey of discernment—of seeing clearly—of seeing through the fog and beyond the clouds and to see into the very heartbeat of a very personal God who loves us enough to show off a bit by bringing things together from time to time so that we might enjoy his power; his ability; his might and his great care.

Becoming Who We Really Are: The Journey of Being Human

We are always becoming. From the day we were born, and really before that—we embarked on a journey of becoming. We do not stay who we were and we will not remain who we are at this very moment.Who of us would ever want to remain our 6 year old self? Is there anyone who wants to go back and remain 13 for ever?We morph. We change. We grow. We transform. This is the story of our lives.Take a look at me and my grandson, Charlie. He’s just six months old in this picture. Every parent knows that the terrible two’s are coming. But that doesn't matter to me. I'm his grandfather--his Pappy.He’ll go through adolescence; go through puberty; challenge his parents, go to school; get a few jobs, date a few girls and marry someone when he’s ready. He will try on vocational clothes—trying on one job, another role—yet another position until he, at lasts can say, “For this—I was made.” It will be a journey.  Sometimes, we seem to lose sight of the fact of our formation. As Charlie's Pappy, I consider it to be my chef--role to help him know his story and claim his story and live out of his story. I don't have to raise him. But I do want to help him understand his story.Then, there is Charlie’s spiritual journey. A person's spiritual story is really EVERY chapter of their life-story: health, past, relationships, vocational journey, fears, dreams, failures, sin, glory and more. Charlie, like all of us has a spiritual story—a sort of flowing and winding road where he will learn about God. He will hear about his original glory—that deep place within his soul that is all good and full of light. I honestly believe that the most important role of a grandparent is to re-enforce the original glory into our grandchildren. I say this because the parents are so consumed, like we all were, with survival, diapers, driving the kids around and discipline. He will be told about his sin—Lord knows, so much emphasis is on that part of his story that most of us have never even considered our original glory. Before there was sin, remember--there was glory.  He will be shaped by love, hurt, rejection, passion, longings and failure. All of it will shape his little soul that you see today.Charlie, like everyone of us, will be soul shaped by geography and place, good people and hurtful people. He will encounter mystery, facts and figures and be drawn to one or more of those shaping realities.  He will have his own distinct dreams and longings separate from his father and mother and his grandparents. He will make his own choices—some good and some not so good that will all shape his soul.Gifted writer, Madeline L’Engle pens these true words for us:“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be... This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide... Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup.And Spiritual author and mentor, David Benner writes, “Identifying and embracing your lineage is an important part of any pathway to greater wholeness because it involves remembering your own story. All the parts of your journey must be woven together if you are to transcend your present organization and level of consciousness. For myself, the great challenge was re-embracing traditions that I have grown beyond and that offered—even at the time—an oppressively small worldview. I did not want to be an ex-evangelical or an ex-fundamentalist. Too many people live that life of dis-identification, and I did not want to share their anger and “stuckness.” It was essential, therefore, for me to identify and embrace the gifts that had come to me from these traditions. This was the way in which I came to know that everything in my life belongs, that every part of my story has made important contributions to who I am. And the same is true for you.Charlie will have chapters of his life that he will have to make sense of. Each of us have chapters—some we like and some we don’t. There are sad chapters of failed marriages, broken relationships and following our prodigal hearts.  But what sense can we make of these shattered pieces of our story--these illusions that are so hard to die in us?When I look back at some of my chapters, I’ve noticed that as I’ve “moved on” or “moved through” a particular season or chapter, I had no real way of integrating THAT particular chapter into my story or soul.  At times, I felt like I was shedding old snake skins so that something new could come out.  I felt the need to "get rid" of the old skins rather than embrace them.  How about you?For many years now, I have called myself an “Re-Covering Baptist.” That always gets a good laugh in most circles I speak in except when I am among the Baptist themselves.   But truthfully, there were things—boxy things; narrow things, and some things I could never quite figure out that all seems to be informing me, “This is not you, Steve.” “This is not who you are. Pay attention.”  I'm wondering if in my telling you this about me, what might stir inside of you?  What or who are you "re-covering" from?Some of us will be recovering from some thing; some group; some political affiliation, some denomination or some person. Some of us will have addiction in our story—a lot of us. Some of us will have abuse. Some of us will discover we were abused not by what was “done” to us but by what was not given us—that every human being created in the imago Die deserves, requires and needs to be whole and healthy.I have heard the stories of thousands of souls—and the stories that bother and confound me the most are those that go like this:-I don’t have a past.-My past was buried and all I have is a present and a future.This past Saturday, I took a long drive and came upon a church with a big sign which read, “No one has a past—only a future.” I sat in the parking lot so disturbed by that sign that I had a quiet protest with my coffee, then drove on.What a lie—to say “no one has a past.” Here’s the deal. Charlie is living his past every single day right now.  And so are you.  So am I.So much truth and so much light is in our past that it’s really shocking. Our challenge is that so many of us don’t really know our story. We say, “We can’t remember.” Or, “That was so long ago, I’ve forgotten it.” I doubt it. The mind stores up all of these gold memories for us to mine and find the nuggets of gold that will enrich our lives.  Gwen and I have been working with a gifted therapist who is trained in helping us unlock the memories we can't dredge up--but have "bothered us". It's been such a helpful investment--particularly in our marriage. We felt the need to finally unlock the door of  each of our past that had gone unexplored and unexamined. We did this because we were hitting some impasses--all about our individual formation stories. It felt like our individual "past" stories were colliding and creating friction.  After 37 years, we felt like it was time to dig in and see what was "there".  We are both enjoying the fruits right now of such work--more peace and contentment than ever in our marriage.The apostle Paul reminds us, “We see through a glass dimly but one day, we will see face to face.” I think there’s far, far, far more to that verse than we can ever quite imagine. Our stories and Charlie’s story is already dim. We just don’t quite get or understand the power of people who shape our souls. We have not had enough science to reveal how our memories—our traumas—our beautiful experiences make us who we are.As I review my own story from time to time, I am realizing the power and significance of the shaping experiences of having a dramatic conversation on January 21, 1972 in my university chapel. Later, I was deeply shaped by flaming charismatic friends and one amazing Lutheran Pastor (Herb Mirley) who helped me break out of my boxes and experience an inner life where Jesus lives. Having a creed was not enough for me. I wanted it all. These friends helped me speak in what I though was “tongues”—but gave up after feeling like I forcing "it" to convince my friends, “I had it.” I was discipled diligently for four years by an Inter-Varsity staff worker who singled me out and poured massive time, books and memorizing Scripture into my soul. Some of what he "taught" me, I know now is wrong and not correct. I tried then to make a break from my denominational roots but did not have the courage to do so, so settled in for twenty years until I could find the words and muster the courage to say, “This is not me.”Like Benner, I am learning to embrace all of my chapters—all of my story into one, whole and integrated story that has shaped me.  It feels as close to what David wrote when he prayed, "Give me an undivided heart, that I might praise your name." For many years, my heart has been divided by doctrine, boxed by fears and marshaled by an energy that now I see was man made--not God shaped.Even now, I am still becoming. I am not done. There are still some things I need to lay aside in order to grasp hold of what is ahead of me. Some labels don’t fit me anymore and I want to grow in my gratitude for these chapters rather than be held hostage by them. I want to thank the Lord for the good I got wearing the label and courageously be willing to keep moving forward.How would you tell your story?  Who knows your story?  It would be a good goal in the the year ahead and find some trusted, safe and loving friends to listen to your story--and you listen to their story. Here are six suggestions:

  1. Use my book Soul Shaping to explore your past shaping events and people.
  2. Read or re-read my book The Lazarus LIfe where I tell me story through the story of Lazarus. You'll be given language and vocabulary to dig into your own story. There's a work book also for more and deeper work.
  3. Develop a time line in five year increments where you note the people, places, events and internal awakenings you experienced including abuse, trauma and rich and wonderful events.
  4. Make a time with 2-5 friends and give each person one hour to tell their story uninterrupted and unedited.
  5. Be kind to yourself as you dig into your story. Most stories have chapters and novels of guilt and shame. See if you can find the light and grace in each chapter of your story—for God has been with you all along, just has it is with Charlie right now.
  6. Ask God to help you remember and consider sitting with someone gracious, non-judging and who can deeply listen to your story.

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!