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!    

A New Year and Another New Beginning

stevegwenwagonA New Year means a new beginning! We get many opportunities to get things right in life. The timeless truth of the ancient image of the potter at work on the wheel reveals an all important truth for us! The potter’s wheel turns many, many times giving the potter time after time to get the pot right. We never just have one chance; one opportunity when we think of our new year this important way. The beginning of a new year gives us all the choice to get something right that has been, well…not right, for perhaps a long, long time. When we think this way, it is really grace for us. We give up the weight of having to try and to try harder. We simply begin and we learn to begin again.Here are five suggestions that I hope will give you some perspective to think through about your life and your future. Each of these suggestions will take practice; beginning again and again to get it right and this one most especially: grace---please choose to extend grace to yourself as you begin again. Think these through. Print this out and consider reading it with a friend over a meal or with your family. See what other ideas along with my ideas will spark in your and in your conversation. Here are my five suggestions for our new year ahead:1. Work smarter, not harder. Learning to work smarter takes into account:a.Your capacity—It’s not just how much can you do but how much SHOULD you do? Our true capacity is not really a measurement of if we are “high capacity people” or not. It is more sacred than that very corporate way of measuring people. It is about learning to keep our humanity in tact. That means giving up the myth that we “should” and “have to” always be doing more. To preserve our humanity and healthy relationships, we may need to learn to do less-but to actually do what we do better.b.Your margin—We need to think in terms of this focused question—Is my life—at the rate I am currently living—sustainable? When we include having margin in our life, it means not giving all we have; all the time to everyone around us. It means reserving time, energy and space—our every hearts for those we love and truly care for in this life right now—not later.c.Your boundaries—Are you saying “Yes” to the wrong people in your life? What would it mean to learn to say “Yes” to yourself and “No” to others? Sometimes, we have to learn to say “No”to others in order that we can say “Yes” to those we love—which includes ourselves and my friends, this is NEVER a selfish act. Never!2.Right size your life! We’ve all heard the expression “down size.” Companies down size. But sometimes, there is resistance to thinking of down-sizing when it comes to our personal life or church or a ministry. Let's learn to think of things with a new term: RIGHT SIZING! What would your life look like if you live this next year “right sizing your life?” What would you need to stop doing? What do you want to start doing? This is an expression that Gwen and I are embracing as we contemplate the future of our own work and our short time left to do this work. We want to give up illusions of expanding and rather, embrace living life that feels right, is right and treats us right as well as other people!3. Live with the End in mind. Most of us live with an illusion that we will outlive death—perhaps even escape it. But living wisely means to live each day with your own end in mind and that does not mean retirement. It means the end of your physical life on this planet. Benedictine Spirituality, which has greatly impacted our life and work says, “Keep death always in front of you.” If we do this, we will not live with regrets. We will grow in our appreciation of people—not things and embrace an eternal perspective in life not just focused on the here; the immediate and the urgent. I sit with a person each month who is a Benedictine Monk. As I sit and process where I am on my own journey, I see behind them--hung on the wall--a picture, an iconic image of my own spiritual director lying on the floor with a funeral pall draped over their entire body. It is a sobering reminder for me each month as I sit talking about my life to live with my own end in mind. It's a humbling yet healthy realization to embrace in our Facebook lives where we offer illusions of happiness, fun and out of proportion pictures which tell us that we are missing out; we better hurry up and do what they are doing to really live. When I processed this picture with my spiritual director, I am reminded that the Benedictines make a vow to "live every day with death in mind." It's a vow that helps keep them grounded and humble. What would it be like if in our marriages, friendships and work, we did the same to remember how fragile, brief and fleeting life is?4. Live this next year in a sustainable rhythm. How can you show mercy to yourself after a stressful day? By far, the #1 violation of people’s lives is simply this: We are living too fast; doing too much and have stripped the gears of our soul where there is nothing left but 5th gear and reverse. A sustainable rhythm has it’s foundations in the very heart and work of God. God worked six days but left one whole and complete day for rest. By embracing a cadence of life where we learn to rest and give up the illusion and false notion that says: Our life is up to us. Our work is up to us. The well being of other people is up to us. These are all fabricated lies that attach themselves to our hearts and literally squeeze the life out of us—robbing us of true life itself. In our work with thousands of leaders in the marketplace and ministry, the violation of living in a sustainable rhythm is rampant, destruction and dangerous. It is why there is so much exhaustion in people’s lives, marriages, relationships and souls.5. Live with your Soul in mind this next year! When we learn to live with our soul in mind, we will embrace the notion of caring for our souls. We are not machines. We are an integrated, cohesive and unified creation. We are wonderfully and fearfully made. So when we live with the soul in mind, we understand that stress, busyness and living in the fast lane will not only make us tired. It will make us sick. It will suck the life out from us. When we live with the soul in mind, we will live whole and holy lives—experiencing a deep sense of satisfaction, contentment and happiness. These are things that we cannot buy—cannot manufacture and cannot barter for. Contentment is an inside job which involves careful attention, nourishment and cultivation. When the Apostle Paul said, “I have learned the secret of being content…” he wrote those words while chained to a wall of a prison. What Paul learned, we can learn.Friends, a New Year provides the opportunity for us to give attention to our very lives. I trust these five suggestions will give you fodder for the fire of transformation this next year and throughout our lives.--------------------------------------------------------------If you've not yet been able to give an important Year End gift to help sustain the work and ministry of Potter's Inn, please consider doing so. A deep thanks for those of you who have already done so!If you'd like to begin the really important work of partnering with us by a much needed monthly gift, then here is the link to set up your one time or monthly gift in an easy, safe and secure manner.Here's the link: < Donate To Potter's Inn for One Time Year End or Monthly

Why Resolutions are Important and Needed!

Anchors give protection, security and safety. So do resolutions!Resolutions are like anchors for a ship.  The anchors are used to prevent a ship from crashing into dangerous reefs and obstacles.  They are instruments providing safety and security.  Making resolutions for the New Year can become anchoring statements--words of absolute resolve--palpitations of your inner desires--spoken, made public and concise.When I look back on my life--almost every good thing that has happened to me, has resulted of formulating these anchor resolutions.  Once I resolved to buy a "little cabin the the woods."  When we did buy the cabin tucked in the North Carolina mountains--that cabin became the respite my soul was literally dying for--it also became the prototype for Potter's Inn--as we know it today.  I made other resolutions in years past about my weight; my fractured relationships and my marriage.  Some have become so life transforming that I now shutter to think of what my life would have become--had I not found anchor resolutions to give me hope, resolve and a clear way to move through choppy seas and seasons of my life.  They became for me, more than something I was tethered to. Rather, my resolutions became guiding strands which gave me light in the midst of stormy times and a way to walk through whatever chaos I was finding myself in at that moment.People drift. People crash and people sink.   I've done all three of this---or should I say, I've run onto dry ground; my boat has taken on massive water and I have been in despair. To prevent the unthinkable for us, work on some simple statements which will give you a course to follow; safety from drifting off course and protection from sinking.Here are 6 resolutions you might want to consider working with---making them your own as your move into the New Year. 

  1.  Do something about forgiveness.  For most of us there are remnants of messy, broken and severed relationships.  The lack of forgiveness can take root in us causing us inner stress, mental anguish and relational isolation.  Who is the one person you want to move towards to forgive?  How can you do extend forgiveness.
  2. Do something about your pace of life and stress level.  Most of us feel victims to our clocks and calendars. We resign to surviving as if we can do nothing about the running on empty feeling we experience.  By choosing to move more slowly---how can you resolve to do this:  give intervals between meetings; allow yourself grace time on each side of your commute rather than giving the bare minimum.  The real question I've found that most of us rarely ask ourselves is this: What can I do today that will be life giving.
  3. Give yourself self-compassion.  For those of us in caring professions, we care  for others without giving care to ourselves.  For business leaders, navigating the whitewater of money, success and the fear of going under---what would self-compassion look like?  For the pastor and missionary; counselor and teacher---what can you do each week to give yourself mercy, grace and love?  Remember this, those who give must be given to....
  4. Pay attention to your Spiritual Life.  The spiritual life is not a program to be managed. It is an organic, wide-open journey where we become awake, aware and active in our walk with God . What can you do to attempt to wake up and walk more aware this year?
  5. Embracing the care of your body.  Our bodies are the address of our soul. The care of our soul is directly linked to the care of our body.  Rather than set big, unattainable, unrealistic and unachievable goals, mark a path where you can realize a movement in your body care like this:  Rather than make a "D" in my body care, I want to achieve a "B".  Only a few of us will ever get an "A" here. I'm certainly not one of those. But making a "B" is to live with this:  I feel good about how I am treating my body.  Good is better than poor.
  6. Unplug from technology.  I've found in working with leaders in the marketplace and ministry that being wired has become the #1 threat to their resilience. They are slaved; tethered to little machines. Make a resolution to unplug on day a week.  Here's a link to help with this offered through our ministry, Potter's Inn:  Get the UNPLUG Challenge here!

 Let me take this final opportunity to thank those of you who have stood with Gwen and me this past year in the support of Potter's Inn.  Potter's Inn for many, has become an anchor ministry for many around the world.  Your gifts and support make this anchor to happen for people.  It's been a year of expansion and our margins have run thin.  But by your help, we will finish this year strong and in the black--ready to offer an anchor to many who are tossed about on the stormy seas of life.  May God bless us!  May God hold us!  May God have mercy upon us all!Happy New Year---and may this be so! Steve