Book Review: Unexpected Gifts
Author: Christopher Heuertz
Publisher: Howard Books ISBN: 9781451652260
“In true community, failures give us the chance to choose people over principles.” -Chris Heuertz
This book wasn’t exactly what I expected when I ordered it, but I believe it was exactly what I needed… an unexpected gift. Indeed.
I have been interested in the idea and the practice of true community for quite some time. I believe it [community] has been one of the things I have most longed for in the course of my Christian experience. It is for this reason that I am drawn to books and writers who share their experiences; I’m learning as I go and learning as I continue to search. I am also aware of the potential for romanticizing a dream and making it something that it often is not, although my awareness does not preclude me from being guilty of being idealistic about my passion for community. This is why Chris’ book has been an Unexpected Gift to me.
I’ve read a lot on the topic of Christian community and while there are often disclaimers that would caution the reader about not realizing the challenges faced by people sharing their life together, the stories are mostly shared in positive light. This isn’t exactly the case with Heuertz’s approach. I encountered something more akin to a confessional. I think this was a good thing. One only take a look at or a listen to the chapter titles and I think a certain picture begins to emerge: Failure, Doubt, Insulation, Isolation, Transition, The Unknown Self, Betraying the Community, Incompatibility, Ingratitude, Grief, and Restlessness. Do these chapter titles sound like the ingredients of Gift? Herein lays the beauty of this book.
Community is challenging if not outright difficult. While I have not experienced the level of Community (in a Christian context) as shared by Heuertz in Unexpected Gifts, I’ve been part of community in the context of other institutions (military, athletics, and other). The stories and struggles shared by Chris are sobering, but they are also inviting as they put into words the path of transformation and self-emptying discovery of what Christian love really looks like.
Every part of this book was a joy for me, but there were several chapters that spoke to me at a very deep level; chapter five, Transitions, was one of them. Changes in life, departures from friends, and differences in philosophy of life are among a few of the transitions that have occurred in my own life. None of these transitions have been easy and I have made mistakes, it seems, in the course of each one and this is one of the reasons I connected with this chapter so much. Reconciliation and restoration, patience, gentleness, and understanding are all virtues that should be a part of every transition of life—Chris speaks with rich wisdom on this subject.
Betraying Community and Incompatibility were two more deeply moving chapters for me as they spoke closely to my own experiences with various transitions in my life. As I have said, this is a unique approach to describing the beauty of Community. By taking some of the dirty, misshapen, rocky objects from the muck of the earth, Heuertz shows how patience and perseverance along with a gentle touch can turn those castaway misshapen objects into the most beautiful of gems. These are the unexpected gifts of community.
This is a wonderful book; at times, it was difficult to read, but that was because I was lost in my own reflections or wiping away my tears. Thanks Chris.
Book Review: The Awakening of Hope
Author: Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Publisher: Zondervan ISBN: 9780310293385
It is a little disappointing to me there are not more reviews and commentary about this book, although it doesn’t surprise me there is not. This book is about fully embracing the teaching of Jesus and covenanting with a community of believers to make every effort to live out those teachings in daily life. I think many, perhaps a majority, of “believers” aren’t ready to make that commitment and that’s why I think there’s not more conversation about this book.
I connected strongly with Awakening of Hope; I was nodding my head in agreement with almost every point of each chapter. The book is formed around a series of common practices that faith communities join in together as they endeavor to live out the teachings of Jesus. Each of these practices is talked about in individual chapters; Why we eat together, Why we fast, Why we make promises, Why it matters where we live, Why we live together, Why we would rather die than kill, and Why we share good news.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove does excellent work in presenting the challenging teaching of Christ in the context of real-world living. He begins every chapter with introductions to real people and real communities of people who have committed to live out the ways of Jesus with one another. For instance, chapter three introduces us to Don and Carolyn Mosley and the Jubilee Partners Community. Don, Carolyn, Jonathan, and others teach us about the reasons for a fasting together as a community. Another example, this from chapter four, about covenant and promise, Wilson-Hartgrove introduces us to Benedict of Nursia, Augustine, and Evagrius Ponticus to help illustrate the nature and the need for trust and commitment to the promises of God and the promises we make to one another in the name of God. One quote continues to speak deeply to me, Wilson Hartgrove writes the following:
“The challenge of faith isn’t so much to trust God’s promises when we hear them as it is to continue trusting t hem when it does not appear to our best judgment that they are being fulfilled.” (p.74)
My favorite chapter is six, Why We Live Together, where we are introduced to “David” from Reba Place Fellowship, a community in Evanston, Illinois. This particular chapter brought to my mind memories and recollections from other books about the ministry of communal living and shared resources. This is a topic very close to my own heart and perhaps why I was so captured by the stories and teachings from this section. Words from pg. 128 continue to reverberate in my mind and heart; “We live together, then, to realize our true vocation in Christ.”
The book includes a thought-provoking study guide and there is also a 6-session (90 minutes) DVD available that can be helpful with group discussions or as another medium for personal study. This is a challenging book, let there be no mistake. If you’ve ever thought Jesus might have been serious about the lifestyle he taught of in his Sermon on the Mount, The Awakening of Hope can give you a peek into several communities and their reasoning for the how and why of trying to live those teachings out.
Book Review: The Intentional Christian Community Handbook
Author: David Janzen
Publisher: Paraclete Press ISBN: 9781612612379
This book is outstanding! The extraordinary breadth and depth of experience shared in this single volume leaves me at a loss for words, but I will try to share my thoughts in this review.
As I have already indicated, there is a lot in this book; it weighs in at just over 350 pages including the introductory writings, notes, and selected reading recommendations. The author, David Janzen, is uniquely qualified with over forty years of intentional Christian community experience and leadership to write this handbook. I’ve been studying and reading almost everything I can get my hands on regarding intentional communities, neo-monastic communities, and the like for the past several years. I’ve read a lot of good books, learned a lot of great things, but I have yet to encounter the detail and attention this particular work gives to intentional Christian community. I would not refer to it as a handbook; I will refer to it as THE Book. It is this good.
Janzen has outlined the ICCH into six parts. Part One is titled The Yearning for Community in Context. It seemed to me, this chapter was about describing philosophy for Christian community and since the context of community can be unique from person to person, Janzen provides some first-person introductions to people drawn to and living in Christian communities. He will use the personal snapshots throughout the book.
Part Two invites the reader into exercises of self-examination; specifically to ponder the calling of intentional community in their life. I appreciated the honest and humility that David Janzen displayed in the chapters of this section. While not using the words exactly, he tries to move the reader past notions of romanticism and community. He shares some of the difficulties of shared life together and brings balance by sharing successes and beauty of living a Christ-focused life. Again, throughout this section Janzen uses the stories of others to springboard into real-life situations that help to give substance and flesh to these ideas and experiences.
Part Three of ICCH I think, is devoted to preparation before joining or beginning a community. In this section, Janzen deals with “first steps,” conflict, commitment, membership, stability, as well as sticky issues like race and gender. While these chapters are loaded with great information, I found a numbered list on pg. 110 especially helpful that essentially touts the merit of being “birthed” by a mature or existing community. The value of this type of oversight and support can be priceless.
Parts Four, Five, and Six cover the lifespan of community; Part Four is the first year, Part Five is the adolescence and growing years, and Part Six speaks to maturity and perpetual fruit-bearing. Chapter 19, On Why Your Community Might Need an Onion, from Part Five was one of my favorite chapters. The Onion Chapter uses a metaphor developed by the Simple Way Community (Shane Claiborne) that describes levels of involvement-commitment of the peoples associated with the community. I liked the illustration and the accompanying metaphors described which helped to develop my own community involvement design where I have used a diagram of concentric circles.
I had a number of favorite quotes, but one in particular seems to sum up the whole of this marvelous book. Janzen writes regarding participation in Christian community and spiritual formation; “Becoming a committed community member does not automatically cause one to grow in all, or any, of the virtues. But without community these things usually do not happen, and with community, there is help” (pg.212)
This book is definitely written to and for a particular demographic, but if you are thinking about or even remotely interested in intentional Christian community, you need not look further for an all-in-one resource. This is it.
Book Review: Spiritual Rhythms in Community
Author: Keith Meyer
Publisher: InterVarsity Press ISBN: 9780830835614
This is the second book by Keith Meyer that I’ve read. The first, Whole Life Transformation, I read and reviewed almost two years ago. As my review reflected then, I really liked Keith’s work and connected deeply with it in large part because of my own journey. While my enthusiasm might not be as open as it was in my previous review, I have enjoyed Spiritual Rhythms in Community almost as well.
What I love so much about this latest book from Keith Meyer is that it is a logical progression from Whole Life Transformation. In the first book, it seemed as though there was an awakening taking place; here, in this second book, there is practical and experiential refinement…the next steps as it were for the spiritual journey.
Spiritual Rhythms in Community is broken into two primary movements, “Rhythms of Disengagement” and Rhythms or “The Dance of Engagement.” In my experience the one (disengagement) should preclude the other (engagement). Meyer wisely integrates quiet, retreat, and solitude in this first movement for preparing the heart, mind, and spirit for more meaningful relationship and engagement with God through community. It is necessary to create a place of spaciousness in one’s life before adding more into an already crowded space.
Each of the exercises included in both movements begin with a Psalm reflection related to Jesus’ life example to us. The Psalm reflection is followed by a short teaching with personal anecdotes from Meyer’s life and concludes with a spiritual exercise(s) to help reinforce the teaching. I very much appreciated the depth of teaching presented in these chapters and especially respect the simplicity in which Keith taught these ancient methods with contemporary flair. This is not the easiest thing to achieve. I teach spiritual formation and am an acting spiritual director and often struggle with finding an appropriate vocabulary to share this teaching with others.
I was so grateful to get myself a copy of this book. It has been extremely helpful in my personal growth and it has already proven itself valuable as a tool for teaching others.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Intervarsity Press to read and post a review on my site. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Book Review: Creating a Life Together
Author: Diana Leafe Christian
Publisher: New Society Publishers
Wow. This has to be THE “mother of all books” on intentional communities. It certainly lives up to the title and subtitle on its cover. I think practical tools is a likely understatement as the book goes into much detail on many of the serious nuts and bolts of forming intentional community. I was and am beyond impressed with the information I found in Creating a Life Together; Diana Leafe Christian has done an exemplary job of bringing together a large amount of information and summarizing it into an intellectually digestive form. I am surprised at the breadth and depth of detail she has been able to bring into one volume and still maintain a level of readability that is unexpected for a book that seems like it should read more like an encyclopedia or some multi-step manual. My point; it reads very well. In fact, I read most of the book during a 3-hour flight…finding it almost as exciting as a mystery or action-adventure title on the NY Times Bestseller list. Really!
As I have already said, the book is everything it claims to be and more. The book draws on the collective experience of the author, Diana Leafe Christian, who has served as the editor of Communities magazine since 1993 and has many years of experience observing and living as a member of intentional communities. Additionally, the book also shares insight and example from a number of community models—their best and worst practices—so the reader is provided with “real world” experience to examine.
Creating a Life Together is divided into three primary sections. Part one deals with start-up issues; this section of the book is worth its cost alone. Part two is what I might refer to as the “engine room” of the intentional community and includes discussion about agreements, policy, legal advice and entity, property concerns, zoning issues, neighbors, and financing. It covers most of the mechanics involved with forming an intentional community. While this aspect of community might seem burdensome and/or boring, it absolutely cannot be overlooked and I believe Diana has done a great job of presenting this information fairly and highlighting its importance as well. Part three shares about the nature and development of the community itself…the people factor as it were, describing how people thrive, are nourished, and deal with conflict within the close confines of this type of neighborhood. There are many great examples of how it is done right and how it is done wrong in this section along with a number of very good resources. The book is rounded out with a great compilation of resource material found in the appendices featuring examples of community vision documents, sample community agreements, and information that I found extremely helpful for setting up a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. There is also a great list of books, websites, and other organizations at the end of the book that can serve for next steps or deeper study into specific areas relative to the intentional community model.
I am so very glad to have found this book. Certain aspects of it caused pangs of depression as I considered some of the aspects of community forming that aren’t so exciting for me, but I am glad to have the reality check and awareness of these aspects brought to my attention, so I have both eyes open as I proceed with learning about (and hopefully becoming part of) an intentional community. If you are considering this type of lifestyle, this book is a “must have” for you. Don’t miss it!
Book Review: Thin Places
Authors: Jon Huckins w/ Rob Yackley
Published by: The House Studio
I purchased this book because I’m interested in intentional Christian communities. I read it and I come away with the feeling of… hmmm… okay. I think this is good. No, I think this is great and here’s why. Thin Places is not selling hype, glitz, glam or gimmick. What the NieuCommunities is sharing in their Thin Places experience is real life, everyday life, plain old life… that is, as plain as living life under the authority and mission of the Almighty God of all Creation can be.
The book is about community and I learned about community from it, but it is not about the “nuts and bolts” of establishing or managing an intentional community. There is some of that, but more, the book is about attitude of mind and heart. The sub-title of the book reveals this attitude in these words; “6 Postures for Creating & Practicing Missional Community.” The introduction of the book does well to establish the tone and the pace for the chapters that follow with these words:
Cloaked in the covering of covenant community, we pilgrimage through each of the following posture as learners and practitioners:
Listening: We desire to be attuned to God, to self, and to our neighborhood.
Submerging: We desire to embody Jesus in our neighborhood while participating in an apprenticing community.
Inviting: We desire to grasp the depth of God’s invitation to kingdom life and to become more inviting and invited people while welcoming our neighbors into God’s redemptive story.
Contending: We desire to confront the things that hinder the full expression of the kingdom of God, both spiritual and natural, in our community, among our friends and neighbors, and in our city.
Imagining: We desire to discern God’s intent on our lives and help shape transformational faith communities.
Entrusting: We desire to entrust people to God and to others, celebrate our deeper understanding of God’ call on our lives, and lean confidently into our future. (p.28)
This is Thin Places. The remainder of the book walks the reader in a contemplative, yet practical, example of what it means to live in this nieu-monastic posture of “life intertwined” as emissaries of Christ in the heart of the neighborhood/community in which he draws and plants you. I found Thin Places a practical, real, and beautiful story. It is the story I’m pursuing for my own life and hope to find a group of people committed to living out this everyday way of faith.
I loved the ending words from the back cover of the book and find them appropriate to conclude this review; “Through Thin Places, create a fertile soil to commune with God, live in deep community with others, and extend the good news of the kingdom in your local contexts.” Yes. Thin Places might awaken you to do exactly that.
Last week I asked for your help in understanding how you might “hear” the voice of God. Your responses were great! I’m still receiving input on this survey and ask you to respond as well if you feel as though you’d like to share your thoughts on this topic. Here’s a link to the original survey, or if you’d like, you can respond anonymously through my contact form here.
This week I’m pushing in a slightly different direction with hopes of finding information on the following questions:
“Not” Hearing God’s Voice
- Are there specific times, places, and/or circumstances you do not “hear” God’s voice? (Please explain your answer)
- Do you struggle to hear God’s voice? In what ways?
- Can you share a specific time or circumstance when you wanted to hear God’s word to you and you did not hear it? Please share your thoughts about this experience.
Please feel free to share in the comments section of the blog, or if you prefer to remain anonymous, you may use the contact form here which emails me direct. Thanks for your sharing!
Formation Occurs in Community
Over the last years that I have studied the disciplines of spiritual formation and served as a pastor of discipleship and Christian education, one of the common statements of belief that I’ve read as well as heard over and over is this:
“Discipleship (or spiritual formation) occurs best when people are in community.”
I’ve heard this phrase a number of different ways and the quote above is admittedly my own paraphrase, but the intent of it is accurate and I believe through experiential evidence that it is true… “Formation occurs in community.” All formation occurs in community not only Christian or spiritual formation; every person and every soul is being “formed” by the company they keep and the communities they are associated with. This type of formation occurs in us even when we are least aware of it; we are being formed and shaped by our communities both consciously and subconsciously.
I think one of the wonderful curiosities exhibited in human social behavior is the amount of conscious and subconscious peer pressure human beings have on one another. One of the most powerful examples that immediately comes to my mind is the old saying, “keeping up with the Joneses.” Other examples that are more personal in nature, but just as powerful are memories of how I have been formed in ways that I would not have naturally chosen and the community I was a part of made me into something I probably would not have been. Take for instance my years spent in the US Navy aboard a ship; I was in close community with a group of men from whom there was not much separation for long periods of time. The group that I hung out with had a specific music they listened to, a way of talking and joking with one another, and a few hobbies that were shared by a majority of the members in the community. By the end of almost three years of living with these guys I had adopted most of their mannerisms, grown to be a novice expert in several genres of music, and taken up the hobbies of photography and hi-fidelity audio equipment collecting. Also, my best friend aboard my ship was a fellow who passionately loved old Harley Davidson motorcycles and had a beautifully restored 40-something knucklehead. Although I have forgotten a lot of what he taught me, there was a time I was fairly conversational about the nuances of knucks, shovels, and pans, especially the post WWII years up to the AMF years models… and I never have been a bike rider or owner. Yep, formation occurs in community.
The communities that have born influence over me aren’t limited only to my military experience. I’ve been influenced by sports communities I have belonged to, both as player and as fan. Hobbies have come and gone in my life too, as my community of influence has changed because of season of life and geographical location. Another big influence in my life regarding how I have been shaped is employment. Places I’ve worked and the people I’ve worked with have been incredibly influential in my life. I think the primary reason can be similar to the circumstances experienced in my military years, we spend so much time together. I think work (employment) is probably the place most people spend the greatest amount of their time around the same people. The reality of this statement might be true even to the extent of amount of time you spend with your own family. In other words, you may be influenced by and influencing the people you work with more than your own family because you spend more time with them.
I challenge you to consider your own timeline of life and see if there are places and mile-markers you might recognize where you have been influenced, shaped, and formed by the community you have belonged. My youngest son tried to tell me that he was not easily influenced by community and he was his own person. I found it humorous that he would explain all this to me when most of what he wears has Aeropostle written on it. I brought this to his attention along with several other examples of formation that had occurred in him by forces outside of himself and after a brief moment of tension we had a nice belly laugh together as we mutually recognized how easy it is to be influenced by sources outside ourselves.
The point of this may or may not be obvious, but to my thinking it is fairly easy to conclude that where, how, and what I spend the most of my time doing is going to have the greatest impact on the shaping and formation of who I am. The more I think about it and the more I prayerfully meditate over it, the more I believe that everything affects our spiritual formation. Therefore, all formation is spiritual formation. The reality of this understanding is that some formation has adverse effects on our spiritual development and some aspects of our formation have positive influence developing our spiritual maturity. Formation occurs in community… the question to us is this; “What type of formation are we receiving from the communities that influence us the most?”
The knee-jerk response to this sort of dialogue usually ends up resulting in some discussion involving isolationism, but this is not the answer. As followers of Jesus, we are supposed to be the influencers of all communities. This is what is meant by being a “city on a hill” and “the light of the world.” Cutting ourselves off from some communities and cloistering ourselves in holy seclusion will not be helpful in advancing the kingdom of God. The answer exists in continuing to mix and belong to communities as God directs each and every one of our paths. The point to remember is that we are supposed to be the influencers in our communities… the yeast working its way through the dough of every community and/or the salt that brings flavor to all communities.
Salt has a tendency to lose its flavor and yeast loses its strength too and this is why it is necessary to spend quality time in the context of your faith communities praying for one another, encouraging one another, challenging one another to growth, and being reminded of the life-changing truth of God’s word through the testimonies of one another. After all, what good is salt if it loses its flavor? (Matthew 5:13) All formation occurs in community; what formation are you receiving and what influence are you to the formation of others in your communities?
Monastic Notes (Pt.15—July 4th thru July 6th 2011)
(Pecos: Days 15-17—July 4th – 6th 2011)
Entering into the third week of the School for Spiritual Direction we were treated to a series of lectures and workshops with Kenny Mirman who shared with us his spiritual journey and writing from our LifeScripts. This series of talks was inspirational in a very big way for me. I have been writing and journaling about my spiritual journey for over eight years now. Something during Kenny’s talks helped to “uncork” some thoughts that turned into works of prose that shared in some earlier blog posts. The pieces that were inspired from the LifeScripts lectures follow:
I took no lecture notes during Kenny’s sessions as he provided handouts. The work we did in the workshops is reflected in the links and prose as listed above. Following the LifeScripts Lectures we were given a day off to observe in silence and solitude. Before entering into this time of quiet listening, some of us shared in a ritual ceremony with Kenny to mark the end of our lectures and the beginning of living our “God-dreams.” Kenny had asked us to write out the dreams that God had inspired in us as we had journeyed inward and sought Divine direction during those days. During the ceremony we read our dreams and planted them in the earth under an apple tree. Our symbolic planting of our dreams would become the nurturing elements of the apple tree as it grows…so will our dreams… as the tree bears fruit, so will the dreams God has planted in each of us…bear fruit for His glory. Amen. I am hopeful to one day return to the monastery and partake of the fruit of this apple tree as I share with the members of the community the fruit that God has bore in my life from the dreams planted during my time at SSD in Pecos.
The paper I planted and the words to my dream follows:
My authentic self desires to do the things and say the things I see my heavenly Father do and say. I desire to lay aside myself, so the Spirit of the Living God might live wholly and fully within me.
I desire to realize on this side of eternity to see all the false “selfs” that I have created for me to be put to death… I wish the same for the false “selfs” I have tried to live into that others have created for me… This way, only the Christ-formed-in-me self—the one predestined before the creation of the world will live.
I desire to be a vessel of hope and healing, a person who can be a place of refuge and reconciliation to the most destitute and broken of peoples.
My true self desires to be hospitable, charitable, benevolent…and not thinking about my own needs over the needs of others.
My authentic and true self desires to be broken as Christ was broken in order that my brokenness might also bring life to people who have been placed in my circles of influence…and then multiplied through those who were touched and changed, propagating fruit of life through many generations.
My authentic self wants to fully realize what it means to be chosen by Christ and live out the command to bear much fruit—fruit that will last…last for the kingdom of God and to His glory, the glory of God our Holy Father, the Holy Son and Savior Jesus, and our Comforter-Guide Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was an inspiring and meaningful ceremony and I will remember it always.
Personal Reflections and Recollections:
I feel as though I might be on the cusp of a turning point. I came to the monastery hoping to discern “next steps” for my life and the ministry for Laurie and I. I sense that some of those steps are becoming clearer. I will slowly press into these next steps as God allows and directs. It will be important for me to keep my ears and heart open to the Voice of God and the voice of others He will speak through as we navigate the coming weeks and months.
I enjoy having the sessions with my spiritual director, Ezra, he has been extremely helpful in my working through what God might be speaking and directing for the next phase of life for my family. I believe that as we put all of our trust and hope in God and concentrate all our efforts on living wholly for Him, the desires and motivations that “bubble up” from our hearts are the desires that He has planted in us to bring glory to Himself and fulfillment in life to us (Ephesians 2:10). Talking openly and honestly with someone about these unctions and urgings helps to discern the direction of God in our lives. I am grateful to have people in my life who I can share this season with.
Monastic Notes (Pt.13—July 2nd 2011)
(Pecos: Day 13—July 2nd 2011)
Today we covered the practice and application of my two favorite Ignatian exercises, the Examen and the Prayer of Imagination. I was delighted to hear we would be reviewing these exercises, but was disappointed the content of the lecture was more akin to a very high level review. We didn’t go into detail with these exercises to the level that revealed how life-changing they can be for the person who becomes a skilled practitioner of the Examen and Imaginative Prayer. The content of my notes consists of thirteen lines… less than half a page. Sad. In fairness, I must add that my sparse note taking might be attributed to my lack of hearing anything “note” worthy. I may be the one at fault, but I will say that I was listening and paying attention for the very reason that these exercises, or practices, stand in the top-five spiritual disciple-exercises that I use in my personal rule of life. I say that to emphasize the point that my personal investment in these disciplines inspired my interest in the lectures today. Personally, I thought they merited more attention and detail.
There is much more that could be said about this practice, but since I didn’t write down any acceptable notes on the subject, I thought I’d provide something with a little more substance from my own study and practice.
With regard to the Examen, Ignatius himself considered it the single most important daily exercise a spiritual pilgrim could practice. The essence of the Examen is a reflection, observation, analysis, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. Even more simplified, this process might be considered a spiritual inventory. Ignatius describes two types of Examen. The first type of Examen will generally involve some milestone in life or big event. This event might be grand (a big job promotion, birth of a child, or other major achievement) or it could be tragic (a serious illness, death of a loved one, or other major loss). Major life events have a way of grabbing our attention and bringing focus to the things we consider that really matter in our lives. When we undergo this type of reflective accounting in our lives we ask hard questions of ourselves to determine if the things we have invested in have brought the results we have desired. When considered in the light of our spirituality and our relationship with God, these “crisis moments” can be an affective and effective means of prayer, repentance, and move toward Christ-like maturity. This type of Examen is about looking at the overall arc of our life. The second type of Examen is more specific in its approach as it reflects primarily on the past day.
While I have practiced both aspects of the Examen, this second style is what has become integrated in living every day of my life. I call it living the “i” crucified life…submitting always and continuously to the transformative ways of the indwelling Holy Spirit who desires that we be completely transformed into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). Basically, there are five movments through this second style of the Examen. The first step is to ask God for wisdom, understanding, and insight to our day. This requires intentional time and focus. We believe that God is always present with us, always active in our day with us, and as such He will reveal to us where His actions were specifically directed toward our transformation. Step one is to acknowledge these truths and ask for God’s assistance in our recollection and review. The second step is to be grateful for God’s revelation and good gifts of grace and love to us through our day. God’s intentions are only good for us regardless of how we might perceive them or others might perceive them. God has one primary desire; this desire is that we, His children, would be wholly reconciled and full restored to the image in which we were first created…His image, which is the image of Jesus Christ. No matter what the involvement of God is in our life, everything is orchestrated to bring us to this consummation. As such, “all things work to the good…” (Romans 8:28). Consequently, it is only natural that we would give God thanks for all the “good” things He has given us. I also like to consider the exhortation of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians 4:8-9 during this time. Step three gives attention to our feelings throughout the day. Was there a time I was angry? Happy? Frustrated? Depressed? or otherwise? These feelings are not definitive ways of determining the state of our soul, but they can be used as diagnostic guidelines. Step four moves toward examining specific feelings, perhaps only one or two (if they are closely related). For instance, if I were angry and upset during my day, I might begin a series of questions to get to the root of that anger; “Why was I angry?” “Was I angry at someone?” “Was my anger over being offended?” “Why was I offended?” Ultimately, I might discover there were issues of pride or lack of confidence in my abilities that led to my anger. God may be revealing areas of my soul that need to go “in for spiritual surgery and repair.” This is a key part of the Examen process and no feelings should be censored or ignored. In this step, we trust God to reveal and expose what He wants us to know and work on in our spiritual life as we continue the journey to Christ-like transformation. The final steps begin with step five and acknowledging what God has revealed to us about our soul. Once we acknowledge God’s activity in our lives, we look forward to what He might be asking of us. I realized my example in steps three-four was corrective in nature, but this process might also be God’s affirmation of new habits that are being nurtured and revealed as Christ-like developments in our life too. This is important to remember. So, step five, acknowledges the work God is revealing to us as we look forward to the next day and how we will implement God’s will affecting the choices we make as we walk with Him in the day(s) that lie ahead. Finally, step six will close the Examen with intentional prayer acknowledging God’s work and our surrender to His will…asking for the strength and guidance of the empowering Spirit through the gift of the reconciling Son. A great prayer for this closing acknowledgment is the Lord’s Prayer or “Our Father.”
There is more that can be said about the Examen, but this is a good start. I can say the integration of the Examen with regular practice of Lectio Divina and the Prayer of Imagination (you can learn more about Imaginative Prayer here) have been absolutely life-changing for me…in the best of ways.
Personal Reflections and Recollections:
I had a meeting with my spiritual director, Ezra, today and talked at length about some of my feelings of discomfort and conflict I’ve had in a couple of the relationships since coming to the monastery. He was very affirming to me and reminded me that the discomfort is a good tool to use toward focus on what God is doing and speaking to me through these very relationships (see the Examen workout above for more on this). It was a good reminder and something that I am familiar with. I can recognize how quickly we can become sidetracked in these life conflicts; our first response is almost always one of defense and “self”-preservation. It is for this reason that exercises and tools like the Prayer of Examen and having a trusted spiritual director are so helpful in our development as Christ-formed people of God.
The days seem to be really full this past week. I am looking forward to tomorrow (Sabbath-Sunday) for a day of decompression. I am enjoying the many conversations that I am having with folks although I have a sense or some reasonable realization that I’m an odd dude. I find myself often feeling as though I am standing at the outer edges of my faith…where humanity actually touches the reality of GOD. I was consoled after reading Thomas Merton’s thoughts on Jesus’ prayer from the Gospel of John chapter seventeen (quoted here). Merton seems to think in similar terms as I do. I believe the prayer of Jesus invites us to truly enter the relationship that is the Trinity. The illustration of the Branch and vine (John 15) gives support for this too, I believe. St Athanasius speaks to this end as well in his writings as do many others including my own tradition of Wesleyan Holiness and their view on sanctification, so I know I am not alone. I know this is what God intends for His people; the progression from unity-union with the Trinity should be the drawing of one man to another in real (1 Corinthians 13) fellowship of love. I have no intention of giving up on my pursuit of this understanding and belief.
My reading continues to be an encouragement to me. Most recently, Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating are providing me with language that describes some of my experiences through the past few years in the course of my spiritual journey. Although many of my experiences and exercises have been solitary in nature, I recognize the process both authors speak of in their writings as being experienced in my own process and progress. To date, I haven’t found too many people that I can talk to personally who understand or identify with my experiences…this has been frustrating and part of the reason I feel like an “oddball” at times. I’ve found comfort in the experiences and writings of these men who have journeyed a similar path. So, I tell myself; “Journey on in Jesus, Jeff, Journey on…” Hallelujah!
Prayer to end my day:
Oh LORD, You are amazing! You are a patient Teacher and wonderful Savior-Friend. I pray that You continue to do Your work in me as You reveal Yourself more completely in my life. I love You and freely offer all that I am to You. Have Your way in my life and with my life. To You be all the glory and praise for ever and ever. Amen.