Friday, May 9, 2008

Morning practices, pt. II

image Allow me to return to the subject of my quest for good morning practices.  By these, I mean morning practices which foster spiritual formation, faithfulness, and peace; in other words, a way to start my day holy, healthy, and happy (so far as it depends on me).

When last I wrote on this subject, I was in the midst of a transition in morning practices, having come through a period of heavy stress combined with a major shift in the habits of our very young children.  This, in the midst of more than a week away in California, forced a big transition in my morning habits.  To reiterate, here were my hopes and dreams for a particular morning:

  • Breakfast
  • Coffee
  • Prayer
  • Engagement with the Scriptures
  • A GTD daily review
  • Exercise
  • Writing

Not all of these are created equal:  Breakfast and coffee are not disciplines at all--I simply don't miss them, ever.  It's easy to make and eat breakfast (cereal) and coffee is almost as quick.  On a rushed morning, the whole process takes less than 15 minutes, less if I'm grabbing coffee on my way somewhere.  I include them here more for the sake of completeness. 

The practice of prayer and engagement with the Scriptures are disciplines for me.  How I feel on a particular morning influences how difficult it is to actually begin these processes.  It is a rare morning when I forget, but often I remember and avoid.  Excuses make themselves available and I find myself sidestepping these practices, promising myself I'll get to them "after I'm done with such-and-such."  Rarely happens.  That's why they call these disciplines; when I am tired, drained, stressed out, locked in struggle with sin (or struggling to ignore sin), or exerting myself emotionally in any other way, spiritual practices become difficult.  The discipline part of these spiritual practices take over in a trusted rhythm, leading me to begin these practices in spite of stiff resistance.  Even better, these rhythms also carry me through the practice, very often leaving me refreshed, restored, and filled in the process.  In fact, I cannot remember an occasion when I have defied the forces which push against these spiritual practices and then felt worse after going through with them.  What else should I expect from an encounter with the Author of Life?  But I always seem to forget that part at the beginning of the struggle.

The GTD daily review goes in a slightly different category than the spiritual practices.  Doing a daily review is not emotionally draining for me; in fact, once I begin the process, it threatens to run away with me.  The daily review sparks something that inspires me to gain perspective on my day, resulting in a sense of purpose and action which, properly harnessed, catapults me into my work day.  This has a lot to do with the fact that I love my "job", and as long as I don't feel too overwhelmed, I can't wait to get started on the tasks for the day.  My problem with the GTD daily review is to keep it sharply honed so it doesn't eat my morning, bleeding seamlessly into a task-attack, email-fest, or blog-reading sinkhole.  There is also a danger in the review becoming a source of idolatry, granting me a false sense of control or self-importance about my place in the world that day.

And lastly, exercise and writing fall into a fourth separate category, since they require a much larger time investment and are therefore more difficult for me to cram into a particular morning.  My goal is a 15-20 minute period of exercise and 1000-1500 words per writing period.  Less than these amounts for either goal bring about little in terms of results for which the goals are intended, so they stand as bare minimums.  You might be forgiven for wondering what exercise and writing have to do with spiritual formation, faithfulness, and peace.  Exercise properly undertaken invigorates the body in the short term.  Over longer periods, exercise increases energy overall levels and adds to emotional health.  In short, it allows me to undertake those things to which I am called with vigor and energy.  As far as writing goes, it is something which I deeply enjoy.  I find restoration and a renewal of my creative spirit in such an activity.  It is also something which I consider a gift from God, and in that gift, I find a calling.  Living into my calling enlivens my passion, fulfills part of the purpose for which I was made, and brings me joy in the act of co-creation with God for the benefit of others.

These are the elements that I hope to use to begin my day in spiritual formation, faithfulness, and peace.  (I'll write soon on the specific forms each of these will take, and then exactly how it's going...)

Morning practices for a good day

image Our routines shape so much of who we are, both for the good and the not-so-good.  I'm one of those people who loves his morning routine, and I love even more to fiddle with it, chasing the perfect beginning to that elusive "good day."  With years of experience in such fiddling, I have discovered that how you begin the day has a lot to do with your perceptions of that day at its end.

Here are the things with which (ideally) I'd begin my day:

  • Breakfast
  • Coffee
  • Prayer
  • Engagement with the Scriptures
  • A GTD daily review
  • Exercise
  • Writing

When leaving my morning routine and beginning whatever that day holds, I'd like to feel unhurried, fully submitted to God's purposes for my life in general and for that particular day.  I'd like to have the echo of God's voice following me as I heard it in His Scriptures.  I'd like to feel confident about what needed doing that day, as well as feeling confident I was moving toward my larger goals for the week, month, year, and lifetime.

For the sake of contrast, here's how I've been starting my day:

  • Breakfast
  • Coffee
  • Google Reader, catching up on various blogs/sites while shoveling cereal in my face
  • Rushing off to start my day, often (but not always) getting in one or more of the following:
    • Prayer (sometimes including some time in the Scriptures) -- usually happens 4-5 days per week.  Less often on non-work, non-week days.
    • GTD daily review -- usually happens 3-4 days a week.  Never on non-work, non-week days.

I have rarely been getting at all to exercise or to writing.

My big pitfalls lately have been:

  • Tiredness.  This kills exercise first.  When I'm blasted at the end of the day and have a few spare minutes, I hardly feel like climbing on the treadmill or busting out pushups.  Also drains the goodness from otherwise good mornings; prayers seem dry, Scripture reading hard when I'm tired.
  • Creatively spent.  Preaching every week as well as constant attention to envisioning the future tends to drain your batteries on creativity.  I face a blank page now and then, and decide to just surf blogs instead of writing.  Input instead of output.
  • No home office.  I love my youngest daughter dearly.  But she stole my office.  In order to have a semblance of a contiguous morning, I often have to leave the house for a coffee shop or something similar.  This adds transit times and distractions, not to mention paying "rent" by buying coffee.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with to-do's.  This has the effect of pressing on my morning time, and I find myself wading into the email or task storm earlier than I should, rather than spending adequate time gaining prayerful, godly perspective or giving time to things which energize and sustain me.

I've got a few ideas of things to do to take my morning routine to the next step.  But before I share, any of you have any creative ideas that you use to get your day started off right?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Asking the question, "what is the gospel?"

image12 The church is struggling with the gospel. In these last few years of emerging revolution in the church, I have encountered church leaders struggling to re-understand the gospel. I use the word struggle in an intentional way, both in the sense of aggressive engagement and in the sense of frustrated grappling.

Serious engagement with the meaning and power of the gospel is nothing new to our century. One can hardly point to an era in church history when faithful men and women have not been simultaneously enraptured by the gospel's beauty and held fast by its convicting truth. And while many have come near to claiming they have at last divined the gospel's true meaning, the struggle continues unabated, often by those who once felt they had momentarily gained the better of its truth.

In our day, both seasoned saints and emerging radicals are struggling to comprehend and articulate the gospel even while they live within and out of its transformative power. This is a very good thing. Over time, I've found that my ears perk up when someone asks aloud the question "what is the gospel?" The answer one gives to such a question says as much about one's faith as it does about God and His redemptive work in the world. How one answers the question tends to have an enormous impact on the way one's faith is lived. To struggle with the gospel is ultimately to ask hard questions about whether or not we are living the fullness of the gospel as given us in Scripture.

getlargescreenshot[2] The best part of the question, "what is the gospel?" is that it is a deceptively difficult question to answer. It is even more difficult to do so succinctly. Those of us trained to quote Scripture to such answers have an especially tough time doing so, since anything much shorter than the book of Mark leaves a lot of the gospel out of the answer. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, comes close to a concise statement of the gospel. So does Titus 3:3-7. Hard pressed, one might also point to John 3:16-20. But a close look at these texts reveals a frustrating fact about our Scriptures: very often, the writers assume we know what the gospel is, and use the term more loosely than we would like. Sort of like the same writers do with the Kingdom of God. Even Jesus won't let himself be pinned down about such powerful ideas, preferring to illuminate them with a broad brush through parable and story. The question "what is the gospel?" is a tough one to answer.

That's why I have found myself collecting short versions of answers to this question as I have struggled with it myself. Here is one version I came across recently:

The gospel is the story of the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:26–27) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.

Dr. McKnight errs on the side of completeness over simplicity or comprehensibility. If you read the rest of his article (which is very good and every bit worth your time), you'll see that each phrase fragment stands in for a large and important theological concept that McKnight believes is central to the overarching story of the gospel.

In forthcoming posts, I'll share more gospel paraphrases that I've come across. For now, perhaps we can content ourselves with a little imaginative exercise: if you found yourself across the coffee table from someone sincerely asking the question, "what is the gospel?", what would you tell them given three minutes or less?

Cross-posted to sanctus.cross.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Church planting a growing practice nationwide

"Church planting has grown in its scope, diversity and impact," says Ed Stetzer, director of research for Lifeway Research and leader of the study. "North American churches, networks and denominations are making church planting a growing priority. "Such emphases push the church closer toward a movement--where churches plant churches that plant churches across North America and the world."
Leadership Network has a new study on the practice of church planting; very encouraging to us in the field!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

GTD for Church Planters:
Part 1: The ordinary chaos of church planting

Church planters are among the busiest people I know. They are spiritual guides, entrepreneurs, ministers, recruiters, fundraisers, shepherds, evangelists, marketing managers, preachers, and financial administrators. And that's before lunch on Monday. Add to this the responsibilities of family life and just enough sleep to keep us alive, church planters quickly realize they must approach their time like a bowhunter stalking an angry bear.

My own experience in church planting has been a continual re-appraisal of time management strategies. I had learned much about structuring my day and ordering priorities in my previous life as a product manager for WebTrends. At that time, the company actually paid to send me to a two-day seminar on time management, a very helpful thing for a 24-year old product manager in way over his head.

When I began church planting, things moved slowly at the beginning. I had to work hard at making good use of my time, since there wasn't much happening around me that I wasn't personally initiating: 501c3 applications, meeting and talking with potential team members, reading, communicating with supporters, meeting people in the community, refining our ministry plan. But as things got rolling and more and more people got involved, I began to see more and more demands on my time. Delegation seemed like the natural thing, but I quickly learned that while delegation is critical to building a team and sharing vision, it actually takes more time away from you than actually doing the work yourself. And with each passing week, more and more ministry systems came online that required at least my cursory attention.

Then Melissa and I had our first baby. Then we launched public services. Then we began hosting large events for the community. People called the church and visited the website. Prayer meetings and Bible studies spontaneously appeared. Community leaders wanted my time. Worship leaders needed guidance. Crises erupted in people's lives. Equipment needed to be purchased. Bills needed to be paid. Newsletters needed writing. On and on; and while I learned to trust the others around me and to delegate more and more, my schedule continued to be more and more pressed.

This is simply normal for church planting. It is a material reality that there is more to do than the available time and energy will allow. Theologically, we know that time is a gift from God, marked out in clear rhythms in the fabric of creation itself. Genesis 1 with its cadences of clearly marked days, punctuated by a holy time of rest, reveals time as a gift intended for our good. Time is the holy stage upon which we act out our purposes in God: just enough for us to complete the tasks given us, to enjoy the gifts of creation, and to rest, knowing God is with us. If we are lax with our time or frivolous with our setting of priorities, we profane time by taking it for ourselves. And if we overtax ourselves, acting as if we are the only ones God can use to accomplish His purposes, we profane time by taking it for ourselves.

This is a clear and continuous call to humility and faithfulness in our living in time. We are to be faithful in our calling, striving with all that we are to accomplish those things without overreaching, thinking that our strength or wisdom is sufficient for any good thing of God. This is a large part prioritization: knowing who we are and what we are called to do, and then working toward that goal, doing what we can and trusting the rest to God. This sort of Christ-like focus is clearly evident in Luke 4:42-43: "At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent." There will always be more tasks, more people to help, more ministry to be done. But what am I called to do?

In my search for faithfulness in my own calling as a church planter, I have often sought out ways of growing in the area of time management, focus, and productivity. I am not by nature a structured person and church planting has had a way of challenging me to grow in that area. I frequently find myself falling to either extreme: being too lax with my time or frantically running myself into the ground with tasks. My greatest find so far in faithfully using my time has been the practice of GTD, which stands for "Getting Things Done", a productivity system based on a book written by David Allen. It is sort of the iPhone of productivity systems, having a large cult following and a thousand enthusiasts posting information about it on their blogs. GTD helps you think clearly about all of the incoming demands for your time and do the things that need doing. The rest will be waiting for you when (and if) you have the time. In a series of posts, we'll explore some of the ways GTD can be applied to a church planter's approach to time and task.

But for now, let it suffice to say church planters are called to faithfulness in their stewardship of time and energy. A frazzled world is looking to us as witnesses to God's restoring work in Christ. If we are lazy and disorganized with our time, or if we are frazzled and overworked, we miss the chance to demonstrate God's redeeming power in time itself. Let us lead those entrusted to us toward faithfulness in God's gift of time.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Making decisions with discernment:
A simple, practical approach for all Christians

A few weeks ago, we came together as a church to approach the future together, wondering where God may be taking us as a people. It is an act of worship to approach the future expectantly, staying in step with the Spirit of God and prayerfully considering the choices which might lead us toward God's preferred future.

It proved helpful to remind ourselves of the nature of decision making in the context of the Christian life. This is the core of the sermon supporting this future-orientation. It centers on the idea of making decisions in partnership with God, looking forward with the expectation that His presence is active in guiding His people, whether individually or collectively.

The X-Factor: the Holy Spirit

Rather than ending with a disclaimer about the Holy Spirit and God's prerogative in interrupting or drastically changing our direction, perhaps we should begin with the "X-factor" of the Holy Spirit. It is true that the Spirit will sometimes intervene in dramatic ways, and we should be open and prepared for that to happen in our midst as we seek God's hand in the decision making process. But it is also helpful to remind ourselves the Holy Spirit works vigorously and continually within the seemingly mundane processes of planning, wise thinking, and prayerful discussion.

Converse with God in prayer

Having begun with the understanding of God's presence through and in our decision making, we approach the future as a conversation with God. By conversation, we imply a 2-way interaction rather than the list of concerns often associated with the practice of prayer. We ask ourselves the question, if I were talking with Jesus about this decision right now, what would he say to me? In this conversation, we cultivate a posture of humility, yielded to God and ready to hear the counsel of His Scriptures, the Words of His Son, the moving of His Spirit, regardless of where that counsel may take us.

And we remain quiet enough (and long enough) to listen. Very often we are too busy to stop long enough to listen. We find ourselves unwilling to be let go of control of the situation which rightly belongs to God. But we remain hopeful, humble, and expectant: God has promised to lead us, to speak to us in various ways. In our conversation with God, we expect to benefit and find guidance from God.

Align with the Scriptures

As we converse with God, we involve Scripture as a conversation partner, trusting its authority and wisdom. Overall, we seek to align our decisions with the narrative of Scripture. This does not mean looking for identical parallels and simply following the outcomes; as the outcomes of many passages of Scripture describe, this can be a shaky prospect. Rather, we seek to align with the character of God we see in Scripture as He shapes a people for His purposes.

Specifically, as we consult the Scriptures in our decisions, we ask ourselves, which is the wise choice? What aspects of down-to-earth wisdom seen in the Scriptures applies to this choice?

But more than this, we approach Scripture as Christians. We must ask ourselves, which choice aligns with gospel? For whom is this choice good news? How does this affect the people around me for their good? Which choice demonstrates and announces God's intention for the world in Jesus, even in subtle ways? How does this choice find alignment in God's purposes for restoring wholeness in the small part of the world we find ourselves?

Seek wise counsel

As we converse with God in prayer and seek alignment in the Scriptures, we listen also to the voices of those who are also listening to God. We open ourselves the counsel of other godly people who have experience in the practice of spiritual decision making. We submit ourselves to the wisdom of people who can ask good (hard) questions and remind us of both the big picture and point the way which experience has illuminated. We are often afraid of going to people who will ask hard questions; we have been burned by people telling us what to do, or we simply are afraid they will confirm where we sense God is leading us because of the sacrifice involved. But these fears can be given to God, whom we trust with our lives (and therefore decisions). God's most profound activity is very often displayed in community; seeking godly counsel is a pathway to this wisdom.

Watch for opportunities

Once we have attuned ourselves to the vision of God, we begin to expectantly watch for the play of circumstances around us. This is a learned discipline. We form habits of responding to God's direction in the midst of circumstances out of a character increasingly conformed to Christ. We begin to see doors opening or closing around us. We humbly trust that God is at work in the circumstances around us, and we learn to read the landscape. It is difficult to remain clear-eyed about the landscape, either because we don’t take the time to look around or because we desperately wish the situation was different. There is nothing wrong with wanting different circumstances and praying that they will change; but we must not pretend that reality isn’t reality. As we watch for opportunities around us, we train ourselves to trust in God's firm control of the events around us, and there is nothing we cannot face with His strength; there are people here to stand with us. We trust that if we stop to look, God will open our eyes to the opportunities within immediate reach that will lead us closer to Him, that will lead to blessings for us and others we serve.

Move forward boldly

Lastly, as we move organically through these steps, we begin to gain a confidence born of God's guidance. We hold the decision loosely, heeding Pauls wisdom to say “if it is the Lord’s will”, but we move forward boldly. Again we find ourselves resting in the character of God, knowing that He rewards fearful boldness. As we approach our decisions with a bold spirit, we find ourselves becoming people of radical faith, sold out to God's purposes in the world. We begin to see that each choice we make can be a part of God's unfolding story of redemption.

That is a future worth joining.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Discerning the landscape of our journey:
Activating our "spiritual GPS"

In a conversation with some friends at Cascade Hills, I was trying to explain the core of each of the three movements in spiritual formation.

When we were discussing the first movement and asking the question "where am I now?", one person said, "it's like breaking out our spiritual GPS." I thought, what a great analogy for this stage in the process! GPS tools keep track of trustworthy external reference points high above the terrain we're facing, giving us a better knowledge of exactly where we stand. What's more, the tool provides the ability to input an end goal, helping us to keep track of our progress toward that goal. Knowing where you are in relation to your destination is an invaluable part of navigating difficult terrain. Anyone who has tried to follow a map while driving in fog knows this truth all too well.

In the process of spiritual formation, it is wise for us to pause frequently and give some attention to the spiritual landscape in which we find ourselves. Of course, we immediately run into trouble with the word "spiritual". The term conjures up moods, temperaments, attitudes, mystery, and ambiguity. When I am using the term here, I mean it to refer to those aspects of our lives in which God is involved.

And of course, by that I mean just about everything. We are used to calling our prayer times and church gatherings "spiritual", but it is essential to God's restoring purposes in creation that we recover a sense of God's involvement in everything: our interactions with our spouse, cleaning out the garage, paying the guy behind the counter for our french fries, sleeping soundly after a day of frantic activity, and every other corner of our busy lives.

The first step to activating our spiritual GPS is to recognize that God is active in and around us. As we acknowledge and invite His presence into more areas of our life, we find new strength to approach struggles, new directions open that were previously invisible or closed to us, we discover a shift in attitude toward self-giving in our relationships, and we experience new passion and joy in the activities for which God made us.

Looking at our Spiritual Landscape

With this new sense of God's presence in all we are and do, giving attention to the spiritual landscape around us in our lives is a larger task than it sometimes first appears. Let's explore some ways we can begin this task.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind..." (Luke 10:27a)

We might begin by looking at the center: our relationship with God and our history with Him. Are we exploring a relationship with God for the first time, asking questions and wondering? Have we decided to enter into covenant with God, becoming a part of His people and participating in His mission in the world? Do we have a long history with Him or are we new to the life of following Christ? Is there a breach in the relationship, something we've done or something we feel God has done that has made the relationship difficult? Is our experience of God in our lives characterized by obligation or impulse, dryness or passion, mystery or clarity?

"...and love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27b)

Next we might explore our significant relationships that shape our lives. Are we married? Are we raising children or being raised under parental authority? Who are our friends and family, and what relationship do we have with them? Who are our neighbors, co-workers, or classmates, brothers and sisters in our faith community? What responsibilities and connections do we have that involve them?

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

We might also explore our vocation, the daily activities and sphere of influence, those things to which we feel responsible or even a sense of calling. Do we find ourselves with an occupation that requires the use of our skills and energy? Do we find ourselves with the task of caring for and raising children? Are we gaining an education that will serve one or more of these purposes? Have we reached the point of retirement or a second career?

"We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." (Romans 12:6)

What are the passions and ambitions which drive us? Do we long for creative expression, for a sense of accomplishment in a specific pursuit? Do we experience a sense of giftedness accompanied by a desire to use that gift in a way that impacts the people or neighborhoods around us? What other intangible factors regularly exert their influence on us?

"Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens." (Psalm 68:19)

There are many more: what is our health situation? Our financial situation? Are there major struggles that otherwise make a significant impact in our daily lives? Actions of our own or of others for which we are suffering consequences? Other major events in our lives or in the lives of people around us that make themselves known in our hearts and minds?

Gaining the Perspective of Altitude

No list we make can pretend to be exhaustive. Let the previous list serve the function of reminding us or bringing to the forefront of our thinking the major features of our spiritual landscape.

Now is the time to start sketching out a map. Can you list two or three major features of your spiritual landscape from each category (relationship with God, human relationships, vocation, gifts and passions, human factors) that help you map out the landscape of your daily life? The list might be four or five items long, or much longer, depending on how long you want to spend on this process of discernment and what level of detail you want to achieve. Give it the time which seems appropriate to you now and don't feel you have to capture such a shifting, changing thing in one perfect list; you will return to this movement in the process again and again.

For right now, let your list grow for a time and then let it sit. Return to it after a few minutes and see if you can identify a handful of items that seem to consume a large share of your resources. Can you identify a few major concerns that you find occupying your thoughts? What would Jesus say if you asked him to help you discern the major dimensions of your life? Jot them down in a list and then engage in a time of prayer over them. Consider the following components to this time of prayer:
  • An acknowledgment of God's presence with us and in the midst of each of these concerns
  • A prayer for clarity as we look at our spiritual landscape; have we missed something which Jesus would remind us of if he were kneeling with us in prayer?
  • An offering of willingness to listen for God's guidance and wisdom as we approach each of these areas of our lives
At this point, we might prayerfully return to the list of categories again to see if any new ones pop out at us or if God has rearranged any of our priorities. This would be an excellent time to involve faithful friends in this process, asking them to help us see what's happening in our life and the major features of our spiritual landscape.

The Outcome of Discerning Our Spiritual Landscape

The best outcome of this movement in the process of spiritual formation is a sense of clarity in what most concerns us, how our responsibilities line up and compete with each other in our lives, and the need we have to walk with God as we navigate these features of our spiritual landscape. Having a written, tangible list of these things (1) can help us as we listen carefully for God's calling in our lives (2) and as we seek to put into practice the things which God is calling us to do (3).

May God lead us graciously in the discernment of our lives, giving us confidence that no matter what we discover, He loves us, is with us, and will never forsake us. May God grant us passion to pursue his helping hand, an willingness to attend to His leading, and an eagerness to act on what we know!