Spiritual Practices- The Examen

Over the past year, I’ve been studying a variety of spiritual fathers and their spiritual rhythms. I understand how pretentious that sounds, but the faith tradition I grew up in constantly declared, “It’s not religion, it’s relationship.” While I understand the sentiment of that statement, I think it errs in this way-

Religious practices can be the structure and rhythm that fosters a deeper relationship with God.

Any relationship requires consistency and intentionality in order to deepen. Spiritual practices provide an intentional, consistent structure.

One of the spiritual practices that I’ve been curious about lately is Ignatius’ idea of the daily Examen. Ignatius was a Spanish Catholic priest that founded the order known as the Jesuits. He has so many great things to teach us about Christian Spirituality.

The Examen is a discipline where you learn to reflect on the past day in order to see God’s presence in that day. In a sense, the Examen is a means of ‘praying backwards.’ We aren’t praying for something that is to come, we are reflecting back on what has already happened and learning to notice God, express gratitude, and notice ourselves as well. Here are the basic components of the Examen prayer:

  1. Where did you notice God’s presence today?

  2. What are you grateful for from this day?

  3. What emotions did you feel throughout the day?

  4. What is something you are looking forward to tomorrow?

These concepts are simple enough, but often times we are too busy to slow down and notice. God’s presence. God’s blessings. Your own heart. I’m starting to incorporate these questions into dinner time with my wife and our four small girls. I ask the question “Where did you notice God?” but caveat it for them “Where did you notice goodness?” (an easier concept to grasp at their age.)

Here were a few of last night’s actual answers-

”I noticed goodness when me and my sister were fighting over the pink unicorn. Neither of us wanted the white unicorn. After fighting for a bit, we agreed to share and take turns.”

”I noticed nervousness when I was in line for lunch. I was at the end of the line and worried I would have to sit at the end of the lunch table and I don’t like that. I was able to sit in the middle though because I brought my lunch.”


Nothing profound here, but the clarity and the simplicity of it are beautiful. The Examen is about learning to notice. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The Stoics made a practice of journaling. Seneca would journal at night, reflecting on the past day and if he had lived up to the ideals and virtues he expected of himself. I love Ignatius’ idea of Examen because it takes these principles and attaches it to noticing the presence and goodness of God.

I’d encourage you to try running through this Examen prayer for a week and see what comes out of it.

Dealing with Disappointment.

What do you do when you’re disappointed?

Elijah was a prophet in the Old Testament. The word prophet literally translates as one who sees. Has special insight. The prophets were often able to see the direction their community was headed from a bird’s eye perspective. (or, God’s perspective.)  The prophets also often took on the role of truth-speaker. They acted as a spokesperson between God and the community. They delivered truth that was sometimes hard to hear.

Elijah saw Israel heading for disaster under the leadership of King Ahab. Ahab was influenced by his wife Jezebel to build a temple for a false god (Baal), and she brought in a large gathering of her own prophets. The people of Israel saw the writing on the wall. They began to worship Baal in order to maintain favor with the king and queen. Elijah had the guts to go against the grain and face the army of Baal prophets. (1 Kings 18)

And he won.

And it didn’t matter. Nothing changed.

Jezebel was so furious at Elijah’s victory that she ordered his immediate arrest and execution. He had to flee into the wilderness. He found a bush, laid down under it, and just asked to die.

It is possible to do the right things for the right reasons and still lose.*

What do you do with your disappointment?  Elijah responded in a few ways. 

First, he basically gave up. “What’s the point? Just kill me now.” Victor Frankl defines despair as “Suffering without meaning.” That’s what Elijah felt in this moment. “I did all of this, suffered all of this, and for what?”

Second, he felt completely alone. “I am the only one left.” (1 Kings 19:10) He felt abandoned by God and abandoned by people. And when we feel completely alone, we can do a lot of dumb things. We can push ourselves into even further isolation. And we are not meant to live life alone.

God responded to his disappointment. Reading the story, God comes across a little bit like Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. “Amazing. Every word of what you just said…was wrong.”

Elijah- “It’s all meaningless. We just lost. Just kill me now.”

God’-“Get up and eat.” 

It’s sort of like the Old Testament’s version of the Snickers’ commercials. “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

But God was answering his despair. Elijah felt like there was nothing left to live for. God offered him food because he would need it for the next leg of the journey. Because there was a next leg of the journey. The story wasn’t over.

God also challenged Elijah’s notion that he was alone. Elijah wasn’t the last faithful Israelite. There were 7000 more. (1 Kings 19:15-18) And God also provided a partner for the journey- Elisha. (1 Kings 19:19-21)

God also emphatically told Elijah- “I have not abandoned you.”

The Lord said to Elijah, “Go, stand in front of me on the mountain, and I will pass by you.” Then a very strong wind blew until it caused the mountains to fall apart and large rocks to break in front of the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a quiet, gentle sound. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

In other words, God showed up to him, but not in the way he was expecting. God wasn’t in the wind, earthquake, or fire. God was in the whisper. 

I think we can learn a few things from this story.

It’s possible to do the right thing for the right reasons and still be disappointed. (And more often than not, we actually do the wrong things for the wrong reasons, the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons.)

When we get disappointed, we have a tendency to fall into despair and adapt habits and patterns that end up doing us more harm than the original disappointment. 

“How much more damage anger and grief do than the things caused them.” -Marcus Aurelius

Elijah’s response here was to just give up. Yours might be different. You might turn to addictions. You might swear to never be vulnerable again or have hope again because if you don’t care, you can’t be hurt again. You might give fully into your disappointment and attack everyone around you. Or attack yourself, over and over.

God’s response to Elijah is the same to us. “Your story isn’t over yet. Take a step back. Get some food and some rest. Get some perspective. Then get ready for the journey ahead.”

There might be times in our disappointment that we feel like God has completely abandoned us. But perhaps God is just showing up in a way that we least expect. 

"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” -CS Lewis”

In our disappointment, it is easy to feel completely alone. But realize there are others that are there for you. There are people that have gone through this too. Reach out. Ask for help. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to do so. We need each other.

God gave Elijah a partner- Elisha. Jesus asked for help from his closest friends at his time of greatest need. Paul had Barnabas, Timothy, Luke…the list goes on.

What do you turn to in your disappointment? Is it helping you process and move forward or is it just deepening the wound and prolonging the grief?

The Flu Game. (Some Thoughts on Passion.)

Today marks the 21-year anniversary of Michael Jordan's "Flu Game." For those who don’t know, Jordan was in The Finals against the Jazz. The series was tied 2-2. In a pivotal Game 5, Jordan was sick with flu-like symptoms- fever, dehyrdated, no energy. He pushed through that and played anyways, and his performance in the 4th quarter helped the Bulls seal the win. They ended up winning the series. He was so toast by the end of the game that Scottie Pippen had to help carry him off the court.

Jordan Flu.jpg

Now, when I think about the Flu Game, the first thought that comes to mind is- "MJ, if you really had the flu, why are you getting within 20 yards of the rest of your team? If your teammates all get the flu, no way do you win the championship!"

Jordan was known for how competitive he is at EVERYTHING. He reportedly punched teammates in practice on multiple occasions. (Will Perdue, Steve Kerr, etc.) Regarding the Flu game, Jordan said,

”I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game.”

Jordan epitomizes the word PASSION. We get the word Passion from the Greek word “pathos.” The word literally means “suffering.”  Jordan was willing to endure the suffering of playing through illness because he wanted to win that bad.

Now Jordan was really passionate about something rather trivial in the grand scheme of things. But some things are worth getting passionate about. Some things are worthy of our suffering.

Jesus said, "Blessed are those who suffer for righteousness' sake." Peter said, "You are blessed when you suffer for what is right." James said, "Blessed is the one who endures hardship because they will find life." Some things are worth the pain.

The "Passion" of the Christ means the suffering of the Christ. Jesus was willing to endure the cross because he knew who he was suffering for.

If you are truly passionate about something, you were are willing to suffer for it. Many of us might say we are passionate about things- politics, our faith, sports teams, whatever. The proof of it really comes when we have to suffer for it.

Jordan was passionate about basketball. What are you passionate about? What relationships, injustices, and dreams are you willing to suffer for?

We get a few other words from pathos too- apathy, sympathy, empathy. These are all connected to passion and how we show up to our lives. Let's look at this idea of passion and "pathy" in the context of relationships.

APATHY- "A" (NO) "PATHY" (SUFFERING)

When we feel apathetic towards something, it means we are not willing to suffer for it. Sometimes that can simply because it's not something we care about. But apathy could also be a disguise for fear. It might be easier to not care than risk failing or being disappointed. It's easier to be apathetic than to admit we might be inadequate for the task at hand.

We might also be apathetic because we are overwhelmed or exhausted. In a world where we have instant access to global suffering, it feels impossible to have feel feelings about everything.

Apathy is also a luxury of privilege. I'm a white, heterosexual male. It can be easy for me to be apathetic to the suffering of people different than me because I'm not personally experiencing it. While that might be a luxury of privilege, it is not a luxury for a follower of Jesus. 

"Remember those in prison as if you were bound with them, and those who are mistreated as if you were suffering with them." (Hebrews 13:3)

"Weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15)

SYMPATHY- "SYM" (WITH) "PATHY" (SUFFERING)

While sympathy is obviously a step up from apathy, it still has its limitations. If apathy is, "I am not willing to suffer for this," sympathy is, "Oh boy that looks painful." It's a way of saying, "I feel sorry for you."  "There, there."  Or the Southern version, "Bless your heart."

Sympathy often creates a disconnect in the relationship. This is on purpose, because we want to keep another person's pain at an arm's distance from us. We might compare their pain with our own, bringing the focus away from them and on to ourselves. (An area we can control.)

Or perhaps we are completely dismissive. "You think THAT's bad, but at least it's not ______."

I remember a few years back when Ashley shared something really personal. It made me feel uncomfortable, and rather than ask questions and be curious, I shared how what she was sharing made me feel. I hijacked the conversation. It did not go well.

Sympathy, while often well-intended, can still be detrimental.

EMPATHY- "EM" (IN) "PATHY" (SUFFERING)

If apathy is "I'm not willing to feel anything," and sympathy is "I can relate to your pain because I've had similar pain", empathy is "I am feeling your pain." It is to be fully present, curious, and kind in another person's pain. To see things from their perspective. To put yourself in their shoes.

Even if you don't fully understand or fully agree, you are tossing that to the side for the moment to really listen and connect. It requires humility (considering others more important than yourself) and curiosity (not assuming you know everything or are always right.)

Brene Brown does a great job of explaining the differences between empathy and sympathy. Theresa Wiseman gave four qualities for empathy. 1) The ability to take on the perspective of another.  2) Staying out of judgment. 3) Recognizing emotions in others. 4) Communicating that emotion.

Empathy should be the ultimate goal in relationships because it helps fuel intimacy, growth, and fulfillment.

Are you passionate about the right things? Are you willing to consider other people's perspectives and pain even when it isn't your own story, because that's what it looks like to love?

What's an area of your life where you currently have apathy? (But it bugs you that you do) Who is someone that could use a little more empathy for you? In what area? What's something in your life that you wish someone had empathy towards?

Take A Step Back. (Jesus Stories, Part 1)

There's a great story near the end of the first chapter of Mark. Jesus and the disciples were hanging out in Capernaum, at Peter's mom's house. Jesus was healing people and the word was starting to get out about this new rabbi in town. The house quickly filled up. Mark wrote that literally the entire town showed up at the doorsteps. (Mark 1:35) Jesus spent the entire night healing people and casting out demons.

The next morning, when everyone was still asleep, Jesus went off to the mountain in solitude to pray. The disciples eventually found him, clamoring, "Everyone is looking for you!" "Let's keep this show going!" "We can set up our movement here and let the crowds flock to us!" Jesus had other plans. They packed up their bags and moved on to the next town.

The gospel of Luke says that Jesus "often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." (Luke 5:16) One thing I notice, when Jesus withdraws to pray, is that he comes back with a renewed sense of vigor, vision, and purpose. There is something to learn here.

Solitude is a spiritual discipline that allows us to break away from the noise. When we withdraw into solitude and silence, we can take stock of how things are going and how we are doing. We can remind ourselves of who we are and what we want to be about. We can listen to what God might have to say to us.

It is for these reasons that many of us avoid solitude and silence. We might not want to have an honest conversation with ourselves or with God. We might want to avoid the things that have shown up in our lives that we outwardly are ashamed of but secretly like. Solitude has a way of making you come to terms with how things actually are.

SOLITUDE CAN BREAK THE HYPE

Jesus broke away from the crowds when he was getting too popular. We saw this in the story already mentioned in Mark 1. The whole town loved him, and after going into solitude, he left town.

He also went into solitude immediately after he fed the 5000 and his popularity was at an all-time high. He came back down from that and gave his worst sermon ever. "Eat my flesh. Drink my blood." The crowds dispersed.

One time in John's Gospel, when Jesus perceived that the crowds were going to come and make him the king, 'withdrew again to a mountain by himself.' (John 6:15) Jesus knew who he was and what he was here for.

There is a lesson for us here. Whenever we get in danger of believing our own hype, we might need to withdraw, spend time with God, remember who we are, and remember what we are supposed to be about.

SOLITUDE CAN BREAK THE HURT

Solitude can serve not only as a leveler of ego, but also as a balm for pain. Sometimes we can't get out of our own head. Can't stop beating ourselves up. Can't stop making a mountain of a molehill. 

When we get stuck and can't move forward or move on from something, it's helpful to take a step back. Get some perspective. Learn to see things from the bird's eye view. Remember who you are, and what you want to be about. Remember the promises of God. Shine light on false beliefs. Take a deep breath before plunging back into life.

A FEW CLOSING THOUGHTS

There is such a thing as too much solitude. Isolation. Loneliness. God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." The purpose of solitude is to help keep ourselves aligned and healthy so that we can live in community with others in a healthy way. Don't withdraw too much or too often.

That rhythm is different for each of us, some of us need more than others. But a good rule of thumb (that I just made up)- Try and carve out at least half a day of solitude once a month. Try to carve out around an hour of solitude each day. As a father of four small children, I know how impossible that can seem. WAKE UP EARLY. Drink a lot of coffee. Spend time with your thoughts and with God.

Also, there might be times when you need to get 'solitude' with your core people. When Jesus was REALLY distressed, right before his arrest and crucifixion, he pulled his closest friends in and said, "I need you to withdraw into the wilderness to pray with me." Now, they completely blew it and fell asleep. But I think Jesus modeled something significant there. Sometimes we need the encouragement, perspective, and support of others when we are heading into the wilderness.

 

Shark Music.

I have an unhealthy fear of swimming in deep waters. I, like many others my age, saw the movie Jaws way too young. That movie, that music, constantly plays in my head in those moments in the deep and the murky. I can justify it as a healthy precaution, but I know deep down it isn't really that reasonable. I know that statistically, I am more likely to die by a falling coconut hitting my head than a shark attack, but this fear doesn't care about statistics. WHAT JUST BRUSHED BY MY LEG. (Oh, it was my other leg.) In those moments, I have to constantly tell myself that the water is safe.

Circle of Security International is an organization that helps parents become better equipped to raise healthy children. They often use an activity with parents called “Shark Music” to help them notice how their past pain influences how they are currently showing up as parents.

The group is shown a video. Calm, classical music is playing. There are scenes of wandering through a forest, eventually reaching a beach with a beautiful ocean. The video evokes emotions of curiosity, serenity, and peace. The parents feel relaxed.

Next, the exact same video is shown, but this time with ominous music playing. Tension is steadily rising. You fear a monster behind every tree and turn. When you reach the water, you’re convinced there is a shark lurking underneath. The shark music dramatically impacts your experience of the video.

All of us walk through life with background music playing in our heads. We don’t even notice it, hence the term ‘background music,’ but it is dramatically impacting the way that we experience and interact with the world. How you think shapes how you live. Our past experiences shape our expectations and perceptions of our present reality.

In their book, The Three Laws of Performance, Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan wrote, "How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them." When we hear Shark Music going off in our heads because this situation looks similar to that other situation, fear can kick in and get us to act in ways that aren't congruent with who we want to be.

Circle of Security shares that, for parents, this can impact how they respond to their children's emotions. Parents might perceive anger as 'pathetic,' fear as 'weakness', sadness as 'manipulative', and happiness as 'over-excited.' A healthier approach would be to see anger as a desire to 'help organize my feelings', fear as 'protect me', sadness as 'comfort me', and happiness as 'enjoy with me.' I don't know about you, but that really resonates with me, not only as a parent, but just as a human!

It would serve us well to learn to recognize when Shark Music plays in our heads and impacts the way we perceive and respond to the world and people around us. It might not just be past wounds that pop up for us, but our own insecurities and fears about what's going on in that moment. We might fear being hurt, or being taken advantage of/duped, losing control, looking bad, etc. There are a lot of possibilities. Sometimes fear is helpful, but more often than not it can hinder us.

Here are a few quotes to wrap up this idea-

"The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become." -Heraclitus

"Don't let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it:
Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test."
-
Epictetus

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." -Victor Frankl

"First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." -Jesus

"The one who fears has not been perfected in love." (1 John 4:18)