In the last post, I described a “wrecking ball experience”. That was a period of significant personal insecurity and deep questions about the strength of my spiritual roots. Professionally, I was also experiencing real uncertainty within myself. I remember reaching a point of self-evaluation where I determined that I was no more than “a decent guy who could give a decent lesson”. I don’t say that to solicit strokes or invite countering compliments. This was all part of the process of reaching the end of myself. (Allow me to be honest enough to confess: I have been to the end of myself multiple times already, and I’m certain that God will march me down that path many more times yet.)
Beyond self-evaluation, that single sentence was a statement of longing. A restlessness and a hunger began to rise in me, quite quietly — for that seems to be my way – but with more force than usual, to be sure. My heart entered a place of pleading that God would “do something” in me, in my heart, in my household, in my church, in my world. I don’t claim that I prayed any special prayers during those days, but I do feel fairly sure that whatever I prayed was prayed with at least a sliver more want than was typical for me. Many of these prayers had no words; I couldn’t recount what I said or even thought. They were simply my spirit pushing itself in God’s direction. I’ve concluded my phrased prayers, particularly in private, are consistently second-rate in comparison to these groaned ones, for whatever that’s worth.
In September 2011, I began participation in a two-year program by Arrow Leadership. I cannot speak highly enough of this organization or its leaders, and I am indebted to my brother-in-law Steve (you know who you are!) for nudging me in that direction in the first place. If you’re looking for a next level in your professional development, you should CHECK THEM OUT. I’m sure there are all sorts of great leadership courses out there, but the nature of this particular course might be best summed up in a single story.
The program was designed around four one-week residentials where our class of 20-ish participants (all employed by non-profit organizations and aged between 33-41) would gather at a retreat centre with our facilitators. The rest of the course work would be tackled back home as we went about our lives. At the conclusion of our first residential, which quickly thrust us into positions of vulnerability and openness with one another, we reflected in chapel. That’s when Tony spoke.
My first impression of Tony was a highly confident, slightly macho Hispanic fellow. Chapel wound down with Tony in tears, describing what most of us were likely feeling: “If I’d have known what this was going to be, I wouldn’t have come.” He didn’t actually regret coming; he was just acknowledging that this was going to be far more intense than he’d bargained for. He continued, “I thought we were going to learn some new strategies for leadership and get some tips on how to do it better. I didn’t know we were going to blow ourselves up and then hope to get put back together again.” (Tony, if you read this: I love you, my brother.) Unlike Tony, I wasn’t so unnerved by the bomb as I had already been wrestling a wrecking ball for 18 months. I had nothing left to protect, but I do remember feeling very exposed, fairly raw, and honestly somewhat short on hope that this highly-regarded program, or anything else, was going to deliver me from broken state I was calling home.
As we headed home, we were given a handful of homework assignments. One of them was to find a local mentor of some sort. It could be a professional mentor or a trained counsellor or a spiritual director. Several years earlier, I had read a couple novels that featured a story line involving spiritual directors within the Church of England. The fictional dialogues in those books had been nourishing to my soul, and I recall noting that if I ever had opportunity to pursue such a relationship, I would be a fool to pass it up. And now that was my homework: Game on!
Always the keener, I determined to pursue two local mentors. I soon made contact with David, a Catholic psychologist, and Catherine, an Anglican priest, both certified as spiritual directors. In short, I committed to visit with each of these individuals once per month for the next two years. The timing of those relationships was perfect, and their insightful minds coupled with their gentle spirits were oh-so-good for me. In case the concept of spiritual direction is new to you, such folks have no desire to “give you the answers” to whatever is happening in your life. They don’t offer advice and freely admit up front that they don’t know where you should end up or what you should do. Rather, they seek to listen unnervingly well and direct you, with piercing questions, to discover for yourself what God is likely already whispering to you. Truth be told, close friendships are likely intended to be the settings in which we do this for one another, so that may be something to aspire toward with your loved ones. But I can certainly vouch for the value of some trained professionals as well.
While it is impossible to summarize the content of that course, allow me to mention at least two pieces of learning that left a mark:
1) “Christ as Center”
This was the theme of our very first day of class, presented by Mark Buchanan. My only regret from that day is that my notes are frightfully incomplete, as I was simply too engaged in listening to focus on writing. Because of this, much of the content is now lost to me. But the impact remains. To live or minister in the name of Jesus means to operate in relationship with him and reliance upon him. If you need an image, it’s the “vine and branches” of John 15. Wonderful image aside, we are incessantly tempted to reduce that relationship to a scale that guards us against vulnerability and to minimize our reliance to an extent that maintains the illusion that we are in charge. Far too often, we exchange life in Christ for yet another attempt at protectively insulating ourselves and pursuing the illusion of independence just one more time. My heart, still swimming in the clothes of the older brother, was deeply convicted yet again. Keep swinging that wrecking ball!
2) Grace Cycle VS Guilt Cycle
In our third residential, we conversed around of these two images. Check these out, and see which path you have logged more mileage on.
These simple diagrams highlight two diametrically-opposed ways of life. One of them is what gets created when we embrace the Gospel of Jesus. The other is an anti-Christ alternative that often serves to harden our hearts against the Gospel. So there I sat, surrounded by a room-full of top-of the-line Christian leaders — folks who longed to faithfully live and lead in the name of Jesus — and there was an overwhelming, stop-the-class-right-here recognition that the Guilt Cycle was our far-too-familiar home.
Nobody wanted it that way. Nobody set out for that path. But as I had already discovered: The most insidious way to get lost unfolds when you are sure you’re walking the straight and narrow. And that path can become a rut that becomes a circle that becomes a life that is light years removed from “life to the full”.
For many of my classmates, “Grace Cycle VS Guilt Cycle” was a watershed moment in the course. It gave us imagery and language to describe life as we knew it and to consider life as Christ intended. For me, those diagrams fell right into an already-moving flow that had begun six months earlier at our second residential.
I’m sure the Lord still laughs when He looks back on what He did to me in a week of March 2012. No exaggeration that I was bowed at Arrow.