Category Archives: spiritual formation

Delightful Contentment

Sunset at Point Mugu, CA

This week marks the beginning of a new quarter at Fuller and for the first time in a year and a half, I don’t have to worry about homework. I am not done yet. This is just an enforced hiatus I decided to take before we move back to the East coast. At first it seemed like an odd idea to forego my last chance to take classes on campus for a break. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Honestly, I don’t think this idea came from myself but has whispers of divine revelation.

So, now as we are approaching the end of our stay here in California, I find myself in a place of delightful contentment. The ghosts of the past seem to be fading and the anxieties about an uncertain future are being replaced by an adventurous hope. Adventurous because not all details are lined up and defined leaving a sense of discovery. Hopeful because, by God’s grace, I find myself looking at the future with positive eyes. I am 70% done with my degree having about 6 classes which I will complete online in the next year or so.

As I reflect on this time, I start understanding the present contentment. As the past and future seem to be less of a concern, the present gains a new levity, a lightness that simplifies life. That is, since the past is accepted and the future is hoped for, now all is left is the task of living well in the present. In the present, then, I am able to see the gift of life and relationships. I can better see the gift of my wife and kids, how they enrich life and make everything worth it. I can be present in their day-to-day, seeing our little ones grow and learning to fall in love with my wife again. As I re-engage with the Daily Office, I find myself more connected with God and  God’s people through the ages.  All of this reminds me what should be obvious that is the joy is much more dependent on connection than achievement.  I then start moving from goal-achieving self to one that yearns to live well through connecting with others.

Honestly, connection is a poor word to represent the mysterious gift of relationships. It has more to do with technology and electricity than with the delight of communing with others. Maybe communion or fellowship are better words to start describing the richness of this reality.  As I move from putting books down and looking at human eyes, I am transferred from the I-it world into the I-thou world. This way I move from possessing to relating, from defining to listening, from controlling to negotiating.

Boy, I had no clue where this blog was going and I am not so sure how to end it. Suffice it to say, that I am finding that contentment is sweetness than happiness. It is a gift that surprises unexpectedly, not something achieve and more like something we arrive to. I am just glad to have found it for now. I don’t know how much it will last , neither I am worrying about it. I am just happy to be.

Quarterly Rules of Life vs New Year Resolutions

I once saw an illustration at youth group that stayed with me. The pastor wanted to show the importance of getting your priorities right. He had a bottle that he first filled with sand. Then he tried to fit about 6 balls inside but because of the sand they could not all fit in. He then tried fitting the balls first and then filling the bottle with sand. Now everything fit perfectly, showing that if we put our priorities first everything else in life should fall in place.

After a grueling quarter (hence my blogging hiatus), I now face two decisive quarters ahead with a job that keeps on demanding more of me. This will not be easy. Last quarter I reached my limits, verging on the brink of exhaustion and depression. This is why I am being very intentional about this coming time. This should be slightly easier quarter but still very challenging. I just want to ensure I add my priorities first in my time container so the sand of “other stuff” can fill the remaining space.

So, I decided to calibrate my rule of life this quarter to add additional things. Probably the name “rule of life” can be a misnomer as it implies rigidity and strict adherence. A better definition would be “an intentional plan to simplify our spiritual practices and expectations for a period of time.” Traditionally, the rule of life was primarily aimed at religious practices such as prayer or reading Scripture. I have expanded to include things like physical exercise, a commitment to seek counseling, dates with my wife and taking a family day.

Honestly, writing about this rule of life is making me look a lot better than the way I normally am on a day-to-day basis. In reality, it is a plan of the things I aim for doing while also adding a lot of grace for when I fail. When I look at my rule of life for last quarter I was able to follow most of it except for the last two weeks when finals and work just consumed me to the bone. Yet, I must say, even having a rule of life felt liberating rather than an additional burden. The reason for that is that it helped me focus on a few things rather than allowing me to wonder about ALL the things I was NOT doing in the quarter. So in a way, it became an exercise in expectations management rather than an accountability tool. And by the way, writing a blog is not included in it. That is just a bonus in this season.

January is here, and we fall into this illusion of making resolutions for the new year. It is good to set goals but I would contend that the problem is the time period. I learned that planning works best in the short 3-6 month window. Anything longer than that is bound to become stale or forgotten. Now that I am studying I have the advantage of having set schedule of classes that help me also align my life to these time periods. Yet, a quarter turns out to be a great time-chunk to do goals. It forces you to go back to it soon enough and make changes as needed. No wonder, large corporations set their financial goals in quarterly periods. It helps manage investor expectations when the situation changes.

So, before I get off my soap box, I encourage replacing resolutions with simple rules of life. Focus not on what you want to ACHIEVE but on what you are going to DO. Share it with people close to you and allow yourself much grace for when you fail. They do not define who you are but are a statement of intention for a simplified life.

Silence in a Noisy Time

Two weeks ago I started a new quarter at Fuller, one that by all indications will be one of the busiest in matters of work load: hundreds of pages of reading per week plus 1 paper every other week, on top of everything else in life. The only reason I am even attempting to do this is that I know this period will last only 10 weeks.

A few classes ago, we were encouraged to develop a rule of life. This is a general plan of what spiritual practices you plan to do on a regular basis. It is a bit more involved than “I will try to read my Bible for 30 minutes everyday” to include also things like attitudes and postures you will pursue in that period of time. The thought of even having a “rule of life” in this quarter sounded a little insane. Yet, after a year in seminary, I come to understand the downsides of theological academic training – namely, it is rather easy to grow jaded with Scripture and prayer and a become annoyed with church in general (after all you’ve been wrestling with these issues all week long only to be revisited by it on Sunday). Even in a seminary that takes spiritual formation seriously like Fuller, some of that is inevitable. It was clear to me that having some rule of life in this period was not a luxury I could dispense with but a necessity. My family would thank me for it.

Obviously, the idea of doing a traditional Bible reading devotional was out of the question. A number of my assignments involve reading large portions of Scripture. The Daily Office, which has been my anchor for 2 years now, also seemed too reading-intensive for this season. Even the average spontaneous prayer seemed like a lot of mental work. Please don’t get me wrong, none of these practices are bad. I just realized that this was an unique season that called for something different.

That is when I decided to simplify my rule of life to 10-20 minutes of centering prayer on my week days. For the weekends, my only spiritual practice is to sleep in at least once. So far, this is week three, it has worked well. I found in centering prayer a true source of spiritual connection in a time of extreme busyness. If you are not familiar with it, the concept is really simple: sit quietly in a comfortable position and repeat a word (something like “Jesus” or “love”) whenever a thought comes to your mind. That’s it. The idea is that in that silence you will meet with God in ways that escape cognitive comprehension. In time of intense thinking, this is exactly what I needed.

Now, it has not been easy. The first times, I found myself waiting for my timer to go off. The very act of sitting quietly made me feel out of sorts. Eventually, as I kept on doing it, I came to actually dread the timer going off signaling it was time to end. Another challenge is this whole thing keeping thoughts at bay. Since you are not focusing on anything, thoughts come naturally. As this happened often, I used to get frustrated thinking I wasn’t doing right or wondering what good was it to even try. Eventually, I came to a point of accepting: I will give God the best I can in being quiet and that was sufficient. It turned out to be liberating, one of the few moments of my day when I am not under the pressure to get a good grade or do a good job at work. I plan to continue on this journey in this quarter. So far, I get the sense that centering prayer has been a way to stay grounded in this period. Yet, even if that was not the case, it doesn’t matter. The main point is to spend time with my Creator in silence. He deserves much more but somehow seems content to receive my offering.

For more information on centering prayer you can go here (They have an app as well that you can download which is what I use)

I leave you with the prayer that I read at the end of my centering prayer time.

O God, unto whom all hearts lie open

Unto whom desire is eloquent

And from Whom no secret thing is hidden;

Purify the thoughts of my heart

By the outpouring of your Spirit

That I may love you with a perfect love

And praise you as you deserve.

Amen

Prayer from the prologue of The Cloud of the Unknowing

Talking to a Younger Version of Myself

What if you could speak to yourself 10 years ago with the knowledge you have now? What would you say? What would you reveal in order to encourage or warn yourself 10 years ago?

Journaling allows us to capture in words a version of our younger selves. They can help you understand your past which can color how you pursue your future. We usually walk around with a set of memories about the past. These memories define our identity and disposition toward the present. Yet, if we are able to access accurate and detailed records of our past (not just events but our thoughts and impressions of them) we can in one sense alter our identity in the present by adding, subtracting and or emphasizing different aspects of our past. This is getting horribly theoretical and putting most of you to sleep so let me allow you in a recent personal experience that brought this to light.

Prompted by my wonderful wife, I looked over some of my journals over the last years. My journaling has not been consistent. Some years I wrote every two weeks and others I had no more than 5 entries. Yet, as I read some of them, I was surprised by things I have forgotten. I eventually decided to hone in my 2004 journal, basically re-visiting the 25 year-old version of myself.  Reading through those pages brought forth a mixture of emotions from joy and comfort to sadness and grieving. As I re-visited some of my struggles, I was relieved to see how distant they now seemed. Some of them have been resolved while others still haunt me till this day. All of this led me to the thought exercise of writing down what I would tell my younger self knowing what I know now. Here are some things I would say:

  • God is faithful and will take care of you. You will not be shielded from disappointment, sadness or loss. Yet, you will NOT be abandoned. He will surprise you and bless you in unimaginable ways.
  • The beautiful wife you married just two years ago is still by your side even ten years later. She is a great companion for this life. Keep up the good work but above all, do NOT take her for granted. She will still surprise you in ways you cannot anticipate.
  • In 10 years you will have two beautiful little girls in your life. They will teach you what love and worry is in ways you didn’t even know they could be felt. They will capture your heart; enrich your life and give you joy beyond measure. They will also make you watch way more Disney movies you would ever care for. Do me a favor, go to a Blockbuster (which, by the way, will not exist in 10 years) and rent some Non-kid movies. Believe me; they will become rare in your future life….
  • About that company you are working for…well, just keep doing the best you can. You will be there for a while. Try as much as you can to enjoy the ride. I cannot tell you it will be easier. In fact, things will get harder but it will pay off at the end.
  • Do not get too caught up in your church struggles. God will move you around. His body is much bigger than the local church you are in.
  • Try not to obsess so much about your dreams of leadership and changing the world. They will not happen as you imagine it. Most of them will not happen at all. Just try to figure out what makes you happy. Trust me, that will save you from a lot of disappointment and wasted energy.
  • Oh…that car you just bought last year, you will be driving it in the streets of LA one day. Yes, you know exactly what will take you to Pasadena. Just know it will take a while.

Going through this memory exercise brought me a lot of joy today. It gave me a new perspective on what I am facing and also helped me see the past in a different light.

Looking at the past is not always a happy experience. Yet, only when we are able to soberly face who we were yesterday will we have the courage to accept who we are today.

The Charismatic Experience

These are the days I am grateful to be studying in a seminary like Fuller. In a class of systematic theology focused on  Christology, Soteriology and Pneumatology (for those of you wondering what they mean, the first is pretty obvious, the second is salvation and the third is about the Holy Spirit), we have spent a week talking about healing and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Our professor, a respected Pentecostal Theologian, really did great justice to these controversial topics. When they come up, it is easy to fall on two extremes. One of them is to simply ignore them and pretend that they should not be part of serious theological discussion but something that happens “over there” with those “crazy Pentecostals.” I would venture to guess that the majority of evangelical seminaries in the U.S. would take this position. The other extreme, is the Pentecostal-Charismatic position that focus primarily on the experience. In other words, they have a point to prove and hope that you will also experience these topics first-hand. What this position lacks is a serious theological reflection on how the Baptism of the Spirit and healing fit into a larger theological framework.

The class online forum led me to reflect on the importance of these two in my Christian formation. The experience of the gifts of the Spirit were with me from an early age. Being brought up in a Brazilian Charismatic church, they loomed large in my experience and imagination. I never experienced the baptism of the Spirit in the classical Pentecostal way, that is through imposition of hands. If was not this dramatic experience in which I fell into a transe of speaking in Tongues. I did witness that happen but that was not the path for me. That is why, I was glad to learn about a more balanced view put forward by both Charismatic Catholics and Protestants. That is, they do not see the baptism as an event in which the Spirit “falls” but more like an activation of what is within. That is, the Spirit, that was already there after salvation, endows the believer with charismatic gifts. This can include the gift of tongues or others.

This balanced view both emphasizes the importance of the charismatic experience without boxing into specific visible signs (which is what the classical Pentecostal view argues). Instead,, it connects the Charismatic experience with a larger experience of regeneration that starts in salvation. Instead of being a separate “second-blessing” type experience, it is an important step in the journey towards union with God (an orthodox view of spiritual formation). That is, the charismatic experience is not there just to unleash power so the believer can reach the world but also to deepen intimacy with the Trinity through the work of the Spirit. I am grateful for the Pentecostal idea of empowerement. Yet, I believe that does not paint the whole picture. God does not just want us to be super-Christians to heal the sick, reveal prophecies or speak of the unknown. He wants to commune with us in the charismatic experience.

This possibility excites me more than any miraculous demonstration. To know God intimately is the desire and the design of our whole being.

Discipleship is NOT what it used to be

I confess that discipleship is one of these words of “Christianese” that have to come mean so many different things that it is almost useless. For this purpose, I will define it as the process through which Christians learn and grow spiritually. I much rather the “spiritual formation” term, yet this one is also facing a similar fate as discipleship and becoming a commodity word. I am focusing on discipleship because it entails a mentorship relationship between a mentor and mentee. In the New Testament, it is best model in Jesus relationship with his disciples and the apostles teaching to the young churches. My argument is simple: discipleship is moving away from mentor-mentee relationships to more friendship relationships. Spiritual guidance is done now less in a top-to-bottom fashion and more in a lateral fashion. Even spiritual leaders are accommodating to this reality.

Echoing from my previous post, spiritual leadership is changing from being directive to being influential. Being directive means you tell people how things are and what they should do. You do so not expecting your authority to be in question. Being influential means expressing advice as to what they can face challenges. You shy away from telling people what to do but instead suggest what they should do. The more skilled leaders go a step further and teach people how to think which empowers them to figure out the right decision on their own.

Certainly this new environment of ministry has its share of problems. I am sure a lot of pastors would love to tell lay people to get a grip and grow up. This type of tough love is at times necessary but unfortunately is becoming less and less the norm. The reality is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is so transient that it cannot withstand these confrontational moment. Most mentees will just leave and find a mentor that tells them what they want to hear.

Yet, teachability is not the only issue here. The reality is that mentors are many times ill-prepared to help mentees to navigate their world. It is not that they are poorly trained but they just have not lived through it. The speed of change can at times make one’s experience seem irrelevant to the present generation. A more adequate approach is for the mentor to walk together with the mentee and collaborate in navigating the challenges he or she may be facing. It is not that the mentor and mentee are equals in knowledge but they are not as distant as they used to be. It is the job of the mentor to evaluate his or her experience in light of the mentee’s new situation. It is the job of the mentee to listen but also participate in this evaluation process.

Discipleship in this environment looks more like a partnership than an apprenticeship. It is less about spiritual directing and more about spiritual companionship. It forces us all to be humble and it also takes away the pressure of the mentor to have all the answers.

These types of spiritual companionships are difficult to foster but are absolutely essential if we are to face the ever-changing challenges in this century. Spiritual mentors need to learn to be facilitators rather than manufacturers of spiritual growth. Spiritual mentees need to take ownership of their spiritual health rather than relying on a leader to have all the answers. We must all humbly seek the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us through this messy process.

 

 

The Practice of Unlearning

I love to see my children learn, they are like little sponges. Sophia, our 4 year-old, will diligently repeat every new word we teach her sometimes with her own pronunciation. This is quite an exercise for her as we are teaching her to speak words in two languages. She is great with one or two syllable words but has more difficulty with anything larger. So chocolate, becomes “chocate” and so forth.

There is however one advantage she has over us: she learning most things anew. At this point she is only learning while we adults are doing a whole lot of unlearning while attempting to learn new things. In an age where is information is so readily accessible, true learning requires a good amount of un-learning first. Let me explain. While we have a tremendous capacity to process (or digest which is a more humane way of seeing this process) information, most of it does not really stay with us. There is only a limited amount of information, skills and habits we can retain and use on a day-to-day basis. Thus, in order to truly learn something new we must first let go of the old.

This season has been on of unlearning for me. As I worked in business for over a decade (and got a MBA along the way), I am now starting to un-learn the business mindset. While this may not be evident to many, many business practices are grossly incompatible with the spiritual life. Ideas like efficiency, expediency, drive for success, pursuit of profit now have to be re-evaluated if not thrown away altogether. Not that they are intrinsically evil, yet an unquestioning adoption of them can be deadly to the soul. One remarkable new concept is the idea that the best things are formed slowly through time which is completely at odds with a culture that drives for speed and instant results.

Another unlearning I am going through is the idea that it is best to lead life and make decisions through reason. This is a hard one to let go. While I always recognized the role of the Spirit in life major decisions, my main default was reason and rationality. A cool, well articulated argument was always to be preferred over an emotion-filled plea. Through years, I learned to suppress and ignore emotions in the altar of reason. To go through life thinking that it was all about making the right choices that only can be arrived through by careful reasoning and deliberation. I am learning that the Spiritual way is altogether different and a lot less by ideas an a lot more by feelings and hunches.

From the beginning, I suspected that the most important aspect of this time would be what God would be doing in me. That is, it would not be about what I learned but what I was to become. Part of becoming is slow, long and arduous process of un-learning.

The biggest aim of the Spiritual life is not success, knowledge or even wisdom but discernment. Yet, how can we discern if our very mindset is bent on suppressing the very channels God wants to speak to us through. Do we have ears to listen to what the Spirit is saying? May our emotions, reasoning, and all our senses be open to capture the wind of the Spirit?