lunch as a spiritual discipline

As I said last week, this post will be the last in my series on establishing a rule of life. I would love your suggestions as to what to write about when I am finished with this series.  In the past I’ve often written more for my own enjoyment than for my readers’.  I don’t want to stop doing the former, but I’d love to be able to do both!

My topic today is the concept of a small, daily “Sabbath” rest.  (I’m putting the term in quotes because, of course, it literally refers to something that happens every seven days.  I’m using it loosely here.)  During my conversation with my co-worker who is an experienced spiritual director (see the post entitled “A Conversation with Purpose”), she asked me how I could incorporate the concept of Sabbath rest into my workday.  I knew the answer immediately: I should start taking a lunch break.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I am blessed to have a salaried academic job with a relatively flexible schedule.  If I wanted to go out to lunch and stay longer than an hour, no one would say anything as long as I didn’t miss a meeting or a class.  But I typically don’t use this privilege.  Most of the time I eat lunch at my desk, attempting to keep working despite the difficulty of typing an email while eating.  I end up getting my keyboard all sticky and not really enjoying my food.  People feel weird when they come to my office to ask a question and see that I’m eating lunch, even when I tell them they shouldn’t feel weird.  More importantly, I don’t have a time built in during the day for refocusing: celebrating the accomplishments of the morning and asking for God’s help with the tasks of the afternoon.

A lunch break is the perfect time for either fellowship or solitude.  Perhaps I could schedule a little of both into my work week–lunch with others on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and lunch alone on Tuesday/Thursday, or something like that.  During the lunches with others, I could be deliberate about getting to know different people from inside and outside my department.  During the solo lunches, I could pray a form of the examen prayer (I mentioned this in my introductory post on crafting a rule of life).  In this type of prayer, I would review the day up to that point, thanking God for blessings, confessing sins, and thinking (not obsessively) about how I could have done things differently, and then I would look ahead to the rest of the day, asking for wisdom and strength for each task.  This need take no longer than five minutes, so I could even do it at the beginning or end of a lunch I’m eating with other people.  I could even include my lunch buddies in the practice, asking them what their high and low points of the day have been thus far.  (Thanks for Alvin Ung, one of the professors of the Taking Your Soul to Work class, for this idea.)

Oddly enough, I think this might be the most difficult to implement of the disciplines I’ve written about so far.  Not for any logistical reason–there are plenty of places to eat lunch in and around my building (including the roof!), and there’s no need to spend money; I can still pack a lunch from home.  The reason this is going to be hard to start practicing is that it will require me to break a well-established habit and to allow myself to feel unproductive for at least half an hour every day.  I think the solution may be simple: I need to put lunch on my calendar, just like I recently started putting “write for 30 min.” on my calendar at the same time every weekday, with excellent results (why do you think I’ve been so prolific on this blog lately?).

I want to thank everyone for the kind, interesting, and helpful comments you’ve made during this series–here on the blog, on Facebook, and by text message and email.  I would love to hear about your own experiences with these practices and other spiritual disciplines you have incorporated into your own life!

the thankfulness book

This is the next in my series of posts on crafting a rule of life.  Those of you who have been following this series will be interested (and maybe a little sad) to know that I am probably going to wrap it up after next week’s post.  However, I’ll continue to add to my rule of life and will probably blog about it from time to time in the future.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the three hours I spent in solitude, meditating on my struggle with anger and how, with God’s help, I can implement practices into my life that will help me to become less angry and more gentle.  One of the action steps that came from that session was to begin writing daily in the thankfulness journal that I started last summer during a Bible study on Ann Vosskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, a book I heartily recommend.  Like thousands of other Christian women who have read the book, I chose a beautiful journal (mine is a handcrafted one from Nepal, with a colorful woven cover and soft, fibrous pages) and started making a list of things I’m thankful for, with the eventual goal of reaching one thousand.  Like thousands of other Christian women, I faithfully wrote 2-3 items daily for a few weeks and then petered out, starting and stopping again sporadically throughout the year whenever I happened to notice the journal under a pile of other books.

As I mentioned in my solitude post, the authors of Taking Your Soul to Work connect anger (the sin) and gentleness (the fruit of the spirit) with surrendered contentment (the outcome).  After I recognized this unexpected connection, I decided that picking my thankfulness journal back up and making it a habit this time could be an effective strategy for becoming more content with the gifts I have and thereby feeling less compelled toward anger about what I don’t have and/or can’t control.  Too, writing about those seemingly out-of-nowhere gifts that come to me more often than I usually notice (e.g., a good conversation with a friend whom I “happened” to walk by when leaving a blood drive early after an unsuccessful attempt to donate) may help me see how good it is that I’m not in control of every minute of my day.

Keeping a thankfulness list isn’t just for angry people, or for women, or for people who have been inspired by Ann Vosskamp.  It’s for anyone who wants to rewire their brain circuitry to look for good things.  (There’s real science that says you can actually do this; maybe I’ll write a post about it sometime.)  And it only takes a minute or less to jot down a few items every day.  This practice can also be done with other people.  My family has a now-threadbare journal that we’ve pulled out every Thanksgiving since 1991 to record what we’ve been most thankful for during the previous year.  Reading our entries aloud together has led to much laughter, many happy tears, and deep fellowship with each other and with God.

If you think it sounds cheesy, have you actually tried it?  It won’t change you into a different person overnight, but it will gradually train your brain–and your heart, and all the rest of you–to see gifts where you didn’t before.

If you have experience with keeping a thankfulness list, or if you have ideas about how you might incorporate this simple discipline into your life, let me know in the comments!

A conversation with purpose

This is part 4 in my series on crafting a rule of life.  Thank you to all those who have been following along and commenting!

Last week I wrote about the three hours I spent in solitude, thinking about my struggles with anger and control and about their counterparts, gentleness and contentment.  This morning, as a follow-up to that meditative time, I spent one hour in spiritual conversation with a wise lady in my department at work.  I chose her as my conversation partner not only because she is an excellent listener–having made a study of this art, which doesn’t come naturally to anyone–but also because I’ve had a feeling (confirmed today) that she and I are very similar in some ways.  What I didn’t know until today is that she also has formal experience as a spiritual director, which is essentially what I needed her to be today.

I don’t know a lot about the practice of giving and receiving spiritual direction, since it isn’t something that evangelicals, with our emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, tend to do.  My basic understanding is that a spiritual director is a person who helps another believer discern the voice of God.  The spiritual director does not have the authority of God, but the directee agrees to follow the director’s advice unless it contradicts God’s revealed Word or becomes inappropriate for that person (which it shouldn’t, since the spiritual director is not chosen on a whim).  Before the director offers advice, the pair spend significant time in conversation together about the directee’s life circumstances, goals, and desires for spiritual formation.  The relationship usually extends beyond one session.  Each conversation may, as ours did today, begin with five minutes of silent focusing and end with a spoken prayer by the director.

If this all sounds too weighty, it’s helpful to think of spiritual direction as a form of mentoring.  That’s really what our session felt like today.  I’ll be honest; I enjoyed talking about myself for an hour, but this wasn’t just cathartic gut-spilling (not that there isn’t a time and place for that).  Instead, we focused on problem-solving.  If I said something like “I have a problem of calling myself a dummy when I make a mistake” (okay, that wasn’t hypothetical), my spiritual director would ask questions to help me arrive at a practical strategy for reducing negative self-talk.  When we finished, I felt like I had enjoyed a conversation with a good friend, and I also had some action items that I could begin implementing immediately.  (I sure do love action items.)

As to how spiritual direction will fit into my rule of life, I am not exactly sure, since this one depends on other people as well as me.  If the person I met with today is willing to meet again (she seemed to be), I’d love to establish a regular pattern of this type of conversation with her, in which we could periodically revisit the issues we talked about today, while also moving on to other areas of my life.  There’s also such a thing as group spiritual direction, which we practiced a few times during the Taking Your Soul to Work class.  In this version, small groups of three or four people take turns sharing, and the others in the group have the opportunity to offer advice.  No one person in the group has the authority; rather, all the members trust that the others are sensitive to God’s leading and will give good advice (not that they won’t ever be wrong).  I might try this practice with my friends or even a few co-workers.

What do you think about this spiritual direction/conversation idea?  If you have any thoughts about how to implement the practice, let me know!


Last week I wrote about my plan to observe a weekly Sabbath rest; now, as the next step in plotting out my rule of life (see my July 15 post for a full explanation), I’d like to tell you about my experience with solitude this past Saturday and how I intend to fit this practice into my life.

On Saturday, I spent three hours in one of the group study rooms in the library at my university, which is quiet on a Saturday afternoon at this time of year.  Not by any particular plan (except maybe God’s), I ended up in a room looking out on the rooftop garden, so I got to see a lot of bees pollinating flowers, which ended up figuring into one of the spiritual observations I recorded in my journal.  I don’t think it’s any accident that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings began with invitations to look at the birds and consider the flowers.

I spent these three hours in fulfillment of a post-class assignment in the Regent College course Taking Your Soul to Work, which inspired my effort to create a rule of life.  I was instructed to spend three hours in complete solitude, using the Bible and the book Taking Your Soul to Work (by the course’s instructors, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung) to identify and meditate on my greatest workplace sin/struggle (I chose anger) and the fruit of the spirit that corresponds to it (gentleness, according to Stevens and Ung).  The prospect of three hours of complete solitude was no big deal; I live alone and enjoy being alone, so I occasionally spend entire days without seeing anyone.  But three hours of slow reading, prayer, and thought, without anything tangible to show for it besides some navel-gazing journal entries–that isn’t something I generally do for fun.

I should be honest: I didn’t spend the whole three hours in that one room.  I got up a few times to use the restroom and the vending machines, and I did see a few people; I just didn’t interact with them.  Yes, I ate some snacks; fasting is a separate discipline that I might write about in a future post.  And I did listen to some instrumental music on my iPod; silence is also a separate discipline that is often combined with solitude but is not essential to the practice.  Different people might want to try the discipline of solitude for different reasons, but for me, the main point of the exercise was to 1) focus my concentration on a single activity for a long period of time (this is very difficult for me, which may surprise people who know that I love to read and have written a dissertation) and 2) meditate slowly and deliberately on what God wants to say to me, without immediately jumping to application (this is very difficult for a lot of evangelicals, I would venture to say).

I wouldn’t say that I received any earth-shattering revelations during those three hours, but I did fully recognize–in some cases for the first time–some things about God’s gentleness, my own deep desire to control everything, and the absolute necessity of contentment to the Christian life.  Of course, another topic of meditation might have taught me something entirely different, and that’s the lovely thing about solitude–what you do with the solitude is up to you, so the experience can be different every time.  I plan to incorporate this discipline by taking one of these three-hour mini-retreats quarterly–i.e., every three months.  I should add, by the way, that the three hours seemed to go by much more quickly than I expected.

If you’d like to share your own experiences with either Sabbath rest or solitude, or if you’d like to tell how you plan to incorporate these disciplines into your own life, please comment below!

Remembering the Sabbath Day

This is the first of my posts describing specific items that will become part of my “rule of life”–see July 15’s post for an introduction.

The spiritual practice that most caught my attention during the class, as both something I’m not currently doing (at least not very well) and something I’d really like to do, was a weekly observance of the Sabbath.  I’m not just talking about going to church on Sunday–I already do that–or about not going into the office on weekends.  Observing the Sabbath means choosing one day per week (it probably will be Sunday for me, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone) to rest in a deliberate manner.

I know; “rest in a deliberate manner” sounds like a contradiction in terms.  But my point is that Sabbath rest is planned and zealously guarded.  It’s not the same as crashing in front of the TV at the end of the day because you’re so tired from work.  Sabbath rest will look very different for different people, but the common factors are that it happens every week (ideally on the same day every week, though I understand that this may not work for people with unpredictable work schedules), it lasts for an entire day (following the Jewish model, it could actually start on the previous evening), and it doesn’t get shoved to the side when life gets busy.  An exceptionally busy person is in exceptionally great need of a Sabbath rest.

The idea of observing Sabbath comes from two biblical passages: the creation in Genesis 1-2, in which God works for six days and then rests on the seventh, and the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, in which God commands his people to keep the seventh day “holy” (i.e., set apart; special).  This command is elaborated on elsewhere in the Jewish law and clarified (never abolished) in the Christian New Testament.  Even people who don’t accept Scripture as authoritative in their lives often understand from experience that a weekly day of rest is physically and mentally restorative–and not merely a luxury, but a necessity to function at full capacity.

As I mentioned before, the actual observance of the Sabbath will look different for different people.  This is the “Sabbath policy” (subject to revision) I plan to put into effect for myself beginning next Sunday:

  1. No checking email
  2. No job-related* work of any kind, including grading (This may motivate me to work more efficiently during the week!)
  3. Perform a short ceremony to mark the beginning and end of the Sabbath.  This will usually be as simple as lighting a candle on Saturday evening and again on Sunday before I go to bed.
  4. Include other people in my Sabbath celebration whenever feasible.  (Note: Solitude is a separate practice, which I’ll write about in a later post.  I included this item because my tendency is to be a hermit on Sundays, but since I’m now treating Sunday as a little holiday, it makes sense to be with other people.)
  5. Increase the quality and (probably) quantity of the time I spend at church.  (Important note: Some people have no need to do the second part of this and should probably spend less time at church–I’m talking about those people who get burned out serving in every ministry.  But I’m not always mentally and spiritually “present” when I’m in church, and I tend to escape as soon as the service is over, so I’m challenging myself to enjoy my church–by that I primarily mean its people.)

I’m looking forward to implementing this first part of my rule of life.  What about you?  Let me know how you observe, or plan to start observing, a weekly Sabbath rest!

*For me, I think it’s okay to do work that has nothing to do with my career, like mowing my lawn or grocery shopping, although I’ll probably try to do those things on Saturday.

Crafting a rule of life

This week I audited a course at Regent College in Vancouver, called Taking Your Soul to Work.  (I really enjoyed this week of professional development and vacation, and I’m already thinking about doing it again next year.)  Going into the course, I was excited to learn about a theology of work, but I didn’t realize how much of the content would be drawn from historical Christian traditions such as desert monasticism, the Benedictine Rule, and Ignatian spirituality.

The main action item I gave myself based on the course is to craft my own rule of life, which is a new concept for me. A rule of life is a slate of spiritual disciplines, developed on one’s own and/or with the input of trusted advisors, to be incorporated into one’s life at set intervals: daily, weekly, annually, etc. Despite the rigid connotations of the word “rule,” the term in this context implies a “life-giving rhythm” (to quote Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message).  Rather than more items on a to-do list, the disciplines are a way to become aware of God’s presence amidst the “secular” activities of one’s life.  (Another idea we discussed in this class: There’s no such thing as a secular activity.)

A rule of life can include, among many others, such practices as observing a weekly Sabbath rest, reading Scripture daily, praying the examen prayer (more on this is a later post), and taking a semi-annual silent retreat.  My initial instinct is to sit down for an hour and quickly knock out a rule for my life, but I think it will be wiser to process what I’ve learned this week and craft my rule one item at a time.  My plan is to blog about this process along the way.  Want to join me?