But we're very Midwestern about our social media usage here in Eastern South Dakota, aren't we? Well, except when we're commenting on headlines from the Brookings Register, maybe, telling perpetrators we hope they rot in hell—because obviously that's what Jesus would do. *facepalm*
Meanwhile, I've actually spent most of this year asking the Lord what exactly it is He wants me to do with this blog now. It started out in one direction, back in November of 2016, and that was very important and very valuable at the time. That was three years ago, and I'm in a very, very different place now than I was then. So now I keep kinda looking around this website, still asking God, "What's next?"
Those of you who've been paying attention have noticed some changes happening. The Lord is bringing new clarity to The Serenity Project. A lot of it began last fall, when my colleagues and I went through the IPSAT together. In mid-December, I had my concluding coaching session with Mr. Steve Moore (whose new book was just released this summer—go get it right now!), and the man delivered the most stunningly insightful, prophetic word from the Lord I've ever heard in my life. I haven't been the same ever since.
That was the first time I experienced the terrifying-convicting-affirming sensation of another human being seeing right through me and speaking the voice of God directly into my life. The second time came last winter, when Steve Moore stopped in the middle of his IPSAT coaching session to take me to task for not understanding the spiritual gift of the knowledge of God. "Yeah, you need to know and apply the written Word of God," he scolded, frankly exasperated with me, "but the gift of knowledge isn't knowledge about God—it's knowledge belonging to God. It is the knowledge God knows, given to you, by the power of HIs Holy Spirit in you. Do you have any idea how profoundly powerful that gift could be, paired with a passion for pastoral counseling?"
I was speechless for most of the rest of that conversation. I hadn't shared with Steve that I'd spent the last two years, off and on, exploring training programs for certification as a biblical counselor, completing a couple of fundamentals tracks with the deep sense that God was leading somewhere in that direction, but not really hearing His go-ahead to pursue any particular credentialing yet. Toward the end of my coaching session with Steve, he openly challenged me to propose an area where I would commit to seeking more skills for ministry. Feeling like a chastised child by this point, I dutifully suggested pastoral counseling—because duh.
First, Steve specifically exhorted me to go get serious about that already. Then he did something that completely wrecked me as a person, inside and out.
"I'm going to sideline our coaching session for a minute here and just tell you... because there's a picture coming into my mind for you," Steve said. "It's the back of an embroidery... all the knots and loose ends. That's the side you see. The other side is the masterpiece—all the intricate stitches, beautiful colors, and details connecting to form a picture. That's the side God sees."
I can't explain to you everything about why that image put me immediately into full-on sobbing, nose-running tears at my desk on the phone with Steve Moore. But I cried like a baby for the rest of my IPSAT coaching session, and I haven't forgotten that picture for a moment since. There was that terrifying-convicting-affirming sensation all over again: the feeling of knowing and being known. Because Steve was right. There I was, laid out wide open, undeniably aware of the eye of the living God upon me—Maker of heaven and of earth, Almighty Lord and All-Knowing Creator—and what am I doing? Sitting there giving Him all my reasons about why I can't do what He's designed me uniquely and specifically to do in this world. Brilliant.
If you ever have a chance to go through the IPSAT process, I highly encourage you to do so.
Anyhoo... at the beginning of this year, I started getting serious about seeking more skills in the area of pastoral counseling. After years of hemming and hawing about whether or not I was supposed to start graduate school, I finally sensed God's green light to go for it. Once I finally took an actual step in that direction, I found out there was something called the emerging field of positive psychology—"the scientific study of human flourishing"—and all of a sudden, I know what I want to do when I grow up. All of the pieces keep falling into place.
Here's the thing. Traditionally, psychology has been all about studying what's wrong: mental illnesses, disorders, pathologies, dysfunctions, developmental issues, so on and so forth. Positive psychology, on the other hand—initiated in 1998 by Dr. Martin Seligman and his contemporaries—is the study of that which produces more of what's good: positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishment, to name those that fall under PERMA Theory of Well-Being. The grand proposition? That we can go beyond studying how to make people simply "not sick," and study instead how we can help people live life to the full.
In a nut shell: "Relieving suffering... is not the same as flourishing. People want to thrive, not just survive."
What's most compelling to me, as a licensed minister of The Wesleyan Church on the ordination track here in Brookings, South Dakota, is that everything I'm learning about positive psychology can be rightly aligned with biblical truth and Christian practice. Surprise, surprise—research is finding that disciplines such as forgiveness, gratitude, prayer/meditation, and service to others actually physiologically improve the way we experience life and overcome challenges. Isn't that interesting? It is as if our bodies were designed by some divine Creator to enjoy those disciplines which are best for our wellbeing... now, there's a thought! I love it when science finds God right. ;)
What's so motivating about this field is that positive psychology looks at the influential—and influenceable—factors inherent in three progressive stages of a life worth living:
- first (and most immediately attainable), the Pleasant Life,
- second (more deep, rich, and satisfying), the Good Life, and
- third (the apex of thriving, value, and purpose), the Meaningful Life.
It's not just about thinking "happy thoughts," and it sure isn't about ignoring problems or denying reality. It's about making the world a better place. It's about squarely addressing the challenges we face, and developing the grit, resiliency, and growth mindset we need to do something about them.
And that, my glad little heart has sung to me ever since learning the vocabulary earlier this year, is what my personal mission in life has been all about.
Personally, from my very first a-ha! moments almost a decade ago, as a newcomer learning to live sober by the principles of Twelve Step spiritual recovery, to our church's first experiments these past few years, with the concept of recovery ministry in a distinctly Wesleyan context, God has been moving me toward this point of being exactly where I'm at right now.
Along the way, He's smacked me in the forehead with several big chunks of truth, one of which is this: wherever there's a "do not" in Scripture, there's a "do instead." The Word always offers a godly alternative to whatever sinful proclivities we turn to when left to our own devices. But we usually burn up all our energy trying to move the mountains only God can change, while completely overlooking, ignoring, or despising the things we are actually perfectly capable of influencing for the better in our lives. We get so hung up on everything we want to stop doing, a lot of us never get to the things we want to start. That's where the "positive" factor comes into principles of positive psychology: adding to, not just subtracting from.
Somewhere in that process, I noticed something else that's strangely compelling, too. When I scrolled through the categories on my bible study app, I saw several recommendations provided: verses for anxiety, verses for depression, verses for anger, verses for fear... are you seeing a pattern here? Well, I noticed how far I had to keep swiping, before I finally came to verses for joy... verses for peace... verses for love... And it hit me. Why do we go looking for more of what we've already got? Why don't we ask God for what He has for us instead?
As Smith writes, "Once we put sabbath on our weekly calendar, it wants to become a part of our days and our hours and our minutes... If you can take just ten minutes a day at first, do it. Let the rest fall in the middle of your work—there's a lesson in resting amidst busyness."
For a year and a half or so, a handful of us gathered a Thursday night care group at our church, piloting the concept of mental health ministry in Brookings. About halfway through our group meeting time each week, we observed a 15-minute "quiet time" for prayer, reflection, meditation, journaling, or connecting with God however the Spirit would lead.
A lot of you were a part of that group over the year and a half we met. And more than a few of you told me, "That 15 minutes each week is the only time I ever get to just sit still and be quiet."
This stuff hits us exactly where we're at, Brookings family.
And as you rest, tell yourself, 'I'm not resting to be more productive but because I'm a human being. God delights in me, even though I'm not producing anything.' When God released His people from slavery in Egypt, even before He gave the Ten Commandments, He gave them sabbath to break them out of the slave habit. Slaves don't get a break. But children do. Sabbath reminds us we are children of God." ~ Mandy Smith, The Vulnerable Pastor
I love to work. I love being good at work. I love having work to do. In the past, employed by secular bosses, even when I hated my job, I loved my work. Now, employed by my local church body, it's an even easier temptation for me to sacrifice all on the altar of career. After all, "it's God's work." It's for a good cause. Few would argue. Many believers more pious than I have been known to slave away for the gospel over the centuries. Really, I could justify any tunnel-visioned extreme of blatant workaholism in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Except... He shows me a different way.
Jesus doesn't talk about boundaries in the bible, but He models them for us from one end of the gospels to the other. Consistently, Jesus protects His time in solitude, His time in prayer, and His time in rest. He cares for His body, He lets people misunderstand His priorities, He allows others to experience the consequences of their own choices, and He makes His personal moves on purpose without flinching. He doesn't compromise, He doesn't give in to make other people happy, and He doesn't let competing motivations take Him from God's mission. Jesus shows us that self-sacrifice is only godly when it's furthering God's plan for our lives—not inhibiting it. Jesus went to the cross for our sins; He didn't let the people throw Him off a cliff when they were angry with Him. There's a difference between suffering for good and playing the martyr.
This was a tough, tough lesson for me early in faith, wrestling my nemesis pride. Even today, I must be reminded to continuously check my ego at the door, especially when I get into that anxious state of feeling like I'm "not producing anything." For me, it's hard to do anything that doesn't produce something. That's a compulsive leftover product of a childhood lost, when nothing I did was good enough for anyone. But mine is a God Who says, "Be still." That's one of the hardest instructions for me to follow. And it's about as countercultural as you can get.
It will take determination to be countercultural and it will take courage to keep returning to healthy practices when others around us interpret our choices as personal rejection, laziness or selfishness... So pinpoint the 'shoulds' that your rational side knows are the most unhealthy or unreasonable, and just stop doing them, even if your compulsive self starts writhing. It may half-kill you at first, but it may be just what you need." ~ Smith
Since January, I've been asking God what I "should" do with this blog. Right in the middle of all the recurring messages He's been sending my way—rediscovering mystery, re-creating joy, recapturing awe and wonderment, re-igniting creativity, renewing delight in the Lord and reveling in enjoyment of Christ—I've still been beating my head on the wall about what I "should" do... with this lifelong love of writing He awakened in me the day my mom taught me to use a typewriter when I was four years old.
And since January, I've come up with all kinds of really excellent ideas about what I "should" do with this blog: several multi-stage project designs, an extensive year-long online course outline, at least two fully formed business startup concepts, a membership-driven crowd-sourcing community, some really brilliant strategies for monetizing content and building a platform as a regional expert in my niche market...
The thing is, coming up with the ideas is the only part I enjoy about that process. When I think about what it would take to actually do any of those things... I just feel tired, not inspired.
At winter retreat in Billings, Montana, back in February, our district superintendent of the Northwest District of The Wesleyan Church, Rev. Wes Smith unapologetically, urgently exhorted all of the pastors under his care to "GET A LIFE."
Now, that's advice you can benefit from, too, friends. To clarify, Wes told us, in all earnestness, "Find something that makes you feel alive, and do it."
(He also told all of the pastors under his care to go see a counselor, "at least once a year." About a month after winter retreat, someone else who'd been there—I don't remember now who it was—asked me, "Would you ever consider that?" and I thought, Wow, y'all still don't know anything about me, do you? So, in case you don't know, I've been voluntarily going to see counselors since I turned 18 and could make the appointments for myself. If I wasn't seeing a counselor, you wouldn't want me as your pastor. Just sayin'. But, I digress.)
So I keep looking at this blog and asking God, "What's next?" Because I've been looking for that God-given thing that makes me feel alive, and that thing for me has always been writing, and I've always known it. At every pivotal turn of my path, I've always remembered that no matter what else I might ever become, I'll always be a writer. The problem is, I keep trying to turn writing into work, and that's doesn't work for me.
Sabbath practice isn't designed to produce measurable outcomes. It's designed for renewal and worship. Yet I still struggle to effectively silence that compulsive, writhing self inside me that feels so uncomfortable when it's "not producing anything."
After all, God has given me this clever, high-capacity, strategic brain to use, full of grand designs and lucrative side gigs... "should" I not make something worthwhile of it at all times, in all pursuits and pastimes?
First, I might redefine my understanding of what's "worthwhile." I've done the entrepreneurial thing already before, in a past life. More than once, in fact. I thought it would make me feel alive. It only lost me the joy.
It's taken me almost nine months to distill it all down at this point, but here are three things I've found:
- Everything's connected to everything.
- It's never too late to stop "trying harder" to do things that aren't working.
- Love is a rebellion.
Jesus never does what He "should" do, according to the pattern of the world. God always calls us to go against the grain. We're heading into the fall now, and after all the soul-searching this year, the Spirit has led me to two key convictions. One is I'm now pursuing a graduate degree in theologically-informed counseling. There's never going to be a "good time" to go back to school; I'm either going to do it, or I'm not, and I know if I don't, I'll always wish I did.
The other is... it turns out all I really want to do with this blog is read stuff and tell you about what I'm learning. Because I enjoy that. A lot.
Those are two things, outside of relationships and independent from work, that bring me joy, give me life, connect me to God, and fill me with a sense of divine meaning and purpose. Might not be "producing anything," in the worldly sense, but if they're producing enjoyment, energy, and encouragement in my life... is that not a betterment to the lives of those of you who exist around here with me?
After all, in fairness, my personal mission in life is to change the world by showing you how you can change the world, too. That means the kinds of books I read for fun are the kinds of books that can really alter the course of your life, if you let them. And you know what? You can learn a lot about yourself by reading books that are written for pastors and counselors. (Just don't follow them on Twitter. Most are just arguing and sniping at each other there, and it's kind of embarrassing to watch.)
All I ask is you know I'll post affiliate links for any books I'm talking about, and if you find The Serenity Project useful and valuable, and you're going to buy one of those books from Amazon anyway, please use my affiliate links to make those purchases, to help support this website and offset the cost of maintaining a domain from year to year. That's all. Fair enough?
So... there was then, and now there's now. I'll still refer back to old posts from time to time. There's still some really important stuff back there that continues to inform and influence my takes on soul care, recovery, and mental health. A lot of it has built up to these ongoing reminders now, to live a life that is captured by the presence of the living God.
I've learned so much more about Who He is and who He's made me to be, and I've still hardly begun. The desire of my heart is to keep on learning about all that is good, pleasing, and perfect, and I want to give it all away—to anyone and everyone who will take it. I want you to know you can change the world, and you can start right now if you want to. We can start right here where we're at, and we can live our lives in such a way that our community of Brookings can't help but be changed. And you know what? If the rest of South Dakota wants to get in on the action, none of us are really all that far from each other. There's enough of us to go around.
A lot of things have changed across this website in the last several months, but one paragraph has remained mostly the same since the original vision statement was written back in November of 2016:
We're not afraid to step boldly into the places that hurt, walking alongside one another in faith, to share space in the struggles. We believe our wounds and weaknesses are touch points for God's grace to pour out as we work together to build a life worth living."
But for crying out loud, if you've read this far, leave a comment and say hello. You might find out there are a lot of other people right here in Brookings who need exactly what you've got to give—your story; your experience; your understanding; your hope. And you might start to discover that changing the world is a whole lot easier than you thought.
By His mercy,