Even though I’ve been out of school for many years, I still have nightmares where I am a student completely unprepared for a French or math exam. I feel the pressure to perform, like when I played competitive basketball and I had teammates depending on me. That pressure to achieve and succeed was there when I worked for Sony in Tokyo, too.
And it has followed me in my work as a pastor.
Even though some think of ministry as a less competitive, more spiritual vocation, I found the transition from the business world to the church didn’t free me from feeling I needed to make something exceptional of my life and ministry.
I feel a burden to achieve – to overcome my feeling of notenoughness through what I do.
Many of us understand intellectually we are loved by God, but in our day-to-day experience we continue to measure our value by our success, our outward appearance, and how others view us.
Truly knowing we are deeply loved by our Creator frees us to pursue a life of significant, enduring achievement and contribution – a life not driven by fear and anxiety, but one that springs from a deep well of joy and gratitude for the love and grace God has shown us.
Spiritual practices attune us to God’s loving presence, acting as sticky note reminders that God is with us all the time. They open the ear of our spirit to hear the sacred voice that calls us the beloved.
I begin my day with prayer – more on that later – and I conclude my day in the evening with praying the Prayer of Examen, a thanksgiving ritual created by the 16th-century Spanish priest Ignatius of Loyola.
This is a prayer practiced by followers of Jesus all over the world for the past five centuries. Using an app called Reimagining the Examen, I pause and look back over the day and name at least three things for which I am thankful.
These expressions of gratitude may be as simple as thanking God for a pleasurable run on a crisp morning with our golden retriever, a meaningful conversation with someone, and a cozy home and comfortable bed in which to sleep.
As simple as this exercise may sound, it can be powerfully life-giving.
Shawn Achor, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard University, cites a one-week study of people asked to take five minutes a day, at the same time every day, to write down three things they were thankful for. They didn’t have to be big things, but did have to be concrete and specific, such as, “I’m thankful for the delicious Thai takeout dinner I had last night.” Or “I’m thankful that my daughter gave me a hug.” Or “I’m thankful that my boss complimented my work.”
At the end of one month, the researchers followed up and found those who practised gratitude, including those who stopped the exercise after one week, were happier and less depressed. Remarkably, after three months and even six months, participants in the one-week experiment were still more joyful and content. The researchers hypothesized that the simple practice of writing down three thanksgivings a day over the course of a week primed the participants’ minds to search for the good in their lives.
Let’s say you are in the market for a white Honda Civic. You are thinking about buying one, but you aren’t sure. Then you begin to notice white Honda Civics everywhere. It’s not as if the people at the Honda dealership have conspired to push you over the edge by flooding your neighbourhood and the area around your workplace with white Honda Civics. Rather, because your mind is primed to think about them, you begin to notice them more.
When we practice giving thanks on a regular basis, it is not as if more good things are coming into our lives. Rather, our minds are primed to notice good things, and so we become more grateful, joyful and content – even though nothing around us has actually changed. When we associate these gifts with God’s goodness (James 1:17), we become more conscious of God’s great love for us.
+ SILENT MEDITATION
One of the most powerful spiritual practices that helps me awaken to God’s love is meditation.
When I wake up in the morning, I make a conscious choice not to check my email, text messages or the internet. Are these things bad or wrong? No. But I know these things will get my mind racing in different directions, and my thinking will quickly become dominated by my to do list. So I avoid this.
Instead, I begin each morning by sitting and breathing deeply for 15 or 20 minutes. This practice helps to still my busy brain. After a couple of deep breaths, I start to wonder how much time has gone by. So I will set a timer on my phone for 15 or 20 minutes using an app called Centering Prayer. I breathe deeply, but soon start to think of all the things I need to do that day. To still my mind I grab my Bible and take a single word to help me focus – like wait as in “wait on God” from Isaiah 40, or the phrase from the blind beggar in the Gospel of John, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When I am really distracted, which is often, I find it helpful to count. Elaine McInnes was a Canadian missionary who served in Japan. McInnes received some counsel on how to meditate from Japanese Zen monks, which she later shared in a Christian book she authored on contemplation. The monks encouraged her to breathe in and out deeply through her nose. They advised that when she felt distracted, she should focus on her breathing and start counting breaths from one to 10.
“When inhaling,” they explained, “count an odd number and when exhaling count an even number. Count only to 10 and then repeat the sequence.”
This pattern of inhaling while counting one, and exhaling while counting two, inhaling and counting three, and exhaling and counting four really helps settle my busy mind and makes me more aware of God’s presence.
We Christians who engage in deep-breathing meditation believe we not only experience neurological changes in our brain, but we are actually turning to encounter the Spirit of God. Our breath may actually become a gateway through which we experience the breath of God.
Some theologians contend the personal name of God, Yahweh, is not so much a name, but an attempt to describe the act of breathing: Yah (breathe in), weh (breathe out). In the Scriptures another Hebrew word ruach can be translated breath or spirit. This word also points to how our breathing can be a means by which we more fully inhale the very breath or Spirit of God.
When I finish my morning meditation, I feel more aware of God’s loving presence that upholds me and the whole world. God is with us all the time. In prayer we don’t invoke God’s presence, we simply awaken to the God of love always present with us.
+ SABBATH KEEPING
I tend to define myself by what I do and how well I do it. But over time and by God’s grace, I have learned to break this pattern of making what I do the central part of my identity. And one of the most powerful ways to do this might surprise you. It’s by honouring the Sabbath.
Sabbath helps me become more aware of God’s love for me because it reminds me that my value doesn’t come from what I produce, but from the fact I am loved by a perfect Father in heaven. If you are a parent, you know how you love a newborn baby before the child accomplishes anything of significance in the world.
At Jesus’ baptism, before He ever preached a sermon, or healed a single person, or achieved anything noteworthy, His Father said, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God says the same to you. Before you have done anything noteworthy, He calls you His beloved.
BEFORE YOU HAVE DONE ANYTHING NOTEWORTHY, HE CALLS YOU HIS BELOVED.
When we cease working on our Sabbath, we live out the truth that our worth is not based on how much we accomplish, or on contributing something of benefit to the world, but on the fact we are a beloved child of God.
My good friend Jeff, who has keen powers of discernment, once told me, “For a long time you have felt like you needed to be the guy. When you were younger, you felt the need to be the guy on the football field, as a younger man the guy in the business world and now the guy as the pastor.
He paused and said, “I sense God saying, ‘You don’t need to be the guy. You just need to be the son.’” I was caught off-guard by his words. I felt an enormous burden lift off my shoulders, and tears came to my eyes – even though we Japanese feel we are not supposed to show emotion in public.
Do you ever feel you need to be the guy or the girl?
God has a different word for you.
He says, “You just need to be my son” or “You just need to be my daughter.”
Honouring the Sabbath helps us become more aware of God’s love for us because it reminds us our value doesn’t come from what we produce or how we perform, but from the simple, glorious fact we are cherished by a perfect Father in heaven.
OUR VALUE DOESN’T COME FROM WHAT WE PRODUCE OR HOW WE PERFORM, BUT FROM THE SIMPLE, GLORIOUS FACT WE ARE CHERISHED BY A PERFECT FATHER IN HEAVEN.
When we sense God’s loving affirmation in our lives, we are able to show up in the world with more of our whole selves. We are not afraid to pursue actions that involve risk and possible failure, because we know we are already accepted.
One of the clearest examples of this dynamic in my own life has been the relationship I’ve had with my mentor Leighton Ford, a seasoned, respected Christian leader originally from Ontario and brother-in-law of the late Billy Graham.
When I first got to know Leighton, I was in my mid-20s studying at a theological seminary in Boston. During that time I was enrolled simultaneously in the pilot program of the Arrow Leadership Program, which helps develop emerging Christian leaders. As one of my Arrow classmates recalls, the first time our group of 25 or so came together, we looked sideways at one another like the fighter pilots in the movie Top Gun, wondering how we would fare in comparison to our rivals.
I was one of the youngest people in the class, and the least experienced and accomplished in Christian ministry. At first I was anxious to impress the founder of Arrow, Leighton Ford. I didn’t want him to feel my admission to the program had been a mistake or that his investment in me was a waste.
But during our second or third Arrow residential seminar, in the course of a conversation, Leighton looked at me with his piercing blue eyes and said, “I admire you.” It felt very special. With the passing of years, I got a deeper sense his love and care for me were independent of any benefit I could offer him, or his organization, or even to the larger world of Christian ministry. I found his commitment to me has been unwavering in the midst of all my limitations, vulnerabilities and failures.
Now, 25 years later, I feel more loved and at home in his presence than ever. I feel free to be transparent about my struggles and temptations as well as to share without inhibition the joys of my life.
It’s not that I no longer want to make something of my life and ministry, in part to honour his generous investment in me and love for me. But now that desire comes from a place of gratitude and love rather than fear or the desperate hunger to be validated.
This is also true in my relationship with God. Thanks largely to the spiritual practices such as silent prayer, gratitude exercises and Sabbath keeping, I’ve become much more aware of God’s love for me. I feel far less anxious about needing to do something to earn God’s approval because I know I am a beloved son. Yet I also want to do my best for God out of a deep sense of love, reverence and gratitude.
This is my hope and prayer for you as well.
May you live more fully in the knowledge the Creator of the universe cherishes you as a daughter or son. May you live a life of daring courageousness, deep peace and generous contribution as you come to be loved and to love more and more abundantly.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver and an author. This article (which appeared first in the July/August 2018 edition of Faith Today) is adapted from his just-about-to-be-published book Survival Guide for the Soul.