When was the last time you made New Year's resolutions? How long did they last? I know there are some folks out there who can make a resolution and actually keep it for the whole year. I am not one of those people.
However...over the past month or so I've been thinking about all the areas of my life where I felt sort of...rough around the edges. Things are going fine, and I have started to cultivate some good habits in the past year, but in many ways I am lacking in continuity and consistency in many aspects of my life.
Now, if I just wanted to make a change in one area, a New Year's resolution might do the trick, at least for a little while. But what I personally need right now is to develop some subtle but important habits across the board in my entire life. Which might amount to something like 17 New Year's resolutions, not just 1. And that's just not realistic!
Enter the Examen
What is the examen? The examen is a spiritual practice developed over 400 years ago by St. Ignatius. He intended it to be a form of daily prayer for becoming more aware of the presence of God in your life. While there really aren't set "rules" for how to use the examen, it follows these general steps (from How Can I Pray? @ Ignatian Spirituality):
Become aware of God's presence.
Review the day with gratitude.
Pay attention to your emotions.
Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
Look toward tomorrow.
Even though intended as a daily practice, the examen seems like a perfect tool for evaluating any event, time period, or circumstance. I especially appreciate that the examen incorporates humility, repentance, gratitude, and hope. We come to God with an attitude of humility, thank Him for where we have been, confess our shortcomings, and move forward with hope.
Planning with the prophet Ezra
Yesterday our associate pastor preached such an insightful sermon on how to set out planning at the new year; not necessarily to make New Year's resolutions, but to get a vision of where God wants to take us in the year to come. It fits so perfectly with this yearly examen practice that I wanted to share the basic idea with you here. The theme was "new beginnings."
“And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” -Ezra 3:10-13, ESV
Our pastor pointed out 4 things from the story of the Israelites returning to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and begin again after being in captivity in Babylon:
A new beginning is possible no matter how spiritually low you have gone. The Israelites were taken captive by the Babylonians because they had turned from God to worship idols. Then they had spent 400 years as exiles in a foreign land. And now they were returning to a land that was not necessarily friendly to them; even though they had a decree from Cyrus granting permission to return, their new neighbors were not exactly excited about them coming back. And still, as a people they were ready to seek God again; to have a fresh start with Him; in spite of their desperate circumstances.
New beginnings begin at the cross. The first thing the Israelites did upon their return to Jerusalem was not building homes or walls or fortresses; it was building an altar so they could offer a sacrifice as atonement for their sin. Since Jesus has made that sacrifice for us once and for all on the cross, all we need to do is turn to Him in humility and repentance. Our sacrifice has already been made; our part is to simply recognize our need for Him and confess our areas of brokenness.
New beginnings begin in obedience to God’s word. The Israelites knew what they had to do; they had the commandments, and they had God’s instructions for how His temple was to be built. All they had to do was to turn to Him and obey. When we evaluate our plans in light of God’s word and saturate our daily lives with scripture, the Spirit can move through the Word of God to illuminate the path He has set before us.
New beginnings must focus on building His house. The Israelites didn’t waste any time getting to work on rebuilding the temple. They knew what they had to do, and they did it. It’s not enough to make big plans and dream big visions. Building a temple takes planning, managing, laborers...so when God gives us a vision for where we need to be, we also need to act on a plan to make it happen. It might be hard work, but when we are walking in the path God has for us it will be the kind of hard work that results in peace, contentment, and growth.
Just like the Israelites returning from captivity, the examen provides us a framework for looking forward to what God has for us, no matter where we are coming from in our spiritual journey. You might be a brand new Christian, or have shared your relationship with Jesus for decades. Or perhaps you used to be passionate about serving Christ, but somewhere along the way you lost your joy. Whatever your circumstances, the examen can help you see the presence of God in your daily life and to make plans for the future in light of the plan He has for you.
How does the yearly examen fit in?
I have adapted the daily examen to fit into a framework for evaluating your life in several categories. These categories are based on those listed in the weekly and seasonal examen practices in the Sacred Ordinary Days planner. The 6 categories are:
Over the month of January we’ll be working together through these six areas, using the examen to help guide our planning. We’ll be thinking through where we were a year ago in each of these areas, thanking God for what He has already done in the past year to help us grow in each of them, and praying about where He wants to take us this year. And finally, we will put flesh on our vision for the year to come by looking at the tools, practices, and scheduling we need make it happen.
The idea here is to slow down...to contemplate...to invite God into the process of discovering the growth that is possible in our lives. Instead of making a resolution overnight that we will forget about in a week, the goal is to develop habits that we will grow into over the course of the whole year. You very likely might realize that you have far more progress to make than is possible all at once; that’s ok! We’ll be taking it slow and starting with just a few small steps toward the bigger picture.
And here’s the (first!) really exciting part! I have created a workbook to help guide you through the process throughout the entire month of January! It contains guided examen questions to help you think and pray through each of these 6 areas, as well as a “Put it into practice” section for each focus area to help you to take practical steps toward making your vision for the year become reality. The workbook contains plenty of room for you to write out your thoughts as you pray through the questions. You can print it out and keep it on hand as we go through our yearly examen practice together this month. The blog posts and workbook will be referencing each other throughout the month. The blog posts will be focused more on practical tools and resources for each of the 6 focus areas. You will definitely want to sign up for the workbook download to follow along! I will be doing it right along with you, so I would absolutely love to hear your insights as well!
And now for the (second!) really exciting part! As I mentioned the other day, this series also includes a giveaway! Those of you who have read my blog a little bit already know how much I love my Sacred Ordinary Days planner. Well, we are giving one away! All the details are below, but basically if you enter your email below to join the Full and Generous Life fellowship, you will receive the free January Examen Workbook download and be entered to win a 2017 Sacred Ordinary Days Liturgical Daily Planner (a $57 value!) The planner is a lovely mint green and includes a beautiful wooden holding cross. This resource is the perfect tool to use in conjunction with the yearly examen practice. Once you enter your email address, you can gain extra entries into the giveaway in a number of other ways as well! And if you’re already a subscriber, don’t worry; I'll be sending the workbook to you very soon. To enter the giveaway, simply click HERE!
[Updated 1-10-17: the giveaway has ended, but you can still get your workbook for this series when you subscribe!]
The first examen post will be coming this Friday, and we'll be focusing on spiritual health...since that is the foundation for all the other areas. I am really excited to be sharing this opportunity with you and to be growing together with you in the new year. Here’s to a slower, more restful approach to planning and personal renewal in 2017!