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“Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding pressures; to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we”.” – Edwin H. Friedman

“Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage.” – Edwin H. Friedman

9781596271678_p0_v2_s260x420 And the ninth book on my list of 15 Spiritual Formation Books that have influenced me is A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, written by Edwin H. Friedman. Friedman (1932–1996) was Jewish Rabbi and family therapist. Before his death he was well respected among both religious (Jewish and Christian) and secular establishments as a therapist and leadership consultant. He took the concept of “Self differentiation” and family systems theory, as developed by Bowen, and applied them to congregational leadership systems and leadership in general. His book, Generation to Generation, was so influential that it is now required reading at many Christian Seminaries across the country. The book was written primarily for congregational leaders for the purpose of helping them develop in three areas:

  • Being self differentiated
  • Being non-anxious
  • Being present with those one is leading

Friedman defined self differentiation as, “Knowing where you begin, and others end”:

“Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively, for differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others.”

This, “reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others”, has to do with anxiety. Friedman believed that how a person handled anxiety, their own as well as the anxieties of others, was a maturity issue, and had more to do with the success or failure of an organization than simply learning data and techniques, whether the “organization” was a family, business, or Church. One illustration he’d use (I cant remember which of his books I read it in), is that of falling dominos. The anxiety that organizations experience when confronted with change is like someone knocking over a domino. The domino falls, causing other dominos to fall in succession. One by one each domino falls…UNTIL, one domino chooses to stand firm. The self differentiated leader is a principled leader who knows himself, and is in healthy control of his emotions, so he does not “react” to the anxiety of the group. Friedman, however, is clear to point out that such a leader:

“…is not an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny… is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about…. is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence… is someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”

In the presence of such a leader the dominos stop falling. The snowball effect of escalating anxieties, and the sabotage that others engage in, are lessened as people learn to stand upright in the face of a crises.

Of course, for such a leader to have this kind of influence, they must be present. It’s easy to be non-anxious if one removes themselves from the company of others. The idea is to absorb the anxiety, to remain non-reactive in the presence of instability. Friedman taught that, “Nurturing growth always follows two principles. One is: Stay out of its way; you cannot ‘grow’ another by will or technique. But the second is: Do not let it ‘overgrow’ you.”

In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman further developed the ideas he presented in Generation to Generation, presenting to us a vision of the self-differentiated leader as someone who:

  • is able to detach from the emotional reactions of others
  • is principle centered and clear about their vision
  • is transparent and willing to admit areas of weakness
  • has the stamina to withstand resistance from others
  • is able to regulate his own emotions in the face of sabotage

Although this is marketed as a book on leadership, it has done more to expose my lack of spiritual and relational maturity than maybe any other (the only other leadership book to affect me in a similar way was Dan Allender’s Leading With a Limp). A Failure of Nerve exposed the reasons I had failed in many areas of my life, not just relationally, but also in accomplishing goals that were important to me. It continues to challenge me to grow into maturity, and one of the most important ways it does this is by reminding me that we are only as mature as our relationships reveal us to be, and the importance of staying connected to those we love and serve, even those that are difficult. The concept of self-differentiation, and the role anxiety plays in our relationships, and the need to manage it well, has been life changing to me. No. I have not mastered it, no one ever arrives at being fully differentiated, only Jesus can lay claim to that, but this book has helped me to be quite a bit more resilient in the face of crises, to cultivate healthier relationships with others,and to focus on walking in my own integrity. I’m also better able to stay connected with others even while remaining my own separate self, and regulating my own emotions in response to the reactivity of others; how to not only help others take healthy responsibility for themselves, but maybe just as important, how to stay out of the way of the growth of others. We leaders have a way of thinking we know more than everyone else, at least more than those we serve, and the temptation is to try and lead others by trying to change those who do not want to change, or control them. One of the lessons Friedman has taught me is that:

“The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

In the face of change, or other crises, its easy to allow anxiety, our own or others, to overwhelm or distract us, diverting us from that which God has called us to be or do. Or maybe we resort to quick fixes as we try to control and change others as a way of accomplishing our goals. It takes courage, or “nerve” to choose another way to be and lead.

If you are interested in a quick, and entertaining, visual illustration that summarizes some of the principles in this book, here’s a link to a fun video that does an excellent job. Check it out:

“Let us Trust in God’s love more than we believe in the Fear that paralyzes us!” – Edwin H. Friedman

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“Sorrow spoken lends a little courage to the speaker.” – Walter Wangerin, Jr. The Book of the Dun Cow

Part Aesop’s Fables meets Animal Farm, meets Lord of the Rings meets Narnia, The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows are my favorite novels of any genre. The books are equal parts fantasy and fable, but they transcend the genre. Though it may seem strange to include two fantasy novels on a list of favorite spiritual formation books, author Walter Wangerin, Jr., a former Pastor, has created two novels that are works of art that have such depth and beauty that the very act of reading them was a transformative experience.

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Book of the Dun Cow, winner of The 1980 National Book Award, is a tale of two kingdoms . One kingdom, “God’s Keepers”, are led by Chauntecleer. The other is led by Senex. Chauntecleer is indeed the “Cock of the roost”, proud and somewhat arrogant, but a good rooster, faithful, heroic, and respected. He leads the hens and other nearby farm animals that make up the community. Like any community, these animals are filled with personalities that can be difficult, and yet find a way to get along. But unbeknownst to these funny, very human animals lies a great evil. Buried deep beneath the earth, very very deep, is a primordial evil, imprisoned there ages ago by their creator. The evil Wyrm. Wyrm has found a way of escape from imprisonment through the aging, bitter, and envious rooster named Senex, who’s spiritual condition provides an opening for the evil Wyrm. Senex begins to listen to the lies that Wyrm begins whispering to him, and lays an egg. Yes, the rooster lays an egg, and just as unnatural is the disturbing monstrosity that hatches: Cockatrice, who has the head of a rooster, but the body of a dragon, and begins to breed with the other hens who spawn the basilisks. Cockatrice brings with him an evil darkness that threatens to destroy their world, but even more dangerous is the threat to their souls. Told with humor and beauty, the book also carries an emotional wallop as it wrestles with questions we all have about good and evil. We see Chauntecleer struggle in prayer as he tries to make sense of the pain and sorrows they experience, and we see God’s nurture and comfort portrayed in the character of “The Dun Cow”. Though the book isnt an allegory, we do see something of the nature of Christ in the Dun Cow, who offers comfort and nurture to the weary Chauntecleer. We also see the sacrificial nature of Christ in the Eeyor-like dog Mundo Cani who rises to heroic stature.

“How many battles make a war?” – Walter Wangerin, Jr. The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun Cow is an epic story of the battle of good versus evil, that combines compelling storytelling and theological reflection with a skill that in my opinion rivals that of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series for sheer power and poetry. But it does so in a very real, and at times painful way. As Jayme Lynn Blaschke wrote in a review of the book:

“There are no corners cut here, no cheap plot devices invoked by the author to get his anthropomorphic characters out of tight spots. Every victory won is marked by tremendous pain. Every defeat lost is marked by untold suffering. There is no bravado in the face of evil here, only terror and self-doubt. Yet despite this, the animal heroes press on, paying terrible prices all for their courage.”

By the end of Dun Cow, Wangerin has asked us to consider the possibility that, “It is entirely possible to win against the enemy, it is possible, even, to kill the enemy… and still be defeated by the battle.” In its sequel, The Book of Sorrows, we are forced to meet this theme head on in a cautionary tale for all of us, leaders in particular.

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After their fierce conflict with the dreaded Wyrm, Chauntecleer, and the other animals are trying to rebuild their lives and their community when once again Wyrm finds a way to infiltrate their ranks, and with tragic consequences. In Sorrows we see a weary Chauntecleer, filled with guilt and doubt, and depressed with an increased awareness of his failings. As he wrestles with his own inner demons, we watch one of God’s creatures, in an attempt to do good and overcome evil, now face the danger of becoming that which he sought to overcome. The book is deeply insightful and also action filled, a story The New York Times called a “…powerful, troubling conclusion”. So troubling and powerful, in fact, the book is difficult to read in places because of its visceral impact. Be forewarned, where Dun Cow was at times very humorous, Sorrows, while remaining heroic (more so in many ways), and so beautiful in places it will literally bring you to tears, it is also grim. The threat of impending danger is real, and we grieve for the characters who have become so dear to us. It is a painful journey as we descend into the heart of darkness of a beloved character. Many people who read the book admit to shedding tears. It’s a painfully sobering, yet beautiful story, that cuts deeply. Yet, it inflicts a wound that ultimately heals. It heals because Wangerin shows us how even in our biggest failings and deepest sorrows, forgiveness is offered, and God’s love, even in darkness, never fails.

“Her ballad did nothing to make the serpants lovely.  Her ballad hid nothing of their dread.  But the music itself spoke of faith and certainty; the melody announced the presence of God.” – Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Once again, these two books together make up my favorite of any genre (they’re also on Eugene Peterson’s list of essential spiritual formation books). They’re beautiful, but Wangerin pulls no punches.

“Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving. But the Father is always looking for me again with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.'” ~Henri Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” ~ Luke15: 31-32

I had an interesting experience today after Church service. The speaker had just finished teaching on reconcilation, victimization, and the “unfairness” of life. More importantly he invited us to consider the extravagantly “unfair” nature of our heavenly Father’s love toward us. As I pondered what it would mean for me to be an “Embassador of Reconciliation” toward those I felt had treated me unfairly, I decided to go into our prayer room and share my struggles with another brother and recieve prayer. I was immediately confronted by a print of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of The Prodigal Son:

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Maybe it was the immediacy of the moment after the sermon, or perhaps my realization that I still had “heartwork” to do regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, but the painting stopped me in my tracks as I was immediately overcome with emotion. How providential. What I was feeling in that moment, the awareness of my own sinfulness as well as my hardness of heart toward those who had sinned against me, the memory of Jesus’ parable of “The Prodigal Son”, the awareness of my own need to both grant and recieve forgiveness, it all hit me instantly. All I could do was stand there and gaze. I was aware that God was present and was doing a work in me in at that very moment. I secretly wished (a voiceless prayer, really) that no one else would enter the room and disturb this intimate moment. Afterwards I did pray with another brother, and shared my struggles, but quite frankly, the ministry I was looking for, the confession, the absolution and grace to do what I needed to do – that “heart” work took place as I prayerfully contemplated Rembrandt’s painting, which for me had become a passageway into Christ’s teaching on repentance, forgiveness, and the extravagant grace of God. I find it no small coincidence that the sixth book on my list was going to be Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.

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Henri J.M. Nouwen was born in 1932, and ordained to the priesthood in 1957. A popular author, of many books, some of which are considered classics, Nouwen, in his latter years served as a pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for handicapped adults in Canada. It was after a chance encounter with Rembrandt’s painting, one that moved him deeply, that he decided to write this book.  In it he describes his own spiritual journey as he consider’s Jesus’s parable of the return of the young prodigal who had left home for a distant land and squanders his inheritance; the bitter, resentful older brother; and the compassionate father. Nouwen said of Rembrandt:

“Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

One of the strengths of the book is how it speaks to our compulsive pursuit of those things that can never satisfy:

“Addiction” might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. Our addiction make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in “the distant country,” leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in “a distant country.” It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.”

Nouwen paints a compelling portrait that enable us to recognize ourselves in both the spiritually bankrupt condition of the prodigal son, and in the self-righteousness of the dutiful older brother. But most importantly he stirs in us a desire to return home, and reminds us that no matter how often or how far we’ve fallen, our Father who is searching for us even more than we for Him, is there waiting with open arms, ready to restore, and eager to lavish His love upon us. The book is a modern classic and highly recommended.

 

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”  – Brother Lawrence

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” – Brother Lawrence

The fifth offering on my list of influential spiritual formation books is the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.

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The Practice of the Presence of God is probably the most read book in my library. I first came upon the book about twenty-five years ago, and for years I read it at least once or twice a year, and even now rarely does a day go by that I do not pray asking God to help me put its principles into practice.  It’s a short and easy book to read and quite enjoyable, and the principles within are simple and effective.

Brother Lawrence was an uneducated layman in the Catholic Church who served as a soldier before entering the Discalced Carmelite Prior in  Paris. He worked in the kitchen for all of his life as a monk, but was a kind man who was very popular and much admired. He endeavored to “practice the presence ” of God in the mundane tasks he was assigned to throughout each day; in essence, to pray without ceasing. For him, something as simple, and menial as washing the dishes became an intentional act of devotion. He made every moment of his day an exercise where he would not only take moments to stop from his labors to worship God, but also while he was engaged in his labors or interactions with others, he would acknowledge truth that God is always present and converse with Him. No task was too small nor challenge so great that God was not presence, and so he would simply relate to and converse with God as an ongoing act of prayer the way one would converse with a dear friend who is close by:

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

The simplicity of this small book of letters, his ongoing conversations with another disciple whom he is guiding in this practice, are profound and practical, and makes one long for the same kind of intimacy with God that Brother Lawrence enjoyed. More importantly, he shows us the way as we are invited to listen in on a series of conversations between two brothers learning how to cultivate a close, intimate, relationship with a God who is present even during the seemingly “unimportant” times of our mundane lives. Highly recommended.

I was recently asked to name the books and authors that have most influenced me or helped to form me spiritually, so I’ve decided to post a list of 15 of my favorite spiritual formation books. Over the past ten years or so there has been a renewed interest in the topic of spiritual formation, and much confusion. In general, spiritual formation is the growth and development of a person’s interior or spiritual life through the practice of specific disciplines. This means that there are many perspectives and approaches to spiritual formation depending on one’s belief system, thus the confusion among some Christians. But rest assured, as unfamiliar as some might be with the term, there is no way around the reality that one way or another we are all being spiritually formed. The issue for Christians is whether we are being intentional in our pursuit to become formed into the image of Jesus Christ. So, by way of definition:

Christian spiritual formation is the intentional process of being conformed to the image of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of others. Though it involves the practice of spiritual disciplines, it’s also a way of life lived in community with others, and grounded in Scripture.

Over the next several weeks I’ll highlight the spiritual formation books that have been most influential in forming me spiritually, or I think may be helpful to those who are new to the subject. Today I’ll start my list with three books from an author who has most informed my concept of the vocation of a Pastor: Eugene Peterson.

In 92′, 93′, and 94′, Peterson wrote three books on the vocational calling of a pastor:

1. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work 

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2. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction

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3. Under The Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness

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I discovered these books at a time when I had grown extremely discouraged with church work, and increasingly disillusioned with pastoral ministry. I saw one leader after another use ministry as a means to promote themselves and advance their careers. Many of those who were sincere in their wish to serve were overwhelmed with the business of “running” the Church. In these books Peterson Calls us back to the pastoral vocation of prayer, scripture (studying and teaching), and spiritual direction. Peterson helps leaders reclaim their “Vocational Holiness” from those who would “…enlist them into religious careers”.

   

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