Develop the disciplines


While your experience writing yourself into a story of need promises to be as unique as you are, you might encounter some of the same obstacles along the way as others who’ve gone before you, such as fear, uncertainty, disillusionment, discouragement, personal failure and burnout.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I’m convinced that pursuing the following “trinity” of disciplines or practices can help keep us all in our story of need for the long haul. (While these practices incorporate faith-inspired elements, they also have merit for and can be adapted by the religiously un-inclined.)

What you’ll need for Part III:

  • 1 hour — Read through this page once, then you can return later if you need to, but remember this step too is a ongoing process of refinement.
  • Your Companions from Parts I & II (if you had any).

Practice 1 — Live centered

I call this the “intangible” practice, because it focuses on the inner work of developing character, living in reality and seeing ourselves for who we truly are. On the other hand, we embody our inner life in the world around us, in healthy and unhealthy ways, so living centered is also a tangible practice. Without the ability to live centered we’ll eventually be unable to deal with the suffering and pain in which we come to immerse ourselves.

  • Adopt “spiritual” disciplines — Faith traditions emphasize prayer, fasting, rest and pilgrimage, among other practices, because they help us practice our humanity. They heighten our awareness: of God, who holds all things together and in whom “we live and move and have our being,” and of the fact that we are not God, but instead stewards called to tend and care for God’s good creation and for each other. These disciplines are deeply personal in that they point our minds, hearts and bodies toward wholeness, but they’re also deeply interpersonal in that they are as much for corporate practice as individual practice. They are “spiritual” disciplines in the sense that they help us understand the deepest parts of ourselves, but they are decidedly earth-bound disciplines in that they are connected to things we do everyday, whether we follow an already established routine or tailor our own. To begin a prayer practice try: the Book of PsalmsCeltic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, Prayer and Song from the Taizé Community, The Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church, The Divine Hours compiled by Phyllis Tickle, or The Jesus Prayer. Fasting can be a powerful way to identify with the needs of others, from the extreme of a hunger strike to the simple act of going without a meal for some special purpose. Those of us without health restrictions would do well to at least skip a meal now and then, and devote the time and money we would have otherwise spent on that meal to a “story of need.” Rest, also known as “keeping the Sabbath,” is an important discipline, not least because the reality of need will always be bigger than our ability to meet that need. Getting enough sleep, finding ways to re-energize ourselves and taking a day off once a week help keep us from burning out or developing an unhealthy messiah complex. It also helps to periodically make pilgrimage to a place where we are able to refocus on what’s important to us, or to a place where we encounter a particular story of need that moves us.
  • Build in reminders — A central practice of people who write themselves into a story of need, if there is such a thing, is to remember. Remember who we are and why we’re truly here. It’s no accident, for example, that a strong sense of calling characterized people like Jesus of Nazareth, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Building regular remembrances into our schedule can help keep our sense of calling in the forefront of our minds and hearts in the midst of the inevitable interruptions and distractions of life. For example, we can brainstorm new ways to celebrate familiar holidays, commemorate an important date or re-appropriate an ancient practice such as Jubilee. We can celebrate the sacred meal known to Christians as “Communion” or the “Eucharist” to help remember in whose footsteps we follow, or regularly treat people who are hungry to a nice sit-down meal, as the Community of Sant’Egidio does. We can meet needs that come to our attention through anonymous gifts. Just as pilgrims who walk El Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain wear or carry distinctive scallop shells to remind themselves and others of their journey, we can borrow or create symbols that keep the story of need before us — a photo or keepsake in our pocket, wallet or purse, or a special cell phone ring tone.
  • Nurture the greater realities — As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” We need to nurture the “intangible” realities of faith, hope and love: faith, in the reality of restoration, redemption and healing on every level; hope, in the possibility that a story of need can be rewritten; and love, which acknowledges the wounds of the world while disarming the powers that inflict them.

Practice 2 — Live equipped

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta)

This discipline heightens our effectiveness in our attempts to write ourselves into a story of need.

  • Decode the need — We need to learn as much as we can about the need that tugs at our heart, to learn its history, its current expression locally and globally. We need to look at it from different sides, test the opinions of experts and clients, alike, and see ourselves as life-long students of our story of need. Most of all, we need to live and breathe that story. In doing that we become advocates who can’t help but open the eyes of others to our story.
  • Make room — There is no substitute for experience. The only way to gain experience is by investing time in the need or cause we care about. Time is not money, time is opportunity to learn and serve. If we’ve become passionate about ending the scourge of human trafficking, for example, it’s our privilege to decode the need, visit places where trafficking occurs, talk to and get to know victims, get involved in the modern-day abolition movement, donate money, host awareness events and more. Live life around this passion for ending trafficking, not the other way around.
  • Prepare for complexity — The more we learn, the more we’ll realize how much we don’t know.
  • Wrestle with questions — “I’m only one person and the need is so big. What can I do that will really matter?” or “Who is it I’m doing this for? People in need or myself? Or both? Is that okay?” or “What if I do more harm than good? Is it better just to do nothing?” Don’t ignore these questions, but learn to live with them being at least partially unanswered. Questions help keep us grounded and humble.

“…And so the first question that the priest asked…the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination)

Practice 3 — Live connected

The first discipline prepares us spiritually and emotionally to enter into a story of need. The second prepares us mentally. This third discipline helps give us the relational resources to find our way safely into a story of need.

  • Find a guide — Enlist the help of a trustworthy guide or two who is willing to brief you, train you and mentor you in the particular story of need you have chosen. No matter how much you read or research, you’ll still need help from people who are locally connected to and intimately familiarity with the problem, group of people or place to which you feel drawn. They can also help ensure that you don’t unwittingly offend someone in need or end up in danger because of your unfamiliarity with an issue or place.
  • Get to know people — Learn to see yourself as an equal with those you try to help, and the realities they face will become even more real to you.
  • Form a circle — Regularly connect with others who care about what you care about. You can spur one another on and multiply your efforts beyond what you could accomplish on your own. Join an existing group or start a “circle” of action and encouragement with a few others, and go from there.

CONGRATULATIONS for “going epic”! Now that you’ve gotten to the end of this process, make sure you celebrate! Just remember, this process is more like a circle than a straight line. You’ll undoubtedly need to revisit different facets of “GO EPIC” as you write yourself into your chosen story of need.

Now that you know what’s involved, invite your friends, family members, coworkers and others to “GO EPIC” along with you! Oh, and when you get a chance, let me know how it’s going.

Peace to you on the journey.