Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Introducing Deep Dive Spirituality: A Dynamic Coaching and Formation Program for Pastors and Spiritual Leaders

I've had the privilege of working with pastors and spiritual leaders for over twenty years. In the process, I've learned that many of us, even those who are publicly successful, hold "secrets" close to our heart. They sound like this:

My ministry sometimes feels more like a burden or cross to bear than a joy-filled calling...

I'm profoundly lonely because I have to keep a wall around myself...

I sometimes struggle in my faith with doubt, uncertainty, and fear...

I have a difficult time slowing down and enjoying meaningful hobbies outside of my ministry...

I feel like I have to care for others before I can take time for myself...

I'm worried about the ways my ministry affects the persons whom I love the most (my spouse, children, parents and friends)...

I'm exhausted by the demands of my calling and fear that I'm on the edge of burnout...

Life and ministry do not need to feel this way!

What if you could design a rhythm of life that nourishes your soul and frees you to be your best self for ministry and for your family?

What if you could apply simple tools and resources to rethink your understanding of mission so that you can look forward to the next decade and beyond?

Introducing Deep Dive Spirituality with Dr. Brian Russell

I've been there. I preached my first sermon at age 19 and became a pastor of a local congregation at age 24. Since then, I've served rural, urban, and suburban churches as a pastor. I've also planted a church. Plus over the last twenty years, it's been my privilege to mentor and teach over a thousand students as a seminary professor and to speak in dozens of churches, camps, and conferences. 

I know the heavy load that we carry. I've experienced the pain and disappointment of working in difficult contexts. I've lived through personal trauma. I've struggled to balance work with my heart desire to be a loving husband and father. 

I've had to ask deep questions of myself. Besides continuing to cultivate my expertise as a biblical studies and missional thought leader, I've read hundreds of books on personal development, burnout, recovery, transformation, spiritual growth, time management, and psychology. I've worked with multiple coaches and spiritual guides who helped me to work through my pain and to reboot my life for the highest purpose.  

In the process, I've gained deep insights into the love of God and grown in grace in ways that I'd never previously experienced. I've been sharing bits and pieces of my personal revival with students in class and more deeply in private mentoring. But I believe it's time to share these lessons with frontline ministry leaders like you.

I invite you to join me for a spiritual deep dive:

–Cultivate life enhancing habits rooted in ancient practices that are uniquely designed for your personality and that serve your highest and best self 

–Take immediate control of your time and learn to move through overwhelm and hidden fears

–Create goals for a truly abundant life

–Transform your study into times that feed your soul, mind, and body

–Uncover and experience transformation and healing for your deepest wounds that are sapping you of energy and joy

–Grow into the person God created you to be in a dynamic group experience that you can then replicate in your ministry context to expand your impact on the world

–Work with other like-minded spiritual leaders to create solutions to your most difficult challenges in ministry

The Process
We'll meet as a group via Zoom video conferencing for two live sessions per month. Each session will involve guidance from Dr. Russell, group reflection to apply the new ideas, and a time for a "hot seat" coaching conversation on a ministry challenge or question. Members will covenant to put in the time to do the deep work of growth in between the sessions. Sessions will last roughly an hour.

Interested? Email me at deepdivespirituality@gmail.com

For those desiring a more private process, I am accepting a small number of clients for one on one coaching. 

Brian D. Russell, Ph.D. is an academic dean, professor of biblical studies, Licensed practitioner of NLP, Life Coach and Business consultant.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Centering Prayer, Deep Surrender, and the Way of Jesus

The process of surrender in centering prayer is critical to the taming of our need for control. When we pray, we commit to sitting in solitude with God. This is a form of self-denial. Recall Jesus’ summary of the essence of discipleship: “If any want to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and continually follow me” (Matt 16:24 cf. Mark 8:34 Luke 9:27). The focus of discipleship is on consciously following Jesus. Jesus’ words in Matt 16:24 serve ably as a model for centering prayer. 

Intending the Things of God

In Matt 16:21, Jesus had laid out the necessity of his journey to Jerusalem. There Jesus would experience suffering, death, but also resurrection. In response to this revelation (16:22), Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus by saying, “May this never happen, Lord!” Jesus responded to Peter with “Get behind me Satan. For you have not set your mind on the things of God but on the things of humanity.” In other words, Peter struggled because he assumed that his plans, desires, and will should govern the actions of Jesus his Lord.
This is not to say that our goals and ideas have no value. As we live in the world, we will continually take decisions and actions. But the process of growth in grace involves removing the idolatry and injustice out of our decisions. The challenge of the spiritual life is that, when we learn about the mind of Christ, we discover that our truest humanity resides in living fully as the person whom God created us to be. The irony is that we are often the greatest impediment to our growth. Our false self attempts to block access to discovering who we are at the deepest level. 
To set our mind on the things of humanity means that it is our will and talents that remain in control of our destiny. It is the full flourishing of our flesh apart from reliance on the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:1–17). 
To set our minds on the things of God involves realigning continually with the will of God. Our guide is Jesus. Centering prayer allows us to practice this ongoing surrender of the will.

Invitation to Surrender

16:24 begins with an invitation: “If anyone wishes to come after me….” Jesus calls would be followers to set an intention. Decide and commit to go in the way of Jesus. Jesus calls us to a person–the Son of God. When we take the decision to sit in solitude, we are answering the call of Jesus. 
What does this intention or decision involve? It involves surrender to a new mode of being. In centering prayer we do not set the agenda. In fact there is no agenda. The moment we seek one we have gone the way of Peter and set our mind on the ways of humanity.

Centering Prayer and the Meaning of Surrender 

What does surrender look like? Jesus uses three phrases in 16:24: deny self, take up cross, and continually follow me.
Deny self. This is not merely a call to a disciplined life involving deprivation. It is more radical. To deny self means to orient fully to the way of Jesus so that the cross shapes our goals, desires, rights, and privileges. In centering prayer, this means a steadfast recognition that my stray thoughts, emotional baggage, and even brilliant insights must give way to being present with God.
Take up the cross. In the ancient world, the cross was a terrifying symbol. Crucifixion was gruesome, humiliating, and meant certain death. To take up one’s cross meant literally lifting the wood upon which one would soon die and walking under its weight to the place of your death. A person taking up the cross was a dead man or woman walking. In solitude, we come to God empty handed in the surrendered posture of one whose life is over. This frees us from both past and future in order to be with God in the moment.
Continually follow me. If the first two phrases involve a letting go of one’s rights, privileges, past, and future, Jesus’ final phrase points to the pathway for the present. Disciples follow Jesus moment by moment. This was true during Jesus’ earthly ministry. It remained true for the Christians to whom Matthew was writing in the first century. Jesus’ words are still vital for us in the 21st century. Discipleship involves a deep ongoing relationship with Jesus. This is why Jesus came to earth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is Immanuel “God with us” (1:23). In Matt 18:20, Jesus promises, “For where there are two or three gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” In Matthew 28:20b, the risen Jesus declares, “Behold, I myself am with you all the days until the end of the age.”

Centering Prayer and the Practice of Surrender

In prayer, denying self and taking up the cross serve as the means of purging our rights to ourselves. Whatever thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams, goals, visions, triumphant memories, or nightmarish recollections arise in solitude, we surrender them and continually follow Jesus. This means using our prayer word to realign ourselves with our Lord. 
Imagine yourself taking a walk with Jesus. He leads you down a path. You hear birds singing so you look up for a moment. You then turn your gaze back to Jesus. Then you get an idea for a project at work followed by a worry that you don’t have enough time to accomplish your goals for the day. You catch yourself and again return to the master. A few moments later you reach a point in the path that triggers a painful memory of great loss. Yet again you turn to Jesus. Martin Luther’s dictum comes to mind in this process: “You can’t prevent a bird from landing in your tree but you don’t have to allow it to build a nest.” 
Recognize that the process of centering prayer is to continually return to the Lord. Period. Thoughts are thoughts. Feelings are feelings. Memories are memories. The call to discipleship challenges us to turn away from self and follow Jesus. This is the way of prayer too. The question is trust: Do I trust God enough to release my attachments to whatever the hamster wheel inside my head offers up?
Merton writes on the need for continual surrender, “to have a will that is always ready to fold back within itself and draw all the powers of the soul down from its deepest center to rest in silent expectancy for the coming of God, poised in tranquil and effortless concentration upon the point of my dependence on him;…” 
There is a dynamic tension between surrender and our role in the surrender. Merton’s words capture it well. It is not that our will disappears. Our will remains. Its intentions have become aligned with the divine will. The Lord’s prayer becomes reality in our inner world, “on earth [in me] as it is in heaven.”
In fact, the process of recentering is the critical discipline that opens us up to God’s presence and grace. There is no contemplative moments apart from the our conscious return to God every time that we find ourselves lost in a stream of thoughts. This is how souls are made. It is a moment by moment journey. 

© 2019 Brian D. Russell

Interested in learning more about centering prayer. Check out

Brian's YouTube Channel for a series of videos on centering 


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Four Rs of Centering Prayer: Advice for Managing our Thoughts

The classic advice from Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault on managing our stream of thoughts in Centering Prayer is this:

Resist no thought.
Retain no thought.
React to no thought.
Return ever so gently to the sacred word.

These “Four R’s” are full of wisdom. They remind us of the core principle of centering prayer–the surrender of our thoughts and our return to the intention to sit in silence before God. We cannot control our thoughts. They may be beautiful; they may be embarrassing; they may be random. Regardless, when we recognize that they’ve grabbed our attention, we release them and return to the silence with our sacred word.

Resist no thought

Recognize that we spend most of our days lost in loops of thought. Our minds bounce endlessly from one thought to another. Buddhists call this the “monkey mind.” To practice centering prayer does not mean fighting against thinking. The goal is not to erase our minds. This is impossible. You will likely have hundreds if not thousands of thoughts during a centering prayer session. The key is recognizing when this happens and surrendering it. This leads to the next “R”.

Retain no thought. 

In centering prayer, we release our thoughts whenever we find ourselves paying attention to one. This is easy if it’s a random thought about dinner or about a bug buzzing in your ear. However, if you generate a helpful solution to a problem you’ve struggled with, it is harder to let go. But let go we must. Good or bad or neutral–we surrender each thought and return to the silence.

React to no thought

Thoughts are just thoughts. We have little control of what moves into our conscious mind. You may encounter beautiful thoughts or disturbing ones. A painful memory may emerge from the depths of your soul. You may get caught up in a fantasy. Regardless the practice centering prayer involves our commitment to make no judgments regarding our thoughts. Instead, we release them to God. 

Return ever so gently to the sacred word. 

The elegance of centering prayer is its simplicity. It’s all about our intention to spend time with God in silence. The sacred word serves as a means of breaking our attention to thoughts, words, images, and feelings so that we can return to the silence.

To learn more about centering prayer, check out this brief video introduction: Centering Prayer: the Basics

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Centering Prayer as Appreciation

Often my centering prayer sessions don’t seem to accomplish much. My mind continually bounces around. I rehearse past hurts. I think about my task list. I make plans for today’s meetings. I gain ideas for projects. I have little sense of the presence of God. In a word, I’m distracted.

Yet perhaps these are actually the best days. After all, centering prayer is not about me and my thoughts. It’s about entering a space outside of my control where I may encounter the living God. The sessions, when my brain interrupts incessantly, become opportunities to learn anew about surrender. In these moments I release whatever captures my attention and return to a posture of waiting. This may happen dozens of times in a 15–20 minute time of centering prayer. Yet each recitation of my prayer word serves as an occasion for training in faithfulness and love. 

Jesus' Model

When Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, the tempter pointed to the presence of an abundant number of stones (Matt 4:1–4). He suggested that Jesus use his power to turn them to bread. Jesus reminded the tempter, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus’ hunger was real. He had just completed a forty day fast. Yet he released it by reciting Scripture as a way of moving away from temptation. 

The tempter then presents Jesus with two additional tests. As in the first scene, Jesus quotes Scripture and stays focused on God’s mission. It is no coincidence that angels appear and attend to Jesus’ needs (4:11). 

The Practice of Self-Denial and Surrender to Silence

Centering prayer teaches us a similar process of self-denial. Don’t mistake this for masochism or crass asceticism. God is not cruel. God is love. The greatest hindrance to our spiritual transformation is ourselves. The process of self-denial prepares us for the deep work that God desires to do in us. Jesus recognized this and modeled a way forward.

Our thoughts are the obstacles that distract us from the work God desires to do in us in solitude. But we must not fight our thoughts. This would be our work. Instead, we calmly use our prayer word “Jesus” to recenter.

A friend recently asked me if sessions full of distraction frustrated me. The truth of the matter is they do not at all frustrate me. Instead they are the days where I learn the most.

Don’t get me wrong. My soul loves the moments of deep contemplation where I become lost in God’s love. It is transformational to experience and receive God’s unconditional acceptance. It, however, is also transformational to learn continually the lessons taught by silent surrender.

On those days when I’m constantly lost in thought, I learn to focus on appreciation rather than expectation. I remember that centering prayer is not a tactic for engaging God. It is a way of being in which I consciously surrender in love and gratitude to God. I let go of all things that may hinder me including the expectation that I’ll encounter God during my time of prayer.

Releasing thoughts is an act of faith. I trust that God has my best interests at heart. Therefore, my future does not depend on avoiding being lost in a continuous stream of thoughts or even in my ability to recollect the thoughts I released in prayer. 

Appreciation and Growth

After such sessions, I’ve learned to appreciate the silence. By releasing the expectation of automatically encountering God in each session, I’ve found that growth happens. The prayer time is not about me after all. It is not a work. It is rest in the presence of God. Just as the biblical sabbath envisions life apart from work, centering prayer is an invitation to let go of all human busyness and activity to rest in God. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Amen.

If you are interested in learning more about centering prayer, here is an introductory video: 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Favorite Books from 2018

I read close to 100 books in 2018. Here is my top ten. Most of these were new or recent releases but a few classics made it in.


1) Nassim Nicholas Taleb Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life 

Taleb is one of my favorite intellectuals. His writing is fun, brilliant, irreverent, and deep. Skin in the Game is the most recent volume of his Incerto ("uncertainty") series. Each of the earlier volumes: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile are equally worthy of your time. Skin in the Game makes the point that you should never trust any expert, builder, banker, or professor who has no "lived experience" or "skin in the game." Yet the folly of modern banking, government, and education is that there is little "skin in the game" by those at the top. Experts, who have little personal experience or no exposure to the risks of their own policies, serve as decision makers and influencers. This leaves common people to carry the brunt of the risk exposure, clean up the messes and pay for costly bailouts. One of Taleb's favorite villains in Robert Rubin of Citibank fame and a member of Obama's administration. Rubin earned millions of dollars in bonuses leading Citibank in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Yet when Citibank and the world economy crashed due to the profound duplicity of bankers carrying risky debt, Rubin kept all of his bonuses and even became Secretary of the Treasury. It is deeply ironic that Rubin as SOT was charged with fixing the problem that he was partially responsible for creating. Common people lost their homes and we the people ultimately paid for the bailout of these elites who lacked "skin in the game." On the other hand, Taleb demonstrates the power that a tiny minority of a population can wield over the whole by their steadfast commitment and willingness to stand publicly for their preferences ("skin in the game"). Throughout the book, Taleb offers a rich philosophical and historical portrait of the principle.


2) Cal Newport Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work is an outstanding read for creatives who need to increase productivity. Newport is an academic who writes prolifically for scholarly and popular audiences. He lays out the secrets of his productivity. As ground work, he argues that to find success in our present/future economy, one must learn to master difficult tasks and be able produce at an elite level. Therefore, we must learn to guard, value, and take advantage of peak periods of productivity. Any one struggling to make deadlines, consistently achieve goals, and live up to one's potential will find Newport's wisdom and tactics helpful. Deep Work is not merely recycled time management advice. It is in touch with the challenges of our high tech world's 24/7 noise and Newport walks the walk or as Taleb would say, "has skin in the game."


3) Ray Dalio Principles: Life and Work

Ray Dalio is one of the most successful investors of our era and one of the wealthiest men in the world. His investment returns at Bridgewater Associates are legendary. In Principles, Dalio tells his personal story and lays out his philosophy for making decisions and building teams. This book is less about investing than it is a manifesto on creating systems for taking the right decisions in high pressure moments. Success at an elite level in investing and any human endeavor turns on our ability to leverage a team to assess evidence/data objectively and make the best decision out of all competing options. I found Principles refreshing from an organizational perspective. At Bridgewater Associates, Dalio led his team to pioneer workplace transparency and truth-telling. When billions of dollars are at stake, the contribution of each team member is critical. There is a wealth of knowledge in this book. Any one who wants to build a powerful team should study this book carefully. There is literally a lifetime of wisdom here.


4) Robert Greene The Laws of Human Nature

Greene take a deep dive into human behavior. This is not a philosophical or scientific volume that approaches human nature from a theoretical or theological perspective. Instead Greene, a keen observer of the human condition, lays out 18 "laws" that illustrate and synthesize an array of human behaviors. If you've read 48 Laws of Power or Mastery, you will find Greene familiar style of drawing from academics, historical figures, and philosophy. At the core, The Laws of Human Nature rightly views humans as social animals. We talk much about the need for "emotional intelligence." Greene's laws describe what various flavors of emotional intelligence looks like. I personally found his chapter on "Confronting Your Darkside" particularly helpful. It focuses on what Jung termed the "shadow." Luckily Greene doesn't just summarize these laws he offers ways to recognize in others or develop in one's own life each of the laws he includes. You can read The Laws of Human Nature as a guidebook for success and self-improvement. You can also use it to build enough self-awareness to avoid being manipulated by others or as Greene himself says for "self-defense."


5) Stephen Pressfield The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles 

I finally read Pressfield's classic guide to creative work this past year. If you have to produce art in your life: writing, speeches, sermons, lessons, songs, poems, or paintings, this is a must read. There are two critical takeaways. First, Pressfield writes eloquently about resistance. Those of us who are authors call this writer's block. The ancients talked about finding their muse for support. Pressfield shares secrets for conjuing up our own muse to empower our writing. It involves doing the psychological work of confronting our inner demons of procrastination, excuse making, and fear and developing a writing routine that serves our highest creative goals. Second, he uses the metaphor of "going pro." I like this. Treat your creative work as a professional and not as an amateur. Pros get work done. No excuses. Read The War of Art alone or in combo with Deep Work. You'll be glad you did. 2019 can be your most productive year ever. 


6) Jordan B. Peterson 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos 

Discovering the work and thought of Jordan Peterson was one of the revelations of 2018. I've now listened to dozens of interviews on podcasts as well as watched hours of his lectures on YouTube. I also had the opportunity to hear him live in Orlando in September 2018. I consider him one of the leading public intellectuals of our day. He is well read across disciplines but approaches most topics from his expertise in psychology and Jungian analysis. 12 Rules is a rich text in which Peterson distills his philosophy for a life that courageously strives to empower people to live well regardless of circumstances.  Some of 12 rules seem common-sensical such as "Make friends with people who want the best for you" or "Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today". Others are slightly comical "Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them." Others sound odd "Don't bother children when they are skateboarding" or "Pet a cat when you meet one on the street." Don't let the particular articulation of the principles throw you off. The power of Peterson is not in the wording of the rules (though it helps to make them memorable) but in his exposition of their meaning. His writing is deep and meanders through multiple pathways of understanding. He takes the reader on journey through academic research, biblical stories, personal experiences and Jungian mythic archetypes to bring his rules to life. Peterson is often criticized for having a predominantly male audience. I have a different experience. Peterson's lectures profoundly helped my daughter this past year. She is the one who introduced me to this thinker.


7) Lewis Howes The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability, Create Strong Relationships, and Live Their Fullest Lives 

Howes is best known for his popular podcast "The School of Greatness." In this book, Howes shows his vulnerable side. He suffered suffered sexual abuse as well as bullying as a boy. This set Howes off on a path where he lived with a chip on his shoulder and constantly had to prove his worth. In Mask of Masculinity, Howes explores various persona or fronts that men use to cover up their pain, shame, and vulnerability. This was a well written book that is helpful for both men open to inner transformation and the women who love them.


8) Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation 

This is a spiritual classic on contemplative prayer from one of the 20th century giants of spirituality. New Seeds is a series of short chapters that offer a rich characterization of the inner world of the contemplative life. Merton's ability to capture in words the depth of love experienced as the false self dies in the presence of God. His reflection on the idolatrous projections we make about life, the divine, and others is moving and spiritually cleansing. I can imagine myself reading this book dozens of times and still finding new insights. I think that persons practicing other forms of mediation such as mindfulness can read this book profitably even if they don't share Merton's Christian faith.


9) Epictetus Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics)

2018 was the fourth consecutive year that I consumed the wisdom of Epictetus. Epictetus is my favorite of the Roman stoics. This volume includes both his longer Discourses, his abbreviated Enchiridion, and some fragments from other sources. I consider Epictetus to be the best personal development author of all time (the GOAT). By reading this book, you will essentially have gained the core understanding of human behavior and deep inner-game work that you'll encounter in therapy or from any writer in the self-improvement sphere. At the heart of Epictetus' thought is the necessity of understanding what one controls (not much) and what one does not control. He then unflinchingly reflects and teaches how to live in light of this difference. For my Christian readers, they may be interested to know that Epictetus was read consistently by monastics for his deep spiritual insights.


10) Dave Asprey Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Mavericks Do to Win at Life 

I'm an amateur bio-hacker so Dave Asprey of Bulletproof Coffee and Diet fame is one of my heroes. Gamechangers is sourced from his podcast guests. Asprey distills the learning gleaned from his long form interviews into key takeaways that can be applied to enhance life. He divides the book into three sections: smarter, faster, happier. He explores topics such as the power of gratitude, importance of sleep, how altered states can enhance cognitive function and happiness (this is one of the most interesting chapters–he covers topics from the controlled use of hallucinogens [fascinating but illegal in the U.S.] to the power of meditation [my practice of centering prayer squared with Asprey's thinking on the topic]), proper breathing, the most efficient forms of exercise, and finding one's purpose. In some ways, Game Changers contains the topics one might expect in personal development text, but Asprey's biohacking approach mixes modern technology and "hacks" with ancient wisdom. Great book!

What were your favorite books this year?