Tuesday, November 22, 2011
A few days ago, a former student from my days as a youth minister sent Dana and I a few questions about Spiritual Formation for a project she was doing for a college class. Below are her questions followed by my answers. (If you'd like to see Dana's responses to the same questions CLICK HERE)
Q: How would you define "spirituality" or the "spiritual life"?
A: Spirituality: In both Greek and Hebrew, the word in the Bible that is translated as "spirit" also legitimately means "breath" and "wind" (Greek: pneuma and Hebrew: ruah). I think this is more than significant. Spirituality is about life and movement. I'd further argue that its specifically about moving further and further along the path to living "life to the full", as Jesus promises in John 10. Further, I think it has to do with living a God-directed (though not micromanaged) life that relies on guidance from God through his Spirit, as Jesus specifically describes in John 3. It's learning to understand that God is the source of true life, breathing that life in and exhaling it back out to the world around you (that he so loves). Its knowing that the same breath of God that is giving life to you is available to all, and understanding & embracing the connection. Its letting the wind of his Spirit fill your sails and propel you wherever it sends you, knowing that adventure awaits. Sometimes, its letting that breath sustain you when it seems like theres nothing else that can, and letting the wind propel you when you don't feel you have the energy to go on.
Q: What are some practices or things you do that play a formational role in your spiritual life?
A: Praying with Dana has jumped to the top of my list recently. This is one of the most life-giving practices that I've ever incorporated (I'm glad she suggested it). Also, I periodically incorporate fixed-hour prayer, especially when I'm having trouble praying spontaneously. I've found that art (music, visual, literature, etc) has begun to play a huge role in spiritual formation for me. Sometimes it intentional engagement with/enjoyment of it, and sometimes its the creation of it. Additionally the continual decision to remain in community with a church (congregation) is undeniably formational. To remain connected to diverse people (which can often be difficult) in a culture that tells me to just be a good consumer and treat these people collectively as a commodity that can be disposed of and traded for a newer, sleeker, more convenient model (which can also be traded later), shapes character in decisively positive and counter-cultural ways. (We could have a separate conversation about working as a minister in this situation, but I think that might take us too far off topic for now.) I'd also argue that whenever I'm engaged in works of service, both individually and collaboratively with others, to those who can offer no direct benefit (to myself or the church), my character is formed and shaped in positive, sometimes counterintuitive ways. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention reading good books. The practice of reading has been an invaluable part of my spiritual formation. When I don't make time for it, my spirituality tends to suffer.
Q: What difference does it make for you to worship/fast/pray/praise communally/corporately vs. individually? Which do you prefer?
A: It's interesting that in the Bible, the only real reason you are given for gathering together appears to be to spur one another on toward love and good deeds," and to encourage one another (Hebrews 10). For this reason, I think corporate worship is essential (as that would be impossible to do alone). However, in our consumer culture we are somehow simultaneously tempted to believe that, a) Christian spirituality is really all about me as an individual (consumer), and b) the cultivation of my personal spirituality is the responsibility of the church (as my chosen and dispensable provider of religious goods and services) to cultivate within reasonable but optional time periods that don't take too much away from my already busy life. Both temptations must be resisted if we are to in any sense actually engage in worship, much less spiritual formation. Biblically, worship appears to be directed to God, but clearly involves our engagement in the lives of others for their encouragement and good. Loving God without loving others is an impossibility, and worshipping God devoid of any connection to others is a farce. In the context of The Lord's Supper/Eucharist, Paul tells the Corinthians that to partake of it devoid of community (without "discerning the body of Christ", which he's already defined as community with other believers), is to render it as not the Lord's Supper but your own, and further to eat and drink condemnation upon yourself. With all of that being said, a follower of the Way of Jesus also has the responsibility to cultivate formational spiritual practices within his or her own life. This is particularly true for me as a minister. No true growth comes from being comfortable and passive. I don't guess I have a preference, and I'm not sure it matters if I did. If anything, I think it would be an indicator that I should dive deeper into the one I didn't prefer, if it is actually growth that I seek.
Q: Of the "Spiritual disciplines", which is the most difficult for you? Do you see this as reason to push into this practice more or less?
A: Honestly, the one I struggle with the most is prayer. I'm not totally sure why this is, but I do see it as a reason to push into the practice more.
Q: When/how do you feel most connected with God? Prayer, praise, silence, service, something else?
A: This is a difficult question to answer. The best way I know to answer is, when I get outside myself. I'm finding more and more that God is found in connections. The ancient rabbis taught that when God created the world, he created it in a state of Shalom. This word means something like peace and harmony combined and on steroids. ;) They further argued that this Shalom basically played out in 3 ways: Harmony between God and People, Harmony between People and Other People, & Harmony between People and Creation. I find that the more I move into isolation, the more distant God seems to be, (Go figure!). I find that the more I look at and experience how everything is connected--in relationships, in nature, in worship, etc.--the more present God seems.
Q: When speaking with someone about growing in their relationship with Christ, how would you advise them to move forward?
A: I'd advise them to connect with a community of faith. I'd tell them not to look for a perfect one, as they don't exist, but rather to seek one that seems to be sincerely seeking to follow the Way of Jesus, and that is most obviously characterized by things like faith, hope and love. I'd also advise them to pray regularly, both alone and with others whom they love and respect. I'd advise them to do this, even if they didn't fully believe in the effectiveness of the practice yet. I'm also quite sure I'd have some books to recommend to them, relative to their particular situation.
Q: What do you perceive as the goal of these "practices"?
A: I see the goal of these practices is to form me/us further and further into the image of Christ, and to understand that this will be an ongoing, unfinished process that goes on for the rest of my life. It is to engage me/us in the Story of God; to help us find our place in it. It is to embrace our identity as children of light and people of love. It is to form us into the kinds of people who would actually be happy about it if God does what he promises in the end: The Restoration of All Things, The Renewal of All Things, The Reconciliation of All Things, The Lifting Up of The Downtrodden, etc, (See the Hebrew Prophets for more). It is to develop "eyes to see" and "ears to hear". It is to engage us in actively living life to the full, in partnership with God, in pursuit of his dream for the world.