Spiritual Formation

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Three Misconceptions regarding Spiritual Formation

There’s a sign on the door to my office that reads “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation”. Now anyone who’s been in a church more than a half dozen times has at least an inkling of what discipleship is. . .but spiritual formation. What in the world is that? Sounds at first glance like a lofty term that church officials throw around to make themselves feel important. Most of us could more easily define what bio-technical engineering or network administrating is than spiritual formation. Fortunately for us, the meaning of the word is no where near as complicated as it sounds.
When it comes down to it, Christian spiritual formation is the process of by which a person’s life gets formed into the image of Jesus. This sounds simple enough in until we consider that divorce rates, addictions and sinful behaviors among those inside the church are approximately the same as those outside the church. Many desire to grow and mature in their walk with Christ, but surprisingly few know how. How does a person’s life get formed into the likeness Jesus? This is a good question. I want to dispel some common misconceptions we have about how spiritual formation takes place in our life. Below is the first of three common misconceptions that we have about how we are formed into the likeness of Christ.

Misconception #1 “The right knowledge and information will make me like Jesus”.

While Bible knowledge is pertinent to spiritual formation, knowledge alone cannot transform us. We have often confused knowing more about Jesus with becoming like Jesus. When I was working with college students, each year we’d tackle a ropes course. Now, before beginning the course each student would receive adequate knowledge about how to traverse the course and how completely safe the course was. Despite all of this solid information from experienced and trustworthy guides, once the students stood on a small platform 40 feet in the air, knowledge and information alone couldn’t transform their terrified hearts. Their heads might have thought “this is safe”, but the rest of their body was screaming “Get me down, this is nuts”. Information has the power to inform, but is powerless to transform. The only way to achieve success on a ropes course is through the experience of actually doing it. You see, there’s always an experiential element to God’s shaping us into His image. He calls us not only to know, but to trust, to risk, to routinely act upon that which we know in our heads to be true. One area that we are continually building into our lives here at Hayward Wesleyan is the experiential element. As teachers we’re no longer only asking, “what do I want people to know”? But also, we’re asking “how can we provide experiences that help people apply what they’ve just learned to everyday life experiences”? Rick Warren probably summed it up most vividly. He says, “Information without application is abortion”. As the seed of knowledge and information is sown into our hearts, may we cultivate it into completion by crafting the truths into daily life circumstances so that we “grow up in all aspects into Him” (Ephesians 4:15).

Misconception #2 “Positive, ‘feel good’ experiences will best make me like Jesus”.

Oh how I wish! A large American church recently did a poll that contained the following question. “Think about an era in your life when you felt like you were growing most spiritually. What factor most contributed to that growth?” In this simple survey the number one answer was overwhelmingly “Pain!” While we all enjoy “feel good” moments in life, the hardships and difficulties we experience are often the highest contributors to our spiritual growth. Thus, the old adage “No pain, no gain” really is true.
Because of the influence of our culture, many well intending Christians have bought into the fallacy that God’s primary function in this world is to produce as little discomfort in our life as possible. God is our God as long as things are going swell, yet when we hit some painful bumps along the journey we wonder why God has abandoned us. This type of thinking is simply not biblical. The Bible teaches that while God is not the author of pain, He does allow us to go through painful and difficult times to help us become more like Christ. So, what is it specifically about the nature of pain that helps us to grow spiritually? Pain helps us to grow because it reminds us of two very important things in becoming like Christ.
First, pain reminds us that we are vulnerable. Pain has a way of exposing the feeble, frail and finite side of life. Where there is little or no discomfort in life we can subtly begin thinking that we are invulnerable and in complete control in this world. I remember when my son Caleb was one and a half and learning to climb stairs. I still remember the little guy with pacifier in hand smiling and swaggering from the top step as if the forces of gravity had no control over him. Having had no prior context of pain associated with falling, he actually thought he was invulnerable. The reality was that he was flirting with disaster. So, despite our constant warnings to our little humpty dumpty, one day, when mom and dad couldn’t protect him, he had his great fall. Fortunately it was only from the third step, not the thirteenth! Of course, this painful incident reminded him that he’s only human after all. The painful bruises and bumps of life remind us that we are not ultimately in control. The pain that we experience in life helps us to grow in ways we never would without it. C.S. Lewis once penned that “God whispers in our pleasure and screams in our pain.”

Second, pain reminds us that we need outside assistance in order to become whole again. From the irritating toothache, to the broken and crumbling marriage, painful experiences create within us a desire to seek outside help like nothing else. Pain brings us to the point where we recognize that healing and wholeness cannot come from within, but must be sought through an outside source. So often it’s precisely our discomfort that forces us to take action…to change our perspective…to seek outside help. As I write I think of my good friend Tim Young who suffers from chronic back problems that include constant tinges of pain that shoot through his lower back down into his legs resulting in often agonizing days and sleepless nights. The doctors prognosis is that little can be done. He recently shared with me that it is precisely his pain that has taught him to seek harder after God and to be sustained by Him on a moment by moment basis. Tim’s pain and discomfort in his life remind me of another man who was very familiar with pain. The apostle Paul. Paul talks openly about a “thorn in his flesh” that he struggled with in life (II Corinthians 12). In II Corinthians 12:10 Paul comes to the conclusion that “when I am weak, then I am strong”. In other words, through the weakness of our personal predicament we are reminded that we have the outside assistance of a God that’s promised to grant us the grace we need to get by no matter what difficulty life may throw at us.
Like it or not. Pain has a big part to play in forming us in Christ-likeness. Peter concurs. “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner” (I Peter 4:12-13 The Message).

Misconception #3 “Trying real hard to do what is right will make me like Jesus.”

Now at first glance this seems like a good idea. Trying real hard at something is no doubt a positive step. However, speaking from personal experience I know that trying alone won’t lead us into Christian maturity. There is a far more successful way to overcome obstacles in life than merely trying. It is called training. In fact the Bible speaks about training as a normal part of the Christian life. Paul compares the Christian life to a race and says, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (I Corinthians. 9:25). He later urges Timothy, “Train yourself in godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). Jesus says that “every disciple when fully trained will become like his master” (Luke 6:40). Most of us have been taught to try real hard in the Christian life, but have we been taught to train effectively? Let’s answer two basic questions surrounding this idea of training. First, why is training so valuable to maturing as a Christian? And second, what does training look like in everyday circumstances?
Training is important to success in every area of life. Take the American Birkebeiner, the largest Cross-country ski race in North America located up here in Hayward, Wisconsin. It boasts of 51 grueling kilometers of hilly trails. How many of us would be able to ski the Birkie on race day simply on will power alone? Perhaps a few could. However, for the vast majority of us will power alone wouldn’t cut it. We’d poop out half way or injure a body part along the way. In order to finish the race training would be essential. That’s because training allows us to become what we cannot become by direct effort alone. The same is true in the Christian experience. Without training our hearts, minds and bodies to routinely submit in obedience to God we’re sure to fail. We see this so clearly at Gethsemane. It’s Jesus’ final hour. If ever he needed prayer partners it was at this point. His three friends Peter, James and John are with him to support him, keep watch and pray for him. Here these three are in the middle of the most climactic scene in human history . . .and what are they doing? Sleeping! Jesus approaches them in their groggy state and whispers, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Now I’m sure these three disciples were trying to stay awake. Their spirits were willing; however they obviously had not trained their flesh in such a way as to experience victory. How many areas of our lives that are marked by habitual sins, bad habits or immoral choices might we internally scream, “the spirit is willing, but my flesh is so weak!”
We all want to experience victory and reach maturity in all areas of our life. However, many never reach maturity in the Christian life and it’s not because of lack of trying. However, it’s often due to a lack of training. Jesus, the disciples and the early church fathers embraced the importance of training in the Christian life. It’s not until recent times that we’ve fallen captive to the notion that quick-fixes can replace hard training (sort of like what we’ve done with dieting and all of those TV infomercials on exercisingJ). Quick-fixes cannot replace consistent training. The training regimens Christians have used throughout the centuries are known as the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are practices that help to strengthen our hearts, minds and bodies for the battles of life. Prayer for integrity on the way to work . . . studying the book of Philippians to learn how to embrace joy . . . spending time alone with God in silence of a still woods, . . fasting from something that I normally indulge in to teach me moderation and dependency on God . . . serving a neighbor in need when I’d rather serve myself . . . living simply by having the courage to say “no” to those things that wish to steal time with the family . . . All of these practices (and there are many more) help us overcome sin and live a life pleasing to God. Like physical exercise, each spiritual discipline helps develop different parts of us in different ways. As Dallas Willard states, “The spiritual disciplines help us by assisting the ways of God’s kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies.” The good athlete trains in light of the contest that he/she will be facing. He/She recognizes that there will be a test ahead and much training will be necessary in order to experience victory. Trying really hard on game day alone will not suffice. Our lives are quite similar. There are tests ahead that will challenge our honesty, integrity, courage, self-control, patience, fidelity and faith. In life we can assume that these things are coming. The question is how we are preparing for the day when we are tested. As a teacher of mine used to say, “Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail”. There’s much truth here. May our lives be characterized by preparation for the tests through a consistent process of training.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

How concerned are we...?

How concerned are we about the whole person?
Do we talk about the difficult topics? or do we hide from them? The more that I get to know people the more that I realize that we are all a broken down person that is in need of relationship with Jesus.

One of the topics that I have been kind of running from over the last couple of years within the Youth ministry is Sex and Dating. Why? because I was concerned about what parents would say and I was concerned about the maturity of the students to handle a topic and discussion such as that. I think the better concern is not for the parents or for the maturity issue that I was concerned about - but it is about the whole person and what God's desire is for that person. I think that is better in the long run.

It took me too long to get here but it has been so worth it to be real and be okay with it. If God is putting it on your heart go for and don't be apologetic - follow God's leading.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hillsong United "Mighty To Save"

Just Sharing with you all a song that has encouraged me this morning.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Sharing their possessions. . .

This weekend a couple of our small groups combined efforts to host a garage sale for a family in my group that was in financial need.

The experience allowed the several families involved to more intentionally practice the necessary discipline of "purging" stuff from their lives (and, boy we all have lots of STUFF!) It also allowed us to benefit from what Paul calls the "grace of giving" (ponder the paradox of that statement for a while).

We raised $400 for this family. This amount won't necessarily cover their needs, or solve their problems, but hopefully it helps solidify our love for them and provide for their daily bread this week.

We are a culture that are sub-consciously taught to embrace our stuff tighter than we embrace one another. As Christ-followers our intention is to continually trade in our foolish preoccupation with the "high-tech" world of stuff for something more substantive and lasting. . . the "high-touch" world of Jesus.

A simple garage sale helped us to reorient this dimension of our lives this week.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A New Earth

I've been reading a book called "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle. Oprah has been recommending this book and a couple of million of people worldwide are currently doing an online course. I chose to pick it up in part because the title "A New Earth" is a phrase borrowed from the pages of Scripture. Also, I knew that the book promoted a certain "worldview" (a belief system about the world in which we live)and I was curious to see if the belief system proposed in the book looked anything like Biblical Christianity. Well, I'm not quite finished with the book yet, but can say with certainty that the book is not starting from a decidely Christian worldview (although many aspects of the book touch on teachings and behaviors that Christians would agree with). I view Tolle sort of standing amidst a religious smorgersborgue and is arbitrarily picking and choosing which ideas and beliefs he'll choose to feast upon and which he will ignore. So he ends up with a worldview platter that consists of a spoonful of Buddhism, a portion of Christianity, a sprinkling of Hinduism and a side dish of Naturalism. One might look at the healthy portion of Christianity and think "sure, this is coming from a Christian perspective." However, this is simply not the case. Some of the most foundational truths in Christian thought (i.e. the atonement/Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection as the way to inner life and peace) simply are not part of Tolle's worldview.

Greg Boyd's book review blog on "A New Earth" that I recently read points out some of the major "red flags" that I had as well. Christians should be aware of as they pick up this book what aspects of it simply doesn't jive with the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures. It's a little heady, but worth the read. Here's the link. Enjoy.


On Earth Day

I think that celebrating Earth Day is fantastic. It's like honoring the work of a great artist. Whether or not we have a relationship with an artist when we step into a gallery and take in the breath-taking creativity we gain, in some way, a deeper appreciation and connection to the artist. Romans 1 reminds us that the creation itself reveals to the world the hands of an artist whose powerful and divine brushstrokes have left their marks everywhere.

Earth Day encourages us to honor the earth. . .and I believe we should honor it, but not as an end to itself. As we gaze upon the created splender it resonates honor and glory. But, it speaks not of itself. No, it simply reflects all honor and glory back to the one whom the honor and glory is really due. Indeed, the creation points to something much larger than itself.

Below is one of my favorite poems that I learned as a youth. I'm trying to have my boys memorize it.

Maker of Heaven and Earth (All Things Bright and Beautiful)

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures, great and small
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings;

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning,
That brightens up the sky;

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water
We gather every day,

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well

Cecil Francis Alexander 1818 - 1895

Monday, April 21, 2008

Alpha: Head, Hearts, Hands, Habits

The Spiritual Formation Department has a four-fold emphasis in helping bring people to maturity in Christ. It's Head, Hearts, Hands and Habits. When each of these areas of the self is operating under the direction and headship of Christ, transformation becomes not only possible, but normative.
Now, I would be the first to say that no program or class has the power to bring about transformation. Transformation is the work of the Spirit alone. However, God does use tools to accomplish his purpose. And, Alpha has been such an effective tool in our church in helping to bring "head, hearts, hands and habits" under one umbrella. Let me explain.
Head: The Alpha Course offers weekly teachings that help people with no faith or who are new to their faith grow in the knowledge of God. Basic questions of life like "who is Jesus" , "why did He die" , "how should I pray" and "what is the church" are addressed. They help stimulate the mind to understand more about why faith in Christ matters.
Heart: After the talk each week, Alpha participants have a small group that they meet with for one hour. They stick in the same group with the same people for the eleven weeks of Alpha. During this time relationships are birthed. I always say that in Alpha, belonging actually proceeds belief. They feel included and embraced whether or not they have yet believed on Christ. And, that's the way it should be.
People's questions are un-earthed in a safe and nurturing environment. In the group setting head knowledge begins to mesh with heart conditions. It's not uncommon during an Alpha Course to have a person place their faith in Christ for the first time. Or have a group come out of a session passing klenexes and sharing hugs. I seen many a heart "strangely warmed" in the small group settings over the course of the last four Alpha Courses. It is truly beautiful.
Habits: Habits are birthed for the first time during Alpha. First, the habit of just coming to the course begins to set in motion the discipline of community. Then, usually by week five or six I've seen many folks begin attempting daily devotions. During the weekend away retreat, folks begin engaging the discipline of solitude and prayer for the first time ever. Almost always without any encouragement from me, folks begin attending church regularly and they start engaging in more fellowship with others more on Sunday mornings. These disciplines aren't practiced in a posture of personal peity or moral superiority, they are implemented out of a desire to change....to become a different person that looks more like Jesus.
Hands: Hands remind us that Christ came to serve humanity. We need LOTS of volunteers to run the Alpha Course. Everything from kitchen help to child care, to small group leaders and helpers to musicians. It's a daunting undertaking. However, one of the "rules" of the program is that once you have gone through the course, you can only be involved in the next course as a person who serves. So, this year's Alpha was so cool because a large portion of my volunteer base were folks who came to last year's Alpha Course. New believers, but eager Alpha veterans, this year's team of volunteers did childcare, helped in the kitchen, were small group helpers and took huge chunks of administrative responsibilities. Old, callosed hands of those who have been in Jesus many years grasped the baby hands of newborns in Christ who have been in our church less than a year and served along side one another for a common goal and all were blessed.
If you are a church interested in integrating head, hearts, hands and habits together in one effective program, I'd encourage you to check out Alpha.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Learning to write with the other hand

The process of Christlikeness is counter-intuitive. It goes against the grain of the fabric of self and our ego. Usually, for a new Christian whose set on following Jesus things get real messy before they get better.
Imagine a right-handed person penning their own autobiography. In the middle of the story a doctor diagnoses this person with severe arthritics in their right hand. It's debilitating and will create permenant paralysis if the writing continues. The only solution is to stop using that hand. "But", the eager writer pleads, "I'm in the middle of penning my life story. I can't quit now."
Now, imagine if the only sensible solution is that the author continue writing, but simply switch hands. This situation would call for him to learn to write using his left hand instead.
So, he surrenders to the doctors orders, dies to the use of his right-hand and places the pen in the other hand.
As he sits down to write, it feels quite awkward. It's uncomfortable. It takes intention and effort and energy and patience. The story he's writing continues, but looks messy on paper. It seems so terribly inefficient and stifling. There is daily temptation to go back to the old hand. Yet, the writer knows that despite the initial limitations and discomforts, it's the pathway to liberation and healing.

I think this is what it's like when we Embark on the Journey towards Christ. Following Jesus is like having to learn how to write (live) in a brand new way. It's not only difficult, but in many ways it disrupts and transforms the story we're penning all at once.

As a church, we must be highly intentional regarding those who are new disciples of Christ. For them their orientation must change. The way of Jesus is so clear and so confusing at the same time. People need guides and pathways to help them on this journey. At Hayward Wesleyan we have developed a course called Embarking on the Journey to help folks understand how Jesus is calling us to live in a way that seems counter-intuitive to all that we have known before.

There is nothing more rewarding for me than to be part of this intentional process. How does your congregation help folks learn write with the other hand?