Spiritual Formation: My Way or His Way?

IMG_0920“So often we are too full of what we think should be happening to us in our spiritual formation to notice what God is actually teaching us. We must be still enough, simple enough, humble enough, to let him plan the course, and use whatever opportunities there may be for our instruction.” (Tugwell, Simon. Prayer: Living With God. Springfield: Templegate Publishers, 1975, p. 116.)

Our own impressive ideas and plans for our spiritual life and the lives of others can become an effective barrier to noticing and paying attention to God’s actual activity in our lives. When we make space for practices like listening in solitude, we can begin to be still enough, quiet enough, simple enough and humble enough to be attentive, receptive and responsive to the direction of His Spirit. Do we make enough space to discern the direction and instruction of God for a particular group in a particular season? Do we feel such discernment is beyond us, or some sort of magical thinking?

This is where our need for enough open space and unhurried time as leaders, both alone and in community, to discern the presence and guidance of God. We are tempted, I think, to assume that we can figure out the present intentions of God for our lives and our communities through our efforts in studying the scriptures or making ministry plans. There can be a subtle and ironic tendency to be very self-focused in this apparently God-oriented activity.

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Praying Like Jesus

An ancient stone path in the historic city of Bethsaida in Israel
An ancient stone path in the historic city of Bethsaida in Israel

How do we learn to pray? The first disciples learned by what they witnessed in Jesus’s life. They asked him to teach them. Listen to this take on that theme:

“Any honest consideration of the life of Jesus Christ is both shaking and humbling. Whence came such power? The chief way in which we can find a reasonable answer to this question is by a continued study of His prayers. His prayers are not the whole of His revelation, but they are elements apart from which the other elements cannot be understood. The few prayers do not constitute the sufficient condition for understanding Christ, but they do constitute a necessary condition. What was His secret? George Buttrick has put it with convincing brevity: ‘The open secret is: His days were steeped in prayer. The missing word is God, and only by prayer can we find it.’” (Trueblood, Elton. The Lord’s Prayers. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 125.)

Jesus’ days were steeped in prayer. He lived in continual communion with His Father. He often withdrew, even in the midst of his busiest seasons, to be in prayer. But not prayer as something to do as much as Someone to be with. Am I learning to follow Jesus’s way here? Are my days steeped in prayer—in conversational relationship with my Father in heaven?  What do I not have in my soul or heart because I have not asked the Father for this that I need? Do I need more self-control? Am I asking the Father to provide me all that I need in that way? Am I expressing my practical dependence on Him alone in this way?

When I think of my continuing wrestling with the practice of prayer, I continue to also believe that my image of Jesus and of the Father are not nearly as welcoming, loving, gracious, or merciful as the True God is. Father, empower me with the Spirit of Jesus to live in communion with You like Jesus did. Amen.

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Thoughts on Jesus’ Way of Ministry

A carving in the Church of the Navitity (Bethlehem)

Recently, I was having a conversation with my Institute colleagues about my experiences of ministry planning and strategy meetings. I’m encouraged by much talk these days about spiritual formation and its importance. That’s a good thing. Sometimes, though, it seems that formation gets into our “idea” places, but still needs to seep into our “ways and means” places. Sometimes, the boundary between our personal experience of spiritual formation seems rather non-porous when it comes to seeping into the way we lead, strategize, or plan.

A porous approach to spiritual formation in leadership meetings might include practices like corporate listening prayer, biblical reflection, intercession and the like. There would be more intentional space for God than a brief, initial devotional. I found that my own experience of spiritual transformation began at the personal level, but that the actual way I did ministry at first changed very little. I taught spiritual formation ideas, but led in a fairly non-formational way. Soon, I experienced spiritual formation as part of a community—a shared experience of spiritual transformation that extended that process further, but still wasn’t impacting our actual methods of planning, leading events, or strategizing much.

The dynamics of transformation took a while to soak down into the ways and means of my planning and implementation of ministry. It is possible to be about the idea or value of spiritual formation without it changing our method of operation much. There is a difference between ‘talking about’ and ‘sharing in.’

For Reflection:

  • In ministry or leadership teams you lead or participate in, how much time is actually spent together in practices like prayer and scripture reflection in community? To what degree to these practices season your practical work of planning, decision-making and goal-setting?

Experiencing God’s Absence

“This is one of the astonishing paradoxes of the cross: that there, where Jesus experienced God’s absence, we can experience God’s presence. In other words, we most deeply know God’s presence in prayer when we experience a sense of sin, forgiven by the cross.” (James Houston. The Transforming Power of Prayer. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1996, p. 104.

Fully Following the Lord

Psalm 128:1 (BCP)
Happy are they all who fear the Lord, *
and who follow in his ways!

Following in the Lord’s ways is the “happy place” I’m looking for. It raises questions in my heart: “Am I following in the Lord’s ways, or am I walking my own way, thinking that it is for the Lord?” So many times I have only thought about the Lord’s whats, and given little thought to the Lord’s ways. I am interested in His teachings, His principles, His commands, but I don’t always pay attention to how Jesus lived. He lived in continual communion with the Father through the Spirit. He often withdrew to lonely places where He prayed (Luke 5:16). This is how He lived and ministered. (The Message version has, “As often as possible Jesus withdrew to out-of-the-way places for prayer.”) He came as a servant. He did not carry out His Father’s directions as a lord or king, but as a servant of all. These are His ways. Am I following in them?

For example, as I return to the description of Jesus and seek to apply it to myself, would someone else say of me, “Alan has often withdrawn to lonely places where he prayed.” Probably more easily now than 10 or 20 years ago. If I were to write that sentence as a reflection of my actual way over the years, how would it read?

  • Alan never withdraws to lonely places to pray.
  • Alan rarely withdraws to lonely places to pray.
  • Alan sometimes withdraws to lonely places to pray.
  • Alan occasionally withdraws to lonely places to pray.

Jesus’ way was often. As for how often Jesus withdrew like this, I don’t know. For me, often is taking a day a month away from people places to go instead to lonely places where God and I are alone together.

Am I walking in His way? It is a gift and a privilege. What would keep me from walking in His way?

  • A cultural pattern in which aloneness is seen as bad or antisocial?
  • A drivenness in ministry in which I believe that the more work I do, the more important I am to God?
  • Work time for God that has become more important to me than communion time with God?
  • Anxious worry about the many needs that surround me?
  • Fear about what God may say to me if I am alone with Him?

What God says to me will always be good news, even if it is hard news to hear in the moment. Fear is often the doorway I must walk through to enter into places of deeper joy, peace and life.

“Happy are they who follow in His ways.” Father, may You enable me to walk this joyful path. Amen.

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The Ways of Jesus: Part 1

(Below is a repost from December 2008. A link to Part Two is included at the bottom)

As part of a gathering of the Orange county spiritual formation partners last month, I planned a 30 minute window of solitude and silence to reflect on Jesus’ way of life and leadership. One of the passages I was drawn to was the beatitudes in Matthew 5. What was Jesus’ message? What was Jesus’ way?

Matthew 5:3-6
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Thank You, Jesus, that while the surrounding culture values wealth (or at least perceived wealth), it is poverty on the inside that You are able to fill and bless. Thank You that when others always want me to “put on a happy face”, it is the emotional honesty of mourning over my emptiness that invites Your comfort. Thank You that I don’t have to play strong and “take by force” what I want and need. Instead, You say that meekness is the doorway through which I receive everything for which I dream. And I don’t have to always look satisfied in the moment because I know that it is the empty and dry places that You will come to fill and refresh in me. Still, it is hard to think and live this way when the world around me lives so differently. Be with me, Father.

(CLICK for “The Ways of Jesus: Part 2”)

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Who Amazes Jesus?

Door in the old colonial compound of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Colombus (in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic)

“The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, 5because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ 6So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:3-6, 9 NIV)

I’m struck that his friends felt that the centurion deserved a favor from Jesus, but the centurion saw himself as unworthy. And it is this very centurion that Jesus is amazed by, commenting on his great faith (verse 9).

What is it about the centurion that is pleasing to Jesus?

  • He values people, even those who are his “subordinates” (2).
  • He takes action on what he hears about Jesus. (3)
  • He has earned the respect of others by his way of life (4).
  • He has taken practical, financial action in furthering public faith (5).
  • He has a deep, abiding reverence for and humility before Jesus (6).
  • He is honest about his sinfulness and unworthiness (7a).
  • He has simple, explicit faith in the power of Jesus’s word (7b).
  • He recognizes and submits to Jesus’s sovereign authority (8).
  • His unexpected trust impresses Jesus (9).
  • He is a person of effective prayer (10).

The centurion is a beautiful illustration of what James says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16b)”

Looking Back: Do Our Methods Matter

I’ve given a lot of thought to not only believing in Jesus as the Truth (what we believe), but also to following Jesus as the Way (how we live and work). Below is a link back to a post in which I reflected on the question of our methods. Why do we do things the way we do them? Do our methods matter?

Click to read “Do Our Methods Matter?”

Looking Back: No Better Leader Than Jesus

As I continue to enjoy Psalm 23 as part of our “Praying the Hours” experiment, I want to share a link back to what was a three-part series that came out of my extended notes on Psalm 23 last November in the Dominican Republic. This eventually became a podcast series as well (click here for part one of this podcast).

CLICK for “No Better Leader Than Jesus”

The Deadly Disease of Perfectionism

Today, The Leadership Institute is providing another day retreat for leaders in Los Angeles. One of our staff team will be facilitating the day, and I get to simply enjoy it (and encourage my team member). I can’t wait to hear how God meets the ten who are coming—some pastors, a seminary professor, some alumni from our training. I’d be grateful, as I’m sure they would be, for your prayers.

Meanwhile, one place of ongoing recovery for me is perfectionism. A while back, I came across this word of wisdom from Thomas Merton on the subject:

“All in all, we suffer from the disease of perfectionism, which is the biggest obstacle to true perfection because it dries up the interior spirit, kills real faith, makes us concentrate on ourselves instead of Jesus, puts a “false Jesus” in our hearts instead of the real Jesus Who is a Savior. He is not waiting for us to become angels before He starts to love us. He loves us because we are imperfect, not because we are good but because He is good…. Most of them believe this only in theory. They are obsessed with their own miserable little “perfection” and “imperfection.”.” (Thomas Merton. The School of Charity. Selected and edited by Brother Patrick Hart. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1990, p. 58.)

We don’t pursue perfection so we’ll be loved. We’re loved into wholeness. There’s such a difference between the two.

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