November 18, 2017

Spiritual Formation: A Bit of Counsel

By Chaplain Mike

Come to me, all of you who are weary and over-burdened, and I will give you rest! Put on my yoke and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

• Matthew 11:28-30, Phillips

We’ve been talking about the subject of Spiritual Formation. It’s clear to me that people are interested in the topic, and I love a good discussion as much as anyone, but at some point we have to starting acting on all this, don’t we? There comes a time to “put on the yoke” of Christ and begin learning of him.

Given the nature and modus operandi of most of evangelicalism, it is likely that many of us don’t know where to start.

So, today. . . a few words of counsel.

If you are in a tradition, start with your tradition.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The historic Christian traditions have developed and promoted practices for spiritual formation for centuries. If your church has a proven “rule of faith” by which they have ordered the life of their congregations, I would recommend starting there by participating in those disciplined practices.

For example, in the Lutheran tradition, spiritual formation occurs as the congregation gathers each week for worship through Word and Sacrament. They follow the liturgical calendar, which takes them through the story of Jesus each year and forms them in the Gospel. Luther’s catechism is the foundational tool for personal and family devotion; it is organized around the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. When Luther taught people to pray, he encouraged them to meditate on these texts and turn their words into petition and praise. Of course, Luther also translated the Bible into the vernacular so that people could read it for themselves, so Bible study is an important element of Lutheran spirituality. In addition, he wrote hymns and believed strongly in the power of music to encourage faith.

Michael Spencer noted how contemporary Lutherans have set a good example for evangelicals in all traditions by producing a basic library of resources for believers to use as tools for spiritual formation. Concordia has published matching editions of:

  • The Lutheran Study Bible,
  • Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, a reader’s edition which contains the basic historical and theological documents that inform and order Lutheran faith,
  • The Treasury of Daily Prayer, a resource for personal or small group liturgical prayer, with a complete explanation of the Christian year, Scripture passages, readings from the Church fathers, and much more,
  • The Lutheran Service Book, the congregational hymnal and resource for liturgy.

Other traditions, of course, have similar helps, such as the Book of Common Prayer for Anglicans. If you are part of a denomination or historical church, it is likely that you can easily find resources to guide you as you seek to grow in Christ. If you are part of free church or non-denominational evangelicalism, you might want to check out some of these resources too. They might help you get started more easily than you trying to cobble together what you can find out there from your local Christian bookstore.

Help your church make spiritual formation a priority.
In one of our recent posts, a commenter wrote:

Where does the Protestant/Evangelical go for spiritual formation? I don’t know where the Evangelical goes, but the traditional Protestant goes to…church where he receives Word and Sacrament, pastoral oversight and fellowship, the very things Jesus Christ appointed for the spiritual formation of His people. I know many churches are light on these things, but if disciples left the full-service mall churches, and went to the dinky churches where these things are found, they would be better off. Of course this means they may have to muddle through life without rock bands, praise teams, singles ministries, and ‘something for the kids’.

At some point, churches and church leaders are going to have to get this. The evangelical publishers can put out as many books and programs on spiritual formation as they want, but until congregations begin to form their lives around the processes of discipleship, little will change in the long run. Besides, as we noted in one of the earlier posts, God cares not just about forming individuals. He is creating and developing a people for his glory and the blessing of the world.

Those of us who attend churches and care about spiritual formation must graciously insist that they take this seriously. We must find winsome ways of letting our pastors and church leaders know that the “program” we want in our church is one which enables us to develop deep roots in Jesus so that we can represent him well in the world. We’re tired of playing church. We aren’t interested in having and staffing a family-friendly Christian activity center. We would like our pastors to shepherd the flock and provide spiritual guidance and care for each sheep. We’re all for attracting people to the Gospel, but think that would be better accomplished if congregation members would develop a vibrant hidden life with Jesus that exhibits itself in good works among our neighbors, in our communities, as we fulfill our vocations in the context of real life, rather than through program-oriented, event-focused strategies. We are not about building a “great church”; we are about becoming vibrant, grace-filled, Spirit-empowered, Jesus-shaped people.

Perhaps, like the Desert Fathers, some of us will have to flee the evangelical city and seek God, isolated in the wilderness for awhile until we find ground in which we can take root. Many will certainly have to do as our brother suggested above—confess and abandon our consumerist desires for a full-service institution, and “settle” for the church simply being the church, humble and limited as an organization but powerful as an environment for learning to walk with Christ. Some may have to give up cherished prejudices against denominations, mainline churches, and historic traditions, and find ways to join them so as to assist in their renewal. Church planters must align themselves with organizations that have this as a key component of their ecclesiology, so that new congregations will be spiritual formation centers from the beginning.

Develop and practice a simple “rule of daily life.”
The best way I know to begin practicing disciplines for personal formation is to order one’s daily life around a few simple, regular practices. This can be as unelaborate as morning and evening prayers, beginning and ending the day. I recommend that these be set, written prayers, such as those in Luther’s Small Catechism or the Book of Common Prayer, so as to develop habits of thought and language that link one not only to God but also to his people in all times and places. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in “praying the hours,” incorporating other traditional set times of liturgical prayer throughout the day as well.

Your “rule of faith” is your own, and should reflect your unique relationship with Christ within your faith tradition. Some go to daily Mass. Some follow a reading plan in the Bible and/or devotional classics. Some have a special place of solitude to which they retreat at set times. Some walk. Some use a prayer book. Some pray the Psalms. Some use prayer beads or knotted rope to assist them in concentration. Some incorporate music or hymn-singing. Some keep a journal. Some memorize Scripture, and others use contemplative methods such as lectio divina. Some light candles. Some use visual aids such as icons. Some rise at dawn while others converse with God in the night watches. Some follow the liturgical year and tailor their practices according to its various seasons.

The important thing to remember about this daily “rule of faith” is that it is not necessarily about having some great experience with God, but it is a way of keeping regular company with God. It should be a consistent, set discipline. I would never be legalistic about this, or intentionally make people feel guilty about being inconsistent—this is pastoral counsel, not the revelation of laws from heaven. I’m just saying that the purpose of a rule of life is to develop daily habits, to order one’s life around the inclusion of time with Christ. To this end, it is best to keep one’s rule simple and relatively brief.

Whatever other spiritual disciplines you decide to practice, don’t deviate from this rule. Allow it to order your life. I would also remind you that your rule is a daily personal and private discipline, an “act of piety” best kept secret between you and the One with whom you are meeting (Matt. 6:1). Better to let people see the fruit of character and action in our daily lives than to be digging up the root and putting it on display.

Seek guidance from a wise pastor before taking up other disciplines.
I recommend participating in the corporate disciplines of your tradition so that you can be formed according to a family that is walking with Jesus together. However, when it comes to personal disciplines, I don’t have specific counsel for you beyond the daily rule. Your course of discipleship will be unique. You must find it for yourself as you get to know Jesus better, and—this is very important—as you work with your pastor and mentors, sharing your life with them and seeking their spiritual guidance.

There is no “one size fits all” program of spiritual formation. There is no law or rule about what disciplines you should practice, and when, and how, and for how long. This is one reason I have trouble with books or curricula or courses that are designed to lead people through a set of practices. The assumption behind such programs is often that all Christians should practice all these particular spiritual disciplines, and that it will be beneficial to them if they do. Wrong.

Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”

• Mark 2:27 NLT

In endeavors that require engagement in ongoing training, such as art, music, athletics, and skilled crafts, participants retain teachers, coaches, trainers, and master craftsmen to guide them in programs that will enable them to develop their skill and expertise. These mentors tailor their programs specifically to the needs of their students. They focus on helping them overcome their specific weaknesses and on maximizing their particular strengths.

I happen to think that, in the spiritual life, this is what pastors should be doing. A wonderful model from church history is Richard Baxter, 17th century English Puritan, who wrote The Reformed Pastor, and the Christian Directory. The first outlines a specific program for a pastor to give oversight to his parish, including home visitation and catechizing families. The second, a work with over a million words, is a compendium of practical theology and a guide to giving counsel to members of the congregation.

If pastors would follow his model, they would be regularly meeting with individuals and families, listening to their lives, and working with them to help them discover spiritual practices that can help them open their hearts to receive God’s gifts in Christ more fully.

Comments

  1. Chaplain Mike,

    I’ve really enjoyed this series, particularly the two posts before this one.

    Personally, I’ve found no formula for spiritual formation.

    This statement seems to identify with my experience:

    “There is no “one size fits all” program of spiritual formation. There is no law or rule about what disciplines you should practice, and when, and how, and for how long.”

    If I had to identify a rule, it would be Bible reading and study – something of which I don’t get enough.

    And prayer…The Lord’s Prayer is very important to me, but if salvation depended upon how much a person prayed, I’d be in serious trouble.

    I’m on the downhill side of life, and feel like I’m a fetus when it comes to spiritual formation.

  2. Chaplain Mike,

    Thank you for writing on the role of pastors. Recently, I was playing in another groups sandbox, commenting on a blog by a major evangelical church planting network. They were pushing the role of the pastor based on a CEO/corporate model. They blatantly encouraged pastors to only meet with “leadership types”, and not waste time on the average person in the church. I made a comment and was immediately slammed as a bitter and angry person. The role of pastor as CEO of the corporation was so ingrained in their belief system, anyone who disagreed is blasted.

    • I think James ch 2 not only instructs the church, but is also good instruction for all our interactions.

    • There’s not a lot of places for the “least of these” within any church’s leadership, that I’ve seen. Leader types gravitate toward leadership positions. But what makes a good leader in the business world does not necessarily make a good leader within Christianity.

      Leadership, as taught, is all about the bottom line. Humans are simply “resources” by which one accomplishes a task, usually to generate profit for the stockholders of the company. I suppose in this case the people of the church are the resources by which one accomplishes the task of growing the church or increasing the finances.

      Perhaps if Judaism had modified the job description of a rabbi from teacher to administrator, and created some mega-temples that offered a mix of family programs that attracted pagan Romans looking for a church home that met their needs, there would have been no need for Christ, LOL.

      • But what makes a good leader in the business world does not necessarily make a good leader within Christianity

        Word, and double-word, FISH….. expand this into a book/film/seminar, and I’ll promote it.
        Pragmatism as the compass for a leadership model is a ….well, we don’t use those words around here….

        GregR

  3. Great words, chaplain.

  4. Mike,
    I am one of those who have had to “flee the evangelical city and seek God” in isolation for a while. I realize that it should only be “for a while” but after 25 years of church-based lay ministry I had become distracted, weary, and confused about what really is that necessary thing. I have begun somewhat of a healing process by developing a “rule of faith” that is driving me toward regular company with God. It has been refreshing. Thank you for your challenging posts of this past week.

  5. Chaplain Mike, I have resisted commenting on the series because brevity will be a challenge.

    This has been an excellent series.

    As briefly as possible, this is how spiritual development is working out in my life.

    I had been attending a church for a couple of years, but issues at the church, mostly related to a ridiculous building project left me angry and frustrated. In order to stay Christ centered I chose to walk away.

    For about a year I did not attend this church. However, not attending this church meant that I must develop a more regular practice of prayer and study. This truly was the best thing for spiritual development, even though I didn’t think of it in those terms. I only knew that I absolutely must stay close to Christ.

    In addition to prayer and study, I find it essential to have some time each day to contemplate what I’ve read, which usually becomes contemplative prayer. Preferably, this is while I’m working in the garden or walking. But it could also be while cooking dinner or vacuuming. I do prefer as few distractions as possible, which means TV and music off during times of contemplation. I suppose this is my practical application of silence and solitude.

    Expressing gratitude daily is also essential for me. Obviously, everyone will find gratitude in their own way. For me, simply gazing at the evening sun shimmering against green leaves overwhelms me with thanks and praise to the Creator. In the garden it is easy to find daily reasons to express gratitude.

    James ch 2 has been my guidance for how to treat others. Because of my tumultuous early life, interacting with people who are marginalized comes easiest. I actually find it more difficult to interact with people who appear to have it all. Learning to think “human first” regardless of position has been helpful.

    So much more I could say, but this has already gone pretty long. I’ll just add that when I finally returned to attending church regularly, I felt entirely different inside. And my daily practices have become too much a habit to change.

  6. Sometimes words are just words, and frustratingly empty, but this series on spiritual formation has guts and life to it. I feel like I’ve gotten some real direction and vision, both for myself personally, and my (very limited) ministry.

    THANKS sounds very lame, but it’s all I’ve got….
    Great work, Chap Mike and friends

    Greg R

  7. All these recommendations leave me wondering: how do you know that what you have said or recommended is true, or good for spiritual formation? It seems to me that you’re just guessing, based on your own religious beliefs. Somebody else could come along and say something completely different, and there’d be no way to decide who’s right.

    • Wayne,

      Most of what has been said has emphasize what works for you.

      Bible study has never worked for me, not the depths that is normally recommended by evangelical folks.

      But, just standing before an altar piece in a museum, will touch my soul deeply. Music, and things that involve my senses are what I need.

      I greatly appreciate Damaris’s recommendation of the book “Sacred Pathways” for helping me understand myself.

      You need to find what works for you, where you are, both spiritually and physically.

      • Then how do you know if it “works for you”? If it feels good?

        • Wayne,

          If the practices that you choose to try help you toward: being more loving toward God and man, more forgiving, more open to God and how He is working both in your life and in the lives of others, more like our Master and Lord Jesus, then it is right for you.

          You do need to try and give things an honest try, not once and forget it though. Some self awareness helps also.

          My last spiritual director had me read a book by a certain Jesuit, and initially I tried to put it into practice, but with great difficulty. Thinking about it and other books by the same author, I realized the problem; they tended to emphasize the process. I know that doesn’t work for me (to the point that I realized that I wasn’t a good fit for this company that was (by necessity) process driven. We all realized that I was a good candidate on paper but horrible in life)

    • I’d say the test is simple: Did Jesus teach this by word or example?

    • The Scriptures and the received wisdom of the historic church as it has been guided by the Spirit to follow Jesus over the centuries.

      • @Wane B: ditto what Chap Mike said, with maybe the addition of the counsel of wise and brutally honest friends. With many counselors , wage war…… Jesus calls you ‘friend’, and HE will also tell you face to face.

        GregR

      • which leaves out what?

        • It’s hard to be both Protestant and historic. That’s why this discussion seems so artificial. If this were a Catholic board, there would already be a well-established tradition of spiritual formation. Here everything is kind of up for grabs, like you’re starting from scratch, and you can’t really depend on everybody’s individual church to be helpful.

          Of course you can make up your own discipline, working out of whatever books happen to catch your eye. New Age bookstores have a lot of books on Christianity, meditation, magic rituals, stuff like that.

          • Steve Newell says:

            Wayne,

            If you have read the Lutheran Confessions, you would see that Reformers want to return to return the Church back to the historic Christian which Rome had taken the church away from over a period of centuries. They will site and agree with the Church Fathers who agreed with Holy Scripture. This is way the Lutheran Church recognizes those days in the Church Year were we thank and praise God for faithful men and women of the faith. Also, what is why we are encouraged to read the writings of the Church Fathers such St. Augustine or St. Ambrose.

            I cannot say the same about other Protestant church bodies.

            A significant portion of American “evangelical” Christianity be defined as acreedel, aconfessional, and ahistoric.

  8. “The best way I know to begin practicing disciplines for personal formation is to order one’s daily life around a few simple, regular practices”

    One of the greatest benefits of ‘disciplines’ is that it shows us the seasons & changes in our lives.

    As I have gone thru the church year I have realized my ups & downs, my dark nights of the soul or my times of rapture with Jesus. I realize that sometimes prayer & time with my Lord is easy, sometimes it is hard, sometimes it must be laid down for me to rest (resting in Jesus). but following a regular practice is not w/o the spirit it is there in truth & in love – even when I feel tired (too tired to be caught up in spirit).
    One problem people can run into is trying to fit “simple, regular practices” into their lives.
    because of my work, I am on a 2 week cycle – working every other weekend & moving between 3-11 & 7-3 shifts – we have to be creative in our practices in today’s world – we may not be able to have morning to night daily schedules. peace

    • I think about my grandfather. He was a farmer and spent a lot of time alone in the fields or fishing. Not in a million years would he have said anything about spiritual formation. But if you asked what he did while fishing or plowing, I’m pretty sure he would have said talking to Jesus or thinking over his Bible study. Back when people spent more time alone, many of them probably worked this out in their own way.

      Jesus withdrew from the crowds to pray. Today, most of us also have to make a deliberate effort to find solitude. The crowds follow us everywhere demanding we buy this product or give to that cause, pay attention to this event or that crisis, complete this project or hurry along to that meeting.

  9. The best way I know to begin practicing disciplines for personal formation is to order one’s daily life around a few simple, regular practices. I recommend that these be set, written prayers

    I can remember when I would have said, “Oh, no. routines become stale!” But now I appreciate the value in practicing good habits of faith. We have an obligation to receive what we’re given and appreciate it. If a set prayer contains truth and puts me in a right relationship with God, why should I want to exchange that for another which offers only novelty and spontaneity?

  10. Shane Claiborne has a new book on prayer coming out soon that might be helpful in spiritual formation.