Thoughts Regarding Spiritual Formation
Thoughts Regarding Spiritual Formation
Let me say that each and all of us are undergoing spiritual formation. In fact, every person in the world is undergoing spiritual formation. I say that because Scripture tells us that we are spiritual beings. As spiritual beings, we are being bombarded by stimuli that are forming us. The real question is: are we being shaped by our culture, by our traditions, by our fears, by our addictions, by our desires, by religious rituals and practices, by the power of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit or what? I ask myself, what are we trying to do with children and adults? What are we seeking to accomplish? What does the finished product look like? What does a devoted follower of Jesus Christ behave like? And where are we today?
The reports of the early church, primarily from the books of Acts, are stories of people filled with power, courage, conviction, willing to stand against the powers of this age for the blessing of the world; women and men energized and invigorated who would not and could not be silenced because of what they had experienced. The women and men of the first century had very little formal education. They did not have access to the vast understanding of the development of the minds, hearts and bodies of children that we have today. They did not have teaching labs, advanced degrees in early childhood education, nor did they have access to vast resources of the internet.
As I think about all of this, I believe that there are a couple of transformations that have tremendous potential for all of us:
I. Transformation from ministry TO children to ministry WITH children:
An experience in grade school had a great impact upon me. We had the semblance of a shop class in which we made a variety of items to be used as part of an annual fund-raising benefit for the school. I began work on a bird house or bird feeder, I can’t quite recall exactly. For whatever reason I was not able to complete the project. However, when the night of the benefit sale took place, the project which I had been working on was fully completed and auctioned off. I was upset because someone had taken it upon them self to do it without me.
Less than two weeks ago, I took a short tour of one of our Native American ministries, a place where for the past nearly one hundred years, we have been sending missionaries. The evening before I listened as one of the Native American elders told us: “Mr. ruined us, he did everything for us and now we expect it; he ruined us!” Doing it for them has resulted in our doing ministry in ways that makes us ‘feel’ good, but has left the impression that they have nothing to contribute to us, other than perhaps some authentic fry bread or beadwork.
Just visit any Native American reservation; talk about poverty, unemployment, families in crises, mental illness, alcoholism, hopelessness; they are third-world communities into which we have poured trillions of dollars – but nobody talks about it, nobody knows or cares.
In the book of Proverbs (22:6) is written: “Train up a child in the way she/he should go….” The focus is on the way; it’s not about learning theories in the classroom but about implementing principles and applying these to everyday living. In Deuteronomy the children of Israel were instructed to “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Dt. 6:4-9) And why do that? A few verses earlier we read: “that it may go well with you.” Our biblical heritage is a heritage of being involved WITH children, youth, and adults; rather than treating them as ’empty vessels’ or devils needing to be rescued from the burning fires of hell. Ours is a covenant theology; we are in this together. We have something to contribute and we have something to receive; ministry is a two-way street. Spiritual formation is a collaborative venture; it’s an apprentice-ship approach. Jesus sent the disciples out, brought them back together, and debriefed them.
One of the challenges I continue to struggle with is how to more and more engage in ministry with children. We are and have been doing some of that, and I want to thank those who have been instrumental in that: 1) Tying blankets for Safehome, 2) Providing toys for Safehome, 3) Sorting food at Harvestors, 4) Acolytes, 5) Children singing in worship, 6) Making lunches at Spring Hill, 7) What else???
II. Transformation from focusing on BELIEFS to focusing on BEHAVIORS:
Now, as Reggie McNeal might say, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying!” I’m not suggesting that we stop communicating our beliefs; because behaviors are connected to beliefs. The Protestant Reformation was all about correcting false beliefs which were supporting unbiblical behaviors. As a result, I believe we put a premium on ideas, thoughts, beliefs, theories and paid much less attention to behaviors. Again that passage from Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he/she should go….” “Way” is not a belief, an idea, a theory, it is a pathway, it is the journey of living.
What I’m pushing for is not behaviors over beliefs or beliefs over behaviors; I’m pushing for biblical living. I’m pushing for an integrity between what we believe and how we behave. As someone put it: “Walk the talk”. Or another statement I’ve heard is that “we are educated far beyond our obedience”. The challenge is to connect the two; keep the mouth and the feet going in the same direction of ‘love God above all and our neighbor as our self’.
Again, I would say that we are working at that. Some of the things we’ve mentioned before are examples: actions of love on behalf of our world, being salt and light to those around us, and showing care to people in our world.
We believe it is important to pray for our world; what if we challenged each person (including ourselves as leaders) to pray for some specific person and to share that each Sunday as a part of our time together?
We believe it is important to be a neighbor to others; what if we challenged each person (including ourselves as leaders) to be a good neighbor and report back to each other as a part of our time together?
We believe it is important to encourage one another; what if we challenged each person (including ourselves as leaders) to be an encourager and report back to each other as a part of our time together?
Remember the parable Jesus told about the end of time, about the sheep and the goats, as I recall it was not those who had the correct beliefs but those whose beliefs resulted in behaviors like a cup of water, a prison visit, the visit to a sick person, the gift of clothing, the extending of a meal, who were commended.
We have all heard it said, “You cannot expect what you do not inspect. I’m encouraging us to really work at encouraging behaviors because I know, from my own life, that I am educated beyond my obedience.
III. Transformation from Growing Beyond to Incorporating a childlike faith:
Last week on our family vacation we stayed in a cabin outside Branson, Missouri near Lake Taneycomo. The night prior to our arrival the area had experienced a microburst resulting in downed trees and branches. The staff was gathering these branches, bringing them to a concrete pad, and burning them. The pile never got very large because the recent drought limited outdoor burning. On one of our walks past this location, Carter saw this smoldering, smoking flickering fire pile, referring to it as “The Burning Bush”. I was struck by his reference, and as is often the case, I didn’t quite know what to say. I use this as an illustration of how differently the perception of children and adults is: I saw a smoldering pile of branches, twigs and leaves, Carter saw a ‘burning bush’. Fortunately, I kept silent rather than correcting him. Notice that I said, and I mean, different, not right and wrong!
Rabbi Heschel was once asked why no one nowadays sees God. The sage said that people are not willing to look that low. We need to adjust our vision. Children help us to do that. The place to look for spiritual substance is in everyday activity. Deep knowing comes through activity. It is participatory, communal, experiential, contextual and immersive. The toy companies know that. Walk down the toy isle of Wal-Mart or Target – seen any ‘interactive’ games lately? Why are your children and grandchildren so good at the computer? Why do your kids want to help wash the car, make a cake or paint the house? Watch an infant or toddler; do they inspect an object? Of course not! They touch it with their hands and immediately put in into their mouths.
The faith of children is connected to symbols and rituals. Later additional meanings are added by parents, people in the faith community, and mentors. But children can also teach us some things, if we are willing to be taught; if we are willing to take the long, slow walk; and if we are willing to allow the child inside us to nourished. Too often we denigrate the importance of childlike faith: the ability to experience awe in the common and ordinary experiences of life. The other day Carter informed me that his second day of kindergarten was “awesome”. If we can walk with them, allow them to go at their pace and inspect a frog, jump in a puddle and color outside the lines, we too, might just hear God speak, see a burning bush, or be uplifted by a gorgeous butterfly on his/her way to a place where he has never gone before.
Woven into the fabric of the ‘curriculum’ for Children’s Worship is the repetitive statement beginning with the words: “I wonder….” How can we massage the child’s natural tendency of experience, imagination, and vision? How can we appreciate and experience their awe – see through the eyes of their faith and feed their natural inclination to appreciate mystery? How can we affirm childhood as a dimension of all of life rather than one chronological moment to grow beyond? Childlike awe, imagining, the perspective of the mysterious, wonder should be valued and appreciated; periodically being renewed by quality time spent WITH children. Other dimensions should also be added as we grow up into Christ-likeness.
IV. Transformation incorporated into strategic planning
Our effectiveness in spiritual formation and development is improved and enhanced as we develop and implement a collaborative strategic plan. A strategic plan would include as many of the primary relationships of a child’s life: parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, faith community in a way that integrates, is intentional and debriefs regularly. These primary persons play a key role in reinforcing beliefs, values and behaviors. We all know of schools where there is little or no involvement or reinforcement by parents and community and how sporadic or no involvement impedes growth. In so many churches parents are separated from children so that there is little interaction between, connection with or awareness of what is being taught, practiced or the purpose itself. They ride to church together, separate to various parts of the building, reconvene at the front door; ride home with a question like: “How was your morning?” and then decide what’s for lunch.
In our setting, we might ask how we might involve the parents and grandparents in what is being taught; what role the various aspects of our life together have on the curriculum; what behaviors are we seeking to promote in the lives of children and families; how Sunday School, Children’s Worship, worship, community outreach, music, acolyting, are helping us to accomplish our vision of ‘Calling All People to a Life Devoted to Jesus Christ” and what progress we are/are not making in that regard. We could ask ourselves how we might better coordinate, plan, collaborate and organize so that several relationships and experiences reinforce the vision we sense God is calling us to.