The Answer in the Question

I’m two months into a new position at a new church. That position is Minister of Spiritual Formation. Apparently, the title isn’t self-explanatory, because upon introducing myself to church members, I am often asked to explain what exactly I do at the church.

Now, the puffed-up, self-centered part of me wants to balk at such questions, and the cynic in me wants to scoff and say, “What do you mean? Do you ask the music minister or the youth minister to explain what it is they do?” But, at the same time, the realist in me just gets anxious.

"Whatever happened to a simple "'preciate ya'" and a handshake?"

“Whatever happened to a simple “‘preciate ya'” and a handshake?”

Here’s why. Several years ago, I remember sitting in an interview with a church’s search team and being asked essentially the same question. The woman who asked it had done her homework on me; from where I sat across the conference table, I could see her detailed notes written into the margins of my resume, a legal pad replete with questions she considered asking me, and underneath that a black, three-ring binder containing photocopies of several posts from my blog. Perusing these for a few seconds, she looked back up at me and said, “You write a lot in your blog about ‘spiritual formation.’ It seems like that term comes up a lot. I was just wondering, what is spiritual formation?”

I remember feeling simultaneously excited and apprehensive by her question.

Excited, because this was one of the first interview questions that had to do with my personal convictions and interests in ministry (as opposed to programs I had started and events I had planned), and it would be refreshing to speak to a deeper level of what it means to be a minister.

Apprehensive, because I was hardly prepared to give a succinct and comprehensive answer to her question.

"Uhhhh... no comment?"

“Uhhhh… no comment?”

You see, at the time “spiritual formation” was still somewhat of a nebulous concept to me, despite however many times the term found its way onto my blog or into my lessons. It was something I was profoundly interested in, of course, but also something that intimidated me as much as it inspired me. I was convinced I wanted to focus on it in my ministry, both in philosophy and practical direction, but despite collecting several books on the subject, I was still unsure how to work with, in, and toward spiritual formation.

Still, it is not like me to forego offering my opinion on anything. So when this woman asked her question, I let very little silence fall before I opened my mouth to speak. However, another person on the search committee beat me to answering. He said quickly and dismissively, “It’s just another word for ‘discipleship.'”

His answer threw me off, and I slowly closed my mouth. It’s tricky enough to respond to the open-ended question, “What is spiritual formation?” Explaining the error in confusing it with discipleship, especially in the context of a job interview, is a whole other level of difficulty.

"Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness."

“Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness.”

The Hunt for a Good Definition

I learned two things in that interview. The first was that it is not uncommon to encounter long-time, active church members who have little idea what spiritual formation is. The second was that I was one of them.

Defining spiritual formation is not necessarily a hard thing to do. People have been offering their elucidations on the term for quite some time. (Jim Smith just wrote a great series of posts covering it from every angle.) However, because every person whom the Spirit forms is a unique individual woven together by an elaborate and distinctive collection of characteristics, attributes and idiosyncrasies, sometimes the only definition that seems to truly fit is the one you craft yourself.

How pompous can you be, Merriam-Webster?

You don’t know everything, Merriam-Webster.

After the interview, I at least knew where not to start. I knew spiritual formation was not simply another term for discipleship. The two are intimately related, for sure, but even my limited understanding cried out against belittling either term by calling it a mere synonym of the other.

I decided to start with defining discipleship, something that did not intimidate me as much. Oddly enough, it was this endeavor that led me to an answer for the other.

Defining discipleship seemed easy enough; I just looked more closely at its root word: disciple. Once I cleared away the cobwebs of antiquated Christianese words that were part of my small town Baptist church upbringing – words like “discipleship training” and “church discipline” and “Disciple Now Weekend” – I was able to return to the original meaning of the word. From the Greek mathetes, meaning learner, pupil or apprentice, it was often used to describe the students of a rabbi, and in the case of the Gospels, this means Jesus. Rabbinic disciples were meant to learn from their teacher, to emulate them in every way possible, and, eventually, to carry on that rabbi’s teachings – also known as their rabbi’s “yoke” – as a formative part of their own.

If this is not the very example provided us by the likes of Peter, James and John, I don’t know what is.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

So, if discipleship is the commitment to being a disciple, and being a disciple means emulating one’s teacher, then Christian discipleship simply means, as one of his disciples wrote, “walking as Jesus did,” and another added, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is both the example and the focal point for our thoughts, words and actions.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was all right there in the word itself. It wasn’t complicated.

The Title Is Self-Explanatory

Naturally, this led me to reconsider the term “spiritual formation,” taking again the root word – or, in this case, the root words. “Spirit” and “forms.” I was struck by the fact that these two words alone was almost a workable sentence in itself. Spirit forms. What is more, it sounded as much like a declaration as it did a reminder. In John 16, Jesus declares that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth. And every time I try to arrange and organize and methodize my life so that I might feel like a more effective person, my inevitable shortcomings bring God’s reminder: “No, Bo. The Spirit forms. Not you.”

This, then, must be the first step toward any measure of spiritual formation. There must be the element of surrender. I’ve heard some people describe the concept as a “pursuit of God,” but spiritual formation is not about us chasing after God. Rather, we are the ones who lay down our arms – the dependencies and life structures that rival his promised provision – and wave the white flag. It is not us creeping closer to God’s territory, but rather God invading our once guarded spaces. If it is a pursuit, it is a pursuit of man by the Holy Spirit.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

This is similar to discipleship. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, that person had to deny himself. This doesn’t mean that discipleship and spiritual formation are the same, but it doesn’t reveal that an essential element of the Christian life is the relinquishing of control over our abilities and circumstances.

The difference between the two is that discipleship is the commitment we make to follow Jesus according to his call. Spiritual formation is what takes place once that following begins, when the Spirit begins its transformative work in our hearts and minds.

So, what exactly does a Minister of Spiritual Formation do?

If I’m shepherding a person effectively, then I am helping him understand the principle common to both experiences – that it isn’t all about him. A minister attends to the needs of others, so I’m reminding him that he doesn’t need the worship service to conform to his preferences. That his Bible study doesn’t need to utilize his favorite curriculum. That fellow church members don’t need to think and act the way he feels they should.

"Again with the rattlesnakes?! I really think he should use more copperheads! They much more aesthetically pleasing."

“Again with the rattlesnakes?! Copperheads are much more aesthetically pleasing, Pastor.”

I tell him that what is truly needed is something only God can give. And, if I do this well, he learns to accept that the community of God is something larger and grander than his own imagination’s limits. He comes to see it is infused by a very big and very beautiful God who has a purpose and an agenda so much greater than any one mind can grasp.

A Minister of Spiritual Formation provides opportunities upon opportunities that challenge people to experience the grandeur of God. I’m pointing them to ministries and programs and events and studies not simply because that’s what going to church is all about, but because these things hold the potential to reveal how, as Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

It’s not always the easiest thing to explain, but not everything has to be easy to explain. When people hear my job title and ask me what I do, I’ve stopped sweating the question. Instead, I smile and tell them, “I make sure people aren’t so focused on their own lives that they forget they’re a part of something much, much greater.”

It may not be the answer they are expecting, or the one that clarifies things the way they were hoping when they asked the question. I’ve only been here two months, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do when it comes to helping people live into their own definitions.

But when it comes to explaining spiritual formation to someone, I’ve decided that is as much the Spirit’s job as it is mine.

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 2)

Working in the area of spiritual formation, I often find that once a person discovers (or returns to) the foundation upon which being a Christian is based, he or she quickly begins to operate more and more like an idealist.

After all, when you get right down to it, Christians are meant to be idealists. The sum and substance of our faith is rooted in dynamic, unswerving idealism. For instance, truly committed Christians believe collective duty trumps individual aspiration. They believe personal comfort must never be prioritized above the greater good of a community. Simply put, as often as it is pertinent to do so, committed Christians put others first.

Others-first behavior is not necessarily what makes Christians unique, though. Any Christian who claims it is insults a multitude of people – non-Christians and non-believers – who also believe strongly in the virtues of selflessness and compassion for fellow human beings.

For example, that "love your neighbor as yourself" line originated with these guys.

For example, that “love your neighbor as yourself” line originated with these guys.

However, the difference between Christians who put others first and a non-believers who do the same is that the Christians who act selflessly and compassionately do so out of theological conviction. They believe that these are the characteristics of the God who has saved them. Now, I’ve actually heard some skeptics criticize Christian charity as somehow less pure because it is not proactive but reactive – meaning it is performed out of duty to a directive. The misconception is that such virtue is less genuine/effective because it is done in response to a divine command, whereas the charity of non-believers comes solely from uncoerced human decency, making it nobler. But this kind of criticism is absurd! It’s akin to claiming an enlisted soldier’s patriotism is less genuine than a politician’s because the soldier is commanded to serve his country whereas the politician freely decides to do so.

The only real difference between these two forms of charity is the ideal that drives the act. For the Christian, the ideal that compels acts of charity for our fellow human beings is a God whom we believe modeled this very behavior, and then commanded us to do the same (John 13:34-35, 14:12). For the skeptic, the ideal that compels acts of charity is found in an undefined ought-ness. While it is no less effective, it is based on a fluctuating perception on what is the right thing to do, or what makes a person feel most satisfied.

"These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn't been donated by Christians."

“These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn’t been donated by Christians.”

A Sense of Something

I believe this is why the Church is still alive and well in our society today, despite droves of so-called “members” who have lost sight of (or never originally discovered) the foundation of this faith. The Church is still hanging in there because idealism is not instinct, because everyone wants to be inspired by something. We are naturally wired to fix our eyes on some kind of ideal – something on which to base our lives.

Sometime a person might have trouble naming exactly what that ideal is, but they nonetheless believe in the power of it.

There’s a scene from The West Wing in which a plucky young Republican lawyer is offered a job in a Democratic administration. After initially rejecting the offer, she changes her mind when she witnesses the employees’ idealistic dedication to their jobs. However, her particular brand of politics leaves many of those same people bewildered as to why she would even want to work with them. Her new supervisor, disgruntled at her presence in the office, presses her to explain her reason for accepting the job. Frustrated, she blurts out, “I feel a sense of duty.”

Her supervisor growls that her statement sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. However, the beauty of the episode is that many of the people who initially view this Republican as an enemy not to be trusted gradually recognize a deeper sense of … something (duty? honor? conviction?) that binds them all together. What unites them is revealed to be greater than what divides them.

It’s actually a really great scene. I recommend taking 2 1/2 minutes and watching it here:

I believe that people want to be inspired – that we all long for a “sense of duty” to drive us and give our lives purpose and transcendent meaning. I believe we want an ideal we can believe in and that we can commit our lives to. And I believe the kind of ideal we’re really looking for is one that will not fade away – one which cannot fail (even if we fail to live up to it).

This is why I do what I do. Because I believe that kind of ideal is not simply taught by a guy named Jesus – it is embodied by him. If it is true that every person longs to know purpose and to experience a sense of significance in this world, then the message of Jesus Christ is truly for every person.

The Greater Good of a Great God

Interestingly, this is the message our world is currently witnessing in the figure of Pope Francis. He is not only living out his idealistic belief. He is showing people that they matter – that there is hope and purpose in this life, and that God – the ultimate ideal, full of love and truth – has ordered things in such a way that we can catch sight of this hope in and through the lives of his followers.

Why is Francis preaching messages of pacifism and peacemaking and compassion for those who suffer? Why is he continually calling for prayer for Ukraine and Syria and Israel/Palestine? Is it simply because that’s what religious people do (or are supposed to do, because our dogma demands it)? Or is it because there is an ideal that compels all people – from lonely individuals to whole continents – to strive for greater and greater levels of selflessness and compassion?

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

I’ll end this examination of Christian idealism with a story that happened very recently. In it we see what it looks like when people – particularly Christians – lose sight of the ideal established by God and perfectly modeled by Jesus Christ, as well as what it looks like when truly committed Christians keep that ideal firmly in mind.

You may remember a particularly distressing debacle regarding the Christian-based advocacy organization, World Vision. In the fall of 2013, the company changed its hiring policy, choosing to no longer bar homosexual individuals from employment. However, when the decision was leaked and Christianity Today reported on it the following March, droves of conservative evangelicals collectively threw a ginormous hissy fit. There were immediate calls for a boycott, and thousands of Christians terminated their sponsorship. After only two days, approximately 5000 child sponsors had ceased their relationship with World Vision; later estimates reported that somewhere around 10,000 children had been hung out to dry because of the drop in financial support. Forty-eight hours after the story broke, Richard Stearns, the organization’s president, announced that they had decided to nix the policy change. Sadly, since then, only a small fraction of sponsorships have been renewed.

However, one group of believers not only maintained their sponsorships, but chose to act further out of faithfulness to the ideal set before them by Jesus. This church, where a friend of mine serves as pastor, decided to literally put their money where their mouths were. They decided that they would not – could not – stand by and watch child after child be rejected like an unwanted newspaper subscription. Through social media, e-mails, letters and phone calls, they made it clear that they were willing to take on the financial responsibilities of every child that had lost his or her sponsorship. They claimed that while it was one thing to disagree with World Vision’s decision (a decision that had even been reversed), it was a whole other thing to withhold education and medical care – not to mention the Gospel – from an innocent child because of that disagreement. In other words, there was something much greater at stake.

Pictured: "the least of these brothers of mine" (Matthew 25:40)

Pictured: “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:40)

We have been given an ideal that surpasses all others. We have been called to live unto a sense of duty instilled in us by a God who is living and active and on the move in this world. Let us never forget the deeper sense of something that binds us all together. Let us never lose sight of the greater good to which we have been called. As the writer of Hebrews encourages, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 1)

I feel guilty. Last weekend, I bought four great books at a library sale (also known as the Holy Grail of cheap used book sales). But I haven’t even cracked one of them yet because I can’t stop watching The West Wing on Netflix.

I’ve already seen every episode, some more than once, and yet it continues to play on my iPad. On the treadmill. Before going to bed. Passing time on a lazy Saturday. I’ve even been taking in portions of episodes while eating lunch at my desk. I keep telling myself that good writing is good writing, and The West Wing still represents some of the best television writing of the past few decades. Even when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, departed the show after season four and the show suffered an inevitable slippage in quality, it still remained a cut above most of the other TV dramas at the time.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

However, my real problem isn’t neglecting a stack of great books. Nor is it that I’m watching these episodes again despite remembering 95% of what happens.

My real problem is that watching The West Wing is dangerous behavior.

Why? you might ask.

Because with every episode of this show, I am once again exposed to the kind of unabashed idealism that is usually reserved for Disney movies and Lord of the Rings characters.

It doesn’t matter what your preferred political stance is. The story lines of The West Wing were less interested in advocating a particular partisan viewpoint than they were focused on the what-if’s and what-could-be’s of a group of sincere idealists working in the highest levels of government. This is Sorkin’s M.O. The “Well-Educated Idealist” is his favorite character archetype, and he has often been criticized for his repeated imaginings of such a character at work in our society’s systems – systems which the majority of people are quick to label corrupt, or unprincipled, or wayward, or incompetent. His most successful imagining – The West Wing – placed such idealists within the political sphere, but he’s done it similarly with sports broadcasting (Sports Night), network television (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and cable news (The Newsroom). Even the film Moneyball, whose script Sorkin was hired to polish, portrayed a sense of resolute idealism – of bright people struggling to trust in the value of a system that so many around them said could never work.

The West Wing is dangerous because that kind of idealism is dangerous. It might have won Sorkin a few Emmys, but in real life it rarely wins you many friends.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn't something even television viewers enjoy all that much.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn’t something even TV viewers enjoy all that much.

“O Beautiful for Tragedy”

So, why is it that uncompromising idealism – people showing loyalty to collective duty over individual aspiration – is a dangerous thing?

The answer, of course, is that it just doesn’t seem like the world works that way anymore.

During my years teaching American literature at an international school for missionary kids, I was beset with complaints from the kids when we delved into the units on realism and naturalism. They protested that every story, play, and novel we read was depressing. Copies of The Crucible and The Great Gatsby came back to me with dented spines and tattered covers inflicted by kids who had thrown them across the room in frustration. During one class, an intelligent young woman with an infectiously sweet disposition asked me, “Why do all these stories have such sad endings?”

“Well,” I said, intending a joke, “you may not realize this because you haven’t spent much time there, but Americans are really depressed people. Nothing ever goes the way we want it to, so of course our stories are going to be sad.”

Instead of laughing, everyone in class looked at me like I’d just dropkicked a puppy.

"If there are no more questions, let's take a look at the next novel we'll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy's The Road."

“If there are no more questions, let’s take a look at the next novel we’ll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”

Idealism in the Church

Of course, there is plenty of art and pop culture that portray joy and optimism. But unabashed idealism is hard to come by.

As a minister, when I watch The West Wing, I can’t help but transfer some of its pie-in-the-sky views to the Church. Idealistic action rarely claims victories in our modern world, and a rapidly growing number of Americans see Christians not at people of irresistable joy and impressive integrity, but as corrupt and unprincipled. Today, churches are accused of being wayward and incompetent.

Consider the exception that proves the rule. One of the few figures that has fascinated many non-believers in recent months is Pope Francis. I think the reason so many non-Catholics admire Pope Francis is that he has not adhered to the assumptions of what a Pope is supposed to do. His Eminence is speaking and acting less like a pietistic empty shirt and more like a living, breathing example of pragmatic idealism. People appreciate that… at least in small doses.

Wishful statements are made that today’s churches need more people like Pope Francis in them. I agree, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if it is still possible to cultivate that kind of fleshed-out idealism in the modern Church.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to be a pessimist. I want to be an idealist. But do we have the courage and determination to cultivate such a committed belief in our church’s members – that the greater good must trump personal comforts?  Can such idealism become a viable, sustainable reality in our churches? Could it really last, or, like most of Sorkin’s television dramas, would it only be tolerated for a few brief seasons before its luster wears off?

Critics of The West Wing often pointed to the fact that the decisions and actions of characters on the show would never happen in real-life Washington D.C., either because of legal issues or simply because no one with such a viewpoint would last long in a job like that. I sometimes fear that the same drab reality may be true in the majority of our churches.

What do you think? Is it possible that an authentic, visionary faith can be reawakened in the Church? Can the current few genuine idealists we have in our churches become a potent multitude of uncompromising ambassadors of hope? Can more of the people of God act like the people of God?

Or will we continue to be sidetracked by a plethora of distractions, from popular political squabbles that unnecessarily divide us to the weekly hassles of why the preacher moved the pulpit? Will we insist that all of our members learn how to share the gospel, or look the other way while some of them only share gossip? Will we spend our money on global initiatives dedicated to alleviate the suffering of all people, or on activist groups who want to take a Hollywood production company to task for the creative liberties they took filming the story of Noah?

Noah-Watcher V2 -luca nemolato

“Rock monsters! I’m, like, 99% sure that’s not in the Bible!”

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Is idealism dangerous? Is it deluded? Dead? Or, does it have a place in today’s churches?

 

In part two of this article, I’ll further explore what idealism looks like when it’s lived out in a church. Stay tuned…