On Confession (Lenten Reflections, Week 4)

Now pride and hate, they live inside me
I need your love enough to guide me
Help me walk across these borders
I’m a pilgrim in deep waters

Faithful God, like faithful sunrise
Help me break from all these old ties
Lead me all to that is holy
Break these chains, but break them slowly

from “Mansions” by Burlap to Cashmere
from the album, Anybody Out There?

Confession is both an instinctual mode of prayer – what I like to call a posture – and also a spiritual discipline.

A mode, or posture, of prayer refers to what a follower of Jesus prays about. Confession is part of an “inward” posture. It is the kind of prayer that gazes not upward at God’s majesty, nor outward at the needs of others, but into the depths of our individual selves – and into the darkening residue of grime that accumulates the longer we tarry in this present world. It is a means of katharsis, the essential first step in spiritual transformation that I wrote about in last week’s post. Confessional prayer is the way we gather up and expel the junk that piles up in our souls. Prayer by prayer, we identify the rust and rot of self-centeredness and we tear it out, clearing our houses, preparing them for further renovations courtesy of the Holy Spirit.

But confession is not simply a type of prayer. It is also a spiritual discipline – that is, something we apply ourselves to. Something we work at. Something we strive to improve in, even master, in our pursuit of purity and blamelessness (a pursuit that often takes a lifetime for a devoted follower to experience, as Paul infers in Philippians 1:9-11).

There is a reason why Catholic churches include confessional booths, and why their spiritual leaders insist parishioners visit them regularly. Despite the way pop culture treats these little closets as either priestly power plays, impromptu counseling centers, or ineffectual shrines to narcissism, very early in to this whole Christianity thing the Church recognized that the act of confession is not simply a one time statement of belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, it is a necessary practice of prayer – something anyone who desires to follow the Savior’s way must make room for in his or her life.

In the evangelical tradition – which is, sadly, becoming much more scattershot and tangled in the poison of partisanship and nationalism – we don’t always do a good job of teaching confession as a discipline of prayer. (Truth be told, we don’t do a good job of teaching the disciplines much at all anymore.) We tend to refer to prayer in primarily general terms, I think because, deep down, we feel like going into detail about its many, many different methods and disciplines and techniques will end up confusing people. There may be some truth to that inclination, but the problem that inevitably arises from generalizing prayer is that generations of believers grow up within a faith tradition that fails to train people how to pray.

As such, when a run-of-the-mill evangelical believer hears the word “confession,” he will usually think of one of two things. One, the stereotype of a confession booth, or, two, the moment a person professes Jesus as Savior. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

But that is only the start of the discipline of confession. It is an extraordinarily powerful first confession, for sure, but it is certainly not meant to be the last. Not because forgiveness is contingent upon our actual naming of each sin we have committed, but rather because it is through confession that we continue to identify not merely our sinful acts but even more the selfish inclinations and lingering weaknesses weighing down our souls. In other words, when you “invite Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” as the saying goes, this act breaks the stranglehold of sin on your life; it does not, however, eradicate your selfish nature altogether. You are just as susceptible to act selfishly as you were before you first confessed Christ as Savior.

Confession, then, is the discipline that teaches us just how far God’s forgiveness reaches. As we seek to live as renewed, repurposed children of our heavenly Father, we engage in the process of katharsis, and, by confession, we continue to clean house of all those old, imbedded wounds and the deep-set tendencies to assert our own will over the will of the Great Architect.

When we pray our prayers of confession, we are not informing God of our wrongdoing and wrongbeing. What we are actually doing is agreeing with him that, yes, our flesh is indeed corrupted by worldly obsessions. We are not telling God anything he doesn’t know, but just because God knows it all doesn’t mean there isn’t profound power in naming these things before him. Confession has always been more for us than it is for God.

Lastly, it is important to remember that there is more to the discipline of confession than merely through listing off our individual sinful deeds, as if we are simply taking a depressing, masochistic inventory of all our bad behaviors at day’s end. On the contrary, time spent in confession should leave a follower of Jesus rejuvenated rather than drained. Filled with a sense of freedom and peace rather than sorrow and guilt. Confession begins heavy, but it ends light. In confession, we identify healthy practices that must replace our sinful habits. We take comfort in God’s mercy, and find confidence in his grace to commit again to obedience and purity. We marvel at the endless reach of his perfect, healing love.

So, may you not shy away from the act of confession. May you make it one of the good habits that replaces the self-centered clutter littering your soul. May you run desperately into your moments of confession, eager for the cleansing that it brings, and the peace that sweeps through you like a cool wind in the heat of the day. May you confess your brokenness in such a way that you cannot help but lift up praises to the One who holds the power to put all things back together again.

Lauds

A period of silence may follow.

The prayer book prompts me to be silent, and so I take a breath and close my eyes and go to where the silence is. Outside is the click of the ice maker, the low hum of the refrigerator, the faint gush of air through the ducts of this aging house. The baby monitor elicits the sound of an artificial womb, the volume raised just enough to perceive a pre-dawn cry. Beyond the window in the darkness, a morning bird too eager for the break of morning decides to test its call.

Outside, there is a beating heart, a yawn, a subtle pop within the stiffened neck of this aging body. The shift of the couch cushion. The gurgle of an empty stomach accepting hot coffee.

I go inside. Inside is the soul, and thus, the silence. Inside is where the Spirit of God has made His dwelling place. Some mornings, He seems a next-door neighbor; other mornings, it is a long journey to His abode, down the narrow path of sluggish contemplation that winds through the wild interior woods where if I turn to look I will see the watchful eyes of dark shapes surveilling me from the shadows. The path empties into a clearing, in the center of which is a quaint cottage. A thin line of smoke whispers from the little chimney – He always has the fire kindled in His hearth – and the morning light spills across the garden plots that surround the cottage.

Some mornings I find the Spirit tending these gardens: aerating the soil, assessing the strength of the stalks, inspecting the budding fruit. He greets me with a smile and a kind word, and there is always a look of pleasure on His face. He is proud of His gardens, of the fruit that has been born and is slowly growing. On other visits, I have found Him relaxing on the little front porch. He rocks back and forth slowly, and as I approach He gestures to the other chair next to Him. “Sit for a moment,” He says. “Enjoy the view with me.”

Once, I found Him inside by the fire, and I asked Him why He was not tending the gardens, and He told me that He was, that resting is also part of gardening, and the fruit He has planted responds as much to this as any other act of cultivation.

I feel safe in the clearing. I am aware that eyes remain on me, that there are dangerous things in the woods, but the Spirit says He is unafraid of these wild things and I should be as well. Standing there next to Him, it is hard not to feel safe. Still, I tell Him that the things in the shadows want to ravage His gardens, and He nods His head as if this isn’t news to Him. He tilts His gardener’s hat back, letting the first rays of the morning splash His face. “Of course they do. This used to be their territory, like the rest of your soul. A completely lawless place. But then you invited Me to live here, and together We have tilled gardens for My fruit – good soil beneath warm sunlight – where before had been only overgrown wilderness, brambles and thorns.”

“But what if they get in?”

He looks at me. “That’s up to you. But I can assure you that they won’t run me off. I will go on tending these gardens, and if you will keep visiting Me, day after day, they will stay in the shadows. And, eventually, you will not only see the fruit; you’ll get to taste it, too.”

The clearing fades away. I surface from the silent depths. I come out from within my soul.

A period of silence may follow, the prayer book says, and I wonder if what I have seen… or imagined (what’s the difference, really?)… will suffice for practicing the discipline of silence. I move on in the prayer book: I read from the Psalter, then the Gospels, and then I offer prayers for myself and others, and it is within these free-form supplications that I often find myself saying, “Holy Spirit, cultivate the gardens of my heart. Let the harvest of Your fruit be bountiful.” In my mind’s eye I see the Gardener standing by the garden plots. He tilts the brim of His hat. I pray to know love, to experience joy, to feel peace, to have patience, to show kindness, to exemplify goodness, to learn faithfulness, to exude gentleness, to practice self-control. I pray the same fruits would be tended by the same Gardener in the souls of others.

Then I pray the way the Savior taught His disciples, and, at the end, as the black of night gives way to the gray of dawn, and the lone birdsong becomes a chorus, and the baby mutters and shifts against the weakening grip of sleep, I conclude with the Collect: Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day…

Irregular Christianity

SCOTUSmarriage

Today was one of those days I am reminded how difficult it can be to live as a Christian in the United States of America.

I am not referring to any type of persecution, nor to defamation of character. Those Christians who claim to be under some kind of deliberate attack when social constructs or political entities don’t abide by their interests are woefully off base. American Christians know very little of religious persecution. For insight into what it really feels like, we might consider talking with the folks who worship at the mosque down the street.

At the same time, when I claim being a Christian in America is difficult, neither am I referring to the despondency many of my brothers and sisters have no doubt experienced since news of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality broke. Despite what some may claim – and what will almost certainly be part of the talking points of many a Sunday School class this weekend – rulings such as this one are not the savage blows to our faith we fear them to be. The Church has existed – it has even thrived – in societies with all sorts of political, cultural, and moral norms that contrasted with orthodox teaching. Not only so, but in these societies Christians strove to live ordered, submissive, gracious lives within “the state,” even as they maintained devotion to the God they believed reigned far above it all (see 1 Peter 2). Sure, at times the state has viewed the Church as obstinate, but mostly in regard to the latter’s refusal to bow to idols, not a spurning of compassion for her fellow man.

So, what is it that makes being a Christian in America difficult? If days like today have not made me afraid or driven me to despair, what struggle do I face?

It is living with and within the tension that exists between so-called progressive ideologies and the presumed hallowedness of ancient, biblical tradition. It is coping with the desire to live as a faithful citizen of the country while remaining a person of religious conviction and depth. It is constantly evaluating how to embrace the celebrated little freedoms of the City of Man while clinging to the grand Freedom of the City of God. It is forever asking the question, “How much of this can I support… how much of that should I ignore… how much is too much?” As a friend and I were recently discussing, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking a tightrope, desperately trying to keep your balance amidst cries to declare allegiance to this theological viewpoint or that political cause.

An honest example: the more I reflected on today’s Supreme Court ruling, the less anxious I felt about the whole thing. I could not help but think that – after reading statements from both sides of the decision – perhaps this was the good thing so many people were hailing it as. Had I become a supporter of the ruling, rather than a dissenter? If so, did that mean I’d lost sight of my religious conviction? All I know is, whatever disagreements I may have with the core practice at the heart of the issue, I also believe strongly in justice, especially when it sides with compassion. I can only imagine the anguish that would come from having basic rights withheld from me – rights that, in reality, I have almost always taken for granted – simply because my lifestyle was viewed as depraved or, at best, sub-standard. And given that it is not the Church but rather the state that affords such rights, I have found it difficult to balk at the crescendo of voices calling for marriage equality in America. To me, it seems justified. And today my appreciation of such fairness held firm, despite those who claimed the definition of marriage (which, confusingly enough, so many people seem to have different source arguments for) had been defaced.

Of course I understand the “can of worms” concern – that this only creates stickier situations for the Church – but part of walking this tightrope of faith is being very, very careful to not give in to one’s emotions. How much of a reaction is too much? To give in to anxiety (“If they legalize this, what’s next?”) would be to step out of the Spirit’s provision of peace and faithfulness and instead plummet into the turmoil of stress and worry. To react in anger (“This country’s headed to hell in a hand basket!”) would be to squelch the fruits of joy and patience from my life, a costly abandonment. And to fall victim to fear (“This is going to ruin everything!”) would mean to lay aside love and self-control. If I’m not careful, in my effort to contend for my Christian faith, I could end up losing the very essence of it.

“We don’t get to be Jesus in the story,” tweeted my friend, Mark. “When it comes to morality we have two choices: deal with our own sin or drop our rocks and walk away.” Such is the tension I am laboring to describe. How much of the desire to resist the movements of our society is the inclination not of the Spirit who indwells our hearts, but the selfish old man who was evicted when salvation came? So often I find myself wondering if we Christians are just as guilty of the culture-defining adage, “Do what you think is right,” as everyone else.

It is irregular Christianity, this faith I live. It is not the bigoted Christianity of the skeptics, nor the uninvestigated Christianity of the folk believers. It is bigger than me, reaching to heights and depths far greater than I have the capacity to explain. It is like reading Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – there is more here than I will ever comprehend, so I must appreciate it for all that I will never understand as much as the little that I do. And within this glorious, vast orbit of faith, hope and love, there stretches on into the darkness of future time a tightrope. It is thin, straight and taut. I walk it slowly, carefully, with as much ease as I can manage. After all, one cannot successfully walk a tightrope under strain or with knotted nerves. I must remain calm. I must breathe steadily. My eyes must be clear and watchful.

And now that I think of it, it wouldn’t kill me to smile.

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

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By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?

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.