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    Entries in Spiritual Formation (36)


    Book Review :: Adele Calhoun's Invitations From God

    Adele Calhoun is right in observing that "The things we say yes to and the things we say no to determine the terrain of our future", and is most certainly correct in saying of God, "As the first and great Inviter, God devotes himself to sending out invitations to come join his divine community." There is a God who desires fellowship with his creatures and close communion with human beings, who are created in the divine image. That God knows that we exist within a fallen world, but loves us enough to be at work to bring about our redemption, our restoration, and our healing so that we might be commissioned in turn to be agents of redemption, restoration, and healing. God desires to equip us so that we might be heralds of Jesus Christ, announcing his life, death, and resurrection, and inviting all people to know, love, and serve him. Calhoun's book, Invitations from God: Accepting God's Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More, gives us a foundation from which to work as we open ourselves to God and respond to those divine invitations that can bring about progress in our spiritual journey.

    For those familiar with much of the current literature on spiritual formation, Calhoun is typical in her emphasis on participating in the work of God in our own lives. Thus, for those coming from strongly Calvinistic or Reformed traditions, the synergism that underlies Calhoun's approach may be disconcerting. Calhoun's opening chapter is titled, "An Invitation to Participate In Your Own Healing", stressing our part and God's part in our restoration. She is certain to stress that this invitation "does not mean we earn our salvation; it simply means we taste the fruit of it through participation." This restorative or healing dynamic is illustrated through an appeal to John 5, where Jesus asks the sick man by the pool of Bethesda, "Do you want to get well?" After expanding on the sick man's qualifications, she states, "Transformation and healing always begin in a deep place of desire. There needs to be some deep inner willingness to take a risk on Jesus and begin again and again." 

    In principle I am in agreement with Calhoun. But I wish she spent more energy and effort delving in to the source of that desire to be healed, to be transformed, to experience rest in God's presence. In other words, I wish she would've spent more time explaining how that desire is itself a witness to God's grace at work in our lives, a preemptive movement by the Spirit of God to place within us a will and a want to be made new. While embracing a notion of participation, or synergism, we must continually stress grace, and God's movement toward us that precedes any movement we make toward him.

    The other chapters in Calhoun's work flow from the first. Once one has accepted the invitation to be healed, specific avenues through which that healing comes are expounded. She writes soundly concerning the biblical invitations to follow Jesus, trusting him for divine guidance and leadership above and before all other competing masters. She writes of the invitation to be present with community, learning to love other people. She provides sound wisdom concerning our need for rest, for mourning, for admitting the limits of our own knowledge (or the possibility we might be wrong), how to forgive, how to patiently wait, pray, remember who we are and who God is, and finally an invitation to "the most excellent way", discovered in Christ, witnessed to by the church, and captured within the stories of the Bible.

    This book is a good spiritual formation resource. Calhoun touches on a number of subjects that are critical for our growth in Christlikeness, and does so with biblical wisdom and easily grasped pastoral illustrations. I'd recommend this book for use with small groups who can discuss its contents, applying what they find to their context. I'd also recommend it for individuals who are seeking a guide to help them learn to rest in God's presence, to forgive, to grow in humility, to pray, and to grow in love for God and neighbor.


    Will Bible Study Change Your Life?

    Bible study

    Will studying the Bible change your life?

    Yes.  But.

    Trevin Wax offers a meditation that should be read, reminding us that Scripture is intended to lead us to holiness, and the study of the Bible alone does not guarantee the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit.

    Mr. Wax states it well:

    Bible study alone is not what transforms your life. Jesus transforms your life. Of course, He does this through His written Word to us. So we must affirm that life change doesn’t happen apart from God’s Word. But the reason God’s Word changes our life is not because of our personal study but because in the Scriptures we are introduced to Jesus, the Author. That’s why every page ought to be written in red, as every section is breathed out by our King and points us to Him.

    It might help to expand these thoughts with a word: grace.  The Bible itself is a gift of grace, a written and recorded testimony that gives witness to the acts of God and thereby has standing as the revelation of God, always graciously pointing beyond itself to the One who inspired it, if we have eyes to see it as a signpost rather than as an end.  The Bible is a grace that points us to Grace, revealed most fully and completely in the person and work of Jesus Christ, both in what he has done and in what he is doing.

    The Bible is the best of books.  Like Wesley, I hope to be a "homo unius libri", a man of one book.  And I hope to never forget the Someone to whom the Bible points, so that I may be shaped according to that Someone's grace.


    Formation in Christlikeness Conference at Friends University


    This post is a little late in coming, considering this conference was three weeks ago.  But what follows are my reflections from the Aprentis event, written at various intervals since returning home.

    Molly and I recently travelled to Wichita, Kansas to be present at the Formation in Christlikeness: The Process of Change Conference, hosted by the Aprentis Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University.  Keynote speakers were Dallas Willard, James Bryan Smith, Scot McKnight, Mindy Caliguire, James Catford, and Eduardo Pedreira.

    Our time couldn't have been more delightful.  I ran into some of the friends I met last spring at Barclay College.  I saw others that I have come to know over the past few years, and finally introduced my wife to some of these extraordinary folks.  The content was profound, with an especially interesting dialogue begun by Dallas Willard on the nature of the atonement and it's meaning for our conception of God.  The music was moving as well.  Christian conferences are often remarkable because of the music.  I have found this to be so not because of the performance of the musicians or the talent of those leading.  Rather, I have found this to be so because of the fervor with which those in attendance sing.

    The conference centered on the theme of formation.  How do we become spiritually formed?  What are the practices, the ideas, the narratives, the postures that shape us?  And how does our formation influence and determine the witness of the church?  An oft made point, by Willard and others, is that we are always undergoing a process of formation.  The challenge comes concerning our responsibility to conceive of a vision for our lives, a decision to live in accordance with that vision, and our engagement with the means necessary for our us to embody and embrace that vision.  For Christian people, this includes developing our conception of God in accordance with what we find in the person of Jesus and the testimony of the Bible, making a determination not only to be converts to Christ, but disciples, and utilizing exercises such as prayer, service, study, worship, and other such disciplines to create a space wherein we might be shaped us as followers of Jesus.

    Three conversation capture the essence of our weekend.

    Conversation One: The Kingdom is Safe

    While speaking with a gentleman after arriving at Friends University, I asked a question about this person's history with Renovare, with Jim Smith, with Dallas Willard, and their particular church background.  I asked about his familiarity with The Apprentice Series, and with what Friends currently was seeking to develop on campus through the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute.  He was enthusiastic to be present at the event, knowing much about these materials and these developments at Friends, and was encouraged by the tone of the presenters and of the conference attendees.

    Having a very diverse church and theological background, this gentleman remarked that what had impressed him most in his experiences with Renovare, and what excited him about this event, was the fact that there was a feeling of safety at these events, a sense that a variety of traditions and perspectives could be presented and heard with grace.  This does not negate the fact that there is some Truth all are seeking; only that the quest for Truth is conducted in a gentle manner, allowing for diversity, listening to the other, while at the same time thinking critical about the accounts of formation, of Jesus, of the Bible, or other doctrinal concerns that are offered.

    And this is right.  Christian people who have been formed in the image of Christ will embody the ideals of seriousness and safety.  Within the Kingdom, our longing for union with God is affirmed, and the seriousness of life within that Kingdom is palatable.  The Kingdom is safe, never in trouble, and open and available to all whom God calls.

    Conversation Two: Spiritual Growth Requires Attentiveness and Self-Awareness

    Molly and I were blessed to discuss growth in the Christian life.  This conference gave us an opportunity and a language to assess our own spiritual well-being, our own health as disciples of Jesus.  Molly found that she is spread very thin, and does not often take the required time for rest and reflection and prayer and study.  She realized how critical this calling is for her congregation.

    I spend a great deal of time in study; reading and reflecting on that which I read.  But I also spend too much time looking at screens, or being distracted by social networks, or failing to slow down long enough to pay careful attention to what God might be saying.

    Together, me and my spouse were fortunate enough to explore the type of environment we are fostering in our home for our spiritual development, as well as the development of our daughter.

    Conversation Three: Christian Spiritual Formation is a Growing Edge in Publishing

    Lastly, for those that are writers, there is a need for resources in the area of Christian spiritual formation.  Many of the existing resources are autobiographical, or along the lines of memoir.  Spiritual formation books are criticized for being too individualistic.  There is a hunger for sophisticated, theologically complex accounts of the spiritual life, and, according to one voice in the room, there is a need for more reflection on the role of the body in spiritual formation.

    Christian Spiritual Formation is a growing edge in publishing.  If you've got a book proposal, you should submit it to a well respected publishing house.


    Writing a Rule of Life :: A Guest Blog From Matt Johnson

    This week I have invited my friend, Matt Johnson, to stop by.  I asked Matt, "What would you say to someone looking to compose a rule of life, perhaps who was doing so for the first time?"  A rule is a simple approach to one's spiritual formation, a self-composed guide to spending time with God for facilitating growth in Christlikeness.  With a BA in Religious Studies from Friends University, Matt has served at Andover United Methodist Church (Kansas) for almost a decade and has led several Apprentice groups.  He received training in spiritual direction through the Souljourners program in Atchison, Kansas.  He is a good friend and an excellent listener.  I hope you enjoy his words.


    I am sitting at my laptop looking out my bedroom window at my friend Merle’s garden. One of the most fascinating plants is a vining gourd called a dinosaur gourd (is that the scientific name?). It gets its name from the dark green, wrinkled skin that covers the gourd, making it look like a dinosaur (yes, definitely scientific). This peculiar vining plant has been very happy with the hot summer we’ve had. As a result, it surpassed its six foot tomato cage and began growing over the yellow squash and amaranth that are nearby. Fortunately, Merle is not only a good gardener, he is also creative. Using a fence post and some plastic twine he created a support for the dinosaur gourd vine, so that it would grow up and away from his other plants. Because of his work all the plants are doing well. 

    In modern language a rule of spiritual practices can be compared to Merle’s temporary support for the dinosaur gourd plant. Its purpose is to help create structure and space so your soul may grow toward the sun of God’s love. As we work with our individual rules they help us set boundaries so that various aspects of our lives do not overrun other areas. Of course, grace directs all that we do and outweighs even our personal rules, but on a general basis, the rule can help us dedicate time to spiritual practices and relationships that might otherwise be neglected. Ultimately, the rule of life should lead to a deeper relationship with God and resulting joy, peace, and love. 

    Right away you can see that I’m pushing for the rule to sound more like a nurturing device, rather than an oppressive and rigid obligation. Please hear this difference, because if you can start seeing the rule as a healthy and life-nurturing document you’ll be more inclined to engage this practice and discover the gifts it can bring.  

    First, let’s consider a simplified approach to creating a rule for life. Begin by writing a list of the spiritual practices that are most nurturing to your soul and help you awaken to God’s work in your life. This list will include your favorite practices, but it should also include those practices that stretch and challenge you to a new depth of awareness of God’s presence. The list could include personal practices such as solitude and meditation as well as corporate practices such as worship or meeting with an accountability group. 

    Next, add to the list items that are not considered classic spiritual practices, but that give you a sense of joy, peace or connection to God, family, or friends. On my list you’ll find guitar playing, jogging, and a weekly date night with my wife. Sometimes in our zeal to achieve spiritual perfection we ignore our basic human needs. Adding these non-traditional practices will help you keep your feet planted on the ground. 

    Look over your list and in a column next to each practice write how often this particular practice can be done. Then create a second column noting how much time this practice requires. So in the row next to “worship” the first column might contain “once a week” and the second column would specify, “75 minutes.” [insert denominational-worship joke here]

    Hopefully as you begin creating these two columns you’ll start to see the tension that exists when it comes to creating a rule: while spiritual exercises are good for our soul, we are finite beings and cannot do all of them. Here are two ideas that have helped me in shaping my rule. First, there is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us—so whether you live like Benedict of Nursia, or a scallywag, God loves you and delights in your very existence. Second, you are simply looking for the practices that connect most powerfully with this season of your faith journey in this season of life.  

    With this grace applied it is now time to narrow the rule down to a feasible number of practices. Prayerfully look over your lists and notice the practices that God seems to be drawing to your attention, if any surface put a star beside them. Next, consider any practices that don’t seem to resonate with your soul, these practices could be removed from your rule. Once you’ve emphasized the key practices and removed the misfires, you need to make adjustments with the columns that line out the frequency of the practice and the duration. Be realistic and practical in how often you will engage each practice and how long you will spend with that particular practice. My experience is that when people first attempt to write a rule, they often create an impossible ideal and proceed to not follow their rule.

    Depending on the types of practices you include you may have a very short rule or you may have many practices listed. Either is fine. 

    Once you feel the rule is set, make copies of it and keep it where you will see it often. My first rule was hidden inside a few cupboard doors, my Bible, and my car. We need these constant visual reminders to help us frame our days. 

    Decide how long you want to practice your rule before you come back to it for revisions. I would recommend that you work with your rule for a month and then give it a thorough revision, removing the lifeless practices and adding the disciplines that your soul longs for.  

    For a more detailed process for writing a rule I would recommend the ninth chapter of Jim Smith’s book, The Good and Beautiful Community. 


    It's Jesus Calling...

    I do not enjoy talking on the phone.  Often I avoid it.  Allowing calls to go to voice mail is a gift of technology.  I do not have to answer, I can review the message, and I can call at my convenience.  I own the phone.

    Those in the Benedictine tradition would challenge this.  John Ortberg brought this to my attention.  Just as Benedictines greet every guest as they would Christ, so too can one answer the phone as though it is Christ who is calling.

    With this at the forefront of my mind, I'll never answer the phone the same way again.

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