A Reflection on the Desiring the Kingdom Conference

tyndale chapelWhen I was in seminary, my professor had us read James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of our course on Spiritual Formation. This book, as I have posted previously, would have a profound influence not only on my personal faith journey but also on my hesitant and wobbly first steps into college teaching. But just because I found it incredibly insightful (or may I say “thick”?), many of the students struggled with the book, and asked questions like:

 

 

Why read this?

Is this just an attempt to convert us to Anglicanism?

Why isn’t it more practical?

What is the relevance of endless conversations about liturgy for low-church evangelicals?

What does this have to do with the nuts and bolts of life in the trenches of every day pastoral ministry?

conference programThis week I have been privileged to sit in a three-day conference devoted to exploring the practical outworking, as we considered the question: what does this discussion of thick practices, secular vs. cultural liturgies, and humans being primarily creatures of worship and creatures of desire, mean for Christian formation in our churches?

Together with people from a variety of academic, pastoral and lay backgrounds, we gathered at Tyndale University College for the Desiring the Kingdom conference. James K.A. Smith led us through a variety of plenary sessions where he explained his premise in non-academic, accessible language. And we had a variety of breakout workshops that attempted to look at the practical implications and methods of incorporating these ideas about human flourishing and formation into the various ministries.

We have people working with children’s ministry; youth ministry; catechesis; seniors’ ministry; worship; and intercessory ministries.

We had lifelong Anglicans who are asking what role does the Book of Common Prayer have in the 21st century, especially in reaching disenfranchised cradle Anglicans who have walked away from the church and want nothing to do with what they perceive to be “lifeless, repetitive, empty and rote” liturgy.

We had evangelicals, both on and off the Canterbury trail, who are drawn to the richness of liturgy but who are unsure how to incorporate it and/or prevent it from becoming “lifeless, repetitive, empty and rote.”

We had teachers and pastors who are trying to figure out how to teach the faith to unchurched or dechurched people (and let’s face it, even most of the Christians in our pews are more like dechurched people given how little Scripture and theology they know).

We had people from dioceses where there hasn’t been active, intentional children’s ministry in their churches for years and now they are ill-equipped to teach children the Gospel.

We had people who are raising children and have thought that it was primarily the church’s job to teach their kids about Christianity, and have no resources for beginning to incorporate formation and teaching in their homes.

And I’m participating as both a PhD student, with an eye to how this applies to an educational context, and as a layperson (training to become a licensed lay reader), wanting to serve my church in the areas of catechesis and worship.

The message, the examples, and the strategies that have been offered in this gathering of Christians boil down to this: Christianity has something to offer to a broken and hurting world. It may not be flashy. It may not be “relevant” in the way that culture shallowly defines it. It may not be pretty. It may not be easy. But, the practices of Christian formation, of gospeling, of praying, of gathering as a community to worship, of practicing hospitality, of reading Scripture, of discipleship and teaching, offer a vision of the world and of humanity that the world is desperately seeking.

And, there are people, brothers and sisters in Christ, who are willing to serve, to minister, and to lean into these thick practices so as to participate with the Holy Spirit in pulling back the curtain and allowing the world to glimpse the amazing event of God revealed in Christ.

If you’d like to a peek at some of the discussions, check out #DesKingdomConf.

 

 

 

The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Formation

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Jesus Christ was a man of the Spirit.” ~Clark Pinnock

We see the Spirit at work in Jesus’ life right from the beginning, “While Mary was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18).

We see the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, marking the beginning of his earthly ministry (Matt 3:16). Immediately, after His baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit to the wilderness where he will face temptations from the Devil. Luke records that Jesus returned from the desert in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14), and upon going into the Temple, Jesus reads the words of the prophet Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and Jesus’ ministry includes mighty works through the power of the Spirit (e.g., Matthew 12:28).

While there is no direct reference to the Spirit at the Transfiguration, Eastern Orthodox theology suggests that the cloud that enveloped Jesus and his disciples on the mountain was the Spirit.

The Gospels make no mention of the Spirit at the crucifixion of Jesus, but the author of Hebrews says “by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins” (Hebrews 9:14).

Likewise, Paul sees the Spirit at work in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 1:4; 8:11), and the ascension of Christ is followed ten days later by a massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

If the goal of spiritual formation is to shape us in the image of Christ, then it would follow that we should look to Jesus for an example of a Spirit-filled life. And yet, as I map out a theology of spiritual formation, I am struck by the tendency to downplay the role of the Spirit in the Christian disciplines, even though Jesus’ life and work was and is so intricately connected with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Thus it is vital that any theology of the Christian life takes into account the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the process of spiritual formation.

That being said, there is still a distinction to be made: Jesus is the Messiah and we are not. Therefore, while Jesus’ life is paradigmatic for us, it is also something completely other. The Holy Spirit, working in our lives, helps us to become Christ-like but in no way will the empowering of the Spirit make us Messiah.

The Holy Spirit works in and through our spiritual disciplines, illuminating them. And so, even when it feels like our practices of prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, etc… are a chore, we should remember that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through those practices, sanctifying us so that we may be united with Christ.

JI Packer says it best: “The way to benefit from the Spirit’s ministry of illumination is by serious Bible study, serious prayer, and serious response in obedience to the truths that we have been shown already.”

What is Your Rule of Life?

We all have one. Even if we don’t call it a “rule” we all have an ethos and a pattern that shapes our day. Now of course there are formal “rules” like Benedict’s rule for his monastic order, click which had specific rules and expectations for its members, cialis and while these rules may seem legalistic and harsh (e.g., at least two references to the use and benefit of corporal punishment), they are not designed to be punitive, but are instead meant to be tools to assist the community to conform and be transformed to Christ’s image.

It’s our pattern or structure to how we live life. It is our boundaries for what we do and don’t do, and sometimes even includes measures for if we fail to do what we should. It can include practical things like, when do you read Scripture or do devotions? Do you do it in the morning or in the evening? Do you follow a specific “how to read the Bible in a year” program? Do you follow the Daily Office? When and how do you pray? Do you pray in the morning before you start your day? Do you go somewhere specific to pray or do you pray as you go about doing the dishes? What activities do you do in the life of the church? Do you attend a bible study or a small group? Do you gather with others to intercede for the people in your church? Do you regularly go to church? How do you participate in the corporate worship? How do you participate in the Great Commission of Christ? Do you engage in evangelism, support missionaries or go on mission trips? Do you regularly tithe? Do you practice fasting and how often?

The purpose in specifically thinking about our rule of life is to not only identify gaps but also to consider how what we do (or don’t do) shapes what our beliefs, our character and our identity as disciples of Jesus. It’s not about being legalistic, as if doing these works will save us or justify us before God. Instead, doing these patterns or rhythms are a way to respond to the saving work of Christ, to participate in the work and task He has called us to, and to testify to the power of the Holy Spirit who works in and through our lives.

Now saying all of that, I need to be honest. I wish I could say that I currently have a rule of life. But this semester is one in which I am operating in survival-mode only. My only rule at the moment is to survive until Christmas and to go to church every Sunday. But I know that this semester is only a season. In fact, up until this year I had a rule of life (even though it wasn’t called that), or a structure and rhythm to my spiritual growth. It will need to be tweaked as I enter the new year and a new season. It will not be survival-mode, because I know that I need and thrive under structure rather than chaos.

As I try to articulate my rule of life for the new year, the question that needs to be answered is, “how will I balance family, school, life, my family’s walk with God, and my own personal walk with God?”

Currently, at the dinner table, we adapt the BAS Evening Prayer to create a time of family devotion. The rhythm of that mirrors the rhythm of Sunday worship, and it has helped my three-year old to understand what happens at church. Every evening as we sing the Lord’s Prayer, the three-year old announces, “I sing that song at ‘talk to Jesus!” Come the new year, I would like to begin to incorporate the BAS morning prayer into my routine as a way to start my day. It will probably only be on days that I’m working in the library, and I hope to make it the first thing I do before I turn on my laptop and begin answering emails or working on schoolwork. One of the things that I am missing and need to find a way to better incorporate into a rule of life, is finding a way to carve out space to listen to and to sing worship music. Before moving to Saskatchewan I used to sit at the piano and play through worship songs for about half an hour every day (part of this was because I had been serving as a worship pastor). Since moving here I haven’t touched my piano except to dust it (and even that doesn’t happen as often as it should). That emotional-expressive component of my spiritual life has taken a back seat to the more cognitive, word/study based component of my spiritual life.

As for church life, I am and hope to continue to be active in the ministry role of “crucifer/server.” As well, I will continue to be on the list of “readers” who read the appointed Scripture passages as assigned. At the moment, those two activities keep me busy enough in the life of St. Aidan. One of the things that is profoundly shaping my spiritual development is the fact that we take communion weekly at St. Aidan. I still haven’t been able to find the words to articulate how exactly it is shaping me, but the rhythm of gathering with my family at the front and taking communion together has become important. So much so, that in the brief times when communion is not served (e.g., when we celebrate Morning Prayer instead of Eucharist), my soul feels hungry and even a little bit restless.

In my time at seminary, there have been three components that have been vital to my spiritual development. First, taking classes in a modular format is a great way for me to devote significant time in a focused way to learning about Jesus. There is something powerful about sitting in a classroom with others who are just as eager to learn. The bonds that develop in the intensity of a week-long class help to profoundly shape not only my “cognitive” knowledge of Christ, but also my “experiential” knowledge of Christ. Second, one of the first opportunities I had to plug into life in Caronport was joining the Karl Barth reading group. This group of students, pastors and laypeople meets Friday mornings to discuss short passages of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It is also a time for prayer and a brief reflection on Scripture. While I have had to step away from this group this semester, my plan is to resume participation in January when my schedule becomes a little more flexible. Third, the St. Aidan cohort at Briercrest has been an amazing blessing. The mini-community of Anglicans at Briercrest is in some ways almost a small group or cell group. The ability to meet for coffee with one or more St. Aidanite, or even just to encourage one another in passing has been a source of grace.

While not directly related to spiritual growth, one of the things that I have been working on this semester, and hopefully will continue through the year is carving out specific time for my husband and I to have “us” time. This may mean going on a date, or just hanging out, but it is regular, weekly time for us to spend time together without the distractions of the kids or work or school. Thankfully, college students are able to fulfill their service learning requirements by doing free babysitting, and we have begun to take advantage of that by having regular Tuesday night dates. It is a time not only for us to rest, but also for us to edify and encourage each other in our vocational calls, and to even sometimes dream together about our future hopes and plans. (Or, to not do any of that but instead to just focus on how to slaughter the other person in a cut-throat game of Settlers of Catan!)

Some Thoughts on Spiritual Formation

 Spiritual formation is more than just formation of the soul or spiriti; it is the formation of the whole person. It is not just about shaping what we believe, stuff or how we think. While it most certainly includes these, spiritual formation shapes the actions, posture and whole being of a Christian so that her life and entire being become molded in the image of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, spiritual formation means that Christians are going to look and act differently than the world around them. In the words of St. Benedict, “Your way acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.” After having taken a class on Spiritual Formation, I want to suggest four common themes that are foundational to a spirit-formed life.

Community:

While there is indeed a place and a need for individual reflection, spiritual formation is cultivated in and through the community of believers. It is in living this “life together”(Dietrich Bonhoeffer) that our attitudes and postures are shaped and conformed to the image of Christ. The community is built on the person and work of Christ. This means that true community is found only in and through Christ. In each culture and age, the community may take on specific traits and rules that guide the mission and structure of the community. Thus, Benedict’s monastic order had specific rules and expectations for its members, and while they may seem legalistic and harsh (e.g., at least two references to the use and benefit of corporal punishment) they are not designed to be punitive, but are instead meant to be tools to assist the community to conform and be transformed to Christ’s image. Indeed, whether it be St. Benedict’s monastic order, Bonhoeffer’s enclave of seminarians, or James K.A. Smith’s vision of Christian higher education, the role of community is one that embodies the Great Commandment: to love God and to love each other. This ethos that is shared and encouraged shapes not only the community but also each individual within the community. Community is where spiritual formation takes place.

Confession:

In the introduction to Augustine’s Confessions, translator Maria Boulding notes that confession has three levels: there is the confession of sin, which is most prominent, the confession of God’s glory, and the confession that it is God who enables us to make confession in the first place. Augustine’s entire life is a confession to God, and an act of testifying to the goodness and rightness of God’s justice and mercy, both in his sinful life before his conversion, and in his life after conversion. Augustine’s confession exposes the reality of his sinfulness: “To you, then, Lord, I lie exposed, exactly as I am…My confession to you is not made with words of tongue and voice, but with the words of my soul and the clamor of my thought.”

This practice of confession may have fallen out of favour with Protestants in light of Catholic misuse and abuse, but Bonhoeffer and his seminary students, who were Lutheran, adopted a form of confession as part of their spiritual formation. Bonhoeffer writes that the act of confessions leads to four breakthroughs: a breakthrough to community, a breakthrough to the cross, a breakthrough to new life, and a breakthrough to assurance. Confession of sin includes confession of both personal and corporate sins, and the act of confession is profoundly counter-cultural, particularly in the modern, secular world that encourages the deflection and/or minimization of guilt (see Smith, 177-181). James K.A. Smith highlights the role of confession in the liturgy of the Church, specifically pointing to the prayer of confession in the Anglican tradition, noting that in the act of confession, “we are honest with God about our transgressions and agree with God that they are violations of his law.” The act of confession is not just words, it is also a posture and a way of life.

Contemplation:

The act of meditating, praying through, and reflecting on Scripture is foundational to the life devoted to spiritual formation. As part of his confession, Augustine contemplates the mighty works of God in heaven and earth. Benedict devotes a significant portion of his rule to the structure and space for the study of the Word, as he outlines the practice of the daily office, and morning and evening prayer. Bonhoeffer emphasized the practice of meditation, which appears to have caused discomfort for several of the seminarians. N.T. Wright notes that reading and meditating on Scripture is habit-forming in that “the more you do it the more it will form the habits of mind and heart, of soul and body, which will slowly but surely form your character into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”

Included under the heading of contemplation is also the practice of worship, though in actuality, worship could and should properly be discussed under each element of spiritual formation, as it is done in the context of community (see Wright and Benedict), is at the heart of the act of confession (Augustine), is structured by the story of Scripture (Smith) and assists in the cultivation of virtue (Wright). An entire paper could just be written on the function of worship in spiritual formation, but suffice to say, worship is an embodied act that points to the fact that what we love is what we worship.

Cultivation of the Virtues:

As N.T. Wright notes, the Christian life does not stop once we have prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer”, given our life to Jesus, been baptized or any other rite of initiation into the life of Christianity. The over-emphasis on conversion means that Christianity can (and has) been reduced to act of intellectual consent, with little thought to the embodied reality not only of human existence, but also of the life of Christian discipleship. The cultivation of the virtues is the practical outworking of the doctrine of sanctification. It is a life-long process in which the Christian actively participates in the ongoing work of God in their life, the life of the Church, and in the world. The cultivation of the virtues is the formation of habits, so that the practice of a specific virtue becomes “second nature”, wherein the Christian does not have to consciously think about how and why he has to act, but does it automatically.[Footnote] While the list of Christian virtues may vary by theologian or tradition, the three core virtues that form the Christian life are faith, hope, and love.

 

Experiencing Rest


There’s an episode in the first season of Farscape where the crew ends up on a planet where the entire population does nothing but harvest magic turnips. They arrive just in time for the work day to be over, cialis and the citizens are partying hard because tomorrow is Rest Day. And yet, the next morning, they all get up, and go back out to harvest those magic turnips. Rest Day will happen tomorrow, they say, so we need to work really hard today.

On and on it goes, and they never actually have Rest Day. Instead the magic turnips that they harvest have a mind-control effect that makes them super compliant to their supervisors. The promise of Rest Day becomes a figment, nothing more than a method of control.

Life can often times feel like that. Tomorrow is Rest Day, and then when it comes it turns out that it gets filled up with busyness and stress and work. Rest Day becomes elusive, a faint promise of something you might maybe get to enjoy in the future.

When I was in pastoral ministry, this was a reality. While parishoners (ideally) get Sunday as a Rest Day, for the pastoral staff it is often the busiest and most stressful day. And for those of us who do pastoral ministry bivocationally, Monday doesn’t become our Rest Day in replace of Sunday because Monday usually means it’s time to do the other job, the one that pays the bills.

And now, in my year of chaos (eight seminary classes from January to December; two little cheese-wearers), it becomes even more magnified. Rest has become nothing more than replacing one busy schedule with another. When I’m not doing school work I’m a full-time momma. When I’m not at home with the little cheese-wearers then I’m doing school work. And then I collapse on the couch in the evening and watch an episode (or four) of Doctor Who. But this collapsing isn’t rest either. Not true rest. Because even though I’ve stopped doing school work, and the little cheese-wearers are in bed, I’m still thinking about all that still has to be done.

It’s wearying and it takes its toll. That twelve page paper that needs to be done? Meh, I don’t care. That ever-growing pile of laundry? Meh, time to buy new clothes. But the worst is the grumpiness that sets in.

So how does a busy person cultivate rest? The first observation would be take a vacation, but even our vacations are busy. Our “vacation” in the spring was a trip of necessity to the US consulate with a day tacked on to play tourist.

Even our honeymoon six and a half years ago was busy-busy. We went to Disneyworld and walked and walked and tried to cram in as much as possible. (We have said that when we go back for our tenth anniversary, we’ll go for ten days, and alternate between going to the parks and sitting by the pool).

Something has to give. And so, we took the little bit of money that we had saved up and went away. I finished my papers that are due this Friday, we found a babysitter and we left.

No kids.

No schoolwork.

We stayed at a hotel with a pool.

We ordered pizza that was delivered to our hotel room which meant we got to eat supper in our jammies.

We watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Big Bang Theory while sitting in the jacuzzi tub.

Even though we woke up at 7am (so much for sleeping in), we didn’t actually get out of bed until 9:30.

We read the free newspaper that was under our door, and talked about current events. Chuck tried once again to explain the American political system to me, and I tried to figure out why a CANADIAN newspaper had more American stories than Canadian stories on its cover.

We experienced rest. Real rest. The tension and the stress and the craziness melted away. Why didn’t we do this sooner? Why did we keep saying we were too busy for this?

We all have busy seasons, and this year is a busy season for me. There is a benefit to the busy because it means I’ll be done my degree sooner. But even in the midst of the busyness there needs to be space for rest.

I’m finished my classes at Christmas. I’ve decided to take the entire month of January off. No school work. No prepping for my thesis. Of course, I can’t really take a month of from my momma “job” but it should be a step in the right direction. It should give me time to do some creative writing or some fun reading, or not.

No deadlines.

No oughts, shoulds or musts.

This realization about the importance of rest comes at a good time. I’m gearing up to take Spiritual Formation in three weeks. This crazy life is inspiring me to think about what a theology of rest looks like, and I might even be able to do my paper for that class on it.

So I pose this question to my blog readers: what books would you recommend I add to my reading list on the theology of rest?