One Size Does Not Fit All – Teaching Spiritual Formation in the Midst of Diversity.

Overseas Minsitry Study Center New Haven CT

I am currently in New Haven Connecticut at the Overseas Ministry Study Center where I teach a course on spiritual renewal each year. This is one of the most enriching and challenging teaching situations I am ever involved in. My students come from across the globe. Methodist ministers from Myanmar and Korea sit together with Anglicans from Kenya and Ghana. Catholic sisters from the Philippines rub shoulders with Pentecostals from India and Brazil.

How do you teach in the midst of such diversity I am often asked? How do you help each student find renewal that suits their needs?

I must confess it can be a challenge. What one student finds refreshing another might find offensive. What is acceptable in one faith tradition is anathema to another. What renews and enriches my spiritual journey may do nothing for someone else.

I learn something new each year not just about how to renew faith in the midst of this kind of diversity, but about how to approach spiritual formation in any context. I thought that you might appreciate some of the insights I have learned.

1. Learning to see with fresh eyes and to hear with unstopped ears. Probably the most important skills we can teach people is the ability to look and listen, not telling them what to believe but opening their eyes and ears to perceive what God’s spirit wishes to communicate through their encounters, their activities and their interactions with God’s created world..

2. One size does not fit all. Whenever I see a piece of clothing that advertises “one size fits all” I know I am in trouble. It will definitely not fit me. Similarly with spiritual practices – one size does not fit all.

I often feel that my purpose in spiritual formation is to provide a rich smorgasbord of spiritual practices and ideas which participants can taste and experiment with. Many of the practices I talk about in my book Return to Our SensesLectio divina, vision divina, prayer walks, breathing prayers, exercises in gratitude and thankfulness, labyrinths and prayer flags are just a few of the tasty dishes that God gives us to choose from. Allowing people to choose what suits their palates without expecting them to eat everything on the table is a liberating and faith strengthening process for all of us.

3. The power of story. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer talks about using stories that encourage people to come at the truth slantwise. What he means is that we can use stories effectively to draw the truths that the Spirit of God is stirring within a person’s soul. We can use a person’s own story. We can also use as stories that sometimes seem on the surface to have no relationship to what we are discussing yet trigger thoughts and understandings in peoples’ minds.

Jesus used parables in this way. Often they had many possible interpretations, all of which could contain Godly truths and so might speak to people from a broad array of backgrounds. No wonder what Jesus said excited not just Jews but also Greeks, Romans and other nationalities.

4. Enabling people to ask the right questions. I once heard British theologian John Stott say The answers we get depend on the questions we ask. And it is true. New experiences, new encounters, new reflective exercises all raise new questions in our minds. Our purpose in spiritual formation is to give people the freedom to ask the right questions. Not so much why does God allow this to happen but rather what is God doing in the midst of this situation?

These are only a few of the tools that can assist any person’s spiritual journey. We are meant to lead gently from behind, encouraging the footsteps of our followers along the pathway God has chosen for them.

Infused with the Breath of God – Andy Wade

Today’s post in the series Return to Our Senses in Lent comes from Andy Wade, communications coordinator at Mustard Seed Associates. Andy also wears a number of other hats. He was recently awarded the “Inspired Service and Action Award” from Gorge Ecumenical Ministries for his work with the homeless in Hood River. His pastoral ministry amongst those at the margins inspires us to new levels commitment in our own lives.

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Peanuts circa 1954, Pig-Pen enters the comic strip in a cloud of dust. We don’t know his real name… “I haven’t got a name… people just call me things.” As the dust rises around him, Pig-Pen proudly announces he’s surrounded by the dust of ancient civilizations. He is as perceptive as he is dirty.

dustyLike Pig-Pen engulfed in a cloud of dust, I can’t seem to shake off the dust of Ash Wednesday. Enveloped in a cloud of dust, I’m forced to join him confessing, “You know what I am? I’m a dust magnet!”

Like the ancients, I am also surrounded by another cloud, a “great cloud of witnesses”. And like them, and like Pig-Pen’s seemingly ever-present dust-cloud, I must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

I am a “dust magnet”. I am, we are, Pig-Pen.

Surrounded by this amazing cloud of witnesses, witnesses who share in our humanity, our brokenness, “and the sin that clings so closely”, Pig-Pen reminds me how closely related to the earth we are.

…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:7-9

I’m etched into the story as I embrace the earth from which I’m formed. I am not God. And yet I’m fashioned in God’s image, the image of the Creator. These realities must be kept in tension. And it’s this tension that grounds us as we walk into the purposes of God. As Christine Sine reminds us, “it’s only in the place of deep contemplation that we often find the resources we need to really be activists.” So I embrace the dust that I am even as I breathe in the breath of God.

And what of this dust from which I am formed? Gazing into the beauty of creation, the imagination of God unleashed dazzles the senses. Yet like this Spirit-infused-dust, the God-painted creation is no longer what it was meant to be. We share the touch of God. We share also the brokenness brought on by humankind’s desire to usurp the place of God.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:19-23

It is out of these thoughts that this poem was born. It is also out of this contemplation that I wait, watch, anticipate the next steps in the unfolding imagination of God.

urn and ash

remember you are dust
and to dust you shall return
marked with ash of repentance
death
dust of mourning

confronted with our mortality
an urn filled with ash
poured out
scattered over water, earth

anointed
creation groans

expectantly waiting
painfully longing
for the full redemption
of this dust
infused with the breath of God

Are you ready for the Lenten discipline of celebrating those who have gone before by Tom Sine

Today’s post in the series Return to Our Senses in Lent comes from my husband Tom Sine, futurist, author and hospitality guy here at the Mustard Seed House.

“Ashes to ashes” are the words I heard again on Ash Wednesday last week as my pastor placed an ash cross on my forehead.  As I turn 77 this week I am much more aware of my mortality than I was a decade ago.

Christine Sine - Come to our SensesChristine led a very inspirational retreat called Return to Our Senses in Lent at our home a couple fo weeks ago with a few MSA friends.  It was during this session that I discovered a new way of reflecting on my own mortality… expressing my deep appreciation to God for family members, friends and mentors that have added so much to my life.

Those of us who knew Richard Twiss  were shocked by his unexpected death while attending the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC.  We pray for the huge loss Richard’s death will have particularly for his family.  Those of us who knew him are deeply grateful for his life of service to Christ and his strong prophetic voice to call us all out of the values of the dominant culture to embrace a more biblical faith.

I start every morning by inviting the great family beginning with Abraham and Sarah to join me in my prayers.  On Saturday at our Lenten Retreat I focused on my mortality by giving thanks for family, friends and mentors that have joined that great family.  I started by expressing my deep gratitude for my dear parents Tom whom I lost in 1990 and Katherine in 1995.  My hardest loss was my son Clint in 2006. But I still celebrate his good life and memories of camping at Baker Lake and touring the UK.

In the last 5 years I also lost two of my most significant mentors from my student days at Cascade College in the 50s…Grace and Lee Nash.  Grace helped a young man who had little prospect of succeeding in college get his life organized.  Lee was so affirming as I became an author and so gracious when I fell on my face.

Edward Lindeman came as President to Whitworth College in 1970 as I arrived in Seattle to start my doctorate at the University of Washington.  He was easily the most creative college educator I ever met.  He had headed the Apollo Space Craft Project and mentored me researching and writing about the future.

Frank Herbert author of the Dune series was the first professor in my doctoral program at the UW in 1971 in a course on Utopia and Dystopia.  We continued to be friends and he was a valued mentor in my life and writing after he and Beverly moved to Port Townsend to create what he called a high level of “techno-peasantry.”

Just a few weeks ago I joined hundreds of people in the most multi-cultural event I have ever attended in Seattle as we celebrated the life of Cal Uomoto.  I had known Cal since the early 70s .  I can’t remember having a friend that was a more self effacing servant of Jesus than Cal.  Over his lifetime thousands of refugees from all over the planet experienced his care and hospitality.

As you reflect on your own mortality during this season of Lent will you write and tell me some of those whose lives you are celebrating?

Noticing by Kathy Escobar

Today’s post in the Lenten series Return to Our Senses is written by Kathy Escobar, co-pastor at the refuge, an eclectic beautiful faith community in north denver. She juggles 5 kids & an awesome husband who has a bunch of jobs, too.

She’s an advocate for friends in hard places, a trained spiritual director (one who’s a little on the loud side) & loves to teach and facilitate events, workshops, and groups.  She writes a little, hangs out with people a lot, and teaches college classes online because missional living doesn’t pay the bills. This post was originally published on her blog as formation friday: noticing

formation-friday-noticing-225x300

twice a month at the refuge we have a gathering called “refuge advocates”, a time for learning, training, encouragement, and soul care for people who journey with people in hard places.  i love this group!  it is not just for refuge advocates but for friends from other churches & ministries, too, to come and have a space to process and learn together.  this past week we did a neighborhood prayer walk as part of lent & being more aware of what’s going on around us and inside of us at the same time.

oh, it was so pretty, what can happen with intentional quiet space and a little guidance.

it was also really hard, seeing what maybe we hadn’t seen before in new ways. the area where the refuge is located is in the suburbs but it is the ghetto of our town, on the other side of the railroad tracks, and the contrast between it and other parts of broomfield is really evident.

the exercise made me think of christine sine’s new book, return to our senses: reimagining how we pray.  i hope you’ll get a copy (i gave some as christmas presents this year. it is so good!) .it is centered on opening ourselves up to diverse and meaningful ways of connecting with God.  i love what she says in the book about prayer:

“Prayer is not about finding the right words to say to God, it is about becoming alive to the loving presence of God in each and every moment. It is about waking up to the fact that the love of God shines through every act, every object and every conversation. The speaking of words can become rote and repetitive, even boring at times, the developing of relationship requires flexibility, creativity and constant willingness to change and to grow. Anything that connects us to the love of God, or expresses our love for God is an act of prayer. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures can all be acts of prayer that draw us into deeper intimacy with God.”

i love this reminder that anything that connects us to the love of God, or expresses our love for God, is an act of prayer.

we started our walk with this prayer:

God, help us see.

help us feel.

help us taste.

help us smell.

help us hear.

help us listen.

help us understand.

help us love. 

for our walk, we used the beatitudes as a guide and had some reflection questions to consider (yep, i’m a broken record). each one had a personal reflection in addition to what we noticed in the neighborhood as we were walking.  i thought i’d share it here today for formation friday and for those of you who might want to try it, even if in the comfort of your own home, as a practice of “noticing” and tuning into our hearts and what we are wrestling with and also what’s around us in prayer.

blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ,for they will be filled.
blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 5:3-10

as you walk, notice:

spiritual poverty. practical poverty. // consider places where God’s presence is needed.

  • what are some ways we are spiritually poor?
  • what are some ways this neighborhood might be?

places of pain and grief. // consider what’s going on behind certain doors, up certain streets.

  • what are things we are grieving right now?
  • what are some things that people around here might have lost?
  • who is comforting them in their pain?

dry and hungry places. this can be practically or spiritually. 

  • what does it look like, feel like there?
  • what are we hungry and thirsty for right now?
  • what do you think others out here are hungry and thirsty for?

places that need healing, mercy. // imagine some of the things people around here struggle with: broken relationships, job loss, divorce, depression, shame, abuse, struggling kids, addiction, mental illness, chronic pain, physical illness, immigration.

  • what are some areas of your life that need God’s healing & mercy?
  • how do you think God’s mercy shows up here?

places of beauty. // notice God’s beauty.

  • where are you seeing it in your own life right now?
  • where do you see it today?

places in our heart that are hardened and judgmental. // notice our hearts as we are walking. 

  • what are our hearts hardened to right now? 
  • how are we judging others in our own life?
  • how are our hearts hardened to the needs around us or protected by our judgmentalness?

places in need of peace. // think of God’s shalom–wholeness.

  • how are you finding greater peace & wholeness in your life right now?
  • what would God’s shalom look like for this neighborhood?

places of persecution. // consider how people here are persecuted for all kinds of reasons. 

  • how do you maybe feel persecuted in your life right now?
  • what are some things people who live here might be persecuted for?
  • what would it look like to be persecuted on others behalf, for doing what’s right no matter the cost?

as you walk, keep asking yourself these three questions, courtesy of my dear & wise friend from mile high ministries, ryan taylor:

  • what’s the struggle?  
  • what’s the hope?  
  • what’s the invitation?

God, we don’t want to miss you.  we want to notice you in new ways, creative ways, beautiful ways, hard ways. may our hearts & eyes & ears & mouths & hands be open.  

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

group hug

Leading together

The following post is part of a series on Leading Spiritually. Check out the other posts in this series:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

How Are We Leading?

How do we become good leaders? Ruth Hayley Barton in her book Strengthening the Soul of a Leader affirms that a leadership team is at core a spiritual community gathered around the presence of Christ to discern and carry out God’s will for the community be that a church, a small group, or a ministry organization. She says:

Learning to come together and stay together in unity is our first and most enduring task as we pattern our relationships after Christ’s relationships with his disciples. “He loved his own to the end” (John 13:1; John 15 & 17). To compromise our community would be to compromise our essence and the we would not have much that is of value to offer to others. (p176)

What an incredibly powerful and challenging statement. The way to become a good leader is not to focus on our own spiritual growth or life skills but to enter into a journey with a community in which we all grow together into the people that God intends us to be. Obviously this does require strong commitment to growing our individual faith and seeing our individual lives transformed but it requires much more than that.

Ruth Barton goes on to share that a leadership community at its best is:

  • Finding ways to be open to the presence of Christ in our midst.
  • Attending to our relationships by listening to each other, caring for each other and praying for each other
  • Resting and retreating together not to move our business meetings to another location but so that we can pray together, listen to our journeys, eat together and enjoy each other.
  • Living within its limits. Knowing our strengths and weaknesses, knowing what God has called us to do and learning to say no to what is outside these limits is extremely important
  • Moving forward in in its work on the basis of discernment rather than human planning or strategic maneuvering. (p179 – 183).

These are all challenges that the MSA team has grappled with over the last few years as we have sort to become a community that discerns and carries out the will of God for both us as individuals and for Mustard Seed Associates as an organization. Some of that journey I have shared here on this blog as we have embraced the Quaker discernment process, learned the value of organic strategic planning organically and become more of an organization that Plans with Spiritual Formation at the Centre.

I must confess however that it is easy to allow my life and the life of the Mustard Seed team to stray from values. The busier we get, the less time we want to take for sharing ad caring. Busyness is not of the devil, busyness is the devil. As my husband Tom Sine commented in his book The New Conspirators this extremely high level of busyness results in God being marginalized in our lives and “Christians becoming even more vulnerable to adopting secular assumptions about how to live, which leads to more conformity to a culture of busyness, hurry, and overload. And then the cycle begins over again.”

Leading spiritually means slowing down in our individual and community lives. It means taking time for others and placing Christ at the centre.

How would it change your leadership style if these priorities were at the centre of your life and of the team you work with?  

Great Resources From Episcopal Relief and Development

Yesterday I met with Brian Sellers-Petersen, the Director of Church Engagement Programs at Episcopal Relief and Development.  He told me about some great resources for Spiritual formation that Episcopal Relief and Development has produced.  I was particularly impressed with the Abundant Life Garden Project curriculum  which can be downloaded free.  Perfect for a Vacation Bible School or children’s Spiritual formation class especially if you are hoping to get a church garden started.

Act Out: Empowering Kids to Heal a Hurting World also looks like a great resource for youth.  Last but not least there are resources for adults to learn more about the needs of our world and how we can help.  I am particularly passionate about provision of nets for those in malarial areas and was impressed with the NetsforLife® Adult Education Discussion Guide.

Living with Pain and the Messiness of Life

Yesterday I had a tooth extracted.  Pretty painless actually and the dental office did everything possible to make it even less painful.  I was offered general anaesthetic but opted for local – after all it was only a 20 minute procedure and generals can have complications.  That saved me $500.  I even refused the laughing gas – again it didn’t seem worth it just so that I could forget about the discomfort of having local injected.  I did take the vicadon I was given afterwards but then wished I hadn’t when the rest of the day receded into a fog.

Last night Tom was reading The Economist, becoming more and more depressed as he read about the impact of climate change and the devastation of deforestation.  A place to mourn and a place that it is easy to become overwhelmed.

Then I came across this great article on Claudio Oliver’s blog

Even without knowing why, a huge number of people around the world, especially youth, feel the inclination and desire to reclaim basic human activities like cooking, sewing, walking, biking, educating children, planting and building. Like an uncontrollable urge, – and even though the masses has been pasteurized toward dehumanization and simple activities of consumption – it has become common to see people trying to make bread, cycling and planting something in their gardens. A distant memory, a kind of dull ache is calling, and many are seeking and finding here and there – in books, free courses, in informal conversations – a way to redeem their humanity.  Read the entire post

So what is the connection between these stories.  Well for me they raised the question: Why do we want life to be painless, and convenient even when it costs us money, time and sometimes even our humanity and the health of our planet?

Part of the reason is that we have bought into a life that has very little to do with reality and even less to do with the life that God intends for us.  Our focus is on creating a comfortable place for ourselves and not on creating a place of comfort and abundance for all God’s creatures.

I am still reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Educating for Shalom. This is not a book that you can read quickly and then discard.  And today I came across a section that helped put all of this in perspective for me.  Wolterstorff talks about the fact that in order to move towards the ideal shalom community there are four ways basic places in which we need to engage:

  1. We are called to engage in the endeavor and struggle to bring shalom – modelling it where possible and being instruments of shalom where we see it lacking.  In words we are called to both act justly ourselves and work against injustice.
  2. We are called to pray for shalom recognizing that God’s reign of peace and justice is in many ways in God’s hands not ours.
  3. We are invited to savour, to enjoy, and to celebrate shalom wherever we see it breaking into our world.
  4. We are invited to mourn the shortfalls of shalom in our world.

When I disconnect from own pain and of the pain others suffer, when I live a life of convenience and comfort rather than engaging in the creative productivity God intends me to, I am disconnecting from God’s dream for shalom. My own pain makes me aware that others suffer far more than I will ever suffer.  And becoming aware of the growing movement towards making rather than consuming gives me hope.  Making something – a meal, a garden, a new sweater – are all ways to express the God given creativity that is central to who God has made us to be.  And it excites me because I see that God is very definitely at work transforming and renewing, giving us glimpses of that incredible shalom world we all long for.

Preparing to Paint – God is at Work

We are getting ready to paint our kitchen and breakfast nook.  I am quite excited about this as we are going to redesign the breakfast nook as my office – a long overdue change as at the present time I work at our dining room table and constantly need to move everything every time we entertain.

What has amazed me is the amount preparation that needs to be done before we paint.  First the walls and cupboards needed to be washed down to remove the dirt and grease of 10 years of cooking.  Then the cupboards needed to be sanded.  And finally we need to tape the wooden trim on the cupboards so that it doesn’t get paint on it.

What I realize is that the preparation work is far more time consuming and important in some ways than the painting itself.  And of course if we don’t do a good job of preparation then the paint won’t stick and we will need to do it all again – with better preparation next time.

As you can imagine, watching this has made me think a lot about the way that God works in our lives.  Preparation is so important to our spiritual development.  It would be very easy to just apply a fresh coat of paint over the top of the dirt and grime of past sins and hurts, but it doesn’t stick.  Sooner or later the veneer of clean and seemingly healthy living peels off and the sin and pain underneath is exposed and we need to start from the beginning cleaning, scraping and preparing our lives so that God can come in and “paint” us with a good clean veneer of paint – one that will stick this time.

I think that part of the reason this has struck me so profoundly is because I have watched as the veneer of seemingly clean and healthy living that so many Christians assume, chips and flakes off because they have not been willing to prepare their lives adequately.  And often it is not their fault.  Those with natural leadership gifts in particular are often pushed into positions of responsibility long before they are ready for them.  They may have good practical skills but the spiritual foundations necessary to handle their positions like mature Christian leaders would, are definite lacking.

I am reminded again of Keith Meyer’s assertion in Whole Life Transformation that we need to make spiritual formation the center and focus of church life.

Becoming a church focused on spiritual formation involves centering everything – our individual an corporate lives, our teaching and preaching, our children’s programming, even the songs we sing- on the kingdom…. Transformation begins in our lives, our relationships with each other and our families.  When we enter into whole life transformation, at first nothing in the church changes except for us.  We begin by understanding and living the gospel.  (p125)

Preparing to paint is a little like focusing our lives and our ministries on spiritual formation and the need for transformation in all of life, rather than on big programmes and growing numbers in church.  It is spiritual formation, working deep within our lives that transforms our inner being into Chrisklikeness and our daily practices into kingdom living.  And that not surprisingly reminds me of Romans 12: 1,2

And so dear brothers and sisters, I pleas with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you.  Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable.  This is truly the way to worship him.  Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Whole Life Transformation

I have just finished reading Keith Meyer’s Whole Life Transformation:Becoming the Change Your Church Needs. It is not often that I read a book about the purpose of church life and ministry that impresses me more – partly I am sure because what Keith has to say resonates very deeply with what Tom and I believe in – the fact that the gospel message is not about some spiritual decision we make in our hearts but rather about the transformation of our lives.

Keith takes to task, in a very gentle way, churches that are more concerned about quantitative than qualitative growth.  He is a strong advocate for spiritual formation being at the heart of a church not just another programme the church is involved in.

We cannot put transformation in only one part of a person’s life or activities.  Ir must be the heart and interior life force that drives everything in a person’s life.  This is what it means when Jesus says that we must lose our present life for a new one.

The same goes for the church.  A church centered on the formation of disciples will need to lose its current corporate life for kingdom life.  And it starts with those in charge, the senior pastor, the  leadership teams and then those in every part of the church.  But the key is that it takes hold in how our people, from adults to infants, are trained in formal and informal curricula for Christlikeness in their everyday world.  (83)

This is a very practical book with lots of suggestions of how to help move your own life and that of your church from from a programme to a disciple making approach.  I particularly loved the emphasis on spiritual formation at the centre and the need for a church leadership to develop a corporate rule of life to govern their interactions.  Keith gives a challenging and convicting example of what this can look like in his chapter on Ruling in Kingdom Life.  In summary:

  1. Living in Jesus
  2. Living in transformation
  3. Living in community
  4. Living in mission
  5. Living in reconciliation
  6. Living in good speech
  7. Living in submission to one another

I would heartily recommend this book not just to those in church leadership but to anyone who is wants practical help in seeing their lives transformed to become more Christlike.