I won’t let up until you pay attention. You haven’t been very patient or understanding lately. Or loving. I know you’re irritated and weary. How do you think I feel?! I have to do life with you 24-7.
Could you please hit the pause button and let’s retreat?
This weekend, I had the opportunity to be a retreat speaker for a spiritual formation retreat hosted by North Coast Calvary Chapel’s Young Adult Ministries. I had a wonderful sharing and being with the retreatants. It was personally refreshing for me as I sensed God speaking to me and abiding with me. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity.
What follows are some notes and highlights of the retreat.
My task for the first session was to offer an introduction to what spiritual formation is, offer some information on spiritual development theory based on a few thinkers on the subject (Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard), and to share some practical ways that we can engage in some spiritual disciplines (means) as we aspire towards our longings.
Spiritual formation is the process of undergoing a revolution of the heart and character so that it reflects the life of Christ. To be spiritually formed into the image of Christ, we engage in practices/disciplines that foster attentiveness to God’s voice, His presence, and His guidance. Without such experiences, we become less of the True Self and function more out of a disordered self. Usually that disorderliness is filled with disconnectedness, waywardness, and self-destructive patterns.
Spiritual Formation includes the task of looking within: to reflect on our daily life, and to seek God and his active presence in our lives. We use questions of reflection such as:
- What’s happening within and how is God working within?
- What is he drawing my attention to?
- What movements, as we take a moment to listen, am I most present to?
- Am I present to joy, hope, love? Or might it be frustration, anger, or hopelessness? Is it a circumstance? Perhaps a relationship, work, or finding my place in this world? Or might I be avoiding looking within for fear of what I might find?
- Am I lonely? Insecure? Avoiding others? Or mixture of all of it?
The goal of spiritual formation is to reflect the character of Jesus, as we peal back the layers of the false self in order to see the True Self that God has blessed us with.
The process acknowledges that our lives have become unmanageable and that if we are to become who we truly long to be, we are to trust that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to our original design of goodness. In Christian language, we call the unmanageability “sin”. It feels like such a dirty word in our culture but it basically means that we are trying to manage our lives on our own terms.
I see spiritual formation as a means to engage the process of transformation in my character, vocation, purpose, and personality in this world. It is of upmost priority in my life, mostly because I’ve seen how I can ruin my state of being based on disordered desires and decisions that I make. I need transformation. I can be filled with anger, short-tempered, judgmental, impulsive, compulsive. I need a framework–a vision, intention, means–to engage with on a daily basis in order to keep accountable towards growth.
Dallas Willard’s VIM
During the session, I explained how Dallas Willard understood spiritual formation. He saw it as a revolution of character and heart. Using the acronym VIM (in latin, vim means vigor, energy, enthusiasm), he offers a developmental theory for transformation:
- Vision: rooted in goodness, truth, and beauty, we need a vision for what we long for in this world, who we long to be. All transformation starts with a longing that we envision. For those who struggle with alcohol, the vision is to abstain from alcohol in order to live a healthier life (emotional, relational, physical).
- Intention: a decision to lean into a way of being, a profession or vow. We must make a decision towards the vision and transformation. Sometimes we make that decision 50 times a day.
- Means: ways for us to see our vision and decision realized. It might help to identify roadblocks in our lives (i.e. I drink when I’m stressed). Some other means can include meditation on Christ’s Teachings, learning from others in the Christian Tradition (saints such as St. Francis, St. Ignatius), both to fill our minds and hearts with new possibilities of being.
VIM is a standard way of developing a framework for any form of change. It can be used for goal setting, employee development, character development, breaking unhealthy habits.
Henri Nouwen on Formation
Words and language are essential when undergoing transformation. How are we supposed to understand what is happening in our mind and heart if we don’t have the words to articulate the movements happening in us. Henri Nouwen understood that if we are going to undergo the inward journey towards the transformation of heart, it is vital to learn discernment and articulation.
Nouwen believed that:
“The key work here is articulation. People who can identify and articulate the movements of their inner lives, who can give names to their varied experiences, need no longer be victims of themselves but are able slowly and consistently to remove the obstacles that prevent the Spirit from entering. They can create space for the One whose heart is greater than theirs, whose eyes see more than theirs, and whose hands can heal and form more than theirs.”
Nouwen, Henri J. M.. Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit
I like Nouwen’s framework of formation using the concept of polarities as well to name the movements happening within.
It should be noted that authors start with longing. What is our deepest yearning desires in our hearts? For some, we long for direction, vocation, clarity. For others, we long for healing of past hurts, forgiveness, wholeness. The Bible is filled with passages that address our longings. One of my favorites is Proverbs 13:12,
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Nouwen encourages us to engage in a the daily spiritual disciplines of Lectio Divina and Silence and Solitude as prayerful means for transformation.
I offered the retreatants an overview of each discipline and then we had an hour to ourselves to engage in the practices.
*It is prayerfully reading the text to see how the Word is speaking to me in the present moment. It means that I read the text, and the text reads me. The Bible is not primarily for information, but for transformation. It is a way to read so that it names God’s active presence in our lives now!
My personal experience with the discipline has helped me to articulate what my longings are and how God is actively at present in my life.
Select a passage that is about 6-8 verses in length.
(silencio): silent, prayerful preparation as we come in touch with our desire to hear from God.
First Read: (lectio) Listen for a word, phrase, or image that captures your attention. Try not to overthink it. Just be attentive to it. It might be a word of comfort, discomfort, challenge, healing. Trust that the Word wants to impart His word to you. After the reading, we savor and reflect on this word in silence. This is a time to feel the word, not to judge it or try to give it meaning.
Second Read: (meditation) Read the passage a second time and reflect on how this word is touching your life. We might ask, “What is it in my current season of life that needed to hear this word today?” [NOTE: St. Ignatius encouraged imagination and wonder so if it was a parable or story, he would say to put yourself into the story. What is the setting? For example, in the story of Jesus birth, what did it smell like? What animals were there? What was the mood like? What character might you be in the story? What am experiencing? After we meditate, we sit in silence with this word again, trying not to overthink it.
Third Reading: (oratio) the movement to respond to the word. What is the invitation or challenge of the word? How might we respond to God’s invitation? Give full expression to the response. (NOTE: be present to whatever the response might be…fear, anger, hope, love, joy, self-awareness, wisdom). We center back into silence.
Contemplate on the word and rest in God’s presence and provision. Let this word nourish you throughout the day. Remember that God wants to enable and empower us to respond faithfully to His invitation.
Silence and Solitude
My personal experience silence and solitude has been a peaceful and restless relationship. The first season of practicing this discipline, I felt a sense of release, relief, and renewal. I felt more attentive to God, myself, and others. But it was also unsettling. I had nothing to “offer God”. I was “doing” anything for him. I was only offering my silence and presence. That seems to be more than enough. For ministry junkies or over-achievers, this practice seems to knock us off our throne. It reminds us that we’re not charge (Hallowed by Your name, Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be done).
“The longing for solitude is the longing for God. It is the longing to experience union with God unmediated by the ways we typically try to relate to God. By “unmediated” I mean a direct experience of God with nothing in between: an encounter with God that is not mediated by words, by theological constructs, by religious activity, by my own or other’s manipulations of my relationship with God. It is the practice that spiritual seekers down through the ages have used to experience intimacy with God rather than just talking about it.” – Ruth Haley Barton
One main scripture that captures silence and solitude is Mark 1:35, Mark 6:30 (Come away with me), and Psalm 46 (Be still and know).
- Find a comfortable place to quietly.
- Breath deeply, becoming aware of God’s presence (breathe), and your desire for communion with him.
- What thoughts, feelings, or life material do you notice? Don’t’ rush or try to make anything happen. Be still and know. Let your heart speak: is there joy, pain, hope, despair? What movements do you notice? A question? A desire? A loss?
- Remember that you are in God’s presence. Sit and stay with the most present movement you’re experiencing. Feel it. Be with it. What does it mean for you to be present to the movement and allowing God to sort it out, for him to do the work on your behalf?
Scriptures on spiritual formation
Acts 17:28 “For in Him we live and move and have our being.”
Mark 1:35-38 (inward) Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 (outward) Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
John 17:24,25 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you[e] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Colossians 1:24-29 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.