Thursday, February 26, 2009

Persecution Can Be a Blessing

An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Lord, I was struck yesterday, Ash Wednesday, by my encounter with the very first "station of the cross" on the prayer trail. Jesus was condemned and persecuted.

I may not show it on the outside, Lord, but you and I both know that I let persecution eat away at me on the inside. Somebody gripes or complains. They don't like something I've done. Maybe it's perceived persecution, having more to do with my defensiveness than the conflict or natural disagreement. Or maybe it's real.

Recently, I gently (and, I thought, lovingly) let a friend from my past know I was uncomfortable with something he posted on the internet which felt to me like a racial slur. Yet I was, as they say, "flamed". He insulted me, saying he used to hold me on a pedastal but would never respect me again, that "others were right about me," that I was judgmental and always thought my way was the only right way. It stung. I don't know what might be going on in his heart these days that might have led him to take my concern that way, or why he crossed the line from disagreement to insult.

But standing at the first of fourteen stations yesterday, observing the persecution of Christ, reminded me that persecution can be a gift. Jesus did say "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad ..."

Perhaps I was wrong to share my concern with him if it was not welcome. Maybe it was wrong to assume that if he posted something jazzy on the internet that he was open to comments and conversation. Maybe this was not persecution, really, but rather an opportunity for me to learn.

When humans experience persecution, either perceived or real, it is our way of getting in touch with the wounds of Christ. If I am not rooted in God, I will be drawn into the foxhole to fight and then we all lose. If, however, I am focused on Christ, abiding in my true vine, I approach life with humility and grace. Jesus did.

Oh Lord Jesus, you were defiled, misunderstood, rejected by those whose identity was threatened, and abused. If I think about it, all the anger and latent hostility they had toward the Romans for their occupation was taken out on you. It has never occured to me before now, but their focus on what they expected in a Messiah (and their offense at your claim to that role) was all about this hotbed of hatred and sense of being victimized, this primordial urge to be vindicated. So ... it was not "about you" but about them.

Yet Jesus, you saw a bigger picture. You knew that being grounded was more important than being vindicated. The prayer at the first station I saw on the trail yesterday morning is my prayer:

May we feel no bitter hatred
When we too are persecuted,
Left alone to walk with YOU.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

What is Spiritual Formation?

One of my deepest passions is spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is a whole world of study in Christian spirituality and experiential learning founded on a fundamental assumption: We are on a journey of being changed through the joyful gifts of the spiritual disciplines. This spirituality is taught to us by generations of those who have gone before us. My love for spiritual formation springs from my longing to be more whole in Christ and more rooted in God.

My scholarly friend Bob Mulholland defined spiritual formation as “the process of being conformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.” His definition illuminates four aspects of spiritual formation:

1) “The process …” Spiritual formation is a lifelong journey, not an accomplishment or achievement earned. It is not limited to Bible study and worship. Responding to the Holy Spirit’s nudging, Christians are called to an intentional journey of infinite discovery.

2) “… of being conformed …” The spiritual disciplines are means of grace God gives us in order to continually transform us. Christianity is not just about what we believe or what we do. It is about allowing God to craft us into people of the fruit of the Spirit.

3) “… into the image of Christ …” The journey leads toward the self-giving love, the compassion and passion, and the character of Christ Jesus our Lord. We are called not only to draw close to Christ but to become more and more like Christ.

4) “… for the sake of others.” The point of spiritual formation is to become more of a servant who joyfully takes up the towel for others.

Lent begins in a few days. Perhaps during the season of Lent your heart might become inflamed with a passion for drawing closer to God and being made whole in Christ. I invite you to the world of spiritual formation.

To find out more, check out this website: www.theooze.com/faith/spiritualformation.cfm

Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Personal Journey with Spiritual Formation

Spiritual Formation is “The process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” (Bob Mulholland)

Why do I feel led to Spiritual Formation studies?

It would be much easier to answer the question of what might not attract me to them. Spiritual formation experiences have, in God’s time, opened themselves to me as God’s response to the deep, inner yearnings of my heart.

Having become an experiential student of Benedictine spirituality, I am attracted to immersing myself in the structure, authority, and depth of our great spiritual traditions. I find myself drawing from the strength of the saints, particularly the holy writings of mystics as well as fresh experiences with God’s Word through the practice of ancient disciplines such as lectio divina. It enlivens the mystic within me.

It is difficult to articulate my attraction to Spiritual Formation without sharing some deeply personal aspects of my journey. I have always had a yearning in my heart for a mystical experience of God. I often say I had the calling of Samuel, for I grew up in the “temple” of the church under the nurture of my family and my father’s pastoral ministry. Like Samuel, I came to notice that God had been speaking. At the age of ten, I stood before the youth group at a retreat at my father’s church and proclaimed that Jesus was no longer just a storybook character, but had become real.

Soon after that, I became more and more involved in the Body of Christ and developed a passion to serve. I spent years going to summer camps, serving as president of my youth group, developing a love for sacred music, and doing music evangelism at churches and youth groups with a dear friend. During college, I spent years studying sacred music, sociology, and religion, serving on “Nina’s Team” for conference youth camps, working as a chapel assistant and musician, and serving as a youth and music director at a local church. During seminary, I embraced the academic nature of the spiritual life, served as assistant director of the seminary choir, began serving ministries and appointments, fell in love, and started a family. After a few years, I became the founding pastor of a new church.

The Dark Night of the Soul

I was appointed as a missionary to begin a new church at the young age of 30. I loved these years and enjoyed giving birth to a wonderful church. But I can also say that much of the spiritual struggle that lead me to my passion for spiritual formation occurred during these years of ministry. Starting a new church was intense. The joys were intense, and the fun was intense! Yes, the challenges were intense. The greatest challenges were not “on the surface”, but were the battles within me - the interior struggles of my heart. I began to depend on prayer and the spiritual counsel of my loving wife, close friends, and prayer partners for survival, not just for enrichment. I found myself lacking in spiritual reserves as I coached and encouraged this new congregation into existence.

These struggles came to a head when the new church went through a difficult time soon after chartering. A group of families in the church began to try and guide the body in a direction that I was uncomfortable with, but I did not really understand why I was uncomfortable with it. As I became clearer about the graceful freedoms and the healthy boundaries of Wesleyan spirituality, the persons involved seemed to grow more aggressive and even abusive toward me and others in the congregation. I strove with all my ability to stay connected with them through the difficulty, but experienced only deeper brokenness.

I realize that even though I felt accosted in many ways, the root of my struggle was deep within me. I discovered that my own lack of clarity had contributed to the experience. With a strength that can only come from God, I stood squarely on behalf of the future of the church and for the protection of the spiritual lives of its members. In time, two staff members and several other families left the church and dispersed to churches of more Pentecostal approaches. It was a hard experience for the new church, but it was suffering for the cause of Christ. It bound the congregation together emotionally and spiritually in miraculous ways. It was a matter of spiritual formation for all of us. The church is now an amazing, thriving congregation whose issues from those early years were dissipated. I can see in retrospect that leading the church through this experience became very positive to the identity of the church. In part this is because suffering produces endurance, and endurance character. In part this is because it was the moment when the became, well, Methodist. After this, I stayed at the church for another 6 or 7 years and enjoyed it immensely. I have since moved into new ministries which I love as well.

In the midst of this dark night of the soul, God was clearly at work and poured out numerous assurances on me. But while I functioned well as pastor, at the same time I was left broken and depressed. In part, this is because it was the first time in my ministry that I had experienced what I perceived of as failure. For a time, I blamed myself for the whole situation.

The Mystic Within Me

I was able to get the help I needed, and by grace my health was restored. During this “walk through the valley of the shadow of death”, God opened a whole new world of spiritual discovery to me. I began to search my roots, recalling family stories of saints and circuit riders in my ancestry. I remember standing before the graves of my great, great, great grandfather and uncle at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church, which my grandfather later served. It dawned on me that I was not the first church planter in my family. My ancestors had started churches during some very difficult times in Alabama history, yet had depended on Wesleyan spirituality to carry them through. One of the grave markers reads “… embraced religion at 21 years of age, soon thereafter commenced to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, and continued to do so until his decease …” I felt the nudge of the Spirit say to me, “if they could do that, you can do this!” Realizing my place in the larger picture of the witness of the saints restored my hope that I would make it through the dark night of the soul. I began to realize that these struggles connected me with the body of Christ throughout the centuries.

The Spirit’s nudging had begun! I began a series of visits to Sacred Heart monastery in Cullman, Alabama for personal retreat, journaling, and praying in the context of the rhythm of Benedictine life. I was drawn to the holiness of this place and it became a sanctuary where I could search for inner clarity. Using the resources of the monastery library, I spent time in study of the Gnostic heresy and how the church responded over the centuries. I began to see how Gnosticism is still present in strands of the modern Church and clarified my personal response to it. I began to discover the ancient mystics. In particular, I spent time with Thomas a Kempis, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and other assorted devotional writers, as well as modern writers such as Thomas Moore and Henri Nouwen.

I discovered that there is a mystic within me that has been crying out for my entire life. For a time, I had let that “dancer” within me free but provided her little structure, and she “blew with every wind of doctrine”. Then for a time, I reacted to the pain of failure by stuffing the mystic back into the dark recesses of my soul and went back to the world of doing and functioning. I plummeted because I was, in effect, shutting off a part of myself. God has shown me that this has been the grand pendulum swing of my spiritual life throughout my journey, though it had not been this extreme before. It became clear to me that the “mystic-in-me” needed the nurture of spiritual formation studies to be truly free and yet grounded in faith.

Continuing this quest I found myself participating in a Renovare Conference and joined a Renovare small group with two other pastors, one of whom has since become my spiritual director. This fellowship fed my soul and helped me to restore balance to my spiritual life. I also continue to visit the monastery from time to time. I began to lead the congregations I serve in spiritual formation experiences rooted in my own journey. I attended the Academy for Spiritual Formation and become part of the leadership teams of other Academies. My covenant group continues to be lifegiving for me. I have discovered that there is room to let the mystic free in the context and balance of our great faith heritage.

My Sacred Tree

Ultimately, my answer to the question of what attracts me to Spiritual Formation might be best given with an image that has become my most sacred metaphor. During one of my earlier visits to Sacred Heart, after spending two days in arduous studies, internal struggles, and prayer, I became unexpectedly enthralled while walking by an extremely large Magnolia tree that rests near the front door of the monastery. I spent two hours contemplating under that tree, examining its large trunks, admiring its extensive branches and leaves. I was overwhelmed with a simple thought that in order for this tree to grow so large, firm, and beautiful – in order for this tree to reach up to God in praise and to reach out to the world - it must have expansive roots. Roots were what I needed.

I had spent too much of my life trying to expand my branches while ignoring my roots, and this led to a “top heavy” spirituality over the years. I had striven to reach out to God, make music that glorifies my Creator, and make a difference in the world. These are all good things, but I had not nourished the roots I so desperately needed. I had discovered the things of the Spirit but had neglected the things of the soul. To stay with the metaphor, it took an experience of “fallenness” to show this truth to me. Thank God for the grace that lifted me back up.

Spiritual formation experiences nourish and grow the roots of my spiritual tree. I am developing the mystic in me and feasting on deeper food for the journey through spiritual disciplines. I need the structure of experiences such as the Academy, covenant group, spiritual direction, and visits to the monastery to help me to continue along the sacred path God has placed on my heart. The rhythm of the daily offices, the grounding in exploration of our spiritual traditions, and the balance of academic and experiential learning help me to deepen my roots. I have found that when it comes to the things of the Spirit, structure is a very good thing. Surprising, I know.

Though Christ has brought me so far into healing and wholeness, I am still so far away from where I desire to be in my prayer pilgrimage. I have yet to become a man who prays without ceasing. Yet I yearn and hunger for God and keep finding opportunity for sacred space and time. I can’t wait to see where the Spirit leads me next!

Copyright 2009 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Future of Christian Mysticism

Author Carl McColman is working on a book and blogs about a chapter that will explore his conjectures about the future of Christian mysticism. I love it and think it is extremely thought-provoking, so I share it with you with his permission. He says:

This is utterly un-scientific: I am only basing my thoughts on what I have seen and read and intuited. So feel free to disagree but if you do, please post a comment as to why. I'd be curious to hear what other contemplatives sense about where the Holy Spirit is leading us. But for now, here are the seven characteristics that I (currently) believe will shape the future of Christian mysticism.

1. Christian mysticism in the future will be increasingly Trinitarian. I believe the success of William Paul Young's The Shack is at least partially due to its lovely presentation of the trinitarian nature of God. Obviously, the Blessed Trinity has always been central to Christian theology, but I believe it's importance will only increase, as a healthy alternative to monism and dualism, both of which have dogged Christian spirituality for too long.

2. Trinitarian Christian mysticism in the future will be essentially relational. "Flight of the alone to the alone" is lovely and poetic, but it is also Neoplatonic rather than Christian. Not to knock Neoplatonism, but in celebrating what is distinctive about Christian spirituality we need to recognize that the Trinity is foundationally relational, and therefore participation in the Trinity (our destiny as Christian mystics) doesn't mean that we get to God, but rather that we get to enter into the heart of God's love. This is the ultimate game-changer that mysticism proclaims: through the saving work of Christ, we enter into the economy of Divine love, which transforms all our relationships. That's the kicker. In the future I see fewer hermits and more beloved communities as central to Christian spirituality. Likewise, I believe the mystics in the future will increasingly be on the front line of social justice issues, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, basically just being Christ present here on earth. Which leads to the next point.

3. Christian mysticism in the future will be increasingly earthy. As nature-positive as Celtic and Franciscan spirituality are, I believe they are just precursors to where Christian spirituality will go. This is necessitated by the increasing realities of our environmental crisis, but also by the increasing understanding the mysticism is not about climbing to heaven, so much as about bringing heaven to earth.Mysticism will not reject the earth, but rather seek to heal and transform her. "The fullness of joy is to behold God in all," proclaimed Julian of Norwich; and so Christian spirituality will foster joy by learning to see God present even in the density of our materiality.

4. The future of Christian mysticism will hold apophatic and kataphatic spirituality in creative tension. This is a point of continuity with the tradition as a whole, for the greatest mystics have always appreciated both God's immanence and God's inscrutable mystery. God comes to us through images and yet images conceal God as much as they reveal him. God transcends all of our thoughts and concepts and imaginal representations of God, rendering God hidden in the cloud of unknowing. What I think will be new about the mysticism of the future is that, increasingly, all mystics will embrace the kataphatic/apophatic tension, rather than some mystics being more kataphatic while others are more apophatic. Blend Julian of Norwich and Pseudo-Dionysius together, and you'll get the mystic of the future.

5. Christian mysticism in the future will embrace inter-religious wisdom. There has always been an inter-religious dimension to Christian mysticism, from Clement of Alexandria's engagement with Hellenic religion, Pseudo-Dionysius's engagement with Neoplatonism, the early Celtic saints' engagement with druidism, Luis de Leon's engagement with Kabbalah, down to the twentieth century where Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Swami Abhishiktananda, William Johnston, Anthony de Mello,and others have all engaged in the great conversation between east and west. I think this will only grow and develop as the world gets smaller and the crises we face become increasingly shared on a global scale. I don't believe Christianity will lose its identity into some sort of bland "world religion," nor do I wish for that! But I do believe the wisdom of the Sufis, the Vedantists, the Buddhists, and others will inform and in some ways enlighten the path of the lovers of Christ.

6. Christian mysticism in the future will embrace scientific knowledge and will celebrate its own evolutionary nature. As Thomas Merton was to the encounter between Christianity and Buddhism, so Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was to the encounter between Christianity and science. Today, Raimon Panikkar is an example of how creative a mystical embracing and science and religion can be. Science is our best defense against superstition and fundamentalism, and as Ken Wilber shows it is possible to understand a truly creative and dynamic relationship between the external mapping of scientific knowledge and the internal mapping of the mystical quest. Furthermore, science and religion need each other to address the towering problems facing us: saving the environment will require both a revolution in values and the fullest extent of our technical know-how.

7. The future of Christian mysticism will be revealed to us through narrative and story, more so than through abstract theology and philosophy. Jesus spoke in parables; the desert fathers and mothers as well as the Celtic saints left us vignettes full of spiritual wisdom. The best mystics have always been great storytellers,and this will continue. Postmodernity is the age where narrative wisdom is preferred to abstract philosophizing; forget the efforts to elucidate first principles, just tell me a story about who you are and why you're you. As mysticism increasingly recognizes that it' job is not to pontificate on the Truth-with-a-capital-T, but rather to shed light on the "inner truth" that is revealed to each and every one of us in our own unique ways, it will increasingly be a forum for shared stories, out of which shared understanding and communal values will emerge. As Christians, we don't just jettison our faith in God as the author of absolute truth but we recognize that our job, as contemplatives, is not to tell others what that truth might be, but rather to share with others our own flawed attempts to embrace that truth. When we combine all our off-key voices, somehow by the grace of God a heavenly choir is formed.

So there you have it. This isn't the Bible and I'm not the pope, so none of this is carved in stone. But at least as of today, this is my best guess. Let me know what you think.

I'd be interested in any of your comments, but so would Carl. He blogs at: http://www.anamchara.com/.