Spiritual Formation Demands Imagination: Embracing the Church as a “Field Hospital”

In episode 222 of her Faith Conversations podcast, Anita Lustrea interviews Michelle Van Loon on her most recent book, Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife.

More than enough to chew on – material which resonates with other themes here in this blog: stages of faith, embracing “the discipline of disturbance,”…

Amidst the things that caught my ear and heart was Van Loon’s sharing a snippet from an April 2020 article by Father Tomás Halík in America magazine, entitled Christianity in a Time of Sickness.  It speaks to me of the nature of true community and its value and importance in our lives:

The church should be a “field hospital,” as proposed by Pope Francis. The church should not remain in splendid isolation from the world but should break free of its boundaries and give help where people are physically, mentally, socially and spiritually afflicted. This is how the church can do penance for the wounds inflicted by its representatives quite recently on the most defenseless. But let us try to think more deeply about this metaphor—and put it into practice.

If the church is to be a hospital, it must, of course, offer the health, social and charitable care it has offered since the dawn of its history. But the church must also fulfill other tasks. It has a diagnostic role to play (identifying the “signs of the times”), a preventive role (creating an “immune system” in a society in which the malignant viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism are rife) and a convalescent role (overcoming the traumas of the past through forgiveness.

Over the course of time, the Church has variously been imaged  — if not formally, then unconsciously.  Van Loon points to the ways it has been perceived/regarded as a social club, entertainment hub, community center,…  I could add a few others—as, e.g., courier of eternal fire insurance and personal waste [sin] management.

Nothing fully and entirely wrong with any of these functions, I might admit – SO LONG AS THEY DO NOT BECOME THE PROMINENT AND PREDOMINATING FEATURE!!!

At the core of Halik’s metaphor of the Church and Christian community is a paradigm that goes back to the roots of the Church – and its kinship to Jesus Christ.

The Church as a field hospital: in my opinion, it is a solid and compelling image which stands firmly on its own – standing as a touchstone against which all lesser images/functions can and should be judged.

Summer’s Bookends (Memorial Day and Labor Day) Reconcile Mary and Martha

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  (Luke 10)

Memorial Day and Labor Day: they serve as traditional bookends to Summer.

For those with eyes and ears to see and hear, they are also poles within which we live (or should live) spiritually: taking time to stop and gratefully remember… and getting up to work and do.

In the Mary-Martha text, above, the common conclusion (with some justification) is that the fundamental feature of being Christian is our needing to be like Mary who “choose the better part” by resting and sitting at Jesus’ feet.  Poor Martha is given a bad rap.

To be sure, the Christian life is a matter of rest.  Here, there’s a “Memorial Day” quality to our lives and living as Christians: reclaiming Sabbath in our lives, taking time to remember the fundamentals, celebrating the lives and sacrifices of those who have brought us to this point.

However, such a reading of the text ignores a necessary opposite pole in the Gospel — and in our Faith.  For in the verses leading up to the Mary-Martha text, we are given the account of a Good Samaritan who befriended an fallen enemy, bandaged his wounds, served as his ambulance to a local inn, and fully paid his way — to the point he was back on his feet.  And Jesus’ conclusion to this story—in a verse that immediately precedes today’s reading?  “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

“Go and do”: there’s the other necessary pole in the tension of the faith.  There’s the “Labor Day” bookend of our Faith: “It’s time to get back to work!”

“Sit at Jesus feet”…  “Go and do”: it’s the rhythm of a full and whole faith.

Sometimes we feel like we need
to choose between Mary or Martha.

For me, though, that’s a false dichotomy.

Mary AND Martha:
that’s the key –
the tension worth maintaining,
the paradox worth embracing:
that the Christian life is a pulsating, rhythmic journey
of reaching up… and reaching out,
of Mary and Martha,
of the inward journey and the outward journey,
of going and doing… and sitting and being still,
of advance and retreat,
of contemplation and action.

“Don’t just sit there… do something!”
needs to be balanced by
“Don’t just do something… sit there!”

Even so with our lives:

Our Sabbaths are not ends in themselves.
Nor is our work.
But both have a way of feeding off of each other
and giving each other meaning –
each serving to bring out the fullness of the other.

God grant us the grace
to walk the balance
between the Memorial times
and Labor times
of our days and seasons.

What Did Jesus Look Like?

In the Zoe-Life exploration-course which is “Gleanings from the Life of Jesus,”
I meld insights from my work with Dr. Jim Fleming in the Holy Lands (in the 90’s) with spiritual formation lessons accrued over the last few decades.

Early on (as a way of describing Jim’s approach to the Scriptures and the life of Jesus), I playfully raise the question of “what did Jesus look like?”

We start out acknowledging our inclination as humans to shape life and the things of life – including God – in our own image, according to our own narrow constructs. Here, I employ the following [closing] clip from the 2-hour documentary, The Face: Jesus in Art (2001) as a way of conveying the myriad ways that Jesus has been portrayed – depending on the cultural lens through which he was viewed:


From there, we visit a Popular Mechanics article (yes, you read that right) by, Richard Neave, entitled “The Real Face of Jesus.” (You can download a copy by clicking here.)  Neave, a forensics anthropologist, is renown for his reconstruction of individuals from across the span of history (as, e.g., Charlemagne and Philip II [the father of Alexander the Great]) – based on the engagement of a variety of scientific and cultural sources. (His work was collected and published a few years ago in a book, Making Faces [Texas a & M University Anthropology Series, 1997].)

On the basis of his work (scouring the archaeological and anthropological and cultural records from Jesus’ day), Neave suggests that Jesus (in keeping with typical males of his place and time) was most likely…

  • neaves' jesus5 feet, 1 inches tall (weighing around 110 lbs),
  • short-haired (in keeping with Paul’s words about long hair being a “disgrace” for a man),
  • bearded,
  • more muscular and physically fit (than is often portrayed),
  • having dark skin (that was undoubtedly weathered).

Ultimately, he suggests this portrait of Jesus, right.

Of course, skeptics will rail – and rightly so. There is absolutely no way we can take a few skulls and bones from a given time period and reconstruct the exact appearance of a particular individual from that period. No, I will agree, this is not a picture of Jesus!

However, there is a point not to be lost here: that, without a doubt, Jesus looked a whole lot more like this than he does the majority of ways that he’s been portrayed across time! Yes, we can raise legitimate questions about Neave’s portrait. But, the moment we tender those suspicions, we have to open the door to even more serious and legitimate questions about the majority of ways that Jesus has been portrayed in art and media across time.

As suggested, I’ll use all this as a way of capturing Jim Fleming’s approach to the Scriptures – and the ways it has enriched me through the years: that, like Neave, Fleming resorts to a wide spectrum of sciences and historical-cultural studies to portray Jesus of Nazareth as a first-century Jew in Palestine. Only as he is regarded in this context do his teachings and actions make full sense.

Does Fleming have Jesus “nailed”? (Maybe that’s not the best way to put it!) Absolutely not! However, for myself and so many others, his “rendition” is so much more compelling and relevant and true to the sources that it bears strong consideration and prayer.

Other examples [of the ways that Jesus and the Gospels are filtered through cultural lenses] could be added – to strengthen my argument about the value and importance of what Fleming and others like him bring to the table. (Speaking of “table,” I’ve written elsewhere about Fleming’s discussion of the Last Supper and how it was probably eaten at a u-shaped “triclinium” [three-sided reclining table] – as opposed to the typical straight-line table with chairs and Jesus centered [ala DaVince] that we are typically handed. Jim will go on to speak of the real implications of this setting, together with other Biblical mealtime customs, as we unpack the meaning of eating together at the Lord’s table.)

Eventually, though, in such coursework, we move to some sense of “implications” for our spiritual formation. (God forbid that we should just be about a head trip in the Gospels – apart from a real engagement of heart and soul and strength.)

In our discussion here, the implications – the insights for our spiritual formation — are clear. Whether it’s the question of what Jesus looked like (or what the Upper Room looked like… or any other number of things): we come to the table with all sorts of biases and preconceptions. Some we might be aware of, but most are unconscious and subconscious. Some are “safe” (perhaps) while others [like the Anglo Jesus] are blatantly and unmistakably destructive. Most of them are products of our upbringing and the sub-cultures we inhabit.

Spiritual formation work – i.e., the work of returning home to God and true self and true neighbor – advances with an awareness of these kind of biases, these defaults of mind and heart and soul. Matters of spirit and “truth” need to be held with a healthy balance of respect and suspicion. Yes, there can be no “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” But, at the same time, we need to acknowledge the ways that baby and water can get thoroughly mixed up.

“What did Jesus look like [physically]?” may hardly be a question for many—who consider it a trivial pursuit. For my part, though, it’s a question worth taking on. For on the other side of really engaging that question, we might be in a much better position to confess and to repent of the distorting filters we possess and maintain. And, in doing so, we find ourselves better beholding Him as he really and fully was… and is.

I could (and probably should) leave it here. But, those who know me well (and my quirky sense of humor) will agree that it’s hard for me not to throw out a movie or video clip. Entertaining (at least for me) and relevant to the tenor of this article, then, is this clip from the BBC show Famalam, entitled “There is No White Jesus.” (Here, by the way, I have bleeped out one word – out of respect for those more sensitive to such language.)


Defining Spiritual Formation, Ver 3.0

In several courses I facilitate, first efforts see participants tendering initial definitions of key words and concepts — as, for example, “spiritual formation,” “Biblical faith,” “teaching,” “the spiritual disciplines,” etc.  Such work and ensuing conversations are at the core of the learning-teaching process.

Can’t help but recall here the times I’ve discussed the number of words the Greeks had for what we flatly render “life” and “love” and the number of words Eskimos have for what we Texans call “snow.”1  The more you live with a reality, the better you are at understanding and modifying it.  Has me wondering about our culture’s overindulgence in with some words.  Too, it has me wondering about our relative inability to speak to the things that matter most – like spiritual formation.

Over the course of the last few years, I have taken several stabs at defining “spiritual formation.”

  • Early on in my work here with Zoe-Life, I acknowledged the ways that discipleship could and should be synonymous with spiritual formation.  That is, if it were not for the lamentable ways that too many in church circles have reduced discipleship to a set of programs and outcomes which make for better church members but not for fully transformed lives and living.

    All this had me opting for another definition which avoided the “discipleship” word altogether: “spiritual formation is our graceful pilgrimage to wholehearted life and living.” (cf., the August 8, 2018 post, What is “Spiritual Formation”?)
  • In time, I found myself migrating to another definition – more focused on and centered in the dynamic of our “true self” (“our original shimmering selves,” as Buechner has put it).  In our workshops on the Enneagram and Crafting a Rule of Life, we increasingly found ourselves speaking of spiritual formation as a return journey to our “true selves” in Christ (i.e., the original image of God in which we were and are created).  Here, Merton gave (and gives) some sense of support and foundation: “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
  • spritual formation defMost recently, though, I have found myself gravitating toward another definition.  In a new course developed for BeADisciple (Exploring Spiritual Formation: Mapping Our Journeys Back Home to God), I have come to see the ways that the ancients of our Faith referred to “Union with God” as the clearly affirmed destination of the spiritual journey in and with Christ.  While “true self” can include and assume and subsume this “Union” with God and neighbor, it can (especially on its own) be dangerous and misleading.  In a world too inclined to narcissism, returning to our “true selves” can sound too narrow, too self-serving.  Here, “Union with God/Christ” speaks more clearly and fully of a destination that is good for all – God, neighbor and self.  “True Self” is still there but now situated among other pillars which give it fuller meaning.

And so, I have come to this definition of spiritual formation, version 3:
“Christian spiritual formation
is the Graceful journey
of our coming back home
to God and God’s Kindom.” 
(yes, without the “g”)2 

1Elsewhere, I have written: “Depending on which study or article you turn to, Eskimos have anywhere from 4 to 7 to 50… even up to 100 words (according to a New York Times editorial of a few years ago) for our one word, ‘snow.’ (Anthropologist Franz Boas, for example, mentions four separate Eskimo words for snow: aput (‘snow on the ground’), gana (‘falling snow’), piqsirpoq (‘drifting snow’), and qimuqsuq (‘snowdrift’). While the number fluctuates and debates rage, there is nonetheless a fundamental premise which is rather clear and obvious: language reflects culture, culture impacts language.  Eskimos lives are ‘snow-driven,’ one might argue: a variety of words to define snow (however many that really is) is relevant and necessary for their life and living.  Could it be that our failure to have more than one word for love or time or life (vis-à-vis the Greeks) reflects our culture’s thoughtlessness on these issues?  And could it be that the multiple words we have in our language to modify music styles or body parts has something to say about who we and what we are (or are not)?”

2I first heard this reference to “Kindom” from Rev. Trent Williams of Friends United Church of Christ in College Station, Texas. I appreciate this variation on the traditional “Kingdom”: 1) for the ways it “dances” or plays with that more traditional word, 2) addresses themes of dominance (perhaps oppression?) and sexism embedded/implied in the older terminology, and 3) accentuates the relational/communal qualities of our destination in God.


Preaching with Ken Medema: “Wholeness Beyond Our Brokenness”

With Ken Medema, Feb 2009Among the thrills and highlights of my pastoral (and preaching) ministry was not just getting to meet and visit with Ken Medema, but having him engage one of my messages in song.

For those who don’t know Ken, his is the amazing gift (among many) of hearing a message or a story and then being able to compose (on the spot) a musical response — kind of the Wayne Brady thing (from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” fame). But, in Medema’s case, there’s an amazing instrumental composition… and very profound spirituality and theology.

And so, mine was the joy of not only getting to meet Ken (someone I first encountered at a World Council of Churches event in 1988) but also getting to collaborate with him— there, in the winter of 2009, when I was serving as Senior Pastor of Strawbridge UMC in Kingwood, Texas.  (That will help you understand Ken’s use of the term “Kingwoodians” in his composition.)

You can engage Ken’s message in music directly in this recording – going to the 28:00 mark:

Background to his composition is found in…

  • the title and text of that morning’s message:
    “Do You Want to Get Well?” (John 5:1-15)
  • a video that I prepared for that service
    (focused on an excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit):

  • my message proper
    (which starts in the recording, above at the 4:40 mark)

I consider the message (and especially Ken’s composition)
to be most relevant to the days we are now encountering and navigating.
His is an Easter message we need to hear over and over again:
that our brokenness
and the pain of disorientation
and the mess of it all:
these are real, yes.
But, hold on, Friends!
A time of wholeness
and reconciliation
(with God, neighbor, and true selves)
is coming!

Considering the feedback of parishoners back then
(i.e., that Ken’s “second sermon” was, by far, the best),
there’s certainly the message, too:
that on the other side of all our frail constructions,
Grace is there to round things out
and take us home!