I Heard It Through the Bovine

is the name we have given
to a [free, downloadable] quarterly/seasonal offering
of Zoe-Life Explorations. 
Its aim reflects our mission: facilitating conversations and reflections about spiritual formation.

The title derives from the process which is a cow chewing its cud.  Writes Rick Warren – acknowledging the association between the word and meditation:

What does it mean to meditate on God’s Word? If we look up the word meditation in a dictionary, we find that a synonym is the word rumination. Rumination is what a cow does when she chews her cud. A cow eats some grass, chews up all she can, then swallows it. It sits in one of her stomachs for a while, and then a little bit later she burps it up — with renewed flavor. The cow chews on it some more and swallows it again. This continues for all four stomachs. That’s rumination. The cow is straining every ounce of nourishment from the grass. Meditation is thought digestion. Meditation does not mean that you put your mind in neutral and think about nothing.

“Swallows it… and burps it up”: Not the most appealing imagery, I will grant you.

And yet, the larger concept has a way of defining our intentions in the meditative resource which is Ruminations.  Here, we hope to provide individuals and groups with a guide for retreats and devotion.  It’s not a single serving!  It’s not meant to be engaged and exhausted in one sitting.  Think of it as a haystack–offering a chance for multiple opportunities to chew on a topic across a season.

Even so with our Lenten issue which we just released—and available by clicking here.  “Desert Spirituality” is its focus—acknowledging the ways that the wilderness is a focal image throughout the Scriptures offering, affirming the lonely and silent and unpredictable places of our lives as good fodder for our spiritual formation.  Four pages long:
* an introductory overview
* five readings from various sources on the subject
* a final page of suggested exercises and recommended readings

It’s our hope that you’ll find it mooving… and udderly meaningful.
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

In Spiritual Formation, One Size Does Not Fit All!

For all the ways we are on a common, spiritual journey
with fairly identifiable stages,
we variously proceed and progress on that journey
according to a wide variety of factors –
tware bookemperaments and “wirings”,
life situations and influences,

This week, in the online spiritual formation course I am facilitating at BeADisciple.com, we will be focusing on one such variable – in the form of “Spiritual Types.” Here, we will be engaging an inventory and materials developed by Corinne Ware in her book, Discover Your Spiritual Type. (For more about this online course and others related to the bigger spiritual formation programming of which it is a part, click here.)

I produced a video as a supplement to class readings – as a way of unpacking Ware’s work… and conveying the ways it might be used for individual and congregational purposes. (The links below the video will take you to 1) a version of Ware’s Inventory (as you’d like to engage it more fully) and 2) a handout copy of slides from the video.)

supplemental links:
* Ware’s Spiritual Type Inventory (with additional notes from formedfaith.org)
* A handout reflecting slides used in the video

wheelWhat’s clear from the video (and, indeed, an engagement of other Explorations we promote at Zoe-Life [as, e.g., our “Introduction to the Enneagram”) and one of the points I hope to establish this week in our coursework at BeADisciple is: in the spiritual life and in spiritual formation, “one size does not [and can not] fit all.” It’s “different strokes for different folks.” Or, it should be.

You would think this would be common knowledge (grounded in some common sense) and common practice in faith communities.

Until, that is, you look at the standard(ized) operations (and the priorities/judgements conveyed in those operations) of most churches:

  • Sunday morning retains the spotlight (it’s important, yes, but we’re not talking about a one-ring circus here!)
  • Sunday School classes are the preferred and most recommended small group experience (even though they are largely structured and conducted with type 1s in mind)
  • Some disciplines or “means of grace” remain neglected and hardly explored/encouraged – as, e.g., Spiritual Direction/Companionship or Lectio Divina
  • Some disciplines (as, e.g., mission work or social justice advocacy) are viewed as valuable, yes, but secondary “add-ons” to “foundational” Bible study
  • Some formation arenas (such as the choir) are second-placed since they are not as Bible-oriented or academic as a real study

Many bemoan the ways that our public schools’
herd and corral our children
on the basis of and for the sake of
standardized testing –
testing that overlooks
the unique ways
that each individual
is wired and learns.

Maybe we ought to bring that same sense
of dissatisfaction/unease
(or, more positively,
that same kind affirmation
about the uniqueness of each soul)
to the ways we are about
the essential process/dynamic
which is the Church’s ministry
of spiritual formation.

Groundhog Day… and Shadow Boxing

I’ve long been drawn to the movies for the deeper messages they can communicate. Some of the overtly Christian ones can count here. But, more especially, I’m thinking of “secular” films in which deeper, spiritual messages have surprised me, catching me off guard (in a most refreshing way).  Films like The Matrix, The Way, The Godfather trilogy, City Slickers, Grand Canyon,and Tender Mercies come immediately to mind.  (reel theologyAnd then, there are t.v. shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Stranger Things,…)  To adapt the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Hollywood is crammed with Heaven, every common film a potential burning bush.”

It’s the basis of the Zoe-Life Explorations which we call “Reel Theology: Focused Discussions at the Intersection of Hollywood and Divine.” (Have to admit that we’re pretty proud of that play on words!)groundhog day

Groundhog Day this last weekend has me thinking of that meaningful film starring Bill Murray. On the surface, it comes across as a lite comedy: a man stuck in the same day. Yadda, yadda, yadda… “Thats right, woodchuck-chuckers – it’s Groundhog Day!”

At a deeper level, though, we see Murray’s character, Phil Connor (any coincidence that he’s got the same name as the local groundhog?) struggling not just with the same old day but the deeper “shadow” that drives it.

“Shadow boxing”: these words came to mind one time when a group of us were discussing the film.  And that’s exactly what Phil does (and needs to do) on his way to the freedom of living out of his “true self”: engage the empty agendas of the many false selves that he’s collected (i.e., that we’ve all encountered and variously accommodated) across the years from his family of origin, culture, the playground growing up, and who knows where else.

In his musings on the true self and false self, Fr. Basil Pennington categorizes these agendas (elsewhere, Thomas Keating will refer to them as “[flawed] emotional programs of happiness”) along the lines of “what I have, what I do, and what others think of me.” (Pennington, True Self, False Self: Unmasking the Spirit Within, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000, p. 31)

These three, in fact, are the temptations which Christ engages and overcomes in the wilderness on the way to clarifying his mission and identity. (cf, Pennington, p. 33f.)

It’s very much the journey, the battle which all of us – like Phil Connors – must be about if we are to arrive at our full and truest selves.

Informed and inspired by Grace and Christ, we arrive at a new, fresh dawn which transcends the sameness and staleness and emptiness of “just another day.”

And here, I can not help but raise a question:
What films or t.v. shows (maybe unconventional)have struck you
for the deeper truths and spiritual messages they have stirred within you?
I’d love for you to leave a reply. (I am ever looking for another gem!)

Confessions of a Knock-Off Disciple [and Pastor]

My brother, Steve, gave me a “Rolex” watch a few years ago.
Had all the looks of the real thing:
the word “Rolex” there on the face
with the highly recognizable crown above,… 

I was astounded when he gave it to me.
I didn’t know what to say!
That is, until he told me that he got it
and a handful of other “knock-offs”
in Singapore for about $10 each.

Sure enough, it did not work — inner parts betraying it’s real integrity… or lack of integrity.  (While I’ve used it in a sermon or two or three [I even resorted to it this last weekend!], I’ve never worn it in public.  Beyond the fact that it doesn’t work, I’m afraid someone will take it for real and kill me for it!  Not worth dying for an imitation.  Though plastic knock-offsI’ve got to admit that it might be worth it to see the crook’s face when he found out.  But, then, I might not be around to see his face.  So, maybe it’s not worth it after all.)

Reminds me of a post by Chad Missildine, a Pastor with the Fort Worth campus of LifeChurch.tv and blogger at TheWayItCouldBe.com (where he encourages cultural impact through personal transformation).  In “10 Ways to Become a Plastic Church” he writes about how a congregation can look like a church on the outside (building, services, staff, etc… “who knows, there may even be a steeple”) but, on the inside, they barely resemble a real/genuine church/community of faith in the [spiritual] image of Christ. There’s “no real community of believers,” he writes, “no prayer, no real concern for people, no application of Scripture in real life, no transformation.”

“Plastic churches,” knock off Christians:
aren’t we kind of talking about the same thing? 
You know: posing like the real thing on the surface
but lacking the deeper integrity to go the distance?

Given our mission and hopes
through Zoe-Life and its Explorations,
the questions naturally flow from all this:
* how “plastic” am I in my walk and witness and being?
* am I, are we, like my brother’s “Rolex”–
    no more than an cheap imitation?

[The words of Jesus haunt me, here:
“Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ is a real disciple.”
Not everyone who totes the label is the real thing!]

Easy as it would be to point my finger at others –
and rail against plastic believers (and churches) all around,
it’s most responsible and accurate
to “look at the beam in my own eye”
– or, should I say, the plasticity of my own being and living.

With my brother’s watch (and Missildine’s post) in front of me,
I have borrowed from and modified
a “Litany of Confession”
from the Wesleyan Service of Covenant Renewal
and have come up with the following
“Litany of Confession for a Knock-Off [or Plastic] Disciple”:

Most Holy and Real God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

 Forgive, I pray, the ways I have devalued authenticity in my life and living:
          the poverty, the shallowness of my worship,
         the formality and selfishness of my prayers,
          my taking great blessings with little thanks,
          my fickleness and unbelief,
          my shallow “posings,”
          my slowness to learn of Jesus and my reluctance to follow him.

 Have mercy on me and forgive me, O Lord.

 Forgive me, I pray,
    that I have made no ventures in real, authentic community
      and that I have made it hard for others to live with me:
          Too many times I have excused my wrongdoings or diminished
               my responsibilities–while, at the same time, scrutinizing others
               and judging them for the ways they did not do it my way.
           Too many times I have kept in my heart a grievance against another
                and not sought reconciliation,
           Too often I have related to others purely on the basis of what they
                can do for me.
           I’ve been thoughtless in my judgments, hasty in my condemnation,
                grudging in my forgiveness.

 Have mercy on me and forgive me, O Lord.

 Forgive me, I pray, my hesitating witness for Christ:
          So little of your love has reached others through me,
          Too often, You stretch out your hands to me through others and I pass by.
          I have been eager for the punishment of wrongdoers,
              but slow to seek their redemption.
          I have been unwilling to overcome evil with good.
          I have drawn back from the cross.
          I have lost so little sleep over wrongs and sufferings that were not my own.

 Have mercy upon me, O God,
           blot out my transgressions.
           Cleanse me thoroughly of my self-centeredness.
           Create in me a clean heart, O God;
           and renew a right spirit within me–
           granting me integrity and “realness” and fullness in my inmost being
           (my inner workings aligning with You
           and your ideals for my outer life and living).


“Stinkin’ Thinkin’” and “Sloppy Agape”

Next week will see us launching the first of two online, Winter-Spring spiritual formation courses at the Richard & Julia Wilke Institute for Discipleship (via their website @ BeADisciple.com).  (A previous post [available by clicking here] shares more about these courses and the larger certification program of which they are a part.)

ifdc courseAmong the topics in the course, “The Spiritual Disciplines for Personal and Parish Renewal,” will be the importance of sound theology in life and ministry.  And among the crucial theological issues wrapped up in any discussion and practice of the spiritual disciplines?  Adequately framing and maintaining the crucial tension which is our human responsibility versus the initiative/grace of the Divine in our salvation and spiritual development.

Here, the Scriptures affirm both poles.  There is the clear affirmation (a cornerstone of the Reformation) that we are saved by faith in Grace (with this faith itself being a gift of God).1  But, there’s also the reminder that faith without works is dead and empty.)2  One text in particular highlights and embraces the tension – there in: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”3  Yes, there they are side by side: “Work out your own salvation” and “for it is God who works in you to will and work for his pleasure.”

Across the years, I have come across or conceived of a variety of metaphors which represent and illustrate this tension.

  • Speaking to the power of personal retreats (and our part in making them happen), Rueben Job used the analogy of righting a windmill from his boyhood days on the farm:
          I spent the early years of my life on a farm in North Dakota. I fell in love with the prairies and with windmills. Our farm was surrounded with huge cottonwood trees that often sheltered our windmill from light breezes that would otherwise have turned it to face the wind and permitted it to do its assigned work of pumping water for the farm. When the breeze was too light to turn the huge fan into the wind, my father would climb the tall tower and physically turn the fan and tail of the windmill until it faced directly into the wind. Properly positioned, the slightest breeze was translated into life-giving water. Personal retreats can be a time of repositioning ourselves, a time of intentional turning toward God.  (A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds, p. 12)4
  • Another metaphor I’ve employed across the years are the love letters my wife, Kathy, and I would exchange while we were courting (do they still use that word?) in college.
          Here I go sounding like an old foggie but “kids these days” will have no idea what it is to go to a mailbox and pull out a letter and read it over and over again.  (And, then, there was the perfume that might have been splashed inside — so that one continually returned to the envelope for a sniff of their beloved!!)
         Did the letter writing and reading and exchanging make the relationship?  Or did the relationship of love make for the reading and writing and exchanging (and sniffing)?  The answer for me — at that time and even to this day — is clear: I was in love, I was in a cherished relationship, I wanted to be about the discipline of exchanging letters.
         Even so, then, with the disciplines of faith!  The Bible is a love letter from God.  And Communion?  It’s dinner with a loved one!  And on we could go.  The spiritual disciplines are not works that make us right.  But, being right with God (being in relationship and in love) makes for these works!

Others could be added.  (I’d be curious to hear any other metaphors that have worked for you.)

But frame (and maintain) the tension we must.

For, as I will tell the participants in our coming course:

stinkin thinkin“orthodoxy [right thinking] and orthopraxy [right practice] go hand in hand.”

As a person thinks and believes, so they are (and behave).5 

Outer behavior is grounded in deeper rules and beliefs – all of which are ultimately wrapped up in the core which is our metanarratives or the stories we tell ourselves.6

Yes, “stinking thinkin’” inevitably results in “sloppy agape.”7


1cf, Ephesians 2:8-9
2cf, James 2:14-26
3Philippians 2:12-13
4John Ortberg employs related imagery in a sermon on “My Part and God’s Part in Spiritual Renewal.”  Drawing on the metaphor of three different kinds of watercraft (a canoe, a raft, and a sailboat), he portrays three distinct ways individuals work out their salvation with the God who works within them: there’s the individual who acts as if his destination is entirely his doing (the canoeist), there’s the individual who acts as if his destination is entirely God’s doing (the floater on the raft), and there’s the individual-sailor who knows that slight adjustments to the wind/Spirit/breath of God is all that’s needed to get himself home.  (Surely, the kinship to Job, above, is clear.)
5Proverbs 23:7
6cf., here, given my affinity for spiritual themes in the movies, I am indebted to and enamored with David Gary Stratton’s discussion of metanarratives in his blog post, “Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s” (cf, http://garydavidstratton.com/2017/05/04/casablanca-and-the-four-levels-of-worldview-why-everyone-meets-at-ricks/)
7“Agape” (pronounced Ah-gah-pee, hence the rhyme with “sloppy”) is the Greek word for God’s perfect love for us and (more and more, we hope) through us.