Spiritual Formation and the Journey to “True Self”

The story has been attributed to Parker Palmer:

A three year old girl welcomes
her parents and newborn brother
home from the hospital.

From the moment they arrive, she is insistent about having some time alone with him—in his nursery, behind closed doors.  Mom and Dad are a bit torn but mostly curious so they allow things to proceed—mindful that a cribside intercom
will allow them to be there.

Closing the door,
they race down the hall to the intercom base—
in time to hear the little girl’s voice:
“Tell me about God, I’ve almost forgotten.”

Like that little girl, I believe we all live with a sense of memory and yearning and haunting—of deeper truths and realities which we know or are convinced we have known but which seem to be fading or hiding.  These inner stirrings speak of a higher Reality/Being, yes.  But, they also suggest a fuller, truer person—caged or stuck somewhere below the surface of what we show ourselves to be amidst our daily routines and busyness.

The two are related, interconnected: this higher Being and this deeper, true self.   They abide together.  And, each is a legitimate and essential object of spiritual formation.

In this light, we are excited to announce the publication
of our 12th issue
of Ruminations—
focused on “Spiritual Formation and the Journey to ‘True Self.’”  It seems like a perfect focus for the coming weeks of the Easter Season—during which we celebrate all the hidden promises
of God which we’ve been tempted to forget.

Click here to access this issue
as well as the larger Ruminations library/archive.

But, be advised as you approach this (as, indeed, all issues) of Ruminations:
true to its name and its mission, Ruminations offers a lot
for individual and small groups to chew on—
for study, devotion, and retreat.
We encourage you to engage it, then,
at a pace that will nourish your soul.

“Who Gives a Fig?”: A Holy Week Meditation

“You shall know them by their fruits!” (Matt. 7:16)

     12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves… 
(Mark 11:12-15)

At first, it can seem rather capricious , somewhat erratic on Jesus part: “he went to find out if it had any fruit” for “it was not the season for figs.”  Sit on it for a little while and it can strike real terror: “You mean Jesus could possibly look at my life and judge me along those same lines–expecting things when the time isn’t right for those things?!?!?”

Here, my work in Hold Land studies with Dr. Jim Fleming helps a lot.  Fleming teaches that, while the Greek had but one word for the fruits of a fig tree, the Hebrew distinguished between a “first fruit” and “latter fruits.”  Phagee: the early, first fruit [bitter to the taste but nonetheless edible] is what one horticulturalist has referred to as the fig tree’s “bloom.”  It is to be distinguished from the later seasonal fig the Hebrew will distinguish with another word.  To be sure, there is a connection between the two: where there is no phagee (no spring blooms), there is no hope of any latter fruits to come. 

For our immediate purposes, though, this distinction helps illuminate the difficult passage before us.  Per Fleming: Jesus is hungry; he searches the fig tree (here in the Spring at Passover time… looking for phagee); though the tree was full of leaves, there was no phagee to be found—“for it was not the season for figs.”  Gone, then, is a lot of the confusion over Jesus’ disgust with what we might think of as an otherwise “innocent” fig tree!

My concern and focus shifts—for us, as individuals and as a faith community (in this Lenten Season and beyond) to the “moral” of this story.  It’s a moral, in fact, that is reinforced by the passage that follows it—where Jesus cleanses the temple.  Here again, there’s a lot of activity (a lot of outward foliage) to suggest vitality, but… there is no fruit bearing, there’s nothing which offers life to a starving world. “All vine and no taters,” as Bill Hinson would say.  (Or, as they said of wannabe cowboys in one rural community I served, “all hat, no cattle.”)  

Living things are created to share life.  Taking up space and sucking precious life from the earth just won’t do.  Apparently, the God revealed in Jesus is concerned with much more than outward show.  Clear in his actions here (and his words elsewhere) is that Christ is adamant about things living up to their full purpose and identity—which, for human community (like a fig tree) means bearing real, life-sustaining  and life-conveying fruit! (cf., Matt. 7:16; John 15:1-8)

Which brings me to my question—or, more appropriately, my prayer–for myself… and for all of us in this Lenten Season (and beyond).  A lot of activity fills our lives and community.  Holy Week and Easter can bring additional things to do.

Forbid, O Lord,
that we should become so consumed and preoccupied
with ‘leafy’ busy-ness and activity
that we should neglect a regard
and heart
for the deeper fruits
of real life and living!

Who gives a fig?
You should.
I should.
We all should, dear Soul.
It’s a lesson from the Mount of Olives.
It’s lesson from the Mount of the Temple.
It’s a law of the Gospel,
a law of true life and living.

Embracing an Informational and Formational Approach to the Scriptures

An adequate grasp of the Scriptures requires two levels of understanding: First a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves… which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness… ” For Merton, the task of acquiring information is simply the ‘front porch’ of spiritual reading. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, p. 21)

Came across a rather simple yet fantastic example of these two levels of Biblical understanding and how they can work together to enrich us more fully and deeply.

At a “Soul Rest” Conference a year and a half ago, Rev. Junius Dotson introduced those of us in attendance to the work of Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz.   (Very sad, by the way, that we lost Junius to cancer a month ago–at the too young age of 55.)  Klotz is a world-renowned scholar in religious studies, spirituality, and psychology. Living in Edinburgh, Scotland, he directs the Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Learning and for many years was co-chair of the Mysticism Group of the American Academy of Religion.  An Aramaic scholar, he has become a foremost expert at uncovering the rich layers of meaning found in Jesus’s native wisdom sayings.

Case in point: deeper meanings of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-29.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (NIV)

Satisfying as this standard translation can be, note the richness that comes to the surface on the other side of Klotz’s unraveling the Aramaic underlying the Greek (of our New Testament):

Come to me,
All of you, all of yourself,
In your frenzied weariness,
Your movement without end,
Your action without purpose,
Not caring in your fatigue
Whether you live or die.

 Come enmeshed by what you carry,
The cargo taken on by your soul,
The burdens you thought you desired,
Which have constantly swollen
And now exhaust you.

 Come like lovers to your first tryst:
I will give you peace and
Renewal after constant stress:
Your pendulum can pause
Between here and there,
Between being and not-being
(Blessings of the Cosmos, p. 45 f.)

Yes, Klotz moves well beyond the confines of the initial Greek translation.
But, he does so with a regard for and an appreciation of the text itself.
He stands so sufficiently and solidly on the front porch
(with text and his understanding of linguistics in hand and heart),
that his ensuing dance—as he crosses the threshold—
is not only acceptable but totally engaging and refreshing!

Walking & Driving with Robert Mulholland: Podcasts to Enrich Your Journey

Among the recurring voices in my spiritual formation studies is that of Robert Mulholland (1936-2015).  Professor emeritus of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, he authored three titles which figure prominently in my work—as a person and as a pastor:

  • Shaped by the Word (a focus on a spiritual formation approach to reading the Scriptures), and
  • The Deeper Journey (a discussion of spiritual formation as a journey to our “true selves”).

A gift to my Lenten journey this year has been the discovery of a podcast series from Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center.  The Deeper Journey (hosted by Barton and Steve Wiens) has been a great compliment to some drives and walks – and a perfect way to revisit Mulholland’s writings on “the spirituality of discovering your true self.”

Admittedly, Barton and Wiens only brush the surface.  What do you expect when they only take about 45 minutes per chapter?  Still, there are redeeming aspects – as, for example, when Barton speaks of her friendship with Mulholland or when Weins speaks from his experience as a pastor.  Hearing other voices can be a great way of adding new layers to old understandings.

For those just getting their feet wet in matters of spiritual formation, it might be worth noting that season 10 in the podcast walks with Mulholland’s “Invitation to a Journey,” a foundational text on the topic.

Lent’s almost over.  Still, a walk with Mulholland through the coming weeks may be a great way to consider and celebrate the great promises of transformation at the heart of our Easter Faith.

Narratives for Each Half of the Spiritual Formation Journey

In a presentation on “The Life and Legacy of Dallas Willard,” Gary Moon shares two stories or narratives which impacted his (Gary’s) life.  Turns out, in fact, that he shares these two stories in his book, Apprenticeship with Jesus: Learning to Live Like the Master – seating them as options for viewing “what is, from the human perspective, the most important concept in Christianity.” (i.e., salvation)

I share them here for the ways that, at least from my experience, a migration from the first narrative to the second is not just Moon’s.  My personal experience/journey, my readings and studies, and my experience in working with souls in spiritual formation through the years: these have me viewing the first story as a first half narrative for many souls (especially here, in the Bible-belt South) and the second story as the narrative emerging on the other side of that clarifying passage which Janet Hagberg calls “The Wall.”

Read for yourself and tell me what you think…

The First Story
In the first story God creates two naked people without belly buttons and places them in a garden.  It’s not real clear why he does this, but there is good news—they are naked (I may have already mentioned that) and their primary job is to be fruitful and multiply.  

One day while taking a break from multiplying and naming the animals, the woman, influenced by a talking snake, tricks the man into taking a bit from an apple, and all hell breaks loose.  God is surprised and then becomes extremely angry.  He curses them, every dog, cat, rock, and leaf—the entire universe and each of the seven billion-plus and counting descendants who will follow.

Through many millennia God stews in his wrath.  He does write down a few instructions and occasionally sends a plague, prophet, or flood to keep folks in line.  But mostly he just sits around on a throne, looking a lot like Charlton Heston, and scowls down through the glass-bottom floor of heaven as he thinks up new ways to make humans behave.  Then finally, when he can take it no more, he sends his own Son to be tortured and then brutally murdered.

While there are a lot of theories about why God’s Son had to die, the bottom line is, it somehow caused God to feel a whole lot better about things and helped him to decide that anyone who hears about what Jesus did and says a magic phrase will once again get to live forever and enjoy paradise.  And for those who don’t say the incantation?  They will burn in flames for all eternity.  Don’t say the right words and your fate will be a more grotesque horror than what could be conjured up by a committee comprised of Nero, Hitler, and Ghengis Khan. 

I never liked this story.

Story Number Two
In the second story God exists as a loving community of three whose relationship is so joyful, pulsating, and vibrant that it has been described as a dance.

God decides that this is all too wonderful to keep to himself.  So he creates an entire universe and tenderly places humanity at the center, like the offspring of proud parents brought home to a nursery.

Then God does something even more amazing.  He plants within the human heart a small but glorious piece of himself.  Under his watchful eye these two creatures are to grow into beings who will become as much like God as possible.  They are to join the dance, become partners with the Trinity.  

But the very first two make a fatal decision.  They decide that they can live unplugged from the Tree of Life—the presence and energy of God—and can, in fact, be God themselves.

God is not surprised—he saw this day coming even as he was knitting them together.  You can’t surprise someone who lives outside the boundaries of time.  And he is not angry.  He does, however, become very sad as separation and the reality of free will play out before his eyes.

He sets in motion a series of plans to woo us back home, refusing to give up on his original plan to be a nurturing parent to his precious children, showing them how to grow their character until it mirrors his own.

Through the passing millennia God becomes the prodigal Father, standing by his driveway, straining his neck waiting for his children to come home.  He sends cards and letters, patriarchs and prophets with the same message: “Your inheritance is waiting; the promises can still be cashed.  Come home, I want to be with you, I want to teach you to dance.”

But when it becomes clear that we will not come home for longer than a brief visit, God can wait no longer.  He empties himself of divine dignity, and wades into the murk and sits down in the mire alongside his prodigal children—becoming as much like us as possible for a while so that we can learn to be like him forever.

Jesus brings the good news that the doors to the kingdom are open wide and that the Trinity still wants us to join the dance, to become as one with them as they are with each other.

And he inhales death and separation into himself and shows through the gruesome image of crucifixion what it looks like to freely die to all that is separate from the will of God.  And then he demonstrates through his resurrection that he knows what he’s talking about. 

But that’s not all.  He sends the Holy Spirit with music and a dance chart so that we can learn how to waltz with the Trinity, even now, as we wait for the real party to begin.

For now, I will leave the postscript to Richard Rohr:

As Matthew Fox taught many years ago, Christianity’s contrived “Fall-Redemption” spirituality just keeps digging us into a deeper and deeper hole (my words!). We must return to our original “Creation Spirituality” for the foundational reform of Christianity. (from The Story that Defines Us)