Spiritual Formation Through the Lens of The Critical Journey

It remains a fundamental document in my spiritual formation library: pastor and blogger David Terpstra’s article at Christianity Today, entitled “Exit Stage Left: Why the Spiritually Mature are Leaving the Church.”

It was my introduction to Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich’s The Critical Journey – to which Terpstra gave some review:

critical journey amazon Hagberg and Guelich propose that most spiritual journeys tend to move in six distinct stages. The first three are easy to see and hard to argue with: (1) Recognition of God, (2) The Life of Discipleship, and (3) The Productive Life. Certainly, after most people become followers of Christ (stage 1) they begin to absorb as much content (stage 2) as possible. Then sometime later they begin to serve (stage 3). And since the authors propose that the stages are cumulative, people of faith continue to be good at these stages over the long haul. I believe these are the three stages of faith where our churches excel and where most church leadership energy is expended.

But Hagberg and Guelich suggest there are still three stages to go, and it is the fourth I want to focus on. The fourth stage is called “The Journey Inward.” The authors suggest that at some point our faith shifts focus from the externals of discipleship and service and begins to become internalized. We begin to redefine our impressions of the faith and to some degree even our theology as we mature.

Invaluable as that introduction was, there’s Terpstra’s further connection of Hagberg and Guelich’s work with the rise of the rise of those demographic groupings which some call the religious “Nones” and “Dones.” In the early stages, he notes, the frustrated and disappointed can make all sorts of adjustments which the current system of ministry can accommodate: going to another church, becoming involved in mission projects (overseas and domestic), etc. However (and, here, he admits he’s speaking in generalities), “[most] churches do not specialize in people who have been following Christ for years and who are deeply questioning and reexamining their beliefs.” For these (in the latter, more interior stages of faith), “attempts to continue to grow in [traditional] discipleship and service eventually wear out… Many become so disillusioned they leave the church (physically or at least metaphorically by ‘checking out’).”

I’ll admit, his closing questions still captivate me:

But how do we walk alongside those on the Journey Inward?

What do we do when someone hits the spiritual “Wall”?

What happens when we as leaders reach that place?

I believe it is this moment in our journey when we need the church most; so what’s a local church to do?

AoPI’ve acknowledged elsewhere the ways that Terpstra’s article has fueled me in my work. It provided a basis for my practicum work in spiritual formation studies at Garrett Evangelical Seminary. It is, as well, a foundation of that Zoe-Life “Exploration” which is the “THE ART OF PILGRIMAGE: AFFIRMATIONS & PROVISIONS FOR THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY”—and the basis of a one-day retreat/”time apart” we will be offering twice in February:

Explorations in the Critical Journey
(A Day Apart for Clergy)
(February 7, from 8:30 AM to 3 PM)
@ Reiter R&R in Bryan, TX

Explorations in the Critical Journey
(A Day Apart for Clergy and Church Leaders)
(Saturday, February 9, from 8:30 AM to 3 PM)
@ Reiter R&R in Bryan, TX

As you are interested in getting more information or in registering, you can click on either of the links above. (Of course, as you are unable to come our way, we’re ever ready to discuss the ways we can bring this [or other explorations/offerings] your way! [Feel free to drop us a line by clicking here.])

Sacred Viewing at the Manger

madi's creche2Symbols are important in our spiritual formation.  Ever pointing to icons and sculptures and artwork, Henri Nouwen has introduced us to the concept of “lectio visio”, sacred viewing.

madi's creche4Even so, the creche or nativity scene (first developed by St. Francis in 1223).

Our nativity scenes vary.  There’s the one from my childhood, a simple Sears & Roebuck product.  We’ve accrued pieces to a scene started by gift money from the second church we served, in Orange, TX in the late 1980’s.  There’s a scene bought during a trip to the Holy Land.  One painted and fired by a gentleman during early ministry years.  A daughter brought us set from a trip to Mexico.  Kathy purchased another in San Antonio.  And, of course, there’s the cherished Charlie Brown nativity scene, Snoopy and all.

And oh, how we hope — how we earnestly pray — that their presence amongst all the comings and goings in these next days will symbolize and “remind us of the humble birth of Jesus.”

Along these lines, the United Methodist Book of Worship has a lovely blessing you might take a moment to pray over your own creche.  It encompasses our hope that our focus at Christmas will be about the “main thing”: the gift of the Christ child.

God of every nation and people,
from the very beginning of creation
you made manifest your love.
When our need for Savior was great,
you sent your Son to be born
of the Virgin Mary.
To our lives he brings joy and peace,
just mercy and love.
Lord, bless all who look up on this manger.
May it remind us
of the humble birth of Jesus,
and raise up our thoughts to Him,
Who is God-with-us and Savior of all,
and who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

–UM Book of Worship,
Blessing of a Nativity Scene

 Kathy and I pray that, as focused in the manger of Bethlehem, these days would deliver God’s joy and peace, justice, mercy and love to you and yours!

Advent as a Time of Yielding to Transparency

Developing teaching media and working in various secretarial capacities through the years has seen me become a fairly proficient desktop publisher. (In coming posts, I might need to share other proficiencies gleaned from the pastorate – including janitorial work and chauffeuring and…)transparancey (untabled)

Through the years, I’ve learned the art of “kerning” text, adjusting wrap features, editing and manipulating images,… (These may not be the technical terms in the “real” trade but they work for me.)

When it comes to manipulating an image (especially when there’s a desire to impose some [readable] words on top of them), knowing how to adjust the transparency of a superimposed shape (see figure 1, right) is important. At 0% transparency (figure 2), nothing of the underlying images comes through. (Great for reading words… but terrible for have the words inform the picture and vice versa.) Increase the transparency (figures 3-5) and the image comes through more and more fully. (Somewhere in between, one can impose some text that stands to be readable against the faded image in the background.)

I share all of this (thank you for bearing with me for this long!) for the ways it illuminates and conveys insights from a recent reading of Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Formation: Following the Movement of the Spirit (Harper One, 2010).

Among the early “movements” of spiritual formation that Henri defines is that of “opaqueness to transparency.” Reading, my mind invariable turned to my metaphor from desktop publishing:

Spiritual formation requires a constant discipline of prayer to move from opaqueness to transparency, a discipline by which a world of darkness is transformed into one of transcendent light. Nature no longer is a property to control but a gift to be received and shared. Time no longer is a random series of events but a constant opportunity for a change of heart. When time is converted from chronos to kairos (and from history to his-story), we can seize the present moment and be at peace. And when people are no longer interesting characters to meet or exploit for our own purpose but persons “sounding through” more than they can contain, they can be loved and protected and understood. Contemplative prayer helps us remove our blindfolds and see the world as it truly is—as sacramental—connected and constantly revealing to us the great love of God. (emphasis added) (p. 12)

jesus, core of pieIt’s akin to what Harry Wend teaches in some of his Crossways materials (cf., Crossways.org)—giving rise to another metaphor in the shape of a pie. Christianity and Jesus, Harry rightly teaches us, are not just one piece of the pie of life, as some imagine – sitting alongside of the other slices of family, education, work, money/stewardship, civic duty,… (figure 6, right)  NO! Jesus and the Gospel are at the heart of the pie – key ingredients that fill the whole! Nouwen’s “transparency” is a matter of seeing that – and believing it and living it out! (figure 7)

It’s among the things we celebrate at Christmas and prepare for in Advent. Not just that God becomes more clearer through his first coming in Jesus—there in Bethlehem, millennia ago. But, allowing ourselves (or being allowed by God… or both) to see Jesus and Grace and Gospel all around us with greater clarity–right here, right now!

Open my eyes, that I might see
(yielded to greater transparency)
Earth crammed with divinity.
“God is with us!,” our hearts decree.

Seeing [and Knowing] Yourself Through the Lens of the Enneagram

enneagram exploration blog post garphic (12-7-18).jpgIn the last two or three years, a seemingly new personality tool has emerged on the scene. The word “enneagram” has begun to pop up. It certainly sounds strange and its diagram even seems suspect. Actually, the Enneagram is an ancient tool with its use among the Early Church being cited as far back as the 4th century.  (Many feel its valid to date the Enneagram’s existence to even earlier in pre-Christian settings.)  All that to note that the Enneagram is not a new method on the scene, a “Johnny-come-lately”, but an ancient tool used for centuries to help people understand themselves and further surrender through their transformation into the image of the Christ (a call for us all).

Key components of the Enneagram are the nine different personality types or styles, each of which reflects a facet of God’s pure image. The Enneagram shows us the god-like characteristics that are part of our truest self. With some discernment, we can identify with one particular Enneagram style (or number). In its giftedness, the Enneagram also reveals our most consistent pitfalls, barriers or roadblocks. These can be called our root sins, our “pet” sins which, in our most humble state, we are willing to realize we keep facing repeatedly. This awareness creates a sensitivity that, along with grace, helps us make different choices (instead of returning to the rutted behavior).

Another treasure of the Enneagram is how each number is attached to two other Enneagram numbers or types which either serve us well or deepen our rut. Becoming aware of the presence of these behaviors opens our hearts to other ways to be. Instead of always functioning out of a default behavior, we become aware of our better choices. The affirmation, the positivity we feel in these moments strengthen us to keep returning to the better behavior, more naturally.

My training as a Spiritual Director brought the Enneagram into my life 7 years ago. While I learned a lot during my three-year program, lessons and insights surrounding the Enneagram is what impacted me the most. Truly, it has been life-changing for me. It’s opened my eyes to dynamics which have frustrated me for years – how I treat others, how I respond to others, even how I treat myself. Suddenly there was language and understanding to what I had been feeling and ways I had been reacting and I began to organically move into better responses and behaviors. I feel I live more whole heartedly out of my strengths and see my value for the common good. I am far quicker at recognizing my return to an old rut and am more often able to turn my face, my heart, a different direction. With the companionship of God’s Holy Spirit, my Spiritual Director, and friends who are also Enneagram-aware (it’s been enriching for me and Jim in our marriage), I feel this tool has been life-giving in my desire to live more like Christ.

I long to give enough description of the Enneagram to inform and, perhaps, intrigue you with its potential in/for your life.   Rest assured, you can get your bearings in regard to the Enneagram. Good reading and sound teaching will aid you. 

In that spirit, we offer an Exploration entitled, “Introduction to the Enneagram.”  Having experienced the meaningful gift which is the Enneagram, we are confident that this offering can and will “bring more life to our years.”

For more about coming “Introduction to the Enneagram” Explorations (including one in north Houston at the Cramer Retreat Center on January 12), click here.

When the Student is Ready, Christmas [Fully] Appears

With Advent’s approach, a Buddhist saying comes to mind:
“When the student is ready, the Master appears.”

As we suggested in our first issue of Ruminations (released a little over a week ago… available by clicking here), Advent is more than Christmas lite.  It’s a distinct season of preparation in which and through which we are better prepared and equipped to receive the fullness of Christmas and its Gift.

And among the basics as we prepare?  In my own mind and heart, there’s the essential task of acknowledging –recognizing and accepting — our need for a Savior.

Here, a variety of fundamental teachings come to mind:

There’s Jesus asking the paralytic “do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) – affirming his words elsewhere that they have no need for a physician (a savior) who do not or can not acknowledge their brokenness. (Mark 2:17)

Related, there are the essential first affirmations of 12-Steppers: 1) acknowledging that our lives are out of control and we alone are powerless to effect changes, and 2) coming to believe that there is a Higher Power (a savior) that can restore sanity.

Others could be added.  These, though, are the ones that come immediately to mind.  These are sufficient to make the point: that they have no need for the core Gift of Christmas who do not see and feel the need for a savior.

This is not to say that there are no blessings for those who are not so prepared.  Grace is as amazing at Christmas as it is at any other time of the year.  There’ll be a lot joy and peace and love and hope experienced by many who bypass the ancient path to Christmas which is Advent and its preparations.

Sadly, though, the experience of such gifts will brush past the real and lasting Gift – the deepest and fullest Grace of Christmas.  It’s a variation of the toddler enamored with a present’s bow – oblivious to the deeper, fuller gift… and the ultimate intentions of the Giver.

eyes unfocused

A traditional word from the prophet at this time of the year (“Those that walk in darkness have seen a great light”) implies that eyes are open and working – that individuals are in a position to see.  On the basis of all of this, the meaning of the Buddhist saying, above, becomes clear – at least to me: “When the student is ready [to see],
the Master (the Savior) appears.”
Not that He only then arrives
but that His ever-presence
is only then fully perceived and acknowledged!

And, therein, Friends, is the essential distinction
between Advent and Christmas:

Christ fully present:
that’s the Gift of Christmas!

Eyes and hearts open to see and receive that Gift:
that’s, in large part,
the agenda,
the invitation,
the challenge of Advent!