Blessed Are They Who Declare Spiritual Bankruptcy

Oh, the untouchable Joy
(even here and now)
of those who declare
spiritual bankruptcy;

they are in a position
where Grace and God
can do something!

The reactions of some had me second-guessing this, my own translation of the first Beatitude (from Matthew 5:3).  Was I being a bit extreme, a bit harsh, a bit dramatic?  (As a “1” on the Enneagram, I can digress in times of stress to the unhealthy histrionics and melancholy of a “4.”)

But, then, wait!  Various commentators seemed to justify my position:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
(Eugene Peterson in The Message Bible)

 The words “poor in spirit” no longer convey the sense of spiritual destitution that they were originally meant to bear. Amazingly, they have come to refer to a praiseworthy condition. So, as a corrective, I have paraphrased the verse as… “Blessed are the spiritual zeros — the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’ — when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them.”…  [They] are blessed as a result of the kingdom of God being available to them in their spiritual poverty. (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 100)

 Thus, to be “poor in spirit” is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty, indeed our spiritual bankruptcy.  Before God, we have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy the favour of heaven…  We do not belong anywhere except alongside the publican in Jesus’ parable, crying out with downcast eyes, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  As Calvin wrote: “He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.”  (John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p.39)

unboundIt’s a dynamic at the foundation of the 12-Steps (which we engage in the Zoe-Life Exploration, “Introduction to 12-Step Spirituality”): “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1 of the “12 Steps”)  It’s at the heart of Lent, as well.

Dear Friends, unless and until we own the limits of our wisdom and strength to master life and living, we will continue to live under the tyranny of what John Baker calls our “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.”  There is help, yes. But, it’s above and beyond us… and only available as we acknowledge and abandon our inordinate addiction to being in control.

Here, to make this point relevant for each and all of us, I appreciate the words and input of Dr. Gerald May, from his book, Addiction and Grace:

I am not being flippant when I say that all of us suffer from addiction. Nor am I reducing the meaning of addiction. I mean in all truth that the psychological, neurological, and spiritual dynamics of full-fledged addiction are actively at work within every human being. The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies, and an endless variety of other things. We are all addicts in every sense of the word. Moreover, our addictions are our own worst enemies. They enslave us with chains that are of our own making and yet that, paradoxically, are virtually beyond our control. Addiction also makes idolators of us all, because it forces us to worship these objects of attachment, thereby preventing us from truly, freely loving God and one another. (Gerald May, Addiction and Grace, p. 3-4)

It’s a difficult word to hear and accept, I’ll agree. Still, it resonates with the call of Christ: “If any would be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.“  (Matthew 16:24)  Still, too, it conveys the invitation of Lent: that they who know what it is to die to self will be in the best position to most fully celebrate Easter and it’s glorious news!

It’s all a way of saying that spiritual formation (or reformation or transformation) isn’t always easy.  It does not always feel good.  But, it sure is worth it.

Lent’s Call to Fasting… and Feasting

“What are you going to give up for Lent?!”:
it’s a question which many will ask in coming days.
It’s only one question, though,
which we should be about asking in these days.
Equally important is the question of
“What you are going to positively take up?”

Lenten preparation, you see, hovers between the poles of
“what do I need to die to?” and “what do I need to live for?”
It’s in the maintenance of both questions
that we most fully and properly prepare
for Easter, Easter’s Faith, and Easter living.

Mentioning this to Kathy the other day had her recalling a friend who took her out to lunch.  “I decided that, once a week, as a discipline for Lent, I’d take someone I was grateful for out to lunch,” he told her.  (Admittedly, it made me a little suspicious to hear that.  “What a pick-up line,” I thought.  That is, until she told me it was Brian [a co-leader from the Catholic Center] – in time to become Fr. Brian.)

I came across the “fast from & feast on” list, above, at a retreat a few years ago. (Thank you, Father Philip Chircop!)  It reminds us, does it not, that this dynamic is a logical part of Lenten devotion—in which our “giving ups” companion with and inspire our “taking ups”!

Forging and fashioning the liturgical calendar,
early Christians knew that strides
in spiritual formation was to be found
in a faithful and disciplined observance
of the fundamental rhythms of our Lord’s life.

It’s our prayer—for ourselves and you:
that God’s Grace and Peace
would shepherd us all
as we embark
on the ancient pilgrimage to Easter which is Lent
—fasting and feasting on the way to the celebration of Easter.

Moving Beyond “The Obscurity of the Familiar”

“Gleanings from the Life of Jesus:
Insights for Spiritual Formation”
is a Zoe-Life Exploration in which
I engage my years of study and work
with Biblical archaeologist and teacher, Jim Fleming—
filtering it through the lens of spiritual formation
(i.e., our journey unto maturity in Jesus Christ).
(I’ll be leading three such explorations
with congregations in the coming season of Lent.)

A crucial starting point (and a good way to convey the essence of this series) is to engage ancient versus more modern (and popular) conceptions of the Last Supper.  Da Vinci's Last SupperMost modern conceptions of the Last Supper (largely formed by Da Vinci) has Jesus sitting at the center of a straight-line table, his disciples evenly balanced on each side.  (See Figure 1, above.)  (Let’s set aside, by the way, the fact that that Jesus has an Eastern European look in the painting.  Here, I could go on – employing, of all things, a December, 2002 article from Popular Mechanics on “The Real Face of Jesus”.)

Historian's Last SupperTextual cues and first century, middle eastern customs, though, suggest that the Last Supper occurred in a kataluma – a “furnished” upper room in which a triclinium (a three-sided, u-shaped, reclining table) was a prominent feature.  (See Figure 2, above.)  Jesus and company are not seated.  They recline on their left elbow.  (No wonder that John leans on Jesus’ chest to ask him something in John 13:23!)  And Jesus, as host, is seated not at the center but in the seat of the host (second position in on the left side of the U facing out).  Other textual clues give us a good idea of where John, Judas and Peter were all sitting (or reclining), as well.

While we could go on (and will in these explorations), this is enough to posit some essential starting points in this post:

  • That there is, as Ken Bailey has called it, an “obscurity of the familiar” when it comes to a lot of our Bible reading. That is, we are so familiar (or think we are familiar) with the contours of the Biblical narrative that we miss it’s real shape and message.
  • That a lot of this “obscurity” comes from the media to which we are drawn. Here, I am not speaking of news media.  No, the real curriers of the “fake” here are the seemingly innocent artists and greeting card makers and poets and movie makers who shape our understandings and impressions (of the nativity and Holy Week and the teachings of Christ and…).  Unknowlingly, I suspect, Da Vinci (and others) took the norms of his time and shaped them into his understanding of the Last Supper.  16th Century norms shaped his rendering which then informed us in our 20th Century impressions.
  • So that, the first crucial insight for spiritual formation becomes the crucial need for humility in our engagement of the Scriptures (and Tradition)—being open to the blinders and filters we’ve maintained (mostly in unconscious ways) and asking God to assist us unto a clearer view of Jesus, the Gospels, God, self, others,

Though we could leave it here, I can not help add an interesting footnote—related to recent efforts to restore Da Vinci’s Last Supper.  Writes Dwight Pryor:

In 1498 Leonardo da Vinci painted Jesus and the apostles at the Passover Seder in the light of his own Renaissance culture. When, in the latter part of the 20th century, the painting was carefully cleaned and restored using the lat­est scientific tools and techniques, the colors became much more intense, and it was discovered that, over time, some alterations had been made by subsequent artists. Surprisingly, many people were unhappy with the restoration, preferring instead the traditional, faded image of “The Last Supper.” (Behold the Man, p.11)

gleaningsInteresting, to me, that the restored masterpiece (“fake” as it is a rendering of historical reality) shares something in common with the “original” Last Supper.  Both suffer from a syndrome in which the familiar, though murky, is preferred to the original and real! Fascinating, is it not: that there’s something is us humans that can prefer the familiar and “traditional” (no matter how cloudy and inaccurate) over the real and true – so much so that we can bemoan all efforts to see things more clearly.

Jesus reclining at a U-shaped table:
it may not be that radical an adjustment for us to make.
It may not foster much resentment.
It can point to a fuller dynamic, though,
which should unsettle and drive us to prayer:
“Where, O Lord,
am I, are we, holding
onto the familiar–
so much so that the Real
is being obscured and neglected?!”

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:
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—
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, 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
* 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.