Spiritual Formation as Journey – Part 4

Telling the Story of the Journey

Whether it is told sitting around the campfire, or explained with pictures to friends back home, each hiking experience has a story.  Stories are the means by which we communicate the truths we learned about ourselves and others.  Cole writes, “their story, yours, mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” (R. Coles. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. p. 30).

People need opportunities to make the connection of their faith story to His story.  “Human beings become faithful by living in a community of faith and by discovering what it means to claim its stories and values as their own.” (Vogel, p. 85.)

Evangelism, sharing the faith story, is a vital element in spiritual formation.  How can we expect believers to share the story of Jesus Christ to a skeptical, hostile world, when they feel uncomfortable in sharing their faith story to the Family of God?  The journey of spiritual formation must include opportunities for participants to share their faith stories and hear the faith stories of others.  This is crucial to our task as theological educators.  Vogel writes,

Those preparing for ministry today . . . may or may not come out of faith communities.  But if they do not embody their faith family’s stories and rituals and lifestyles, how are they to nurture others in the ways of their faith family?  (Vogel, p. 85.)

I am continually reminded of how little we know about one another.  What are the significant spiritual events of my colleagues?  What is God doing in and through those that I worship with?  Spiritual formation groups should encourage the telling of faith stories. These stories not only build up our fellow pilgrims—the telling of our story strengthens our own faith as well.

In every Rockbridge course, students share their faith experiences with one another. They also engage in spiritual practices together.  In their discussion forums, students share their of faith stories. Student evaluations consistently say that “interaction with other students” is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the course.

 

Upcoming Class in 2020-T2:  Theology and Practice of Fellowship

This is a study of God’s purpose for fellowship and the doctrine of the Church.  Students develop a biblical understanding of the church and how the church has expressed the purpose of fellowship throughout history.  In addition, learners will identify select functions and forms of fellowship and examine various organizational systems for promoting the purpose of fellowship. Registration begins February 3.  For more information contact admissions@rockbridge.edu.

 

Spiritual Journey as Formation, Part 3

The Journey is an Experience, Not a Spectator Sport

Part 3 of a 6-Part Series

Some years ago I hiked the Na Pali coast on the island of Kauai with my wife and young adult children.  We did not learn to hike the Na Pali Coast by attending a class at our nearest mountain equipment store, nor by reading books on hiking.  We learned to hike by walking the Kalalau Trail.  We did read books on Hawaii and pored over maps.  On the trail, however, we learned that some of the streams drawn on the maps were dried up and discovered that some markers were no longer visible.  The terrain changes constantly, and the weather can become violent at a moment’s notice.  So it is with spiritual formation.  The best classes on spiritual formation are no substitute for experiencing spiritual formation.   Students need to learn about techniques on prayer, but they learn best by praying with one another.

Along the Kalalau Trail we experienced new sensations.  We smelled sweet ocean breezes, swam underneath cold waterfalls, ate passion fruit picked fresh off trees, and slept underneath bright stars undimmed by city lights.  On the trail we had no cable television, pizza delivery, hot showers, or Internet.  When we arrived at our halfway point, my tired wife tried to use her cell phone to call a helicopter to take us back to civilization.  The cell phone was useless along the Na Pali cliffs.  It was just another item to weigh us down.  For a few days we experienced a different way of life.  This is the call to spiritual formation.  Linda Vogel writes,

Abraham and Sarah embarked in faith on a long journey to a far away and unknown place (Gen. 12-25:11).  Their journey was not only to new surroundings and a new way of life; it was to a different way of understanding who they were and who God intended them to be; it was a journey that involved letting go of old ways of thinking and acting and of trusting untried ways of relating to God and others.  (Linda Vogel.  Teaching and Learning in Communities of Faith.  San Francisco:  Josey-Bass Publishers, 1991, p. 4.)

Twenty years from now I want to look back and say I’m not the same person I was.  I want to be able to say I have changed, evolved, grown.  I pray I will let go of my older way of thinking, acting, and trusting, so much so that I won’t recognize my former self.  Things I clung to will no longer be important.  My love for God and others will have deepened. No matter how far I’ve come, there are still new opportunities to experience change.  Paul expressed it this way:

Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ. (Phil 3:12-14, Phillips)

The reward for spiritual formation is not information or orthodoxy.  The reward of spiritual formation is an intimate experience with our Creator.  My prayer for our seminarians is to be on a lifelong spiritual quest and not merely satisfied spectators of spiritual things.

 

Spiritual Formation as Journey, Part 2

A Journey Requires a Guide

A walk in the park doesn’t require a guide. However, a trek in the wilderness, especially when you are going to a destination you have never been, requires a guide. In the Southwest, cowboys refer to the guide as the “front rider.” Guides come in many forms. On the trails in Hawaii, we came upon a grungy fellow dressed in old army fatigues, a pith helmet, and duct-taped scuba shoes, eating berries he had just picked. While we had a map, a compass, and the trail was well marked, we discovered we needed important information that he possessed, because he had traveled these trails over 300 times. This strange-looking individual saved our lives. He informed us that a storm was moving in and we did not want to get caught attempting to ford the streams in this valley. Even with a small rain, the rivers swell and it is impossible to cross the swiftly moving waters. He encouraged us to quickly leave the valley. We also learned about the fruit that he was eating and the remarkable plants we had previously failed to notice.

We all need guides for our journey, whether we are hiking across the Appalachian Mountains or maneuvering through our Christian life. Peter Lord writes,

Both at the beginning of our walk as Christians and all along the way, we need other people to help keep us on course—to fellowship with us, minister to and love us, and ease our trip. At various times in life we will need one or more spiritual directors.

Professors in theological schools report the lack of spiritual depth of entering students. While most students come to seminary with evidence of a call and a zeal for ministry, they are not spiritually prepared for the task before them. Few practice the disciplines of the Christian life. While they may have grown up in Sunday School, few incoming seminarians have received the nurturing of a discipleship group and a mentor. Theological students, especially Generation Xers, are hungry for what Peter Lord calls a spiritual director—“a tour guide, a spiritual companion, soul friend, shepherd, discipler. What is important is not the title, but the function.” At Rockbridge students are required to enlist a mentor/spiritual guide to assist them each term.  Faculty also serve as spiritual guides to provide tips and wisdoms about how to practice the spiritual disciplines.

What are the functions of a spiritual guide? Peter Lord identifies seven functions of those who choose to serve as a spiritual companion for this journey:

Developing Christ-Consciousness
Interpreting Life’s Events and Experiences
Hearing Confession/Granting God’s Forgiveness
Recognizing Danger
Encouraging
Instructing/Facilitating Change
Providing Friendship

We also discovered on our wilderness trek that each person at one time or another became a guide. At times our daughter led the group, at other times, our son. Unfortunately, there is a misconception in western evangelicalism that the pastor or a theologically-trained staff member are the only ones capable of interpreting the spiritual significance of life’s events.

What is needed in the 21st century is a new reformation that enables and empowers laity to minister alongside the clergy. Perhaps we can embrace a more Hebrew/Eastern concept that discipleship is a tribal or communal experience in which there are many mentors. I may learn to pray from an elderly woman in the church and learn to love God with all of my heart from a young adult who just a short time ago was on cocaine.

Spiritual Formation as Journey, Part 1

A few years ago, our family went backpacking on the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii.  I was pumped at the prospect of seeing beautiful waterfalls, sunsets in the ocean, and breathtaking views from the cliffs of Na Pali Coast.  However, I did not expect that in the course of those six days on the eleven mile trail I would come to discover similarities between that experience and spiritual formation.  For 2,000 years, “the journey” has been used as a metaphor for the Christian experience.  This is a six-part series on what I learned from our trek.

Part 1:  The spiritual journey is not a solo event. Yes, there are a few who choose to backpack by themselves.  But the really breathtaking views, such as Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon, require a team.  God’s grace, while experienced personally, can never be fully grasped alone.  The Apostle Paul writes,

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love may have power, together with all of the saints to grasp how wide, and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of the knowledge of Him.  (Eph. 3:18)

This passage always stumped me.  How can you know that which you cannot know?  How can you know the full extent of a love that is beyond comprehension?  The answer is found in the phrase, “together with all of the saints.” I began to realize the breadth of God’s love as I heard about the spilling out of His grace upon fellow pilgrims.  I cannot personally experience every conceivable act of God’s love, but the Body of Christ collectively does.  I may not have experienced God’s presence through the death of a child, or the loss of a spouse, or His calm assurance through financial difficulties, but there are those in the Body of Christ who have.  And as I hear those stories of faith, I begin to realize our God is an awesome God.

Spiritual growth is more than personal, it is communal.  God conveys Himself to each of us not only through our personal relations with Him and our practice of the spiritual disciplines, but also through other believers as we fellowship with them.[1]

On one camping trip, one of our inner-city kids was alone by a campfire.  When I sat down by Aaron, I noticed he was crying.  I had never seen Aaron cry.  He was one of the toughest kids I had ever taught, but there he was, sobbing.  I said, “What’s the matter, Aaron?”  Aaron didn’t reply with words but took a stick and raked a piece of wood from the fire and we watched the embers turn from orange to white ash.  After several minutes, Aaron said, “I’m like that piece of wood.  When I’m in the youth group, I burn bright for Jesus.  But when I’m away from the group, I’m as cold as ash.”  What a perfect picture of the Church.  We need each other in this journey.  We cannot go it alone.

In our trek along the Na Pali Coast, our family learned that each person in our family contributed to the enjoyment of the journey.  The men carried more weight than the women.  Some cooked, some fetched firewood, others filled water bottles, but all were important to the safety and survival of the group.

Theological schools are struggling to find the best way to offer spiritual formation.  While students can learn the disciplines of the Christian faith by reading books and practicing personal Bible Study, prayer, fasting, etc., Christian educators know that spiritual growth occurs best in small groups.  Across the theological landscape, spiritual formation is being revived through small group ministries.  Professors are finding that Christian formation groups, covenant groups, discipleship groups, ministry teams, or whatever you may call them, provide students with the support, encouragement, and accountability needed to grow in their intimacy with God and with His Church.  At Rockbridge, students in small classes of 9-15 engage in spiritual practices together.  They journey together.

[1] Neil T. Anderson & Robert L. Saucy, The Common Made Holy.  Eugene, Oregon:  Harvest House Publishers, 1997, p. 300.

2020 Vision

As we begin a new year, my 2020 vision for our students is threefold:

1. Students will know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Through our curriculum, students gain a great deal of information about the Bible, theology, and practical ministry skills. We are proud of the academic accomplishments of our students. But we also believe that knowing God is more than cognition. The apostle Paul prayed that his disciples would know a love that surpasses knowledge, that his disciples would be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:19)

I pray that in 2020 our students will seek intimate relationships with the Spirit.  Henri Nouwen wrote, “For the future of Christian leadership it is of vital importance to reclaim the mystical aspect of theology so that every word spoken, every advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately.” I pray that our students will be people with an ardent desire to sit in the presence of God and listen to his voice.

2. Students will receive grace. All of our students hold ministry positions in their churches and ministry organizations. These leaders are great at dispensing grace. They give others a break, but they are often too critical of their own shortcomings. When they get an “A,” they are disappointed they didn’t get an “A+”. They give, and give, and give, but they have a hard time receiving grace. I pray that God will provide every student with grace to receive grace from mentors, colleagues, and professors.

3. Students will persevere. Graduate school is demanding enough, but when you add the exhaustion of ministry, seminary can seem overwhelming at times. Our students will face church and family crises. They will experience health issues. Some students will experience financial challenges that will affect their continuation in school.

Difficult circumstances are the soil for growth. As James wrote, “Dear brothers, is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow. So let it grow, and don’t try to squirm out of your problems. For when your patience is finally in full bloom, then you will be ready for anything, strong in character, full and complete.” (James 1:204 TLB)  I pray that our students will know the power of Christ’s resurrection and find strength and perseverance in his sufferings.

Would you join me in praying that this 2020 vision will be realized? One of my key verses for this year is, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Eph. 6:18)

So be it.

Joy

Do you know people who are joy challenged?  I do and one of them is me.  I’m still on step 5 of my 12-step joy program.  I grew up in the Midwest and joyous expressions were verboten.  We were taught to not draw attention to ourselves. In our tribe, Christianity required a serious demeanor.  Remember Michal who despised David dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant? (2 Sam 6:16)  I’m convinced she was from the Midwest, probably a Baptist cousin.

So, what is joy anyway?  Joy is best defined from the Greek adjective, entheos or “having the God within.”  It means one acts as if he is “possessed by God,” “crazy excitement,” or “un-regulated religious fervor.” What a great definition for joy, “infused unregulated excitement for God.”  You just can’t control it. Full throttled joy!

The third Sunday of Advent is the week of proclamation. The heavenly message heard by the shepherds concerned “good news of great joy.”  Joy characterizes the Christmas season.  After the shepherds saw Jesus, they immediately departed to share that joy.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  So they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.  (Luke 2:15-17)

Dear Father, our hearts are filled with joy because of the good news of Jesus.  Like the shepherds, help us to tell others about his amazing presence in our lives.

Please Remember Us

We are grateful for those who support Rockbridge through their prayers, recommendations of students, and their financial gifts.  Thanks for trusting us.  As we close out another year, please consider donating to our mission of developing servant leaders for Christian ministry.  You can give online at this link.

In the Flesh

You’ve heard the phrase “in the flesh.”  If a person should ask if you are so-and-so, you might reply, “in the flesh.”  “If you meet or see others in the flesh, you are physically present with them, rather than seeing them on television or reading about them in a book.  Christmas is about God showing up “in the flesh.”  In the incarnation, God took on skin and bones.  He pitched his tent among us.

Since the first Christmas, believers have struggled to grasp the significance of God becoming man.  God didn’t send us another prophet or another book to put in our collection of sacred writings, nor deliver another set of rules.  God wanted us to experience him up close and personal, in the flesh.  If that doesn’t cause you to be filled with wonder and amazement, your sense of wonder needs an adjustment.

Oh, and there is more.  The incarnation continues today.  Jesus said, “When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20, NLT).  In other words, we are one with the Father and the Son.  God is not only with us, he is in us.  Wherever we go, we embody the love and grace of God.

As we celebrate the blessed event of Christmas, remember that God is in you.  The only Jesus others may see this season is the Jesus in you.  Demonstrate his glorious presence in every encounter.

New Term Begins January 7, 2020

It’s not too late for new students to enroll in the January term.  Please share the word with those you know who could benefit from our successful ministry leadership training.  Admissions coaches are available at admissions@rockbridge.edu.

Thank You

Thank you for the tremendous outpouring of support on #GivingTuesday.  We received over $6,000.  As we close out another year, please consider donating to our mission of developing servant leaders for Christian ministry.  Your can send your check to Rockbridge Seminary, 3111 E. Battlefield, Springfield, MO 65804, or  give online at this link.

 

Grace and Gratitude

Have you noticed that people who have difficulty accepting grace also have trouble with gratitude?  Grace and gratitude go hand in hand.  While many believers express the belief that salvation is a free gift from God, their thoughts and actions say the opposite.  They think they earned or deserve all the good gifts they receive.  Grace, for them, is the result of living rightly, instead of being an extravagant gift from a wildly magnanimous God.  The good news of the gospel is that grace is not merited favor.  It’s favor that defies logic, a crazy generosity that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with who God is.  God does not keep score.  He gives unconditionally and unreservedly to the just and unjust, the rich and poor, the lovely and unlovely alike.

When we truly understand grace, gratitude washes over us, overwhelming and changing us.  We see everything and everyone in a new light.  Things we used to take for granted become evidence of God’s extravagance.  We begin to recognize the gifts in the smallest things and in the biggest challenges.  We are moved to extend grace to others.  Gratitude flows out of receiving grace as it is, undeserved and freely given.  Richard Rohr writes,

 

Brothers and sisters, you and I don’t “deserve” anything, anything. It’s all a gift. But until we begin to live in the kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world, we think, as most Christians do, exactly like the world. We like the world of seemingly logical equations. Basically, to understand the Gospel in its purity and in its transformative power, we have to stop counting, measuring, and weighing. We have to stop saying “I deserve and deciding who does not deserve. None of us “deserve”! Can we do that? It’s pretty hard . . . unless we’ve experienced infinite mercy and realize that it’s all a gift.

We encourage students at Rockbridge to keep a gratitude journal as one of their spiritual exercises.  You can do the same thing by reflecting daily on things, people, and circumstances for which you are grateful.  We can even be grateful for hardships.  Write your items down each day, and don’t repeat your list.  Get the big stuff out of the way, such as family, friends, and a paycheck.  Then, begin to notice the smallest of things: the smell of coffee, the taste of a strawberry, the people around you who often go unnoticed yet make your life possible.  Practice gratitude and you’ll discover a whole new meaning of grace.

Giving Tuesday

We are grateful for those who support Rockbridge through their prayers, recommendations of students, and their financial gifts.  Thanks for trusting us.  As we close out another year, please consider donating to our mission of developing servant leaders for Christian ministry.  You can give online at this link.

Lazy Theology

A Christian couple, John and Sarah, wanted to have children, but after spending a fortune for fertility treatments they were still not pregnant.  They were told by friends it must not be God’s will for them to have children. They couldn’t understand how a neighbor’s child, a crack addict and abusive mother, was pregnant for the fourth time. They asked, “Why did God allow her to have another child when she has been such a horrible mother? How is this God’s will?”

Shortly afterwards, Sarah learned she was pregnant. John and Sarah rejoiced that God had heard their prayers and she delivered a healthy boy.  Two years later, the child contracted an illness and died.  The parents were heartbroken, but they were also mad at God for letting this happen. Well-meaning Christians tried to console them with such words as, “God wanted your child home with him,” “God’s ways are mysterious,” “God’s ways are not our ways,” and “This is God’s will.” The couple rightly asked, “If this is God’s will, what kind of God would do this?”

The couple deserved more than simple platitudes and lazy theology. They deserved a minister who is disciplined in strenuous theological reflection. They deserved wise counsel from soul doctors who had explored difficult questions concerning the nature and character of God. They deserved counsel born out of an intimate experience with God.  It is okay to say, “I don’t know.”  It is inexcusable to give simplistic explanations that defame the character of God. What does the advice say about the nature of God? What does this belief say about God’s love? Does this theology make God smaller or bigger?

Why should someone get a seminary degree? Attending seminary should not be about becoming credentialed. It should be more than learning how to administer a church or ministry organization. Seminary education is not solely for the acquisition of Bible knowledge. Theological education is for those who want to intimately know God. It is for those who are willing to abandon preconceived ideas about God and discover the width and breadth of God’s love.

Our world is complex. People wrestle with difficult questions concerning human relationships, justice, and spirituality. They deserve better than lazy theology.  If you are ready to fully prepare yourself to minister wisely to hurting people, to enter completely into the struggle to understand and communicate difficult truths, it may be time for you to start your seminary journey.  For more information, contact an Admissions Counselor.

Giving to Rockbridge.   You may give to Rockbridge through this link.  We are grateful for your support!

God’s Provision

Each semester we hear stories of students who did not have the financial resources to take the next class and God provided for their needs. Recently, one of our students was going through challenges in their business and mentioned to a friend they would not be attending seminary this semester. The friend stopped and prayed for God to provide for this need. The next day a couple, who sensed a divine nudge, gave the student $900 in cash.

Jehovah Jireh was the name our spiritual forefathers used to describe God’s faithful provision. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to ask our Heavenly Father to provide for our daily needs. He prayed, “Give us today our daily bread.” There are several striking things about the prayer. First, it is corporate.  Give “us.”  Jesus reminds us that we in this together. Second, we focus on our “daily” needs. Perhaps this prayer is referring to God’s daily provision of manna in the wilderness. God only provided the Hebrews with what could be eaten that day.  This required their total dependence on Him.

The number one reason students drop out for a season is due to finances. We established a scholarship fund that provides a financial bridge for worthy students. Please pray for the financial needs of our students. If you sense a divine nudge, you can contribute to the scholarship fund through this link. Please indicate your donation is for scholarships.