Reflections on A Call to Spiritu

 

 

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Reflections on A Call to Spiritual Formation

Dr Alex Tang

 

 

The Call

A Call to Spiritual Formation

San Antonio, 2009

Christian spiritual formation is the process of being shaped by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ, filled with love for God and the world.

God calls us all to become like Jesus. Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”* We experience this abundance of life – here and now – as our passions, character, understanding, and relationships are increasingly aligned with those of Christ. This lifelong transformation within and among us is the continual gift of God’s Spirit. We are called to be renewed into the likeness of Jesus – but we do not always fully embrace this calling. Sometimes we seem content to be known as “Christians” without intentionally engaging with this work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Other times we desperately long for a new way of life, wanting to grow in our walk with Jesus, but needing help and encouragement. We, therefore, commit to pursue passionately and to receive joyfully God’s grace to be more fully transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.

(John 7:37–39;*John 10:10;Romans 8:29;1 Corinthians 11:1;1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:17–18;2 Corinthians 4:16–18; 2 Corinthians 5:16–21;Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 1:3; Ephesians 3:16–19;1 John 3:2;1 John 4:17)

As we are rooted in Jesus and in the kingdom he proclaims, we are progressively transformed. Jesus is the center of all life and history, both the source and goal of all creation. God shaped this universe as a place where the love and life of Jesus Christ might flourish. Because we are formed in the divine image, we have the capacity to receive and express this life and love. Although human disobedience corrupts the divine image in us, God still forms a people able to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus makes this possible through his life, death, and resurrection. In him we experience a restored relationship of love with God and one another, and continual transformation into his likeness. We are becoming a reconciled and renewed community which is both the goal and the substance of life in God’s kingdom. This is the good news we proclaim with joy to the whole world.

(Genesis 1:26–28; Genesis 3:1–7;Proverbs 8:22–31;Isaiah 42:5–9;Jeremiah 31:33–34;Mark12:28–34;John 1:1–18; John 13:34–35;Romans 5:9–11;Romans 8:1–11;Romans 8:19–23;Ephesians 2:11–22;Colossians 1:9–23;1 Thessalonians 5:23;1 John 2:7–11)

Our engagement with God’s transforming grace is vital. Renewal into the image of Christ is not a human attainment; it is a gift of grace. God mercifully uses all our experiences, including our suffering and trials, to teach and transform us. Even so, transformation requires our involvement and effort. We need to make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit’s work in all our life experiences, particularly through intentional engagement with historical Christian disciplines, including Word and sacrament. These practices open us to the presence and grace of God. As a result, we become, through time and experience, the kind of persons who naturally express love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and selfcontrol.

(Matthew 5:43–48; Matthew 11:29–30; Luke 6:40; John 7:38; John 15:5–17; Romans 12:1–2; Galatians 5:16–25; Philippians 2:12–13; Philippians 3:12–16; Titus 2:11–14; Hebrews 5:13–6:1;Hebrews 12:7–13; James 4:7–8;1 Peter 2:2;1 Peter 4:1–2)

Spiritual formation happens in community. As we long to know and follow Jesus and be formed into his likeness, we journey with those who share this longing. God is calling the church to be a place of transformation. Here we struggle to fulfill our calling to love. Here we learn to attend to the invitations of God’s Spirit. Here we follow the presence of God in our midst. Spiritual community is the catalyst for our transformation and a sending base for our mission of love to the world.

(Matthew 18:20; Luke 6:12–19; John 17:20–26; Acts 2:42–47; Romans 12:4–8; 1 Corinthians 12:1–7; Galatians 6:1–2; Ephesians 4:1–16; Hebrews 10:23–25;1 Peter 2:4–10)

Spiritual formation is, by its very nature, missional. As we are formed into the likeness of Christ, we increasingly share God’s infinitely tender love for others. We deepen in our compassion for the poor, the broken, and the lost. We ache and pray and labor for others in a new way, a selfless way, a joyfilled way. Our hearts are enlarged toward all people and toward all of creation.

(Isaiah 60:1–4; Matthew 5:14–16; Matthew 28:18–20; John 3:16–21; John 20:21–23; 2 Corinthians 5:20; Galatians 6:10; 1 John 4:7–21)

We invite all people, everywhere, to embrace with us this calling to become like Jesus. By God’s grace, we will seek to become lovers: lovers of God, lovers of people, and lovers of all creation. We will immerse ourselves in a lifestyle that is attentive and responsive to the gracious presence of God. We commit ourselves to the community of Christ’s beloved, the church, so that we can learn this way of love together. We entreat you to join us.

(Matthew 5:1–10; Matthew 13:44–46; Mark 1:15;Luke 9:23–24;Romans 12:1–2; 2 Corinthians 6:1; 1 Timothy 6:11–12; Revelation 21:2;Revelation 22:17)

 

Background

A small group in the Denver area felt called to facilitate the development of a simple and straight forward two-page statement which addresses the importance -- the absolute necessity -- of an intentional process of spiritual formation for each and every Christian.  Their objective was to develop a document that would clearly and simply describe spiritual formation and call the Christian community to embrace the lifelong spiritual growth personally and in our churches. The work of this “Drafter Group” was reviewed by a “Crafter Group” of over 150 writers and leaders in the area of spiritual formation. Our shared desire is that the Call to Spiritual Formation might represent a consensus of the spiritual formation thought leaders across the nation. Ultimately, two hundred of these individuals participated in the development of the document.

Approximately fifty representatives of this group met at the recent Renovaré International Conference in June of 2009, at San Antonio, to complete final edits and affirm the document. It was then presented at the conference for additional signatures. It is our prayer that this document might serve as a defining call and a rallying point for the spiritual formation movement in the decades to come. The document is written so that it can easily be read and understood by all Christians, not just “leaders,” and so can be used for individual reflection, group discussion, teaching, etc.

(http://acalltospiritualformation.info/history.aspx accessed 20 July 2009)

The Definition

The definition offered is Christian spiritual formation is the process of being shaped by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ, filled with love for God and the world.

Christian spiritual formation must be identified and recognized that it is distinct from other types of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation occurs whether we are aware of it or not. All of us are being spiritually formed at all times. Therefore Christian spiritual formation is distinctive because it occurs after “conversion” when one comes to believe in the saving grace of Christ’s work on the cross. During the process of conversion, after receiving justification, the Holy Spirit is sealed onto our spirits to begin the great work of sanctification or as Dallas Willard calls it, ‘the renovation of our souls.’

It is important to recognize that Christian spiritual process is a process. Unlike justification which is instantaneous, spiritual growth takes time. Paul uses the metaphor of putting off our old nature and putting on the new nature. This is further illustrated by the “wretched man” when he explains the struggle of the old and new nature in Romans 7.

I will suggest an important qualifier for the word process – intentionality. Christian spiritual formation is an intentional process. It is volitional and involves choice. We can choose to grow spiritually or not to grow at all. We can chose to be “mature beginners” as John Coe suggested, feeling on milk despite decades of membership in the church. The role of the Holy Spirit is recognized here as the shaper of our spiritual formation. However the Holy Spirit will only work with our consent. Unlike inanimate clay, we are embodied souls and the Holy Spirit respects our freedom to choose.

According to the wording of this definition, the telos or goals of Christian spiritual formation is (1) shaped into the likeness of Christ, (2) filled with love for God, and (3) filled with love for the world. The first goal is obvious from biblical literature as God wants to restore the imago dei in us and to recreated the shalom or perfection of the created order through his Son, Jesus Christ.

I am curious about the notion of being “filled” with love for God and the world. This implied a passive filling love which is an emotive term. When Jesus summaries all the teaching in the Old Testament into loving God and loving our neighbours (Mark 12:29-31), love is used as an active verb. Christian spiritual formation is not to be filled with love for God and the world (though it may have a part) but to love God. The process of loving God involves taking part in what Karl Barth called the missio Dei – the great redemption plan of God for all mankind and the fallen created order. This will mean that the process of Christian spiritual formation will involve becoming co-partners with God in restoring the damaged planet and fallen humanity.

This definition implies an individualistic Christian spirituality. It seems to describe a type of Christian spirituality that is between me and my God. This is a dangerous type of Christian spirituality because it will lead a person to be totally inward-looking and be exposed to the risk of falling into the idolatry of narcissism. Thomas Merton points out the risk of individualistic spirituality and differentiates it from contemplative spirituality. True Christian spiritual formation is personal but not individual. It is communal where the community of faith is both the nurturing crucible, and the matrix where Christian spiritual transformation takes place. The church or a community of faith, in spite of its imperfect, is vital to Christian spiritual formation.

Christian spiritual formation is an intentional process which may be facilitated by the means of Christian spiritual formation such as assimilating the Word, practicing the spiritual disciplines, church traditions, fellowship, prayer and other such practices that open us to God. It is something we can do. Christian spiritual transformation on the other hand, occurs during the process of the Christian spiritual formation where true transformation takes place. It is often a movement from the cognitive to the affective. Christian spiritual transformation is the act of the Holy Spirit and is pure grace.

In summary I will offer the following definition: Christian spiritual formation is the intentional process of being shaped by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ in our communities of faith, developing our love for God by taking part in his redemption plan for humankind and the earth.

Paragraph One

God calls us all to become like Jesus. Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”* We experience this abundance of life – here and now – as our passions, character, understanding, and relationships are increasingly aligned with those of Christ. This lifelong transformation within and among us is the continual gift of God’s Spirit. We are called to be renewed into the likeness of Jesus – but we do not always fully embrace this calling. Sometimes we seem content to be known as “Christians” without intentionally engaging with this work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Other times we desperately long for a new way of life, wanting to grow in our walk with Jesus, but needing help and encouragement. We, therefore, commit to pursue passionately and to receive joyfully God’s grace to be more fully transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.

This paragraph highlights what Richard Lovelace in 1973 identified as the “sanctification gap.” By the “sanctification gap”, Lovelace meant the huge gap that exist between what Christians know about God, profess about God, what God expects them to do, and how these Christians live out their daily lives. Often cognitive knowledge of God is not automatically translated into Godly characters. Numerous surveys have shown that there are not much difference between lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians. This is what exists in churches despite huge amount of effort and money being spent on Christian education, discipleship programs and teaching seminars. This is the key challenge facing Christian spiritual formation.

This paragraph contains the call of God (to become like Jesus) and our response (pursue passionately and to receive joyfully God’s grace). We all carry the sin-distorted image of God. It is God’s intention to restore his image in us. Anthony Hoekema (1986) notes that “because Christ is the perfect image of God, becoming more like God also means becoming more like Christ.” This is God’s call to us (Galatians 4:19; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Our response is to intentionally “pursue” and “receive.” There are a few points to note here. Firstly, evangelicals have this morbid fear of “work righteousness.” They have been so taken up by the image of the potter and the clay that they perceive themselves as inanimate lumps of clay – to be passively formed by the potter. Any effort by ourselves to draw closer to God is considered work righteousness and earning merits. Somehow, we confuse justification and sanctification. Justification is purely by grace and there is nothing we can do to earn it. Sanctification, on the other hand, is a process and needs work – not to earn righteousness but to become righteousness.

Secondly, it is possible to be a Christian and not grow spiritually (become more like Christ). Paul’s constant exhortation in his epistles to learn, pray and mature in the faith means that there are Christians who are not growing. They do not grow because they do not choose to.

Thirdly, there are some Christians who are so triumphant in their beliefs that they believe they are already perfect now and do not need to grow. We need to only look at ourselves in the mirror to know that we are not yet there.

Finally, our response will not bear fruit without the Holy Spirit and God’s grace. Our response is to work with the Holy Spirit, allow him to work in us so that we may appropriate God’s grace that is so freely given to us.

In summary, the paragraph is important because shows us what the call of God to us is – to become like his Son. It also highlights how vital our responses are. It boils down to a matter of choice.

Paragraph Two

As we are rooted in Jesus and in the kingdom he proclaims, we are progressively transformed. Jesus is the center of all life and history, both the source and goal of all creation. God shaped this universe as a place where the love and life of Jesus Christ might flourish. Because we are formed in the divine image, we have the capacity to receive and express this life and love. Although human disobedience corrupts the divine image in us, God still forms a people able to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus makes this possible through his life, death, and resurrection. In him we experience a restored relationship of love with God and one another, and continual transformation into his likeness. We are becoming a reconciled and renewed community which is both the goal and the substance of life in God’s kingdom. This is the good news we proclaim with joy to the whole world.

Reading this paragraph, I am confused with the disjointed facts about Jesus, God’s kingdom, reconciled and renewed community and the good news. “As we are rooted in Jesus and in the kingdom he proclaims, we are progressively transformed” is a sentence that needs clarification. Does this means that transformation occurs automatically and progressively? What does “rooted” in Jesus and the kingdom means?

This is followed by “Jesus is the center of all life and history, both the source and goal of all creation.” While I agree that Jesus is the center and source, I wonder what is meant by Jesus is “the goal of all creation.” I am mystified by this. Is all creation going to become a Cosmic Christ as Teihard de Chardin suggests?  As Karl Rahner so ably informs us about the divine Trinity economy, Jesus stands outside of creation.

Instead of clarifying the previous sentence, the next few are equally puzzling: “God shaped this universe as a place where the love and life of Jesus Christ might flourish.” I am curious in the choice of the words “God shaped” instead of “God created.” In a negative sense, the sentence may be interpreted as that God shaped the universe to fail so that Jesus Christ might flourish. “Because we are formed in the divine image, we have the capacity to receive and express this life and love.” If the “this” refers to the previous sentence, then the divine image enables us to receive and express the love and life of Jesus Christ. “Although human disobedience corrupts the divine image in us, God still forms a people able to love the Lord their God ...” Is there then two groups of people- one that have the life and love of Jesus Christ and the other formed by God with the ability to love him? I do not believe this is what the drafter of this statement meant to say but it is the impression I get while reading The Call to Spiritual Formation.

The point I want to make here is that there is no generally accepted and fully developed theology of Christian spiritual formation. Without a theology of Christian spiritual formation, the movement will continue to stumble and stall. There is a great urgency to develop this theology. A theology of Christian spiritual formation must be Trinitarian in basis, biblical in nature, taking into account the anthropological aspect of the divine image, the human person and persons-in-community, and the redemptive plan of God to restore his original perfect creation. This theology will provide the framework for discussion of the nature, matrix and means of Christian spiritual formation.

In this framework, the rest of the paragraph makes sense,

Jesus makes this possible through his life, death, and resurrection. In him we experience a restored relationship of love with God and one another, and continual transformation into his likeness. We are becoming a reconciled and renewed community which is both the goal and the substance of life in God’s kingdom. This is the good news we proclaim with joy to the whole world.

The paragraph mentioned a reconciled and renewed community. Might this not be another reason for Christian spiritual formation? There is a need to define the telos or goal of Christian spiritual formation. I will suggest the telos of Christian spiritual formation are:

(1)   restoring our relationship with the Godhead;

(2)   restoring the imago dei into Christlikeness in our being;

(3)   becoming a people of God (laos);

(4)   becoming his instruments for his plan of redemption (missio Dei).

A theology of Christian spiritual formation will help us to understand its relationship with discipleship. Some people regard spiritual formation as synonymous with discipleship. I noticed that many authors writing about spiritual formation try to avoid mentioning discipleship. It would have been helpful that this statement on A Call to Spiritual Formation enlightens us as to the difference between spiritual formation and discipleship.

In summary, there is a deep need for a theology of Christian spiritual formation that will be the framework to build the movement on. Otherwise it will become a buzz word, a fad, or a bandwagon for everyone to jump on. A bandwagon that may be heading nowhere fast.

Paragraph Three

Our engagement with God’s transforming grace is vital. Renewal into the image of Christ is not a human attainment; it is a gift of grace. God mercifully uses all our experiences, including our suffering and trials, to teach and transform us. Even so, transformation requires our involvement and effort. We need to make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit’s work in all our life experiences, particularly through intentional engagement with historical Christian disciplines, including Word and sacrament. These practices open us to the presence and grace of God. As a result, we become, through time and experience, the kind of persons who naturally express love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and selfcontrol.

I am in full agreement with this paragraph. Christian spiritual formation is a paradox. On one hand, it is pure grace. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in our inner lives, transforming us. On the other hand, it requires consent on our part, making ourselves available, and “intentional engagement with historical Christian disciplines, including Word and sacrament.”

Christian spiritual formation takes place in the content of where we are and who we are. At any one time, there are external and internal influencers on our Christian spiritual formation. External influencers may be the country we are residing in, freedom of worship, religious pluralism, post-modernism, post-Christendom, denominational biasness, socioeconomic stability, and the effects of globalisation. Internal influencers may arise out of our cultural legacy, childhood trauma, deep inner wounds, and our psychosocial development. Effective Christian spiritual formation must be able to counteract the negative effects of all these influencers. Thus Christian spiritual formation can never be a program because the challenges are unique to every Christian. There is no “one size fits all” in Christian spiritual formation.

The process of Christian spiritual formation is often likened to a journey. As in any journey, we are often required to move out of our comfort zones and encounter difficult obstacles. The Holy Spirit journeys with us and often uses the circumstances (James Loder’s transforming moments) to transform us. It is this constant interaction involving the Holy Spirit, our being and the world that enable the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in us. Christian spiritual formation takes place in our everyday world, not somewhere away in a monastery or hermitage.

Spiritual disciplines and practices are important in Christian spiritual formation. The key to spiritual disciplines and practices are that they open us to God. All spiritual disciplines and practices must revolve round the Word and sacrament. Ressourcement is the act of looking into our past rich Christian heritage and reappropriating these spiritual disciplines and practices that we can use in the 21st century. It is important to be aware that spiritual disciplines and practices are the means of Christian spiritual formation and not its end. It is equally important to clarify the misconception that spiritual formation is equivalent to spiritual disciplines. This is because in some churches, spiritual formation has become synonymous with practicing the spiritual disciplines.

In summary, Christian spiritual formation involves both grace and human choice. The choice is to seek God and detach ourselves from all influences that will draw us away from God and into the world. The spiritual disciplines and practices are useful only in that they open us to God.

Paragraph Four

Spiritual formation happens in community. As we long to know and follow Jesus and be formed into his likeness, we journey with those who share this longing. God is calling the church to be a place of transformation. Here we struggle to fulfill our calling to love. Here we learn to attend to the invitations of God’s Spirit. Here we follow the presence of God in our midst. Spiritual community is the catalyst for our transformation and a sending base for our mission of love to the world.

Christian spiritual formation occurs best in a community of faith. While a community of faith often refers to a church, it may also refers to a small group of Christians gathering together for bible study and fellowship, an accountability group or a few regular friends chatting over coffee. James Wilhoit emphasizes in Spiritual Formation as if Church Matters that “spiritual formation is the task of the church.”

A community of faith has two roles in Christian spiritual formation. The first role is the role of a nurturing community. A nurturing community contributes to spiritual formation by providing a framework in which individual members are taught about the Word and the traditions of the church, is a safe place to make mistakes, provides skills to deepen the spiritual life, love and care for one another, and share in the joys and sorrows of life events. Its strength is that the community nurtures by using the members’ spiritual gifts.

The second role is that of corporate spiritual formation. Being part of the community itself is transforming. A community is like an organism and it grows and responds to the external world. This is also true of communities of faith. Communities of faith grow, develop and create its own identity. Paul often addresses the churches in the singular, as in his call for the church (singular sense) to put on the armour of God (Ephesians 6:11-13).

In summary, Christian spiritual formation develops best in a community of faith. It is in the context of interaction with other persons that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ. It is in the context of persons-in-community that we become the Body of Christ.

Paragraph Five

Spiritual formation is, by its very nature, missional. As we are formed into the likeness of Christ, we increasingly share God’s infinitely tender love for others. We deepen in our compassion for the poor, the broken, and the lost. We ache and pray and labor for others in a new way, a selfless way, a joyfilled way. Our hearts are enlarged toward all people and toward all of creation.

There have in recent years an expanded understanding of mission as not only sending out certain people to share the good news but also that the whole church is by its nature, according to theologian Darrell Guder (1998) is “God’s called and sent people.” The term missional is used to describe this expanded understanding of mission. In other words, God’s purpose is not just to call a people for himself but also in order that these people may become his instruments for his purpose of redeeming his fallen created order.

Christian spiritual formation is missional in that the progress of growing into Christlikeness in communties of faith will deepen our compassion and love for others and lead to active involvement in the world. It will mean sharing the good news, helping the poor and sick, defending the oppressed, fighting injustice and healing the earth. Christian spiritual formation is the process of transforming and equipping us to discern where is God working in this world, and to align our lives to the achievement of God’s purposes. We become partakers of missio Dei; the mission of God.

In summary, Christian spiritual formation enables us to become part of the larger purpose of God. It is not individualistic in forming just an I-and-Thou relationship with God, nor is it to form an exclusive community of faith where only certain people are admitted. It is not about us. It is all about God. It is about God’s purpose for the world.

Final Paragraph

We invite all people, everywhere, to embrace with us this calling to become like Jesus. By God’s grace, we will seek to become lovers: lovers of God, lovers of people, and lovers of all creation. We will immerse ourselves in a lifestyle that is attentive and responsive to the gracious presence of God. We commit ourselves to the community of Christ’s beloved, the church, so that we can learn this way of love together. We entreat you to join us.

The final paragraph is an invitation to embrace the calling to be like Jesus. It will involve (1) becoming lovers of God, people and all creation; (2) immersing in a lifestyle that is “attentive and responsive” to presence of God; and (3) committing to Christian communities of faith “so that we can learn this way of love together.” Thus the call is to love God and live in such a way in community that such a love may be learned and practiced. This is a fitting conclusion to the various aspects of a call to Christian spiritual formation highlighted above.

This is a comprehensive statement as it cut across all denominational lines and Church traditions to call for a return to the basic of our Christian spiritual life- that of growing into Christlikeness. Unfortunately as with many such statements or creeds, it falls short with the praxis of it. How are we, who answer the call to such spiritual formation, to apply it and make it work in our communities of faith (be it churches, fellowship and other small groups, etc), our daily jobs, lifestyles, and engagement with the dominant culture of our time? It is my sincere hope that those who answer this call from the four corners of the world will develop in their own unique situations, Christian spiritual formation components, that will embrace the process of growing into Christlikeness in communities of faith in deepening their love for God, other people, and all creation.

 

|20 July 2009|

 

 

               

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