Friday, February 28, 2014

A Personal Reflection on "Invitation to a Journey", by Robert Mulholland

In his book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as, “a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” While the core of his definition, “... being conformed to the image of Christ ...” aligns with the vast majority of those seeking to define spiritual formation, Mulholland’s definition finds its unique strength in the words preceding and following this phrase. With special attention to the process of being transformed for the sake of others, Mulholland reminds his readers that, “spiritual formation is not something that we do to ourselves or for ourselves, but something we allow God to do in us and for us as we yield ourselves to the work of God’s transforming grace.” (Mulholland, 1993, Kindle e-book, Location 229)

As I reflect on the process of my own spiritual formation, I recognize it has often been a struggle between self-effort and total surrender to Christ. The balance between passive surrender and active participation can be difficult to find and harder to maintain. Looking back over my 30 year journey with Jesus, I have seen the greatest transformations take place as the results of circumstances over which I had no control. These periods of growth came with great pain and demanded total surrender. They also required my active participation as I made choices to obey God’s word and trust His plan even when it went beyond my ability to understand.

When I was fifteen, God used the tragic death of my father to teach me how to forgive. While I had no control over the circumstances of my father’s death, I had, and continue to have, clear opportunities to choose how that event informs my choices. At age twenty-eight, tragedy again struck as my mother suffered an illness resulting in her death. After that loss, I recall feeling as if I were standing at a crossroad. One road led down a path of questioning God’s love while the other required a journey of absolute trust. In that moment, unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances transformed my relationship with God in ways I would have never chosen.

These transformative moments forged a greater likeness of Christ in me. They also allowed me to more effectively minister to others. Mulholland says, “We are created to be compassionate persons whose relationships are characterized by love and forgiveness, persons whose lives are a healing, liberating, transforming touch of God’s grace upon their world.” (Mulholland, KL 237) As I experience the healing of God, I am better equipped to offer his ministry of healing. As I learn to forgive and live forgiven, I more effectively minister to those living in the bondage of unforgiveness. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4 NIV).

Spiritual transformation seldom happens in areas of our choosing. Left on our own, we ignore those parts of our lives that do not already conform to the image of Christ. Mulholland asks:

How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way. In fact, may not such practices become a defense mechanism against the areas that are not yet conformed to the image of Christ? (Mulholland, KL 280)

Many of my spiritual disciplines could be described as "defense mechanisms". To defend myself against the hard lessons of trusting God’s sovereignty, for example, I placed greater emphasis on individual responsibility. To avoid transforming my unforgiving heart, I studied God’s judgment and the Bible’s call to personal holiness. In many cases, I emphasized virtues and truths that counteracted the very transformative work God wanted to do in me. I avoided transformation through the very disciplines I claimed to be the means of transformation. My spiritual disciples were used to avoid the difficult and painful process of true discipleship.

This is why Jesus said in Mark 8:34 that those who want to follow him must take up a cross. “Our cross is the point of unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised by God into wholeness of life in the image of Christ right there at that point. So the process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place at the points of our unlikeness to Christ, and the first step is confrontation.” (Mulholland, KL 290) To define the progress of my spiritual transformation I must recognize where I am most unlike Him. One such area is in the arena of personal finances. In spite of my obedience to tithe and even give beyond, I still find a spirit of consumerism seeping into my life as I selfishly purchase things I know I do not need. Meanwhile, God is inviting me to a simpler way of living that better reflects Jesus in a consumer driven culture. Another opportunity for growth is my inability to remain fully present and engaged in current realities. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus was always fully present. The people to whom He ministered knew they were the center of His attention and affection. Too often I am distracted by future concerns or past failures and am not fully engaged in what God is doing in the present. Technology has only made this problem worse as it pulls us out of both our physical and chronological present realities. For many months I have sensed God inviting me to fast from technology and focus on identifying Him in the present. These are only two areas where I see obvious differences between myself and the image of Christ. I know there are others, some of which I am aware and many more He has yet to reveal. Perhaps this is why David prayed, "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23, 24 NIV)

The true test of spiritual transformation comes as you …

… examine the nature and quality of your relationships with others. Are you more loving, more compassionate, more patient, more understanding, more caring, more giving, more forgiving than you were a year ago? If you cannot answer these kinds of questions in the affirmative and, especially, if others cannot answer them in the affirmative about you, then you need to examine carefully the nature of your spiritual life and growth. (Mulholland, KL 327)
Mulholland's litmus test comes from the final phrase of his definition of spiritual formation, “a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” He rightly argues that our spiritual formation is tested and occurs in the context of Christian community. "We learn to be Christ’s for others by seeking to be yielded and obedient to God in the midst of our relationships.” (Mulholland, KL 338) While I can answer Mulholland's questions in the affirmative, it is really those who walk beside me on this journey who are best positioned to answer that question.

Mulholland’s assertion that transformation occurs in areas where we are most unlike Christ also means we must operate with an awareness of our personality and the inherent weaknesses that accompany it. “Holistic spirituality always takes place in the midst of our emotional, psychological, physical and mental conditions and emerges out of them.” (Mulholland, KL 41) For me, this means a greater emphasis on my inner self, as I am a strong extrovert (E). It also means I must focus on disciplines that strengthen my reliance on the physical senses as I gravitate more toward inner urgings of the spirit (N). Since I am a “feeler” (F), I must discipline myself to use a more cognitive process of reasoning. Finally, my strong desire for order, control and closure (J) must be counterbalanced with greater perception and sensitivity to the unforeseen and unexpected.

Mulholland describes holistic spirituality as a “pilgrimage of deepening responsiveness to God’s control of our life and being” (Mulholland, KL 33). Throughout my journey, and that of my family, I see how God has used events to shape me into the image of Christ. Through prayerful reflection on my family of origin, God illuminated a significant path of transformation. As I considered the earliest days of my childhood, God began to reveal how I have carried feelings of abandonment toward all of the men in my family. As I considered how these feelings may be affecting my current relationships, I sensed God inviting me to repent of the “sins of my father” and walk on a new path based on trust and surrender. I am still learning to walk on this path, but the knowledge of this previously unrecognized and unconfessed sin has deepened my relationship with the men in my family and community. More importantly, it is strengthening my relationship with my heavenly Father.

The continuing process of being transformed includes the ongoing practice of spiritual disciplines. For many years, the main component of my spiritual disciplines was an annual reading of the entire Bible. I started this habit in my junior year of high school and continued it for the sixteen years. It was an invaluable practice for gaining insight into the big picture of God's divine plan for humanity. With each passing year I grew in my understanding of and confidence in the Scriptures. The downside of this habit was it often lent itself to the inherent weakness of my "J" personality and became more about completing a reading plan than allowing my heart to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through the word of God.

In recent years I have attempted to decrease the volume of scripture I read while increasing the time I invest reading it. This has led to a new journaling habit in which I transcribe the scriptures on the right page of a journal and record my thoughts and reflections on the left page facing my copy. This discipline is forcing me to meditate and reflect on each word. I am finding new insights in passages I previously rushed past in an effort to complete a reading plan.

As part of my commitment to spend more time reflecting on specific passages, I began a systematic scripture memory plan in which I memorize one verse each week. I also spend time reviewing previous week’s memory verses. Each day, after this review, I invest time praying through those verses. As a result, I am experiencing a renewed prayer life shaped by the words of Scripture.

I would not have engaged in any of these new habits had I not been willing to set aside my old habit of reading through the entire Bible each year. My new habits, while less suited to my personality, seem to be producing greater personal transformation. I feel a renewed sense of God's presence and work in my life.

The greatest change in my spiritual disciplines has come in the area of how I experience community within the Body of Christ. For the past four years, I have been learning to live in community as a Senior Pastor. This change has been difficult. I remember being told the role of the senior pastor was, “the loneliest jobs in the Kingdom.” While I may have dismissed this suggestion before, I have since come to recognize the truth of the statement.

My family and I have been members of a small group in every church we’ve attended. Often the group met in our home and my wife and I were part of the leadership team. These groups played a significant role in our spiritual development as we served, learned, and experienced life with other believers. We often shared our struggles and helped bear the burdens of others in our groups. While being a member of the church staff required discretion, it never seemed to inhibit a fulfilling small group experience.

In 2008 I returned to my home church to serve as senior pastor. I have many friends in this community and gave no thought to the difficulties of reconnecting in my new role as their pastor. While, I have enjoyed becoming reacquainted with old friends and do not doubt the love and friendship of my congregation, I have not been able to enjoy the same deep sense of community as in previous positions of service. I believe this represents the greatest opportunity for my own spiritual development as well as that of my family.

As I wrestle with how to relate to people who do not always want or need their senior pastor to be transparent with his own struggles and doubts, I am also learning a greater dependence on my personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. As an extrovert, I often neglect my internal life and the disciplines of solitude, meditation and silence. My search for community has been an invitation to go on a quiet journey with God. Prayer walks through my community have become a mainstay of my prayer life. I am learning to appreciate solitude as a valuable experience for spiritual formation.

I have not been without community since assuming the role of Senior Pastor. I am learning to live in a larger community with concentric circles of deepening intimacy. My own congregation is an extremely loving and generous community. I have witnessed God use this community to conform us into His image as together we reach outside the walls of our church through public school mentoring, feeding the hungry, working with refugees, and prayer walking our neighborhood. While it is impossible to experience deep levels of intimacy with several hundred people, we are experiencing conformity to the image of Christ as we serve the needs of our surrounding community together.

On a more intimate level, I have participated with pastors from other local congregations in two learning groups. These groups have provided participants a safe place to discuss the struggles and challenges we cannot share with our congregations. Serving with the staff of my church also provides a level of community and accountability. While it is unrealistic to believe that my role as “the boss” doesn’t complicates our relationship, I do not believe it eliminates the possibility of a transformative community. Other than my own family, I have come to believe there is no group of people for whom I have greater responsibility than the staff I serve. Together, we are challenging one another to higher levels of excellence, love and maturity.

My most immediate circle of community is my family. Seeking to serve our church and neighbors as a family has proven an effective way to disciple our children and builds common purpose. As our children get older, we are discovering an expanding network of friends that include classmates and families who participate in school activities. Our children are opening doors of ministry even as we seek to teach them how to be ministers.

My life, ministry, family, and spiritual disciples seem to be changing with ever increasing frequency. Through all of these transitions, I see evidence of God’s transformative work in and through my life. This process is sometimes painful. I am learning to let go of control even as I seek to be more responsive to his work in and around me. God continues to use community as His primary tool for my transformation. As my role within that community changes, I am learning to be an agent for change while being changed by the very people he called me to influence. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (NIV). My prayer is that through all the changes of life, I will continue to contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed into him image as I seek to accept His invitation to a journey.

M. Robert Mulholland. Invitation to a Journey: a Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 1996.