My spiritual formation is a journey of discovering what prevents me from staying centered, what Jesus’ ministry will look like if I am not centered, and what attitudes and practices will guide me.
The main thing that prevents me from staying centered in my spiritual life is when I fail to wake up early enough to have significant quiet time in the morning. Because I choose to have my quiet time in the morning before getting ready for work I need to wake up at 4:30 AM in order to have that quiet time. Waking up at 4:30 AM is tough because it is always dark and it means I need to get to bed early. So, when I have to stay up late to get some work done or have trouble falling asleep at night I struggle waking up early enough to have good quiet time.
Another thing that prevents me from being centered is when I become angry and aggravated at work. This does not happen very often, but when it does I notice that I am no longer feeling centered and grounded as I normally do. Another issue I have been working to remedy which negatively affects my spiritual life is when I attempt to take my goals into my own hands. At times when I feel God has asked me to accomplish things and they are not happening fast enough I start to take my own path to seeing them fulfilled.
For example, I feel that God has told me that I am to make leaders of every day men and women. In response to that I have self-published a book, write six blog posts a week, tweet thoughts on Twitter, and interact with people on Facebook. When the amount of readers on my blog or the number of people “following” me on Twitter does not grow fast enough I start to think of ways that I can increase them instead of thinking about doing what God has asked me to do. Instead of thinking about how I can write content that will help people learn to become better leaders, I start to think of what I can do and say to gain more readers and followers (which is not good). If I was centered I would be focusing on doing God’s will and following Him, not on doing what I think is best to attract readers and followers.
Another thing that might prevent me from staying centered in my spiritual life is getting beaten up in the world. Because I live in a world full of sin that God says I should not love and be part of, it means the world will treat me harshly. From people at work who are mean to me, drivers on the road honking at me while trying to drive slowly and safely, people at Toastmasters who make statements which tear me down, to friends who fail me, these experiences hurt. When these things occur, I start to feel off center, resentful, angry, and mad. Those feelings do not allow me to stay and feel centered.
Fortunately I have God and his Word to help affirm in me what I feel called to do. While reading Jesus Driven Ministry I was greatly encouraged by this passage, “When we experience this affirmation over and over again, the messages we got from the world that we are useless, inferior, and insignificant lose their power.”[ref]Ajith Fernando, Jesus Driven Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 54.[/ref] If I pray with God and feel that He has told me to do something specific, then it is hard to handle negative feedback from others who are disagreeing with what I heard from God. If I allow these things to happen too often and do not work to combat them with spiritual practices that remedy them, then Jesus’ ministry in and through me will not reflect Him and it will not be successful.
Allowing myself to get spiritually off center on a regular basis is going to have a terrible impact on Jesus’ ministry here on earth that I do. Jesus’ ministry is not going to look good or be effective.
When I am not centered in my spiritual life five things happen:
- I have less patience
- I am more irritable
- I allow resistance to stop me when it normally does not
- I do not think as clearly on decisions
- I do not enjoy work as much
These things sometimes lead me to make decisions that I should not such as treating people poorly and not managing my money well.
In others words, when I am not spiritually centered I am a terrible example of a Christian and an even worse Christian Leader. Fernando describes what my life looks like and the negative impact it could have if I stay in a place where I am not spiritually centered when he writes, “Christian leaders are failing in the way they live and are bringing great dishonor to Christ. Perhaps the greatest need in the training of leaders today is to provide guidelines to help them live as biblical men and women.”[ref]Ajith Fernando, Jesus Driven Ministry, 14.[/ref] If I do not maintain my time with God I might end up in this category of Christian leaders.
This would mean that I eventually lose my influence as a Christian leader, and that is something I definitely do not want to allow to happen. If I become irritable and have less patience with people working on my team I will eventually lose my influence with them. I have treated people that way before for a short time and it is not good. I do not like who I become when I am not centered, and I know that others do not like who I am either. Because of the potential for this failure it is vitally important I maintain the practices and attitudes that help me to stay spiritually centered and driven to do Jesus’ ministry.
III. MY ATTITUDE AND PRACTICES
The attitudes and practices that guide my spiritual life are simple but necessary.
The main spiritual practice is my quiet time in the morning with God. That time usually happens for about an hour from 4:00 AM to 5:00 AM. During that time, I journal down my thoughts and experiences from the previous day. Then I take some time to read large chunks of my Bible. Then I pray to God by talking with Him verbally and by writing down my payers in my journal. I first encountered the idea of reading large chunks of the Bible during prayer time while reading a biography on Billy Graham. The biography described how Billy often spends large chunks of time in the morning and the evening reading his Bible as part of prayer time. Reading large chunks of the Bible is his way of staying connected with God and staying familiar with who God is by reading His story.[ref]John Pullock, Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World, 147-148.[/ref] Reading large chunks of the Bible as part of my quiet time has been very beneficial to me and my spiritual life and my prayer time.
This course has helped to shape me to no longer see prayer as something that I do only in the morning before I go out to do my work during the day on my own. Many of Thomas Merton’s writings about being in “constant communication” with God have helped me to realize that I can do that and that I can stay in His will by doing that. And that communication with God can be as simple as thanking him for an answered prayer, to praying I will be Christ-like in a conflict I know I need to create, or a prayer for safety while riding snow mobiles in Alaska.
Merton’s writings have encouraged me to learn that solitude is a good thing. I have always enjoyed solitude and know that I connect with God best in silence best. Merton’s writings have taken this belief to a new level. When he writes, “What more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom.’? For me there is nothing else. It is the pinnacle. . . Solitude really means: when the ropes are cast off and the skiff is no longer tied to land but heads out to sea without any ties, without restraints!”[ref]Thomas Merton, “Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 5,” ed. Robert E. Daggy, (1998): 235-236, quoted in Jonathan Montaldo and Robert Toth, Bridges to Contemplative Living: Volume 5, Traveling Your Road to Joy Bridges to Contemplative Living (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria Press, 2006), 30.[/ref] Solitude helps me to feel centered, to quiet my mind and to focus on God. It allows me to be reminded of who God is and who he wants me to be. Staying centered in my spiritual life is absolutely critical to doing what God has called me to do. How can I say I serve God if I do not regularly spend time with him? As Merton explains, our time with God is:
“given to me by God that I may live in it. It is not given to make something out of it but given to be stored away in eternity as my own. For this afternoon to be my own eternity, it must be my own this afternoon, and I must possess myself in it, not be possessed by books, by ideas not my own, by a compulsion to produce what nobody needs. But simply to glorify God by accepting His gift and His work. To work for Him is to work that I myself may live.”[ref]Thomas Merton, “A Search for Solitude: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 3,” ed. Lawrence S. Cunningham, (1996): 214-215, 219, quoted in Jonathan Montaldo and Robert Toth, Bridges to Contemplative Living: Volume 5, Traveling Your Road to Joy Bridges to Contemplative Living (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria Press, 2006), 17.[/ref]
That time that I have in the morning with God is not my own. It is God’s and I am not supposed to make anything of it, but just rest and relax in it.
Another spiritual practice that I can do regularly to keep me spiritually centered are retreats. Retreats can simply be an extra day off over a three-day weekend, or a camping trip, or a long vacation like I just enjoyed over Christmas for 11 days in Alaska. Fernando explains how I feel sometimes that as ministers “we are so rushed that we do not think straight because we do not have time to think reflectively. . . . We need to slow down! Retreats help us do this.”[ref]Ajith Fernando, Jesus Driven Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 65.[/ref] Retreats help to refresh me, give me alone time of solitude, and rejuvenate my passion for work for God. I notice that my strength of character comes back after retreats, that I feel more determined, less likely to be derailed, and that I have a greater strength to confront others who oppose me. When I come back to normal life after retreats it feels that God has been doing some good work in me even though I was not doing His work. Because I took a retreat from doing His work it gave Him the room to do work inside of me.
Another practice that guides me in my spiritual formation is regularly meeting with my coach and mentor, Steve Elliott. He has given me great insight and great wisdom when I have needed it. When Steve and I meet, I ask him questions, he coaches me through difficult situations I am in, and he teaches me about the Bible.
IV. STUDY OF GOD’S WORD
This is a deep study where I do more than just read devotionally in the morning. When I study God’s word I read it over and over again, I study the historical context, and I look at the literary issues/meaning of the original text. For example, I just finished leading a 20 week Bible study series on the life of David about how he faithfully followed God, served Israel, and worked under Saul. Fernando further expands on the necessity of reading the Bible and the change that happens in our lives when he writes, “being anchored in the Word of God also gives security and firmness to our ministries. The path of obedience in ministry is not very easy to follow, as it often goes against our natural inclinations. Sometimes when we are obedient to God, others might think we are fools, and even we ourselves might wonder.”[ref]Ajith Fernando, Jesus Driven Ministry, 93.[/ref]
To accumulate all of these practices in their essence leads to me getting my identity from God. And that identity and picture, I hope, looks like this: “People who get their identity, security, and significance from God have the strength to be servants. Servants do many things that seem to be demeaning. Their schedules are at the mercy of those they serve, and often things requiring attention crop up at the most inconvenient times. One has to be strong to remain joyous while doing such things.”[ref]Ibid., 59[/ref] I hope that I can be that servant and I pray that my practices and attitudes of spiritual formation lead me to being that way. Because the main focus on these important spiritual practices and attitudes focus on solitude, I would like to conclude with some thoughts on solitude from a man who knows what true solitude looks like and about the benefits that come from it. In his book, The Way of the Heart, Henri J. M. Nouwen reflects:
Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversation, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occur.[ref]Herni J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 17.[/ref]