Implications of Spiritual Formation for Shepherd Care

In the last entry I defined spiritual formation as:

Spiritual formation is the ongoing process of the Holy Spirit drawing us deeper into the love and life of the Father and Son; which shapes us into Jesus’ image of love for the Father and for the world.

Implications for Shepherd Care
As we shepherd, we are always on the lookout for ill-health in the other’s relationship IMG_0206with God.

This is not the morality police, actually it is the opposite.

Evangelical spirituality is rife with moralism. No, this is not about sin management. Rather it is about communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We seek to shepherd people to Jesus. Jesus is our pasture of rest. He is our stream of living water. He is our peace, our joy, our guide, our calm in all life’s storms. He is more than adequate for the constant upsurge of our brokenness.

Shepherds bring people to Jesus and Jesus to people. This is the core work of shepherd care.

“Do Not Throw People Back on Themselves”
There is a poignant story James B. Torrence shares to start the second chapter of his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. It is too lengthy to transcribe here (the book is worth the read), but I will share the concluding observation Torrence made from this very sweet story:

“It seems to be that in a pastoral situation our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace – to Jesus Christ, that they might look to him to lead them, open their hearts in faith and in prayer, and draw them by the Spirit into eternal life of communion with the Father.” p. 45

Do not “throw people back onto themselves.” Brilliantly stated, this.

When faced with others in need, it is so tempting to give them “exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it.IMG_8483” That is not shepherding well though. It throws people back on themselves as if their best hope is somewhere within themselves; if they could just dig a little harder, resolve a little more determinedly then all their life challenges would come out well.

No, this will not do. This is moralism – trying to make our life work by our own efforts.

First relationship, then life change.

Participation in the Life of Jesus
The life of holiness is simply and mysteriously participating in the life of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).” So we are seeking to shepherd people to Jesus that they may grow in their abiding in him. As they do so, Jesus lives his life in them.

The Shepherd’s Task
This is the shepherd’s task – take people to Jesus. Remind them of his immeasurable love. Tell once again that his disposition toward us is forgiveness in love (see Psalm 139). That we are not on our own. We are given the Spirit of love and grace who leads us into all truth.

In the end, shepherds are willfully complicit with the Holy Spirit’s concern of drawing all into communion with the Father and Son. When we fail or are struggling in the dark, that is what we need most – someone to walk with us back into that embracing communion.

How About You?
IMG_5546We are all sheep first, shepherds second. How is the Spirit growing your communion with the Father and Son?

Who is your shepherd? How is God growing you as a sheep, that you might be a more grace-filled shepherd?

How might you change your approach to shepherding others? Do not throw yourself back on yourself here! Seek the Chief Shepherd, he will show you the way forward.

As always, your thoughts are most welcome.

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What is Spiritual Formation?

Despite common usage, the phrase “spiritual formation” has wide variance in what it exactly refers to.

IMG_1127Common Concepts
“Transformed into Jesus’ likeness” is one prevalent understanding. But what does that mean? If I am growing in the “image of Jesus,” how does it happen?

Character change is another similar concept. How does one grow in character-deficient areas? And is character the primary concern of formation?

What role do spiritual practices play in all this?

I have wrestled through these issues for a long time. In a recent course of study I pushed to hammer out a personal definition. Various sources* were helpful as I wrote and re-wrote and wrestled with wording.

A Working Definition
Spiritual formation is the ongoing process of the Holy Spirit drawing us deeper into the love and life of the Father and Son; which shapes us into Jesus’ image of love for the Father and for the world.

Key Elements
First, communion is primary.  Our God is a relational God. Relationship is core, the primary focus. His first and foremost desire is for me to know him, his love for me, his presence, his very person. Jesus’ word to us is “abide in me.”

The Holy Spirit is wooing us to communion with the Father in and through the Son. The Father and Son have been living in loving communion all eternity by the Spirit. The Spirit now unites us to Jesus and in Jesus to the Father. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. I am in you and you are in me.” God is the focus, and my growing relationship with him.

Thus the key marker of spiritual formation is growing in communion with the Triune God.

Second, transformation (being shaped into Jesus’ image, character change, etc.) does happen. But it happens as a corollary of communion. I become like the one I abide with. I am changed in his presence.

Communion first, transformation as a corollary.

Third, change happens by the Holy Spirit, not my sheer effort. Yes, I do have a role, but this is not a self-help project in any way. Spiritual practices do not change me, God changes me.

Fourth,  this is not only about me. As I am grown in love for God, he grows me in his concerns for the world. It does lead to “action.”

A word of caution here, though. Usually, in our activistic church culture, this is where we land first. He who is busiest is closest to God, can go the thinking. Actually, not true. Serving God can undermine communion with God. It happens to this in ministry all the time.

I repeat the main point: Communion first, growth and service from that. He overflows our lives as we drink of him.

IMG_0843It’s all about Relationship
So what is being “formed” in spiritual formation? In a nutshell, the person’s capacity to commune with God; an inclination to abide, commune, to be with God in an open and receptive posture. Everything else flows from this.

Communion first, transformation and service from that.

So how are you responding to the Lord’s invitation to abide today?

*Two key books that were very clarifying for me were Gordon T. Smith’s Called to Be Saints and Tom Ashbrook’s Mansion of the Heart. In the early chapters of both these books, a definition and primary focus of spiritual formation is wrestled with.

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Revised Spiritual Reflection Tool

Refection is a wise life practice.

Busyness undermines reflection. Without pausing, we do not grow in wisdom that God can teach us through life. Taking time to examen our lives gives God space to catch our attention.

A Revised Spiritual Reflection Tool
Over the years numerous people  have expressed appreciation for this tool. I thought it might be time to circle back around and polish it up a bit.

In general, older versions of my writings lean toward being self-directed rather than Trinitarian/God directed in orientation.  As God has continued to teach me his Way I have been shown over and over how utterly dependent I am on Him from beginning to end. This is, of course the gospel. There is still too much spiritual self-help in our evangelical consumeristic mindset and practices.

I went back through this document and cleaned up some of the verbiage and questions. This tool might be a good place to start, but obviously it is not thorough in all areas of life. Feel free to adapt it as is best for your life circumstances.

I encourage you to discard any older versions of this tool and utilize this revised version. Feel free to pass it along – use it with your family or team or organization. Thanks for giving credit to the source.

As always, feedback is most welcome.

Spiritual Life Inventory

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Looking for a Fall Retreat?

There is going to be an encouraging gathering at the Y of the Rockies in Estes Park, CO in October to reflect on the topic of “Rooted and Grounded in God’s Love: A Leader’s Journey.”

VantagePoint3 always puts on deep, meaningful gatherings. Check out the website for more information. I hope to see some of you there.

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A Moveable Feast

Relearning some crucial lessons in the area of personal intimacy with Jesus.

I have a spirituality that is quite sufficient when I am home. The space from others and stable routine allows for a steady rhythm. But on the road, it is being stretched a bit. This IMG_8315 2raises a question.

Is it possible to have a “moveable feast” – a spirituality that deeply nourishes the soul day in and day out while on the road?

Reality Check
The easy answer is “yes.”

The hard reality is that I am finding it challenging to live into this of late.

I aim to maintain my morning patterns and sabbath day while on the road (see past posts on similar topics here and here). When those travel days begin to stack up though, fatigue begins to creep in and I my best intentions get stymied.

Here is an example. Let’s say that after a couple of weeks of being on the road engaging others, the emotional tank begins to get low. So when it comes to prayer in the morning, I find I am staring off into space pondering I am not sure what. Prayer is an interpersonal engagement after all. After days of tending to others, I begin to struggle in my attention toward God.

Here is the catch though. Jesus is my life, my strength, my bread, my water, my everything. He is all I have to give to another. Sure, his mercy is enough when I am less engaged with him on some days. But, frankly, it bugs me. I don’t want to be less engaged with him when I am on the road, but rather more engaged. I need him.

Trial and Error
Here is where a nice punch line would be given – the answer to the quandary at hand.

I don’t have one though. I wrestling on this topic.

Here are some questions I am pondering?

  • Is my schedule too compressed? Not enough space between events so that I can recover from the previous event and be replenished sufficiently for the next?
  • What about those times when “life happens” and there is no option? Is there something else I can do to allow for more time on the margins of the day?
  • Is this just a liability of my vocation? Or is there another way to walk with God in this vocation?
  • What about those longer multi-week international trips – how does one stay intimately abiding as the days pass?
  • Other…….I am still pondering…..

These questions remind me that what was “sufficient” earlier in my life is no longer sufficient now. God is beckoning me deeper, something has to change for me to respond well. A parent of little ones could, possibly, ask different questions.

The Goal: A Moveable Feast
Not getting tired in the care of others is unrealistic. We all tire. Yet spiritual vibrancy is not IMG_8378 an unrealistic pursuit. I have experienced it in the past over many years in many countries and many demanding scenarios.

I aim for a moveable feast – a transportable rhythm that allows for me to respond to Jesus moving toward me daily.

If this were a simple formula to live out, I guess it would not require fresh engagement with the Lord to discern a new way forward.The Lord invites me to converse with him and see what fresh perspective he will provide. After all, my desire for him is not a self-born desire. It is his desire for me drawing me toward himself.


How would he have me respond in the next chapter of life?

As always, I’d love to hear what you are learning on this topic. Thanks for chiming in. 

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Can I Believe Him If I Cannot See Him?

Is faith in an unseen Jesus possible? I mean, all those people in the Gospels saw Jesus, were fed miraculous bread by him, touched the hem of his cloak and were healed.
Can we believe in this one named Jesus if we cannot see him?
Two Healings, Two Different Responses
John’s gospel was likely written in the late first century. He is addressing an audience who had not seen Jesus nor heard him teach nor had the opportunity to be healed in person by IMG_6476him.
In the midst of John’s gospel two men are healed. Their stories are recorded in John 5 and John 9. Despite standing face to face with Jesus and being instantly healed of crushing physical maladies one believed and one did not.
The John 5 guy did not believe in the end – he reported Jesus to the religious leaders after he was warned by Jesus that there was worse evils then being crippled. John’s words are specific: “Jesus found him and warned him…..(14).” “The man went away and told the jews….(15).” Despite being healed, he did not believe in Jesus.
What? That can actually happen?
The John 9 guy was healed of blindness. Because it was the Sabbath, the now formerly-blind man was questioned by Jewish leaders as to who had healed him and if he was even blind to begin with. For a likely poor, uneducated man,  the formerly-blind man made a mockery of the religious leaders own reasoning process. His response to Jesus was different too. John writes that “the  Jews cast him (the healed man) out of [the synagogue]…(v. 34)”; “Jesus heard that he had been cast out and having found him, he said, ‘Do you believe…? (35);'” “He said, ‘Lord I believe,’ and he worshipped him(36).”
John’s Point
  From these two stories we learn that seeing, hearing, and being healed by Jesus does not preclude trusting Jesus. These experiences are not necessary for faith. 
This is John’s point – we need not see Jesus to believe.  In fact, John 20:24-29 is a bit of an exclamation point to this fact.  This passage is of the  famous “doubting” Thomas confrontation with Jesus. Thomas insisted he would not believe until he had seen the resurrected Jesus himself.  Upon Jesus’ appearing, Thomas was on his knees before him. Jesus then uttered the beatitude of “blessed are those who believe me though they have not seen me.”
Battered and Buttressed
Life can batter our faith. It is also a means by which God tests, proves, and builds our faith.
Peter was in the room with Thomas when Jesus uttered those words recorded in John 20.
In the opening paragraphs of his letter (1 Peter) Peter reminds us that our faith is tried by life’s trials. He goes on to repeat Jesus’ words that he uttered in that locked room in Jerusalem: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him…. (1 Peter 1:8-9, but read the first 7 verses for context). 
Jesus Finds Us and Always is Inviting Trust
In each of our cases, Jesus finds us and asks us do you believe. This is not just a one off “being saved” event in our lives. John makes it clear in his gospel that faith is progressive. Our faith is relational. It is organic. It can be nurtured and it can be squelched.
Jesus comes to us every moment of our lives. He is always finding us. He is always inviting us, warning us, tending to us. How do we respond?
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Suffering as Part of Vocation

Suffering ≠ Punishment
In the stiff winds of a painful experience, a normal  human response is to wonder what we did wrong. Often behind this is a punitive perspective to personal pain – we messed up and IMG_5388now we are paying the price.

Here is a different view. In some instances, not all, personal adversity can be an aspect of ministry fulfillment.

Biblical Models
Think of those who suffered various kinds of hardships under the providential care and purposes of our wise God:

  • Noah built a boat in a desert. Think anyone mocked him?
  • Abraham waiting 20 years for that promised son as he wandered a land given but not yet possessed.
  • Moses’ two 40-year stints in the wilderness – once as a fugitive, the second as the leader of a fugitive people of God.
  • Jeremiah ingested God’s word and proclaimed it for over 40 years yet saw little change in God’s people.
  • Paul in 2 Corinthians lists numerous hardships he experienced as he went about his Apostolic work.

IMG_6801Joseph’s own words are startling.  Sold into the human trafficking reality of his time by his brothers, then falsely accused of attempted rape as an Egyptian slave, he spent years in an Egyptian prison. Decades later, to those same betraying brothers, he uttered his famous and wise words: “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  So it was not you who sent me here, but God. (Genesis 45:7-8)….  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:19-20).”

Joseph had come to realize that his sufferings had a purpose larger than his life. Sure, his brothers sold him into slavery, but it was God who was using that betraying act to fulfill the life purposes for Joseph. Wow.

Often our sufferings have larger purposes too. We might not be a national leader on the scale of Joseph, however we are God’s children and nothing is beyond his providential care and purposes.

My Lesson
Some years ago I came to the realization that the physical limitations I live with are not only the context in which God invites me to walk with him, it is the context in which he  manifests his love through me to others.

Could I have fulfilled this calling without these limitations? It is conjecture, but humanly speaking, possibly. In the Father’s wisdom and love though, he knows that these traits of his are supremely displayed in my personal version of limitations.

Weakness as a WindowIMG_0678
Personal sufferings are a means in which God can convey his love through us to others. The primary display of this truth is Jesus on the cross. Jesus’ suffering is the supreme display of the Father’s love. Our weaknesses can be a window into the same love.

How About You?
What are the hardships you are facing today? How might they be “an aspect of vocation?” How is God lovingly and mightily present in and through your weakness to others?

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Unshepherded Shepherds Beware

We are sheep first, shepherds second.
Sheep who are unwilling to be shepherded can get lost. Lost sheep make for poor shepherds.

Let’s put that another way.

Debriefers who do not seek out being debriefed are not the best debriefers.

Pastors who are unwilling to be pastored by another make for poor pastors, or at least not the best pastor they could be.

We are sheep first, shepherds second. As we experience receiving from others, we are postured to extend to others.

We Shepherd out of our Sheep-ness.

Its our identity as adopted sons and daughters in utter dependency on God from which we relate to others. Yet, all of us, to some degree, have misshapen identities. Our identities are hqdefaultalways in the process of being redeemed, i.e. reshaped and reoriented.

We shepherd out of our sheep-ness.

If it sounds messy, well it is.




Receive First, Then Give
Too many of us in care giving roles are far, far more comfortable being the giver than the receiver. It is what we receive from Jesus that we extend to others.

Being dependent on God is, in part, manifested in being dependent on others.

Another metaphor: we are all beggars for bread and the bread I share with you is not of my own creation – another gave it to me.

Who are Your Caregivers?
Who is your pastor?

Who is your spiritual director?

Who is you coach or mentor?

Who is your counselor?

Who is your debriefer?

How often are you meeting with these ones in a vulnerable, receptive posture?  Be very specific; it might not be as often as we imagine.

We can only lead sheep to pastures we know well. If we hang out in the pasture called “I care for myself,” guess where we will lead the sheep?

I must never think I am above the care that I provide for others.

Unshepherded shepherds beware.

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