Spiritual formation: giving, not getting

It’s time for a moment of brutal honesty. I haven’t been part of a small group or Sunday School class for the better part of a year. Now, to most of you, that’s probably less than scandalous. You’re probably thinking, “So what? Lots of people don’t go to small groups.”

For me, however, it is kind of a big deal. I was a Christian education major in college, and small groups are kind of our “thing.” For the first 23 years of my life, I seldom went a week without being a part of some Christian education group: Sunday School, a small group, or an age-specific group of some kind.

The reason I stopped going? Sleep. I started attending a new church about a year ago ((Countryside Wesleyan Church, pastored by my wonderful friend Tim Witte.)), and small groups at my church happen Sunday mornings at 9:30. I don’t often get to sleep in, and Sunday was one of my only chances to do it. An extra hour of sleep felt more important than a small group. (I told you I was going to be brutally honest.)

Yesterday, I felt very strongly that I needed to go to small group this morning. Despite my initial protestation, I set my alarm for 8 a.m. (The horror.) This morning, I attended the intergenerational small group at my church.

And, as if some kind of supernatural “I told you so” from God, the topic of our small group today was the importance of spiritual formation ((For those of you who don’t know, spiritual formation is the name The Wesleyan Church uses for Christian education.)), as well as the basics of what it is.

We walked through some of the foundations of spiritual formation, namely worship ((Romans 12:1-2)), connection ((Acts 2:24-47)), service ((Ephesians 4:14-16 and 1 Peter 4:10-11)), generosity ((2 Corinthians 8:9)), and invitation ((Matthew 28:18-20)). As we continued talking, I realized one thing:
Spiritual formation is not something we get.

Often, we treat spiritual formation as something that the Church needs to give to us through its programs and classes. The Church has gotten really good at trying to help people “get” spiritually formed.

But spiritual formation is not something we get.
Spiritual formation is, at its core, about giving.

Worship is about giving our praise to God. Connection is about giving up our seat at the table to put others first. Service is about giving the gifts God has given us back to the Church. Generosity is about giving to others, despite the cost to ourselves. Invitation is about giving up our prejudices to bring all into the family of God.

In my year of not attending any kind of formation community, I kept hoping that I would get spiritually formed by a sermon, a book, or a moment in prayer. I kept not getting it, because it’s not something I could get. I needed to be giving.

While the sacrifice of an hour of sleep is small, it’s a start. It’s a step towards remembering that spiritual formation is about giving, not getting.

The Holy Spirit is weird.

Pentecost, as depicted by Jean II Restout.
Pentecost, as depicted by Jean II Restout.

Today is Pentecost. It’s the day in the traditional liturgical calendar, 50 days after Easter, when we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In most (non-Pentecostal/Charismatic) churches, it is the one Sunday out of the year that we really talk about the Holy Spirit. But why?

In my years in the church, I’ve come to realize that we don’t talk about the Spirit because the Spirit is weird. It doesn’t fit into our box of understanding about God.

See, we have an entire half of the Bible, the Old Testament, that we see as primarily dedicated to helping us understand God the Father. We have another half of the Bible, the New Testament, that we see as primarily dedicated to helping us understand God the Son. We don’t really get much on God the Holy Spirit.

The book of Acts is our primary source of understanding on how the Spirit works and moves. But even in that book, the Spirit is unpredictable. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit enables the apostles to speak in tongues so every person can understand. Verse 38 in this chapter says that in order to receive the Holy Spirit, all you have to do is repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus—and the new believers do receive the Spirit! They are so moved that they begin to share their possessions among themselves.

But by Acts 8, things seem different. Philip goes to Samaria, where many repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus, exactly what Peter indicated back in chapter 2 was required to receive the Spirit. However, the people in Samaria don’t receive the Spirit—at least, not until verse 17 when Peter and John lay hands on them.

And it gets weirder still! In Acts 5, the Spirit strikes Ananias and Sapphira dead in the first 11 verses, but then by verse 15 is healing people just because Peter’s shadow glanced across them. In Acts 19, people are healed by touching Paul’s used handkerchiefs and aprons.

How are we to make sense of this? How do we serve a God who is so unpredictable? I’ve asked myself that question hundreds, if not thousands of times. When I first grasped the ungraspable-ness of the Spirit, I had a major emotional breakdown in the middle of a class. I couldn’t handle the idea of not being able to predict the Spirit. I wanted the Spirit to fit into a system, and it didn’t.

Three years down the road from that emotional day, I can’t say that I’ve systematized the Spirit. I can’t say I understand it any better. I can’t say that I have the answers.

But that’s how God is: unknowable, yet unchanging. Incomprehensible, but indivisible.

What I can say is this:
The Spirit is weird,
and I’m okay with that.

Conversations at the Well

Proponents on both sides of the RFRA debate fill the Indiana statehouse.

2000 years ago, an radical Jewish rabbi and a nameless Samaritan woman had an encounter that would define both of them.

This rabbi, named Jesus, was traveling back home. To do so, he had to pass through the land of Samaria. This was a big deal: the defining cultural narrative at the time said that Jews were the enemies of the Samaritans, and that there was no way that gap could be bridged. Jews were not to do anything that could be construed as supporting the choices Samaritans made, lest their moral purity as Jews be compromised.

So powerful was this divide, it even became a sort of a law of the land: Jews who chose to treat Samaritans as second-class citizens were permitted to do so by their government.

Jesus decided to stop at a well in a Samaritan town, thirsty from the heat of the noonday sun. To get a drink would mean compromising his moral integrity. But, in violation of what everyone expected from him, he called out to a woman to fetch him some water from the well. What’s more, this woman was known to him as someone who had slept with several men, further impurifying her in the eyes of his faith.

Yet, he saw in this interaction an opportunity to give life. An opportunity to care for this woman’s soul. He was well within his rights to ridicule her, treat her as less-than, or even refuse to acknowledge her. But Jesus didn’t do that. He chose the more difficult path: the path that forced him to have a conversation with this woman and engage with her at a deep level, despite what his fellow Jews might think.


This week, my home state of Indiana passed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” a bill which is said to reinforce religious freedom in the state. Such a measure, however, is viewed with skepticism by the LGBT community, fearing that the law could be used to allow discrimination against them. Some lawmakers tried to add amendments to this bill making it clear that enabling discrimination was not its purpose, but the amendments were soundly rejected.

This leaves the law in a state of ambiguity on the issue of discrimination against LGBT people. It will not be clear until interpreted for us by the court system, and legal scholars have a variety of opinions on where those decisions might end up.

What we can know is this: while this law may or may not enable discrimination against LGBT people, we serve a God who, in His very own actions, showed that embrace is better than exclusion.

The rabbi sitting at Jacob’s well that day could have used His legal protection to discriminate against the nameless Samaritan woman, yet He chose not to. It is my deep belief that if Jesus came across a gay man or trans woman in Marion, Fort Wayne, Elkhart, or Indianapolis, He would interact with them with the same dignity and love He would afford anyone else. I dare say that He might even bake them a wedding cake or show up at the ceremony, regardless of whether He agreed with them or not. He would turn no one away, even if He was within His rights to do so.

While we may not be able to repeal the law tomorrow, or pass non-discrimination protections for our LGBT neighbors, we can start making changes in our lives. We can choose to follow in the footsteps of that radical Jewish rabbi. We can choose to have a conversation at the well.

 

Matters of life and justice

In recent days, our national media has been consumed by conversations of justice, or, more specifically, the lack thereof.  Fathers choked to death and children shot, all under the guise of a fair, equitable, and just legal system.

I do not pretend to know the plight of my black brothers and sisters. I am a white, protestant male who lives in a city that was home to the last public lynching in the northern U.S. I cannot know their suffering. I cannot know what it means to fear for my life every time I see a police officer. I cannot know what it means to be denied access to the court system to pursue justice. I cannot know what it means to live life without my inherent privilege because of the color of my skin.

What I do know is this: today, Christ weeps with the families of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown. He repeats His words from Matthew 25, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” He mourns the destruction of life—any life, but especially the lives of the downtrodden and oppressed.

In the season of Advent, we are asked to remember Christ who makes all things new. He accomplishes that re-creation through our hands and feet. Pray for justice, yes. But it’s just as important that we work for justice. That we stand up against oppressive structures. That we break down the prejudices in our own hearts and minds. That we do more than just hope things get better and make it so.

A new chance for us

From my perspective, November 1 should be a national holiday: the start of the Christmas season. Red cups come out of hibernation at Starbucks, Halloween decorations make way for Christmas decorations at Meijer, and my tree and ornaments escape their cramped closet confines for the total freedom of a tabletop.

People often question this borderline-obsessive love of Christmas. Aside from the accountants at major retail chains, not many people share my eagerness to start the season. It’s sometimes hard to explain what drives this desire in me. It’s certainly not getting “things,” though that’s nice. It’s certainly not the arrival of cold weather, though that’s sometimes nice. It’s certainly not the hustle and bustle of making plans and finishing tasks, though… well, no, that’s never nice.

When I do find a good way to explain my irrational love for Christmas to people, I point to the Christmas truce of 1914. This story has come to the cultural forefront this week with the release of an ad from British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s that celebrates the 100th anniversary of this event. In short, for one day, British and German soldiers across the Western Front laid down their arms and celebrated the holiday together.

To me, the truce embodies what Christmas is to me. It’s hope. It’s light. It’s seeing past what makes us different and looking to what makes us the same. It declares a truce over our world, calling for people of all races, ethnicities, genders, political parties, sexualities, and ages to stop the arguing, fighting, and yelling. In a world of ever-increasing hostility and division, Christmas lets us set aside “us vs. them” to create just “us.”

That’s why I can’t wait for Christmas each and every year: it symbolizes a new birth. A new chance: a new chance to heal the world; a new chance for “us.”

I Love You, Fred

HeartFred,

When I heard the news about your death today, I was torn.

I, like so many, wanted to write a post today saying, “I despise what Fred Phelps stood for, but have to love him regardless.” I wanted to talk about how my brand of theology was superior, but how we should care for the members of the church you started all the same. I wanted to talk about how God calls us to love, not to picket and scream.

But Fred, I’ve experienced first-hand the results of the selfsame theology I was trying to apply to you: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Oh, how many times those words have echoed through the halls of my church, the halls of my Christian college, the halls of my mind.

And for good reason: it’s an easy way out. It lets me say, “I despise you, but I’m going to cover it up in a layer of Jesus’ love.” But it doesn’t work. Malice shrouded by love is still malice. That’s not the love I’m called to.

The love I’m called to is unequaled and irrational. The love I’m called to is outrageous and never-ending. The love I’m called to is unconditional and powerful. The love I’m called to is incredible and unexplainable. The love I’m called to is astounding and boundless.

So today, Fred, I extend a love to you that every fiber of my flesh so resists giving, a love that I can only give in the power of Christ. A love so many have been denied by the church–not just your church, but the entire church–in our time. A love that doesn’t care where you’ve come from or where you are.

To you, and your family in their time of loss, I extend this love. The love of God.

I love you, Fred.

-Evan

What to expect

So, as you probably know, I sort of fell off the blog bandwagon. I did a good job writing for a while and then disappeared.

I’ve taken some time to reevaluate what my blog should look like, and I’ve decided it’s time for a fresh start. I’ve archived all of my old posts (which, if you’re curious, you can still access using the Archived Posts  link above).

This blog is going to have a little more focus than the last one. I’ll be looking exclusively at theological topics—specifically controversial ones (usually). You’ll be getting a more raw, more uncensored Evan. Exciting, I know.

I’m not sure how regular posts will be yet (hopefully once a week), but I’ll be sure to try to keep them interesting and constructive. See you here soon!