Formation of Saints… the old school way
Our 20th century felt a need to define things… I guess part of our expansion of understanding of science, industry, machines, etc and even knowledge-information. In doing so, we defined theology in systematic ways that made sense to us… hence, systematic theology. With it came a systematization of orthopraxis (correct practice, or living). Through this, though said at times, it was more “caught” through action that discipleship was codified, codified into a program for “new believers”… it was a catechism to use an older label.
I believe this was done to our detriment. It reduced being formed into Christ’s image to a) knowledge; b) beginner’s indoctrination (Christianity 101…literally); something one does and “graduates” beyond. This is sad… so much is lost. For, when we step back and consider any Biblical or post Canon saint, we see lives that were and today are to be formed through life. In our egalitarian nature on one end of the spectrum, and our institutionalization on the other, we either see no need of it, and-or see it as only done by the clergy on high. I feel this is sad…
We often find that in the West, our privacy, so expanded with a) the affluence born post WWII; and b) our western culture’s individualism and privacy born of centuries of enlightenment and cultural proprieties that require us to at least appear “together”. It has reduced “iron sharpening iron” to tensile. Again, sad.
Having been called and shaped to start Communitas; having lived in community for years; having failed repeatedly as a person-leader-saint-friend-lover-father-mentor, I have come to know first hand just how I yet need to be formed into the image of Christ. It has forged in me a deep awareness of how I cannot and in fact have nothing to boast in of myself. I am, rather, a humble servant of the Lord, who needs my brothers and sisters to yet sharpen me, help me, encourage me and remind me.
You see, we tend to consider discipleship, formation, training, equipping to be linear, as in a discipler teaching a disciple. This is so western, so Greek, so didactic, so institutional, and not what Scripture teaches, nor is lived out in Eastern Cultures of which the Bible was written through. Rather, discipleship, formation, and equipping; iron sharpening iron; is a multi-directional life – not activity or course. It is life on life.
In contrast to a course or catechism, Scripture models for us lives that ebb and flow. There is an ebb and flow to life. My decades’ increasing tell me this. There are times when my wisdom, my years of grit in the trenches, my own gifings coming to bear are useful to those behind me in the journey. With this said, though, there are times, and have been for many years, those behind me who become my teacher, my formateurs. For God gifts, gives wisdom, and smile when we are shown our humble dependency. Our culture tends to think of dependency upon God as a spiritual matter with no other people involved. I disagree with this and rather challenge that it is through others, mutually dependent upon each other, upon Christ, together, that we are best formed, sharpened, matured. My mission calls this “constellations of mentors”… the idea of a sky full of starts – different locations, distances, brightnesses, but all having roles in giving us light.
Just yesterday, I sat on the porch of one of my communities, the leaders and I rocking back and forth in the later afternoon sun. I listened, encouraged and spoke to them wisdom they thirst for and encouragement to be used to shape and make them more successful. Last night, the leader of the community in which I reside chided me for some actions that did not reflect my station, maturity, or Christ likeness. He did so to make me sharper, more mature and to encourage me to live into my calling. He is many years younger and could be my son. I’ve also sat this week with a leader who resented my words, though I worked to be gentle and kind and encouraging. There is something needed by each of these relationships. The one at the moment calling a sister or brother to allow him/her self to be formed must do so to build up, to bring life, to encourage and call them to a higher place – not to shame and hurt. Ever had that done to you. I have. I’ve had it hurt so bad it wounded me for a year. Ever done that to some one where they are really damaged and hurt? I have and lost dear, dear relationships that I humbly and shamefully confess are not restored and I seriously doubt ever will be. I bear that loss the rest of my life and it hurts yet. The other is that it must be received by the one being formed. One must be humble enough to allow a sister or brother to speak the hard things, knowing you’re seen, knowing you’re dependent, knowing you need him or her to love you this way and allow it. This is not just for exhortation or rebukes, but to broaden one’s thinking, to be teachable, to be humble enough to allow another, above, peer or subaltern to speak into your life – even when they may not do so perfectly. One must trust them, even if the actions and words seem hard. It is who they are, not the immediate how they say it that is important.
Furthermore, this requires trust… it requires real relationship. It requires life being shared… It is not effective to do in an academy setting, not a lab, but in real life, as you go… It requires transparency, commitment, selflessness, surrendering boundaries, rights, and indulgences for others. It requires an unconditional relationship that allows offense, hurt and can heal and love them more, seeing their love and commitment in spite of failings.
Most often though, it is a formateur and disciple being formed… This arrangement, be it for a new convert, one not yet converted, or one who has walked with the Lord many years, must become in some fashion a parental one. A parental role requires a person to love and commit to the disciple with a sacrificial love and commitment to walk them to maturity. It is not about getting one’s needs met. On the contrary, it is a posture of deference for the other. It also requires the disciple to allow that type of life invasion and love, a radical commitment and being allowed to be seen proverbially “naked” before this person – allowing them to see just how broken, or immature, or wounded, or sinful, or incapable, or gifted we actually are. It requires trust – that this spiritual father or mother really is committed to “me” and he/she really does really love me in a Christ like manner.
Warming – be ready to be let down! Be ready as a disciple to have this spiritual parent fail you. Be ready for your disciple to fail you. Be ready to hurt one another. Be ready to give grace when it’s not earned, or even appreciated. Can you see how one learns to be Christ like? It is by being placed in situations where we are given opportunity (or challenged) to behave, think and feel like Jesus. Your spiritual dad will fall off the pedestal! He can’t live up to your expectations or replace Christ. Over time, you’ll grow and become more equals though there will always be a special relationship between you, but you’ll come to see the real man and have more opportunity to speak into his life also, and more so. It’s okay.
I have had many formateurs… Geography, life stage, life situations for me and them have often altered, or cycled our relationships. Our western culture, moving and moving and moving, I don’t know – is it best, or healthiest, or God’s plan? Would it be better to be formed by a person through life? There is a freshness to a new person forming you, but there is something about deep deep roots we’ve lost in our culture. Can it be a bit of both?
What does one form? Is it merely creedal information? I challenge that is elementary – milk the Paul calls it. I challenge it is begun maybe with theological issues, but must go far beyond that to institutions of life – church, family, work, friendships, children, to deeper things – woundings, life stages, deep sinful character issues, circumstantial.
Navigating this type of relationship must be seen as that though – relationship, and not “lessons”. That gets old. There may well be a regular rhythm of reflection, or “mentoring”, but it might also be more shared life and living it together. I like a combination. One might have a mentor outside of your weekly rhythm, but if God is good, it is great to have mentor(s) that share common life with you as they’ll see you as you really are, not as you report. It’ll be harder at first… and sweeter, deeper and more meaningful later.
This is often one on one, but as it may be circumstantial and a way of life, it might be multiple disciples or multiple disciples investing into a discipler. My richest seasons have been investing intentionally into a small group of guys, or having a couple of guys invest into me. It adds a depth and 3 dimensional aspect that I appreciate.
There are many more things I could say here, but I’ll close for now. I would appreciate dialogue if you are so moved and can be bothered.
Grace and Peace