I am currently in New Haven Connecticut at the Overseas Ministry Study Center where I teach a course on spiritual renewal each year. This is one of the most enriching and challenging teaching situations I am ever involved in. My students come from across the globe. Methodist ministers from Myanmar and Korea sit together with Anglicans from Kenya and Ghana. Catholic sisters from the Philippines rub shoulders with Pentecostals from India and Brazil.
How do you teach in the midst of such diversity I am often asked? How do you help each student find renewal that suits their needs?
I must confess it can be a challenge. What one student finds refreshing another might find offensive. What is acceptable in one faith tradition is anathema to another. What renews and enriches my spiritual journey may do nothing for someone else.
I learn something new each year not just about how to renew faith in the midst of this kind of diversity, but about how to approach spiritual formation in any context. I thought that you might appreciate some of the insights I have learned.
1. Learning to see with fresh eyes and to hear with unstopped ears. Probably the most important skills we can teach people is the ability to look and listen, not telling them what to believe but opening their eyes and ears to perceive what God’s spirit wishes to communicate through their encounters, their activities and their interactions with God’s created world..
2. One size does not fit all. Whenever I see a piece of clothing that advertises “one size fits all” I know I am in trouble. It will definitely not fit me. Similarly with spiritual practices – one size does not fit all.
I often feel that my purpose in spiritual formation is to provide a rich smorgasbord of spiritual practices and ideas which participants can taste and experiment with. Many of the practices I talk about in my book Return to Our Senses: Lectio divina, vision divina, prayer walks, breathing prayers, exercises in gratitude and thankfulness, labyrinths and prayer flags are just a few of the tasty dishes that God gives us to choose from. Allowing people to choose what suits their palates without expecting them to eat everything on the table is a liberating and faith strengthening process for all of us.
3. The power of story. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer talks about using stories that encourage people to come at the truth slantwise. What he means is that we can use stories effectively to draw the truths that the Spirit of God is stirring within a person’s soul. We can use a person’s own story. We can also use as stories that sometimes seem on the surface to have no relationship to what we are discussing yet trigger thoughts and understandings in peoples’ minds.
Jesus used parables in this way. Often they had many possible interpretations, all of which could contain Godly truths and so might speak to people from a broad array of backgrounds. No wonder what Jesus said excited not just Jews but also Greeks, Romans and other nationalities.
4. Enabling people to ask the right questions. I once heard British theologian John Stott say The answers we get depend on the questions we ask. And it is true. New experiences, new encounters, new reflective exercises all raise new questions in our minds. Our purpose in spiritual formation is to give people the freedom to ask the right questions. Not so much why does God allow this to happen but rather what is God doing in the midst of this situation?
These are only a few of the tools that can assist any person’s spiritual journey. We are meant to lead gently from behind, encouraging the footsteps of our followers along the pathway God has chosen for them.