Formed for Life

thoughts, gleanings and experiences along the journey of spiritual formation by Paul Clark

rest and renewal

Last month I was scheduled to present a workshop at Fairhaven Church on “Using the Summer for Rest and Renewal.” Unfortunately, a narrow margin in my travel schedule and an airline delay conspired to keep me in Chicago overnight and caused me to cancel the workshop. I was disappointed, not only because I had prepared well, but because I really believe this topic is transformative for Christians who desire to nurture and deepen their relationship with God. I emailed the materials out to those who were registered, used a small portion in a staff meeting, but otherwise have been left to simply use it in my own life. Maybe that’s a better place to land after all.

This month, my wife and I have committed to experiencing July as 31 days of spiritual rest and renewal. I’ve been thinking a lot about Sabbath-living, having focused on it in my recent Selah studies and having read Mark Buchanan’s book, The Rest of God, while on vacation early this spring. Spiritual rest and renewal is thoroughly biblical both from an Old and a New Testament perspective. Our soul longs for rest. Our innermost being longs for rest from producing, reaching, creating and achieving. Without it, we become mechanical and distanced from the immanency and graciousness of God that makes life and ministry satisfying.

Consider these statements from the Psalms about our soul’s need for rest:

  • Psalm 116:7 Let my soul be at rest again, for the Lord has been good to me.
  • Psalm 131:2 Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
  • Psalm 62:1 Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from  him.
  • Psalm 62:5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him.

As you read these verses, what stands out to you? What within them speaks to your own heart?

Three more wonderful passages highlight the rest that is available and modeled for the one who trusts in God:

  • Psalm 23:1-2 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
  • Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
  • Luke 5:15-16 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

As Kay and I lean into this month, we’re looking at these kinds of rest:

Physically Refreshing Rest

  • our bodies need the refreshment of a change of pace and a change of scenery
  • the change of place should be a setting that gently expands our ability to be aware of resting and rejoicing in God’s grace
    • …for us, that’s nature. We’re scheduling time for relaxing in the park, walks in the woods, being near water, away from the clamor and noise of regular life.

Emotionally Refreshing Rest

  • emotional rest is found in whatever calmly calls forth our awareness of beauty and goodness
  • being refreshed by what’s lovely (nature, art) or imaginative (good fiction, poetry, films)
  • expressing personal creativity (hobbies, crafts)
    • …for me that’s woodworking and gardening
    • …for Kay, that’s reading and bike-riding

Intellectually Refreshing Rest

  • resting our minds from what usually occupies them
  • nourishing our minds on hopeful material that reminds us of how God wants life to be
    • …this month I’ll be reading Mansions of the Heart, The Deeper Journey, and watching several movies that I’ve never gotten to
    • …Kay’s tackling some writing projects on her wish list, journaling, and puzzles (she loves crossword puzzles)

Relationally Refreshing Rest

  • time for refreshment in essential relationships; being together!
  • Body of Christ (cf Acts 2:42-47) being with God’s people living real life with those on a similar journey – picnics, barbecues, etc.
    • …for us that’s scheduling time for people outside our normal circle of relationships, stretching us to engage with and appreciate the wonderful diversity of God’s people

What do we rest from?

  • Anxiety of limited trust. Rest is learning to live in the peace that comes as we entrust ourselves to a gracious God who does all things well.
  • Guilt and frustration that comes because we know things aren’t right in us. Things will never be “right” in us this side of eternity. Rest is experiencing the freedom of God’s merciful forgiveness.
  • Compulsive drive to either (or both)  appease or impress a demanding God, or satisfy the self’s false need for approval and validation.
  • Resistance of living as if my way is a better way. Rest comes as I finally decide that God’s ways are wiser than mine and entrust myself to His perfect will.

Here are several of the spiritual disciplines we hope to practice this month:

  • Sabbath-living
  • Solitude
  • Soul Care
  • Silence
  • Retreat
  • Trusting rest (prayers of entrusting to God before sleeping)
  • Gracious community
  • Slowing
  • Celebration of creation

Our willingness to embrace rest and renewal equips and empowers us physically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and socially – that is, wholly – to live the life God has prepared for us. What would an intentional period of spiritual rest and renewal this summer look like for you?

*some material adapted from Susan Currie’s Selah class notes on the Resting Rhythm 

why evangelicals should read the spiritual classics

readingthechristianspiritualclassicsMany years ago I read a small book by Gary Thomas, now entitled, Thirsting for God. It was a fabulous book that helped launch me into a great awakening to the journey of spiritual formation. My faith has never been the same. If you’re new to spiritual formation perhaps that little book would be a good place for you to start. Peppered throughout the chapters were quotations by classical writers such as Francois Fenelon, Blaise Pascal, John Climacus, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thomas a’ Kempis. Those quotations stirred something within my soul and I soon sought out other classical writing, purchasing Renovare’s Spiritual Classics and Devotional Classics. In those I began to understand that my journey of faith is incredibly similar to men and women who lived hundreds of years ago and that the things they learned about God and the journey of the heart were really enlightening and helpful to me.

So why don’t more evangelicals embrace these classical writings? I’ve recently finished reading an awesome book by James Goggin and Kyle Strobel. It’s entitled, Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals. It’s an illuminating and reassuring read for any evangelical who is curious about the classics, but has been hesitant to jump in without some preparation and guidance.

In a workshop on spiritual disciplines I recently presented at my church, a woman stated when asked what drew her to the topic, “I just wanted to find out what my church believes about these authors and practices.” She was referring to Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and many of the other authors I mentioned above.  She was already firmly predisposed against the classics and she was there to make sure that I and those attending understood them to be a slippery slope at best or heresy at worst. She was polite, and we remained respectful of one another’s views.

But in that incident, I was reminded that for many evangelicals, reading the classical writers remains a shaky proposition, something reserved for mystics and those straying beyond the orthodox fences. That’s so unfortunate. God has been and is still speaking clearly to his people, and we close ourselves off from his voice to our own hurt. There is so much I can learn about spiritual life and soul care from those who have gone before me and lived out their faith in circumstances that both tested and proved the validity of their relationship with God.

The chapter, Why Should We Read Spiritual Classics?, by Steve L. Porter, argues convincingly that there is a pneumatological, incarnational and ecclesiological rationale for reading the classics. Not to mention the simple spiritual encouragement of engaging the Body of Christ across the centuries. It was a great read and I hope you’ll give it a look. Blessings!


ideas on spiritual formation

Spiritual formation is the life-long process by which the Christian becomes transformed in their heart toward the image of Jesus in order that the expression of their daily life grows increasingly like him. There are volumes written about how it happens, but I feel like Ive learned so much about it through my own journey, so here are a few of my ideas:

  1. Spiritual formation is the essential journey of the Christian life. I feel like I’ve been on this journey for the last 20 years, and only wish I could get another chance at the 15 or so years that preceded. The relationship God offers us is the “living water” and it commands my heart, mind, soul and strength.
  2. Rather than a singular event, transformation happens over seasons of time. You cannot view transformation in two-week windows. As the gardener of our soul, God patiently plants, tills, prunes and cultivates the fruit he desires in us. Not only is God shy, but he is never in a hurry.
  3. Although transformation is the work of the Spirit, I have a huge role to play. Apostle Paul expressed it best when he wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Transformation comes as I direct my attention to God each moment, awaiting with open hands the means for growth that he will place into them that day..
  4. Transformation is holistic, not compartmentalized. God isn’t interested in my spiritual life, he’s interested in my whole life—every aspect of it. There is no distinction between secular and sacred, but Christ is all and in all. It’s all interwoven and what defines me as a believer.
  5. Spiritual formation can happen in every moment as it’s embraced and experienced in union with God. It is not restricted to certain days, times or practices, as the French lay-monk Brother Lawrence expressed so well in the 17th century. The holiness of God is fully available to me within the common business of my everyday life.
  6. Transformation takes place in community and finds expression in living life with others. Genuine spiritual growth elevates the quality of relationships in my life and draws me through love  into the life of my faith community.
  7. My background, temperament or season of life are not hindrances to spiritual formation, but rather provide unique character and opportunities for God to work within me. My age and personality season the process rather than define it.
  8. Transformation is available right now to all who desire it. I never have to doubt God’s willingness or intention to work graciously in my heart to draw me to himself (Ps. 19). In fact, his work of grace always precedes and enlivens my interest in spiritual growth.
  9. There is no uniform approach to spiritual formation. We err when we try to impose a template that says, “This is how you grow spiritually.” It’s organic, fluid and mysterious.  An infinitely creative God acts upon our lives in ways that are beyond our expectations or imaginations.

It’s a dry heat

I recently spent five days in Phoenix at a Franciscan Retreat Center, (seeing my now second rattlesnake) learning about and experiencing spiritual formation and spiritual direction as part of my training in the Selah program. Selah is sponsored by LTi and is an offshoot of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Phoenix was hot! The daily high was 105, but incredibly, if you were in the shade, it was relatively comfortable, with a warm desert breeze blowing most of the time. It was an intensive residency experience with my ongoing cohort of students, the third of five residencies in the two-year program. It’s impossible to explain how much I have learned and experienced from being in Selah. My faith in God and my life with God will never be the same.

Let me share a couple of the highlights with you, simply to introduce you to some good resources for summer study and contemplation:

Alan Fadling, author of An Unhurried Life, taught on John 15, and the “more fruit” that comes from abiding in Jesus. He spoke at length about the Gardener’s pruning that takes place in our lives, allowing more fruit, and how we resist it, avoid it, escape it, or ignore it, but only move past it when we surrender to it. I love Alan’s honest, earthy, understanding of the rhythms of life that bring deeper relationship with God and rest to our souls. Check his ministry out at

Tom Ashbrook, author of Mansions of the Heart and leader of Imago Christi, spoke about love of God expressed through our first and second order callings. It was deep stuff, but his rich experience as a Lutheran pastor and now as a teacher and leader of leaders in spiritual formation, provided many anecdotes and personal illustrations to his teaching. His work in the Mansions book is a must-read, as it unpacks the classic book by Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, in a way that’s inviting and accessible. It includes a strong endorsement and Forward by Eugene Peterson, and I’m loving the first few chapters I’ve read so far.

Written for anyone who wants to develop a deeper more meaningful relationship with God, Mansions of the Heart offers a step-by-step guide through a spiritual formation road map based on Teresa of Avila’s Seven Mansions. The book includes a Mapping Tool that will help you discern your place on your spiritual journey and offers church leaders a process for helping church members to grow into spiritual maturity.


10 Reasons Why I’m Keeping Lent

Evangelicals, of which I am one, often point out that the observance of Lent is nowhere prescribed in Scripture, as reason for ignoring or denigrating it. Yet we observe many days and practices in our churches that are simply traditions, i.e. Advent season, Christmas Day, child dedications, church membership, etc. These are nowhere prescribed in Scripture, and yet hold value and observance because they help us accomplish a greater good.

Just as Advent is a season of preparation for the arrival of the Christ-child, Lent is a season of preparation for the death, burial and resurrection of the Savior. It’s a preparatory exercise that allows the disciple of Jesus to orient his or her heart toward the reality of sin, redemption and eternal life and the victory of Jesus through the cross and the empty tomb.

I’m observing Lent and here’s why:

  1. It connects me to the history of the Church, as it dates back to the days of the apostles and has continued in a 40-day fashion for some 1700 years.
  2. I believe that what has nourished and built up saints for 2000 years will likewise be beneficial for me, since my sins are the same and my needs are similar, to the earliest saints of the Christian Church.
  3. It’s a season of self-examination, humbling, fasting and penitence, which are prescribed by God in Scripture as advantageous for my soul and my relationship to Him.
  4. I enjoy observing the Lenten season as a solemn preparation for the powerful reflections and symbols of the Passion Week.
  5. Since the vast majority of Christians worldwide practice some form of Lenten observance, joining them in some way is a good step toward solidarity of faith and ministry (John 17:23).
  6. We cannot fully appreciate Jesus’ resurrection unless we have experienced something of his sufferings, which can be experienced in some small way through abstinence or fasting.
  7. I need a period each year for intentional spiritual introspection and contemplation, which Lent provides.
  8. The act of a Lenten sacrifice reminds me of my commitment to God and my desire to make him first in my life.
  9. Fasting during Lent, in some way, helps me surrender my idols to God.
  10. Lent is about as counter-cultural as it gets. To spend a brief season constraining myself, limiting myself, practicing self-denial, is just one way of turning my attention away from the relentless message of self-gratification and instant pleasure offered to me everywhere I turn and instead put my hope and trust in the one who truly satisfies my thirsty soul.

Always, we begin again

Some 1500 years ago, St. Benedict established a Rule to help guide his community of monastic Christ-followers. One of his precepts was this: “Always, we begin again.”  I embraced that saying the first time I heard it, shared by Tara Owens, because as a follower of Jesus trapped in a sinful body and a propensity to live out sinful instincts, and living in a fallen world full of broken people like me, I innately recognize my need to begin again. Benedict’s Rule is an implicit recognition of our human failings (James 3:2), our recurring mistakes and our need to start over. He was extending to his community a graceful permission to live in their own skin, replete with all its weaknesses. Thomas à Kempis argued that “a humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning,”

Perhaps your heart needs to be reminded that God’s love for you is a free gift. It is not dependent on your performance, your feelings, your achievements, or lack thereof. In fact, God’s great love for you is pictured in these words of Zephaniah, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:17). As a Christ-follower, you are God’s dearly loved son or daughter: the object of God’s gladness and delight.

God loves you with what Hannah Hurnard (Kingdom of Love, 1984) calls “a passionate absorbed interest.” God’s nature of unconditional love causes him to view you through his prism of love. What’s even more remarkable is that God’s love for you has nothing to do with your behavior. Neither your faithlessness nor your unfaithfulness alters Divine love in the slightest degree. Like the father’s love in the parable of the prodigal son, Divine love is absolutely unconditional, unlimited and unimaginably extravagant. In the spirit of St. Benedict, let’s allow ourselves the freedom and the grace to begin again.


crafting a Rule of Life

One of the most valuable projects I’ve recently completed was crafting my own personal Rule of Life.  You ask, “What is a personal Rule of Life?”

To answer that question, let me quote from Stephen Macchia’s book, which guided me through the process:  “Your personal rule of life is a holistic description of the Spirit-empowered rhythms and relationships that create, redeem, sustain and transform the life God invites you to humbly fulfill for Christ’s glory.  …a rule of life is a set of guidelines that support or enable us to do the things we want and need to do. A rule of life allows us to clarify our deepest values, our most important relationships, our most authentic hopes and dreams, our most meaningful work, our highest priorities. It allows us to live with intention and purpose in the present moment.”

“A rule of life is descriptive in that it articulates our intentions and identifies the ways in which we want to live. And when we fall short of these intentions, the rule becomes prescriptive, showing us how we can return to the path that we have set for ourselves and recapture our original vision. It is not something fixed and rigid, but something which can and should be adapted to our present circumstances and shaped to fit our current needs and desires” (Macchia, Stephen A. (2012-01-30). Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way).

The process was rigorous. It took weeks to work through the chapters, thoughtfully consider the questions, and organize the results into something personally meaningful. But it was so worth it! My Rule of Life is something I look at each Monday to help me set the course and context for my week. I’ll reexamine it again early in 2016 to see if it needs to be tweaked, but it definitely provides some valuable benefits:

  1. It helps me to understand and shape the kind of life I genuinely desire to live and experience.
  2. It encourages me to live introspectively, in a world that is sickly hurried and unwilling to consider deeper meanings.
  3. It’s a tool to look holistically at who I am, what I desire, and how I can best accomplish the life to which I believe God has called me.
  4. It provides a gentle accountability for the decisions and direction I allow in my life.
  5. It helps me to reject the sacred/secular divide. The totality of life can be viewed as sacred and intentional in living out my life with God.

If you are feeling somewhat unfulfilled and empty, wondering about your priorities and sense of direction, consider taking on this project. I think it will provide clarity and focus that will be refreshing and renewing. It’s not something to be hurried, but a thoughtful, measured journey to undertake with your Father. If you’re curious as to what yours could look like, stop by here for some samples.


Richard Rohr reminds us that “we cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” This is the core of the spiritual journey—learning to discern the presence of God, to see what really is.

finding the open spaces

Below is a post, mostly written by my wife, Kay, for the blog we share, Together for Good. I include it here because it speaks not only to family and faith, but to an important truth in spiritual growth. Read through it and I’ll share some comments at the end…

She speaks few discernable words but she taught us a valuable lesson the day we rediscovered awe through the eyes of our two-year-old granddaughter. She loves all things that sparkle—this is not something she was taught, but part of who she is. When she saw our Christmas tree, it was no surprise when her eyes grew wide with wonder. She stood at the base of the towering tree, took it all in, and then she invited us to sit next to her and experience the beauty. Okay, she pointed to the spot next to her and said “here” which was her simple, albeit direct, way of asking us to join her.

The same decorations we’ve had for years somehow looked different as the shiny ornaments reflected her smile, her sheer delight. The twinkle lights seemed brighter as they danced in her eyes. She was drawn to the shapes and noticed each texture as she reached out her hand to touch the dazzling colors, one by one. She didn’t grab them off the branches, she just held them in wonder. How many times had we handled and viewed those same objects?

That day we gave our granddaughter a simple present, a book, which she briefly enjoyed looking at. It was the tree, however, that kept drawing her back – as if she was checking to be sure the “wonder of it all” still existed in the other room. Again and again she would grab our finger and point toward the tree and we would follow her in and sit together, becoming all the more delighted by her delight.

We were reminded that true childlike joy comes with no expectations. She is too young to have a “list” of things she would like to receive, yet she returned to the tree just to sit and gaze. I have to admit earlier this week I had been thinking about the “empty space” below the tree, the space that used to be filled with presents galore. She didn’t see an empty space or realize there were no presents under the tree; she was simply fascinated by its beauty.

As a family, we recently decided to “do Christmas” differently. We exchanged our gift giving for time together. We moved from “Will you email me your list?” and “What gift card should I buy for him?” to “Where do you want to spend our week together?” We gave up buying Christmas presents for each other and gained a week’s worth of time with each other.

We combined our “Christmas” funds (the money we would have spent on Christmas gifts for each other), which set the budget for our desired destination. Together we selected the rental home and the week we would share.  The anticipation of our vacation week became part of the gift itself. The joy of Christmas kept showing up throughout the year when we gathered for family dinners and spent time planning our upcoming family vacation or laughing about the things we did in past years.

Even though it was a family decision, it’s still so easy to feel pressure to fill the space under the tree. This year, though, the space we had intentionally left empty became a place God has filled—with the delight of a child, with a reminder that it’s not the gifts we hope for but the people we cherish that matter most.  Isn’t it just like God to help us see what isn’t there is what he wanted us to see all along?

That empty space under the tree, otherwise filled with brightly colored gifts, now represents a far more life-giving, gracious, and personal space we have created for our family. In giving something up, we have found something far more valuable. Similarly, we progress in faith when we can see past the hurry and the noise of life to see God’s invitation to join him in the wide open space of our salvation. There will be the sense of momentary loss, as we make conscious decisions against the pull of our culture. But the faint inner longing we sense in our soul to draw near to God, when heeded, will eventually create a rich and satisfying experience of the life of God. Draw near. Small steps. Create space for God. God delights to fill the open space we give him (Romans 5:1-2 MSG).


desiring God v. spiritual ambition

God is our life (Col. 3:4). He desires and deserves to be at the center of our life and our attention. Yet, the truth is, we cannot, simply by the act of our will, put God at the center of our life. He has to put himself there. Only God has the power to overcome the hidden obstacles and idols that are deep within us, that we don’t even know are there. What we can do: we can long for it, pray for it, wait for it, try not to get in the way of it, try not to “do it” in our own efforts. When we struggle to create spiritual progress through our own efforts, we usually make a mess of it, stress out over it, and otherwise wear ourselves out in it. We get frustrated by not doing it, failing at it, or falling short of what we think it should look like. We end up in ritualism or legalism, neither of which create the life God desires.

We cannot replace worldly ambition with “spiritual ambition.” I will be the holiest among my peers. I will practice the disciplines with vigor. I’ll be the best minister. I’ll serve selflessly. Look at me! Albeit Christian, altruistic, even impacting others for good, it’s still about me, not God. Rather, saints are those who admit and accept their own inability to be holy, and yet wait upon God to create and do holy things within them. Therein lies the mystery. Holiness is the outgrowth of our desire for God as he satisfies our longing with his presence and gifts. We can nurture an environment within our soul through which God’s grace can produce fruit, but we cannot create God’s grace.

Mary sat at Jesus’ feet with no achievements or accomplishments, nothing to show for herself. All she brought to Jesus was a longing heart and a receptive spirit. Martha, on the other hand, was working hard for God, but her work, her striving, was at the center of her being, not God.  When we practice being with God, attentively and contemplatively, quietly, slowly, waiting upon God with longing hearts, we become as close to Mary as we can.  The better part Mary had chosen was sitting in stillness before Jesus with nothing to offer except a listening heart. No accomplishments, only empty, open hands.

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