A Reflection on Beginning: Formation Never Ends

San Damiano Crucifix

As I travel to the Chapter Meeting of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, with intent to profess my lifetime vows, I have taken many opportunities to wander through the 30 chapters of prayer, contemplation and reflection that I have prepared. I ponder what I have learned at the three previous Chapter gatherings. I can honestly say that after a lifetime of Christian worship and learning, after four years of seminary and seven years of ordained ministry, and after just over three years of searching, studying, praying and sharing, I have now arrived at the beginning. I feel ready to begin my journey with Francis and Clare and with this community in earnest. What follows is a summary of my learning so far. I hope these reflections aid your contemplation of what it means to belong to any congregation or expression of Christian community.

1. It is about Jesus. It is Jesus, the Word made flesh, the Son, whom I confess as my Lord. I am not a part of this community of disciples to follow Francis or Clare, but to follow Jesus. What makes these and the many beloved saints of the Franciscan family so compelling to me is the way they followed Jesus. In deep and soul-searching prayer, in joyful consideration of the mysteries of God, in self-giving love for the neighbor.

2. It is about conversion. As an ecumenical community, we speak of these moments in different ways and acknowledge them with different rituals. We call them Baptism, Confirmation, Affirmations of Faith, Baptismal Remembrance, the Solemn praying of the Sinner’s Prayer and the Laying on of Hands, Anointing in the Spirit, Confession of Faith, Confession & Absolution, Personal Conviction and more. Ordered life flows out of these experiences and the promises made there. God’s promises to me, and mine to God. Ordered life is just that, an thoughtfully organized (my personal rule) and life-changing expression of the conversion that comes when I abandon hope in everything else and am left with God alone. “My God and My All!”

3. It is about patience. When I tried to drive the process of formation with my will, it went slower, more painfully and with less clarity. When God was shaping me according to the Divine will, it flowed like joyful tears that were waiting to be cried. Waiting on God is hard. Waiting on God builds forbearance and patience, that I might pray “Forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who have trespassed against me.

4. It is about sharing. If there’s a part of my life that I’m not willing to discuss even with God, I guarantee you it is waiting on the road ahead to send me flying so that I can land on my face. I have found that the practice of regular reflection has not only built a strong bond with my formation counselor, but also with my spiritual director, my mutual ministry committee, my spouse and my bishop. Honesty about my flaws helps me to believe that Jesus has redeemed all of me.

5. It is about accountability. I’m not just talking about the formal accountability with the people mentioned in number 4. I mean communicating, questioning, wondering aloud, sharing my time with others and keeping in touch. What do you call a friend that you never write, call, spend time with, think about, pray for? A former friend. I struggle with the time demands of my own life and ministry, but I treasure the friendships I have already made, and knowing that I have arrived merely at the beginning, I am overjoyed at the chance to form more such relationships.

6. It is about love. God’s love for me is so immense that I sometimes overflow or bubble over. At our best, I see this happening among the members of this community and I am deeply moved by watching God’s love flow through their lives into the world. It’s not about building a utopia or having identical affection between every single brother and sister. I can honor the ways God’s love flows through their lives, even if we don’t become personal friends. I can honor the ways God’s love flows through some of my Sisters and Brothers to care for me in our friendship.

7. It is about giving. We are the vessels of the Holy Spirit and the living stones that make up this expression of the church. How we use these stones to build this community and as instruments of “rebuilding the church (people) which has fallen into ruin” depends on our mutual discernment as a community. If we each say, someone else should fix the bylaws, write the living history of the order, tell the stories of our many ministries, keep the books, call on the sick, seek out the lost, pray for the wounded, invigorate our worship with joy, proclaim the Gospel, give generously according to our means, than truly no one will do any of these things and we shall be a great heap of living stones. I continually ask God to show me what I can do to serve this order, and through the order, the many places served by my Brothers and Sisters.

8. It is about letting go. I know that the extremes are both tempting and scary. Don’t plan on starving in a cave with your family (partners, pets, children, barnyard denizens, etc.) Don’t plan on going streaking to make a point. Don’t go searching for the nearest mud puddle to sleep in. Don’t practice unsafe biohazard practices just to test your faith. However, ordered life is more than my life as it already is with some Franciscan (or Benedictine or Augustinian or Jesuit or Society of the Holy Trinity) window dressing. I have learned that the very real changes in me that come from constantly giving things away, from spending hours in prayer, from making Chapter my one big trip of the year, from taking off my gloves and hat in winter and giving them to a homeless vet are part of the work that God is doing with me. It is the kind of substantial change that reconnects me to trusting in God.

9. It is about listening. I have learned very little from listening to myself over the course of my life. I have grown tremendously from listening more deeply to my Franciscan siblings, to the Holy Scriptures, to my parishioners in their joys and concerns and to my co-workers in the Gospel.

10. It is about seeing the world anew. My life and work experience have built up my own concerns for the least, the last and the lost I know best: Teen parents, Survivors of Abuse and Neglect, Survivors of Sexual and Relationship Violence, Homeless Veterans, Children awaiting adoption, Sister Water and the Community of the Trees. Kinship with all creation invites me to start there, but to go further. For indeed I am kin with the baffling sea cucumber, the deadly cobra, the heroin addict, the hydro-fracturing driller, the Unrepentant Racist and the K Street Lobbyist. I am called to advocate for peace and justice from a place of love for those parts of creation I hold dear, those I fear, those I struggle mightily to love and those I can’t even understand.

These are some things I learned on my way to the beginning, only God knows what I will discover in the journey ahead!

Originally posted at “For the Life of the World” on the occasion of preparing to travel to the 2014 Chapter/Convocation

About John Michael

Pastor, teacher, husband, dog walker, gardener, petrocollapse agitator, contemplative, hiker. Currently serving as a Formation Coordinator for OEF and Dean of VT/NY conference of Lutheran Synod.

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