Spiritual Formation in Mercy Ministries
In mercy ministries, the subject of spiritual formation does not always receive the attention it deserves. In a single mercy ministry event, a number of tasks must be accomplished to meet the few needs we can amidst what seems to be an ocean of problems. Enacting a program of spiritual formation may seem to be a necessary, but ambitious addition to an already overwhelming plate. However, I would suggest that spiritual formation is the chord which binds the variety of tasks together and, in effect, can simplify the day as we all endeavor to center ourselves around the living person of Christ. This paper suggests a path forward for spiritual formation at Emmanuel Ministry and includes ideas developed by Vito Baldini, our pastor of mercy ministries.
Presently, spiritual formation is basic at Emmanuel. Before the guests come in, we briefly share the vision of Emmanuel with our volunteers and pray with them. Then before we serve the meal, either Vito or I will deliver a short, five minute reflection on a Scripture passage before praying for the meal. Our goal in our reflections is to simply highlight how the passage demonstrates Jesus’ love for our guests. After the meal has been served, a regular volunteer named Jeff will provide the opportunity for an optional Bible study.
Our current Bible study practice has several problems. The first is a lack of cohesiveness. For most of the Bible study’s history, the group has discussed a passage unconnected with what was discussed in the before-lunch reflection. None of those there who wished to dive deeper into the text we shared for only a few minutes have an opportunity to do so. We have remedied this over the past two or three months by preparing a teaching schedule so both those of us who provide reflections and our Bible study leader can utilize the same passage. Second, in our current scheduling, it competes with a movie we show after the meal in order to give people an opportunity to stay out of the elements. We have discussed changing the time of the Bible study to occur before the meal in order to create a separate time specifically for the Bible study. In this model, since the Bible study occurs before the reflection, they would study the passage from the following week, which we are encouraging them to meditate on throughout the week, as will be discussed below. Third, there is not a consistent use of the Bible study. The leadership at Emmanuel does not always know if the Bible study leader will be there, nor do we promote the Bible study or support its leader as well as we could. Our current Bible study leader is preparing to move for work-related reasons and will hand those responsibilities to someone else during the summer months. That transition in leadership will provide us with an opportunity to rethink the Bible study so it can serve its proper role in the unfolding vision of Emmanuel.
A recent change we have made is to create a handout of our Scripture passage along with several meditations our guests can take with them. The idea for this originally came from Vito Baldini and I have been entrusted with creating these handouts weekly. Each sheet contains three meditations, and I endeavor to organize each meditation to meet three different goals. First, I want to utilize the Scripture passage in a way which allows them to be honest about their circumstances and experiences, both with themselves and with God, and to reflect on them in new ways. For example, in an ongoing series on the Lord’s Prayer, during the week we focused on the address of the prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” one of the meditations was, “Think about your father. How did he help you see what God was like? In what ways is God a better Father than your earthly father?” It is to be expected that some of our guests have negative experiences with their fathers, and to hear a prayer begin with the phrase, “Our Father” could invoke those negative images of their own fathers rather than the grace and mercy of God. While the question is phrased in a manner that does not provide judgment, it gives our guests permission to recognize the failings of their fathers and to bring the pain of those circumstances to a perfect Father. It also allows them to reflect on what good they have received from their fathers, which is the second goal of our meditations. At least one meditation each week needs to encourage them to see the good in their lives and recognize how God has been gracious to them, even in their circumstances. The questions with this intention encourage our guests to look for how God loves them when living in a situation which might very well lead them to doubt God’s love for them. Finally, the third goal is to provide a place for responsibility. We have given them permission to bring their pain to God and encouraged them to find ways God has been gracious to them which they can give thanks for. Now, it’s time for our guests to recognize both the good they add to the world and the wrongs they have committed which have contributed to the way things are. So far, I have yet to determine the language for these questions and they have not been included in our first few handouts. We do not want this to sound antagonistic and accusatory. The meditation needs to create space for our guests to think about how they might not have measured up to what our passage says, and quickly point those shortcomings to the mercy of Jesus. Once they have concluded this meditation, they should be able to point back to it as one of the ways God has shown them grace and for which they are thankful. Going forward, we would like to open up time during our pre-meal reflection to allow guests to share their experience with these meditations and how they met God during the week.
The final component of spiritual formation at Emmanuel is forming volunteers and integrating their formation with the formation of the guests. Our first step in integrating these two aspects is to provide our volunteers with the same handout we give to our guests. They can have the opportunity to explore the same meditations as the people they serve. I would also like to see us provide a brief reflection for the volunteers, using the same passage we used with the guests and specifically providing a thought from the passage which reflects on service. The volunteer experience can then be informed by Scripture and prayer in a way it is not at present. As we observe how increasing our spiritual formation program unfolds, I would love to see us explore ways to encourage conversation between our volunteers and guests about spirituality and the reflections provided that day.
At Emmanuel, our goal in spiritual formation is to encourage reflecting and praying on Scripture amongst our guests and volunteers. Centering on Christ, as revealed in Scripture and prayer, is the most effective unifier of guest and volunteer, humans with dramatically different backgrounds. Our goal is to continue to adapt and improve our spiritual formation program so we can help all who enter our space on any given Saturday live a deeper, more fully human, existence in light of the reality of the risen Christ.