The stories below are excerpts from STIR that help to illustrate the importance of growing in the community of relationships during spiritual formation.
Sometimes we get so involved in serving the needs of others we forget our own need for the life-giving relationships that sustain us. That's what happened to my friend Mark Buchanan. Mark told me about his experience, using an illustration from the movie The Lion King:
In the Lion King, Simba – a self-obsessed, self-pitying young lion – loses his way after a tragic mistake. He wills a deep forgetfulness, rejecting who he is, spurning what he's called to. The pain of his past and the burden of his future are crashing. He avoids it all by throwing himself into a life of idleness and indulgence.
It's so much fun, until it's not. One day Simba meets Rafiki, a mandrill, a blue-faced baboon. Rafiki sits atop a branch and sings a nonsense song, half taunt, half ditty. Then he says to Simba, "I know who you are."
The chase is on. Rafiki swings from tree to tree, scrambles through thickets, darts and weaves, vanishes and appears. Simba gallops to catch him. At a turn in the chase, Rafiki says to Simba, "You are more than who you have become."
At last, Simba comes open Rafiki by a pool in the forest. "I know who you are," Rafiki says again. "You are Mufasa's son." Mufasa was Simba's father. Mufasa was the Lion King. "Look," Rafiki says, and invites Simba to gaze at his own reflection in the pool. But all Simba sees is his own face. "It's only me," he says, dejected. "No," Rafiki says. "Look again." He drops a stone in the water. The surface ripples, then stills. And Simba sees, reflected in his own face, the face of his father. The face of the Lion King. He rises, and runs straights into his destiny.
In Swahili, Mufasa means king. Simba means lion. Rafiki? That means friend.
A rafiki helps us see the Father's face reflected in our own. He helps us discover that we are more than who we have become. He helps us, despite our failures, despite our inadequacies, despite our fears, rise to our true self, take hold of our true calling.
I woke up one day, over a decade ago now, and realized I didn't have one, a rafiki. I had just turned forty. I was enjoying life immensely. But I was friendless. There was not one person in my growing list of acquaintances and colleagues whom I would trust with the deep stuff. Not one I could call at 3:00 in the morning if my life was derailing. Not one I could call at 3:00 in the afternoon just to hang out.
So I went in search of a rafiki, and found a few. I had to take risks. I had to be vulnerable. I had to become curious. I had to drop my guard. I had to invite my rafikis to hold a mirror up to me, so I could see who I really was. So I could see who I might become.
And they held it, and I saw. I still have miles to go, but I see more clearly than ever the Father's face reflected in my own.
Such good rafikis.
Sometimes the ideas and experiences presented in a classroom environment can catapult someone to a new awareness of their dependence on God and lead to a willingness to take next steps. Troy is a friend and fellow minister who participated in some classes I taught recently. He shares some thoughts about the experience.
"When the pace of your life outstrips the health of your soul, eventually, predictability, you are headed for a crash."
I heard the words at my church as if I was watching a movie in slow motion. Simultaneously I heard another voice in my head saying simply, "Buckle up – because that's you."
I didn't know why I felt so tired and sick all the time. I didn't know why I was so anxious and sad. I didn't know what was missing, but I knew something was terribly wrong on the inside. I had plenty of knowledge about God and even ministry, but it was as if my soul was withering. I refused to listen to it; the whole experience made no sense. So my body took over and got my attention, and finally I began to listen. I later came to see the fatigue and physical symptoms as a "blessed mutiny" – my body refused to go any farther under my leadership.
I had been a believer since a young age, gone to a Christian college, and worked in a successful role at a successful church. I was aware of my core wounds, my brokenness, and the masks I wore so people wouldn't see those parts of me. I was also becoming aware that self-knowledge and self-protection were not bringing healing. Some confusion and hopelessness began to settle in as I realized I was meandering in a very dry and thirsty land.
It was at this point that God led the ideas of soul care into my life through Mindy. She became my desert guide during her classes and over an occasional cup of coffee at Starbucks, as she pointed me toward this inner journey. I had gone through Christian counseling, and while that was very helpful, this was different. She challenged the presence of functional atheism in my life, even demonstrating it with a version of the classic bridge illustration that showed my tendency to assume that, while I was saved by God's grace, the rest of my life (beyond salvation) depended on me.
I began to learn that the Holy Spirit is available to walk with me through each moment if I will quiet the din of my life enough to hear him. My journey inward became a journey into spiritual practices, which led me toward a deepening level of daily dependence. I got back into therapy and found a spiritual director, and I experienced some of the healing I had always believed was possible. God used Mindy – both the things she said and the way she said them – to change my life from the inside out, and it's only just begun.
What began in a classroom as a series of casual conversation eventually moved to a coffee shop, where Troy shared several desert experiences and took steps to engage in his inner journey of growth.
If you're implementing spiritual transformation through relationships in your church, we would love to have you share your story with others.
*Due to limited space we will not be able to add every story.