01. Interview with James and Erin Henderson
CON: What is Ashrei and how did it start?
JH/EH: Ashrei is a community of spiritual formation friends in Mexico and Europe. It began as a result of experiences in the Renovaré Institute (Santa Barbara cohort 2012-2014) and Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program in Spiritual Direction. Having been introduced to so many wonderful people and experiences, we desired to make that kind of intentional learning environment available in Spanish to our beautiful friends in Mexico.
We, James and Erin Henderson, along with a special team of friends and outstanding teachers, convened a Spanish-speaking spiritual formation cohort to share life together intentionally for two years. We experienced it, in Dallas Willard’s words, as a community of prayerful love.Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (San Fransisco: HarperCollins, 1998), 215. We shared readings and monthly practices with friends from across Mexico. We gathered together on retreats for study, soul training, rest, and play.
We chose the name, Ashrei, inspired by one of Dallas Willard’s big questions: “who is well off?” (or who is happy or blessed)? Willard, D. Why am I here? the four great questions in life. Conversatio Divina. https://conversatio.org/why-am-i-here-the-four-great-questions-in-life/, Dallas’ answer to the question of who is blessed is: “Now the answer that is given to us of Jesus is that anyone who is well off is alive in the kingdom of God. If you are alive in the kingdom of God, you are well off. You’re blessed.”
The Hebrew word Ashrei is a declaration of blessing. It is the first word in the Psalms—our book of deep spirituality and prayer. The Psalms are embedded in the raw, real lives, and emotion of God’s people. Our scholarly friends in Latin America tell us that Ashrei is most likely the first word spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Ashrei “comes from a root that means to walk down a path or be guided somewhere. It implies direction. Blessedness is not the absence of pain nor a surplus of pleasure. Blessedness is the meaning-filled joy of progress toward something good. Ashrei accompanies those on a journey, it doesn’t await the destination.”Napier, D. (n.d.). Ashrei Explanation. ASHREI. https://ashrei.life/en/home/
CON: I love your Ashrei logo, and appreciate the gift of the logo in pin form. How did you come up with the image?
JH/EH: Ashrei’s logo is a visual theological description of the ministry. The logo comes from the word-picture found in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law, day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (Ps 1:1-3, NIV).
The careful observer may notice the gradient colors inspired by Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity, also called the Hospitality of Abraham. There are three blue waves. In historical iconography, blue represents heaven and thus symbolizes the Trinitarian community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The people of Ashrei value joy within the community of a deeply relational God, the most joyous Being in the universe.The Divine Conspiracy, 62.
The logo is made in mono-line—bold, confident lines that represent the unity of the community and its union with God. These bold lines represent the conviction that one can learn to experientially know and trust in God as a way of life.
In the logo, one notices the shape of the waves that form the bottom of the tree’s shape, making it seem like the leaves of the tree reach all the way down to the water. The green foliage is touching the stream, representing the theological conviction that apart from God, we can do nothing. In God, however, we can bear much fruit — the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23).
One notices that the tree branches extend farther out. The branches extend to the edge of the circle making the foliage of the tree seem fuller, representing the conviction that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves — God’s eternal, unshakable Kingdom. Finally, the logo is encompassed by the color gold, symbolic of God’s power and divinity—the majestic tone reminds us of the omnipresence and strength of God; his kingdom is all around us, and right under our noses.
CON: I was guessing you’d put some thought into that. What does the ministry look like in practice?
JH/EH: The Ashrei Mexico City cohort in spiritual formation is a simple covenant community that has a strong commitment to God and each other. Inspired by that golden and practical chapter 9 of the Divine Conspiracy, for two years, we focused on Dallas Willard’s two primary objectives for a course of training in Christlikeness: enthralling the mind with God and removing automatic responses that are against the kingdom of God.The first objective for a curriculum in Christlikeness is “to bring apprentices to the point where we dearly love and constantly delight in that “heavenly Father” made real to earth in Jesus and are quite certain that there is no limit to the goodness of his intentions or to his power to carry them out. The second primary objective of a curriculum for Christlikenss is to remove our automatic responses against the kingdom of God, to free the apprentices of our old habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action.” The Divine Conspiracy 321, 322. In light of these two primary objectives, we built the experience around:
- Retreats. We made commitments to gather at least twice per year on retreat for 2 years. We focused on good teaching in the Way of Jesus as a philosophy. We invited Daniel Napier, PhD, to help guide the content of our conversations. Daniel wrote apprentice intensive handbooks for multiple retreat gatherings.Daniel and Karly Napier have now begun three spiritual formation cohorts in Greece as an expression of Ashrei Europe. We also have wonderful friends and teachers who helped guide other retreats: Michel and Claudia Hendricks, Jim and Kitty Wilder, Nora Kviatkovski, and Gary and Regina Moon.
- Monthly readings. Within the hectic city-life of Mexico City with all its corresponding roles and responsibilities, each participant did her/his best to track with monthly readings together. We worked on our ideas about the kingdom and character of God, and how friends of Jesus have historically and practically interacted with him in conversational friendship. This enriched our understanding and conversations.
- Monthly practices. “Our plan for a life of growth in the life of the kingdom of God must be structured around the disciplines of the spiritual life.”The Divine Conspiracy, 352. Relying on Willard’s premise that spiritual formation has to hit your body, we engaged in shared monthly spiritual disciplines that took our formation into our bodies and into real-life settings with us. More than just emulating the kindness of Jesus, we knew that we need his discipline. We wanted to courageously develop the habits that formed Jesus’ life. We’re a very practical bunch and focused on following Jesus into family life together; following Jesus into our gyms, classrooms, and retreats; and following Jesus into deliberate workplace discipleship.
- Warm and joyful hospitality / Embracing Celebration. We had a strong desire to become a welcoming presence, open to receive and give to others, and we wanted that to be our way of life as a community of friends. So, we embraced the warm and hospitable relationships that often develop naturally in Latin American culture. When we are together on retreat, the joy and delight we share is more easily experienced than described. We love being together. We love to cram into a small urban retreat house in Mexico City where we study and pray; eat delicious food, laugh a lot, call the mariachis, and dance. When we’re together, we have a wonderful time. The cohort is very familiar with Lacy Finn Borgo’s child-friendly definition of the spiritual discipline of celebration: “Knowing that every good gift is from God and a reason to party.”To find more of Lacy Finn Borgo’s child-friendly definitions of the spiritual disciplines and summary and explanation of many of our practices of Jesus, please see: https://ashrei.life/en/practicesofjesus/ Special shout-out to the practitioners of TXA and Cadence challenges!
- Intentional catharsis (releasing). Almost every participant in the spiritual formation cohort has experienced lengthy and multiple men’s and women’s retreats for confession and healing.Our friends and colleagues of the Crucible Project add so much to our community’s vision and culture of honesty https://thecrucibleproject.org/ Willard learned that intensity is crucial for any progress in spiritual perception and understanding.The Divine Conspiracy, 356
Willard knew that “sometimes the way to transformation is blocked—even among people who have genuinely become apprentices of Jesus and have the best of intentions: Their bodies, souls, feelings, thoughts, and their social atmospheres were in such turmoil, or so badly inclined, that their minds cannot be reached just by periods of teaching…they may need to be taken out of their ordinary routines and given lengthy periods of time in retreat, under careful direction….we should never forget that this sort of intensive training away from “ordinary life” is exactly what Jesus did in the spiritual formation of the selected few who were to be his shock troops…in world revolution.” (Renovation of the Heart, 331) Our culture in Mexico is often characterized by machismo, narcissism, and deceit, so we knew that we had to intentionally create a culture of honesty. We doubled-down on intensity through edgy, cathartic retreats where tight circles of trust would usher in a culture of vulnerability within our friendships. We have begun countering society’s culture of keeping secrets—with courageous modeling and gritty honesty—we are intentionally unmasked ourselves, bringing our hidden lives into the light. This has deepened our friendships through heart-level interaction and authenticity. It is beautiful and healing to see friends who aren’t afraid to be exposed, because we have an environment where it’s safe to do so.
- Ignatian Spirituality. The approach of Ignatian Spirituality feels tailormade for busy and active Latin Americans living in cities. Therefore, upon completion of the two-year program in spiritual formation, almost every participant in the Ashrei cohort has made the full Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. We have access to a wonderful and growing network of spiritual directors from across Latin America. Nora Kviatkovski, RJM, and Trevor Hudson have been instrumental; they are treasured friends and guides in this stage.
- Rule of Life. Each participant wrote their own beloved charterDiscovering Our Spiritual Identity: Practices for God’s Beloved by Trevor Hudson, 115. and personal rule of life. We also share a simple overarching rule of life as a community that hones in on our commitment to growing in understanding, fleshing out practices, and living in relationship to God and others.
- Final project. One of our aims is to see Jesus in every person—especially in the person right in front of us at any given moment. We hope to serve our neighbor with the same attention and quality as if we were serving Jesus himself. So each cohort participant wrote a final project describing the way they had begun to live in their mission of serving Jesus among their neighbors, and how they would pass on what they received through the cohort experience.A few examples of those final projects are: Andrea Candia is a counselor and community developer in marginalized communities. Her project created support groups for women in the process of loss and grieving; her project was international in scope. Ana Sotela is a restaurant and coffee shop owner; her project was on incorporating kingdom values and the spiritual disciplines in the marketplace among her employees. Abel Pichardo is a counselor, marriage and family therapist; his project was on leading retreats and workshops for ministers in burnout or crisis. Filo Monterrey is a shoe-shiner; his project is a written memoir of growing up in poverty and walking with God in the midst of that experience. Javier Tarinda owns a solar panel business; his project was teaching life-lessons to leaders and young people through rappelling. Lina Reed is a missionary; her project was creating summaries and small group reflection curriculums based on the classic and contemporary texts we read during these two years on spiritual formation. Pedro Mederes is a business chaplain and pastor in Saltillo; his project was writing a book on the Lord’s Prayer.
CON: How would you describe the cohort learning experience to those who are potentially interested in doing something similar?
JH/EH: We believe that kingdom community is the structure of our belonging, so the spiritual formation cohort is the context or vehicle that gives just-enough structure for belonging. Our dear friend and colleague, Daniel Napier, PhD, wrote essence statementsThese Essence Statements are written by Daniel Napier, PdD, and James and Erin Henderson https://ashrei.life/en/home/ that attempt to articulate who we aspire to be and what we’re after‚ desiring to embody the spirit of the following:
- The Way: Three hundred years before Christianity became a religion, Jesus taught and lived the Way. Jesus’ students – fellow travelers in the Way – were known as philosophers (lovers of wisdom). They lived and taught the philosophy of Jesus. Ashrei invites individuals to learn life from Jesus.
- Friendship with God: Life in The Way cultivates a conversational friendship with God. Jesus taught his students to re-embark on the “walk before God” from which Adam hid, which Enoch and Noah trod, and to which Abram was called. From Jesus on, innumerable people have discovered God’s friendship by walking with him. Ashrei invites people to rediscover God’s voice in that ageless caravan.
- Entering the Kingdom: The kingdom of God is what God is doing. God’s project is unfolding right under our noses. We’re all invited to join in. Co-working with God requires us to be more attentive than strategic. Paradoxically, life becomes more effective as we walk and work with the Father. Ashrei invites people to notice and to join with God’s activity wherever they
- Fellowship: The biblical word Koinonia is the Greek for fellowship, “which refers to life-sharing with God and one another at the deepest levels,”Trevor Hudson, 115. that which is shared in common as the basis of fellowship or community. What we share in common are our beliefs, practices, and experiences. The essential meaning of Koinonia embraces concepts of community, communion, joint participation, sharing, and intimacy. Our friend, Trevor Hudson says that when God comes to us, he always comes with His arms around his friends. Our spiritual formation is not a solitary journey, but one shared with others.
CON: Would you provide the reading list and the suggested experiences?
JH/EH: Everyone tried to keep up with the readings. In our next cohorts, we will require less reading, and focus on simply reading important chapters and articles that capture the best ideas of spiritual formation, much like Jim and Heather Wright did with The Foundry. Here is a glimpse of our ambitious list:
|Round 1 Reading
|Round 2 Reading
|Round 3 Reading
|Round 4 Reading
|Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzaro
|The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith
|The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner
|Soul Keeping by John Ortberg
|Hearing God by Dallas Willard
|The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard
|Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard
|Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23 by Dallas Willard
|Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
|Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster
|Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
|Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything by James Martin
|The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
|Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You by Jim Wilder
|Collected Works of St John of the Cross
|The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron
|The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
|The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
|Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron
|The Prayer of Examen by Jim Manney
|Excerpts from Devotional Classics by Foster and Smith
|The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
|The Interior Castle by Theresa of Ávila
|The Story of a Soul by Therese de Lisieux
02. Practices of Jesus
Besides writing our own, we borrowed and adapted many shared practices from the Renovaré Institute and the spiritual challenges of the Tau Chai Alpha and Cadence brother and sister organizations at Abilene Christian University, who, in covenant community, take challenges from the Sermon on the Mount and seek to live them out on their campus. Here is a sample list with some of our shared monthly practices: seeking the lowest position, rolling fasts, intentional gratitude, serving at meals, praying the hours, lectio Divina, hospitality, service in secret, Immanuel journaling,https://lifemodelworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Joyful-Journey-Questions.pdf Sabbath rest, joy practices around our most grateful memories, contemplative prayer, etc.,…To find more of Lacy Finn Borgo’s child-friendly definitions of the spiritual disciplines and summary and explanation of many of our practices of Jesus, please see: https://ashrei.life/en/practicesofjesus/
CON: What did you learn that you’d like to pass on to others?
JH/EH: What we saw and learned in this cohort experience was that rich spiritual formation and growth occur with …
- Strong and supportive friendships and a culture of honoring one another.
- A spirit of paying attention to God’s communication and his active presence in everyday lives.
- A commitment to life affirming practices that are a means of experiencing God’s immediate friendship.
- A hunger shared by all to face our realities, learning to trust God in our ups and downs.
- A faith that takes our lives seriously, but not too seriously. We are friends who are learning to make room for joy, where our eyes light up when we see each other.
And, we learned that we truly want to strip away and prune anything unnecessary for true discipleship to Jesus, and focus on what helps us in our spiritual formation. Dallas Willard’s work is such a special voice and guide that helps us do that; Renovaré, Conversatio Divina, and our friends practicing Ignatian spirituality help us do that, too. We learned that we can take the best in Christian history and spiritual formation, and absorb it in a way that would fit a spiritual landscape that is uniquely Latin American. We can take what we’ve been given, and run with it. From the coolest of friends in this cohort, there are now two new spiritual formation cohorts popping up in Tenancingo and Saltillo, Mexico, and our friends and Ashrei collegues, Daniel and Karly Napier, are working with three spiritual formation cohorts in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Our desire is that in the near future, Latin American voices will become an even bigger part of the spiritual formation conversation happening worldwide. Our friends in Latin America have so much value to offer the world with their unique perspective and presence.
CON: It only seems fair that you get the final word…
JH/EH: Well, I’d just like to add, speaking very personally, God has given our family the privilege to live cross-culturally. As listening guests in a culture not our own, we engage in a risky business. We open ourselves to being changed by the presence of God through our friends. God gives us friends in Latin America whose lives challenge us so much, and what a gift of grace and inspiration that is! We believe that this cohort is receiving the best of Dallas Willard and the other wonderful guides and voices of historical and contemporary spiritual formation.
Our friends are building on that – embodying it in ways far beyond what we could ever have imagined. They live out their joy filled, mystical awareness, in the streets and in their families, in their churches and neighborhoods and ministries…in this exceptional and uniquely Latino way. The goodness, beauty, and longing found within the lives and voices of our friends here speak what is true and wonderful, and they say it better than we ever could. This is what our close friends in Latin America say—and more importantly—this is what they live:
“My hope for Christian spiritual formation in Latin America and beyond is that we can know, feel, and live with God through his incarnational accompaniment; with God, who is probably (among many things), Latin at heart; One who embraces us with our customs, our stories and heritage; that he takes all that, and magnifies it and fills us with his love to contemplate the abundance of creation in the deep unions that are woven into loving and generous communities. My hope for Christian spiritual formation in Latin America is that spaces of peace and reconciliation in hostile settings can be taught with our Christian values, which can be a true gift to the world. My prayer is for us all to teach the image of an inclusive God, who makes no distinctions of any kind—who sees us all as one, who is compassionate, who is love. And all of this is highly felt and experienced in communities like Ashrei.” – Andrea Candia, Buenos Aires, Argentina
“My hope for Latin America and beyond is that we all might allow ourselves to be molded by the loving hand of God, allowing ourselves to be his apprentices, so we can meet and know—in the most personal of ways—the best Master” – Leonor Rojas, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
“My hope for Latin America and beyond is that we might know God as a loving Father, who loves us and that we can see ourselves through his eyes. The experience of walking with a spiritual formation community has helped me reconfigure the image I had of Him.” – Pedro Mederes, Saltillo, Mexico
“Spiritual formation is not only the way to find the maturity to allow us to have a better relationship with God, but it allows us to know the true Jesus better—deeply beyond the often seen or felt superficialities of our faith—inviting us to live in full freedom with simple spiritual practices. Our practices that make us, in our walk, feel the presence of God so close. I would also say that spiritual formation opens our Way to live the gospel of Jesus as he himself lived it: in community, with happiness and joy, enabling us to open our senses and appreciate the beauty of people and nature. Spiritual formation brings us closer to Jesus as a true friend and to God as a loving father who delights to have us close, seeing us as his beloved children. This completely changes our perspective of faith, no matter what your religious preference or tradition is. Spiritual formation is the path of every disciple to live as Jesus lived and to approach God,… to receive his affirmation that we are his children, loved by him and there is nothing more to do in order to receive his unconditional love.” -Jorge Ortega, Mexico City
“I am increasingly convinced that the transformation into a more Christlike character is a prime importance in the life of one who chooses to be a disciple of Jesus. It is powerful to put this into practice in community, being spurred on and challenged, while being a witness to others walking the same journey. Being intentional about incorporating and really practicing spiritual disciplines, and seeing as a result the fruit of the Spirit lived out as the norm, rather than the exception, has been such a delight, and has increased my own desire to grow and live, and do life among others on this same wavelength. ASHREI has hit the bull’s eye in this regard, and I am so glad to walk this journey together.” -Mateo Reed, Tenancinco, Mexico
“In Latin America we have too often adopted the USA’s religious way of living Christianity (i.e. Sunday focused, sense of exclusivity). But as I have learned and participated in this Spiritual Formation learning, my perspective has opened up. I don’t think I am closed minded as I was. I find myself being more gracious and accepting of others. What I am trying to say is that through the Cohort I’ve learned the importance of community, which interestingly is ingrained in our culture but has been “cancelled” with the evangelical way of understanding the church. So, one of the blessings of spiritual formation in Latin America—one of the deep values we offer the larger world—would be to be free of another culture’s influence, and instead be in true, joyful, and loving community,…the way we know how to be.” —Lina Reed, Tenancingo, Mexico
“My prayer is that the Christian congregations and communities in Latin America take spiritual formation more seriously, including it in their discipleship programs and preaching it continuously—with actions that include continuous practices. This will require that the same leaders take action, taking seriously the practices that help them stay connected to the Source of life: Jesus; otherwise real transformation will not be possible.” – Fausto Liriano, Dominican Republic