Conversatio Divina

Conversation Guide

Kim Engelmann

“Conversation Guide” is a feature of the Conversations journal in which at least one article from each section is selected for small group discussion. We provide you with a summary and discussion questions with the hope that each issue of Conversations may morph into a thematic resource for spiritual formation groups.

01.  A Dialogue about Grace

Phillip Yancey and Larry Crabb

Yancey and Crabb talk candidly about the lack of grace in church and in society. They cite a poignant story about how grace operated when Yancey was present in a meeting with top Russian leaders to discuss how to restore morality to the country. It was there that Russian émigré and Christian evangelist Alex Leonovich forgave the vice-chairman of the KGB and offered him a Russian bear hug even though Leonovich and members of his family had endured atrocities at the hands of the KGB.

What can the church do that other organizations cannot? Other organizations can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and work toward peace and justice. However, only Christians can offer grace, says Gordon MacDonald. Grace is our defining feature, yet often it is not exhibited in churches and lives that claim Jesus as Lord.

Yancey cites Simone Weil’s book Gravity and Grace, which drives home the point. Gravity is the force that causes one body to attract other bodies so that it continually enlarges itself. We want “to expand, to acquire, to swell in significance.” Grace is an exception to this rule. The bar of what is “good” is lifted up and up by Jesus, so that no one can say “I can meet those ideals.” In contrast, the bar of grace is so low that nobody can say, “I don’t qualify.”

When we admit we can’t make it on our own, we experience grace, and this is precisely what God wants. Tolerant churches tend to lower the bar from the ideal of what is good and right. Conservative churches tend to keep raising the bar of grace so that judgment and exclusion occur. This practice is exactly the opposite of what Jesus did. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. I am in the ditch with everyone else. I’m better than no one. The standards are too high for me. “But I can step over the bar of grace when I realize it is low enough for the likes of me to cross,” as Crabb states.

The end result is that we come to Jesus with open hands, and we are honest, exposed, and real. When this happens, we allow God to clean us up and love us. Very often when we blow it, we know firsthand the reality that always exists: we can’t do it on our own. It’s at these moments that we let God hold us. At these moments, we know we are loved and can share love with the least lovely without judgment or condemnation.

  1. What is transformational about realizing you are in the ditch with everyone else? How is this helpful rather than depressing?
  2. When have you seen a church or a Christian demonstrate real grace? Share specifically.
  3. Do you agree with Gordon MacDonald that the unique offering of the church, as distinguished from other organizations, is grace? Discuss this and reflect on the meaning of grace.
  4. If the ground is level at the foot of the cross, who might be there with you that you were not expecting? Is this fair? How do you understand grace in terms of what is fair and unfair?

02.  Sometimes Grace Hurts

Ashley Hall Roberts

Roberts recounts a story to underscore the difference between mercy—not getting the punishment you do deserve—and grace —getting something you do not deserve when punishment is in order. Then she goes on to talk about three specific encounters with God, during which grace hurts.

Roberts uses scriptural examples or personal reflections to present the role of grace during “the pain of cleansing,” “the pain of obedience,” and seasons in which we are called to “sit in the pain.” C. S. Lewis’s classic story of how Aslan helped Eustace through the painful process of formation—removal of his dreadful, dragon-like self—was used as a further illustration of how grace can hurt.

We are reminded that even in painful places, we can still be with God and trust the process of grace and transformation even when it hurts.

  1. How would you contrast mercy and grace?
  1. Have you ever experienced the pain of cleansing or obedience? What was the process like, and how did you experience God in the midst of it?
  1. What has made it possible for you to be willing to sit with pain that you viewed as transformative?
  1. Jesus was willing to endure the cross for the joy set before him. Do you believe the hope for future joy is a good litmus test for determining whether our acceptance of pain is healthy or unhealthy?

03.  Reclaiming Wisdom: A Gracious Reversal

Bruce Demarest

In this article, Demarest shares how, as an evangelical seminary professor, he experienced a time of spiritual dryness. The traditional advice that he should attend church, read the Bible, and pray just didn’t quite do it for him.

Although he had been disenchanted by the Roman Catholic Church as a child and strongly opposed Catholic theology, he reluctantly consented to join a renewal class taught by the Jesuits. He found that their teaching of the spiritual disciplines “resonated with my hunger.” This grew into a mentoring relationship with a priest who trained Demarest in the practice of unfamiliar spiritual disciplines such as solitude, lectio divina, and contemplative prayer. “I began to live out of my heart,” says Demarest. Slowly he became alive again. He enrolled in a six-week program of spiritual direction at a Benedictine monastery and found people from all different Christian traditions, including people with evangelical backgrounds, who were also searching for something more engaging and experiential. The result was a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit and a call to Demarest from Jesus to go out from this “journey” and share the same love and richness he had experienced with others.

So Demarest went back to the seminary and began to offer courses that helped students learn how to practice the spiritual disciplines and engage in a life-giving process of spiritual formation. The very tradition he had vigorously opposed had renewed and transformed his life. Our need to embrace other Christians from different traditions is essential. We need one another, Demarest concludes, and this rich diversity that God has provided can be a wellspring of renewal and transformation.

  1. Have you ever benefited from a Christian tradition or practice that was different from the ones with which you were most familiar? If so, share what this was and why you benefited.
  1. What walls us off from one another? Do you think that any tradition “has it all”?
  1. Have you ever been in a dry place spiritually? If so, share what this was like for you.
  1. What are the strengths of the more evangelical tradition? What might be some weaknesses?
  1. What do you think Demarest meant when he said he learned to live “from the heart”?
  1. Have you engaged in certain experiences or practices that helped you to “live from the heart”? If so, share them and what it was about them that caused you to experience life differently.

04.  The Arts as a Means of Grace

Luci Shaw in conversation with Jeannette Bakke

Luci Shaw is an advocate for the arts as playing a key role in spiritual formation. A poet, lay minister in the Episcopal Church, and president of a publishing house, Shaw has published many poems and books, the most recent being The Crime of Living Cautiously: Hearing Gods Call to Adventure.

Shaw was raised by parents who loved literature and read to her when she was a child—not just children’s literature, but adult as well. She developed a keen sense of how words “worked” and flowed together to create meaning. Her father was also very devout, had a strong prayer life, and was a lover of poetry himself. When Luci wrote poetry, he would carry the poems around with him and show them to his friends. Shaw began making a connection between the arts and God when she attended Wheaton College. She began to see that we are meant to be cocreators with God and that very often the arts provide distinct outlets for such creativity from “divine impulses” to emerge.

Shaw encourages us to “notice details” because such awareness brings us into contact with reality. She describes the process of writing poetry as a gift that she can “feel coming.” It is a sign to her of the work of the Holy Spirit in her, and she says that she lives more out of enthusiasm than discipline. She explains that the “art” of the poetry writing process is recognizing when something of meaning is arriving—an idea or an insight or a phrase. The “craft” of poetry is building all this into a structure that will have meaning for others as well as oneself, bringing a kind of order out of chaos.

Shaw points out that the Bible is one-third poetry, using word pictures to help us understand spiritual concepts. Both the dark times and the more joyful times are God’s teaching tools and, when written about, can turn something that may be difficult into something meaningful.

Finally, Shaw talks about the aesthetic as existing in a way that moves us from valuing something because of its functionality to valuing something because it is a God-given beauty that resonates with “something deep within us.” Imagination, allowing God to surprise us, openness, imagery, and wonder can move us from shallow faith to an authentic awareness of God’s presence in all of life.

  1. Do the arts play a significant role in your life? What sort of art form do you most appreciate?
  1. When did looking at something beautiful resonate with something deep within you? Why do you think this happened?
  1. If you could express yourself or God’s love for you in a creative way, how would you imagine yourself doing this?
  2. Does our culture lend itself more toward valuing functionality or valuing the aesthetic? Why do you think this is?
  3. How does lack of expression through the arts in evangelical churches tend to make our theology superficial? How might using the arts lend more depth?

05.  Christian Disciplines as a Means to Grace

A Conversation between Richard Foster and Dallas Willard

In this article, Foster and Willard are in dialogue about the meaning of grace. The essence of their thesis is that grace is not just something that is given to us to rescue us from sin and guilt. Rather, the meaning of grace is “God acting in our lives.” This means we can continue to grow in grace all our lives as we learn to open ourselves up more and more to God at work in us.

This is an easy yoke because even though it requires effort, it is ultimately God who does it all. We are simply called to be in a participatory relationship with God. This is where the Disciplines fit in. They are not a throwback into legalism or a way of earning something from God. They take effort, as much as opening a door takes effort, to let Christ come in and renovate and take action on our behalf to emulate the life of Jesus.

We need practice in tuning in and staying open to God’s initiative, just as athletes or musicians need practice to be set truly free in their performance. Grace is not a formula for paralysis. Rather, it is an invitation to participate in the very life of God.

  1. How have the disciplines—such as solitude, meditation, simplicity, fasting, etc.influenced your life, if at all?
  2. What is the difference between earning God’s grace and making an effort to open ourselves to God’s grace?
  3. How might God’s grace, when misunderstood, lead us into a kind of spiritual paralysis?
  4. How do you understand Foster and Willard’s definition of grace: that it is “God acting in our lives”?
  5. What makes Jesus’ yoke easier than “trying really hard to be good”?

Footnotes

KIM ENGELMANN serves as Pastor in Congregational Care at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, Calif. She attended Barnard College, Princeton Seminary, and Boston University where she specialized in Pastoral Care. Kim has three children, ages eight, ten, and twelve. She is married to Timothy Engelmann, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice. The Engelmanns also have a dog, guinea pig, love bird, chinchilla, and a rabbit.