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Rich Villodas on the Deeply Formed Life

In this episode, Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a multiracial church in one of the most diverse zip codes in the US--Queens, New York--talks about what it means to be deeply formed in Christ.

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Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, join program manager Joanna Wigboldy in conversation with Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a multiracial church in one of the most diverse zip codes in the US--Queens, New York--as they discuss what it means to be deeply formed in Christ.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

Welcome to this podcast on Public Worship and the Christian Life. My name is Joanna Wigboldy and I'm a program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I am here today with Rich Villodas from New York City--Queens, in fact--who is here to talk about his new book The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus. Thanks, Rich, for being here with me today.

Rich Villodas: 

Thanks so much for having me. It's a joy to be here.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

The Deeply Formed Life. Can you tell us what that means?

Rich Villodas: 

You know, at its core, I think about Paul, when in the book of Galatians where Paul is agonizing over the people of God and their lack of formation. And there's a line that Paul says: "I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you" (Gal 4:19). And there is this agonizing frustration, this sense of hope that he wants for the people of God, that Christ will be formed in them. So at the core of The Deeply Formed Life is ultimately that Jesus Christ is formed in our lives and in our communities. But the emphasis is on five particular values that I think are important for this particular cultural moment.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

That's a really vivid image that highlights that this is not easy work, that this is a work that takes effort and energy and maybe even a little bit of pain.

Rich Villodas: 

Exactly right. My wife gave birth a couple of times. And I mean, it wasn't a walk in the park, you know?

Joanna Wigboldy: 

No, I can attest to that. So tell us why you wrote The Deeply Formed Life and about those five key areas that you address in the book.

Rich Villodas: 

I wrote it for three reasons. The first reason is because it comes out of the life of a community. I'm a pastor. I'm not writing theory or detached theology. I'm writing from the context of a living, breathing, very diverse urban community in New York City. And so over the many years that I've been a pastor at New Life--I've been a pastor for 12 years at New Life, seven of those 12 as the lead pastor succeeding a guy by the name of Pete Scazzero, who's written a lot on formation and such--and I've seen people's lives impacted through the particular values that we hold at our church. And so those five values are contemplative rhythms, racial justice, and reconciliation, interior examination, sexual wholeness, and missional presence.

And so the first reason I wrote is because I saw life change and continue to see life change in our community. And I thought, yeah, I think the rest of the body of Christ could benefit from what we've learned over three decades of thinking and trying to work this out.

The second reason I wrote it is because those values, taken as independent values, I think are really critical for this moment that we're in. We're an exhausted society, a racialized society that's marked by injustice and hostility, a society that lives on the surface, not doing much introspection and self-awareness, a society that splits our souls from our bodies, as it pertains to sexuality, a society that's consumeristic and not missional. And so independently each one of those values are important for this particular moment.

But the third reason I wrote it is because taken as a whole, I think this offers a paradigm for followers of Jesus and for church communities in particular that these things need not be segmented. We can hold them together in our witness for Jesus in our individual and in our collective life. So that's really what catalyzed the writing of this book and what's energizing me over the course of many years.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

What I love about that is that it's been lived by you. As you said, it's not just a theory, but you can attest to its effectiveness. And I hear that pastoral tone in the book. This isn't some idea, but it's something you're passionate about and something that you see working. So as a reader, I get the sense that this is doable. It's intimidating, but it's not something that nobody has ever done, but you are living it in your community. And I really appreciate that.

Rich Villodas: 

And that's the hope, I mean, and by God's grace. We have lots of folks who could say, we're not probably living it perfectly, but for me, integrity is not about living something perfectly, but wrestling with it faithfully. And so the goal is not to be perfect here, but to set us on a particular trajectory of formation.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

So I'm going to turn to more of a focus on worship here. In your introduction, you write, "These practices are meant to complement and enliven such core spiritual practices as Sunday worship, receiving the sacraments, hearing the gospel preached, and gathering with others." So how do the practices that you talk about in your book intersect and enliven these core spiritual practices?

Rich Villodas: 

I think first of all what's needed is a community around these values and these practices. So, for example, in my book I mention--I talk about Brother Lawrence. I remember reading Practicing the Presence of God some twenty years ago when I became a Christian. And I was so moved that this man would be mopping the floor and washing the dishes, and he's so enraptured with God. I'm like, "Wow, what a life!" And it's a life that I always aim for, but found myself increasingly frustrated by. And then I realized that Brother Lawrence, that his individual life in God, was supported by a worshiping community, in that here he was, part of the--he was a Carmelite monk, part of a monastery, part of a community. And it made sense that he was thinking about God, number one. He was in a monastery, so he had a lot of time thinking about God, but number two, he had a community around him that supported him. And I think that's what public worship does, public worship in our gathered spaces. It provides us with the collective energies to let us know we are not alone. And I think those worship gatherings also provide opportunities to experiment and to demonstrate what something can look like in a corporate setting that can inform how we live when people are no longer with us. And so I think that's the strength of the gathered body of Christ, where we can begin to experiment together what things look like when we're alone.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

Excellent. There's a little bit of Worship Institute language in there where we talk about, we practice the habits of speaking with God in worship because they will help us speak them on our own. So let me ask you some questions about some of these individual practices. I'm going to go in order of the book. Contemplative rhythm. When you were talking about that you were talking about silent prayer and the value of being bored--of boredom in silent prayer. Does that translate to gathered worship?

Rich Villodas: 

What I mean by boredom is more specifically that prayer, especially silent prayer, is often uneventful, that there's nothing that's seemingly happening in the moment, and we can translate that as boredom. And so I use that word very intentionally that it doesn't seem like anything's happening, but stick with it. And the reason I said that is because I, like many people, tend to rely too much on good feelings and particular experiences to keep me going. And it reminds me: Brennan Manning , one of my favorite authors, he asked a provocative question and the question was: do I worship God or do I worship my experience of God? And it's often the case that we worship our experience of God. How do I know? Well, when the experience is not there, it's often the case that I don't continue. And so it's a revelation as to what my motivation is in prayer. And so I think the nature of prayer being uneventful and boring and such, actually I think is an exorcising of particular demons of stimulation and an excitement to let us know that there's something deeper that God wants beneath the surface of our souls. I think that kind of silent prayer is important for our own life in Christ, for sure.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

I find the fact that you said it's about exorcising our own demons of stimulation to be interesting, right? Sometimes that is what we are looking for in worship, that experiential high that stimulates me, gives me something energetic when those contemplative experiences are also quite formative. Do you engage in contemplative experiences together in your Sunday worship? And what would that look like?

Rich Villodas: 

We do, and in a couple of ways. First, I'll just look at--for the preaching moment, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his book Life Together said that we are to be silent before the Word because God should have the first word, and we have to be silent after the Word because God should have the last word. And so our Bible reading and such should be bracketed with silence. He said the same thing about morning and evening prayer. And I have taken that very seriously in terms of how we think about preaching. So before a message is preached, it's often the case that we're going to take some time to be still, some time to be silent, to kind of prepare our hearts for what's going to come. And it's often the case after a message is preached that we have a time of silence again, to allow God to penetrate our hearts and open ourselves up to God in that kind of a way.

I come from a Pentecostal/evangelical kind of tradition. It's often the case that before we preach there's music, and people are loud, and we go right into it. And then afterwards, we're going to end on a high note and not a reflective, contemplative posture. Also, during the singing part of worship, we do the same. And so there might be a song that we say, we're going to pause here for a moment and allow God to meet us in this silence.

I remember a story--and I talk about this in the book--we invited a monk, a Trappist monk named William Menninger, who is one of the monks who in the mid-1900s revitalized this notion of contemplative prayer in monasteries and such. And we invited him to be interviewed. And I interviewed him about prayer. And during the worship singing portion of it, we're loud, we're rambunctious. And I look over to him and I think my, he must be loving this. And we sang a song that said, "I will be still and know that you are God. " It was one of those classic songs. And then we sang the song and no one was still; we went right into the next song. And so after the first of three services, he corners me and he says, "Rich, I wonder why don't you practice what you sing?" And here he is, this 80-year-old man, and I'm thinking, "You should go home, old man." And I said, "What do you mean, Father?" And he said, "You said, 'I'll be still and know that you are God,' but you weren't still; you just kept singing the next song." And I was really convicted in that moment and thought it's very easy not to practice what we preach here or practice what we sing. So those are some of the ways that we try to incorporate contemplative practices and such during our gatherings.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

That's beautiful. I love the silence before and after the spoken Word. I'm curious about what you did for the second two services after the monk . . . asked why you weren't still.

Rich Villodas: 

Well, it was awkward. If memory serves me correctly, I went to our worship pastor and said, "Hey, can we just be silent after this song for a little while?" I don't know if it happened, but my eyes were shut because I wasn't making eye contact with the monk at that time. And I was just scared what he was going to do the next time. We had three services of this and I don't even want to look at him.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

That was fabulous. That was a great story. A similar question about practices of racial reconciliation: It seems that the practices that you outline are really fitting for worship, like remembering, listening, lament, confession. What does that look like when you do those practices in your gathered worship?

Rich Villodas: 

Our gathering--regarding race, our congregation, we have 75 nations represented. We are in what National Geographic called at some point (I don't know if it's the case right now) the most diverse zip code in the world, with 123 languages spoken in the nearby hospital. It's a very beautiful and complicated existence where we're at in Queens. And so we talk about race a lot because we believe this is really one of the main fruits of the gospel, that God is creating a new people in the name of Jesus. And so whenever there are racial tensions, even when there's not racial tensions in our world, we regularly offer up prayers of lament and confession, praying the psalms. We pray a prayer of confession every Sunday, and how we frame that prayer of confession looks different from week to week. In that one week it might be related to racial injustice or racial hostility; another week it might be related to something that happened in the Philippines or in Indonesia, an earthquake or something along those lines, whatever it is.

And so to talk about race, we spend time in lament. We spend time remembering what God has done. We spend time vocalizing our own anger, our own grief, especially in a diverse congregation like ours . . . and of course reflected in our preaching. Someone asked me in light of all the tension that emerged out of George Floyd's killing, "What was it like for your community?" And my response was, on some level it was uneventful because we had had a history of addressing matters of race on a regular basis. And so we didn't have to go digging for, okay, what do we have to do now? We realized we need to pray a prayer of confession. We need to lament. We need to preach and talk about how the gospel now impacts our race relations and such. So those are some of the ways in our gathered spaces how we're trying to address matters of racial injustice and racial healing and such.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

Thanks. It's helpful to hear the ways that that is a regular part of your gathered worship, that it's engaged with the world around, and with the lived experience of everybody in the community. You explore the importance of slowing down and finding a healthy spiritual rhythm in your book. How is interior examination helpful, and what does it look like when people engaged in interior examination worship God together?

Rich Villodas: 

First of all, there are some folks who say, why should we be focusing on what's happening on the inside? We should be gathering to worship God; we should be gathering to focus our attention on Jesus. And I hear what you're saying. The reason we look inward is, number one, if I believe that Jesus Christ is risen and is renewing all things, making all things new, surely my interior life is part of the newness that God wants to renew. . . . Augustine would talk about sin being to be turned in on oneself. And when we talk about interior examination, it's not this obsession of being turned in on oneself. We're going with God to help locate areas of pain, of the healing that needs to take place, to theologically set the stage for why we do what we do in our gathered spaces like that. But what we're trying to do in that moment is recognize God is not just after our behavior modification. God is after deep transformation. We can change behaviors on the outside but still be imprisoned on the inside. What does it look like to look within for the sake of wholeness and the sake of healing?

And so on a given Sunday morning, we're taking time, whether it's in a time of singing in worship, whether it's through a pastoral prayer, whether it's through a moment in the sermon, what's happening on the inside ? What are the fears? What's the grief; what's the anxiety? Can we name that? Can we lift that up to God? . . . Ron Rolheiser talks about prayer; a good definition of prayer is lifting mind and heart to God that whatever is on the inside of our souls, it's all material that can be converted into prayer if we lift it up to God. And so interior examination is not simply a means of introspection for the sake of introspection. It is introspection for the sake of worship and healing. And throughout the course of a given worship gathering, we're trying to create spaces for people to be in tune not just with the living God; to be in tune with the living God is also to be confronted with ourselves. We see that in Isaiah 6. Any genuine encounter with God is going to lead to an encounter with ourselves. And we're trying to facilitate that experience in that moment.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

I find it really helpful the idea that we bring all of ourselves to God in worship. It can be a little scary to think about that, but it takes away some of that defensiveness around the interior examination in worship. That was helpful for me to think about what that might look like.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

First of all, thanks for your using John Calvin .  . . . I was, oh, this is familiar to me. I resonated with what you wrote: "Most of us want an awareness of God, but what we need in addition is awareness of self." And I think a lot of times when people go to worship, they stop at that awareness of God. But yet I think that deep longing is that awareness of self and to be known by God in that deep awareness.

Rich Villodas: 

. . . My predecessor and mentor Pete Scazzero, he would say that we use God to run from God. What I add to that is we use God to run from ourselves. And so it's the dual challenge of worship where God becomes just another tool of our own self-avoidance.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

So that transitions into the next section. When you talk about sexual formation and wholeness in your book, you write that the love of God doesn't remove our desires. It reorders them. And we like to think about worship as habits that shape our desires, but they can also have that opposite effect that you just talked about of using God to avoid ourselves.

Rich Villodas: 

Yeah.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

Expand on this reordering of desires and how that could happen in worship as well, or how that happens for you in worship.

Rich Villodas: 

I think for one, it's a recognition that the God who created us has also given us longings, and that the longings that we feel deeply in our soul are not to be all just cut off. They're to be reordered, and reordered in service to God and love for neighbor for the abundance of our own souls. Again, I think in worship, we're coming into deeper connection not just with the living God, but with how the living God is ordering our lives, and God orders our lives through our desires. And so we could either say about our desires--and again, this is Augustinian in its way, and James Smith has written about this year a lot--we could either suppress our desires and say, you know, . . . "Woe is me. There's nothing in me," and it leads to a kind of Gnosticism in which our spirit, our experiences for God and longings for God now become disconnected from our very lived, incorporeal experiences. And I think to reorder our desires, the question is. . . there are things inside of us.

So for example, I'll use this on a very pastoral level. I often, when I talk to people as a pastor at New Life, use language of hope. We use language of delight as a means of locating God's presence and discerning God's will for our lives. And it's often the case that people have not given themselves any permission to delight at all in anything, which is why a lot of people have problems with Sabbath and resting and such. And so I'd ask someone, what are you hoping for, or what do you delight in? And that language doesn't even register with so many people because to think about the light or hope or the future, that's selfish, as opposed to no, . . . there's things that God has given you that now are to be reordered in such a way where yes, it is for the glory of God, but it's for the abundance of our own lives as well, and for the sake of others.

And so when we think about worship, we're trying to help people tap into the desires that lead to wholeness. And certainly we have desires that lead to more fragmentation and greater sin and such, but there are desires that lead to greater wholeness. And the hope is that we're identifying those things and moving towards God and the purpose in the process.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

To draw on Jamie Smith again, we are desiring creatures. And if we pretend we don't have desires, which is the tradition I was brought up in that desires are bad, you get formed by alternate desires, then. Ignoring it doesn't solve the problem.

Rich Villodas: 

Ron Rolheiser also said that the church is to help people make sense of their longings or make sense of their desires. And it's often the case that the church doesn't help people make sense of it. It's often the case that the church helps people eliminate them totally. So that's what we're trying to do in worship.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

That's lovely. You have five principles of the deeply formed life, and it seems to me, and you can correct me, that they seem to all come together in the fifth one, in missional presence. You say deeply formed mission is first about who we are becoming, which it seems like they're all pointing toward, before what we are doing. So can you unpack that for us?

Rich Villodas: 

I can contrast that with a quote from Dr. Robert Mulholland. He's written a number of books on spiritual formation. He passed away a few years ago. He said there is a difference between being in the world for God and being in God for the world as a big difference: being in the world for God and being in God for the world . . . . You can be in the world for God, but not have a relationship with God. But we are called--it gets very complicated--you are called to be in God for the world. That is, we are doing as a flow from our being. This is Acts 3, where Peter and John come by a lame man, and the guy asks for money, and Peter says, "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give to you." And what he had was really the power, the presence of Jesus in that moment.

And I think to do out of our being is exactly that: we are giving people something out of our lived experience with God. I think the world desperately is looking for people who know God and people who know God's kindness, God's grace, God's mercy, God's power. You know, Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain, he writes about this Hindu man he encountered. And the story goes along the lines of some mysterious Hindu man . . . was grateful that Christian organizations were building homes in India and such, but what the Hindu man asked was, "Do you have--does the church have--any saints to send?" And what he meant by that was, do you have any holy people that you could send our way to help us understand how to navigate through life. And so to do out of our being is essentially that at the world--yes, we need building projects; yes we need to serve people in very practical ways, but what the world desperately longs for are people who know God. And that's what being is, a life of being with God out of which we do. So I hope that explains it a little bit.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

So what you just described, especially with the Merton story, it seems to me that pastors and ministry leaders are very tempted to do without the being. You write: "There's a way of responding to the needs of the world in such a way that leads to fatigue and burnout." We see a lot of fatigue and burnout in people who are involved in ministry in some way. And I think at one of the panels that we do during the symposium, I'd like to explore this a little bit more with people in ministry, but an initial word on what does it look like when we do try to do God's work? It's that "being in the world for God." What does it look like when we do that instead of the opposite.

Rich Villodas: 

I think more than anything, it's revealed in our propensity to over-function, our propensity to be for others what only God can be for people. My pastoral go-to verse--and this verse came to me out of a bout with tuberculosis four years ago; I had tuberculosis of my lymph nodes, which was quite an ordeal for about a year. And I didn't know what it was. It took a long time for it to be diagnosed. And so I tasted my mortality over the course of many months. And as I thought about leadership, as I thought about pastoring, as I go about life, it was Colossians 1 that came to mind, where Christ is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And it was that last part "in him, all things hold together." I recognize I'm in a bad place when I think I'm responsible for holding all things together. And whether that's my family, whether that's my ministry, whether that's the church, whatever it is, there is now this overfunctioning where I go beyond my limits. I go beyond limits of energy, limits of money, limits of emotional bandwidth to try to accomplish whatever it is. I think we're in a bad, dangerous place. And so I think about the words of Henry Nouwen where he talks about: we need both a ministry of presence and we need a ministry of absence if we're going to be in this for the long haul. And it's the case that most pastors have a ministry of presence. We don't have a ministry of absence where we have what Nouwen would call a creative withdrawal for the sake of not just our own replenishment, but to allow God to move without us. He says along those lines, it's often that the Spirit comes when we leave. And he's talking to pastors.

And I think that's the case where I took a four-month sabbatical last year (our pastors every seven years get a four-month sabbatical). And I think our congregation flourished because of I was gone. I think they were happy to have me back, but I think, but I know they flourished when I was gone and God led them without me there. Why? Because Christ is the one who's holding all things together. So, I coalesce the entire book in terms of that missional presence that we want to give out of who we are. And it's the hope that those four other values are shaping us into a particular person that we can give expression to in the world.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

Amen. That sounds like a great place to close. This is great. I really liked the book and I appreciate the conversation. I run a cohort program for students where we focus on what it means to serve God through the church--and not necessarily as pastors, but as regular people who come to church every week. But one of the things that we work hard to focus on and sometimes don't balance enough that way is that God is already working, . . . making "we step away to allow God to work" powerful.

Rich Villodas: 

I had to learn that time and time again.

Joanna Wigboldy: 

A lot of these things are the things that you need to learn over and over. That's what makes them practices. Well, thanks again. It was fun. Thanks again. I really appreciate it.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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