Rich Villodas: Living in the Center of God’s Presence—Part 2

god's presence

“Who we are in Christ is the most important gift we have to give.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Rich Villodas explains the premise of his book The Deeply Formed Life, what it means to have Christ formed in us, and how to counter the exhaustion so many leaders are feeling during this season of ministry.

Let’s return to the five values of The Deeply Formed Life. How does deep formation flow from contemplation to action?

In our grieving, confused, politically hostile, racially bleeding, needy world, Christian contemplation serves us well because it leads us beyond spiritual reactivity into spiritual presence.

Let’s start with the first value as an example. The goal of contemplative rhythms is to become, first of all, present to God. Second, we become present to ourselves. And thirdly, naturally, we become present to our neighbor. There is something that changes about our presence when we become non-anxious, non-reactive, non-defensive. I think contemplation trains our souls for those kinds of moments when we’re having emotionally charged discussions over very significant matters. It aids us in being present. In our moment, it also helps us face our own illusions and live from a place of deeper truth, including about ourselves.

Desmond Tutu once said that if government knew how subversive contemplation is, contemplative prayer is, they would ban it. The reason that quote resonates with me is because when we are able to face our own personal illusions, we become able to unmask the illusions of the world around us. Contemplation aids living in truth about ourselves and revealing the lies and the idols of the age that we’re living in.

If we spend enough time in God’s presence, in silence, solitude and reflection, the Holy Spirit is going to bring things to the surface. Areas that need healing. Areas that need confession. Areas that need repentance. We can begin to impact the world by confronting ourselves first.

How does that affect your ministry?

I believe that the greatest gift that I offer to the church I pastor is my own ongoing transformation in Christ. That’s a lesson gained over the past 13 years at New Life. But that is often not the emphasis of pastoral ministry. The emphasis of pastoral ministry is often to go, go, go; to preach sermons; counsel the people; do the pastoral duties. And then if you can get to your own life and your own transformation and your own growth, well, that’s wonderful. Over the past 13 years, that’s been flipped on its head for me. I cannot give what I have not received. Who we are in Christ is the most important gift we have to give.

For me, that principle has been the most important principle of pastoring.  

Racial equity and tension have been at the forefront of many pastors’ and churches’ minds and experiences. New Life is a multiethnic church in one of our nation’s most diverse cities. What have you learned, especially over the past two years?

To paint the picture, New Life is diverse in every way—including politically. To give some context to our congregation, there are typically four kinds of people. There are conservatives who often have a hard time seeing anything wrong with our country, and there are progressives who often have a hard time seeing anything right with our country. 

Then there’s the grateful immigrant. Queens is 50% foreign born, so we have lots of first- and second-generation immigrants at New Life. They might land socially and ideologically and politically with the conservatives, but they do it from a very different narrative. They do it from an “I have come from a country that is not as good as this one” story. That’s the kind of language that they use. “So we should be grateful and not criticize what’s going on here.”

When we are able to face our own personal illusions, we become able to unmask the illusions of the world around us.” 

And then there’s kind of the indifferent academic-type Christian who is super spiritual. Can we just preach the gospel? is the sentiment they radiate.

When I am thinking about how to lead our church through the complexities of racial inequity and animus, those four profiles come to the surface very quickly. How do I pastor all four categories faithfully and well? It’s not always easy. So part of it has just been a learning experience that our congregation is filled with these people whose perspectives are so different.

What I’ve learned is that it all starts with the gospel. If we define that wrong, we’re going to have a hard time getting anything else right. If the gospel is only a soteriological transaction—just hope for our postmortem existence, just an atonement theory—then all this other stuff on race becomes superfluous. Optional. A footnote. But if the gospel is the good news that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ, and that in his life, death and resurrection and enthronement the power of sin and death no longer has the last word, then that is strong and good enough to engage the larger fundamental fractures that we find in our human relationships. In fact, it becomes necessary to do so in the name of Jesus.

I’ve learned that when people hear “gospel,” they often hear only individual salvation and forgiveness. What I’m saying is the gospel is bigger: Jesus is Lord. He’s making all things new and creating a new family. And so I’ve had to articulate and rearticulate that for our congregation.

Moreover, I’ve had to articulate and rearticulate what I mean when I say “racism.” And how do we understand racism, racial inequity and racial injustice? How do we hold together the reality that the talk about racism must be spoken about from a soul perspective and an interpersonal perspective and an institutional perspective? Much of the work as a pastor over the past couple years has been trying to inquire and articulate what we are feeling but can’t quite say.

“So much of our leadership is motivated by performance that we miss out on living from the very center of God’s life and God’s presence.”

From Outreach Magazine  What It Means to Be Salt and Light

And then secondly, I am working to lead well out of that articulation. I’ve had to learn to grow in my own self-differentiation. I am trying to remain close and curious toward God, myself and my neighbor. I’m refusing to go down the road of cutting people off. I’m trying to enmesh my life with theirs. I’m trying to pay attention to my own functioning, my own fears, my own presence. To work not from reactivity but from principle. From a gospel-saturated imagination. From justice and truth, which are manifestations of love.

And lastly I would say this: In our church we have talked about racial reconciliation for three decades. You would think we shouldn’t have any problems in Queens. And yet I have learned not to assume anything. Just because someone comes from a church in which they speak of these things on a regular basis doesn’t mean it’s really taking root in their soul. 

What is one thing you wish leaders would do to move toward deeper spiritual formation?

Time with God—alone—for a couple days. Often this works best in a monastic setting or something similar. I believe that for every conference a pastor or leader attends, they need to schedule a trip to a monastery. So much of our leadership is so motivated by performance and metrics and measures that we miss out on living from the very center of God’s life and God’s presence.

I would encourage them to make an appointment at a local retreat center or monastery, someplace where they can have uninterrupted time, prayer and reflection for two to three days. Go. Do it. And see what emerges from there.

“Who we are in Christ is the most important gift we have to give.” 

From Outreach Magazine  Kevin Geer: Help People Experience Jesus

And, of course, read. But beyond just reading, we can all benefit from the tradition of spiritual direction from people who come alongside us, who help us to discern God’s presence and will within the unique circumstances we find ourselves in. Having the intentional companionship of a group of friends on the journey or a spiritual director or a counselor is very important. We could all use some help in discerning God’s presence and will for our lives. 

Any last thoughts about how these timeless practices and perspectives can impact the church’s work right now?

I’m in close conversation with many pastors. I recognize the difficulties of leading and pastoring in this particular moment. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that right now is one of the most trying moments we’ve ever had in our culture, ever. And for the pastors and leaders who are trying to navigate the maelstrom of exhaustion, intensity and polarization, the first thing I would say to them is that they need to offer themselves a lot of grace.

When I took over leadership at New Life as a 32-year-old and I made a mistake, our executive officer said to me, “Rich, never forget this: You get to make mistakes. That was very freeing for me. Because if I were honest, I didn’t think I could make any mistakes. But of course we all do. We must sometimes give ourselves permission to be human.

How can we be gracious toward ourselves in this moment? We lead congregations in a world that’s rapidly changing. It could be very tempting to live in self-condemnation. But when we allow ourselves to be touched by the grace that God gives to each of us, even in our failures, we are walking a little farther down one of the most important paths of pastoring and leading in this particular moment. And we are, in grace, becoming a little more deeply formed.