Sam Holland 0:04
You’re listening to the Created For podcast. We believe that everyone was created to make a unique impact in the world. Created For is a podcast to explore ideas around purpose, calling, and discovering how God is inviting you to influence the world in your own way, right now. I’m your host, Sam Holland.
Rich Villodas is the Brooklyn based lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large multiracial church, with more than 75 countries represented in Elmhurst, Queens. Rich holds a master of divinity from Alliance Theological Seminary. He enjoys reading, widely, preaching, and writing on contemplative spirituality, justice related matters, and the art of preaching. His first book, “The Deeply Formed Life,” is now available wherever books are sold. In his Created For talk, Rich talked about the three-mile-an-hour God – slowing down, to catch up with God.
Rich, my friends and colleagues and I, love your book, “The Deeply Formed Life.” We love it so much. And it covers so many topics – spiritual formation, racial reconciliation, sexual wholeness, missional presence, and then you provide what you call “deeply formed practices” for each topic. I just find them really practical. The thing is, I don’t usually read books that cover so many topics, but somehow you have knit them all together under the headline of spiritual formation. So tell us, how has your own life experience informed this book?
Rich Villodas 1:53
Yeah, thank you for the question, Samantha. And I’m glad it’s resonating.
In terms of my life experience, I have had the privilege of being introduced to a myriad of Christian traditions over the 22 years or so that I’ve been following Jesus, I became a Christian in a storefront Latino Pentecostal church. So you know, the Holy Spirit – gifts of the Spirit – expressive worship – that was kind of the world that I entered into when I started following Christ. But a couple of years after that, I was introduced to the contemplative tradition. I was going to find myself going to monasteries, because of a class that I took on spiritual formation at Nyack College. And then soon after that, I would go to seminary and be exposed to a global theology, of how are people trying to wrestle with questions of faith, and live out their faith in places like Africa and Latin America, and Asia. And so I was exposed to a world outside of my own context.
And I would say, in the first six to seven years of my faith journey and following Christ, I was exposed to so many different people, voices, books. And so that’s kind of how I found myself in it. But then when I was 28-years-old, when I got to New Life Fellowship Church to be a pastor, I saw a congregation that was trying to hold many different aspects of discipleship and formation together. So it’s been the last 12 years that it’s been not just out of a book, or out of listening to a speaker, but out of a local community. But by God’s grace, I’ve been privileged to be exposed to a myriad of traditions within the Christian tent.
Sam Holland 3:52
Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up your community, because it seems to have really impacted your life – this community life. Like you said, you’re a pastor in Queens, and you refer a lot to your church family and to our larger Christian family. We’re all brothers and sisters in Christ. And one thing you said in your book that stood out to me was, “God is not simply in the business of dry cleaning our souls. He is in the business of tearing down walls and creating a new family – a new way of belonging together.”
So why was that important for you to emphasize? And how are you seeing that play out right now? In your own church family, in the larger body of Christ?
Rich Villodas 4:36
Oh, yeah. Yeah, great question. Now that quote comes out of an experience I had in Brooklyn, where in the neighborhood I grew up in Brooklyn, which is historically Black, Puerto Rican, Dominican. I– we have our ethnic tension between each other but some of the greatest tensions ethnically was within the Chinese takeout and the Korean-owned dry cleaners.
And so I remember going into a Korean-owned dry cleaners and saw– they would typically have a bullet-proof partition on the counter. So we were never able to connect with the person on the other side. But one day, a new owner came who was a Christian Korean man and took down that partition. And I remember shaking his hand for the first time and saying, “Why did you take it down?” And he said, “Because we want to get to know our neighbors.” And I would find out he was a Christian later in some of our conversations.
And for me – that image was, yes, the gospel is not just about dry-cleaning our individual souls, but tearing down barriers that often separate us. And that is the gospel – it’s not simply a bridge that gets us to God. It’s a sledgehammer that tears down walls.
And so, I have seen that in our community. This past year has been the most intense of the many years that I’ve been at New Life. And we are accustomed to diversity, we are accustomed to a difference from an ethnic perspective, generational perspective, socio-economic perspective, but something about last year – pandemic, political hostility, racial injustice – the convergence of all these things, brought out a lot of difficulty within our community. And so I’ve had to remind myself on a regular basis, “What are we saying, when we say the gospel? What does it mean to be present to one another in the midst of our difficulties?” We’ve had to learn to create spaces for people who see the world very differently politically.
And one of the things that we did even before the election was create a “faith in politics,” space – a few venues to ask questions and hear different perspectives and why people are seeing the world one way – voting for Biden, voting for Trump. I did not want to do that. One of our pastors said, “We should do an event like this.” I said, “Are you crazy? Wha– I don’t want to do that.” And then the pastor said, “This is why we’re church, Rich.” And I said, “Alright, let’s do it, then.”
And, was it awkward? Yeah, it was awkward. Were there moments I was wincing as I was hearing people say things? Yes, I was wincing. But I thought, “What a great gift we’re offering people, that, we can in the name of Jesus be present to one another, despite our differences.” So it’s been an interesting journey the past year in our church and Queens for sure.
Sam Holland 7:41
That’s so cool. It’s kind of like, in a family– in my nuclear family and my extended family.
Rich Villodas 7:49
Sam Holland 7:49
It can get so awkward to talk about these things, but the best relationships are when you create spaces for communication, about whatever. Nothing’s off limits, we’re going to talk about it because we’re family.
Rich Villodas 8:04
Yeah, yeah. And that’s what we’re discovering is, and some of the language that we use at New Life is language of self differentiation. Comes out of family systems theory, where differentiation is this process of remaining close to myself and remaining close to another, especially in times of high anxiety. And I’m resisting the polar opposite pole of cutting someone off, or being fused into someone. And so, “I’m not going to state my opinion, I’m going to be a peacekeeper, you know, and I don’t want to rock the boat. So I’m going to be silent.” That’s one end, or, “I’m going to cut off from you.” And we’re saying both of those responses is not what it means to follow Jesus.
But how can we hold on to ourselves, our feelings, the ways that we’re seeing the world, but remain close to others. Even though we might not end the meeting with the same outlook on how we should vote or how we should see the world. But there’s something about the life of the community that’s profoundly impacted, when we can hold space like that.
Sam Holland 9:13
So Rich, in your Created For talk at our event, you talked about the three-mile-an-hour God, and that that’s a phrase coined by Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama to describe the pace at which God moves and invites us to move. And then in your book, you talk about looking to Biblical figures like Moses and David and Mary, John the Baptist, even Jesus as examples of those who are shaped by these slow practices like solitude, and silence and a slowed down spirituality.
So, during this last year, this global pandemic, have you found it more or less difficult to pursue a slower paced life in general?
Rich Villodas 10:09
I found it to be more difficult, partly because everything seems to be blurred into one big, massive glob of whatever this is here. And so boundaries that used to be fixed, are a lot cloudier these days. It was pretty clear when I would leave the church office– a pastor’s job, for the most part, is unrelenting and can feel like there’s no fixed hours here, but when I would come home from the church office, I came home from the church office. And now I’m home with my kids and having a meal together. Because this is my church office now – my bedroom – it’s hard to know where something begins and where it ends. So in that respect, yes, I have found it difficult.
But what I found to be really interesting in helping me to maintain healthy rhythms – at the beginning of the pandemic, I thought, “I need to try to create meaningful connection with our community, because we’re not going to be seeing each other in person. So maybe we can have midday prayers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” I did it initially, because I want to be a good pastor – you know – I want to get an extra star from Jesus when I see Him face to face, all that stuff there, you know. But I would find out that the person who needed this more than anyone was me. And so every Sunday night, Tuesday night, and Thursday night, I would create the liturgy for the midday prayer on Instagram and on Facebook.
And I would find that, that act of creating it as well as leading people in it, was more for me than for anyone else. And I’m glad other people benefited from it. But it was providential that God would lead me in that way. Because I don’t know if my soul would have survived the first few months of the pandemic without that regular rhythm to stop and pause and pray with the community. So I did need some more intentional structure to keep me connected to God.
Sam Holland 12:24
Yeah, it’s funny because the whole world has slowed down and closed down to some extent and to varying degrees, but inside my own home, there’s no separation between me and the other individuals in my family. The five of us have pretty much been in this house for a year. And, so it’s hard, but I’ve needed to find solitude.
So yeah, I’ve needed to find solitude more than ever. And so it’s forced me to get creative. I will go on walks, I will find space where I can just be alone with God and my thoughts. But I’ve also found I’m more annoyed with my family than ever, but we’re also closer than ever. It’s like, you can’t take them apart. It’s sort of like, forced intimacy all the time.
Rich Villodas 13:20
I get, I get. I’m in a Queens apartment about 900-square-foot Queens apartment. So we are always in close proximity with each other. So I get it.
Sam Holland 13:30
Yep. So going back to your book, your chapters on sexuality were so intriguing to me. Because first of all, one chapter you titled, “Sexual Wholeness for a Culture that Splits Bodies and Souls.” And I just, “Oh.” That split of bodies and souls – I think it speaks so much to the disembodiment that we can fall into, as humans, but as Christians, with our theology. And as you’re pointing out in your book with our sexuality, can you just talk about embodiment? And why you felt like that was an important theme for the book.
Rich Villodas 14:10
Yeah, I thought it was an important theme from the book, because I believe that the gospel is good news for this material world, not just for our spiritual lives and our souls. And if I begin at that point, that the gospel reveals a God who becomes flesh, the gospel reveals a God who, when this Christ is resurrected, He doesn’t resurrect as some soul, He resurrects in a body. That the gospel gives this message that when everything is summed up in Christ, the Bible doesn’t end with souls ascending to a disembodied heaven, but a fully embodied Heaven, descending down to earth.
And so if that is my theological starting point for what the gospel is, then it needs to have practical implications for my day-to-day existence. And so whether we’re talking about embodiment, as it pertains to race, and how we understand racism and diversity and justice and reconciliation, or whether we’re talking about embodiment, as it pertains to our sexuality, the gospel is good news for the material world for our embodied lives. And so if we begin at that place, then sexuality matters. And if Christ died for you know, the Black theologian James Cone would ask a question, “Did Christ come to die for our souls or for our bodies?” And the answer is yes. It’s not for our souls, it’s for our entire existence.
And so Samantha, when I thought about embodiment, for me, it’s the outworking of how we understand the gospel. And if the gospel is very simply a– something transactional, like I can go to heaven, if it’s something that has to do with a particular status between me and God – a private kind of deal. Or if it’s kind of related to an atonement theory, then it’s going to lead me down to some disembodied roads, of what matters in the world. But if it is good news about the God who becomes embodied, and wants to heal this material world, and renew it, then it has everything to do with our bodies, and the way we understand one another and ourselves. So for me, it begins with how we reconcile the gospel to our lived daily experience.
Sam Holland 16:47
Yeah, it was really helpful for me. It’s been part of my own personal journey towards wholeness, I think, because I am a more disembodied temperament. I’m, you know, an introvert, I think, and I read, and I am cerebral, and so I think it’s just been healing for me to realize that God created the material world, and my body in it for a reason, and that it matters. And that staying connected to my body through nature and exercise, and just in so many different ways, is really healing for me.
Rich Villodas 17:33
Yeah, yeah. As it is for me. You know – I come from– initially coming from a Christian tradition that was created with subtle Gnosticism, where the emphasis was on spiritual experiences, but not the everyday, ordinary embodied response to God and worship. And these things have severe implications for the way we show up in the world.
Sam Holland 18:06
So, you also really helpfully clarified that there’s two types of sexuality. Now, I have never heard this talked about before, so maybe I haven’t been reading the right resources, but you defined it as social sexuality and genital sexuality. And you quoted theologian Marva Dawn, saying, “I’m convinced that if the church could provide more through affection and care for persons, that many would be less likely to turn falsely to genital sexual expression for the social support that they need.”
So Rich, how do you as a pastor, create those spaces of affection and care so that our sexual social needs – just for intimacy, to know and be known by another human can be met?
Rich Villodas 18:59
Yeah, I think for me, the groundwork begins theologically. And so my answer– how I try to think of the world when I think about preaching, when I think about formation, when I think about leadership, for me, I’m trying to think what is the theological lens that informs us going down this road. And so Marva Dawn, great, her book “Sexual Character: [Beyond] Technique to Intimacy,” she does lay out her reading of Genesis 1-3, where we see Adam and Eve, created for not just genital sexuality, but for a social sexuality. And so as the starting point to think about sexuality.
Additionally, I think it has to begin theologically in that, when we look at Jesus who is fully God and fully human people forget that fully human part – He’s fully human. Jesus does not practice genital sexuality. There’s no place – Jesus does not have have sexual relations with another person in the genital kind of a way. At the same time, you’re not going to find someone more fully human, then Jesus Christ. And for those who say, “Well, that’s because he’s God.” Again, we’re missing out the full human dimension of who Jesus is. And so for me, what the conclusion I come to is, we do not have to engage in that kind of sexuality in order to live a fully human life.
Now, that’s the starting point for me theologically. Now, as a pastor, the next – how do I give application to that and create spaces for that? Part of that has to do with the kinds of communities we’re trying to establish. It’s often the case in church settings, that community is about chips and dip, some awkward singing before we go into the Bible study, we go into the Bible study, we talk about what we see in the text from some vague application, we pray for one another. And that has its place, I’ve led those kinds of studies I’ve been in them. And for what they’re worth, they help people to maintain some form of connection.
But there is something about a level of community that is marked by vulnerability, and marked by a sense of healthy touch, and marked by a sense of openness, a sense of sharing of our stories and our histories. A prophetic context where we are able to speak life and call out the best in us. For me, that is the kind of social sexuality that people are longing for – a space where they can know others and be known by others. A space where they can be vulnerable about their deepest wounds and secrets and struggles, and find the place of challenge, find the place of hospitality and welcome.
And I think if people had that, they would not necessarily need to go, to find a sense of belonging, through the lack of discernment with their bodies – as, “I’m going to sleep with whoever I’m going to sleep with. I’m going to offer my body to someone because that’s how love is given and received.” And that’s what Dawn is saying – she’s saying, “If we create spaces where people are known, and vulnerable spaces can be established, we can be more discerning with our bodies.” And I think that is at the core of the delineation between social sexuality and genital sexuality.
Sam Holland 22:39
So good. Let’s talk more about this weird time that we’re living in, which is full of obstacles and opportunities, and how it’s impacting you and your community and beyond. I would ask this, in what ways do you see God right now in this particular season, inviting people to influence and impact the world?
Rich Villodas 23:09
I think there is something about the use of technology in this moment, that I think can be very redemptive. And we’ve still seen the craziness of technology and social media, and the ways it distorts our lives and the ways that it’s a platform for hatred and such at the same time. What I have noticed is people leveraging technology and because of the– you know, Thomas Friedman, years ago, talk about the democratization of technology that we all have now, this access to it. Everyone has a voice, which is a gift. The problem is everyone has a voice. Because not everyone uses it for a way that is redemptive and healing.
But what I have noticed within my own congregation are people who are leveraging this space in ways that are drawing people towards God, creating healthy spaces for community. I have been pleasantly surprised by congregants who have created communities via Zoom. Without asking for permission, I’m finding out, “Hey, someone from our church created a space.” I’m going, “Well, thank God, they created that space.” So I think because everyone has this level of access, we’re seeing people– I’m seeing it using it for redemptive purposes, which is drawing people into a greater awareness of the God who heals and the God who rescues and saves. So that’s what I’m seeing right now in this particular moment in the pandemic, at least in our congregation and other places that I’m paying attention to.
Sam Holland 25:00
Yeah, absolutely. Well, as we wrap up our time, Rich, if you had one invitation, just one for Jesus followers, they’re listening right now. And they want to step into their calling. What would that one invitation be?
Rich Villodas 25:23
One invitation to step into their calling. I do think the invitation is to a life of discernment. And that can be very christianese words that just– “I need to discern that,” – you know? And when I ask them, “What do you– how are you going to discern that?” “I don’t know. But it just feels like a nice Christian word to say.”
I think calling is often about paying attention to the ways and discerning the ways that the Holy Spirit is moving us through consolation, or a way in desolation– this is a very Ignatian, Jesuit practice. Where the Ignatian tradition, we are paying attention to the interior movements of the Spirit, as consolations. “What’s drawing me to God? And what’s drawing me away from God?”
So when I think about calling, much of what God wants to speak is not simply from outside of us. I think God is always speaking to us. The question is, are we paying attention? And there are some Christians, Samantha, who believe, “If I feel good about it, that must mean, this is not my calling.” They think that to be called is to always have a Jonah experience. Like, “I don’t want to do that. That must mean God’s calling me to do it.” And as a Christian, it’s like, “What don’t you want to do? That’s what God’s gonna make you do.” It’s like, “No! I do not want that!” And that’s a very limited way of understanding calling. And for sure, there are times when God has us do stuff we don’t want to do.
But I do think God speaks to us through our desires, and speaks to us through our dreams, and speaks to us through our longings. And I think the Spirit of God places that in us for the sake of pursuing it. And so when I talk about discernment, which is a very prayerful activity, I’m asking myself, “What is God calling me into that resonates deeply inside my soul? What gives me deep satisfaction and joy? And how can I now step into that for the sake of blessing the world around me?” So in a word, I probably gave you 100 things right there, Samantha. But if it’s a word, for me, it’s discernment.
Sam Holland 27:07
Well, I think it’s perfect, and I’m gonna just wrap it up by saying in your book, you talk about the Prayer of Examine. You don’t call it that, but it’s a version of the Prayer of Examine from St. Ignatius?
Rich Villodas 28:06
Sam Holland 28:06
Okay. And so maybe that is just a practical tool that we could leave listeners with and ourselves with. I mean – I use it all the time. And it’s just questions that you ask yourself on a daily basis, maybe at the beginning, maybe at the end of your day, maybe both. And it can be a variety of questions, but it’s just sort of looking at your day, like, “When did I feel feelings? When did I feel close to God? When did I feel not close to God? And what was I doing or taking in that was creating that? And so, would you say a Prayer of Examine is a good step into discernment?
Rich Villodas 28:50
Absolutely. What the Prayer of Examine does is, it trains us to listen and discern God’s presence in our lives. And, the Jesuit tradition – to those who follow St. Ignatius – his rule of life and all that, they pause twice a day at midday and at evening time to sit– “Where have I– where am I feeling consolation? Where am I moving towards God? Where did I miss God’s presence today? Where do I need to ask for forgiveness?” What that’s doing is training us, day in and day out, to discern God’s presence – discern God’s voice.
And I think the more we do that, the more in tune we get with what Paul talks about walking into Spirit, living in the Spirit, living in dynamic communion with this God. We need to train our souls for that, that stuff’s not just going to happen out of nowhere. So a practical step for folks to take is absolutely to begin to implement the Prayer of Examine more regularly as a means of training themselves for discernment.
Sam Holland 29:52
God is always speaking to us. Are we paying attention? You can learn to discern God’s presence in your life by trying things like the Prayer of Examine at the end of the day or first thing tomorrow morning, ask yourself a few questions:
- In the past 24 hours, what was I mad about?
- Sad about? Delighted by?
- When did I feel close to God? When did I feel far?
Keep track of your answers for a while and see what emerges. That might be God speaking to you about your calling.
Created For is hosted and produced by Cru. If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe, rate or review it wherever you listen. For more resources to continue your journey to living out your impact, check out the show notes on our website Cru.org/createdfor and follow us on Instagram at _createdfor. Thanks for listening.
We’ll catch you again on the next episode with Jo Saxton when we’ll talk about stepping into your influence.