Remembering Bob Mulholland
This message was delivered by Ruth Haley Barton at the memorial service for Robert Mulholland on March 5, 2016, at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, KY.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, the saying goes, and that is certainly what happened to me with Bob Mulholland.
When I first encountered his book, Invitation to a Journey, I was in my early thirties and experiencing the limits of what typical “evangelical” discipleship models had to offer. I had already begun seeking spiritual practices from the broader Christian tradition that had been missing in my own—practices like solitude, silence, lectio divina, the examen, liturgical approaches to prayer and worship. And the good news is that these “new” avenues I was exploring were working! Outside the confines of my narrow religious upbringing, I was finding life, joy, intimacy with God and freedom from bondage to the false self beyond what I had thought possible.
The bad news is that there was no way to talk about it without being accused of being New Age, Buddhist, or just plain liberal. No one in the circles I was a part of at the time seemed to know how to deal with the questions I was asking, the dead ends I was acknowledging in my Christian growth, the longing for more I was experiencing in my spiritual life… so I kept it all very quiet.
It was quite the conundrum—the best thing that had happened to me in a long time, spiritually-speaking, was something I couldn’t share freely with most of the Christian people I knew.
Invitation to a Journey
Then I enrolled in seminary—isn’t that what everybody does when they are having a crisis of faith? ☺ One of my first seminary courses was called “Introduction to Spiritual Formation” (I didn’t even know what that was at the time!) and, to my wonder and surprise, the course description seemed to describe exactly what I had been experiencing and what I wanted to understand more fully! I registered immediately and one of the assigned texts was Invitation to a Journey by M. Robert Mulholland.
My teacher had appeared.
That was 1994, Invitation to a Journey had just been published by InterVarsity Press, and I was riveted. Here was a New Testament theologian who was unpacking what I had been experiencing spiritually but from a deeply Biblical, richly theological point of view. I entered in with heart, soul, mind and strength; in fact, recently I dug out my coursework from that long-ago class and was amazed to discover an entire journal devoted to the reflections, prayers, wrestlings, groanings, and wonderments inspired by this text…all on the way to greater wholeness in Christ. I even noted aspects of Bob’s teachings that I resisted and argued with at the time, but that make all the sense in the world now—over twenty years later.
It is impossible to overstate what Bob’s writings meant to me at that time and what they continue to mean. God used Invitation to a Journey (not to mention Shaped by the Word and The Deeper Journey) to change my life personally as well as to alter the trajectory of my vocational path. Finally, I was able to understand—from a strongly Biblical and theological perspective—what had been happening in my spiritual life. Finally, I was able to explain to those who were afraid I was falling off the Christian path that what I was choosing and experiencing was orthodox, deeply rooted in our own Christian tradition. I had the confidence to begin communicating a clear and nuanced Biblical rationale for why spiritual formation is central to the message of the Gospel and therefore central to the mission of the Church.
Since then, I have shared Bob’s work wherever I go. When I need to choose one book to provide the Biblical and theological underpinnings for those seeking a deeper commitment to spiritual transformation, it is Invitation to a Journey. When someone asks me who my teachers and mentors have been, Bob is the one I talk about the most.
A Friendship Begins
Eventually we started showing up on the same speaking platforms—which is always daunting for a student—but he was remarkably humble and gracious about it. I’ll never forget one of the first times we were scheduled to speak together—it was at Laity Lodge in Texas. Two presenters were scheduled to speak on spiritual formation, myself and Bob.
When I got to the airport I was told by our shuttle service that we would be waiting for Bob; when he came walking through baggage claim, 6’ 4” wearing a cowboy hat and pulling, not one but two large suitcases. Since I was always embarrassed about my luggage this made me feel much better about myself. I eventually found out that one suitcase contained 2 pillows so he could sleep well at night, which endeared him to me immediately because I always take my pillow everywhere!
Later on, when some of us founded the Transforming Center, he became our teacher through his writings and eventually agreed to serve as faculty in our two-year Transforming Community experience. In that context a real friendship and ministry partnership developed with him and with Lynn. His definition of spiritual formation as the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others continues to resonate, inform, and challenge us on every level.
Creation Gifts Humbly Offered
Bob was a theologian. His creation gifts to the Body of Christ included a sharp mind, an ability to think and communicate with precision, along with years of Biblical study. His work is seminal for so many reasons. First of all, his definition of spiritual formation is so clear, compelling and Biblical that it is impossible to dismiss it—even for those who tend to be suspicious. It is the most accessible, most referred-to definition in use today and I predict that will continue.
Secondly, his systematic, brick-on-brick approach to laying a clear Biblical and theological foundation gives us all a solid place to stand as we consider how to participate more deeply in our own journey towards wholeness in Christ and how we might help others.
Thirdly, his approach to describing the process of spiritual formation is highly integrative and therefore, quite comprehensive.
He integrates personal spiritual disciplines with the communal aspects of our faith.
He brings together psychology, spirituality and an understanding of the human personality in fruitful synergy.
He is precise in his ability to talk about sin but always in the context of grace eloquently described. (After people have heard me teach for a while, they will often comment that I sound very Wesleyan and I always take that as a compliment because it means that I learned well from my teacher.)
He insists that we must live in the creative tension between the more personal aspects of our spiritual journey and the world in which it is lived out—rather than allowing us to give in to one side of the polarity or the other.
He is absolutely committed to the authority of Scripture as the source of wisdom for our life and faith BUT he was never satisfied with allowing it to become a textbook that we could master for our own ends.
At every turn in his teaching and writing, he demonstrated that the process of being conformed to the image of Christ is always a means of opening to God’s grace for the abundance of our own lives AND it is always for the sake of others.
These gifts were always offered with the utmost humility and generosity of spirit, a model of the spiritual transformation he was describing. But as wonderful as those gifts were—and how blessed we are to still have those gifts available through his writings and teachings—Bob’s greatest gift to me in the end was love.
Our Last Time Together
Bob was with us at the Transforming Center in July—his last public speaking engagement, I believe, outside of preaching at his church. He taught five sessions and it was very hard on him physically. He tired easily, he couldn’t eat much due to the effects of the chemo, he was chilled, and his fever returned in the night. But somehow—through sheer tenacity and will, Lynn’s care and prayer and the grace of God—he finished his assignment before heading back to his daughter, Tareena’s home, to rest and recover.
During that last time together I felt our relationship shift. Bob was still the deeply respected teacher he had always been but now he was becoming more than a teacher, more than a ministry partner, and even more than a friend. Our relationship now began to feel more like the tender relationship between a father and a daughter where the father is now the one who needs care and is willing to trust the daughter to give it. Beyond the respect and mutual regard that had been there for years, now our relationship seemed to be more about simple love and affection freely given and received.
As I reflected on that retreat I realized that the love I felt for Bob was the same kind of love I feel for my own dearly beloved father—who was also born in 1936 and has been going through his own health crisis! All the feelings of tender care, concern and protection I feel for my own dad were now welling up in my heart for Bob as well. And Bob did not resist that love or pretend it wasn’t real. Instead, he received it in the same way he would have if his own daughter (or son!) had been there, and he returned love as well.
During that last retreat, Bob and I formalized an arrangement that will enable the Transforming Center to steward some of Bob’s writings and teachings and bring it to a wider audience—a trust I take very seriously. What struck me as Bob and Lynn and I sat at a back table signing contracts was that this decision and the process that brought us to it was not merely strategic; it was another fruit of love given and received.
This was so important to me because all too often people that are brilliant and learned struggle to love and give themselves to others relationally, they can use their giftedness to actually avoid the rigors of transformation by relying on study and the intellect. Not so with Bob. Over the years, I believe I saw him grow in his capacity to love.
The Greatest Gift
So in the end, the most important thing I shared with Bob and that he shared with me was love. After that last retreat together, Bob and/or Lynn and I closed nearly every conversation with the words “I love you.” We said those words to each other the Saturday before he went to be with the Lord on Sunday and I never took those words for granted; I cherished them and the reality they represented. One of the greatest comforts to me personally regarding the loss of Bob in this life is to know that we did not leave the most important things unsaid. In fact, we said them over and over again.
“The greatest of these is love,” said the Apostle Paul, another brilliant theologian who discovered what matters most. I learned from Bob’s teachings and also his life that when Christ is formed in us love is formed in us—for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others. This love is not sentimental slop but rather it is the strong, cruciform love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us. What an amazing gift to have witnessed and experienced that love in our friend and beloved brother in Christ, Bob Mulholland.
My fervent prayer for myself and for all of us is that we would keep on doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen in Bob. And the Bible tells us that even in our grief and loss, the God of peace is with us.
Honor Mulholland’s passion for preparing pastors to equip the saints for the work of ministry by supporting the M. Robert Mulholland Scholarship Fund.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2016. Not to be reproduced without permission.
What did Bob Mulholland mean to you?Discuss