On Quiet Times

I am a morning person.

That term is often used to describe someone who can wake up at some ungodly hour as alert as a fighter pilot passing through enemy airspace. Someone who doesn’t need even a hint of daylight to begin his or her day. This is not what I mean when I say that I am a morning person. Pulling away from the embrace of sleep and actually putting feet to cold floor does not fill me with positivity. The cold water I splash on my face in the bathroom is not the symbolic christening of a new day, but a necessary dousing for my senses to reactivate, like smelling salts under a boxer’s broken nose. I brew my first cup of coffee with a kind of desperation – the Keurig is never slower than at 6 AM.

No, I am not a morning person because I have no problem waking up early. I am a morning person because I recognize the value of the early morning hours. As a father of pre-schoolers, there are precious few stretches of silence in my house, and the ones that come after evening bedtimes find mine and my wife’s collective strength sapped. I have hardly enough energy to watch an entire Dateline episode or read more than a single chapter of a novel.

Shows like this are more compelling when you're brain is already half asleep.

Shows like this are more compelling when your brain is already half asleep.

So, despite the difficulty, every weekday I rise earlier than the rest of my family. I stagger down the hall to the kitchen, clumsily trying to avoid the creakiest of the floorboards, and hold a yawn so pronounced that most of my coffee brews before it dies away. Then I pick up my coffee, my laptop, my Bible, and whatever book on theology I’m currently working my way through, and I tip-toe to the living room. There, on the sofa under the lamp, I have my “quiet time.”

Growing up in an evangelical church, I heard that term a lot – quiet time. While there is no specific mention of the concept in Scripture, I was taught that, above all things, the obedient Christian is one who keeps a daily quiet time.

And the über-spiritual take it to the next level.

And the über-spiritual take it to the next level.

If you grew up in the Church, too, chances are you’ve heard the importance of something like this expressed. Most of the teachers I had in my youth not only encouraged the keeping of a quiet time, but they usually offered a formula for what one looked like. A quiet time, they said, consisted of the following:

  1. prayer, not only for myself but also for a list of other people (and a good Christian always kept a list)
  2. reading the Bible – either a Psalm or a Gospel story or a portion of a letter – with or without the aid of a devotional book (until you graduated to concordances and commentaries and thus added the spiritual discipline of cross-referencing into your quiet times)
  3. journaling, in which you muse on the intersections of life and Scripture, or perhaps write out your prayers (before Facebook and Tumblr suggested we share those thoughts and prayers with everyone everyday).

I spent years trying to make this formula work for me. I was white-knuckling it, trying to force an enlightenment that I was told was the natural product of keeping this practice faithfully.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that, just like the Sabbath, a quiet time was made for the person, not a person for the quiet time.

That awkward moment when you're unsure whether or not you just read something heretical.

That awkward moment when you’re unsure whether or not you just read something heretical.

It took years of student ministry for me to realize this, but after dozens of conversations with frustrated young people, I finally wised up. My heart went out to them, because they were struggling with the same deep sense of guilt that I struggled with, all because they had missed a day here and a week there, or because after months of forcing the formula, they felt very little difference in their spirits. Not only were they result-biased, but the drudgery of keeping the formula had cultivated an aversion to both prayer and Bible study within them. They were sick of it, but stopping meant conceding it was all for nothing.

"I bought my journals in bulk. I can't just stop!"

“I bought my journals in bulk. I can’t just stop!”

Next week, I will explore some of the reasons why people fail at the traditional quiet time formula as often as others succeed. In the meantime, however, let it be known that I have no “better way” to offer in its place.

What I have is what is unique to my own experience, but I think that is part of the truth about “quiet times.” What I have is a steaming cup of coffee, a laptop, a Bible, and a whatever book on theology I’m currently reading. What I have is a silent house and a sofa and a lamp. What I have is a physical body that is not ready to wake up, but a spirit that is eager to be awakened. So I do what I can for it – I read a short passage of Scripture, and part of a chapter on theology, and then I turn on my laptop. I work on the same old novel, or on a short story, because telling those stories engages my spirit more than any journal entry ever did. And after showering and dressing, packing my bag and heading off to work, I realize that I am happy, that God wants me to be happy, and that he has made me a certain way, with particular interests and energies, none of which should ever be formulated or templated for anyone else.

In the car, I breathe out prayers of thankfulness. I thank God that his mercies are not carrot-and-stick. I thank him that I have been remade – a new creation he sees and declares to be good. I thank him that there is no such thing as an ungodly hour.

All the Answers

For The Ink Well Creative Community

Word: Unexplained
Parameters: Write for 15 minutes without stopping

Warnings-in-The-Bible-Read-Me-

“The Bible has all the answers.”

Surely you’ve heard this folk saying before, whether stated confidently by someone who actually believes it, or sarcastically by someone who might once have believed it but no longer does because when he or she finally brought a question to the book, nothing in its pages seemed relevant.

Often, when you encounter people of the second group, you learn that they have laid aside their trust in “an ancient book full of superstitions” in favor of science or reason or rationalism or humanism or methodological naturalism. In other words, what they’ve set aside is any form of mysticism. Whether because it failed them in the past, or because it never seemed a viable option in the first place, they are not comfortable with any knowledge that is apprehended outside of the intellect.

This, of course, is perfectly understandable. In the absence of cold, hard facts (though why facts must be “cold” and “hard,” I’ve never understood), having faith in something will always mean holding hands with doubt and uncertainty. Some people would rather avoid the feeling. Certainty is a matter of the will, and if it can’t always be effected, it can at least be feigned.

I’ve talked with people who’ve told me, among other things, that they don’t like how the Bible addresses the formation of our planet and the rest of the cosmos. They claim that if there really was a divine being behind its creation, then certainly the Bible would include more details. But, instead, there’s just a short poem that scientific research has already proven to be inaccurate.

Sometimes, I ask them why they can’t have the kind of unwavering faith in God that they seem to have in the scientific method.

They respond by saying that their allegiance to science has nothing to do with faith, but rather with facts. They tell me that science explains mysteries, while religion merely hopes that one day Someone will reveal the purposes of those mysteries.

I don’t ask the questions that come to my mind next, usually because I already sense the conversation has taken a turn for the worse. I’m not sure they’re mindful of it, but I’ve found that when you begin speaking about faith to a person who has cast it aside in favor of reason, you’ve often encountered a point of view that believes the two are mutually exclusive. That faith and reason have no relationship with each other. This, of course, is a fallacy, but in a culture consumed by competition, it is difficult to see past the versus archetype.

But if I could ask them my questions, I would ask them, “Why do we laugh?”

It is one of the questions I took to the scientific method, but found no reasonable explanation. It is a mystery that has yet to be sufficiently answered

I would ask them, “Why are human beings so often kind to each other?”

It is another question I’ve turned to science and reason and methodological naturalism to explain to me, but the only answer they can give is a shrug of the shoulders and the words, “We shouldn’t be.”

The Bible doesn’t explain these questions either – at least not in the way a rationalist would appreciate – but that is the point. Such fundamental elements of human existence remain unexplained. They remain mysteries. And even if someone rejects mysticism, he or she cannot fully escape mystery. Sure, perhaps one day the scientific method will finally reveal the reason why human beings laugh, or why we offer kindness to others even when no personal benefit comes of it. After all, science has shown a great track record for discovery.

But amidst these answers, other mysteries remain. Because the two are not polar opposites. They are not at odds, but in relationship with one another.

I don’t know about you, but that thought fills me with joy. I’m not sure why.

Dibs on the Doubloons

My father-in-law brought a metal detector to the beach.

I can see him out there, stepping carefully along the shore. The instrument is poised in front of him, and he sweeps it in a conscientious arc just above the sand. He is bent forward slightly, mindful of every tick and warble of the device. He is hopeful in his search, as anyone is who brings a metal detector to the beach. I am reminded of an article I read recently about famous lost treasures from history that have yet to be found. I do not think he is expecting to uncover a chest of gold coins, but perhaps there is something worth uncovering – something more valuable than bottle caps and earring backs.

There is a storm on the ocean. Behind him, I can see white caps scattered all the way to the horizon. The air has cooled and is thick with the smell of rain. The trees sway. The wind flutters my father-in-law’s T-shirt. Still, he goes about the painstaking business of the search as if oblivious to what is approaching.

It is the way with treasure-seekers, I suspect. Whether it’s Indiana Jones crisscrossing the globe in search of the Well of Souls, or just a guy rummaging through an estate sale bookshelf in hopes of finding a forgotten first edition, treasure-seekers are about the business of recovering what has been lost. The search is more important than the circumstances. What lies beneath the sand may indeed prove greater than all the wind and rain a storm can throw your way. These are the things I think as I watch my father-in-law persist in his detecting against a backdrop of atmospheric turmoil.

The search goes on, even when Shia Labeouf wants to tag along.

The search goes on, even when Shia Labeouf wants to tag along.

And one other thought occurs to me as well.

I wonder about our faith, about this thing we call Christianity. I wonder how much has been lost from it over the years, and what elements we should seek to rediscover. What traditions and practices have disappeared, to our misfortune? What sound teachings have we cast aside in favor of convenient sayings and comforting folklore? What ambiguities, to which we once humbly submitted ourselves, have we coldly insisted on defining? I do not presume that we control the system by any means; I simply wonder how our free will and our particular cultural developments have caused us to lose track of certain aspects from which believers once benefitted. Such misplacement must have taken place here and there over so rich and lengthy a history.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were placed in jars and set aside, only to remain hidden for two millennia. But their discovery impacted the fields of archaeology, history, religion and linguistics in innumerable ways, altering assumptions we had accepted for decades and centuries.

In contrast, what this lady did was just plain rotten.

In contrast, what this lady did was just plain rotten.

Are Christians today so arrogant as to assume the grasp we have on our faith now is of greater strength than any other time? Do we honestly believe we know more about God now than those from past eras? We have been born into a culture that is all too impressed with the newest and thinnest and fastest and shiniest products on the market. Sometimes I fear our churches will forever be drawn to the innovative over the ancestral. That we will perpetually select new methodologies in place of ancient disciplines? Must we always chase after now while abandoning then?

Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3-5)

It is a rare thing to find anything of value under the sand. But it does happen. Instead of just the earring back, you find the diamond front that goes with it. Maybe not gold doubloons, but sometimes there’s a 2004 Wisconsin quarter with an extra leaf, or, for the exceedingly lucky, a double-died 1969 penny.

You never know what you might find hidden under the sand – those unanticipated disappearances that have only increased in value since the time they were first lost to the world. Such rediscoveries, if we would commit ourselves to look for them, can rejuvenate our faith in extraordinary ways. Even when the storms of the present age gather against us, we are made stronger, and our connection with the saints of past ages is renewed. The cloud of witnesses rejoices, the angels celebrate around the throne, and the great God who made them all smiles in radiant joy.

Jesus himself described the kind of party that takes place when even seemingly insignificant items are found again. In the age of faster download speeds and mile-long waiting lines at the Apple Store, Christians must be warned to not so easily omit the past. If we truly believe in a God who is intimately active from generation to generation – a God who restores, who values monuments and remembrances – then the ways in which we commune with him and worship him and study about him matters. We must preserve a link to those who have gone before even as we anticipate what is still to come.

"Name one other thing that would be a better use of my time right now."

“Name one other thing that would be a better use of my time right now.”

I see my father-in-law walking up the path. His shirt is speckled by the rain, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He has not found anything today, but I know his search hasn’t ended. There are limitless treasures waiting to be uncovered for those hopeful enough to look.

Within You

For The Ink Well Creative Community

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.”
-Rumi

Prompt: Write something in response to the quote.
Parameters: 15 minutes

billboard

They choose a billboard.

Though there is still thirteen years to go, they follow the instructions of their pastor. They put down a deposit and find someone to design the look of it. After this, one of the crews that changes out the facades takes that design, renders it according to the necessary materials, and a few days later the date is displayed for every northbound motorist to see – an intentional eyesore, gaudy in its size and color.

Beneath the date, in smaller letters, they offer a cryptic subject line and provide their website.

And now they wait.

In thirteen years they will fly to Israel. They will bring along suitcases packed solely out of practicality: what do you wear to a Second Coming?

They will do a little sight-seeing first. Who wouldn’t? It’s the Holy Land, after all, and they don’t expect to ever lay eyes on it again. At least not on the way it looks now, all corrupted by non-believers and heretics.

And then, on the determined day announced by the pastor who, in his adamancy, has satiated their hopes for an escape from this corrupt world, they will climb Mount Olivet (as they prefer to call it), pick a nice spot facing the once holy Holy City, and fix their eyes on the vista. They will wait to see it change. To see the clouds do something out of the ordinary. To see Someone split the sky.

And take them home.

And then, once the day ends and that which they have waited thirteen years to see does not unfold, they will look at one another, confused, heartbroken, disillusioned. Some will make concessions, suggesting an innocent glitch in their pastor’s figuring due to time zones or hemispheres. The one who endlessly quotes the Old Testament will suggest that the day the sun stood still, as recorded in the Book of Joshua, could be a reason, and they should stay put one more day to be sure. A few others will feel their hopes – both in deliverance and in the man they have called their pastor – dissolve. The pastor himself will say nothing. Not yet, anyway. Not until he can figure out how to explain himself without losing the bulk of his flock.

They will return to their home country. The deposit will expire. The billboard will revert to the company that owns it, and an advertisement for a truck stop or a local university, or perhaps just one of those “Does Advertising Work? Just Did.” signs will replace their announcement.

And one of them – at least one of them – will turn to her well-worn Bible out of despondency, to the Scriptures she has memorized and manipulated but never respected. On one sunny morning, not long after her return from the Mount, she will sit at her kitchen table, a mug of steaming coffee to her right and a journal and pen to her left, and she will read the words before her with no predetermined agenda. And for the first time in longer than she can remember, the sound of the Savior’s voice will not sound to her like the voice of the old pastor with his curmudgeonly sermons and dire predictions.

Tears will well up, because for the first time in so very long, Jesus will not sound angry or disappointed. He will sound kind. He will sound patient. He will sound like love.

In that moment at the kitchen table with the steaming mug of coffee and the morning light filling the room, he will gently remind her that hoping in his return has nothing to do with predictions and signs and best-laid plans. The escapists and code-breakers and treasure hunters go after such things. “Here it is,” they cry, though they have found nothing at all.

She will pick up the pen and write only seven words in her journal, the shortest entry it has ever received.

“The kingdom of God is within me.”

Are We Up for This?

I wonder if most believers are really interested in the salvation Jesus offers people.

Let me clarify that statement. In my last post, I wrote about the alleged difficulty of defining the term “spiritual formation.” My argument was that the difficulty only comes when we lose sight of what those two words really mean. When you look at their roots, it’s not difficult to see what we’re describing when we’re saying someone is being spiritually formed. The Spirit is at work in that person, forming him or her into something different. Something new.

But for those who think that sounds perfectly agreeable, Jim Smith, executive director of The Apprentice Institute, reminds us, “Formation involves every single aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our experiences, our relationships, our resources, our time management, our loved ones, our health, our sexuality, etc. … There is no area of our lives that is not a part of our formation process. It is not, as I used to think, a separation of sacred and secular, of spiritual and physical, but a holistic, unified endeavor.”

I’m not sure many of us are up for that kind of formation.

But that’s the kind of conversion Jesus wants to bring to us. It is a far-reaching formation – a wholesale wholeness.

feature6

By and large, though, people have stopped seeing Christianity this way, as a comprehensive transformation of body, mind and soul. Instead, we’ve portrayed a faith that is concerned only with moral behavior, or “traditional” values, or what comes after death. Christians have ceased seeing the all-inclusiveness of God’s transformative power.

I’m a Spiritual Person

I’m a fan of modernity. As a former teacher of American literature, I didn’t think the curriculum became fun until we hit the 20th century. However, with the modernization of the West came the tendency to relegate “spirituality” to one facet of what we began to think of as a multifaceted existence. Those who wanted to maintain belief in the supernatural – in that Something beyond ourselves – nonetheless compartmentalized that perspective in such a way that “the things of the Spirit” gradually began to lose influence over the other aspects of our lives. As modernism permeated the culture, our identities began to look like a region full of autonomous city-states. The social/relational sphere of our lives won its independence from all the others, as did the vocational/financial sphere, the familial sphere, the emotional sphere, the physical sphere, and so on. Sure, there has always been interaction between all of these various parts of our identity, but people are quick to guard the self-sovereignty of each one.

Pictured: Our identities.

Pictured: Our identities.

A perfect example of this is the all-too-common referral to being “a spiritual person” (many professing Christians included). Rarely are these people referring to a tangible, active presence – or Spirit – at work in their lives. Rather, what they are describing is a more self-seeking posture that feeds off of feelings we can’t easily name but still enjoy. Modern spirituality has become an amorphous pursuit – a hobby easily tailored according to each person’s preferences. Because of this, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who claims to be very “spiritual” but whose other spheres of life seem mostly unaffected by that spirituality.

This was not the kind of spiritual formation Jesus was referring to when, in Gethsemane, he promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming.

All the Fullness of God

Likewise, there’s a moment in the middle of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he expresses what his prayers are for them, a church he so dearly loves. Having challenged them to recognize that the mysteries of God have finally been revealed in Jesus, and that this revelation changes everything, he writes the following:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

If Facebook were around in the first century, Paul would have been that annoying friend who always posts longwinded prayers in his status updates.

Paul was referring to a transformation that affected every aspect of a person’s existence. So was Jesus, when he said he came that we “may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Thus, the salvation offered by Jesus is not found in laying down only one sphere of my identity, but when I relinquish them all. Jesus is not the Lord of only the spiritual parts of my life. He is the Master of it all – my social interactions, my job and finances, my family, my emotions, my physical health, and so on. Jesus understood that just as we are not created in part but in whole, our recreation must happen the same way. Salvation is all or nothing.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Amen, Yoda. Amen.

Sure, there will be times when our rationalism causes us to doubt even a good and beautiful God, and we feel a need to hold something back. But this is why Paul’s prayer included a plea “to know this love that surpasses knowledge” – that our doubts would not lead to self-reliance, and our minds would be transformed alongside everything else. That by surrendering, we would learn surrender.

Simple, Not Easy

Like I said, I’m not sure we’re interested in that kind of salvation.

The Gospel is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. We understand that by our own efforts we cannot save ourselves. Our healing and wholeness requires an act of God, and that act was Jesus. Believing this is simple enough. But responding to it is not so easy.

The problem for those who stop at mere belief is that salvation requires belief and response. What kind of response? Oh, just the relinquishing of every element of control you enjoy over your existence. Just the surrender of every sphere of your life into the hands of Another.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Amen, Neo. Amen.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Definitely not.

Maybe this is why so many of the most powerful stories of transformation we hear – the ones that stick in our minds long after we’ve listened to their telling – are the ones in which people surrendered their lives to Jesus after their lives became a complete wreck. They were at the end of their rope, the candle was flickering, the water was almost over their heads, there was nothing left to live for … and that’s when Jesus changed everything.

Perhaps too many of us still feel like we have something worth living for – a sphere of life we’ve arranged too much to our liking. Even if its not perfect, we’d rather keep things as they are than risk what might change if it were devoted to God.

I wonder why that is.

I’ve heard a lot of ministers complain that people are just too lazy to really seek after formation. But what if laziness isn’t our core problem?  What if our problem is bad theology? I mean, do we or do we not believe that God is good? That he is generous and trustworthy? That he desires the best for us, and that he has promised to daily care for us?

Because, if we really believe those things, what on earth has prevented us from responding?

The Answer in the Question

I’m two months into a new position at a new church. That position is Minister of Spiritual Formation. Apparently, the title isn’t self-explanatory, because upon introducing myself to church members, I am often asked to explain what exactly I do at the church.

Now, the puffed-up, self-centered part of me wants to balk at such questions, and the cynic in me wants to scoff and say, “What do you mean? Do you ask the music minister or the youth minister to explain what it is they do?” But, at the same time, the realist in me just gets anxious.

"Whatever happened to a simple "'preciate ya'" and a handshake?"

“Whatever happened to a simple “‘preciate ya'” and a handshake?”

Here’s why. Several years ago, I remember sitting in an interview with a church’s search team and being asked essentially the same question. The woman who asked it had done her homework on me; from where I sat across the conference table, I could see her detailed notes written into the margins of my resume, a legal pad replete with questions she considered asking me, and underneath that a black, three-ring binder containing photocopies of several posts from my blog. Perusing these for a few seconds, she looked back up at me and said, “You write a lot in your blog about ‘spiritual formation.’ It seems like that term comes up a lot. I was just wondering, what is spiritual formation?”

I remember feeling simultaneously excited and apprehensive by her question.

Excited, because this was one of the first interview questions that had to do with my personal convictions and interests in ministry (as opposed to programs I had started and events I had planned), and it would be refreshing to speak to a deeper level of what it means to be a minister.

Apprehensive, because I was hardly prepared to give a succinct and comprehensive answer to her question.

"Uhhhh... no comment?"

“Uhhhh… no comment?”

You see, at the time “spiritual formation” was still somewhat of a nebulous concept to me, despite however many times the term found its way onto my blog or into my lessons. It was something I was profoundly interested in, of course, but also something that intimidated me as much as it inspired me. I was convinced I wanted to focus on it in my ministry, both in philosophy and practical direction, but despite collecting several books on the subject, I was still unsure how to work with, in, and toward spiritual formation.

Still, it is not like me to forego offering my opinion on anything. So when this woman asked her question, I let very little silence fall before I opened my mouth to speak. However, another person on the search committee beat me to answering. He said quickly and dismissively, “It’s just another word for ‘discipleship.'”

His answer threw me off, and I slowly closed my mouth. It’s tricky enough to respond to the open-ended question, “What is spiritual formation?” Explaining the error in confusing it with discipleship, especially in the context of a job interview, is a whole other level of difficulty.

"Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness."

“Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness.”

The Hunt for a Good Definition

I learned two things in that interview. The first was that it is not uncommon to encounter long-time, active church members who have little idea what spiritual formation is. The second was that I was one of them.

Defining spiritual formation is not necessarily a hard thing to do. People have been offering their elucidations on the term for quite some time. (Jim Smith just wrote a great series of posts covering it from every angle.) However, because every person whom the Spirit forms is a unique individual woven together by an elaborate and distinctive collection of characteristics, attributes and idiosyncrasies, sometimes the only definition that seems to truly fit is the one you craft yourself.

How pompous can you be, Merriam-Webster?

You don’t know everything, Merriam-Webster.

After the interview, I at least knew where not to start. I knew spiritual formation was not simply another term for discipleship. The two are intimately related, for sure, but even my limited understanding cried out against belittling either term by calling it a mere synonym of the other.

I decided to start with defining discipleship, something that did not intimidate me as much. Oddly enough, it was this endeavor that led me to an answer for the other.

Defining discipleship seemed easy enough; I just looked more closely at its root word: disciple. Once I cleared away the cobwebs of antiquated Christianese words that were part of my small town Baptist church upbringing – words like “discipleship training” and “church discipline” and “Disciple Now Weekend” – I was able to return to the original meaning of the word. From the Greek mathetes, meaning learner, pupil or apprentice, it was often used to describe the students of a rabbi, and in the case of the Gospels, this means Jesus. Rabbinic disciples were meant to learn from their teacher, to emulate them in every way possible, and, eventually, to carry on that rabbi’s teachings – also known as their rabbi’s “yoke” – as a formative part of their own.

If this is not the very example provided us by the likes of Peter, James and John, I don’t know what is.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

So, if discipleship is the commitment to being a disciple, and being a disciple means emulating one’s teacher, then Christian discipleship simply means, as one of his disciples wrote, “walking as Jesus did,” and another added, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is both the example and the focal point for our thoughts, words and actions.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was all right there in the word itself. It wasn’t complicated.

The Title Is Self-Explanatory

Naturally, this led me to reconsider the term “spiritual formation,” taking again the root word – or, in this case, the root words. “Spirit” and “forms.” I was struck by the fact that these two words alone was almost a workable sentence in itself. Spirit forms. What is more, it sounded as much like a declaration as it did a reminder. In John 16, Jesus declares that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth. And every time I try to arrange and organize and methodize my life so that I might feel like a more effective person, my inevitable shortcomings bring God’s reminder: “No, Bo. The Spirit forms. Not you.”

This, then, must be the first step toward any measure of spiritual formation. There must be the element of surrender. I’ve heard some people describe the concept as a “pursuit of God,” but spiritual formation is not about us chasing after God. Rather, we are the ones who lay down our arms – the dependencies and life structures that rival his promised provision – and wave the white flag. It is not us creeping closer to God’s territory, but rather God invading our once guarded spaces. If it is a pursuit, it is a pursuit of man by the Holy Spirit.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

This is similar to discipleship. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, that person had to deny himself. This doesn’t mean that discipleship and spiritual formation are the same, but it doesn’t reveal that an essential element of the Christian life is the relinquishing of control over our abilities and circumstances.

The difference between the two is that discipleship is the commitment we make to follow Jesus according to his call. Spiritual formation is what takes place once that following begins, when the Spirit begins its transformative work in our hearts and minds.

So, what exactly does a Minister of Spiritual Formation do?

If I’m shepherding a person effectively, then I am helping him understand the principle common to both experiences – that it isn’t all about him. A minister attends to the needs of others, so I’m reminding him that he doesn’t need the worship service to conform to his preferences. That his Bible study doesn’t need to utilize his favorite curriculum. That fellow church members don’t need to think and act the way he feels they should.

"Again with the rattlesnakes?! I really think he should use more copperheads! They much more aesthetically pleasing."

“Again with the rattlesnakes?! Copperheads are much more aesthetically pleasing, Pastor.”

I tell him that what is truly needed is something only God can give. And, if I do this well, he learns to accept that the community of God is something larger and grander than his own imagination’s limits. He comes to see it is infused by a very big and very beautiful God who has a purpose and an agenda so much greater than any one mind can grasp.

A Minister of Spiritual Formation provides opportunities upon opportunities that challenge people to experience the grandeur of God. I’m pointing them to ministries and programs and events and studies not simply because that’s what going to church is all about, but because these things hold the potential to reveal how, as Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

It’s not always the easiest thing to explain, but not everything has to be easy to explain. When people hear my job title and ask me what I do, I’ve stopped sweating the question. Instead, I smile and tell them, “I make sure people aren’t so focused on their own lives that they forget they’re a part of something much, much greater.”

It may not be the answer they are expecting, or the one that clarifies things the way they were hoping when they asked the question. I’ve only been here two months, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do when it comes to helping people live into their own definitions.

But when it comes to explaining spiritual formation to someone, I’ve decided that is as much the Spirit’s job as it is mine.

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 2)

Working in the area of spiritual formation, I often find that once a person discovers (or returns to) the foundation upon which being a Christian is based, he or she quickly begins to operate more and more like an idealist.

After all, when you get right down to it, Christians are meant to be idealists. The sum and substance of our faith is rooted in dynamic, unswerving idealism. For instance, truly committed Christians believe collective duty trumps individual aspiration. They believe personal comfort must never be prioritized above the greater good of a community. Simply put, as often as it is pertinent to do so, committed Christians put others first.

Others-first behavior is not necessarily what makes Christians unique, though. Any Christian who claims it is insults a multitude of people – non-Christians and non-believers – who also believe strongly in the virtues of selflessness and compassion for fellow human beings.

For example, that "love your neighbor as yourself" line originated with these guys.

For example, that “love your neighbor as yourself” line originated with these guys.

However, the difference between Christians who put others first and a non-believers who do the same is that the Christians who act selflessly and compassionately do so out of theological conviction. They believe that these are the characteristics of the God who has saved them. Now, I’ve actually heard some skeptics criticize Christian charity as somehow less pure because it is not proactive but reactive – meaning it is performed out of duty to a directive. The misconception is that such virtue is less genuine/effective because it is done in response to a divine command, whereas the charity of non-believers comes solely from uncoerced human decency, making it nobler. But this kind of criticism is absurd! It’s akin to claiming an enlisted soldier’s patriotism is less genuine than a politician’s because the soldier is commanded to serve his country whereas the politician freely decides to do so.

The only real difference between these two forms of charity is the ideal that drives the act. For the Christian, the ideal that compels acts of charity for our fellow human beings is a God whom we believe modeled this very behavior, and then commanded us to do the same (John 13:34-35, 14:12). For the skeptic, the ideal that compels acts of charity is found in an undefined ought-ness. While it is no less effective, it is based on a fluctuating perception on what is the right thing to do, or what makes a person feel most satisfied.

"These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn't been donated by Christians."

“These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn’t been donated by Christians.”

A Sense of Something

I believe this is why the Church is still alive and well in our society today, despite droves of so-called “members” who have lost sight of (or never originally discovered) the foundation of this faith. The Church is still hanging in there because idealism is not instinct, because everyone wants to be inspired by something. We are naturally wired to fix our eyes on some kind of ideal – something on which to base our lives.

Sometime a person might have trouble naming exactly what that ideal is, but they nonetheless believe in the power of it.

There’s a scene from The West Wing in which a plucky young Republican lawyer is offered a job in a Democratic administration. After initially rejecting the offer, she changes her mind when she witnesses the employees’ idealistic dedication to their jobs. However, her particular brand of politics leaves many of those same people bewildered as to why she would even want to work with them. Her new supervisor, disgruntled at her presence in the office, presses her to explain her reason for accepting the job. Frustrated, she blurts out, “I feel a sense of duty.”

Her supervisor growls that her statement sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. However, the beauty of the episode is that many of the people who initially view this Republican as an enemy not to be trusted gradually recognize a deeper sense of … something (duty? honor? conviction?) that binds them all together. What unites them is revealed to be greater than what divides them.

It’s actually a really great scene. I recommend taking 2 1/2 minutes and watching it here:

I believe that people want to be inspired – that we all long for a “sense of duty” to drive us and give our lives purpose and transcendent meaning. I believe we want an ideal we can believe in and that we can commit our lives to. And I believe the kind of ideal we’re really looking for is one that will not fade away – one which cannot fail (even if we fail to live up to it).

This is why I do what I do. Because I believe that kind of ideal is not simply taught by a guy named Jesus – it is embodied by him. If it is true that every person longs to know purpose and to experience a sense of significance in this world, then the message of Jesus Christ is truly for every person.

The Greater Good of a Great God

Interestingly, this is the message our world is currently witnessing in the figure of Pope Francis. He is not only living out his idealistic belief. He is showing people that they matter – that there is hope and purpose in this life, and that God – the ultimate ideal, full of love and truth – has ordered things in such a way that we can catch sight of this hope in and through the lives of his followers.

Why is Francis preaching messages of pacifism and peacemaking and compassion for those who suffer? Why is he continually calling for prayer for Ukraine and Syria and Israel/Palestine? Is it simply because that’s what religious people do (or are supposed to do, because our dogma demands it)? Or is it because there is an ideal that compels all people – from lonely individuals to whole continents – to strive for greater and greater levels of selflessness and compassion?

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

I’ll end this examination of Christian idealism with a story that happened very recently. In it we see what it looks like when people – particularly Christians – lose sight of the ideal established by God and perfectly modeled by Jesus Christ, as well as what it looks like when truly committed Christians keep that ideal firmly in mind.

You may remember a particularly distressing debacle regarding the Christian-based advocacy organization, World Vision. In the fall of 2013, the company changed its hiring policy, choosing to no longer bar homosexual individuals from employment. However, when the decision was leaked and Christianity Today reported on it the following March, droves of conservative evangelicals collectively threw a ginormous hissy fit. There were immediate calls for a boycott, and thousands of Christians terminated their sponsorship. After only two days, approximately 5000 child sponsors had ceased their relationship with World Vision; later estimates reported that somewhere around 10,000 children had been hung out to dry because of the drop in financial support. Forty-eight hours after the story broke, Richard Stearns, the organization’s president, announced that they had decided to nix the policy change. Sadly, since then, only a small fraction of sponsorships have been renewed.

However, one group of believers not only maintained their sponsorships, but chose to act further out of faithfulness to the ideal set before them by Jesus. This church, where a friend of mine serves as pastor, decided to literally put their money where their mouths were. They decided that they would not – could not – stand by and watch child after child be rejected like an unwanted newspaper subscription. Through social media, e-mails, letters and phone calls, they made it clear that they were willing to take on the financial responsibilities of every child that had lost his or her sponsorship. They claimed that while it was one thing to disagree with World Vision’s decision (a decision that had even been reversed), it was a whole other thing to withhold education and medical care – not to mention the Gospel – from an innocent child because of that disagreement. In other words, there was something much greater at stake.

Pictured: "the least of these brothers of mine" (Matthew 25:40)

Pictured: “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:40)

We have been given an ideal that surpasses all others. We have been called to live unto a sense of duty instilled in us by a God who is living and active and on the move in this world. Let us never forget the deeper sense of something that binds us all together. Let us never lose sight of the greater good to which we have been called. As the writer of Hebrews encourages, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”