I personally love to learn about, think about, read about, talk about spiritual formation. It’s a popular topic today, I understand that. I don’t want to be involved with this because it’s fashionable. Rather I’m drawn to it because of how my life is being transformed.
Spiritual formation, at its foundation, is about the forming of Christ in us by the Spirit of God. Eugene Peterson identifies it as such in his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. He notes it is “primarily what the Spirit does, forming the resurrection life of Christ in us.”
I believe one key aspect of spiritual formation is the call to slow down. Spiritual formation will be nearly impossible if we are constantly on the run, in a hurry.
We live in a world – both outside and inside the church – that calls us to do more and do it faster. And do it flashy as well.
Christian spiritual formation calls for us to slow our pace.
Not only does this formation by the Spirit into the life of Christ call us to slow down, it also calls us to take up a long perspective. While there may be “heightened” moments, our formation takes a very long time. Matter of fact, it takes a lifetime.
I’ve recently begun a Peterson work (can you tell I appreciate his writings?) – A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. The thrust of the book is how we might walk out our formation, our discipleship, and do so with the long-haul in mind.
Here are some words from the opening chapter:
One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.
Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent to religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen, faith healing, human potential, parapsychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything—until something else comes along. (p15-16, bold mine)
Remember, spiritual formation, at its core, beckons us to slow down.
This formation by the Spirit also invites us to not flock to the instantaneous, but to step into a long journey. A long obedience in the same direction.
I don’t know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the aspect of world that makes the work of leading Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as “today’s passion for the immediate and the casual.” Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach and teach, want shortcuts. They want me to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide. I have no interest in telling apocryphal religious stories at and around dubiously identified sacred sites. The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity, wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” It is this “long obedience in the same direction” which the mood of the world does so much to discourage. (p16-17).
It’s interesting how Peterson takes up the idea of the “tourist mindset” when reflecting on spiritual formation in the church today. Many are interested more in the “high points” and not the regular places and spaces of the journey. We literally want the highs.
I am reminded about a time when I enrolled in a Geography class at my college one summer. Riveting, I know! I found an intriguing map in the textbook for the class. This map explored how popular Elvis was in the varying counties across the US. The more red, the more popular he was.
Interestingly enough, the county in which the city of Memphis lies was not red. It was a shade of orange, denoting a lower popularity level for Elvis right in his hometown.
Of course, people in the Memphis area are interested in much more than Graceland. I’ve been to Elvis’s home a few times, but I’ve been to many more places many more times during my three-plus decades in Memphis. It’s not the tourist sites that greatly interest me. I’m generally taken up with the the whole of my city.
Spiritual formation is about the whole of the journey, not just those special attractions.
The opening chapter of Peterson’s book ends with this thought from novelist William Faulkner: A monument only says, “At least I got this far,” while a footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”
These words really gripped me.
Footprints over monuments.
That is something to chew on.
We are on a journey, walking an “ancient path,” as Jeremiah relays (6:16). I’m not opposed to monuments, those “Ebenezer stones,” as we might call them (1 Sam 7). But they only make up a few moments in life. We are rather walking at a slow pace in this thing called life and we will spend the better part of 80 years being formed into the image of Christ.
Spiritual formation takes a long time. Spiritual formation takes a lifetime.
Don’t just look at the attractions; don’t take up the ways of the tourist. Slow down and remember the footprints. Move in the long obedience in the same direction.