For us in 2020 we are in a different sort of wilderness. Things are not the same as they have been in the world, in our families, in our neighborhoods or our churches—and there’s no telling what things will look like in the future. On top of the pandemic we’re dealing with political division, economic uncertainty, and the heightened awareness of racial injustice where many continue to lament, long for, hope, and work for change.
Many of us as individuals and communities have experienced other times of wilderness in our lives, as well.
The remembrance we practice in these times is not always cheery and optimistic. Gratitude in the wilderness is a hard fought practice. It recognizes and gives thanks for what God has done in the past, cries out in pain for the way things are now, and calls God to act in the present in accordance with how God has in the past.
So when life gets hard and times get dark and confusing, remember how God has been at work in your life, in your family’s life, and in the life of your community in the past. Continue to give thanks for it. Cling to it. Be a witness, pass it along, and hold each other up.
And do the difficult work to look for where God is at work in the present.
If you were to choose a biblical motif to attach to this year, I suppose you cannot do much better than wilderness.
Hill is right: the people of God have always been a community of memory and remembrance, witness and testimony. We look back. We look around. We look ahead. We learn how to do this in and through the biblical story.
The biblical story provides us with markers, clues, schema, ways of understanding and meaning making, ways to make sense of what is taking place in our present moment. The biblical story, as has been said, is not only something to look at but to look through. As God has been faithful in the past, God is now faithful in the present, and will be again in the future, for God is eternal, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Without being glib or dismissive, without minimizing present sufferings, without diminishing the hurts and burdens we’ve endured this year, look for those things for which we can be thankful, both great and small, and name those things with gratitude, giving thanks to God.
Birding can be an expression of the spiritual exercise known as creation awareness, the intentional and thoughtful contemplation of occurrences in the natural world as evidences of the handiwork of God. That’s one approach. Another is to consider the natural world and ask God to provide wisdom through the encounter. The Bible is filled with example, such as what can be gleaned through contemplation of the ant.
Each time Laity Lodge releases a new short film I long to go and experience it for myself. The closest I came was earlier this year, but: COVID. I’ve never been. One day. One day.
Children when you come to my silent grave to see where your lifeless mother was laid, remember how I loved you and how I worked and labored and patiently waited on you. But remember this grave can’t always hold this lifeless body of your mother, but when Christ, who is my life shall appear, that this lifeless mother, the body of mine, shall appear with Him in glory.
Children, my labor of works and patience of love, I leave with you. Be at peace among yourselves. Behold the love of Jesus.
This is the grave marker of Dora L. Keith, born October 5, 1871, and died February 16, 1917. She is buried in the Round Grove Cemetery, Dublin, Texas.
Dora Keith was my great-great-grandmother. She died when my great-grandmother, Nellie Hazzard, the youngest of her eight children, was six years old.
Dora Keith knew she was dying. She wrote this letter while living, addressing her children. Her convictions fortified her in the face of death. Her hope was in Christ. Her final exhortation, “Behold the love of Jesus,” are words of deep wisdom. To know of and about Jesus is one thing, and a good thing, at that, but to behold him and his love has the power to transform us.
This memorial now stands as a testimony to me, her great-great-grandson over a century later. It also stands as a testimony to you. Above, we read an allusion to Colossians 3:4, which in the King James Version says, “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” She clung to hope in the resurrection. I do, too.
When it comes to suffering, it is part of our Christian culture to want to know God’s purpose beforehand. In the history of the Christian church, the tendency has been to avoid being identified with the sufferings of Jesus Christ. People have sought to carry out God’s orders through a shortcut of their own. God’s way is always the way of suffering— the way of the “long road home.”
Are we partakers of Christ’s sufferings? Are we prepared for God to stamp out our personal ambitions? Are we prepared for God to destroy our individual decisions by supernaturally transforming them? It will mean not knowing why God is taking us that way, because knowing would make us spiritually proud. We never realize at the time what God is putting us through— we go through it more or less without understanding. Then suddenly we come to a place of enlightenment, and realize— “God has strengthened me and I didn’t even know it!”
I’m the kind of guy who usually prefers a quiet night with a fire in the hearth and my family under my roof, good music coming through the speakers and a good book nearby. But the following argument for the full dinner party (as opposed to a cocktail party) by Robert Farrar Capon, outlined in The Supper of the Lamb [affiliate link], is one I want to remember.
1. The Session: Creating a Company
The dinner party, Capon writes:
[I]s an honest attempt to create a company, not a crowd. Persons matter at the table. We sit in real and estimable places marked with the most precious and intimate device we have: our names. Harry sits next to Martha not because he wandered to her side out of whim or loneliness but because, in his host’s loving regard, he is Harry and she is Martha, and that is where they belong. Place cards may be pretentious (they are, in any case, a dispensable formality); but assignment to place by name is the host’s announcement that he cares. I always take it as a compliment when a good man tells me where he wants me to sit.
He has, you see, been willing to take me on as God takes me–as a risk. He pays me the supreme tribute of putting himself in my power. The giver of a cocktail party is a man who hedges his bets and cops out of the dangers of entertaining. He requires nothing of his guests but their physical presence. If they turn out to be untempered duds or ill-tempered boors, it is no skin off his nose: They can simply find their own corner of outer darkness and fall apart any way they like. But when he sits me down at his table, he declares himself willing to let me into his life. He puts me into my place; but he also puts me in a position to make or break his party as I will. It is no small boldness; if you have such friends, treasure them.
2. Better Food, Service, and a Place to Sit
Capon calls the dinner party “merciful where the cocktail party is not.” He writes:
It provides us with better food, more attractive service, and, beneath it all, a seat to sit on. But it provides more than that. Early in the book I defied place as a Session, a meeting, a confrontation–of real beings. The old descriptions of heaven as the celestial banquet, the supper of eternal life, the endless convivium, hit close to the truth. Nowhere more than in good and formal company do we catch the praegustatum, the foretaste of what is in store for us.
3. A Proclamation of the Abundance of Being
A great meal is a chance to celebrate the goodness and glory of creation. Capon says:
Last, the dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being–a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us. It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight. Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls, the formal dinner for six, eight, or ten chosen guests, the true convivium–the long Session that brings us nearly home.
I recently finished Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove [affiliate link], a novel I heartily recommend. I didn’t want it to end. Augustus McCrae, a philosopher, warrior, Texas Ranger and restless romantic, is now one of my favorite characters in literature. Here is a passage I enjoyed, an invitation to silence:
That night Augustus stopped to rest his horse, making a cold camp on a little bluff and eating some jerky he had brought along. He was in the scrubby post-oak country near the Brazos and from his bluff he could see far across the moonlit valleys.
It struck him that he had forgotten emptiness such as existed in the country that stretched around him. After all, for years he had lived within the sound of the piano from the Dry Bean, the sound of the church bell in the little Lonesome Dove church, the sound of Bol whacking the dinner bell. He even slept within the sound of Pea Eye’s snoring, which was as regular as the ticking of a clock.
But here there was no sound, not any. The coyotes were silent, the crickets, the locusts, the owls. There was only the sound of his own horse grazing. From him to the stars, in all directions, there was only silence and emptiness. Not the talk of men over their cards, nothing. Though he had ridden hard he felt strangely rested, just from the silence.
I read this passage not long after being on a silent retreat, but even there I could hear the sounds of a nearby highway, ongoing construction, the comings and goings of families, children playing soccer, the hum of electricity, the blowing of an air conditioner, the creaking of doorways, the flushing of toilets.
But at least for a moment, through the reading of a novel, I could imagine a deeper silence, and long for it.
The rite for Holy Baptism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer contains a series of renunciations:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.
But in the old 1662 book, the whole matter is conveyed more tersely:
Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh; so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them? I renounce them all.
I love that: “I renounce them all.” All that crap, totally renounce it, no exceptions. I’m done with every bit of it. RENOUNCE.
Back in 2009, I found myself in a seminar with Smith during a Renovare’ conference in San Antonio. Jim told us, “Tonight, when you go to your hotel, I want you to pray the 23rd psalm as you fall asleep. Don’t set an alarm. Sleep until you wake up, even if that results in your being late to our morning session.”
Sleep is a Need, Not a Luxury
When we’re sleep deprived, our lives don’t work right. Sleep deprivation has physical effects. And those physical effects have emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual consequences. The various dimensions of the human person are connected.
At one time or another, you’ve probably thought that if only you could sleep less, you’d get so much more done. Or that you could just borrow time by sleeping one hour less tonight and one more hour tomorrow night. As enticing as these may seem, they’re not borne out by research. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example going to be late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.
p. 189, emphasis mine
Levitin’s book is focused on brain science and how we deal with information overload. A big way we can help our brains keep things straight is by organizing our time, activity, and environment in ways that support cognitive well-being. This includes how we schedule sleep.
Regular Sleep is Good Stewardship
The implications for the spiritual life are plain. Jim Smith is right: sleep is cornerstone exercise for the training of the soul. As human beings we are finite and limited. But God is not. Each time we lay down to rest, we trust God to care for us and watch over us during the night. We also trust, and welcome, that moment when God raises us up for another day to serve, to grow, and to walk in relationship with God and others.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Jesus, Matthew 16:24-26
Christians believe there is only one person to whom we can surrender, to whom we can cede authority, giving that person everything, and who, in return, offers us gain that cannot be taken away. Jesus is that person. To acknowledge God as God means conceding we are not God.
Formation in Christlikeness depends on surrender; failure to surrender is a sickness unto death; I cannot find rest until I surrender; I am exchanging a lesser for a greater; and giving what I cannot keep in exchange for what I cannot lose is wise, not foolish. Deep reflection on these realities goes a long way toward helping me choose to take up my cross and die to myself.
Some surrender to cultural pressures, social pressures, familial pressures, or fashionable pursuits of money, sex, or power. Surrender to Christ instead. Only in him will you find an eternal, inexhaustible gain, a life that truly is life.
Over the summer months our office revisits our past year of experiences in Truett’s Spiritual Formation courses. We review student feedback and think about our core objectives and overall approach. The courses have different components, and different points of focus within each component. Keeping everything clear is a challenge.
For the coming year, we’ve designated three primary spaces in each course: Teaching, Covenant Group, and Canvas.
The teaching space is led by an instructor, either Professor Angela Reed or myself, and is focused on the application and practice of spiritual formation concepts and ideas in the life of the leader and the life of the community. Not only are we teaching key spiritual disciples and a theology of spiritual formation, we are helping students make connections to their lived experiences as disciples of Jesus as leaders and as part of the body of Christ. The key questions here are: “How does my understanding of spiritual formation and commitment to spiritual practices shape me as a leader?” and “How do these concepts and practices shape the life of the Christian community?”
The covenant group space is led by mentors. Covenant groups are subgroups within each spiritual formation course and consist of five to eight students. These groups focus on the spiritual disciples (or practices) and their experiences with those practices, building relationships in Christian fellowship, and providing accountability for one another.
Canvas is our designated space for written assignments and online community. In the online tool, Canvas, associated with our course, we use discussion prompts and discussion boards to invite student to reflect on their experiences and their reading, and to interact with one another after submitting an initial response. Our mentors and instructors also interact with students in this space.
In an effort to better explain the spiritual formation process, we’ve also created two more visual diagrams that represent differences in approaching the spiritual life from grace-based and guilt-motivated frameworks. First I’ll explain the guilt-motivated framework, and then I’ll say a few words about our grace-based perspective.
In our conversations with students and in our experiences in ministry, we’ve found that many have adopted a guilt-motivated approach to the spiritual life, one that is rooted in misunderstandings of the Christian gospel and subtle (and sometimes overt) shifts toward a works-righteousness way of sanctification. Students are often clear that they are justified by grace, but struggle to see how grace continues to be the dynamism at play in spiritual growth.
Years ago I heard John Ortberg give a talk wherein he talked about a guilt spiral, an approach to the spiritual life where people hear about various ways of connecting with God and, after being compelled, they give it a try. After trying a while, they get tired and fail, and as a result they quit. But then as time passes and they hear more sermons and exhortations to be “doing” certain things, the guilt accrues and becomes too much to bear, and as a result trying begins again, only to repeat the whole cycle over again, spiraling down and down in defeat.
A guilt-motivation approach to spirituality, given enough time, deadens the soul. We need an alternative, a way of approaching the spiritual life that is undergirded, informed, and animated by grace. It is God working in and through us, even as we commit and decide to follow after Jesus Christ.
Professor Reed speaks about this process as a spiral, and our key words recast our understanding of growth.
First, we commit to act. We do the things that Jesus has called us to do. This draws together many streams within the Christian tradition, including the contemplative and activist streams. Our actions are done in response to the calling of Jesus and in line with our tradition.
After taking action, we reflect on what took place. What did we think? How did we feel? What happened? What went right? What went terribly wrong? What was helpful? What was unhelpful? Where was God? Where were the points of resistance? What adjustments are possible? What did I discover about myself?
Then, we learn. We pay attention to our answers and make note of our new knowledge, which includes knowledge of God, self, and our world.
Finally, we refine. We look ahead to our next action–whether it be prayer, fasting, service, sabbath, or some other action taken with God–and prepare to engage from our new point of growth.
This process also spirals, but in a virtuous way. Experience deepens and knowledge deepens.
Our models are in process. We’re constantly listening and discerning and seeking new and better ways to connect truths about the spiritual life to our students as they find themselves today. But these models are a good start, a good foundation, and reflect concepts that we will explore in the year to come.