I’ve been thinking lately about what I may or may not have learned from a master’s degree in Spiritual Formation and Leadership I completed last year. Firstly, even upon writing that just now I am forced to admit that this is the kind of degree my parents warned me against. I can just hear them now, “spiritual formation! What the hell is that gonna get ya?” They would have strongly objected to something so…kumbaya and huggy (well, I did just blow out the candles after all). Perhaps time will tell what scraps there may have been in this sentiment. Secondly, who would ever, willingly and in good conscience, juxtapose the words “master” with “spiritual formation” anyway? A rather self-aggrandizing move, don’t you think? It is akin to proclaiming with assurance the attainment of humility. The assertion in itself denies the reality. Thirdly, the words “completed” and “spiritual formation” also do not belong together. How do I know this? I learned it in my degree. Well, actually, I kind of figured that one out all on my own, but…just sayin’.
Briefly, here are a few things I really did learn.
I cannot manage this earthly sojourn on my own. This truth is not self-evident, especially in our own machoistic, John Wayne individualism prevalent in America. The bulk of my degree was done online. Before you roll your eyes at the idea of either spiritual formation or community online, let me assure you that…it works. I, too, was skeptical. However, to this day I find myself pining for the nearness of the other dear souls who shared this journey with me. They are who I am becoming. I’m really happy about that because they are some of the most remarkable pilgrims I’ve ever met. The wobbly sensibility I sometimes sense in my daily insufficiency is ample reminder of their strengthening role in my life.
Spiritual formation is God’s gig. One might think this to be self-evident. The spiritual life has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a result, I’ve read all the right books, heard all the right voices, tried all the best disciplines, sat at all the right feet, and been to all the right conferences. After all that, I’ve come away with this single truth: spiritual formation is God’s gig. God is busy, not dormant; active, not passive. God is good, not evil. The math tells me then that God, who is both busy and good, plays a central role in who I am and am becoming. Phew.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Related to the last one is this: no matter how “good” I think I get at this whole spiritual journey, Christ is, from first to last, the central figure in my formation. And Jesus shows one powerful, over-arching truth: God is love, expressed through grace. I enter poor and naked. I remain poor and naked, but loved and forgiven. This singular truth has radically altered my understanding about my “worth” in the tricky, and often dangerous, process of change. I will always come before God with a boat load of crap, both known and unknown. Therefore, since it’s about grace, and I’m not fooling God anyway, why not hang out with God all the same? I like that idea. Alot.
Faith is about mystery, not certainty. Since the Renaissance, and baptized at the Enlightenment, we have been on a self-congratulatory trajectory of humanism. The humanist manifesto: God is cool, but we’re pretty cool too and, with enough data, we can nail down this whole God thing (or perhaps scrap it altogether, whichever serves us better). Really. If that is so, why is it that we still hold to such desperately bad behavior as a species? Even our doctrine belies our self-love since it has been conveniently boiled down to a science; the data of God. Believe this stuff, sign on the dotted line and keep on being self-congratulatory fools. It’s working really well…right? I’m happier and more fulfilled in my life with God now that I’ve given up on the crazy idea that, the longer I walk with God, the more certain I will become about everything.
There are only beginners. Spiritual formation really is the epitome of the law of diminishing returns, at least as far as understanding is concerned. The deeper we go into Christ, the larger he becomes. The more one learns the less one knows. The more grace we need, the more grace we encounter. The more we love, the more we need to love. The more we have, the less we own…and so on. Catholic priest, psychologist and writer, Henri Nouwen tells us that, as we “progress” in the spiritual life, we enshrine an educated not knowing. Bummer. Beautiful.
It’s about the cross. Jesus on the cross portrays everything we need to know about the heart of God. God-with-us (Jesus) lived a life that always led to death, both metaphoric and real. Love and discipleship lead to sacrificial self-giving. Man, do we ever need that message in our culture! Richard Rohr insists that “Jesus is insistent that the way to God is the way of the cross. It’s not the prosperity Gospel of “the American Dream” with a little icing of Christ over the top.” Ouch and Amen.
The end of it all is…love.This should also be self-evident, right? However, the fundamentalists in our midst get particularly nervous when we use terms not easily “proven” or “quantifiable” as love. I mean, that messes with the whole idea of holiness and right understanding of the bible, right? Besides, it’s too easy to simply redefine love to mean something all mushy and squishy like them damn liberals! Perhaps. Hands up: how many of you know when you’re not loved? Yeah, me too. Again, I think we’re over-thinking something very simple and elemental. If it feels like hate…it probably is. To “believe” in Jesus is not just to say, “hey, I now have all the facts before me and, yes, I can buy into that.” To believe is to live as Jesus lived, come what may. It’s the whole package, mind, heart, soul, body…bowels as the King James would say.
That pretty much sums it up. The rest is details…