Spiritual Formation

Following the ‘Deception of The Thrush’

Burnt Norton I of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets takes the reader through a sobering reflection upon time and perception of reality. It’s bookmarked by two philosophical reflections upon time’s relativity in relation to the present. After the first, the reader is taken into a walk through the rose garden, chasing illusive echoes, guided by an deceptive songbird. The echoes are false but charming, contradictions in their essence: a box circle, an empty pool filled with water our of sunlight. A passing cloud brings the reader back to reality and again reflecting upon the weight of the present moment.

Eliot’s poem has the capacity to bring the reader to our own rose gardens, passing its cloud over us, and forcing us to “bear” reality. How often can the world of our imaginations – “what might have been and what has been,” a world that doesn’t truly exist outside of our own minds, rule our thoughts, and be where we choose to live. Yet, as Eliot elaborates elsewhere in the Quartets, redemption happens in the present, and we must look it in the face.

Seeking God’s Kingdom and Organic Decision Making

Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Calvin all have similar stories of becoming ministers. They all desired a contemplative and devotional life. They all sought to spend their lives seeking truth for truth’s sake. And all of them were called (dragged, more like it) against their will. Yet, all of them, in that very context, made incalculable contributions to the church, even intellectually. A couple observations can be drawn from this.

First, this is a practical application of Jesus’ insight, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” These men weren’t seeking prominent ministries; they were seeking God. Yet, God chose his men as he saw fit. As Dallas Willard has said,

People are constantly looking for methods…God is looking for men. Methods are often temporary, but what God is looking for is a life. God is far less interested in your results than the person you are becoming.

I quote this to say that, the most important thing that you can do to find God’s will for your life is seek to become the kind of person that God wants you to be. This is very similar to the kind of thing that Paul was saying in Romans “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2).

The second thing is that the greatest contribution from these men did not come from their distanced thought life, but from their thought life applied. It pastoral concerns that brought us The City of God and the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

A similar story is found in the life of Karl Barth. He was a scholar, trained in the Liberal German schools of thought. When he took up the pulpit, he found that what he learned wouldn’t preach. So, he sought to preach the Word of God while honoring the God of the Word. Thus, his famous commentary on Romans was borne.

It isn’t the pragmatists that seem to make the most timely and important impact. It’s those who seek God, and through seeking, organically find his will. And it is in the midst of his will that their most important work is done. For some, this work will change the world in obvious ways. For others, it will be inconspicuous to man. But none of it will be inconspicuous to God.

Craftsmanship and Callused Hands

     When learning any craft, one’s mind and body have to undergo changes in order to execute the skill. One of the first hurtles for a guitarist, for example, is to overcome pain until calluses form on the tips of her fingers. These calluses are necessary for the future musician to achieve any degree of dexterity. The pain hinders the artist’s freedom. This phase, however, is short lived, and the artist must soon train her fingers for faster and more precise movements. The calluses must be limited in their circumference. If the entire hand were calloused, dexterity would be stifled. The guitarist’s hands then must be slightly callused, but mostly quite sensitive.
     This same lesson can be applied metaphorically to other disciplines. A teacher must form calluses. In order for a teacher to have enough courage to be gripping, he must be in the habit of shrugging off certain bothers that come with the territory. Minor disapproval, wandering attention, thoughtless or malicious criticism, or personal nervousness must bounce off his tough skin.
     These callousness, however, cannot be the norm. They cannot be characteristic of the teacher. Ultimately, the teacher must be attuned the thoughts of his audience, open to critique, and compassionate with his words, even when they must move against the grain of received opinion. He must teach with dexterity.
     Either extreme in this regard is to be avoided. We have all had teachers who are characterized by callus; they care little about their students, cause unnecessary controversies, and are understood only with great effort. On the other hand, teachers cannot be too soft. Many teachers will bend to the opinions of their audience and, consequently, teach with impotence. They are also often difficult to understand because their evasiveness becomes inarticulateness.
     A good teacher must have the necessary calluses, yet move with dexterity.

Emulating The Grace of The Martyrs

The church’s praise of the martyrs causes an uneasy tension for the honest Christian. Most, on principle, can honor their courage from afar, but how can one begin to consider emulation? How does one rejoice in the beatitude, “blessed are the persecuted” in anything more than by mere cognitive assent? For cognitive assent is never sufficient means for courage. The Christian virtues must be embodied to be executed, and they must be delighted in to be embodied.

The question remains, how does one delight in the idea of potential martyrdom (a notion any Christian should at least seriously contemplate)?
The early church had crucial insight. The opening section of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Chapter 2) tells of countless deaths under persecution leading to the death of Polycarp:

And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?—who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them.

How could they endure such torments? The next line tells us:

But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them. For they kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and never shall be quenched, and looked forward with the eyes of their heart to those good things which are laid up for such as endure; things “which ear hath not heard, nor eye seen, neither have entered into the heart of man,” but were revealed by the Lord to them, inasmuch as they were no longer men, but had already become angels.

They looked not to their torments, but to their Lord. The key to the martyrs’ courage is not in their suffering, but in the grace bestowed to them. So it was also with the first recorded martyr, Stephen (Acts 7). Right before his death “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). As he was being stoned, he cried, “Lord Jesus, recieve my spirit” (Acts. 7:59).

The opposite was said of Christ than of the martyrs. The cry of dereliction reveals a forsaken Savior.

The martyrs understood this trade-off; Christ was forsaken so that we never would be.

Where the Ideal Meets the Real: Some Reflections about My Abstract Life

From the start, my life experience has always been one of nagging incongruity. The ideal, the imaginative, and the theoretical have always seems more real to me than the sensory world in which I have to remind myself that I live.

 

I find myself floating in a world of the ideal until ideal and real meet. When my world most find its meaning is where the ideal touches down with the real. When that happens, I latch on with my whole being. There have been four areas in my life where I have tangibly experienced this “latching on” to reality: God, Amanda, learning, and running. (I should also say that my parents are certainly a profoundly positive role in my development, but one that has been so consistent that it is hard to quantify. What I have primarily highlighted here are paradigm-shifting life events).

 

God: I always believed in God by way of affirmation, and never thought myself at odds with Him. Most of my experience as a child has been, however, one of what I would call “floatiness,” a sense of being in my own world apart, and not quite sure what to do with it. I learn to “blend in” to a degree, but it always comes up unsatisfying and embarrassingly false. Then God got ahold of me. He is the point at my life in which the Ideal became Real, and the ideal paradigm through which my foggy world of imagination found tangibility. In Him, also, I found that this True Ideal contacted the world in which I lived so potently that I have since found it irreversibly intoxicating.

 

Amanda: I’ve found this connection with my relationship with Amanda. She will be the first to tell you about my spaciness and how it is often uncertain whether I am actually where I am. But, I know for sure that, through her, and my relationship with her, the ideal lens that God gave me has found its most tangible point of application. Christ; God imaged; the Beginning, Middle, and End of all that there is, gave us a tangible illustration of His relationship to us: marriage. This covenant bond with Amanda, played out in daily scenes, is the most human lens that I have and have ever had of this redemptive congruity of the ideal and real. Here, I am the most alive and connected.

 

Learning: I was not a reader, but the summer of my senior year, when I sat on my parent’s back porch trying to read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, my life changed. For the first time, I was reading someone who discussed the faith in a way that I found gripping. This has formed a lasting friendship with C. S. Lewis that has opened up the doors for me to meet other thinkers as well. I’m not a great reader, but in the past years the Apostle Paul, the Gospel writers, Moses, Isaiah, David, Solomon, Qoheleth, (and, less great) John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Dallas Willard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Meredith Kline, Soren Kierkegaard, and others have been conversation partners as I’ve tried to find continual congruity in the world I find myself. They are friends and mentors that I have found are asking and answering questions that I thought I was alone in asking.

 

Running: Least importantly, but not without meaning, running has served that role in a minor sense. Growing up, I never thought myself athletic. But, especially from my grandfather (Pop pop) and my mom, running has been in my genes. The first time that I knew I had athletic potential was in 8th grade soccer practice, on distance runs and sprints, that I realized that running came much easier to me than my peers (it was the only thing that came easier). Then, I found out about about cross country, and was spurred on by our very inspiring coach, Joe Feeley (Sr.). I wasn’t the best runner, and, even up until the end of our running “career,” my good friend Joe Feeley (Jr.) (who has since gone to be with the Lord, where I’m sure he is now much faster and is probably more frequently playing baseball, which he always preferred anyway) almost always out-ran me. But, for once, that didn’t matter. I enjoyed it. And, in it, I found something that I could tell that I was made to do well. Since I heard it, I have resonated with the quote from olympic champion and missionary Eric Lidel: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

 

I have continually met others who are more pious than me, better husbands than me, smarter than me, and better runners. The point is that, in these areas, that has not mattered. As my aforementioned friend C. S. Lewis has pointed out, joy is best experienced when it just is, and slips away when it is over-analyzed or compared.

On Learning and Guarding the Mind

If one is a thoughtful and diligent student, one does not need to read with a constant mental guard up. If one has an established grid for thinking (for the Christian, this should be a biblical grid), noticing fallacious writings will be easy. One cannot learn something that is in contrast with something one already takes to be truth. A trained mind detects logical fallacies easily. An established mind is an automatic filter of truth. The Christian should be feeding one’s mental grid constantly with Scripture. Then, she or he can relax and glean from all good reading.

In fact, a disposition to be opposed to another’s writing doesn’t help learn nor detect fallacies. It only leaves thoughts looming in the mind, not dealt with. This can sometimes be more perplexing to a person than if the thought was simply given a serious consideration. When one takes the time to glean from a person with one’s guard down, that person is able to digest the information properly in order to sift through truth and and untruth. And, perhaps, if one encounters a foreign truth often enough, it will eradicate an untruth from the mind that would not have otherwise been eradicated.

Healing Narcissism through Perspective

I’m at that time of the semester when I am becoming anxious again, bogged down with the self-perceived weight on my shoulders, the rolling anxiety, and the disproportionate sense of my own importance. I find that, when I finally take the time to reflect, my worries turn out to be more of a perspective issue than a schedule issue.

Perspective is one of the many great values of a daily habit of Scriptural meditation and prayer.

When we read narrative, we are reminded that there is a story greater than ourselves, and that God is powerful to prevail.
When we read wisdom literature, we are given realistic proportion.

When we read the Psalms, we are reminded that we are not the first ones to feel the way that we are feeling.

When we read the Prophets, we are convicted of our idols.

When we read the Gospels and Epistles, we are reminded that it has always been about Christ in the first place, and that he is already established as the reigning kind of our world and the securer of our future.

Likewise, prayer is perspective-giving, especially when we pray the way that Jesus prescribed. When Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, he showed us the kind of things that we should bring to the Father. Notice that the first parts of the prayer are God-focused.

Praying in this order is helpful to us. When your thoughts are engulfed in worrisome matters, pray the Lord’s Prayer. Spend some time hallowing God’s name. Commit to begin only praising him. And when your thoughts wonder back to yourself, commit to deflect them for a bit. Then, pray for his will. Pray for things bigger than yourself: the nations, the church, your church, the Great Commission, his universal cause (Eph. 1:9-10). Then, after these things, we can begin to be at the place where we can pray for ourselves: our daily bread, our sins, for strength.

Jesus says that the Father will give what we ask, but only if we abide in him.