The Sluggish Journey of Christian Formation

Mid-term elections have come and gone and, despite apocalyptic campaign adds, the world did not end after all.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  The rotation of the earth still takes a full 24 hours, and New Year’s Eve will fall on the 365th day as scheduled.

In the days to come, we will see if our elected officials can turn cheap talk and bitter rhetoric into actual legislation.  Many of them will find that, despite the excitement of campaigns, the daily grind of governing is not all that spectacular.  Much of it is downright boring and routine.

This reminds me of the Christian life sometimes.  When we become a Christian, we most likely make the decision in the throes of lofty, redemptive rhetoric.  Our conversion experiences and baptisms, first communions and commissionings are exciting events.   Enthusiasm runs high.  We read our Bibles with fervor.  We can’t wait to share the Gospel with everyone we meet, even our pets.

Eventually, we realize that our journey of faith is not always so emotional.   We have to do the hard work of living out our salvation on a day-to-day basis where our jobs, families, neighborhoods, and hobbies intersect.    We put one foot in front of the other in the midst of messiness and conflict, fragile families and failing economies.

The difficult task of walking with Christ can get mundane.  We can easily forget to pray or read our Bibles.  Our ancient, sacred traditions do not always relate to our current culture.   In all honesty, even clergy can become bored now and then.

Like politicians who must eventually govern in spite of the excitement of an election season, we must eventually get to the place where we relate to Christ with unyielding love despite emotional whims that come and go.

It’s like practicing scales repeatedly on a musical instrument.  It is tedious work, but it allows students to master both the instrument and the notes.  By the time the student performs, she knows those notes so intimately, she makes playing the instrument seem easy.  The regimen of a committed life fully transforms random notes into prayerful music–a work of art made in honor of art’s Master.

In Luke 7:18-23, John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus whether or not Jesus was the messiah, God’s anointed one, who would usher in a new era of God’s salvation.   Everyone back then, John included, expected the messiah to come on the scene in a blaze of glory, raising an unstoppable army to overthrow the Roman Empire.

John had his doubts about Jesus because Jesus did not raise an army.  Jesus did not campaign to raise funds from the aristocracy.  Rather, Jesus spent time with the poor and powerless.  There was no demonstration of military power, only an anticlimactic Gospel message that emphasized reconciliation and forgiveness over violence and retaliation.

Jesus’ was a sluggish movement that inspired a consistent work ethic instead of heated speeches.   Consider that Jesus’ ministry took place over a three-year time span that began after thirty years of preparation.  The four evangelists–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–only record the most exciting moments in this history; the rest was just daily grind stuff–Jesus changed the world with baby steps and a simple dedication to God’s will.

We often move from one experience to another, overdosing on entertainment, over-stimulation, and sugar-highs.  The Christian life, however, is one lived out in conformity to a God that is not always so exciting.  15th-century saint, Thomas A’Kempis once wrote: “Thou art called to endure and to labour, not to a life of ease and trifling talk.”  That’s good advice in an age tall on promises but short on long-term commitment.

Seek to integrate all aspects of life under the lordship of Christ

According to author Robert Mulholland, the goal of spiritual formation is to be conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.  Many folks think that when we are conformed to Christ, we act, look, and talk differently.  In many cases this is true, especially after a conversion experience.

For others, being conformed to Christ seems to make them turn into someone they are not.  Eventually, those who wear the mask of Christian conformity tire of the theatrical act and wonder whether or not “playing Christian” is even worth it.  Christianity is not a masquerade ball, and faith founded on pretense is flimsy at best.

When the Spirit conforms us into the image of Christ, we are actually called to shed our masks.   Jesus makes us fully human and forces us to live into who we are as unique individuals made in God’s image.  Jesus does not require us to be something we’re not; we can accept who we are just as we are.

One of the ways to live into a life of abundance and acceptance is to align all of who we are under the lordship of Christ.  There is no aspect of our being, from the intellectual to the physical, which escapes God’s transformative engagement in our life.  And those who live in the Light have nothing to hide, even if their life is a total sum of repeated failures and fragility.

As a typical guy, one of my strengths (and, inevitably, my weaknesses) is that I am able to compartmentalize many aspects of my life.  For instance, if I make a mistake at work, it does not necessarily affect who I am or who I intend to be when I am at home.   Each facet of my life fits into a separate box, neat and tidy.

This is different from how my wife goes about life; she sees everything as interconnected.  If I say something when we are at Wal-Mart on Monday that hurts her feelings, she will remind me on Friday that I have yet to apologize.

My wife reminds me that my actions, much less my Christian life, influence every part of who I am.  The person I am on Sunday should be the same person I am Monday through Saturday.  The Christian that I appear to be in church is supposed to be the same Christian I claim to be in my relationships, career, and personal life.

Though I can separate the stresses of work and family into neat compartments, God wants me to understand that every facet of my life plays a part into a dynamic and integrative whole.  Being conformed into the image of Christ means that I connect these loose threads and weave my life into a tapestry that reflects God’s glory and honor.

As you work, play, and relate this week, ask yourself several questions: Do I see Christ as a participant in everything I do?  Do I still hide some parts of my life from God?  Am I a Christian because Christ has a claim on my whole life, or am I only wearing a mask of Christian religiosity?

In the Old Testament, the Shema stresses: “Listen, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today” (Deut. 6:4-5, NLT).

Only when we take off our masks and align all of who we are under Christ’s lordship can we discover our true, authentic selves—the very people that God intended us to be.

Following God’s will is difficult as we face inner turmoil

I had a lovely childhood, except when I had to sit at the designated children’s table.

You know what I’m talking about: the adults sat in the dining room with fine wine and great food while the kids were relegated to the kitchen on old, vinyl chairs and one small square of lasagna. I always protested; I wanted to sit with the adults.

For as long as I could remember, I was always rushing to grow up. This is common among young people. The students whom I teach at Victory Christian School have expressed in various settings their desire to grow up and take on responsibilities reserved for adults.

Little do they know that when they turn 40, this desire will likely reverse.

In many ways we are all trying to grow up or, in other words, discover our identity and our place in this world. We make decisions, form values, and even choose our politics based on allegiances and labels to which we gravitate. We search for some sense of self-identification that provides a sense of stability.

What we fail to realize is that we wrestle with certain tensions in our never-ending desire to define who we are as individuals. These tensions play tug-of-war in our very soul.

One tension pertains to a question of conformity. We are torn between being conformed by God’s Spirit and conforming ourselves to the trends of this world.

This is really a matter of surrender: Are we willing to surrender ourselves to God, allowing the person and lordship of Christ to form us into new creations based on his love and mercy, or are we simply reaching for pinnacles of power and prestige that offer us memberships into the popular social cliques of our time?

Another tension is between defining our personhood by who we are rather than by what we do. The world constantly judges us by what we do, what we have accomplished, and what we can afford. Our first question when meeting another person is predictable: “So what do you do for a living?” And judgment ensues. Our first impressions are based on matters very shallow indeed.

God judges us on who we are, and the true measure of a person is in his or her depth of character. It was the wise elder, Polonius, who offered this wisdom in Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”: “Above all else, to thine own self be true.”

Is Christ forming us in a way that we become who Christ wants us to be, even if it means sacrificing something that we think we need for immediate pleasure?

It seems that everywhere we look in our society, people are staking out their territory and drawing lines regarding where they stand on issues and how they think. God is concerned much less about our stakes in the ground than He is about our passion and desire to be formed by His very Son’s lordship.

Just putting this in black and white does not make these tensions in us wane. The Christian journey is a constant struggle to overcome ego and self-gratification at the cost of our very souls. In writing of his short stay at a Trappist monastery, late spiritual author and priest, Henri Nouwen, expressed this struggle well:

“It is this type of … total surrender, of unconditional ‘yes’ (to God), of unwavering obedience to God’s will, that frightens me and makes me such a wishy-washy soul, wanting to keep a foot in both worlds. But that is how one stumbles.”

But did Christ not say that following Him was a difficult task? As we all find our way in the world, I would contend that it certainly is.