Spiritual health doesn’t always follow the path you expect.
The moment came, and my daughter was elated. We were on our way to church but first we made a stop at Starbucks. We didn’t stop for me, we stopped for her. She was ready when the drive-thru voice crackled to life:
I want a venti Ultra Caramel Frappuccino with regular whipped cream.
I tried to deliver it with the same gusto, the same energy that she had, but I fell short. We moved to the next window and paid and they presented us with a titanic coffee-meets-dessert concoction. I passed it on to my daughter. We pulled out of the drive-thru.
That choice formed the rest of her day. The caffeine surging through her veins, the sugar pepping her steps – it all had an impact. All of us make both small choices and large choices throughout the course of our days. We expect the large choices – career, relationships, faith – to have an impact but we rarely give the small choices the same weight. They seem insignificant.
Dallas Willard was fond of saying, “Everyone is in the process of spiritual formation.” The implication is that we are all forming and being formed, either in healthy ways or destructive ways. Of course, there is a “two steps forward, one step back” reality to all formation but that doesn’t affect the validity of Dallas’ statement.
Formation comes to us through both large and small choices. In other words, Jesus is working in our drink orders.
This week, I want to share two articles about the way of spiritual formation as it relates to details. My hope is to highlight how the everyday movements of our lives – large or small – have a part to play in how we are forming into the image and character of Jesus. The first move is to talk about stuff that we choose.
Choosing Spiritual Health
Where most discussions about spiritual formation begin is in the area of things that we choose. In other words when we choose to follow Jesus in the way that is relevant to our faith tradition, that is a choice for our formation. When later in life we change traditions or find ourselves in a moment of renewing that commitment to follow Jesus, that is also a choice for our formation. If we decide to take on a spiritual discipline, read a particular book, follow another person’s wisdom on the right way to deal with conflict these are all choices that contribute to our formation.
This way of spiritual formation is active formation. Active formation is choosing a path based on our thinking and feeling about the reality of God in our life.
The “thinking and feeling” parts are critical. To choose a path without processing WHY that path is wise often leads to frustration and de-formation. Fasting, for example, is a very healthy practice as long as we know WHY we’re fasting. Remaining in a group of spiritual friends or a particular theological tradition is healthy as long as we know WHY we’re there.Active formation is as much about motivation as it is about action.
The other purpose in active formation is to prepare us for what I call passive formation, which we will deal with in the next post. For now, the note is that active formation prepares us for the daily realities of life in our own skin. The choices to pray, sleep, fast, worship, serve, observe silence, commit to a Lenten practice, all fall in the category of active formation.
Now, back to Starbucks.
You might think that a story about my daughter’s drink order yields little to no insight about active formation. If we look in the gaps around the story, however, there are several insights to be gained.
First, we knew we had to be at church at a certain time. We had to leave enough time to allow for the stop at Starbucks. This need led to some choices. My daughter had to be up and ready to go so that we could make the stop, which meant going to bed on time and execution of the morning routine without delay.
I knew my routine needed to start before her, so I needed to get up before her. That meant going to bed at a reasonable time. Also my morning routine includes a choice to spend time in silent meditation, tuning myself to God’s presence. This choice makes the difference in how I engage the tasks and encounters within a day’s time.
As you can see, these choices required not only action in the morning but also the night before. The “Starbucks plan,” simple as it sounds, was hatched in the early afternoon.
My contention isn’t that only organized people experience healthy spiritual formation. In fact, sometimes my disorganization leads to happy surprises of grace. The point of the details above is to say this:
The pursuit of active formation requires that we process the choices we make in a day’s time.
Without processing where meditation fit in the rhythm of our life, it would not have happened. This is how we engage in the life of active formation. We seek to understand where we can choose healthy practices and habits that lead to deeper life with God.
Where are some places where you are drawn to choose healthy practices? In what area of life do you find a great deal of unhealthy practices that need to be dismantled? When do you find yourself lost, without a clue on what you need to choose at that moment?
Perhaps a good practice for understanding active formation is to think about tomorrow. Pick a certain time tomorrow, say 5 PM. Ask the question: “What choices do I need to make to arrive at that time in the most spiritually healthy posture?” Then, work your way backwards to the present moment. Plan two or three active formation practices in the next 24 hours to take you to 5 PM in a healthy, Spirit-attuned way.
Of course, things don’t always go as we plan, which is the point of the next post in this series. Stay tuned.