My Jesus Collective group was talking about spiritual formation this week, as their churches are re-forming after the pandemic. I think some of my past thinking in this speech might contribute to the subject.
I’m like a frog in the world’s pot
It is a wonder any frogs grow up. I wondered how threatened they must feel the other day when Helena, my three-year-old friend, showed me the frog she caught at the Love Feast. He looked like a twenty-something in frog years, certainly no tadpole. He was just hopping around checking out the world, and then he was in the clutches of a toddler. He was exploring on a nice, humid, July day in Philly, as happy as can be, and then, “Doh! I’m in the pocket of a little sun dress! How the toad did I get here!” But by then it was too late, he was about to meet death by caress. It seems similarly shocking, but I know a lot of people who got to fifty and said, “Doh! I’m fifty! How in the world did I ever get here and what am I doing in this pocket?” Let’s talk about that.
First let’s talk about feeling like the world has you in its pocket. It is hard to put one’s finger on what is wrong in the world, especially when it’s caressing you but you’re not dead yet. The following analogy gets used for everything, and I’ve never tried it to see if it is true, but…the temptation of settling into the world is often compared to the proverbial frog in the pot. They say if you throw a live frog in hot water (no, I do not know who would do such a thing) the frog will try to escape before he dies. But if you put one in swamp-temperature water and then slowly turn up the heat, the cold blooded frog will enjoy the warmth until the temperature goes over a tipping point and she is cooked. This could happen! We gradually gets used to what should have seemed wrong; we slowly acclimate, like a frog heating up in a pot, and then we’re cooked.
You know how this works. When does a young musician who hangs with the drug users and drinkers during performances wake up to the fact that he’s become one of the gang? When does the young woman who took the job to make money realize that she became a corporate lackey with debts to trap her there the rest of her life? The ways of the world are an atmosphere, almost like a mood. Spiritually aware people get an uneasiness that not all is well, but every time we define the illness we feel uncertain and stay put. We often sense the environment we are in is eroding our faith; it is wearing out our hope and proactivity; it is corrupting and blunting our love — then, “Doh!”
What you are now is a step toward who you’re becoming
How you go through the world as it has formed itself in your era, right now, will define what you are when you are fifty. Some of us care about this. Some of us are looking at thirty and realizing, “I needed to do more during my twenties – this could be serious!” Some of are fifty and wondering, “Is this it? – I should consider how to die well, not just die.” I’m trying to speak into those thoughts because people are asking good questions.
The little part of Hebrews I am highlighting shows how to do make our way. The writer is winding up the big finale of his message in chapters 11 and 12 with a call to faithfulness in the face of pressures from the world to shrink back in fear and not go the whole way with Jesus on His way. The famous chapter 11 lists all the great heroes of faith by name and by action. The writer calls us to follow in their footsteps. Of these people of faith she (it could be a she!) says,
“the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
And they did a lot of other amazing things that showed their faith.
With these examples, she calls each of us to imagine how and where we want to wander. Many of us are following the ways of our time and trying to line our pockets with as much brick and mortar, bank accounts and power as we can. In the face of similar circumstances, the writer of Hebrews in our reading 11:38-12:3 is saying, “Imagine another way. Remember the amazing people who didn’t go the way of the world, but went the way of faith in God and his Son, Jesus.” And I’m thinking of it more like, “Imagine — What do I want to be when I am fifty?”
Pilgrim or tourist?
Let’s dare to ask ourselves and God, “Do you think I could become a spiritual someone?” A full-fledged someone probably has their full development going by fifty, at least, wouldn’t you say? Spiritual maturity takes time. I’m fifty – did I make it? In some ways, yes, in other ways I’m just very adept at seeing how far I have to go. But one thing I did, which I feel very blessed about, is, at about 19, I made a definite decision to take the journey by faith, and that has made all the difference.
To be a mature person of God when you’re fifty, to be going somewhere in the Spirit, will mean you’ve taken the journey seriously. Just like the writer of Hebrews says, you realize that the world as it has fallen is not worthy of your submission. You don’t quite fit. You recognize the water is too hot and get out before you’re cooked.
As such, believers are the perpetual pilgrims, wanderers; they’re followers; they’re the ones who went out. If you want to get somewhere with God by fifty (or eighty), be a good pilgrim, starting now. Some of the colonizers who came to America to settle were so serious about this wandering they called themselves the Pilgrims. They were spending their lives going somewhere, going home to God, putting their feet to responding to Jesus when he says, “I am the way. No one comes to the Father but by me”
They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
On the journey of life, faithful people are on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, and God is eager to welcome them into it when they get home. To decide where you will be later depends on how you are travelling now. Are you a pilgrim or are you a tourist?
A long obedience
Think about the next verses in today’s reading. A maturing faith is a journey of long obedience, not instant or merely experiential.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Pilgrims sustain a long obedience, even when they don’t get everything they want right now. Tourists want something instant; they are always looking for the next immediate experience. It is axiomatic that we are all so conditioned by thirty-second commercials we have no ability to sustain interest in something for very long.
I went on my first trip as a pilgrim a couple of years ago, and now I try to figure out how I can make every vacation a pilgrimage rather than a mere tour. I would have liked Spain as a tourist, too – seeing everything, getting in line to do all the things I heard everyone else already did, having some extreme experience that would make a good story. But I made up my mind to do the pilgrimage to Santiago and it reaffirmed something important.
It’s a long story, but my pilgrimage did not work out like I had planned. I did not receive what the trip promised; it kind of fell apart. But I kept going and found another way to do it. I love doing sights, but a pilgrimage isn’t about sights, it is about following God with my body and soul and mind and strength. For example, I was quite surprised by what happened when we got to kind of an sad village, a deserted place no tourists bothered to visit. We made a habit of stopping to pray at the town’s church. So in this out-of-the-way place we labored up to a rather ugly church, expecting it to be locked. We found ourselves the only ones there for a long time. We rested and prayed. As we stood to leave, I was moved to sing in this echoey building: “I know my redeemer lives.” We’ve never forgotten how God met us there. It was moment pilgrims get that tourists miss.
Eugene Peterson quotes Frederic Nietzsche, of all people, who got this right. He said:
The essential thing in heaven and earth is…that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.
Being determined to develop faith, not settling in the world as it is but obeying the vision, believing the promise, trusting the Way — that makes you something that is worthy of living at fifty.
Look at the next set of verses. Learning the life God gives is a life-long apprenticeship in the same thing, not just a search for something novel or the next big thing.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Tourists are just visiting. They are always looking over your shoulder at the next thing. They are just tasting and planning their itinerary to get a novel meal tomorrow night, too. Pilgrims have more of a life-long mindset. They are going somewhere. It doesn’t matter how far away it is, they know where they are going. They are traveling with their Master in a loving and learning relationship – disciples, apprentices. It is a whole worldview.
It seems to me that religion is captured by the tourist mindset these days. It is understood as a visit to an attractive site when we have the leisure to get there. Some go to church. Some go to big services held in arenas or watch them on TV. Some like religiotainment – from one retreat, conference, rally, seminar to the next, complete with the latest personalities and controversial topics. There is always something new: podcasts, yoga, being purpose-driven, medieval liturgical revival, holy laughter, or a Unitarian taste of them all. We’ll try anything, go anywhere, until something else comes along.
Disciples, in contrast, are sticking with an apprentice relationship with Jesus. We’re learning the skills of faith as we go – not sitting in a classroom getting info. We’re walking with him, going where he goes and how he goes. It takes a lifetime. We aren’t learning to hammer a nail straight, we are learning to live straight. We are learning perseverance.
I love the point in a cell (or whatever circle you are in) when things gets boring — when people are over the novelty and have to make a relationship with someone they might not really like all that much. Then real love, faith and hope will have to show up. The church we built was set up to torment people with that reality, and we did torment them. Some fled.
The assumption we’ll have to keep learning has made a lot of people suffer around here. Because they realize that to get anywhere they will have to stay and commit. For instance, we use the word apprentice to describe the comrade of a cell leader. The use of this old-sounding word was well-debated. It takes a lot of humility to be an apprentice – we all want to be co-leaders and never learn anything or aspire to more. What’s more, the word implies that you are sticking around – when the cell multiplies, you will become the next leader nurturing the next apprentice. A lot of people just cannot honestly become an apprentice cell leader because they can see that Circle of Hope (and your church) will soon lose its novelty and they will want to move on – they’ve already heard about a church in California that is cool. Thomas Szasz, the therapist, says,
What we call “sanity”…has a great deal to do with competence – earned by struggling for excellence, with compassion – hard won by confronting conflict, and with modesty and patience – acquired through silence and suffering.
Having a race set out for you and running it with perseverance builds something into you that looks good at fifty.
Patiently keep faith
Finally, look at those last sentences. Getting where Jesus is leading means also being a pioneer with a long view, not hurried or impatient.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Tourists are right in with the world’s passion for the immediate and the casual. Pilgrims are like those pioneers in our country who called themselves by that name. They are authors of life in unknown, even hostile territory. You don’t have to have the famous Pilgrims’ catastrophic view of the native people in Massachusetts or Africans to admire their faith, the same way your real or potential faults do not ruin yours (at least your sins don’t have to ruin you). Pilgrims have the long view of what can be built, what will be, which includes themselves.
The world is going for short cuts – “Tell me how to be a mature Christian in 20 minutes – if you take an hour I’ll have to go because I made a date for dinner.” We want instant credit. We are impatient for results – blow up Iraq and build a democracy in a year – heck, we can barely get a Thrift Store going in that time! We are impatient for results in ourselves and others, too – “You went to the therapist for six months, so what did all that money go for?” We live in fear of the world — if it doesn’t happen now, it won’t pass muster with the world (which it won’t). Spiritually, that touristy way is a disaster. We can’t get into life in Christ by hitting the high points of the Bible, or go to the sacred places like we are driving by on the bus tour – “And on your left, there is Henry Nouwen suffering for thirty years to understand the prodigal son; now on you right we have Mother Teresa….”
We, as a people, are trying to be rather strange in all this. We purposely don’t try to win a person with a meeting that will wow them with one pass. You’ll have to stick around and relate, or we have nothing to give. I think God is like that, too. He knows what is best and she is not in a hurry.
Picture yourself at 50 (or 80)
To end up a holy person, a sane person, a loving person, a pioneer person, a person who didn’t get boiled in the world, here’s the way:
- Let us fix our eyes on Jesus – settle in with Jesus and don’t take your eyes off him.
- Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith, — he’s the generator, the pioneer, the way-clearer, the light in the dark, the welcoming hand at the end of the long tunnel. Start at the beginning, or restart.
- He is the one who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – he’s been everywhere you might go, even death, and he made it to God. Endure your dying and heap scorn on the world when it tries to lure you into its pocket.
- Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – keep your faith in Jesus and follow his way, even when the road seems long.
Picture your church 50 years from now – bunch of tourists? A ship of fools? Can you even imagine lasting that long?
Picture yourself as you, the pilgrim, at 50 (or if you are already there, pick a date you’ll likely die). How many years will it be until then? What can you do with that many years? To what do you aspire to be in your heart and in your life with the author of our faith by your side? What do you want to learn to be? Through what would you like to go and come out the other side with the perfecter of our faith?
If you need a practical step to take in that direction, why not live in today’s reading and keep journeying with them this week. Obey what God says to you in them, learn the depths of them, make a pioneer’s house with them in the middle of this world.
[T]he world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 11:38-12:3)