Well, we’re now hurtling headlong into one of my favorite periods in the Christian calendar – the season of Lent. “Lent” is likely a scary or ambivalent for many people, but ever since being introduced to the beauty and power of the Christian calendar several years ago, it has been my ambition to recapture Lent for the Christian imagination in the 21st century. So some definitions and clarifications are probably in order.
First, the word “Lent” is an old English word that simply means “Spring”, which is apropos, because Lent occurs in the (let me hear you say it), SPRING. Duh, right? But already we’re bumping up against the very spirit of the Lenten season just by connecting it with Spring, for Lent is about the re-emergence of life in our own lives and in our world after the long winter of spiritual death (I totally hate winter). Winter, of course, is not an awful thing. In a way, winter is a sort of “Sabbath” for the land. The soil lies dormant and roots go deeper as everything sleeps. It is a sort of “night” that prepares the way for the bright light of morning. A “clearing away” of death to make room for NEW LIFE.
Ah… new life. That’s the very center of this whole thing. Hence the reason that Lent culminates in Resurrection… the bursting forth of God’s New Creation in the midst of the Old in the Person of Jesus, the God-Man who welcomes humanity into the God-life.
That leads to the second point. It seems that the Church first began practicing Lenten spirituality as a way of helping initiate would-be converts into the faith. The “catechumens” would undergo a 40 day process of learning the essentials of the faith and counting the cost before the stood up, on Easter Sunday, “repudiated” the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and expressed their solidarity with the victorious Christ and his people through baptism. (AWESOME! I’m gonna have some people at Bloom do some “repudiating” in the tank pretty soon I think.) Over time, the rest of the Church started saying, “Hey, a 40 day period to revisit the foundations of our faith and rededicate ourselves to God’s not a bad idea… let’s all do it.” And so, Lenten spiritual discipline was born.
(For my traditional evangelical friends who aren’t used to such language, let me assure you that this is not far from your own experience. Anyone ever heard of “40 Days of Purpose”? Ever been in a church where the pastor called the congregation to several weeks of prayer and fasting as a way of kicking off the new year? Or 24-7 prayer in the middle of the year? Corporate return to God is nothing new… that’s what Lent is all about.)
With all of that in mind, I thought it would be good at BLOOM to spend the several weeks leading UP TO Lent revisiting the Foundations of Spiritual Formation… in other words, what is the “shape” of our engagement with God and what does that look like? We began our series this past weekend (if you haven’t, you can listen to the talk here), and so I’d like to offer a brief summary and then encourage you to peek in here over the next few weeks as I recap what we’re chatting about (and of course you can listen to the podcast too!). Without further ado…
Foundation 1 – Who is God and What is He Like? The Christian tradition is unequivocal about this issue, and sadly, while most Christians take it for granted, it has almost no impact on the way that they live their spirituality. God, we are taught, is a Three-Personal being. That is, he is Trinity. From before all eternity, the Son issues forth from the Father, the Father delights in the Son, the Son looks up to and magnifies the Father, and the Spirit serves as the bond that holds the Union in tact. The basic FACT about God is that He is not a solitary, autocratic, sullen, loveless, joyless, lonely monarch. Far from it. God, we could say, is from the first a Family. He is an eternal communion of self-giving love.
Think about what it must be like to be God. I imagine that in the Being of God there are constant explosions of joy, delight, and celebration. And how could it be otherwise? God has everything, and lacks nothing, each Member of the Godhead eternally giving himself away to the others and receiving himself back again in the face of the Other. Think about the time when you felt MOST connected to the world, and to people around you, or even to one human being. Oh the joy and ecstasy! GOD, the Scriptures lead us to believe, has never not felt that ecstasy, but of course in a measure that you and I could never imagine. This has massive implications for our spiritual formation, because…
Foundation 2 – Where We Come In (Union with God). Too much of recent “pop” Christianity has conceived of salvation as some kind of marketplace transaction. We give God something he wants (belief, devotion, whatever), he gives us something we want (a get out of jail free card). Despite the predominance of that view throughout much of the Western Christian world, we ought to regard it as AT BEST a despicably bastardized view of salvation. The Christian view… even better, the BIBLICAL view, is just so friggin much better, for the Scriptures claim not merely that God has something to give us (forgiveness), but that the thing that he has to give us is available ONLY IN HIS VERY PERSON.
That is to say, he doesn’t give us “salvation” in the ticket-to-heaven sense so much as he gives us HIMSELF. As the old man Simeon said when he saw the Christ-child, “Sovereign Lord, you may now dismiss your servant in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation…” He’s talking not about a marketplace transaction or a four-spiritual-laws tract. He’s talking about Jesus. GOD IS SALVATION. And the offer that he makes to us is NOT MERELY ESCAPE. It is participation. Jesus said to his disciples in John 14, “In that day (the day they meet him resurrected), you will realize that I am IN the Father, and you are IN me, and I am IN you!” That is to say, JESUS WELCOMES US INTO THE TRINITARIAN LIFE OF GOD! So that we now share in the eternal, ecstatic, joyful communion of that is the Trinity. We can be caught up in the cyclone of infinite joy that is the inner being of God.
(Can you tell that sometimes I feel like I’m preaching when I’m writing?! AHHH!)
But there’s more still…
Foundation 3 – Theosis. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a concept for describing the journey of salvation that I find simply inspiring. It’s called “theosis.” The Western Church (Catholic and Protestant included) for the most part describes the journey of salvation in terms of “sanctification”. That is, the human life is purified and cleansed from what defiles it. And while that concept is certainly biblical, and certainly helpful, I find that it leaves out the intensely RELATIONAL component of salvation that the Bible is very intent on making us aware of. It is not SIMPLY that we are “cleansed” as a dirty cup is “cleansed” when placed in the water, scrubbed, and then put in the strainer to dry. No, it is more like a bit of metal is “cleansed” by being heated by the fire to incredible temperatures. The fire penetrates the metal AND AS IT DOES SO, pushes impurity out.
Of course, the end result of purifying something by fire is that you take it OUT of the fire and do something with it. But when it comes to God, that’s not the case. And that’s what “theosis” or “divinization” is all about – it’s the process of ever-increasing participation in the Divine Life so that OUR LIVES increasingly come to take on the character of the Divine. Paul puts it best when he says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His Likeness (think Jesus) with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
A cyclone of Trinitarian life… Human beings caught up into it… Having their own lives transformed and transfigured by that same Life.
To my mind, those are three UTTERLY INDISPENSIBLE foundations for spiritual formation. We’ll have no idea what we’re talking about without them. Of course there’s much more to say, and we’ll get to that in the coming weeks. But for now I leave you with a quote by the great CS Lewis that summarizes it best, as only Lewis could do:
The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?
Take us up into your life Lord God!