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John Wesley was getting
aggravated with his Moravian friends because of their quietistic tendencies.   They were having some heated discussions in
London about the means of grace, and there were some Moravians even arguing
that ‘grace happens’ according to God’s preordained plan, and that there was
nothing we humans could do to prod God into giving it sooner or later— no
spiritual exercises, no fasting, no earnest praying, no taking of the
sacraments— NOTHING.   

            Wesley was completely dissatisfied with their answer that
they must just sit in their chairs and wait on the grace of God to descend from
above, like waiting for God to send the rain (which in London seemed to appear
more frequently than grace in these Moravians’ views).  Finally, 
Wesley threw up his hands and said to the Moravians—  ‘You should wait actively for the grace of God! 
Go take the Eucharist!”   These
words came naturally to a man who did his best to take Holy Communion every
single day of his life, if possible. He had also urged ‘constant communion’ on
his followers, on the theory that we always could use more grace and presence
of God in our lives.

            This little story, which is a true story, speaks volumes
about John Wesley’s approach to what we today call spiritual formation.  In many ways, it stands at odds with some of
the models of spiritual formation we hear so much about in our era— models
that promote extreme introspection, individual isolation and individualistic seeking,
and spiritual athleticism of various sorts, even spiritual navel gazing of a
sort. Sometimes when reading some of this literature it seems almost as if
ordinary Christians are being told ‘get thee to a nunnery’ if you want to be
truly spiritually formed.

has happened in the age of narcissism and ‘me first’ is that spiritual
formation exercises and inventories have all too often taken on the character
and ethos of the age, including the radical individualism of our culture.   When you take a spiritual inventory that
keeps asking questions about your feelings
about God, or how close you personally feel
to God, there is a good reason to become uneasy.   The language and praxis of modern psychology
and psychological counseling has crept into the discussions of spiritual
formation as if emotions were some sort of good guide or gauge to the state of
someone’s soul or their relationship with God.    But in fact, this is often far from the truth.

            A person’s visceral feelings are in fact, more often than
not, subject to the whims of your health, your circumstances, how much sleep
you’ve had, whether you’ve taken your medicine or not, whether you are employed
or not,  and a thousand other such
factors.  Feelings, as Eugene Peterson once
said, are remarkably unreliable guides to the state of your relationship with
God, and indeed seldom very reliable as a guide to the state of your
relationship with others.  

for a minute about the great commandment— Love God wholeheartedly and neighbor
as self.   I have seen days when my wife
had a migraine headache and we had company coming and she felt terrible, but
there she was being a gracious hostess and no one but myself knew that she was
loving them in spite of how she felt.   Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against
feelings, I am just saying they are not very good litmus tests of where we
stand with God.  Just because at a given
moment I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about God doesn’t mean I am, or sense I
am distant from God!     In any case, love
in the Bible is an action word— doing loving deeds is what the great
commandment is about.    I am rather
certain that the greatest loving deed of all time, Jesus’ dying on the cross
for all of us, was not accompanied by warm fuzzy feelings.  On the contrary, the story in the Garden of
Gethsemane suggests that Jesus faced that prospect with dread. 

            The concern of these posts is to help us get away
from certain unhelpful models of spiritual formation, and head in a more
Wesleyan direction.   There are two
concerns I want to stress. Firstly, the primary form of spiritual formation in
the Wesleyan mode focuses on activities, and more specifically on group activities and even more
specifically on the activities of the body
of Christ
gathered— activities like worship, shared teaching or Bible
study sessions, fellowship meals and times, taking Holy communion, works of
piety and charity undertaken together, and the like.   I
believe that primary spiritual
formation happens during the times two or more are gathered, Christ is present
as well, and we are all caught up in love and wonder and praise.  For example, for a Wesleyan, congregational
singing is one of the primary means of spiritual formation, as opposed to
someone singing to themselves in the shower or in their prayer closet.  Saying the Lord’s Prayer together is a means
of grace.  Saying the Apostle’s Creed
together is a means of grace, and so on.

spiritual formation in the Wesleyan tradition is not primarily an individual’s
lonely personal quest for spiritual transcendence and growing closer to
God.  It is not about looking inwards so
much as it is about looking outwards at creation, at other creatures, at the
Creator. It is not about becoming more self-centered, more self-focused, indeed
it is about becoming more self-forgetful. 
 It’s about knowing God and in
that quest, as a by-product, one comes to know yourself.  It’s not in the first instance about taking
Socrates’ advice to ‘know thyself’ much less taking the advice ‘to thine own
self be true’.

            Too often in spiritual formation literature certain kinds
of extreme monastic models of piety are held up to the ordinary Christian’s
eye, which, apart from sporadic spiritual retreats, they could never live up to
or into.   Who exactly is capable of ‘praying without
ceasing’ if by praying one is referring to specific spoken or unspoken
petitions to God?   If you are not a
cloistered monk or a hermit with someone else providing you with food, shelter,
and clothing, and with no family responsibilities, this sort of spiritual
athleticism is beyond the scope of the life of the ordinary or normal
Christian.  My primary concern in this
study is to talk about spiritual formation for the normal Christian life, to talk about ordinary spiritual formation,
as well as extraordinary spiritual formation. 

            This book has arisen out of some frustration with a good
deal of the literature I have seen, even the Methodist literature, which has
adopted and adapted certain ascetical and medieval monastic models and forms of
spiritual formation, baptized them for normal modern Christians, and called
them good, indeed called them necessary if you want to be a ‘spiritual’
Christian.   I’m afraid that this is largely
an exercise in futility rather than fertility. 
Like ambitious New Year’s resolutions it leads in the end to spiritual
frustration, feelings of inadequacy and guilt, and little real progress in
one’s Christian life.   And besides as
Bob Dylan once said— ‘the times, they are a changing’.  

was at the monastery of Gethsemani near Bardstown Kentucky where Thomas Merton
once was a monk, sitting quietly in the gift shop, waiting for my mother to
finish shopping (that Gethsemani fudge is pretty delicious).  Sitting next to me was a monk who was so ancient
I assumed he had arrived when the monastery had been built, decades and decades
ago.   I knew that the Trappist monks
were famous for taking a vow of silence, talking to no other human beings, devoting
themselves to things like silent prayer, fasting, working in the garden, and
the like.   The Trappists were, so to
speak, trapped in a very quiet place.

you might imagine, I nearly jumped out of my skin when this ancient monk began
to strike up a conversation with me out of the blue!  In fact he talked a blue streak about Thomas
Merton and how he himself had arrived at the monastery before Merton, with a
little prompting and questioning from me.  
He informed me ‘we’re not as silent as we used to be.’   Clearly not!  

point is this–I would like to offer in this little study a workable model of
spiritual formation in a Wesleyan mode for the normal Christian life, that does
not put people on unnecessary guilt trips and does not encourage them to indulge
in spiritual navel gazing or focusing on their feelings.  I think there is much to be said on this
subject, and so this study will be divided into two major parts—- collective
practices that spiritually form us, and more individual practices that do so,
with the emphasis on the former.  Modern
Western Christians don’t need spiritual encouragement to be more
individualistic and self-centered.   To the contrary, they need more encouragement
to be integral parts of the body of Christ working and serving together.

a day and time when the Methodist movement is often seeing declining membership
at least in the West, it is time to do a rethink and a rewind on the subject of
spiritual formation.  We can’t just keep
walking down the road to Emmaus forever and think such retreats will cure all
our ills.  As valuable as such retreats
are, and indeed they are valuable and formative, they are not the stuff of day
to day spiritual formation and its praxis. It’s time to take the road less travelled
by.    The good news is it involves our
journeying together, not merely journaling alone.  Won’t you join in the journey?   I promise it will lead somewhere and to




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