Recently, as a birthday gift, my son took me to a lecture by David Brooks, New York Times columnist, commentator on PBS News Hour and Meet the Press, and author of The Road to Character. One of Brooks’ major themes in the book and in the lecture is: We all need “a moral vocabulary and a set of moral tools, developed over centuries and handed down from generation to generation.” Repeatedly he pointed out that if young people are not given words that describe and define moral values, they may be lost to the call of the “achievement society.”
Because I am a word person (as is David Brooks), I mulled over the idea that before we can understand a principal we have to have the words on which to hang the principal. It reminded me of a conversation I had on that same day about how hard is to create sustained interest in the concept of spiritual formation. Perhaps, I thought, we have to lay the groundwork first by teaching the vocabulary of spiritual formation. Perhaps people need the words before they will invest in the process.
Most churchgoers hang their personal spiritual growth on three hooks: attending church, prayer, and reading the Bible. Because they were raised on this vocabulary, it’s relatively easy to build a story around those words to motivate commitment to those practices. However, spiritual formation is all about a journey, a “long obedience in the same direction.” It’s about a life-time willingness to walk with God, a training in Christ-like character. Being formed spiritually over a lifetime means training in Christ-likeness for a lifetime.
People often shy away from these explanations of spiritual growth. So perhaps we need to begin teaching them the vocabulary of spiritual growth.What words can we encourage people to add to their spiritual vocabulary? Here are a few suggestions: surrender, intimacy with God, sabbath rest, solitude, silence, simplicity, awe, community, accountability, paradox, forgiveness and making amends, true self/false self, practicing the presence of God, gratitude, etc.
And how can those of us interested in changing our church culture teach or create stories about these words? First, we have to soak in these words ourselves. Do these words motivate your life? Do these words come up in family conversations? Do you read books featuring these words? Do you think about these words during the week – or only during church? Are you intentionally training yourself to grow in the practice of these words. Do you share your experiences with these words with friends and strangers?
Then, we live every day as an apprentice of Jesus, walking in the dust of the Rabbi and inviting others to join us.
image of butterfly from barclaycollege.edu