Beyond the Present Form
Joyful funerals, cross country skiing, and soul silence
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 • Psalm 62:5-12 • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 • Mark 1:14-20
I was depressed for several days last week. With little else cheering me up (not that I was trying hard), yesterday I drove past snowmobile trails in five-degree weather, my car bumping along the potholes of Cemetary Road through the gorgeous valley vistas, to go to Pastor Nathan Strong’s funeral.
Pastor Nate served Albany United Methodist Church for 31 years. I never met him, at least, not directly. I just met him through other people. In what his daughter called a testament to his relational ministry, the Albany Community School gym was packed—standing room only, way too much love to fit in any small church around here. As the area’s newest and practically anonymous pastor, it was an inspiring and humbling sight, making me think about what I’m actually called to do here.
But what was more inspiring than all the people was how joyful the service was. There was an overwhelming sense of “blessed assurance,” that while one version of Pastor Strong was gone, a new version had come into being.
Also-yesterday, a Twitter friend asked, “Are we always in a perpetual state of becoming? Do people in the last stages of life also feel as though they are becoming the fullest versions of themselves?” The answer to number one is yes. And while the answer to question two is “people don’t always feel that way,” by the witness of his family, Pastor Nate was always beaming about meeting Christ in a future fullness. They did not force this witnessing, it just was what it was. A joy born of trust.
Christianity attests to the truth that we are always re-forming. We are clay on the wheel.1 We are always moving beyond our passing “present form,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:31, and by faith, we know this is actually good news. This is why we do things like singing hymns while staring at Middle School Chess State Champion banners swaying over an old wheeled-in upright piano, a buffet of deserts waiting in the wings as photos of Pastor Nate welcomed us into joy beside his casket.
The other inspiring thing from yesterday was Rev. Dean Wheeler’s eulogy empahsis on marriage. It is fitting that marriage is core to the rest of 1 Corinthians 7, part of our lectionary readings today, which illuminates one theology of spiritual formation in the Church.
But first, a word about spiritual formation. This is the kind of thing I will eventually elaborate on as a theology of Reformed mysticism in standalone posts, but I’m slipping it here now.
An interlude on spiritual formation
Spiritual formation is a fraught concept in Protestantism. Perhaps properly so, for our spirits are acceptable enough by God in whatever form they’re in, as are our souls in their meaty Accessory Dwelling Units known as our bodies.2 We cannot do anything to fine-tune our souls, neither tricking nor manipulating God into forming us how we want. Okay, that’s our soul, salvation type stuff—but what about our spirits here and now?
If there’s anything for us to do in our spiritual formation, it’s accept God’s invitation for us in each moment into grace. This should, in theory, cause us to become more authentically like Christ. But that’s another issue—like Christ, or like our mental idea of Christ that can never capture the true Christ? In trying to form ourselves into a Jesus shape, we can sometimes exile and expel unpleasant emotions from the Christian life because we don’t think they’re Christ-like. For example, we associate most forms of anger or spiritual aggression with Paul rather than Christ, but as Andrew Reeves pointed out, this seems to die upon first contact with the New Testament.
Another issue with modern spiritual formation is that it might lead to a sort of mushy mysticism, the invoking of non-duality to do whatever we want that gives us energy and call it spiritual formation. For example, psychedelic evangelist Rick Doblin has often confused (his preferred) drug-induced states as true “spirituality” that must enlighten traditional religious people. I should know; I once believed him.
Instead, I’ve often found Paul and Christian spiritual formation as closer to Zen than meets the eye. Sparing everyone a deep dive here at the expense of a frivolous skim, the wu wei of Zen is in its non-doing; striving is the sin. In the same way, our striving to form our spirits in our Soul Improvement image is the kind of ambition that is “the mother of all heresies.” But Zennists also admit that, ultimately, we must decide to do something while we’re doing nothing. Likewise, Paul’s ethics gives us things to do as Christians while remembering the true author of good doings is not us, but Christ in us. Thus, for Christians, it is also about doing while non-doing, authentically acting as our unique part in Christ’s body, grounded in freedom in Christ, guided by his fulfillment of the Law. Like many ancient and modern Zen practitioners in their own logics, this “freedom in” does not lend itself to totally libertine actions, but a spiritual life of discipline and waiting, while also believing none of this makes us right before God. It is just our way to better embrace the gift.
Our spirits are re-forming whether we choose to or not. Other, less-holy spirits compete with us for ours. A Reformed mystical understanding of spiritual formation is found in the paradox of active waiting, active inaction, doing without doing.
We can do this because our trust in God begets trusting God not just in who we are and whose we are, but in who we are becoming in God. The same is true—so I hear—of marriage.
A rumor about good marriages
In yet another episode of “Joe sacrifices nuance at the altar of efficiency,” an important part of the Christian theology of marriage is in how it mirrors God’s covenant with with us. It is a covenant not only with us as we are, but who we become.
I have no marriage experience myself. But as Christian author Gretchen Ronnevik shared the thoughts of her premarital counselor, “Marriage isn't about holding to the ideals of your youth. It's about loving the other person well as they grow and change, as life throws many challenges. That means as a couple you have to be flexible. Maybe she don't like staying at home. Maybe it works for awhile, and then it doesn’t. Maybe the family needs the money. Maybe everything is fine, and you'll always stay home. But it's not about just loving the person they are now, it's committing to loving the person they will become. Your commitment is to each other, not your ideals."
Unfortunately, I know many people who this didn’t work for no matter how hard they tried. On the flipside, I know many older couples out there could tell me about who your partner was 40, 50, or more years ago. Some might say you’re with the exact same person, but also, in many ways a very different person. Successful marriages, it seems, have partners still loving each other in their becoming even more than the “present form” they were in when they met—older couples, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments on this. And sometimes, marriages just break down because we’re not God. Our promises aren’t as certain, we screw up royally, and some of our actions can’t be undone, and words can’t be unsaid, even if they’re forgiven.
Whatever our relationship to relationships, we are called to love God even more than the best of the best things in this world. This is what I re-learned at Pastor Strong’s funeral in hearing about his devotion to his marriage, trumped only by the couple’s mutual higher devotion to God. I am grateful to say I have also seen this in my parents. They teach us that we love God more not because we aren’t to love the best things and people in the world, but by loving God is actually how we love them.
In light of this, when Paul says in 1 Cor 7:29-30, “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions,” he is not saying neglect your marriage vows and be a stoic robot. As part of what theologian and scholar David Garland calls “compressed time,” Garland notes that Paul still calls us to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.3 But we hold it all lightly in the blanket of assurance. As Garland describes Paul’s thought, “Nothing in this physical world seen and experienced by our physical senses has any enduring character—including marriages, weepings, rejoicings, possessions, and business opportunities. The fabric of life is just that, a fabric, frayed and flimsy, and nothing eternal…laughter and tears are not the last word.”4
In other words, we can live with the assurance that this is none of our final forms. As Paul says even more definitively in 1 Cor 7:32: “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Like marriages—so I hear—this is easier said than done.
In trusting God, we accept the gift to be re-formed by God beyond our present form. Whether we’re married or not, and whether our marriages have been healthy or not—and I have too many friends and family who have painfully felt that “not” —as Christians we have committed to being in it with God, and God has committed to be with us beyond today’s present form. After all, God himself came into the world in the new form of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit continues to take new forms in our world. God’s gonna stay the same, but the form God will show up in will change. And like a better marriage partner than we can ever be, he is promising us that he is loving us as we are becoming something other than what we currently are. In fact, he is loving us into our becoming.
Okay, but, that whole trusting in God to free us from anxieties thing. Sounds awesome. But how do we do that? The same way we ski.
Skiing and Soul Silence
I’ve been learning how to cross-country ski, which is to say I’ve been learning the taste of snow and the feel of it filling my jacket as I embrace the ground. I have no choice—Craftsbury is cross-country skiing Rome, so I’ve gotta learn to be more Roman. And what I’m learning is it’s about a kind of process. Specifically, the process of looking ahead rather than down at your feet.
I have all of three weeks more cross-country skiing experience than marriage experience. But as my instructor Kara has taught our class of adult Bambis, when we look down at our feet, gripping hard to poles for balance, obsessing over doing it just right, we become far less balanced than when we just trust in the technique. For learners, we can’t even trust in our current technique, we have to trust in developing a technique we don’t even have yet, shifting weight back and forth, looking just a little farther ahead.
Paul is telling us something similar. Look ahead past the things that are passing away. Look beyond the form. This is the process of Christianity that relaxes our anxieties of the world even while we’re acting in it, shifting our weight back and forth, putting our faith in God and God alone.
But I can still hear how trite this sounds to people who don’t feel it already. The best way I can describe it is the posture of Psalm 62, something we can call “soul silence.”
Like I talked about last week with Quakers and the prophets, a listening silence plays an important part of our prayer life. Our psalm today captures this perfectly with its refrain, translated by the NRSV: “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”
1 For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
This is not just audio silence, which passes like any form. A soul silence is a silence in ourselves even when it is noisy outside. A soul silence even when the world is insane, when our marriages aren’t so picture perfect, when we’re weeping (or rejoicing) at funerals, or we’re caught out over our skis. Our souls can wait for God in silence even as we’re crashing—especially as we are.
So I encourage you like we did last week to wait for God in soul silence wherever you’re reading this. Just take a long period of time in listening for God. A physical silence is not the truest silence, but it is a helpful sign. The Signified speaks in it, through it, above it, beyond it.
Jesus invites us to share in this life of waiting for God, to follow him out of the darkness of Jonah’s fish in “fishing for people,” to help each other be free from anxieties and look past our skis. To trust him and our place in his body in his Way, forming beyond our present form together, not by our doing, but by God’s. It’s not just about loving each other as we are now, but loving each other as we’ll become.
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This is an affordable housing inside joke.
Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), p. 491. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.