I often get asked, “What is spiritual formation?” Instead of responding with a definition or list of practices, I usually ask folks to think about their gut reactions to life’s circumstances and what shapes those reactions.
Several years ago, as plans were being made for my ordination, the church decided to give me a robe for worship as a gift. It was to be a surprise, so my husband was asked to get measurements of my height and neck so the robe could be ordered. Height went smoothly. I didn’t pay much attention to him asking me how tall I was, other than to wonder why he still didn’t know this after 20 years. But the decision to get my neck size in the middle of the night while I was asleep may not have been completely thought through.
If you want to test your gut reactions, wake up and find your spouse tightening a rope around your neck. Ok, maybe it was just string. At 1 a.m. it’s a noose. If you knew me, you’d probably be thinking, like I was, that I had finally run my mouth one too many times. My gut reaction was to lie perfectly still and pretend to be asleep – which I’m told bodes well for me if I’m ever attacked by a bear. “Wow,” I remember thinking as I peered out of a slit in one eye. “So this is how I am going to die.”
My mind feverishly searched through the events and conversations of the previous day, as he slowly pulled on the anchor line to secure a good fit. (The robe really is a bit snug at the neck…)
Nothing. Of course there was nothing – except the persistent thoughts that overshadowed all the others – that my husband really does love me, is far too good a man to go down like a Lifetime movie villain, and was not crazy enough to raise four kids by himself. As the rope shrunk in power to its true string state, the dots of ordination and robes and measurements began to connect in my head. It took all the restraint I had not to grin and spoil the surprise.
Gut reactions. That’s what spiritual formation is all about — engaging in practices that train our gut reactions to be by faith and not fear; that shape how we instinctively see the world and solidify our trust in what we know to be true.
We come across “string” all the time and panic that it’s rope. Our minds run ahead of us all the way to death’s door or utter destruction before God ever has a chance to whisper that the comment we misinterpreted or the slight we misconstrued or the obstacle that is in fact very real is actually being made into a bow on a gift God is trying to give us and not something that should tie us in knots.
At the slightest hint of trouble, our defenses can cause us to believe the worst motives in people we trust, underestimate people we love. It can make the journey very lonely, and keep us from ever accomplishing the really good stuff together.
This is my “String Theory.” Most of us keep getting tied up by the same string in our lives. Your string is different than mine, but we both know the frustration of getting tangled up … in the same way… again and again. The question is, what are you doing to put your gut reactions in God’s hands… before they happen?