December 2, 2020

Another Look: Seasons and Paths of Formation

Through the Field...another walk, Photo by David Cornwell

Through the Field…another walk, Photo by David Cornwell

Little children, I’m writing to you because your sins have been forgiven through Jesus’ name. Parents, I’m writing to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I’m writing to you because you have conquered the evil one. Little children, I write to you because you know the Father. Parents, I write to you because you have known the one who has existed from the beginning. Young people, I write to you because you are strong, the word of God remains in you, and you have conquered the evil one.

• 1John 2:12-14 CEB

• • •

One fact I did not understand when I was younger is that life is made up of different seasons and circumstances that can virtually define any given time in life, or even the entirety of your life. I could hardly grasp that I would be called to adapt and change and learn and respond differently — sometimes for extended periods of time — regarding aspects of life over which I would have little control. I still find it hard to deal with change and disruption of my plans and expectations. And if this is true of me, one who has lived a relatively trouble-free life, what of others who have faced monumental challenges and tragic life-altering situations?

A lot of “discipleship” does not take this into account either, but comes across as generic and all-purpose, a program for all audiences — read your Bible, pray, get involved in church, find places to serve.

What they never tell you is that you and life and God and work and relationships and the way you think about all these things and what you need to flourish in life and love is different at age 22 than it is at 35 and very different at 50 or 65. Discipleship programs rarely, if ever, let you in on the secret that you may have to trudge through vast swaths of wilderness in your life, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and threatened by heat stroke. Nor do they talk about the challenges of good times and the temptations of prosperity and the successful seasons of life and the fact that they may or may not contribute to one’s personal growth.

They also don’t take into account that each person has his or her own inner landscape, climate, and weather — that life with its seasons and circumstances looks and feels somewhat different to each individual.

There is a conformist tendency in institutional religion which suggests that because we’re all in this together, we must learn to deal with life in basically the same manner. This effectively disregards the apprenticeship approach Jesus took with his disciples and the apostles’ insistence that we live in the freedom of the Spirit.

This presents a great challenge for ministers and congregations who want to encourage spiritual formation in their churches. Taking each person’s unique situation into account and responding with grace and edifying love can be daunting.

Brothers and sisters, we ask you to respect those who are working with you, leading you, and instructing you. Think of them highly with love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else.

• 1Thess 5:12-15 CEB

There are many aspects of church life in which we are called to be formed in Christ together — worship through Word and Sacrament and catechesis, to name two — nevertheless all of us must also learn to walk in newness of life as individuals who have died and been raised up in Christ.

As a parent, one of the most surprising things I had to face was how different each of my children would be. I had to learn how to balance giving attention to their individual stories with composing our larger family story. This is the same challenge the church faces. There is no one-size-fits-all discipleship “program.” Run as fast as you can from any church that gives you the impression they think there is.

Another false notion about the seasons and circumstances of spiritual formation is that they lead to perceptible progress in the believer’s life. As though there is a definable pattern of personal development. Over the years, the spiritual life has been likened to a journey. That suggests a road with recognizable landmarks and destinations. It has also been envisioned in terms of climbing a ladder, though Protestants have usually been suspicious of this as advocating a system of meritorious works. And this is not a leftover relic from medieval theology. Mission statements of many contemporary churches are quite explicit that they expect certain measurable evidences of “growth” to become apparent in the lives of their members.

However, in Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, a book of Henri Nouwen’s teachings on the spiritual life, we read this different perspective:

The movements of the Spirit, Nouwen observed within himself and in others, tend to come in cycles throughout our lives, with only a broad and hardly predictable progressive order. Instead of stepping up to higher and higher stages, as if achieving one stage leads to the next level and the next, we tend to vacillate back and forth between the poles that we seek to resolve. We move “from fear to love” and then back “from love to fear,” for example in a dynamic process that is never complete. Rather than resolving the tensions once and for all, the movements continue to call us to conversion and transformation.

As I’ve said before, this leads me to be reticent about promoting the idea of “growth” or “transformation” as though this is something that can be clearly observed or that “progress” can be marked as an unambiguous fact. As Nouwen himself writes:

After many years of seeking to live a spiritual life, I still ask myself, “Where am I as a Christian?” — “How far have I advanced?” — “Do I love God more now than earlier in my life?” — “Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path?” Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. There are just as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. Many of the real struggles of twenty or forty years ago are still very much with me. I am still searching for inner peace, for creative relationships with others, and for a deeper experience of God. And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.

…it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.

Seasons come and seasons go. We travel onward in our journey with Christ. Where we are on the road at any given point in time is debatable from our point of view. What we can know, and what we must cling to, is that Christ has called and enabled us to be with him on the road, that he is with us, that he will not forsake us, and that he picks us up every time we fall.

The Lord directs the steps of the godly.
He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fall,
for the Lord holds them by the hand.

• Psalm 37:23-24 NLT


  1. A great teacher in the faith, Dr. Bruce Morgan, used to say, “It takes T..I..M..E.” He would get adamant about that. We must all become seasoned and must embrace the seasons as they come. There is no skipping or getting around. No season is without its joys and none is without its pains. We are better equipped to exercise patience and exhibit grace with ourselves and our loved ones when we are appreciating the crucial nature of life’s phases in influencing who and how we are at a given time. There are times when it’s simply a matter of hanging on and getting through.

  2. Thank you CM.

  3. Great article and picture. Very encouraging.

  4. As someone who has embarked upon a season of uncertainly that began only last week, thank you CM for this encouragement today. I really needed to read this. It gives me hope……….

  5. Thank you CM. Great article. Other than Nouwen, are there any books you would recommend?

  6. >>And I have no way of knowing if the small psychological and spiritual changes during the past decades have made me more or less a spiritual person.…it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit.

    I realize this piece is trying to present a balanced picture and that there are two sides to the coin, but this is just flat out wrong and extremely misleading. I have been pushing hard to get as far along as possible in this school of life with Jesus now for over forty years. All along the way I have made periodic stops, turned around and looked behind me to see whether in fact I am further along the trail, higher up the mountain, advanced from a year ago, even a month ago, in wisdom and knowledge and understanding. Sometimes the gains are small, sometimes it feels like I’m losing ground, but I would not go back one minute. If I did not feel as if I were growing in the life of the Spirit after all this effort, I would be in total despair.

    I want to make it quite plain that I do not regard whatever progress I have made as a result of my effort. The result has been entirely a gift from God our Father, but my cooperation has been necessary in order to take advantage of the gift. I also want to make it quite plain that my effort has been often embarrassing in its puniness. I have given it my best shot, but I’m not anywhere near being poster boy. Still and all, I look at where I was forty years ago and I cringe. This is measurable. I’ve come a long way, and I’ve got a long way to go.

    My measurement should not be your measurement, but there is measurement. I have found the Map of Consciousness developed by David R. Hawkins to be most helpful, but you can find maps of consciousness in the Bible and you can look within. Yes, progress is often made three steps forward and two back, and is highly individualistic, but it is there for the taking. It’s the whole point to this mess we call life on Earth. To suggest that this is futile and totally outside our control is a great disservice to those starting out on the Way. The results are outside our control but not the effort. Look at Jesus. Look at Paul. This stuff is hard work. They did not work in their own power but that of Spirit. We are called to do likewise.

    • –> “I realize this piece is trying to present a balanced picture and that there are two sides to the coin, but this is just flat out wrong and extremely misleading.”

      Charles, you’re in danger of becoming one of those people whose first instinct is to point out the flaw in everything.

      • Rick, that may be a natural bent in my way of seeing things, but I try not to express it unless I think it is important and capable of doing damage. There has been a lot of damage done to the church over the past two thousand years, from internal sources, and people new to the Way of Jesus are pretty much at the mercy of whoever they pay attention to. Yes, we all need to work our way thru the mess, but I wish someone had been pointing out that there were alternative ways of seeing things as I battled thru on my own. I have changed my mind about many things along the way and expect more to come, but if something has held true for me the whole way thru I feel fairly confident I am on solid ground. Without some kind of measurement, none of this would make sense to me, we could all just be pew potatoes and wait for heaven some day. I know people who are at the same level of spiritual developement they were forty years ago except they have more gray hair. I believe the only thing that will be asked on the other side is what we did with what we were given.

        I will say that I believe Henri Nouwen is a balanced teacher overall. This today was obviously excerpted from his total work, but a newbie would not know that. It was the particular emphasis on the unreality of spiritual progress I objected to as unbalanced. If I did not feel that I had made spiritual progress after forty years of hard work, I can not think of anything more dispiriting and discouraging and contrary to the good news of healing available in the Way of Jesus.

    • What you say makes sense: If you can’t see signs that you’ve progressed, how can you find encouragement to keep going, or that you’re even going the right way or doing anything healthful?

      Still, though, I really like what Nouwin says about not insisting on always measuring or interrogating. Life is messy. Perhaps what I am going to say here is only evidence that I have a melancholic personality, but I find the ebb and flow of my interior life to be far more cyclical than it is linear. Particularly with regard to feelings of despair or hope about things faith-related, there have been several difficult periods interrupted by better ones. I’ve been through the cycle enough times to know to anticipate it. Trying to run a self-assessment during the darker moments of the cycle tends to compound the problem. I’ve had to learn to how to stop myself from doing it.

      Speaking just to the despair/hope cycle I alluded to: Looking back on … almost 20 years(!) … of this happening, I might be bold enough to say that I don’t always wind up in the same place each time. I might say that each go with it, or certain ones anyway, have nudged me a little further in a direction. I might point to one or two times that were particularly meaningful, where the path turned. I do think I’ve managed to eek some benefit out of it. It has, at least, forced me toward a place where I’ve been gotten to, or been forced into, a sense of reliance on God’s love. I’ve had to learn how to dwell on that, which I’ve finally understood as a practice and one I find very comforting and good. It also means I’ve had to figure out how to turn away from some older but deep fears about who God is or what could be true. Maybe, rather than ping-ponging quite so badly between poles, I’ve managed hold to old faith and doubt, confidence and fear at the same time, which means on one hand that I never really escape, but at least I can live with the arrangement.

      But, you know, all this requires keeping one’s balance, and there’s little doubt in my mind that there will be wave at some point, and over I’ll go. The end of chaplain mike’s essay is the pivot – God either keeps us or he does not. I try to pray like he does, like he keeps everything and is everywhere.

      • If the path is neither merely linear nor circular, but a kind of corkscrewing forward in which we meet the same issues as we traverse the curves that move forward even as they move around the same positional arcs, then meeting the same life-themes again and again does not always have to mean that we’re stuck. It may mean that we have moved further along, though there is more to deal with of the same kind of stuff; we’re not moving in circles, we’re moving ahead, but our movement ahead encompasses a moving around the same kinds of arcs, even though they too have moved ahead with us. This may feel much like starting from the beginning all over again, and yet not be; perhaps there’s hope to be found in that possibility.

        • Robert, my take on what you say here is that if we repeatedly meet the same pattern in different clothes, it’s a good indication that we aren’t learning the lesson we need to get down in order to move on to the next grade. Speaking personally, I recognize patterns from a long time ago, childhood, maybe before, that I still haven’t learned how to deal with. These are opportunities that apparently will be given to us over and over again until we either wake up and smell the coffee or die.

          I wish I could say that I always do what’s right and makes sense and accords with what I know of God’s will. Today I am bouncing between C+ and D-, but so far haven’t hit F, and yes, those are measurements.. Still a couple of hours to go before I turn in. These are things I can see in myself today going back when I was young, age of accountability, maybe younger, maybe born with them. Basic issues of ego, life and death in seeming importance, something to be understood, dealt with, overcome. Picking up our cross means we choose death to ego if it comes to that. Ego goes down kicking and screaming and demanding its sovereign rights as Lord of the Universe. This is not easy, this does not get solved with facile words and platitudes.

          When I was in junior high school, at that time the policy was to not automatically pass difficult students but to keep them behind until they mercifully turned 16 and could legally go their own way. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that position. It must have been excruciating for them. I remember a guy who was essentially a grown man being publicly paddled in class for what must have been a minor infraction or expression of resentment. If he didn’t end up dead or in prison it was a miracle indeed. Jesus help us all.

          • Charles, I mean to say this in the gentlest and most irenic way I can; please forgive me if it is not gentle or irenic enough: Be careful that, in clenching your teeth to work up the will to allow your ego to die if necessary, you are not actually feeding your ego tremendous energy and hardening it into an unyielding and diamond-like pinpoint, invisible to you but of immense density and mass. This danger is why Taoism and Soto Zen have always stressed the importance of wu wei, of finding the flow of things and riding it, rather than working one’s ego into a state one deems necessary to “learn one’s lessons.” My comment above is not about bearing down and making sure we learn our lessons, but about trusting that the grace of things, our moving forward despite ourselves, will bring us back to the places we need to revisit, in this life and the next. I expect that the themes we master in this effort are never left behind, but incorporated into the music we are moving toward; we shall revisit those themes forever, but I hope that one day they will enrich, and no longer torment, us.

          • David Cornwell says

            Charles, it’s late now, but I really do not understand these grades or stages you seem to be giving yourself. Where do you find warrant for them in scripture? I read about love, joy, peace, etc as the fruit of the Spirit, but I do not see where we are to strive from stage to stage or for the seeking after grades. If this is the way, then I’m afraid we all fail.

          • Robert, thanks. This has been a severely hard day for me and this is my second nudge. I need to go to bed but I will certainly think about what you have said here and give it every consideration. Thanks again.

        • Danielle says

          “…This may feel much like starting from the beginning all over again, and yet not be; perhaps there’s hope to be found in that possibility.”

          Robert, I think there is a lot of hope in that possibility. It makes sense that repetition, even as one moves forward (or creeps, as the case may be) is part of being and becoming. If one could leave something behind easily or entirely, I suppose this would mean it was inconsequential and meant nothing. If God meets us along the roads we are on, perhaps also what is found there can and is also incorporated into who are and how we love. Maybe things aren’t left behind so much as transformed by degrees.

          Thanks for the encouraging thought.

  7. I see spiritual progress or growth as it is with physical growing (up). It’s a (new) birth, and there is this slow growth/physical change(s), and there every year/step is a different season and brings different changes–we can see and feel the change(s), and we are the same person as when we were born….but, different as we reflect on who we truly are–and we know we change, regret, confess, etc, but in that, we are to keep our eyes fixed on the One who brings about all of it in us. As physically we can’t cause or stop or change our rate of growth,etc., so spiritually, The Holy Spirit is directing and forming us spiritually. Yes, we can be rebellious in that process–I see that as part of the journey–but, at the end of the day, it’s not about me or my growth, etc…it’s Christ living in me, and me dying to self daily. The minute I think I’ve achieved something…is the very moment I need to realize….ummm, nope, I haven’t.

  8. Elegantly said, today, Chap Mike. So basic it gets overlooked, IMO. I’ll be sharing (perhaps) on making successful, healthy transitions in life as part of our life group interaction. Our group is 50 and up…. this post will be excellent food for thought…. and Henri Nouwen a blessed bonus.

    greg r

  9. David Cornwell says

    I have had recurrent dreams that play out in trial and frustration. In the dream I am on a trip— a walking toward what seems to be a very long distance. The road is somewhat like the one in my photo at the top of the page, however in a place that seems even more rural, more remote, and much longer. If I look at a history of my photographs down through the years, roads and paths of different sorts are shown again and again. In the dream the road is very long, dusty, and without a discernible end in sight.

    Sometimes, up ahead, I can see a crossroad. However I cannot remember ever reaching it. It just stays up there, ahead, but not getting any nearer. I walk and walk, and then realize that I’ve made no real progress. I’m walking, striving, but not arriving. In fact the scenery stays about the same.

    Once the dream was different. Once. And I’ve never been able to call it back into existence. Maybe some good night. Sometimes in my dreams a mountain has been discernible in the far distance. Normally, it’s just there. I never get any nearer. However this one time the dream was about being on the mountaintop. The journey, itself, wasn’t part of it. I was there, on top. I could look out in the distance and see the beautiful view on all sides. And the mountain itself, was very high, very beautiful. It was full of color and trees and vegetation. All was good. I wanted to stay.

    The dream was of short duration. I woke up feeling good, at peace, and a knowledge that all is well. I’ve wanted to return, sometimes desperately, but it escapes me. Yet I feel that somehow this is my destination.

    I have to agree with what Chaplain Mike and Nouwen are saying in this piece. Changes come with seasons, and in many ways there is not what we like to call progress, just changes and the vacillating back and forth from the poles we want to resolve. And “the movements continue to call us to conversion and transformation.” To speak of reaching higher and higher stages seems to be a reversion to a type of gnosticism that speaks of spiritual elitism, and fails to show us all at the foot of the cross.

    Coming from a heritage of Wesleyanism, there is one strain that talks about “perfect love” or being made perfect in love. However I’m not sure how this perfection can be measured. The Sin that resides in us, each of us, is deceptive. Perfect love starts with the Jesus of the cross where judgement lays waste to all of our supposed goodness. This is where our journey begins, and ends.

  10. Looking back over my life as a Jesus follower, the best I can say is that a whole lot of stuff has happened and a whole lot of changes have occurred — and some of these changes and this stuff God has used to speak into my life. Here and there, I have learned a thing or two, though, to be honest, there is problably a whole lot more that I’m still being hard-headed and/or hard-hearted about.
    But given the difference between the way I see things and the way God sees them, trying to definitively measure my own spiritual progress is questionable at best. To me, being stuck in a dead end job year after year after year certainly appears and feels like a negative. But I have to admit I have learned a thing or two about long-suffering, humility, and self-control during my time in this sand trap. Scripture makes it clear that dying to self is part of our spiritual journey with Christ. But any way you slice it, dying (even for a greater good) still feels like dying.

  11. Christiane says

    ” . . . it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit” (Henri Nouwen)

    and so Nouen took his own advice when, troubled in spirit, he left the high-profile life of a famous author and lecturer at Ivy League colleges,
    and he sought the sanctuary to be found as a humble servant to severely disabled people at L’Arche, where in time, he was given the peace that he sought . . .

    how many of us would walk away from fame and fortune to come to a place where the ones we serve needed us utterly for help with feeding, bathing, and dressing? Would we ‘count the cost’ of leaving behind the pinnacle of our accomplishments and would we be deterred by the great need of the humble persons in a facility for the physically and mentally disabled?

    the things of the Spirit . . . we may be seeking comfort too much in worldly benefits . . . we may be greatly overlooking the peace to be found in living in service to others more needy for help than ourselves

    Nouen found healing for his spirit in a place far from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League . . . and he found this peace in the simple acts of caring for the needs of helpless individuals . . . there is some wisdom here for us to recognize, I think

  12. This is often what my spiritual life, my life, feels like:

    And maybe that’s alright.

  13. Dana Ames says

    Thanks, CM – wisdom, let us attend. Doesn’t contradict what Charlie (F.) wrote; it’s a both/and deal.

    Great to see David’s beautiful photo, too.

    The older I get, the more certain scripture passages mean to me. One of those is 1 John 3:2:
    Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.


  14. “He will obliterate Republicans further down the ticket in 2016 and 2020, smear conservatism as nothing more than his own brand of narcissism, and destroy decades of hard work, including Ronald Reagan’s legacy.”

    Trump is a symptom, not the disease itself. Trump is not ruining the party; it was ruined before he showed up. The hard choice for the party leaders is to pin the blame on Trump or rid the party of neo-conservatives, the Tea Party, and, yes, the Rockefeller era conservatives. As I have said before, Trump didn’t game the system; it was already reduced to a game.