“How can the church become what it is truly meant to be?”
I first heard this question from a religion professor while I was in college. In four-plus decades since, I have listened to it more times than I can number. The question varies in expression and often rings more sharply than the query I heard long ago.
“My heavens, how can we get some life back into our church?!”
“How can we cease snarling at one another?”
“Can’t we do something for Christ rather than perpetually talk about doing something?”
In whatever form the question comes, it acknowledges something fundamental in Christian understanding: the transformation offered us in Christ is not just personal; it is also corporate. If we are part of the community that bears his name, then we are part of a sacred fellowship that, by any measure, bears something essential for the whole human family. We are to be salt for the earth, light for a darkened world (Matt. 5:13-16).
Forming the Soul
Dark Nights and Bright Mornings
by Dave Johnson
Friendship And Direction
Willing To Change
Habits That Transform
Despite how hard we often tend to work at it, Christian spiritual transformation is not something we are either responsible for or able to do much about. It is God’s business. And we should be careful to keep our noses out of God’s business and mind our own.
Self-improvement spirituality is the offspring of the therapeutic culture of the late twentieth century and the spirituality culture of the opening decade of the twenty-first. It is far too narcissistic and willful to be of the Spirit. Getting our spiritual act together is not the point of Christ following. God is that point. Even checking to see how my transformation is going is a distraction that merely shifts my attention from God to myself. The self-preoccupation this involves gets in the road of seeing where God is actually at work—something we are seldom able to glimpse because God’s ways are not our ways. Have no doubt about it; God is at work making all things new in Christ. But the way God does this is much more like the mustard seed in the story Jesus told in the Gospels than the sort of triumphalistic stories we want to hear—and sometimes tell each other. It happens in the darkness beyond our sight, and it seems to take forever.
While God’s work in our depths is beyond our control, we can cooperate with it. We do this by making space for God and for the things that bring God to us and open us to God. One of the most transformational ways we can do this is by turning toward God, as we can, in openness and surrender.
This is where contemplation enters in. Contemplation is not merely a style of relating to God or the world that is suitable for those of a certain disposition or personality type. Contemplation is important for all of us who seek to make space for God. Contemplation is as basic as turning and looking.
Recall the story of Moses, the children of Israel, and the poisonous snakes in the wilderness. After many of them were bitten and started to die, God told Moses to create a bronze replica of the snake and hold it high on a rod, instructing people to look at it and be healed. In doing so, Moses illustrated the role of artist as healer—creating a work of art that others, by gazing on it, might experience a restoration of well-being and a renewal of life that has been lost. He also offered a prototype of the contemplation that has been encouraged by the cover art and guided meditation on it that has been part of each issue of Conversations to this point.
Stillness before God is essential for the deep encounter with self and God that forms the core of spiritual transformation. Our part is to make time and space for that encounter in stillness. Contemplation is an important way in which we can do this. Most essentially, it is simply being still before God in openness and trust and turning our attention from ourselves to God.
With this issue we end our regular involvement with Conversations. When we signed on to our respective roles at the launch of the journal, we made a commitment to support the project through its first seven years of development. That has happened, and we now look forward to turning our responsibilities over to others as we move on to new opportunities. Thanks be to God for grace and blessings received over the course of these seven years and fourteen issues. And blessings on those who now carry the journal forward. May we all continue to learn how to keep our focus on God and make space in stillness for the deep meeting of God and self that is the gift of our new life in Christ.
—David & Juliet Benner
A Note from the Editors:
We are grateful for the gifts and talents that David and Juliet have brought to the pages of Conversations over these past years. We are also blessed that Conversations will remain in dialogue with the Benners. In our upcoming issues, we will continue to hear their wisdom, through interviews with David and features on their upcoming projects. David will also continue on our masthead as one of the three executive editors, along with Larry Crabb and Gary W. Moon. Please join us in praying for and blessing the Benners as they pursue God by embracing new opportunities in their journey.
I remember the first time I noticed that some people arrange their lives to see sunsets. It was summertime in the Gulf of Florida when the days were hot and the nights were balmy. During the day, crowds of people were out lying in the sun and playing noisily on the beach, but in the early evening the real sun lovers came out. These were the ones who planned their whole day around seeing the sunset; in the early evening they would emerge from their condos with beach chairs and maybe a glass of wine. They would position their chairs at the edge of the water and settle in as though they were awaiting the beginning of a much-anticipated movie or play. At first there was chatting, but as the sun sank lower in the sky, people would become quiet; couples would lean in closer to each other; children would stop their playing, and beachcombers would pause just to watch. As the sun hung low on the horizon, pregnant with color, and the cloud formations glowed from the inside out, a reverent hush would descend upon all who were gathered. In that fullness of time no words were necessary. It was enough just to be in the presence of such beauty.