“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”
Episcopal priest and theologian John Westerhoff, speaking about Christian formation, distinguishes between “nurture” and “conversion.” So often when we Christians do formation – like teach prayer, or talk about the importance of regular worship, or teach about the sacraments – we tend to talk in terms of nurture – how church consoles us, for example, or how prayer helps us get through our day. But nurture will take us only so far, says Westerhoff. A mature Christian faith – if we are truly to be the “salt of the earth” and the “lights of the world” – requires conversion: a deep-down, thorough and systemic transformation of the inner person.
We’ll get back to conversion, but first I want to speak to our present social and political environment. In the weeks since the inauguration, many have told me about the rallies they’ve attended, the letters they’ve sent or phone calls they’ve made, and the convictions they have regarding the environment or immigration or religious tolerance. An activism has been awakened, and I see a care for our nation that I haven’t seen in my lifetime, a desire to make a difference.
I also hear a desire for the Church weigh in on these issues. And we in the Episcopal Church have a history of doing so. The Episcopal Church has long stood up for minority rights. For years the Episcopal Church has been engaged in inter-faith dialogue. Especially in this Diocese the Episcopal Church has born witness to concerns about climate change and the environment. And recently we have been exploring how some of our parishes might be sanctuaries for immigrants and refugees.
I am proud of the Episcopal Church for our engagement with social issues, AND … I want to be sure that, as we engage in these issues, we do so as the Church. Any number of organizations can stand up for minority rights, speak to climate change and advocate for refugees and immigrants – and, thank God, many do. But the Church is more than another non-profit. The Church holds a vision for humanity and this world that is far more wide-ranging, far more all-encompassing, than that of any merely secular organization. And what the Church offers is the exact medicine this world needs. The world is counting on us to be ourselves, then – to be the Church – and to be and to do what only we can be and do.
I’m not going to tell what I think the world is counting on us to be and do. Kind of like in spiritual direction when a skilled director will not tell somebody how much God loves him or her but will instead let God tell the person how much God loves him or her, I would rather we heard God tell us who we are and what we can do. Which brings us back to formation.
One of our Church’s “limbs” in our “body” is the limb that works for social justice. This limb is connected to a larger body, a body that includes the “limbs” of Scripture, sacraments, prayer, community, Church polity, and so forth. If the limb of social justice is to work to maximum effect, it will do so only as it works in conjunction with the other members of the body, with the Sacraments, with the Scripture, with prayer and so forth. The key to exercising all those “limbs” and helping them to work together as a body is formation, an intentional effort to develop and deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ – a formation that not merely nurtures – that affirms us where we already are, that feeds us “milk,” as Paul puts it – but a formation that converts – that beckons us on, that gives us “solid food.” We already do good things and lives good lives, and many of our neighbors – be they Christian or not – already do good things and live good lives. But a formation that truly converts opens us up to the possibility of doing great things, and living a great life. Which is the life of Jesus Christ.
If we would live that great life, it will help to eat the “solid food” of things like:
- weekly participation in worship
- a full engagement in the Church’s sacramental life (like Eucharist and Reconciliation)
- a regular reading of Scripture
- regular time for prayer
- service to others
- regular Sabbath time
- and so forth
The more we take the initiative to eat this solid food and allow ourselves to be formed, the more the Spirit will not merely nurture but convert us, so that we may have “the mind of Christ,” so that we may live more fully the life of Christ. And those who regularly engage in formation discover that their worship, their prayer, their study, their service, is not just “one more thing” in an already-full schedule; rather, they discover that formation is the key to all that they do, energizing their lives – and their activities – with gratitude, meaning and joy.
An important element in formation is time. Formation can only happen to the extent that we invest the time to do it. Formation, then, is a matter of stewardship, of how we use the time God has given us. With Lent just over two weeks away, I invite us to consider the importance our faith to us, how we use our time, and if the importance of our faith is commensurate with the time we allot to it. As Emeritus Pope Benedict says, it is easy to let the things of God wait. Referring to the shepherds making haste to the manger, Benedict writes that “God does not [normally] figure among the things that require haste; the things of God can wait, we think and say. And yet, God is the most important thing; ultimately, the one truly important thing.”
As we consider our present political environment, as we consider the care we have for our nation, and as we consider our Christian faith and how God may be calling us to live as Christians in this world, I invite us to look forward to Lent. I invite us to look forward to Lent not merely as an opportunity for nurture, but for conversion. Our world is counting on us to be those people and to do those things that only we Christians can be and do. And the extent to which we are willing to invest the time in formation and open ourselves to the Spirit’s work of transformation is the extent to which we are open to being converted. Converted not into people who merely do good things and live good lives – plenty of people already do good things and live good lives. But into people who live great lives, people whose lives are being converted into the life of Him whom the world needs but doesn’t always know, the life of Him whose body and blood we will shortly receive in the Eucharist. The life of Jesus Christ.