The UnFormation Age: Reclaiming the Lost Art of Christian Mysticism

“A mystic is one whose theology is not only known, preached or believed—it is experienced.”

Strange things happen when you can’t see.

One of my college friends, Richard, was completely blind from birth. As often happens in such cases, his brain and body compensated for the lacking sense by pouring its resources into his hearing.

As a result, Richard could do something I found unimaginable. We’d frequently cross campus together, walking along busy Glisan Street in Portland, Oregon, or among the dorm parking lots. A car would pass, maybe idle behind us. “Ford Explorer,” Richard would say. Or another: “Nissan Sentra.” Or sometimes, his voice brightening: “Oooh! A Porsche Carerra!” Never once—from dozens of “guesses”—did I ever witness my friend, who had never in his life seen a car, get the make or model wrong of a vehicle purring next to us. Toyotas, Chevys, Jeeps, Chryslers—he could call each out with perfect accuracy, sheerly from sound. I would have trusted his testimony in court about a vehicle above my own.

Once, I asked him how he did it. “Oh, I listen a lot,” he said. “And then I ask what I’m hearing.”

We Do Who We Are

I would like you to try something with me. With this magazine in your hand, I want you to make yourself comfortable. If you like, close your eyes. Breathe regularly. You are going to try to feel your heart beating within your chest.

Focus not on tuning out distractions but on tuning in to the muscle that is about the size of your fist and pumping life through you right now. Take a minute, take two. You may think that you might be feeling something—shoom (wait, was that it?)—but focus for a little longer. Try to sense the rhythm of your heart. Shoom. Try to get the beat. Shoom. Shoom.

Don’t fake it. Just try. If you think that you are able to feel the beat, put your fingers against your wrist or neck—check your pulse—to verify it. If you don’t feel your heart itself, that’s OK. Not everyone can. But more of us can than we think. If you were able to feel it, you likely are pleased. It gave you a sense of connection, a little bit, to the flow of your life. You likely have taken that heartbeat for granted for your entire life. Yet, it is essential.

All outward life has an inward beat. All outer work has inner roots. But the nature of such beats and roots is that they are usually hidden—it takes attention to notice them. The outer works of mission and ministry are no different. The roots of everything we do for the service of God and his gospel lie within. “What I do is me: for that I came,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is just a rather Jesuit way of saying, “You do who you are.”

All outward mission is grounded in our inward life. Outward ministry is born of inward renewal. The gospel cannot go to the nations unless it is planted, rooted and sprouting in the lives of God’s messengers. The kingdom will not become visible until it is built invisibly first in our souls.

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We can’t give what we don’t have, even if we get very good at acting like we can. All other agenda items—from church polity to administration, from vision-building to public speaking, from staff management to church expansion—are rooted in our personal walk with Jesus, in listening to the voice of God. The degree to which we have allowed our inner lives to flourish under God’s care determines the efficacy of our ministry. Nothing can replace or change it. All counterfeits of it will eventually fail, any shortcuts will prove false.

But how do you feel, reading that last sentence? If you’re like many of us, you feel harried, like you’re about to read something that you know is true but that you don’t want to think about again. Why? Because you’re tired and burned-out, or so blissfully busy that you’d rather not be distracted by being asked to feel your heartbeat.

In the midst of leading worship, teaching, doing administrative work, counseling, strategizing, responding to crises and community-building, little is often left of a pastor or leader’s energy or ability to focus and connect. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, but very few of us were intentionally taught how to surmount it. Few are the seminary courses dealing with, say, “Renewal in the Holy Presence 501” or “Advanced Listening to God Survey.” Few are the mentors who drew us aside to share the practicalities of balancing the doing of Christian work with the being of Christian life. Not many of us, in turn, could instruct others in it.

In my experience as a seminarian, volunteer, paid staff member, deacon and pew-sitter in evangelical churches for the past 20 or so years, we put tremendous intentionality on the outworking of ministry and often assume that the inner work that enables our closeness and communion with God and others will simply happen. But it won’t.

We see the crisis-results of this—nervous breakdowns, eating disorders, exposed affairs or sexual addictions, staff blowouts. What we more rarely see are the results that can be hidden: the persistent exhaustion or sense of lonely longing that characterizes many pastoral careers, the sputtering (but not quite dying) marriages. It is too much to say that a neglect of our inner life is the sole cause of all this. It is too little to say that it is not woven through all of it.

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The Fight for Formation

For most of human history, the battle was for information. It was hard to get, hard to keep, hard to share. Today, of course, the reverse is true. I hear a single iPhone contains more computing power than the entire Allied war effort of World War II.

But with this deluge of information, the goal of our faith and ministry (our “formation” into Christlikeness and the forming of Christlike disciples) are no closer. In fact, in the wash of data and opinion and stimulus, many of us feel unmoored—awash with information but disconnected.

This problem compounds, for all our work as Christian leaders is centered and grounded in connection to God, to others, to ourselves. Our preaching is powerful to the degree that it is connected to our audience’s needs and setting. So is our counseling, our vision for our churches and even the “mundane” things, like building maintenance and relationship-building.

And here is where one of the great paradoxes of Christian ministry comes into play: We must connect with God and be filled in order to connect with others and be spent. If we neglect the second, we are in danger of being faithless. But if we neglect the first, we are in danger of being fruitless.

No Shortcut

The timeless rarely trends. But there is no replacement in Christian life or ministry for the connection brought from a rich and vibrant life with God. If we are too depleted for it, too busy for it, too insecure for it, too harried for it or too fearful for it, we will be able to build very little of value into those we are called to serve.

In this way, everything that I am talking about—presence, listening, renewal, being, conversation (five words for the same thing)—isn’t simply an extra task to be reserved for a Monday off or a postponed sabbatical. It becomes essential. Indispensable. If we neglect it we not only neglect our health and holiness but also our calling and our work. We short-circuit the Great Commission if we at any point allow disciple-makers to cease being disciples in conversation with God and their brothers and sisters in ministry.