Spirituality for the Long Haul
I’m still reflecting on the time spent with others from our congregation and friends from First Baptist at Duke Divinity School two weeks ago. It was a rich week of learning that left us inspired to continue our work together here.
The final day’s theme was “Spirituality for the Long Haul.” The work of God is hard and filled with disappointment, set backs and failures. Old and deep wounds do not heal over night, and opposition is never far away. Commitment to tending to the Kingdom of God requires an equal commitment to tending to your own soul.
Unfortunately, this is not something that comes natural to most of us. Neither will we find help from our surrounding culture; true spiritual self-care is at odds with our culture’s self-centeredness.
Tending to our souls is something that requires discipline. As our facilitator pointed out, it requires an inward discipline toward prayer, study and self-examination. But also an outward discipline toward simplicity, solitude and service to others. And finally, it requires a “corporate” discipline of communing with others through worship, guidance and celebration.
This last one struck me: the discipline of celebration.
It’s strange to think of celebration as a disciple, but often when the weight of life and work and family piles on us, celebration is the first thing to go. We’re too tired or too busy to share in the joys of life with each other. Other “serious” things seem more pressing. And yet, if there is nothing worth celebrating, than what good is any of our toil?
I’m reminded of a story from Paulo Coelho’s classic novel, The Alchemist, of a merchant’s son whose father sends him on a quest to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of men.
The boy wandered through the desert for forty days until he reached a beautiful castle at the top of a mountain, where there lived the sage that the young man was to look for. To his surprise, instead of finding a holy man sitting by himself, the boy entered a room filled with people: merchants selling their wares, people talking and laughing and eating from a table filled rich foods.
The wise man was there at the center of it all, talking to everybody. The boy had to wait for two hours until it was time for his audience. With considerable patience, the Sage listened attentively to the reason for the boy’s visit, but told him that at that moment he did not have the time to explain to him the Secret of Happiness. He suggested that the boy take a stroll around his palace and come back in two hours’ time.
“However,” he added, handing the boy a teaspoon, in which he poured two drops of oil. “While you walk, carry this spoon and don’t let the oil spill.”
The boy began to climb up and down the palace staircases, always keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. At the end of two hours he returned to the presence of the wise man.
“So,” asked the sage, “did you see the Persian tapestries hanging in my dining room? Did you see the garden that the Master of Gardeners took ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”
Embarrassed, the boy confessed that he had seen nothing. His only concern was not to spill the drops of oil that the wise man had entrusted to him. “Now, go back and see the wonders of my world,” said the wise man.
Now more at ease, the boy took the spoon and strolled again through the palace, this time paying attention to all the works of art that hung from the ceiling and walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around the palace, the delicacy of the flowers, the taste with which each work of art was placed in its niche. Returning to the sage, he reported in detail all that he had seen.
“But where are the two drops of oil that I entrusted to you?” asked the sage. Looking down at the spoon, the boy realized that he had spilled the oil.
“Well, that is the only advice I have to give you,” said the sage of sages. “The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”
Spirituality for the long haul depends on our ability to hold these two things at once. These are not skills that come natural to most of us. They take discipline and intentionality. But more than anything, they take a community to support and guide us along the way.
In those times when the two drops of oil in the spoon seem most pressing, I hope we as a church can encourage each other to look up and out at the wonders that surround us. Most often in the faces God has put around us.