Cultivating the Soul

Spiritual formation can happen without saying a word.
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Thirty years ago, when real estate in this part of New Hampshire was cheap, my wife, Gail, and I purchased an old farm and called it Peace Ledge. During the 1800s the land's valuable timber had been clear-cut and transformed into pasture where enormous workhorses could be bred and raised. Then around 1900 the farm went belly-up, was abandoned, and, after 70 years, became a forest again.

Occasionally, Gail and I select a small piece of this woodland and clear it. We eliminate unhealthy trees. We rip out the kind of ground vegetation that makes for fire danger. And we dig away the ubiquitous boulders (the gift of ancient glaciers) that might create havoc with the blades of our tractor mower.

Gail and I enjoy our accomplishments—for a little while—until our eyes begin to spot more work begging attention in adjoining areas we'd not considered before.

This refreshing of our land is a lifelong task. And when we die, our descendents, presumably, will continue the job.

For me this outdoor labor mirrors the discipline of spiritual formation, for just as one cultivates the land, so one must regularly, systematically even, cultivate the deepest parts of the interior life where God is most likely to whisper (not shout) the everlasting promises into one's life.

To be candid, I've gone through periods when I neglected spiritual formation. I had all the reasons I hear from others: too busy, not practical, unable to concentrate, no clear sense that spiritual formation gets results. My neglect in those moments was pure foolishness.

Spiritual formation involves cutting, weeding, digging, raking, and planting—not with a chainsaw or shovel, of course, but through the work of worship, reflection, prayer, study, and a score of other soul-oriented activities described in books by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few.

When a piece of our land is renewed, Gail and I are always surprised at the beauty that occurs almost overnight. Wild flowers appear; forest animals visit; good trees mature. The virtues of creation just seem to appear. And when the soul is similarly attended to, there appear the virtues of godly character.

A frank opinion? I don't think a lot of men and women in leadership know this. I mean really know it. What drives my opinion are these impressions.

First, the primary subject matter of most training and motivational conferences on leadership seems to be all about vision, about clever, well-researched programs, about growing large, successful institutions. Admittedly good stuff. But missing is the recognition that soul cultivation goes before institution building. How do you grow large, healthy, and authentic churches (the current rage) without growing the soul of a leader, which sustains the effort over the long haul?

A second impression: the dreadful casualty list of men and women who do not make it to a tenth anniversary in Christian ministry. Burnout, failure, disillusionment are exacting a terrible toll. I'm amazed how many ministers just disappear, drop off the edge.

A third: the constant conversations I have with younger men and women who confide that they are spiritually dry, unmotivated, despairing, and wondering what to do about it.

And maybe there's a fourth: I never forget how close—how really close—I myself came to missing the cut. Though my own defining moment of personal crisis came 20 years ago, the memory is always fresh.

Saint Paul's words to Timothy are too easily ignored in this high-pitched, high-casualty leadership lifestyle of ours: "Train yourself to be godly … godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:7-8) I smell spiritual formation in these remarks.

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