Along the Way: Fluid Formation

​Years ago, Richard Foster and I were visiting over a meal. It happened to be at a time when my daily devotions were tepid. I asked him about this, hoping he could share something that would “jump start” my prayer time. And he did, but it was not what I expected.

He commiserated with my dryness, admitting he had similar feelings from time to time. And then he gave me his pearl of great price: “Sometimes all I need to pray is a cup of coffee and a squirrel playing outside my window.”  Whatever else he said, I have forgotten. That sentence has stuck with me ever since. I should not have been surprised that he said it, given he has often spoken about the spiritual life as “the freedom of simplicity.” [1]

I am writing about this today because I believe it is counsel we need to take to heart during these challenging times. Physical and emotional fatigue is epidemic, with its corresponding decline of energy for all sorts of things. Spirituality is not immune. It’s difficult to concentrate, for one thing. It’s difficult even to want to concentrate sometime.

And that’s precisely where Richard’s comment to me years ago comes alive for me right now. I have paraphrased it to say, “Sometimes all we need to pray is a beverage and a bird.” When our accustomed formation system is not the solution, drop it. Don’t try to get blood out of a turnip. One of the worst things we can do in our spiritual formation is to “manufacture meaning.” Spiritual formation includes discipline, but we must not turn the spiritual journey into a forced march.

Jesus spoke about “rivers of living water” (John 7:38). In my travels I have flown over many rivers. I have yet to see one that flowed in a straight line. They all meander. And…they have seasonal cycles, including times when they flood and times when there’s no water in the riverbed. Spiritual formation must be fluid; otherwise, it becomes a brittle wineskin that cannot hold the wine. We must go with the flow.

It is in the dry times, when we must not force the empty riverbed to give what it cannot give. And in those moments, Richard Foster’s counsel is the guidance we must follow: “Sometimes all I need to pray is a cup of coffee and a squirrel playing outside my window.” Yes! I am writing this with a beverage in hand and a bird nearby.

[1] He has written a book by that title , ‘Freedom of Simplicity.’ It was subsequently re-titled, ‘The Challenge of the Disciplined Life.’ 

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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