I suspect many of us have a well-kept secret, buried deep within, hidden from view, even from spouses and close friends. No, not some secret sin or desire, though lots of those may exist, even in the lives of seasoned veterans of the faith; rather, a dread of spiritual formation, the necessary hard work of embracing the character and lifestyle of the saints, those most successful in mimicking the life of Christ and the call to Christian holiness. We have mastered the art of talking about spiritual formation, yakking away at Starbucks over our favorite elixir, or even attending a how-to class, but actually forming is a different matter altogether, especially in the latter stages. Talking about forming often suffices while the reality of spiritual formation slips quietly into the night. Relax; it’s an unspoken guideline we all seem to affirm without anyone saying a word, liberating us to talk about forming without having to actually form at the deepest levels of being.
The kink in forming is often the necessity of authentic conversation, exploring the undeveloped dimensions of spiritual formation, God’s way of being and consequent doing. The New Testament repeatedly points to these undeveloped forms as the old flesh. All of us, regardless of our stage of forming, have unformed dimensions of our old selves still lingering at the deepest levels. And here we discover the conversation killer: The deeper into the unformed being one goes, the harder it is to talk about. The gunk at the deeper levels of our unformed selves is ugly and, consequently, difficult to share with others. So we hang out at Starbucks and talk about spiritual formation in the safety and ease of old friends and comforting brews.
I’m not exactly sure when I exited authentic conversation, except to say it was a gradual cessation sometime after I left the cozy cocoon of seminary and entered the rough-and-tumble world of pastoral ministry. Like so many of my peers, I quickly discovered that authenticity in the early stages of forming seemed acceptable, though mildly discomforting—an almost pleasant conversation between pastor and congregation; but once personal forming tapped the undeveloped uglies of our inner beings, conversation soon became uncomfortable for both them and me. None of us seemed overly excited about charging into the depths of our unformed beings in the naked proximity of others. Forming was simply too raw to share with others who were equally unformed. Off to Starbucks we headed.
Still, I was young, and I remained optimistic that conversation would continue amongst peers, likewise stranded at Starbucks, tiring of the looping conversations of those in the early stages of forming. But I soon discovered that the saints of the faith, pastors and well-seasoned vets, intimidated me for all sorts of less-than-stellar reasons. Our conversations were equally shallow, tap dancing around the early stages of forming, polite reminiscing, occasionally gearing up for a deeper dive, but rarely delving into the deepest realms of transformative being. None, including me—perhaps primarily me—seemed willing to publicly cross over into the land of the uglies, the unformed dimensions of old being. And so I settled into what I came to believe was spiritual formation, a long, quiet walk in the land of chatter.
I first began meeting with Oswald Chambers in the late 1980s after strong encouragement from another friend suggested that Oswald and he were becoming the kind of friends so many of us longed for. He claimed Oswald was helping him to form—literally transform—to embrace spiritual formation as their conversation delved into the uglies he was hesitant to share aloud with others in the public square. But my introduction to Oswald came with a warning: “Oswald is merciless, and he will spare you no quarter, so be prepared for conversations you will not want to have; but have them you must if you are to ever experience spiritual formation.” I soon discovered the old adage "Dead men don’t tell tales" is wrong, more wrong than I could have ever imagined. Indeed, they do.
So Oswald and I began our morning chats, like all new acquaintances, cautiously and carefully. In the early days he did most of the talking. I was too enthralled with his authenticity,his willingness to verbalize things I only thought about in moments of seclusion, to speak in an equally authentic manner. But he did enough talking for the both of us in those early days. I soon realized I had stumbled onto a friend who would journey with me for the remainder of my life—which, of course, is odd, considering the fact that he died in 1917, nearly seventy years before our first conversation. His book My Utmost for His Highest quickly became a guide for my journey into the kingdom of God, spiritual formation, God’s way of being and doing. I was delighted to discover that dead men tell lots of tales, powerful epics, describing so much of what I wanted to say but simply never found the courage to do in the public square, in the proximity of others.
I discovered as well that Oswald rarely showed up alone. He was insistent that his favorite conversationalist be invited to our morning dialogues. Desperate to continue, I relented and extended an invitation to our mutual old friend. He, too, tells many tales, many of them about me, stories I had no idea he even knew, silly me. So the three of us began a quest into my spiritual formation through the secret of authentic conversation. I was soon reminded that this gathering of friends is the oldest of the spiritual disciplines, a foundation for much spiritual formation, an early, daily encounter with God’s Word, a dialogue with trusted friends, setting the stage for the complexity of authentic living in the day ahead. This encounter, like all good relationships, ought not be rushed; instead, a time of leisure for old friends to chat, reflecting on life with all of its twists and nuances. Oswald has an open calendar available to all who are courageous enough to invite him to pull up a chair. So grab a cup of your favorite elixir, settle down, and enjoy a daily conversation with old and new friends. Be warned: Oswald and our mutual friend, the Holy Spirit, both speak freely, and when they do, no telling what lies ahead. Don’t sweat it; it’s just their way, so relax and enjoy the dialogue, ugly or not. You can’t offend them, but you can expect to be offended from time to time. They are known for stepping on toes often as spiritual formation unfolds.
You will quickly discover that they, more times than not, have something to say that is uniquely suited for your journey and your formation. They are specialists in spiritual formation—even yours. But in the end, only those who learn to apply the insights of authentic conversation to everyday living will return to this daily meeting of the minds. Unique and personal application, which generates a lust for more that can never be satisfied, is the key to feasting at this daily table with trusted friends. Fear not! Application is always custom built. The Spirit has this way of providing particulars with only you in mind. And with each new particular, the elusive goal of spiritual formation comes ever closer.
But I have discovered a shocking and unexpected consequence of these daily conversations with Oswald and others like him over these many decades. Those who learn to converse with the dead in authentic conversation soon learn to converse with the living. And so the final steps of
spiritual formation take shape as we exit our conversations with saints of long ago and begin authentic conversations with living saints trekking after the serving King. Authentic conversation with the living is vitally important for those moving into the deepest stages of spiritual formation.
A final warning for those who choose to journey on with Oswald or a host of other saints who have gone before: The road can get bumpy, perhaps even impassable at times. Once unleashed, the Spirit of the serving King rarely chooses an autobahn for cruising down life’s highway toward spiritual formation. But keep the pedal to the metal. He and his pals are taking you places you have never dared to imagine, forming you in ways only dreamed about. Every journey, every formation, begins with authentic conversation, the oldest of spiritual disciplines. I suggest you start early each day in the quietness of the morning with old, trusted friends who tell no tales but their own. When you arrive each morning, the few, the saints from earlier conversations, will be waiting. What a glorious time of storytelling will begin. And yes, you will form, and you will never be satisfied with just hanging out at Starbucks again.
DONALD MINTER, is lead pastor at Flagstaff Church of the Nazarene in Arizona. He is the author of Mornings with Oswald: Daily Reflections with My Utmost for His Highest, published in 2014.