Walk and talk and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. – Thomas Kelly, 1941
The majority of my life has been spent in formation. My childhood, the time I spent in college, and the three years I spent at seminary were all largely focused on shaping who I would become and what I would do. Though I may have accomplished some things during these years, and probably made an impact on some people’s lives, the first quarter-century of my life was primarily oriented towards preparing me to become a full adult member of society.
In my experience, adulthood came in stages. Theoretically, we Americans are autonomous adults upon reaching our eighteenth birthdays; yet, in reality, the process of becoming a fully-formed member of adult society probably lasts from the early teens until the mid-to-late twenties. Despite the letter of the law that declared me an adult at age 18, I was probably not even half-way through my adolescence at that point.
From infancy to around age twenty-five, my parents, teachers and adult friends all put a lot of emphasis on helping me to discover my latent gifts and passions. They did their best to give me the skills I needed to function well in the adult world. Even seminary was a part of this process, giving me the background and tools I needed to be a well-formed adult Christian. There was a lot I did not learn in Sunday School.
In the last several years, however, something has shifted. The dynamic has changed. No longer am I primarily in the business of being groomed and nurtured. Finally, after decades of longing for it, I am an entry-level adult. For so many years, my job had been to get educated and prepare for the future, but now the future has arrived. Now it is time to put to good use all of the formation that I have been privileged to receive for the past quarter-century.
This transition is a wonderful one. For my entire adolescence, I was chomping at the bit to do great things in the world, to have a meaningful impact. I knew that I was in a formative phase, but I wanted nothing more than to skip formation and go straight into adult action! The time has come.
Yet, as delightful as this transition is in many ways, this new phase of action carries its own unique set of strains and challenges. The outward challenges are obvious: Finding meaningful employment in a collapsed economy; meeting a spouse and starting a family; managing household finances and investing responsibly for the future. Not to mention all of the work – paid or unpaid – that God calls me to in the wider world.
And these outward life changes have a deep spiritual dimension, as well. What is the impact of moving from a life that is primarily concerned with preparation to a new phase of existence that is primarily concerned with action? What is the deeper meaning of this shift from the “inward” to the “outward”?
For me, in practical terms, this transition has resulted in the busiest life I have ever known. I have so much to do every week, and the most important lesson I am learning is how to exercise discernment in what I commit myself to, and how to say “no” more frequently and effectively. It is precisely at this stage in my life that disciplined prayer is becoming more important than ever. If I am not intentional about setting aside time each day to focus entirely on Christ, all the tasks and burdens of this action-oriented life would threaten my equilibrium. It would be easy to get so wrapped up in action that contemplation dries up entirely.
If that happened, it would be a disaster. Taking time for contemplation has higher stakes than ever before. In this new phase of life, I have so much more capacity to do good – or harm – than ever before. As my activity in the world increases, it is all the more crucial that I remain grounded in the Spirit of Truth.
As I continue to explore what it means to live in this phase of heightened activity, I am holding a number of queries for reflection: In my present phase of life, how do I maintain the right balance between contemplation and action? What is the relationship between the inward and the outward life? What steps must I take to ensure that my activity is grounded in prayer, and that my prayer is informed by Spirit-led action? What must I do to maintain the singleness of vision
that Jesus teaches us is so important
for living in the Kingdom of God?