Just a few days ago, I was finishing a bike ride in North Park and entered into a brief conversation with a pastor friend that I’ve known for quite some time. When he asked me if anything “big” was going on in my life, I had to mention the fact that in just a few days I will be celebrating a big birthday. He responded back, “Is it one that ends in zero?” At that, we both shared a hearty laugh recognizing that he was about to have a similar birthday, just a decade earlier than mine. I wasn’t sure if I would even bring up the occasion of this birthday, but as I think about it, it seems to be one of those seminal moments that is worth at least some comment.
When I’ve been asked how I feel about turning 70, I’m reminded of something that Julia Roberts recently said in an interview when she turned 50. Her response to the question was “Well, considering the alternative, I guess it’s not too bad.”
This led me to considerable reflection about “the alternative” and what one thinks about as you know that your life (as are all earthly lives) is finite, limited. I may disappoint some of my friends with this statement, but it is certainly honest to say that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about “the alternative,” that is, my life in heaven with God. Like so many others that I know, I’ve embraced the idea that none of us really knows what happens after we die, but if we have had the incredible gift of forgiveness of sins by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, then we understand heaven to be a place of eternal fulfillment, awe and majesty.
However, more recently, I’ve been given reason to consider the reality of my perception of heaven and what my life on this earth has to do with that experience. To make this more relevant, as I contemplate the next season of my life, what should be my priority given the fact that my formal responsibilities will be more limited and thus my personal time, more accessible?
One of the disciplines of the past season of my life was to understand the process of spiritual formation more deeply and to ask the questions of how it is that we continue to change, grow and become more Christ-like throughout our lives. This has been a rewarding study as I’ve come to realize that there’s much more for all of us to understand and embrace about continued spiritual growth than we may have previously understood.
Most recently, I’ve been challenged by the thoughts of one of the giants of spiritual formation of my lifetime, Dallas Willard, who shared his thoughts with theologian and professor Gary Black in a wonderful book called “Preparing for Heaven.” In these pages, I’ve found that many of the unanswerable questions that all of us ask about life after death and what heaven is like and so on, have been given a significantly different interpretation.
What if how we lived our lives as believers in Christ determined what heaven would be like for us immediately after we died? I know that the picture that we are most often given is that the moment that we die, we are immediately transported into the presence of Christ and everything is changed into this unspeakably glorious “eternal life” which far exceeds anything that we could even think or imagine. (I Corinthians 2:10)
But what if spiritual formation is something that happens in this life and simply continues when we pass from this body into our eternal one? Clearly there are some things that will be immediate and everlasting such as our awareness of being with God (as Jesus specifically said to the thief crucified next to Him). However, the Apostle Paul gave ample room for transformation to continue to take place until “the end of the age” when all things would be made new and the eternal body that we will be given will reach it’s final state. (1 Corinthians 15)
There’s way too much in all of this to try to do justice to it in one simple blog post. What needs to be underscored is that I’m entering into this next decade not feeling like I’ve accomplished all that needs to happen in my life; but rather eagerly anticipating the process of spiritual formation focusing on my own character and the significant work of godliness and Christ-likeness that needs to continue to develop in my life if I’m to more fully “be like Jesus.”
What makes all this so intriguing to me is that I know that in this season I’ve been blessed with the incredible gift of a loving and supportive family that continues to uphold me despite their awareness of my shortcomings. This is also true of my dear friends and colleagues in the ministry that have maintained friendship for four decades or more while working closely together.
This kind of love is the ideal environment in which spiritual formation can be pursued. Without a context of forgiveness, love and acceptance, the steps of spiritual formation can seem self-centered or perhaps even selfish unless they are understood as a means whereby we can be changed to love others the way that Christ loves us.
What’s most exciting about all this is that there’s no time table or deadlines on this process. By the grace of God, this can continue to happen until such time that the Lord sees fit to continue the work in the place that He has prepared for me, and you. (John 14:3)
I look forward to continuing the journey to be more like Jesus… along with all of you.