Formation’s Scratchy Side
(Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13)
All of us entering this Vincentian Family have to go through what is known as “formation.” Formation: people being formed, shaped, molded – maybe better, being re-molded, re-shaped, and maybe even sometimes, re-formed! In all the ins and outs of this process, there’s an underlying question: what are you being formed for? What’s the endpoint of these different influences being put upon you?
A fundamental answer comes in this reading from Isaiah. Yahweh says that He wants the nations to “See My glory;” that is, “See My fullness, My justice, My radiance – or perhaps best expressed, “See My Aliveness, My Livingness.” And then Yahweh goes on to say how that will be accomplished. “I shall set a sign among them. And it is this sign (or signs) that shall proclaim My Glory among all the nations.’’ In one way or other, anyone being “formed” in the Vincentian Family is responding to a call to be one of these signs, one of these breakthroughs of God’s glory to all the nations.
And so the question: how do you do it? How does one become better able to take up that role and perform that task? How does the sign that you are right now, and the clearer one you want to become — how does it come to shine brighter over the years?
Here we bring in the Letter to the Hebrews and its advice on Formation – and in this particular section its counsel on what might be called “the scratchy side of being formed.”
On the one hand, much of the process happens in graceful and smooth ways, say by inspiration and heartfelt imitation, by encouragement, by the validation of the gifts and talents you have, by the different appreciations people show for what you’ve done and who you are. This is formation felt like a silky, expensive, perfectly sized new shirt that fits you so snugly that it seems to breathe when you breathe.
But then. There’s also formation as rubbing-against, formation on its going-contrary-to-the-grain days. This is preparation as a rough, scratchy, over-starched shirt into which you have to fit yourself in order to someday wear it more comfortably. In its pinching and its rubbing against parts of your skin, there’s a way in which over time it shapes you as much as you shape it.
And so in Hebrews. “The Lord disciplines His children… For whom the Lord loves, He disciplines; He gives His sons and daughters trials, even at times scourges them.”
And indeed, it doesn’t feel good, it’s not a cause for joy but rather of pain. But down the line, instructs the author, it pays off in “the fruits of righteousness,” in that child of God becoming more God-like, a clearer “sign of God’s glory,” here in this world.
The letter continues: “…so this is what you, who are to be God’s children, are to do.
– If in some way or other your hands are shaky and drooping, do what’s necessary to strengthen them.
– If your knees are weak, do what needs to be done to firm them up.
– If there are habits and attitudes in you that dim God’s presence coming through, that in the service of God’s Kingdom are lame and out of joint, then take the hard road of doing what you can to heal them – maybe better, have them healed.”
As you can hear, Hebrews, at least in this section, is of the scratchy shirt school. What is it in my present way of operating, of coming at the world, of sizing up what counts more and counts less — that’s going to have to be reshaped if I’m to be a font of God’s glory in my world? What is it in me that needs sanding down (or building up) to have that God-light shine more brightly and convincingly through me?
To be clear, this is not an injunction to turn into a different person, to do violence to who you are down deep. That would never let the goodness of God that’s unique to you shine through. Neither is it a counsel to passively conform to some outside set of rules so you can “make it past inspection.” That wouldn’t be formation so much at it would be a long term exercise in people-pleasing and eye-servantry. Rather, for all of us, it’s a matter of letting ourselves be somewhat vulnerable to the new, of being malleable in the face of the wisdom and experience of others. It’s to drop one’s guard, so that, however irritating that new habit or different attitude is, you let it rub against your old ways of seeing and doing – and hopefully sand them down into something more serviceable for being that beacon of God to your world.
Looking at things this way might seem overly negative. It might come across too much like the hard-nosed U.S. Marine pitch of saying we need a few good men and women, and to do that you’re going to have to tough it out to prove you are one of those. That is not the whole of the formation package. But for sure it’s a necessary part of it. It’s a person entering in with the attitude that there are things to be learned that will stretch me. And for us there’s a certain kind of fit required in the Vincentian Family, some of which the person has already, but some to which the person has to be fitted. Vincent and Louise make this point over and over.
These lesson is meant not just for beginners but for every believer all along the line, for both veteran and old and newly minted members of the Family of Vincent and Louise. Formation is on-going, life-long. Nobody, short of Jesus himself, ever measures up to what it takes to be that “sign” of God’s glory in the world. Nobody likes being scraped and scratched in the process. And nobody does it entirely smoothly, with no sanding of the edges and sometimes even a little of the center. But without moving through this phase of the process, no one grows as much as he or she could have in that (sacramental) ability to be transparent of (and to) God. The chastening side is not the only side, but it’s real enough. It’s as real as that correction and reproof which “the Lord unerringly sends to his daughters and sons.”
In back of this, however, is the underlying consolation. If being formed in its right sense happens, it’s not just us (and not even mainly us) who are doing it and letting it happen. From beginning to end, it’s The Lord’s doing. It’s the working of The Lord, flowing through those sometimes scratchy experiences we endure. It’s the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ who begins the formation, sustains it, inspires it, and along the way shakes it up – moving the process ever further down the road.
So the message to each of us who is always ‘in formation:’ “Strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight ways for your feet. Let the healing Lord, working with your healthy parts but also rebuilding whatever is lame and disjointed in you, turn you more and more into that sign of His Father’s Glory shining out for all the nations to see.”