We got Patience back in 2002. Paul and I had been searching the Southland for a dog for months when we found her, tucked away in the corner of the Pomona Humane Society. She was sleeping when I first saw her. She was the last of her litter, the runt, and I knew I had to have her. I sent Paul to get the adoption paperwork started while I stood guard at her crate to be sure no one else swept her away from me. After a few minutes, she woke, looked up at me with a bored expression and yawned.
It took me awhile to settle on a name for her because names, and the act of naming, are so important to me and because none of the usual names seemed to fit her. She was such a challenge to train that I ended up naming her Patience, saying that I either had to name her that or take her back to the PHS. For a long time she was one pair of destroyed shoes from being sent straight back. But she wore grooves in my heart, and soon there was no letting her go.
In those days, we lived on the second story of an apartment complex in Azusa, California near the campus of Azusa Pacific University. Patience and I spent several hours each day practicing walking up the stairs. Her little body shook in fear every time she took a step up or down those huge steps. But eventually, she got the hang of it and raced down those steps with unmatched enthusiasm.
Last week I took her to a vet specialist to find out the cause of her sudden blindness. On our way there, I guided her down a flight of stairs, and her whole body trembled with each step, so much like she did when she was young. My heart ached in the remembering and I thought, “It’s not supposed to be like this.” It’s the same ache I get when I plow through the news, but also the same ache I feel when I stand barefoot in the sand on Laguna Beach looking out on the Pacific or when I listen to Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It’s a longing for something just out of reach. It’s like I’m homesick for a place I’ve never seen, that I’m haunted by heaven.
Germans have a word for this longing, this desire for something we cannot quite define. They call it sehnsucht, which often translated as “yearning” or “longing”, but has no exact equivalent in another language. Sehnsucht figured prominently in the work of C.S. Lewis, who described it as an “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what”. Lewis believed that if we find in ourselves a desire for which no experience in the world can satisfy, then we must be meant for another world.
In the prelude to his book, Renovation of the Heart, a cornerstone book on the nature and process of spiritual formation,Dallas Willard points out that this desire not only allows us to peer in on “another world and another life”, but it also gives us a glimpse of what we can pull from that world into the world of the here and now. Willard says that the New Testament fleshes out what is actually possible in this life, that our life can be like “rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:38) and that we will “be able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:19-20).
Willard argues that few Christians actually grab hold of these promises because of the distance we see between our life and the life we see described in the New Testament and because we don’t approach life in the right way. “The perceived distance and difficulty,” Willard writes, “of entering fully into the divine world and its life is due entirely to our failure to understand that ‘the way in’ is the way of pervasive inner transformation and to our failure to take the the small steps that quietly and certainly lead to it.”
Spiritual formation molds us into the kind of person that will be at home in that other world we desire, that place free of death and decay, the one we see only in the corner of our eye. But change is so difficult, isn’t it? How does spiritual formation break us of the old habits and addictions that keep their firm grip on us and prevent us from moving forward, deeper in, the Christian life? Is it even possible to change? Starting this Monday, we’ll be looking at what Willard says about spiritual formation and the steps we can take towards a deeper Christian life we work through the book, Renovation of the Heart.