Shape of Living, The: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life

Overview

In our culture of distraction it can be hard to focus on spiritual matters. Work, finances, and uncertain futures are just a few things that overwhelm us daily. Discover how to overcome and develop an everyday spirituality that will guide your actions and bring meaning to your hectic life.

"Ford provides a way beyond distraction to joy and buoyancy."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Amidst the glut of books on the devotional life that seek to be relevant and are only contemporary, this book is ...

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Overview

In our culture of distraction it can be hard to focus on spiritual matters. Work, finances, and uncertain futures are just a few things that overwhelm us daily. Discover how to overcome and develop an everyday spirituality that will guide your actions and bring meaning to your hectic life.

"Ford provides a way beyond distraction to joy and buoyancy."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Amidst the glut of books on the devotional life that seek to be relevant and are only contemporary, this book is already a classic on the 'spirituality of everyday life.' I could hardly put it down."—Ray Anderson, Fuller Theological Seminary

"A wise book that concentrates on the principle aspects of our lives that we so often get wrong because we lack wisdom."—Stanley Hauerwas, Duke Divinity School

"Offers far greater wealth than even several readings can probe."—Books & Culture

"Profound and reflective . . . yet always concrete, and never dishonest or evasive. A jewel of the spiritual life in its everyday manifestations."—Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale Divinity School

"These reflections ought to be read by laity and clergy alike, for they offer the spiritual renewal we desperately need."—L. Gregory Jones, Duke University Divinity School

"The Shape of Living is like a friend's invitation to a dinner at which you encounter some unexpected guests and hope for some life-shaping consequence. By all means, accept."—The Christian Century

David F. Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, is the author and editor of many books, including Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801065194
  • Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/2004
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,380,917
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

David F. Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. He is the author or editor of many books, including The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Faces and Voices


Shaping a Heart


People are all around us, but they are also inside us. Each of us has a "community of the heart" made up of those people who are most important to us. Of all the sources of overwhelming, people are the most significant. Our most powerful feelings relate to them, feelings such as love, anger, jealousy, hatred, rivalry, gratitude, hero worship, status seeking, and the urge to dominate. A big part of our inner life is taken up with people, and they loom large in our memories, fantasies, and hopes. So the shape of our living is largely created by our relationships with people.


Community of the Heart


    "Heart" is a way of talking about that dimension of our self where memory, feeling, imagination, and thinking come together. The heart is like a home for all the concerns of our lives, where our identity is sorted out year after year. Above all it is inhabited by images of other people and of ourselves in relation to them. Our hearts are filled with the faces and voices of those before whom we live. These are the members of our "community of the heart."

    Some of them are so much a part of our identity that they are woven into the texture of our feeling and thinking. Their voices in us may not be distinguishable from what we habitually say to ourselves.

    Others continually confront us. The thought of them may cause fear, resentment, or shame. They may represent a joy, a bereavement, a call to higher things, achallenge, or the voice of conscience.

    Most of us can, for example, look back on our lives and think of people decisive in encouraging us. Micheal O'Siadhail writes of a teacher in "Foster-Figure":


Even now there is some enigma
in that glance. Though long grown
beyond a first self-surrender
or cooler reappraisals, I prize
his affirmation, always revere him.

    Years later this teacher has become part of him, and the encouraging glance and words go on providing energy and inspiration:


I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
his unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in his praise all is possible.


Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I'll still
strum the chord of his assurance,
that music I'll make my own,
an old resonance I'll summon up.


    The other side of that is the discouragement, the people who undermine us. O'Siadhail finds that too, in the same school after staff changes:


New brooms with fresh sweeps.
How easily we become how we're seen;
Failure throws an oblong shadow,
I cover hurts with jaunty humour,
pretend not to care, affect disdain,
harden the core to day-by-day
humiliations--tiny erosions of respect--
learn the slow rustings of shame.


And laugh a bitter laugh! ...


How many faces must a wound wear?


The Heart--Habitable and Hospitable


    That is how hearts are shaped--by the music of voices we make our own and by wounds with many faces. To ask "Who am I?" leads straight to the other people who are part of me. Is there any layer of self where there are no others? We find ourselves partly by remembering those who are the most deeply woven into us and by continuing to relate to them. An experienced psychotherapist told me that a great deal of his work has to do with the quality of the "community" that clients carry around inside them.

    So it helps to think of ourselves as a sort of community. Each of us has a different set of people who inhabit our heart. To think of the heart as a home is not necessarily a cozy picture: There are peaceful, loving homes, but there are also many with divorce, violence, and other miseries. There are limits to the picture--clearly we have to think of ourselves as individuals too, and that will be a concern of chapter 4 on the secrets and disciplines of soul-shaping. But the bias of our culture tends to play down the ways in which we are communities in ourselves. It is easy to ignore the fact that the very language we use in order to think about ourselves and to describe ourselves is learned from others and that at every crucial point we are shaped in relationships.

    How do we discover the shape of our hearts? There are two basic ways. First, we can find out who are the leading members of our inner community. It begins as an exercise in naming the most significant others. These are the people who indwell us, who are at the core of our "home life" as a self. We always live in their presence, whether they are physically there or not. Whether our heart is habitable or not depends in large measure on our relationships with these people.

    Second, we can look at the boundaries of our life. Besides the most significant others, all sorts of people figure in our heart's domestic drama. Often we have no choice about them--a new boss, colleague, or neighbor, and the people we come up against as we move through many situations. But even in those relationships that are simply given by the situations we find ourselves in, we are rarely passive. Our heart forms its habits of welcoming and rejecting. There are different ways of being part of one heart's community. Its boundaries are not fixed, and they can be more open or more closed. This is what I call the hospitality of the heart. How welcoming are we to different types of people? How willing are we to be given hospitality by others--or even to ask for it?

    So two essential dynamics that shape our heart are its home life of deepest relationships and its patterns of hospitality. They can be seen as two forms of overwhelming.


Overwhelmed at the Core


    In one life it is rare that the really significant others number more than a handful. To name them is to name our most personal form of being overwhelmed. They are inside us as well as outside us. They may be on the other side of the world or they may be dead, but they are constantly before us and within us. They are so deep in us that we can never come to terms with them in any final way--we can never get them "into perspective."

    Are there people without this experience? Some people seem to have nothing but bland, fairly neutral relationships. Or their feelings seem to be distributed in more or less equal portions among a large number of people. Or their passions do not seem to have to do with people at all. But it still seems true that most people are not like that. There is even some sense that being fully human involves the capacity to be overwhelmed in particular relationships. Otherwise we suspect some dimension is missing or that it has been displaced or diverted into something else.

    The key people come into our lives in many ways. The most common is by being family. The crucial relationships in a life, for better and for worse, are most likely to be with parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, husband, wife, children. Then there are those family-like relationships of partners, friends, enemies, and the members of any long-term group. And there can be endless surprises. Many of us know what it is like to be gripped by someone through a biography, a television program, or a comparatively brief encounter, and sometimes these have profound, heart-shaping effects.

    How do we cope with the overwhelming people at the core of our being? Much of the rest of this book is an attempt to answer that. The preparation for considering how to cope is to name our own key faces and voices and begin to discern how they shape our heart. What are our most vivid memories? What have been our crises and passions? Who figures most prominently in the drama of our inner life?


Overwhelmed from All Directions


    How does our heart offer and receive hospitality? People converge on us in so many ways, in all areas of our life, as well as through the media. There is not even any need for them to be "real." One of the distinctive features of our culture is the large number of fictional people we interact with daily.

    The characters in a long-running "soap" about ordinary people may become more significant than many members of our own family. The huge audiences for films and videos and the millions of readers of novels are being entertained--the language of hospitality is appropriate. They are being drawn into a fictional world, and in turn are welcoming fictional people and plots into their lives. This is something of immense importance. Taking part in this fiction-saturated culture, we discover who we are and we test out our identities. We enter into the fictional worlds of novels, plays, films, and all sorts of other stories. But the lines between fiction and reality are not at all clear, and our hopes, fears, dreams, and conceptions of reality may be more profoundly affected by fiction than by "true stories" (if those are what historians and journalists tell).

    Switching between fiction and real life is a sophisticated ability, which children begin to learn at a young age. As I write, across the hall my seven-year-old daughter, Rachel, is in her room by herself with her dolls. They each have names and roles, and she has a range of individual voices for the drama that is going on. My eleven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is currently writing a story about a gang of children. Some of the characters were invented by her grandmother years ago in bedtime stories in which my daughter also always figured. I later took over and introduced more characters. Now she has them all on computer and is adding current friends and locations. These "Paddy stories" have been going on for years and interweave her life with fictional people and plots. Who can tell how fact and fiction relate in them? But that is not the most interesting question. More important are the quality of the stories, the shaping of imagination, and the insight into people and herself.

    Rebecca does not, of course, confuse the Alice in the stories with the Alice who comes to stay. The fact that she is trying to write about Alice acting "in character" in a fictional adventure probably even helps her to understand Alice in real life. There are obviously many times when it is important to separate fact from fiction. The critical matter is that Alice can actually be affected by what Rebecca believes to be true.

    But the farther we move from home the less easy it is to preserve the distinction between fact and fiction. We are inundated with "real people" from around the world through the media. How are we to "entertain" both Hollywood stars and the refugees of Rwanda? How do we workout our boundaries? To whom do we offer the hospitality of our heart? Sometimes it feels as if we have been invaded. But in so far as we do have a choice, who deserves our attention? Our money? Our vote? Our campaigning? Our prayer?

    Every group and organization we are connected with adds faces and voices to the traffic in our hearts and often invites us into responsibilities too. On our judgments and decisions hang much of the shaping of our lives. But the quality of our decisions will substantially depend on the faces and voices before whom we live in our core community. And often the formative influences on that community in our heart have been overwhelming events.


Heart-Overwhelming Events


    Overwhelming relationships at the core, and hospitality across boundaries where huge numbers of real and imagined people press for admission--if those are the two most powerful dynamics of the heart then it is not surprising that our lives are most creatively or shatteringly transformed when they come together in one event. Falling in love is a classic form of this, when a new person crosses the threshold of our life and overwhelms our core. Micheal O'Siadhail describes this in "Out of the Blue":


Nothing can explain this adventure--let's say a quirk of fortune steered us together--we made our covenants, began this odyssey of ours, by hunch and guesswork, a blind date where foolish love consented in advance. No my beloved, neither knew what lay behind the frontiers. You told me once you hesitated: A needle can waver, then fix on its pole; I am still after many years baffled that the needle's gift dipped in my favour. Should I dare to be so lucky? Is it a dream? Suddenly in the commonplace that first amazement seizes me all over again--a freak twist to the theme, subtle jazz of the new familiar, trip of surprises. Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being.


    That is an event of mutual overwhelming. It distills some of the key marks of heart-transforming relationships: novelty, risk, trust, mystery, amazement, and coming to a joint understanding and commitment--"we made our covenants." The last two lines sum up the overwhelming by something "beyond our fathom," and the reshaping of hearts as love "shifts the boundaries of our being."

    When this happens it is never just one person who enters our heart: The other brings their whole community too. The sharing of our core communities with each other is one of the most important elements in a close relationship. It also raises classic problems about how the two core communities relate to each other--all those jokes about in-laws! The boundaries of our being continue to shift as each of us introduces new faces and voices, and the scope for border disputes is endless. The energy and will to cope with them are focused by that covenant of trust and the gratitude and hope at its heart.

    In our deepest mutual relationships we depend above all on those few people who, having said yes to being overwhelmed by us, then allow that to go on shaping and reshaping their hearts year after year as "love re-invades."


The Intrusion of the Faceless


    But such mutuality is not all. We constantly meet with faces and voices that appeal to us to help, to have compassion, or to take some practical responsibility that goes beyond what our commitments or inclinations oblige us to do. These appeals cut across our friendships, marriages, and in-groups. They pose one of the biggest questions to us and to our groups: How do we cope with the suffering of the poor, the hungry, the impaired, the marginalized, the victim? These may be the test of the right shaping of our hearts even more than friends, spouses, or fellow group members. O'Siadhail's poem "Intrusion" graphically describes how the relationship of mutual love can be broken open by "the stricken."


The gaze of loved and lover,
our amorous self-containment,
concentric and utterly present
to the other. Sweetest hour.


But what if between our gazes
shadows of the stricken fall,
the stares we seem to veil
keep on commanding us?


Our two-ness is never alone.
Whose is that intrusive face
that looms unseen between us
condemning all we haven't done?


The eclipsed. The destitute.
O sly worm of dominance
coiling its own discountenance,
our masks and blottings out.


Is love a threadbare blindfold?
"Yes," say our shadows, "unless
you turn to face the faceless."
Who'll re-envisage the world?


    O'Siadhail is describing something fundamental to human life. It is easy to think that these intrusive faces are accidents, unfortunate people who disrupt "normal" life. But in fact they go to the heart of who we are. This is because each person and each group has boundaries, and one of the easiest ways of making boundaries is by exclusion. We usually define ourselves over against other people and groups.

    Children offer vivid examples of this: the recurring rivalries, peer group pressures, fears of rejection, worries about "Who is my friend?" or "Will I look like a fool?" Adults are not too different. Groups naturally produce outsiders. This need not be a bad thing, as often outsiders have their own groups or may not want to belong to ours anyway. But many boundaries are only maintained by privilege, power, or violence. And many people do not have habitable groups in which they can flourish. The most obvious are the destitute, refugees, displaced, or persecuted. They act as test cases for our hospitality.

    There are other dimensions to this. The stricken may not be so easily identifiable. There are so many other forms of exclusion that leave deep hurts. Our habits of exclusion may be learned almost unconsciously from our family, race, class, or religion. Or our hearts may be shaped by having been marginalized or victimized ourselves--that can make us sympathetic to others, but it can also make us more protective of our own boundaries, more threatened by outsiders.

    The point is not that boundaries are wrong. Nor can we be expected to respond to every appeal, or to take every "victim" at face value. It is rather about the shaping of our heart's habits. How can we not treat others as faceless? How do we avoid what O'Siadhail calls "blottings out" of the needy? Can we live in the presence of the "eclipsed" and genuinely face them? Can we really listen to voices of misery or agony?

    Simone Weil thought that it is almost impossible to be in the presence of someone in deep affliction and pay them full, compassionate attention. We find ourselves wanting to escape. We blame the victim. We disown responsibility. We take some token action. We explain the affliction so as to put the responsibility elsewhere. We get on with urgent business. We allow ourselves to be distracted. And so on.

    There are many ways of looking at life that see it as perfectly natural and right to harden our heart in such circumstances, unless we have some clear personal responsibility in the situation. Yet there are also persistent and powerful traditions of radical compassion, and these are clearest in the great religious traditions.

    In the Jewish case, the formative events of their tradition built love for the outsider into the heart of their identity. The Israelites were foreigners and slaves in Egypt, and they were never to forget that. In the Bible, Deuteronomy binds together as closely as possible love for God and love for the one who does not belong to Israel:


And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good? ... He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.


Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 18-19


    That gives the crucial guideline for how we exercise the hospitality of our heart. We are to follow "the criterion of the vulnerable." This does not mean that the faces of our family, friends, and others in our core community are excluded. But it does ask what other faces are there too. Who are the others in our inner drama? To whom else are we responsible? Can we risk the boundaries of our heart being overwhelmed by the needy once we pay them compassionate attention? Do we glimpse the astonishing truth that, before this God, the way we treat outsiders may be the single most important factor in the quality of our core community of insiders? The final question of "Intrusion" hints at how high the stakes are here: "Who'll re-envisage the world?"

    It is the difference between a faceless world and one with a new "visage" of hospitality and compassion, formed by responding to the appeal in the faces of the suffering. Such behavior re-envisages the world.


The Wounded Heart


    But what if we are the vulnerable ones and are actually hurt? When someone deeply hurts us it is one of the worst forms of overwhelming. It can dominate a whole life, as often happens between parents and children. The one who has wounded us keeps coming into our thoughts, feelings, and imaginings.

    The extent of the misery is a measure of how vital other people are to us. Because others are so deeply a part of us, when core relationships go wrong our whole being is threatened. We feel that the weave of our self with others is unraveling or being torn, patterns that have taken years to weave between us are destroyed, habits of trusting communication are betrayed. Similar traumas happen when we are hurt or rejected by a group or organization.

    "How many faces must a wound wear?" In O'Siadhail's case, when he was humiliated at school, those "faces" included jaunty humor, bitter laughter, pretending not to care, hardening his core against "tiny erosions of respect," and shame. It is no accident that shame is often seen in terms of the face. We "daren't show our face," we lower our eyes, blush, feel looked down on. Shame has a way of polluting our heart. It feels like an ecological catastrophe of the self. Our whole personal environment is affected--how we are in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. It seems as if nothing will ever flourish again for us.

    Then there is the other side of being hurt, which is often inseparable from it: hurting others. The wisdom of the religions is clear: By hurting others we wound our own heart more terribly than by anything others can inflict on us. This is almost unimaginable, to think that being nasty to someone is worse for us than suffering them being nasty to us. It is not true that the worst thing that can happen to us is being wronged, wounded, or even killed: The worst thing is to do wrong. The double tragedy is that our wounds, which can be so terrible, are often an almost irresistible temptation to inflict wounds on others. How had O'Siadhail's teachers been hurt?

    These themes will be treated further in later chapters, especially those on power, virtue and wisdom, and on evil, suffering, and death. For now the point is to add a crucial dimension to the picture of heart-shaping. The good overwhelmings in our heart's core community, and in its giving and receiving hospitality, can go terribly wrong. It is precisely the best dynamics that have most potential for catastrophic distortion--"the corruption of the best is the worst." The wounds that most cruelly disfigure the heart are given and received between lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, long-term colleagues and partners--any relationship where deep trust and loyalty create potentially tragic vulnerability.

    So the good and the bad overwhelmings are inseparable. We all know in ourselves the urge to avoid the bad by not risking the good. Why get married when the agonies of divorce are all around us? Why have children when it is clear that every parent who really cares pays a huge cost? Why trust beyond what is absolutely necessary when everyone has stories of being let down? Can we even trust ourselves not to let others down under pressure?

    It is a terrible dilemma. Do we try to resist being overwhelmed, and so close ourselves to life and love? Or do we commit ourselves in trust to child, spouse, friend, partner, group or cause in the practical certainty of having to suffer a lot? Few of us resolve that dilemma by simply choosing one side of it. We work out all sorts of compromises and ways of staying relatively invulnerable while yet being committed. Our defenses and securities vary according to our personality type, our experiences, and our little and large decisions over the years. But underlying them all is the fact of agonized fragility. Just facing this truth of our own fragility is a major step in the formation of a heart. How many divorces are due to one or both partners not being realistic about their own and the other's fallibility and vulnerability?

    This vulnerability and the aching anxiety it brings makes us long for relief, security, and comfort. How much damage is done to relationships by the unrealistic expectation of comfort? If "what I feel comfortable with" is the standard for judging how a marriage or other relationship is going, it is almost bound to fail. This is because "comfort" is a measure that cannot cope with being overwhelmed--in good ways or in bad. Yet it is, either openly or hidden, the main criterion for a great many expectations and decisions.

    Addiction to comfort and security turns a heart in on itself. Its core community is policed very carefully. Threats to comfort are dealt with severely, often by creating no-go areas where fences can be built around those with most capacity for disruption. Previous and expected wounds justify a tight security policy. This applies even more at the frontiers across which the heart's hospitality can happen. The unpredictability of strangers makes the heart uncomfortable, and appeals in the faces and voices of others are better ignored or deflected.

    So wounds and the fear of wounds can shape a heart turned in on itself that desires comfort and security. We recognize the hard heart, the cold heart, the closed heart, the paralyzed heart, even the dead heart. But the same wounds can also help to transform a heart. Just as love can "shift the boundaries of our being," so suffering can open us to dimensions of life that were unimaginable before. It is as if our heart is painfully excavated by suffering, its capacity expanded. The hurts can teach sensitivity and sympathy. We recognize in some people a heart that is beyond naivete, that has "been through it" but still trusts, welcomes, and risks.


The Overwhelmed Heart


    So what makes the difference? Why does one heart harden and close and another risk love and hospitality? We have no overview of hearts, and who can judge another? But we each need to gather whatever wisdom we can about this, because both possibilities are there daily for each of us. That wisdom comes most powerfully in testimonies. Contemporary literature is full of testimonies to hearts that have closed, despaired, been distorted, or died. But there is also testimony to the other possibility.

    O'Siadhail's "Out of the Blue" is one example. It points to many of the classic marks of those who have had their hearts transformed. "Nothing can explain this adventure"--there is no formula for it. It is risky, "a blind date where foolish love consented in advance." It is experienced as an astonishing gift: "Should I dare to be so lucky? Is it a dream?" And it leaves us overwhelmed, "beyond our fathom." The secret is that amazing "trip of surprises": "this love re-invades us."

    But how does this relate to wounds? O'Siadhail tries to describe this too. In "The Other Voice" he imagines the woman of "Out of the Blue" speaking, addressing him as that man who had been humiliated as a schoolboy and whose wounds wore many faces, including despair and mockery:


You came lean and taut, a barrage of innocence. I remember a bluster of haughtiness hiding a boy still dazed with childhood hurts, a man tense with desire; slowly I thawed and rocked you in joy. You mocked our speck of being; I showed instead of dust a galaxy whirling in the sunbeam's eye; you cried at the size of eternity, I hushed and said eons count as kisses under a lover's sky. No half-measures then. I have made this island of life a kingdom. Have I stinted your ease or pleasure? No, how could a woman understand that men still talk of freedom to go as they please? My love is your freedom. Do or die or downfall, it's all or nothing and I have chosen all.


Is love like that the key to the cosmos? That is the daring suggestion of the sonnet. The yearning to be "rocked in joy" can be seen as infantile, a longing to return to the cradle. Is it just false projection to see the universe not as indifferent to our "speck of being" but in terms of "kisses under a lover's sky"?

    Here is one of the most basic alternatives anyone can face. Some believe the universe to be a brute fact ruled by chance. The most radical alternative belief is that it is created by love for love and it (together with ourselves) is in fact being loved now. This is a stupendous vision: The cosmos is a place where things can go terribly wrong, where there can be multiple bad as well as good overwhelmings, but yet the most basic truth about it is that it is loved and "rocked in joy."

    What could possibly convince us one way or the other? The sort of love O'Siadhail describes is a sign of the possibility that love is the ultimate reality. It is of course easy to say that not everyone experiences that. But the truth of "The Other Voice" and "Out of the Blue" is not that only if we have similar experiences are we likely to be convinced. O'Siadhail is reaching toward something universal. As has often been seen, poetry strikes at the universal all the more effectively because it strikes at it through particular experiences. In a choice between regarding the universe as brute fact or as created by and for love there can be no neutrality. No one on earth has an "objective" standpoint: that would require being able to stand outside it all in some way. For all the importance of being as intelligent as possible about our beliefs (that is what my own academic job is about), it is hard to imagine any ultimately convincing argument one way or the other. There are huge issues here, but let me go straight to what I see as the crucial one: Whose testimony do we trust?

    O'Siadhail is giving testimony to love. He knows that reality is such that we can have no certainty about this most important matter. It is an adventure that "nothing can explain," and we proceed "by hunch and guesswork." He also knows that an inescapable part of it is wholehearted trust--"No half-measures then." This is something that is either overwhelming or it is nothing:


My love is your freedom. Do or die or downfall,
it's all or nothing and I have chosen all.


So he gives testimony and faces each reader with the possibility of trusting or not trusting him. The decision is intensely practical when we have the possibility of loving or receiving love. Is it worth the risk? Do we "choose all"? Do we, like him, go on a "blind date where foolish love consented in advance"? And, by pushing further and making it an issue of the way the cosmos is, his testimony reaches beyond falling in love or making friends. The stake now is whether, whatever the outcome in particular experiences of love, that "lover's sky" says that we are always, unfailingly loved.

    The Christian gospel is this sort of truth. It is a testimony that is at heart very simple. It can be summed up in the words of those poems. It says God is committed to creation in words like those:


My love is your freedom. Do or die or downfall,
it's all or nothing and I have chosen all.


    It also says that the "all" God chooses is utter loving involvement for worse and for better, expressed decisively in Jesus Christ. And it says that this makes possible the daily reality of "Out of the Blue":


Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being.


    The final, crucial question of this chapter is how trusting this testimony as reality shifts our boundaries and shapes our hearts.


Being Shaped through Being Overwhelmed


    Jesus Christ is an embodiment of multiple overwhelming. He was immersed in the River Jordan at his baptism and then driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. He announced the kingdom of God as something worth everything else, a pearl beyond price, a welcome beyond anything we could deserve, a feast beyond our wildest desires. At the climax of his life he agonized in prayer in Gethsemane, he was betrayed, deserted, tortured, and crucified, and he died crying "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 REB).

    Then came the resurrection, the most disorienting and transformative overwhelming of all. The testimonies to it are full of stuttering amazement and confusion: "And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8). "And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted" (Matt. 28:17). "But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit.... They still disbelieved for joy, and wondered" (Luke 24:37, 41).

    Christian faith is about this person being central to the community of our heart. There he establishes a new core and also transforms our boundaries. The most daring prayer I know is about the transformation of boundaries that comes with Jesus Christ inhabiting our hearts:


I kneel in prayer ... that through faith Christ may dwell in your hearts in love. With deep roots and firm foundations may you, in company with all God's people, be strong to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love, and to know it, though it is beyond knowledge. So may you be filled with the very fullness of God.


Ephesians 3:14, 17-19 REB


    One of the most powerful expressions of this is by Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. He speaks first of Christian transformation in terms of facing Jesus Christ:


And we all, with unveiled face, beholding [or reflecting] the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.


2 Corinthians 3:18


    Then he sums up his whole gospel ("this treasure") as having the face of Christ shining in our hearts:


For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.


2 Corinthians 4:6


    There overwhelming darkness is met by the light and glory of God. The form this takes in our hearts is the face of Christ. All that goes on in our hearts is before this face. Jesus Christ is the focus of our core community. That is the meaning of his being Lord, friend, mother, brother, host, guest, and more.

    We could imagine having someone else as the focus of our life who would narrow our attention and limit our concerns. But to concentrate on the face of Jesus Christ is to find our boundaries shifting and expanding as we slowly "grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love." This is someone whose hospitality is universal--face by face by face. To be before his face is to find that he is looking with love on all sorts of unexpected, marginalized, or, to us, disagreeable people, as well as on us. Wherever he is he brings them as part of his community. So we find our heart is overwhelmed in new ways by those to whom his gaze, words, and actions direct us. Even more broadly, as the mention of light in darkness underlines, all creation is embraced in this love, and we are invited to look with delight and responsibility on "the face of the earth."

    This is a recipe for continual overwhelming. It is no accident that the initial explosion of new life after the resurrection of Jesus was in the form of wind and fire at Pentecost as the Holy Spirit was poured out. The Spirit is expressed in the elemental symbols of overwhelming: wind, fire, water, light, power. It is also the speech-giving Spirit, reversing Babel. It inspires prayer, singing, prophecy, teaching, and testimony, and floods the world with good news. The Spirit is the self-distribution of the abundance of God, shaping each community and person differently. The Spirit inspires in us what the early church called a "sober intoxication."

    What is the way into all this? In the story of Pentecost, after his initial address to the crowd in Jerusalem, Peter is asked: "What shall we do?" He replies: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

    Baptism is the clearest Christian testimony to the fundamental and inescapable reality of being overwhelmed. It is the basic event of Christian identity. Those of us who are baptized have taken on an identity shaped by the overwhelmings of creation, death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit. We have also entered a community that spans the generations and relates us to many who have died, as well as to perhaps two billion people alive today who are identified as Christians. This is being overwhelmed by people; but it does not stop with the Christian community because Jesus Christ faces in love the four billion or so others too.

    As we live before his face we find ourselves constantly reinvaded by love; as we follow his gaze we find our boundaries constantly shifting. This is the dynamic of being shaped by being overwhelmed.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 9
Foreword 13
Acknowledgments 15
Introduction: Coping with Being Overwhelmed: How Are Our Lives Shaped? 17
1 Faces and Voices: Shaping a Heart 33
2 Vocations and Compulsions: Life-Shaping Desires 55
3 Power, Virtue, and Wisdom: The Shaping of Character 83
4 Secrets and Disciplines: Soul-Shaping 107
5 Leisure and Work: Shaping Time and Energy 135
6 Knocked Out of Shape: Evil, Suffering, and Death 163
7 Kaleidoscope: Resurrection, Joy, and Feasting 183
Notes 203
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