Will you live to be a hundred? James M Houston, founding principal of Regent College turned 100 on Nov 21st. Even in a day where many live longer lives, 100 is still an impressive birthday to celebrate. I have written about my spiritual debt to him in earlier columns. I am but one of many, many lives he has touched. He continues to teach me. In a recent article he wrote (yes, he continues to write) he described the encounter with Jesus that led to his life’s work, the setting up of Regent College.
Many decades ago, I had the great privilege, after attending the Urbana Inter-Varsity Conference, to be encountered in such a way that, like Paul, I have never been the same since. The first night we arrived back from the conference in Winnipeg, where I was a visiting professor, I was awakened early in the morning, by a great light at the foot of my bed. Spontaneously, I responded from my heart: “Lord, what do you want me to do?”. With no clear answer, I simply waited for six years before I knew what to do. I was to give up my career, as a Professor at Oxford, and without promises of any substantial financial support, to start Regent College with a few friends. My pulse-beat every moment since that mystical appearance was like that of the Apostle’s witness, before the Roman Leader, “O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision”. That has been my heartbeat too, ever since.
There are many things that stand out in this account. First is his expression of Abrahamic faith — willingness to follow God’s directive even when it required him to leave the familiar and the secure. Perhaps what is more impressive was his willingness to wait six years before receiving clarity as to what his mission was to be.
I too wonder what my specific calling at this season of my life is. Recently, the thought of recovering friendship as a spiritual discipline has been very much on my heart. Of course, spiritual friendship has been at the heart of the work of Graceworks from day one. What is new is my beginning to see friendship as a spiritual discipline. This was probably triggered by something that Eugene Peterson wrote:
Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality. It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting. Like the sacramental use of water and bread and wine, friendship takes what is common in human experience and turns it into something holy. [Leap Over a Wall (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997)], 53.)
What Peterson wrote is also something that underlines the DNA of Graceworks: that you don’t have to go to special places and do special things to encounter the divine, but that the divine invades the ordinary and we encounter Him there. However, friendship as a spiritual discipline?
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun helps us to understand what spiritual disciplines are:
From its beginning the church linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships and experiences that gave people space in their lives to “keep company” with Jesus. These intentional practices, relationships and experiences we know as spiritual disciplines. (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 17.)
So, yes, friendship can be a spiritual discipline. We are called to follow Christ in the company of friends. It is a spiritual discipline that is accessible but not an easy one. As we draw close to each other we will encounter our best and our worst. Like all disciplines we will need the power of the Holy Spirit.
My commitment to spiritual friendship all these years has been a reflection of how much Dr Houston has shaped my life and ministry. I resonated with passion when I read things like the following:
I believe that, rather than professional pursuits or even writing meaningful books, the prime action of our lives is the face-to-face encounter with others, bringing God’s presence into their lives by being “living epistles,” as the apostle puts it. Daily interruptions while working provide a continual reminder that thinking is meaningless without action, indeed that action is meaningless without the cultivation of friendships. (Joyful Exiles, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006], 177.)
What he writes here describes the primary conviction that drives our ministry. Sometimes, I feel alone pursuing this in a world and a church enamoured with technique, knowledge, and productivity. I believe there were times when Houston also felt alone in the pursuit of his God-given mission.
Still, as Houston models for us, the question is not: “Is our calling easy or hard?” Our focus is on what our Lord has called us to do and to do it. So, thank you for showing us the way, my friend. To borrow from Spock: “Live long and prosper”.