I decided, somewhat haphazardly and not altogether intentionally, to shut up during Lent. Shutting up is a good spiritual practice for the season.
A few weeks ago, I had some road trips I needed to do, so I used the OverDrive app on my phone to get some audio books from the public library (if you didn’t know this was a thing, you’re welcome). Actually, I checked out two. One was The Hobbit, because I know that’s a winner, guaranteed to keep my attention. The other was The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’d actually wanted to read that book one way or another for some time because, upon seeing it on a bookstore shelf, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Wright Brothers. Something about bicycles and Ohio and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and *POOF* humans flew to the moon. My knowledge was pretty bare and I was intrigued. I’ve read McCullough books before and figured he would shed an interesting light on them. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be well enough entertained, but hey. If I wasn’t? That’s what Bilbo Baggins was for.
Turns out, I didn’t need a backup. I was absolutely mesmerized by the story of the Wright Brothers.
In my opinion, I don’t think we pay enough attention to their particular blend of genius, determination, and courage. And make no mistake, their achievement (machine-powered flight) took all three. They never had college education, but they had a genius for solving mechanical problems. Combined with that natural mechanical mind was a dogged determination to solve problems, no matter how much study and experimentation was required. And because we’ve been flying for more than a century now, it’s easy to forget that flying is insane and scary. Large things carrying humans end up floating in the air. But because no one succeeded before, there were plenty of stories of those large things falling to the ground very rapidly and breaking those humans into irreparable pieces. There was a lot of risk involved.
But the brothers put their heads down and got it done. They did what no one was able to do prior to them. Their thoughts on flight and manipulation of machines helped to spark a revolution that, just a few decades later, would result in jet engines and commercial flights and, yes, the moon landings. Remarkable.
In the middle of this fascinating book, McCullough’s voice (which was particularly charming, if you’re interested) read out a quote from Milton Wright, the brothers’ nephew. When I heard it, I leapt back and listened to it again and again.
“History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home but the making was so obscured by the commonplace, I did not recognize it until many years later.”
This quote describes the brothers’ reality for many years. They were viewed, for years at a time, as absurdly passionate weirdos attempting the impossible. And even after they succeeded, years went by before pretty much anyone noticed or cared or believed.
But I was struck by the words of Milton Wright on another level. Something marvelous was being accomplished in incremental fashion in the most mundane, ordinary way possible. Humans were in the process of flying while these two men put together and took apart small models in their bicycle shop. As they worked on wings and steering systems. If you walked in on their shop at any given time around 1900, you would not think anything remarkable was happening. Their own nephew confesses as much.
Several years later, though, if you were one of the thousands that congregated with the large crowds and gasped in awe as they made loops of a cow pasture, you would say that you’d never seen anything more extraordinary.
And no one could see it in the shop. No one could see it in the making.
This image has stuck with me as I have thought about spiritual formation. I find myself to be the most frustrating person on the planet. I don’t know anyone as well as I know myself, and the fickle, stumbling, bumbling fool that I am drives me crazy. I am more failure than success. If you asked me, I could tell you that I would like to be a very different person. I even know what I would look like. I could tell you what the extraordinary reinvention of myself would be like. I would be patient and open and forgiving and friendly and warm and self-sacrificing, amongst many other virtues. There would be a Copernican revolution of my character and I would be… better. So much better.
We often want life transformation to be the flip of a switch, an instant change, a transfiguration into something better and brighter. And for some people, in some specific ways, this may happen. Crisis may produce radical change in one part of their life. But for everyone else and in most ways imaginable, we all know that life change is not like this.
Formation is hard and slow work, often obscured by the commonplace.
This may be the first thing to accept about spiritual formation if we intend to reach our intended aim of life transformation. For Christians, the target is pretty clear: the character of Jesus and the fruitfulness of his Spirit-abundant life. The “how do we get there” is what plagues us. The journey is, quite literally, that of a lifetime. It’s a journey with no arrival promised in this life. We are aiming for the impossible. If you’re like me, this feels hopeless. It feels like nothing is happening in us. It feels dry and slow and… blah.
But when you enter into the workshop and you go to work everyday and you allow yourself to be worked on everyday, the commonplace of your life, the cumulative power of the barely-altered ordinary slowly starts to work away at your character. If you intend to be a follower of Jesus, you intend to hear and obey his teaching (Matthew 28:20), you should be encouraged that, as you get down to work everyday, working out this life in your own life (Philippians 2:12), you should take heart that monumental things are being done in the midst of the grind of your life. In fact, there is a patient Craftsman not deterred by the short time horizons that you may put on his work. He is busy in your life (Philippians 2:13).
“The making was so obscured by the commonplace…”
Let that be an encouragement to you and a call to you. Be encouraged that, in barely perceptible ways, God could be up to very serious, very big things in your life. Let it also be a call to you, as it has called to me, to give yourself over to the work of life with God. His particular genius and determination and courage should bleed into your own heart to apply the genius and determination and courage of the Spirit. If you are like me, you may be quickly discouraged by the seemingly minuscule progress in your life. Very often, big things are done in small measures. You are today participating in something that, in 10 years, may make you gasp in surprise and gratitude at the grandeur.
Jesus wants to do big stuff in the life of his people. You can be sure that he’ll finish what he starts. Even if it seems like it’s taking forever.
The dream of flight is worth the wait. And the work.