Introductory Note:

Dr. Tom Oden was one of the general editors of the Renovaré Life with God Bible, and a thirty-year friend to Renovaré’s president emeritus, Chris Hall. (Chris and Tom worked on many projects together, including the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.) In this essay from a few years back, Chris talks about a particular truth that his friend impressed upon him: “In spiritual formation, God offers us a marathon much more often than a one-hundred-yard dash.”

Renovaré Team

God occasionally engenders moments of recognition in an image-bearer’s life, points of graced awareness God offers to help us reorient our way, to nudge us in a new direction, to assist us in growing emotionally, spiritually, and theologically. Such a moment occurred between Tom Oden and Will Herberg. Will loved Tom enough to speak a direct word and Tom received the grace to accept it. You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas,” Will had exhorted Tom with fury in his eyes.” Tom never forgot the moment or the words. Almost instantly, Tom realized Herberg was right, but that recognition would require years to take root and grow. I had to assimilate it, let it stew and find my own way to recovery.”

Some things just take time. Skewed perspectives and behaviors developed over years of persuasion and practice rarely change in a moment’s recognition and repentance. Imbedded habits of thinking and acting, the deep grooves in our minds, hearts, and actions, surely can change, but the rhythms of spiritual transformation are most often slow, paced, measured, deliberate. I remember a dear mentor saying to me, Chris, spiritual formation is the slowest of all human movements.” Perhaps he sensed I was trying to rush things that cannot be hurried if deep healing and extensive transformation is to occur. 

The wisest, time-tested pattern for change seems to be slow assimilation; we allow a truth to stew in our mind and heart, to percolate in our brain and body, refusing to sprint toward change. In spiritual formation, God offers us a marathon much more often than a one-hundred-yard dash. For Tom, the maturing of my change of heart took place only gradually through quiet reading in early mornings in a library carrel, allowing myself to be met by those great minds through their own words.” 

Augustine’s City of God taught Tom about the ironic providences of history,” while Cyril of Jerusalem schooled him on evidences for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It was through the coaching of Sister Macrina and the group of women gathered around Jerome that Tom began to discern the profound influences of women on the earliest and richest traditions of spiritual formation, especially in monastic and ascetic disciplines.” 

John of Damascus educated Tom about God’s providence – the providence Tom was increasingly recognizing at work in his own life. Tom’s mind and heart were expanding like a balloon as God breathed into him a living past. I realized that the reordering of theological ideas I thought I was just then discovering had been well understood as a stable and received tradition in the eighth century.” And so it went,” Tom writes. All of that happened while I was reading, just reading… Every question I previously thought of as new and unprecedented, I found had already been much investigated. That led to deeper conversations with Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical graduate students and colleagues, whose voices I had not been hearing.” 

Whose voices am I not hearing?”, I ask myself. Who am I not listening to?” What texts might the Lord be asking me to read more deeply, allowing them to reshape my mind, heart, and the ingrained patterns of my body? Which books might the Trinity be inviting me to camp in over the next two or three years, writings that only offer their riches to miners willing to dig slowly, methodically, persistently? 

As I worked my way through the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity,” Tom recalls, I reemerged out of a maze to once again delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and the perennial dilemmas of fallen human existence. It was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. I was deeply moved.”