The Spirituality of the Tortoise

tortoiseI have discovered that the tortoise has a lot to teach us about the Christian life. Let me start this reflection with a story.

My Mom and Dad once moved into a house and found that the previous owners had left behind a rather odd garden ornament – a life-style and very realistic model of a tortoise.

Now, my mother has a somewhat twisted sense of humour and the temptation to have some fun was just too great.

She put this tortoise in the front garden, where passing neighbours would see it and every day she would move it just a few feet.

It gradually became an object of fascination to the neighbours who couldn’t quite make up their minds whether it was a real tortoise or not. Couples would stop and begin arguing amongst themselves, one pointing out that it was over there yesterday and the other saying look it’s clearly just a model.

And my mother would be peeking out from behind the curtains doubled up laughing!

Just to ramp things she started putting bits of lettuce out in front of the thing, with nibbles taken out of them! It went on for weeks!

What made it such an effective prank was that the difference between a live tortoise and a dead one, is actually very little.

As I reflected on Mom and her practical joke I thought there is quite a lesson here about Christian spiritual life.

A lot of Christians are a bit like the tortoise – not much in the way of evidence of life, not much growth, not much movement. They are actually alive, they have been born again by the Spirit of God, but there’s not much evidence of that divine life flowing through them. In fact they look rather dead.

I have to be honest here and say that this was me for quite a long period in my Christian life. Alive but rather dead looking.

Jesus didn’t send his 12 Apostles out into the world in order to make Christians, he told them to make disciples. The goal was not about saving souls but creating a community of people who lived differently.

Discipleship is the on-going and life-long process of cooperating with the Holy Spirit so that every area of our lives can be transformed. Every aspect of our lives has to be held up to divine scrutiny so that we can see is it rightly ordered, rightly prioritised, rightly focussed, rightly pursued?

Which sounds like (and is) hard work. However it is also joyful work.

For God calls us to make these changes in order that we might draw closer to Him, experience more of His love, be more involved in His activity – all of which is the greatest joy and privilege a human being can ever experience.

So the challenge of the tortoise is to examine the state of our spiritual lives, and if necessary to shake ourselves up, to knuckle down, to go for it, to embrace the challenge and adventure of Christian discipleship.

The second spiritual lesson that we can learn from the tortoise concerns its defence system.

When the tortoise gets into its defensive posture it is pretty hard to hurt. When it pulls its head and its legs inside its shell there is not much you can do to it. It is pretty safe.

The big disadvantage that it faces in this defensive posture is that it can’t actually do very much, anything even. It can’t see, it can’t hear, it can’t move, it can’t eat, it can’t drink. All pulled in and huddled up it’s safe, but actually in that position it is also rather pointless.

In our Christian life there is often the temptation to be a bit tortoise-like – to withdraw when things looks a little threatening, or scary, when they require us to venture a bit outside of our comfort zone.

John Cleese once said that it was each Englishman’s goal to get safely into his grave without ever having been seriously embarrassed. I can relate to that remark!

However if we are to be of use to God then we are going to have to take risks. If we are going to move where God wants us to move, say what God wants us to say, do what God wants us to do – we are going to have to take risks. And yes, there may well be moments of embarrassment along the way! But wouldn’t you rather be doing something risky which counts for eternity, than being safe but pointless?

The final lesson we can learn from the tortoise is related to its lifestyle. A tortoise strikes me as rather an odd choice of pet. I mean you buy them, give them a kind and loving home and they then have the audacity to spend half the year asleep! They just go into hibernation, close down for months on end, and enter a kind of half-life stasis.

Looking back on my own Christian life I can recognize periods when I did this spiritually. I just closed God out. Shut things down. I went into a kind of spiritual hibernation. During these times days, weeks and months were just wasted because I wasn’t alive to God, listening to Him, available to Him.

So these are the three spiritual lessons we can learn from the tortoise. Three dangers we must be aware of:

  • Don’t be alive but dead looking.
  • Don’t choose safe over useful.
  • Don’t spiritually hibernate.