On Sunday we read the story of Jesus helping his fishing buddies – Simon, James and John. Though they had fished all night and caught nothing, when Jesus invited them to go out deeper and try again, they did and were astonished when their nets were full to bursting, and their boats started to sink with so many fish. Echoing Jesus’ invitation to follow him and learn how to fish for people, I suggested that Spiritual Disciplines would help us to go deeper.
We typically think of Lent as a season for giving things up. Some try to go the whole 40 days without chocolate. Others might go 4 minutes a day without their smart phone, or 4 evenings a week without any tv. But how does giving something up lead us to a deeper faith?
The purpose of such practices is to make ourselves more receptive to God. There are things we can do without, which can prompt us to recognize the presence of God, and to notice that our souls crave to be in God’s presence.
Psalm 42 says, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirst for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God. How would you describe your own spiritual longings for God?
Another way to go deeper is by adding a practice that makes us more aware of God’s presence. My friend Jack Levison suggests taking a 1 minute break four times a day; when you wake up, at lunch, before dinner, and right before bed. “Say the Lord’s prayer. Or maybe stand, stretch, and say to yourself (and God), ‘Glory be to the father, and to the son, and to the holy spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, world without end. Amen!’ Or memorize a Bible verse to say 4 times a day: ‘I will sing to the LORD a new song!’ Or, for that matter, the verse of a hymn or chorus that attunes you to your inner life; try that Or maybe just breathe—big, deep breaths. Small reminders of your inner life. Nearly imperceptible—but not, for that reason insignificant—reminders of your interior self.”
Over the centuries Christians have found it super helpful to practice spiritual disciplines together. I can attest from the times when I’ve stayed several days at a convent, or gone to church camp, it’s much easier to attend to daily prayer when everything stops and everyone goes to the chapel together. My hope is that as we explore Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline together it will serve to help us go deeper with them than we would if we tried on our own.
In his introductory chapter Foster gives an important word about sin and willpower. “Sin as a condition works its way out through the ‘bodily members,’ that is, the ingrained habits of the body. And,” Foster says, “there is no slavery that can compare to the slavery of ingrained habits of sin. Our ordinary method of dealing with ingrained sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on our willpower and determination. Whatever may be the issue for us – anger, fear, bitterness, gluttony, pride, lust, substance abuse – we determine never to do it again; we pray against it, fight against it, set our will against it. But the struggle is all in vain, and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt, or worse yet, so proud of our external righteousness that ‘whitened sepulcher’ is a mile description of our condition.” (p. 5)
This is the condition of the hypocrites that Jesus warns of in the gospel of Matthew – scripture that is so often read on Ash Wednesday. Watch out for those holy people who make a show of their righteousness, their gifts to the church, their prayers and their fasts. Willpower alone is not capable of “bringing about the necessary transformation of the inner spirit.” (p. 6)
But just when we reach the point of despair we become open to the truth. “Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.” This is exactly what John Wesley was talking about in his sermon about the Almost Christian and the Altogether Christian. The Almost Christian is working on pure spiritual muscle, sheer willpower. The Altogether Christian learns how to let on God’s grace work from the inside out to create the change.
Foster continues to explain, “the moment we grasp this breathtaking insight (of righteousness being a free gift of God’s grace), we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction. [Instead of relying on our willpower] We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do.” We might think that we just need to wait for God to come and transform us.
Methodists have always emphasized the means of grace – that there are things we can do, a way to place ourselves before God so that God can transform us. Spiritual Disciplines are ways to prepare ourselves for growth, the way a farmer prepares the soil for the growth of a crop. Plowing and weeding, watering and pruning all help the growth to take place more easily. But the growth comes from God. As Foster puts it, “The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where God can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where God can bless us.” (p. 7)
The Christian life is all about learning to walk along the path of disciplined grace. This walk is free, anyone can walk. We don’t have to stop at a toll booth to begin traveling along it. That’s the grace. But though the grace is free it is not cheap – it requires discipline – “we must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action which involves both individual and group life.” Walking the path of disciplined grace will lead us deeper, it will change us, and it will lead to growth – both as individuals and as a community of faith.
Foster organizes his book into three sections. First there are inward disciplines (Meditation, Prayer, Fasting and Study), second are the outward disciplines (Simplicity, Solitude, Submission and Service) and the third section contain disciplines we need to do with others (confession, worship, guidance, celebration). We will highlight a different spiritual discipline each week, but in a different order than the book, letting the scripture readings and focus of the days be our map. To help me out, I invite you to share question or experience you have had with the spiritual discipline of the coming Sunday. Connection cards you have today ask about fasting. To help you out in actually trying the disciplines week by week I encourage you to buy Celebration of Discipline, or at least the study guide. To make it even more fruitful, find a friend or two and agree on a time and place to meet each week and discuss what you are reading and experiencing.
Whatever we do, let us remember that we are walking this path with Jesus by our side. This is how God reconciled with us, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, through Jesus God becomes friends with us. “God put the wrong on [Christ] who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.”
Paul encourages us that “now is the right time to listen, the day to be helped. Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing. Our work as God’s servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered.”
The Spiritual Disciplines will help us to become a people who can be, “terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”
As your pastor, I join with Paul who says, “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life [of faith]. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!
The Spiritual Disciplines stretch before us, it is a path to spiritual growth. Commit yourselves to it this night. The journey begins. Let us walk together.