Friday, November 20, 2009

Spiritual Disciplines - do they hurt?

This is last week's Sunday School lesson . . . .Spiritual Disciplines. . . .another of my favorites. When some folks hear the term “Spiritual Discipline,” their mind immediately jumps to the idea of a frail old saint who has been fasting for weeks while sitting on top of a pile of ashes wearing sack cloth. (found that phrase on someone else's blog - give him the credit!!) Most of us know that is not the case. As a matter of fact, we’ve studied Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline in this class, not just once but twice. I went to pull my book off the shelf and look how old it has become. As a matter of fact, there is a note written in the book in my handwriting that says, “Pack – Monday, October 16 at 7:00 p.m.” This wasn't a note to self to pack for a trip. Glenn was in Cub Scouts in kindergarten, first and second grade. He’s in grad school now and will be 23 this week. I started teaching in John Wesley around that kindergarten/first grade year so we must have studied this for the first time way back then. Sorry – I didn’t mean to get off on that but found it amazing!

What is the purpose of spiritual disciplines anyway? The purpose of spiritual discipline according to Richard Foster is not to make life miserable but joyful, not to put us in bondage but to set us free, not to confine but to liberate. The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. We must not be led to believe that the Disciplines are only for spiritual giants and hence beyond our reach, or only for contemplatives who devote all their time to prayer and meditation. God intends the disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings; people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns. God intends the disciplines for regular folks just like all of us. The spiritual disciplines are for each of us.

Spiritual Disciplines have been compared to the process a farmer goes through when he plants a crop. He cultivates the land, plants the seeds, and then continues to care for the seeds – watering, hoeing, etc – until they mature for harvest. The process of cultivating, planting and caring for the seeds allows the seed to grow into what they were meant to become. As Christians practice spiritual disciplines, we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us so that we may grow into what God means for us to become. (From Following Jesus book)

As we practice the disciplines, we allow the Holy Spirit to change and refine us into Christ's image and we will become the person whom God wants us to be. Using the spiritual disciplines is much more than going through an activity as part of a daily “to do” list. In the Baptist church where I grew up, our offering envelopes had a place to mark with a check -- "Daily Bible Reading" - I loved to mark that one off. But the disciplines aren't a check list. The disciplines are not an end in themselves or a way to earn favor with God. They are tools that help us seek God, get to know Jesus better and to live life as he taught.

Colossians 1:10 from the Amplified Bible says, “10That you may walk (live and conduct yourselves) in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him and desiring to please Him in all things, bearing fruit in every good work and steadily growing and increasing in and by the knowledge of God [with fuller, deeper, and clearer insight, acquaintance, and recognition].

We, as Christians, should be growing and increasing in the knowledge of God – head, heart and hand knowledge.

Just out of curiosity, why do you think that God didn’t make spiritual growth automatic? (discussion about working for something)

We’ve spent weeks on the disciplines before and this week, we are just going to do a quick run through. I’ve compared the list in Following Jesus with Richard Foster’s list and we are going with his. The two lists were almost identical. Following Jesus includes journaling and one other. Foster just divides his into such logical categories which makes them easier to discuss. Foster says there are The Inward Disciples of meditation, prayer, fasting and study. The Outward Disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission and service. The Corporate Disciplines are confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

Meditation – The purpose of meditation is to enable us to hear God more clearly. Meditation is listening, sensing, heeding the life and light of Christ. Meditation is more about reflecting than studying, more about listening than thinking. In the midst of an exceedingly busy ministry Jesus made a habit of withdrawing to a “lonely place apart.” He did this not just to be away from people, but so he could be with God. Jesus sought out his heavenly Father and he listened to him and spent time with him. Christian meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word. According to Richard Foster, this is an important fact to know. Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind with Christ. The two ideas are very different. One way to meditate is to take a verse or passage of scripture. Read it and then seek to live the experience by using all our senses. Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water along the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head. Touch the hem of his garment. We do a little of that in Disciple classes and I always enjoy it but I don’t tend to meditate much at home. Definitely a discipline where I need work. How about you?

Prayer – The discipline of prayer takes us right into God’s presence. In real prayer, we begin to desire the things that God desires and to love the things that God loves. Do you have a time set apart each day to spend time in prayer? There are so many different ways to pray. There are breath prayers – an easy one to remember is, “Jesus, son of God” as you inhale and then as you exhale, “have mercy on me” or “Jesus, son of God” “give me strength” or “Jesus son of God” “protect my children” – whatever your need is for that day. I also want to remind you that our prayers can be much broader than our own family. Our pastors and church services need to be bathed in prayer. Anytime someone tells me they are not “getting anything out of the sermons” I want to ask them, “are you praying for the preacher?” Then, "are you praying to receive something?" If not, don’t complain. I’m not usually bold enough to ask those questions but I always want to do so. If you are out and about during the week, the Mouat Chapel is open daily during business hours for prayer. When you have a minute, come by the church and spend some time in prayer. If you want to pray with someone else, Donna Burgess and Herb Griffin meet every Tuesday at 2:00 in the Mouat Chapel for prayer. They would love for you to join them.

Fasting – how many of you have ever fasted before? Mark and I have fasted a few times over the years. Mark fasted several years before I did and I must admit that he was mean as a snake that first time!! More than any other Discipline fasting can reveal the things that control us. Fasting can be done in many different ways – there are partial fasts, liquid only fasts, 12 hour fasts. Fasts can also be from things. One year, our family fasted from TV during Lent. I received an email from a close friend this week and she is fasting from critical words. Listen to this from a devotional she shared with me:
Fast Of Words: A Different Kind Of Fast
Time and again God brings me to my knees over my heart attitude expressed out of
my mouth. More than once, God has led me to fast of negative, critical, judgmental,
and complaining words. Why a fast of words? Is that a legitimate application of
fasting? The Hebrew word fast means to cover the mouth. For me, it is harder to
fast from words than from food. Abstaining from negative words may be as powerful
as fasting from food, because it is a particular battlefield for most of us.

Study – Romans 12:2 says, “2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” I love that verse. I also love the discipline of study. Study doesn’t involve just reading either. There are books and lectures and formal Bible studies. We can study the world of nature and events and actions and other people. Study involves four steps –The first is repetition. I know y’all think that I reuse stuff and repeat stuff a lot in this class, but we learn by repetition. Concentration is the second step of study. Comprehension is the third step. Comprehension is when the light bulb goes off. AHA! Then there is reflection. Reflection defines the significance of what we are studying or have studied. I highly recommend signing up for any of the studies we offer at Trinity. If I’m not teaching or taking a class, I don’t study. My Bible sits nicely on the dining room table waiting on me. I have to have the discipline of study in order to study.

Those were the inward disciplines – meditation, fasting, prayer and study.

Simplicity is the first of the outward disciplines we will discuss. The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life style. Matthew Sleeth came and spoke at Trinity recently about his book, “Serve God Save the Planet.” I think he probably practices the discipline of simplicity. Some of the church staff went to a workshop on Tuesday and we took a test which determined our style of worship. There were 9 different types and the author had signs around the room and as he called out your style, you went to stand under the sign. He came to one style which reminds me of simplicity - ascetic. And there was only one person out of maybe 100 who had that as his #1 answer after taking the test. I think that might be indicative of our society. The term ascetic describes a person who abstains himself from all the worldly pleasures. Sounds a little like simplicity to me.

I found this on a website while working on the lesson: The people who are ascetic can be said to do so for some higher goals they want to achieve in their life. They want to be the perfect embodiment of purity and spirituality and on the way to make a connection with God. Though the term is a part of the dictionary, it is almost impossible to get that kind of person in flesh and blood. The whole world is so much indulged in worldly pleasures that hardly anybody thinks about something to attain much higher than what he could not see with his own eyes but only can experience and that experience also comes after a lot of effort.

After the workshop on Tuesday and after reading this, I think that many of us might need to work on simplicity.

Solitude – solitude could actually be called the discipline of silence just as easily. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who is going to be in control? God perhaps? We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. I’ve done that at least four times in the last two weeks. Silence is one of the deepest disciplines of the spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification. As Christians, we need to discipline ourselves to keeping our mouths shut sometimes.

Submission – The discipline of submission has been more abused than any other. Jesus came to set us free from bondage, but as humans we are continually messing it us. The freedom that comes with the discipline of submission is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. Show of hands - how many of you like to get your own way? The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished. In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. The biblical teaching on submission focuses primarily on the spirit with which we view other people. We are free to value all people. Submission comes from putting self out of the way and putting on Christ. Mark 8:34 says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Service – Jesus lived out servanthood in such an example. Jesus then calls us to follow in his footsteps serving others. We need to discover our spiritual gifts that we talked about last week and then live daily using those gifts to serve. We must remember the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. Mark and I are involved in the Emmaus community, as are some of you. When you are asked to serve on an Emmaus team, you are to be a servant. Someone else’s needs should always be before your own. That can be difficult because we are such an egocentric, “I want it” kind of culture. We are called to be servants.

The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude or silence, submission and service.

Our last disciplines are considered corporate disciplines. They are confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Confession is a difficult discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. And when we do, sometimes the response is not what we expected. Not too long ago, I had to tell a small white lie to a church member. It was a very awkward situation. I struggled and struggled and I finally went to Dave Barnhart and said, “I need to confess something.” I shared my story with him and he was so gracious. He told me another ancient story about something similar. When we finished talking, I felt so much better. It doesn’t have to be a preacher though – a trusted friend will work. Praying about it should come first but sometimes just talking to another human helps.

Worship – one of my favorite disciplines. To worship is to know, to feel, to experience the resurrected Christ in the midst of the gathered community. This is a discipline that we can all practice at least once a week. Make coming to church a priority for your family. Coming to church should trump all other Sunday activities. We corporately gather to worship God not only because of who He is, but also because of what He has done. Worship at home or in private is good and does occur, but corporate worship is important. We are to gather together and praise God. If Sunday worship is not a discipline you practice regularly, I encourage you to start by setting your alarm clock each and every Sunday morning.

To me, it sounds funny to say that guidance is a corporate discipline. I think of guidance as one on one. But on Wednesday nights, we are studying Genesis and Exodus and God led the children of Israel out of bondage as a people. They were not just a gathering of individuals who happened to be going in the same direction; they were a people under the rule of God. That makes sense when we think of the Body of Christ and last week’s lesson on our gifts. When we all come together and pray for the common good of the church, our town, the world we receive guidance as a group. Dallas Willard states, “The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.”

Last but certainly not least is the discipline of celebration. Celebration is central to all the spiritual disciplines. Without a joyful spirit, the disciplines become dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees. Without joyous celebration to infuse the other disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them. Joy produces energy. Joy makes us strong. The decision to set the mind on the higher things of life is an act of the will. That is why celebration is a discipline. If celebration is primarily a corporate discipline, how is it practiced? One way to practice celebration is through singing, dancing and shouting. (woo hoo! - hands up!!) Well that would go over really big at Trinity wouldn’t it? At that same workshop I mentioned earlier – the one I went to on Tuesday – my native style of worship – the one that is hiding somewhere within me – is enthusiastic. To be honest, I’m not really surprised. I love a good celebration. We are moving into the season of commercial celebrations but we can celebrate our God during Thanksgiving and Christmas. What a novel idea.
Celebration gives us the strength to live in all the other disciplines. When faithfully pursued, the other disciplines bring us deliverance from those things that have made our lives miserable for years which, in turn evokes increased celebration.

The outward disciplines are confession, worship, guidance and celebration.
The spiritual disciplines give us the focus and direction that most of us need. As we discipline ourselves to consistently use these tools, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit to change and refine us. When we practice these disciplines, we will grow in relationship with our Creator. Doesn’t that sound good?
(Lisa's note -- once again, I give thanks to God for writers like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard - they have much more education than I and they write in a way that is easy to teach. Many times I use their words exactly - I give them all the credit! I am thankful that they are open to God's leading and willing to share their teaching materials)

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