spiritual journey


Hi everyone – welcome to our final week of this virtual retreat on the spiritual disciplines!

I’m afraid Spring Break delayed my final post, and I apologize for any confusion. We’ve had some gorgeous weather here in Tidewater, Virginia!

Rather than delve into another discipline this week as planned (hospitality), I think our last session would be better spent considering how we’d like to design our own rule of life, based on what we’ve learned over the past nine weeks. Now that we’ve covered the full content of the retreat, let’s reexamine some themes that have emerged:

1. Spiritual disciplines are not burdensome demands upon us nor achievements we use to get God to do what we want, but are practices that build intimacy with God. They do require an exercise of the will, yes, but they are more akin to tending a seed rather than building a house. We’re only nurturing the eternal life within us; we’re not creating it.

2. Perhaps you noticed that we covered these spiritual disciplines in a particular order: the movement of the course began with internal submission, which is foundational to a relationship with God. Believing (even subconsciously) that we are coequal or superior to God is the root of all that went wrong in the Garden of Eden, and all that continues to go wrong with our current relationship with God. He will not yield to another God – his power is absolute. Fortunately his love is just as absolute: he is constantly and simultaneously disciplining us and wooing us.  He relentlessly fashions the circumstances of our lives to get us to turn to him as our only God and realize all he does is for our good – collectively and individually. Only he has the capacity and the patience to work out all the intricate threads of that process, which leads to #3.

3. Giving up being God, or giving up ultimate control in your own life, is a great freedom, and is the key to how the disciplines remain life-giving, nurturing practices of intimacy instead of back-breaking burdens. Once we know how to yield to God (and others), we can see how each discipline strengthens one particular aspect of our souls, increasing our multifaceted capacity for hearing God and developing intimacy with him. We begin to see how practicing silence and solitude reveals the noise in our lives that competes with God’s still, small voice – and we are motivated to remove those distractions. We see how fasting reveals our tendency to drown out our spiritual hunger by overfocusing on or oversatiating our physical hunger – and we are motivated to reign in particular physical appetites that have begun to control us. We see how prayer reveals our true prayerlessness and how we take God for granted every moment - and we are motivated to spend more time investing in our most important and vital relationship of all.

With these summary points in mind, what would you like your personal rule of life to look like? As a reminder, here’s the list of disciplines we covered:

Discipline of Rule (why we should have a regular rhythm to our spiritual practices in the first place)

Submission

Guidance

Meditation

Prayer

Silence/Solitude

Fasting

Celebration

Simplicity

Reflecting over your practice of these disciplines over the past nine weeks, which did you feel like you needed the most? What practical habits could you add to your life on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis that would nourish these particular needs of your soul? Choose just three at most. Then write down and commit to your intentions. For example: if these nine weeks clearly revealed my habit of using my speech to establish my superiority with others and my habit of eating something whenever I felt uncomfortable or insecure, I might choose to incorporate the disciplines of submission and fasting on a regular basis. One is a discipline of thought and intent, and one is a practical action of self-denial, which is a good combination. For the discipline of submission, I’d probably memorize Ephesians 5.21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”) and consciously try to bring it to mind as I entered conversations with others. For the discipline of fasting, I might schedule a 24-hour fast (sundown to sundown) once a month on a day that would be easy to fast on. With fasting especially, it’s important to pick a time and stick to it, and not leave it to when you feel like it. You’ll always feel like fasting “tomorrow.”

I hope this exploration of the classic spiritual disciplines has been helpful! For further reading in practical spirituality, in addition to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (which I’ve referenced throughout this course), I’d also recommend his books Prayer and Freedom of Simplicity, as well as Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, Tommy Newberry’s The 4:8 Principle, Dallas Willard’s Hearing God and Renovation of the Heart, and – for the spiritually adventurous – Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light and The Healing Gifts of the Holy Spirit. I’ve found all of these resources to be both transformative and practical.

As for me, I’ve decided to reestablish habits of daily silence and weekly scripture memorization (to get my thought life under control). I’d love to hear what you thought of this virtual retreat, and to know what your new rule of life will look like! Feel free to post a comment or email me directly at info@amandarooker.com.

Thanks again for taking this journey with me! Check back regularly to find out where we’re headed next!

Wow! Did I really just type Week 9? That means next week is our last week! Thanks to everyone who has taken this journey through the spiritual disciplines with me. This process has been a great reminder to me that the disciplines, when well-practiced, do not burden us but simply and practically enable a living and enlivening relationship with our God. They add energy rather than deplete it. And they really do work: they allow God to change our desires, our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions from the inside out.

Definition and Context

Simplicity is one of those disciplines that is often perceived as burdensome – our society has become so complex that the number of practices required to live simply can seem overwhelming. Yet the opposite is true: true simplicity releases us from burden because all it requires is singlemindedness – focusing upon God’s kingdom first and foremost. Like many other disciplines we’ve discussed, simplicity is rooted in trust: trusting God is good, trusting God is in control of the universe for a good purpose, and trusting God will meet our true needs.

The Perspective: Inward Simplicity

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states simply the root cause of much of our worry and doublemindedness: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [money]” (Matthew 6:24). So much of the complexity of our lives comes from our serving multiple masters: we try to serve God, but also feel that we have to serve our boss, our spouse, our children, our children’s school, our church’s needs, and our own ideals. And they all compete. Simplicity requires us to declare once and for all whom we serve. Do we serve God, or money, or prestige, or other people’s admiration? We can practically only choose one – or we’ll be so torn apart by contradictory demands that we will functionally choose none. Our heart will be anxious and disgruntled and eventually be capable of serving no one.

Jesus continues, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. …Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?…indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25-34, excerpted).

Inward simplicity is simply seeking first the kingdom of God and its righteousness – in all spheres of your life. To live simply through our actions, we must have this singleminded focus upon seeking the kingdom, and not be tossed and torn by competing and sometimes contradictory goals and desires. This inward simplicity enables us to free ourselves from the demands that make our lives complex.

The Practice: Outward Simplicity

So once we fully understand the first step of inward simplicity, what might a life of outward simplicity? I really can’t improve upon Richard Foster’s list of beginning steps in the life of outward simplicity (see his book, Freedom of Simplicity, originally published over 25 years ago), so I’ll paraphrase them here:

1. Join the revolt against consumerism and planned obsolescence. As we recognize that most ads are designed to make us artificially dissatisfied with what we have, we can teach our children about the value of a well-made thing that lasts – and the wisdom to know the difference between what we really need and what advertisers tell us we need. (The computer industry is making this a difficult lesson to teach these days, as sometimes a machine that works perfectly well is no longer compatible with anything else.) 

2. When you decide you’ve found an item you need to purchase, see if God will not bring it to you without your having to buy it. This ends all impulse buying, buying us assets that are far more valuable: time (to consider whether we really need this thing or not), and increased trust in God (giving God a chance to prove in concrete, particular ways that we really are of more value than sparrows). If you try this experiment, be prepared: God delights in giving us not only what we need, but what delights us (think of your children’s birthday presents).

3. Stress quality of life over quantity of life. Evaluate life in terms of being rather than having.

4. Make recreation healthy, happy, and gadget-free.

5. Learn to eat sensibly and sensitively.

6. Know the difference between significant travel and self-indulgent travel.

7. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. Recognize that simplicity is not cheapness, but resonates more with durability, useability, and beauty. Some things should be chosen to last a lifetime and thus should be chosen with great care. Honor artisans. Become one.

Remember that these mini-pictures of outward simplicity are simply ideas to help you identify what parts of your life may have become complex and out-of-control – they are not new commandments. True simplicity is born from the fruit of inward simplicity: having a single focus upon seeking first the kingdom of God.

Exercise

Our exercise this week will help us take the first steps of simplicity where we need it the most. Where in your life do you feel most overwhelmed? How might you be able to become singlemindedly seeking first the kingdom of God in that area? And what actions do you imagine resulting from that singlemindedness? Just pick one area to start, and commit to living simply in this area for one week. Do you feel your eating habits are out of control? Educate yourself on simplicity in food choices, and how to feed yourself healthfully and with sensitivity towards the entire planet’s needs – as simply as possible. Do you feel your speech is out of control? Simplify your speech based upon the lessons you learned with the discipline of silence: let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Listen carefully to others, and speak with a desire to serve and communicate, rather than a desire to dominate or demand. Stick it out to the end of the week, and see if you might have developed another habit to add to your own personal rule of life.

Next week we’ll wrap everything up with the discipline of hospitality, as well as our final exercise of recording our own personal rule of life that has emerged from our ten weeks together. Let us know how the week goes by posting comments and questions, or emailing me directly at info@amandarooker.com.

Sorry for the delay this week! Weeks of family illness took their toll, and there’s no better time to jump right into the discipline of celebration!

Definition and Context

It’s odd that celebration should be a discipline, isn’t it? Celebration by definition should be spontaneous; any celebration that someone “makes” you do seems an oxymoron. But I think most of us know that celebration needs to be a discipline, simply because it’s too important and foundational to our identity to leave to chance emotion. I think we all know that Christians have irrefutable intellectual reason for great joy: the Messiah has come. The thing all the prophets were desperately watching and waiting for has happened; all the core concerns of our lives are resolved. We have no need to be anxious anymore for any reason, because we have been unified and reconciled with God, once for all. Nevertheless, simply knowing this with our mind does not always translate into feeling celebratory, much less actually living a celebratory life. Thus the need for discipline, or regular practice.

Interestingly, God commanded the people of Israel to celebrate together on a scheduled basis, three times a year – and biblical descriptions of these thrice-yearly festival times indicate that these were full-blown, fully public celebrations that including dancing, singing, and free-flowing wine for seven days. They might have been commanded, but they were hardly cursory.

Yet knowing that God actually thought celebration was important enough to command doesn’t necessarily make me want to make time for it, either. Celebration is indeed a true discipline for me. I am someone who has always found it easy to practice self-denial, because deep down I believe that life is hard and serious and you have got to be on your toes or you will be left behind or crushed or just not make it. And to my great relief, I’ve found that the discipline of celebration has not required me to change my personality into someone extraverted and fun-loving, but it simply requires me to remind myself of the truth of my release. Jesus has declared that the captives of anxiety and perfectionism and brokenness and poverty have been RELEASED. I do not have to try to make it on my own in this life, but I have been grafted onto God’s story and God’s larger plan. And I need to not just remind myself of that truth of release, but I need to connect that truth to my daily feeling that life is a serious burden. For me, the discipline of celebration is a discipline of letting go, of experiencing bodily release – simply because it’s true, whether I feel it or not.

Celebration isn’t just a discipline in itself; it’s the lifeblood of every discipline. If we don’t have in mind the goal of any discipline we practice, which is enjoying an intimate relationship with the living God and fully participating in the kingdom of God, it will all turn into fruitless, exhausting effort and will be easily abandoned. Richard Foster points out that the only reason anyone can take on learning a new skill is because it somehow brings them joy – either the process (the actual doing of it) brings them joy, or the hope of mastery (what it will be like when they finally are able to do it) brings them joy. If you don’t like playing the piano, and you don’t much care about effortlessly playing the music that moves you on the piano, you’re not going to stick with playing the piano. The joy of the Lord is our strength. Without joy we will grow weary and faint along the way. If we aren’t inclined toward celebration, we need to learn how to do it, because the joy it brings is invaluable along the way. It’s the only thing that will help us do the hard work of denying ourselves – it has to be worth it, it has to eventually result in joy.

The Practice of Celebration

Have no anxiety about anything (Phil. 4:6). I first memorized this verse in college, mainly because I couldn’t imagine it could really be true. How can you have no anxiety about anything? The simple truth is that for Christians, anxiety is a lie. We can fully trust God with everything (even as the sparrows do). Anxiety results from the belief that God is standing distant from us, watching to see if we’re going to rise to the occasion, and we really might not. Anxiety is feeling like it’s up to us to make things work. And it’s not. Anxiety disappears when we develop a humble and light view of our own abilities and an all-encompassing, superlative view of God’s abilities. The more we can be completely free from anxiety, take every anxious thought captive and shake off that burden, the more we can freely practice celebration. Celebration is impossible when burdened by anxious thoughts.

Choose to think good thoughts – whatever is lovely or whatever is true, think on these things (Phillippians 4:8). This is the positive version of the first point. Remove anxiety; add good thoughts. This is also a discipline of simply believing what is true, because ultimately the good things are the only eternal things. Everything that is broken and dirty and ugly is just temporary and will have its day of destruction. I try to teach my five-year-old son this, because he’s prone to nightmares. If we pray about God filling his heart and mind with good dreams and good thoughts, he tends not to have nightmares. This discipline applies to me as well – there are so many negative things I could fill my minds and daydreams with. Why not fill my mind with good things? Why not focus on the good in my life and grow it, rather than the bad? Why not become fit for heaven while I’m here? Why not recognize and dwell in the things that are eternal, rather than what is destined for destruction?

Become part of a community. Staying connected to other people, even if just vicariously through reading a good book, seeing a good movie, or attending an enlivening group event. It gives us perspective and keeps us from taking ourselves so seriously. The thing that saved me from total self-annihilation as a mother was getting together with other moms – I saw that we’re all in this together, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we can all laugh. We’re all going to be OK. You can’t come to that conclusion when you’re isolated and self-critical constantly. You need to know that if you utterly screw up, it’s OK. It’s not just OK – it really doesn’t matter. We are not to care about it.

Fully celebrate common holidays – and make up your own with ritual acts of celebration. Make family events into times of celebration. Celebrate everything and anything good – just this week, I was delighted to hear of a friend who threw a “Not Dead Yet” party during a particularly overwhelming period of her family’s life. This develops that discipline of seeing the good and not just the bad!

And even and perhaps especially now, when we all have limited budgets, I want to emphasize that although celebration doesn’t require us to spend money, we do need to feel free to spend it. Not just because we can trust God to provide materially for us, which he will, but because material spending and material gifts can be valuable and not superficial. God loves physical and tangible celebration. It’s a wonderful gift he wants for us. He wouldn’t have instituted the festivals for the Israelites otherwise. He ordered their life in a good and life-giving way. This is a lesson I am learning very slowly. I am not someone who gives gifts easily, or who cares much about receiving gifts. I realize this may be unusual: in our culture, celebration always equals gift-giving! Yet I would much rather spend time in deep and meaningful conversation with someone than receive a gift from them. But as I consider the fact that festival times were commanded – during the good years and the bad – I’m trying to look at even tangible gift-giving as a mark of celebration, of freely giving as we freely receive. Gifts can cost us much in time or energy but virtually nothing in dollars. Whatever we’ve been freely given, we can freely give. That’s also how we celebrate our God who is the giver of all things.

Exercise

This week, I’d like you to choose one of the above suggestions to incorporate into your mindset or practice. Or if you were inspired with another idea, by all means, use that one. Intend to replace criticism with compassionate laughter (in private, if necessary!). Throw a party for the unlikely silver lining. Or take up that beloved art form you’ve always been too intimidated to try. Find tangible ways to celebrate this week, and to live out the truth in a new way.

As always, feel free to post comments or questions, or email me directly at info@amandarooker.com. And enjoy!

I hope your practice of silence and solitude this week awakened a hunger for more – I think these intertwined practices tie with submission as being the most countercultural. Last week I tried to hint at the relationship between the two – submission being the thought habit, silence/solitude being the practical habit – and perhaps this week you were able to experience h0w each is dependent upon and enables the other.

This week we’ll explore the ancient practice of fasting: its history, its purposes, and its practice.

The historical practice of fasting: a main course, or icing on the cake?

When you survey the list of spiritual disciplines this course covers, you may notice that the list includes some that seem to be obvious expectations of the Christian life, such as prayer, study, giving money (in the context of simplicity), service, and worship. Others seem to be going the extra mile, like solitude & silence, guidance, and this one - fasting. I think most Christians view fasting as something extra but not required, at least not in the same way as prayer or service may be constitutive or required.

But there is actually no division between the “required” disciplines and the “extra” disciplines. Both the Old and New Testament reveal that believers made no such distinction in their practices of solitude, fasting, prayer, meditation, service, and worship alike. Generally when the Bible mentions fasting, it means abstaining from all food but not from water, although it does witness to a range of fasting practices:

Here is a quick list of Scriptural examples you’re welcome to explore further: Esther 4:3, Daniel 9, Ezra and Nehemiah’s fasting for repentance after they saw the destroyed wall of Jerusalem, Nineveh’s corporate fast in response to Jonah’s prophecy, Jesus’ private fast from both food and water for 40 days in the wilderness, and the church at Antioch’s (Acts 13:1ff) corporate fast. Fasting can be private or public, and can be either complete or selective abstinence.

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, fasting is referenced as simply a practice that was done – not a practice we absolutely must do, or a practice that is completely optional, but a practice that is done often. Fasting is a practice that grows the eternal life within us, a practice that makes us capable of unthinkable intimacy with our God. In fact, all the disciplines presented in Scripture are not just helpful but transformative in equal but different ways. We just may be more comfortable or more familiar with how certain disciplines work than others.

So although I really don’t know how it happened, fasting is one of those disciplines that over time has appeared optional rather than foundational for living the Christian life, when the reality is that it is foundational and just as widely mentioned in the Bible as any other discipline.

The purposes of fasting

To recognize our need for God

We fast because we want to reveal and focus on our hunger for God. National events or individual events may be catalysts for fasting, but the primary reason is always to focus on God as the true bread of life. When I first began practicing the discipline of fasting, I found this also to be the quickest benefit to surface. Very quickly, I realized that I had a spiritual hunger for the words of God that was even more central to survival than my hunger for food. Yet I honored and fed my hunger for food without fail – while I often just ignored any spark of spiritual hunger for the words of God or for time with God, because there was often something else that seemed more urgent, or more pressing. But as Jesus said, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The spiritual hunger is the primary hunger we need to feed – even our physical hunger is secondary, because God himself has the power to sustain us. We don’t need food in the same way that we need God, who is our creator and sustainer and redeemer. Yet while we cannot tolerate physical hunger, we easily tolerate spiritual hunger. And if you ignore the natural pangs of hunger, they will eventually fade and you will eventually starve.

I was recently diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, which means I can’t eat anything with wheat in it (bread, pasta, anything made with flour, cookies, baked goods, etc.) – which means I am half-starving most of the time. But I have learned that you can ignore physical hunger, causing it to become less acute and making it even easier to ignore. Often I really don’t know when I’m hungry or not, because I’ve gotten used to being slightly starving most of the time. Until I’m exhausted or highly irritable – and then I think, what is wrong with me? Hmm, maybe I’m hungry. I don’t feel hungry, but it is true that I haven’t eaten much today, and I conceptually know that my body needs food to work well… so I decide to eat something, and I feel a little better. That must have been it. But because I have been ignoring those normal feelings of hunger, I don’t feel hunger directly – I have to think about it.

The same is true about our spiritual hunger. When we ignore it, or get distracted habitually, we eventually don’t even feel the hunger for God anymore. So when we notice symptoms of being disconnected from God, such as great anxiety or obvious self-absorption, we think, what’s wrong with us? We may even be moved to medicate ourselves out of the symptoms – but that only further masks the real problem. We don’t realize that sometimes (no, not all the time) our psychological, physical, or even circumstantial symptoms are simply rooted in a hunger for God. We come up with some other secondary reason, like, I have too much responsibility in my life, or, I just need to end this friendship – which isn’t the cause at all, it’s just the symptom.

Fasting is how we uncover our true and primary hunger for God. And the more we get back in the habit of feeding that hunger for God by spending time with him, the more acute that hunger will be when we once again become disconnected. When that hunger for God is satiated, the next time it will come back stronger, such that it will be obvious that we haven’t spent time with God and we will do it more quickly next time because we will have experienced how it feeds us. We’ll habitually feed ourselves with God’s presence, just like we habitually feed ourselves physically – three square meals a day, plus snacks.

To reveal our true motives

Fasting reveals our true motives and our true heart. Especially in our culture, as good as food is and as much as our physical bodies were created to need food, we can use food to distract us or cover up what may be uncomfortable to face. When we fast, we immediately see the true condition of our heart, good and bad.

I’ll use myself as an example: all my life I’ve struggled with being overly critical. I’ve done all sorts of soul-searching and restoration work and prayer and guidance to understand where that came from, and I trust that God is working to root it out of me, with my help. Now, when I have a full belly, a good night’s sleep, and all of my resources about me, I have enough ability to cover it up, or to put on love anyway, despite my gut-level first thought, and this critical spirit is almost invisible to me, and maybe to other people as well. But when I fast, I am immediately critical and I don’t have the ability to cover it up anymore. It’s just inescapably right there.

Knowing that we are saved by grace gives us the freedom to be fully honest with ourselves and with God about the reality of our heart, because there is no condemnation. God wants to help us root this out, whatever it is. True sanctification, true abundant life, is when our hearts are truly loving, joyful, patient, peaceful, self-sacrificing, with no effort – it is not just having enough energy to cover up the true state of our heart, to look good to ourselves and to others. Jesus saw this in the Pharisees, and called them whited sepulchers, or whitewashed tombs. [I can't help myself with this linguistic aside: The NIV translates the term "whitewashed tombs," but you just can’t do better than the King James' "whited sepulchers." If someone calls you a whitewashed tomb, you can understand the point and maybe be offended, but if someone calls you a whited sepulcher, you really feel like you’ve been sworn at. It's somewhat onomatopoetic, isn't it?] We are not to be whited sepulchers – we don’t have to cover up the filth inside from our Father – he does not condemn us, he’s the only one who can help us clean the inside of the cup. That is freedom.

We need to fast so that we can see the true state of our heart, when we don’t have a full belly and full resources about us, so we can invite God to help us clean up.

Increased power in prayer

Many biblical examples combine prayer with fasting, so I’ll highlight just a few. Daniel prays and fasts on behalf of his people (Daniel 9:3), the prophet Anna fasts and prays in the temple about the coming of the Messiah (Luke 2:37), and Paul leads a newly formed congregation in fasting and prayer to consecrate them to God (Acts 14:23).

But you want to be careful about using fasting as a way to make God do what you want. If you’re seeking an answer that he’s not ready to reveal, you’re not going to force his hand just by fasting. But you will be brought into the stream of his purposes and his will, and hopefully get a clear answer, such as: “Now is not the time for the answer. I want you to depend on me more. I want you to get help for your addiction.” Etc. This is a great pitfall I tend to fall into in prayer – I sometimes think that if I pray very definitively with great faith, God has to do what I ask. But fasting combined with prayer reveals our heart all the more, and we become less prone to just asking for what will make our life easier, but instead become capable of bearing suffering for a purpose. We see his larger goal and his larger purposes for the entire world, and realize the whole world doesn’t exist for our temporary comfort. So that’s one caution – we fast and pray to get tapped into his will and his purposes, not to just make God give us what we want. And if you do discover you’ve fasted and prayed for something that is ultimately selfish, there’s no shame in it. Just be thankful that you now know it’s selfish, and you don’t have to waste any more hidden longing for it. You were open with God, you asked honestly for what you wanted, he showed you it wasn’t good for you, you heard him, and you can be thankful. Another step in freedom.

Our prayers are more powerful when we are aligned with the will of God, and when we are fasting, that heightened hunger seems to translate easily into a heightened intensity and hunger in prayer. And that heightened focus, perhaps, makes us more attuned to the will of God as well as closer to the heart of God – our strong hunger takes us there. The idea of intercession is a mysterious one: God wants us to ask for things, and actually sometimes withholds his hand from doing something until we ask. That baffles me, that God has chosen to wait for us, but it’s undeniable that he does. He has chosen to work out his will through our cooperation and participation. If that’s true, and we want to take that responsibility seriously, fasting clarifies, focuses, and empowers our praying.

The practice of fasting

Individual

We can practice fasting individually, either in response to a particular event (such as an emergency, an important decision, a clear direction from God, or for someone’s else’s intense need), or as a spiritual habit, through lifestyle fasting (one meal a week, or one day a month) or through liturgical rhythm (some method of fasting during Lent, for example).

Corporate

Or you can fast as a group – again, either during an event (such as a corporate emergency or planned calendar day such as the National Day of Prayer) or within a community practicing a fasted lifestyle, such as the various houses of prayer that are popping up all over the country.

Fasted lifestyle

One expression of fasting that is becoming more and more widespread is the fasted lifestyle, based on what Jesus said to his disciples: they should feast while the bridegroom is with them, but when he is taken away, then they will fast. Some feel called to visibly live out this waiting for our bridegroom by regularly fasting one day a month. This is not a required form of fasting, but a specific calling to be a visible witness that’s needed in the world, just like those who live in community, or those called to servant ministry, or those called to any particular role in the body of Christ. We aren’t all called and equipped to do every role, but we are all called and equipped to serve one role, and the more we can identify and focus that role, and leave other roles for other people, the freer and more effective we will be. 

 

How to begin

Sometimes the desire to fast is initiated by the Lord, and sometimes it’s simply a desire to incorporate the practice. The important thing is that you don’t have wait until you’re absolutely positive. Fasting is never a bad thing to try!

Here are some progressive examples of fasting:

24-hour fast – use food prep/eating/cleaning up time to read Scripture and pray

36 hour fast – water only

Three to seven days - for this level, I’d strongly recommend you wait for clear direction from God. Personally, I’ve never done an absolute fast for longer than three days, but those who have tell me that the first three days are the hardest, because that’s how long it takes for our bodies to detoxify. Apparently it gets easier by the fourth day. I’d recommend reading the Fasting chapter in Celebration of Discipline for more instruction on advanced fasting.

Exercise

This week, we’re going to try a 24-hour fast – from sundown to sundown. Pick the day easiest for you – when you don’t have a lunch date or other commitments involving food. Use the time you’d spend on food preparation and eating for meditation and prayer, and be aware of the true condition of your heart. Cultivate that hunger for God, who sustains you physically and spiritually. And write down what you notice. If you’re accustomed to fasting, you’re certainly welcome to fast longer than 24 hours, of course!

I’d love to hear about your experiences with fasting this week, so please do feel free to post. As always, you can email me directly at info@amandarooker.com.

Hi everyone – welcome back to week 6 of this virtual retreat experiment! I hope this week’s focus on prayer as intimate conversation (both talking and listening) with God was fruitful. Sometimes intimacy isn’t comfortable, and sometimes our parent has to tell us things we don’t want to hear, but those of us who are also parents know that true, lasting, long-haul love requires us to correct as well as comfort our children. I hope that any correction you may have heard this week was received knowing that God is fully committed to you and will see you through to the end – in fact, even if you run from him, he will pursue you actively. There is no height or depth or width that can separate us from the love of Jesus. He’s proved that already through the cross. He longs to prove it anew in his constant, personal conversation with you. So I hope some good seeds were planted this week that will bear the fruit of regular, intimate prayer!

This week we’ll be talking about silence (irony, yes) and solitude: two of our soul’s greatest needs, especially in the constant onslaught of information we receive these days.

Our Need for Silence and Solitude

Neil Postman has written two great books highlighting two great problems of our society: Amusing Ourselves to Death (discussing our overdependence on entertainment) and Technopoly (discussing our overdependence on the tyranny of technological progress). I remember a point he made about the results of the tyranny of technological progress: before washing machines were invented, people actually spent far less time washing their clothes than we do today. Why is that? It’s because washing clothes is so easy that we constantly throw them in the washer. (Unless you’re a college student, in which case you probably wash your clothes twice a semester.) But we spend more time washing clothes also because we have far more clothes than we did back before we had washing machines. Because it’s easier to wash our clothes, we can buy more of them because it’s not so much work to maintain them. But the irony, and the thing I think no one expected, is that we actually end up spending more time doing it and less time doing other things. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s people really thought that technological progress would result in people needing to work only 2 to 3 hours a day – and have all this leisure time – which would have created all sorts of problems in and of itself. But that’s not what happened. We are busier than ever. Navigation systems in cars, cell phones, online bill paying systems, the speed of computers: the ability to do two and three things at once results in a great impatience with the time it takes to accomplish tasks, so even when we accomplish more, we are twice or three times as rushed. And we are exhausted by our lives, so that when we have a spare moment or two, we can only muster up enough energy to turn the television on or the computer on, and “rest” in another highly stimulating environment, that just covers up or masks the true exhaustion of our souls.

Because what is happening is that technology is taking us further and further away from our bodies. I would say we feel the need to work faster and faster and faster out of a deep need that is not being met – a deep need for the real and tangible. Our relationships are no longer with real people – they are mediated through a computer. When I go to the bank, I put my money in an ATM and not in the hands of a bank teller. When I talk on the cell phone while I’m waiting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, I ignore all the real people sitting around me with whom I could speak face to face. When I listen to my iPod when I’m taking a walk, I’m ignoring my neighbors, or I’m getting hit by a car, by a driver also talking on her cell phone. Etc. We are craving more and more connection with people through cell phones, Facebook, email, etc., because our connection doesn’t satisfy. Because ultimately we’re only exchanging disembodied information, words, and sometimes just noise. It seems like relationship and connection, especially if it’s the only kind you ever had, but it doesn’t satisfy.

I point this out not just to highlight our need for solitude and silence in our frenetically paced society, but to emphasize that even when there is no living soul around us and perhaps no noise around us, this does not mean we are practicing the disciplines of solitude and silence. Our brains can be going a million miles a minute, all the while missing the real things going on around us and missing the true condition of our soul.

Solitude and silence are recreating disciplines because they force us to get in touch with the fact that we have a body, that we have five senses, and not just one: hearing. That there is more to relationship than just exchanging information. That there is more than one language than just that which is spoken.

The beginning of Psalm 19 highlights the fact that God speaks through his creation, through the five senses, through nonverbal means. The disciplines of solitude and silence reveal to us the aspect of our God’s language that is nonverbal and experiential. In line with verses 7 and following, these disciplines develop the capacity in us to perceive the eternal newness of the law of the Lord, of the words of scripture. There is something conveyed even in the words of Scripture that beyond information, that is eternal, that has recreative power, and that connects us directly and spiritually with the source of the law himself. Scripture itself is beyond words and beyond language; it itself is an experience of intimacy, which you hopefully discovered as you practiced the discipline of meditation while spending in-depth time with the words of scripture. That’s why, ultimately, the Son had to be made flesh: mere words of information were an incomplete vehicle for the Word. The incarnation is proof that it is not only good to have a body, it is indispensable in order to hear what God is saying to us and even to have a relationship with him. He loves the physical, he loves the tangible, and we leave it behind at our peril. We don’t know what this peril is, but if there are Christians who practice the disciplines of solitude and silence during these times especially, I think we will find out before the lack of embodied relationship destroys our humanity. The psalm ends with v. 14 : “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (emphasis added).” Our words have weight and are pleasing to God when we can perceive the nonverbal language of his creation, when we perceive with all our five senses and not just one, and the disciplines of solitude and silence can create in us that capacity.

Certainly many disciplines are centered on cultivating fellowship and connection with others, such as guidance, submission, service, confession, and celebration. But we can’t ever practice these outward or corporate disciplines well unless we have the balancing discipline of solitude. Foster is clear in Celebration of Discipline that the goal of silence is neither to be able to refrain from speaking for a long time, nor is it a pointless show of the will. The goal of silence is to discipline our tongue to say what needs to be said. So much of the time we speak to defend ourselves, or to make sure other people think that we are right. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Silence is difficult because we feel we must protect ourselves and control our public image. And that reveals our heart: we don’t trust God to be our defender, we must do it. This is also the heart of submission, one of our first disciplines we practiced together. Our source of value is not rooted in our identity as being created in the image of God, our source of value is rooted in what people think of us, or in our being right. We use our words to control. If we practice silence, we will know better when to speak and what to say. We’ll be free from having to defend ourselves, and we can just be ourselves, as imperfect and as right or as wrong as that may be. Our words will again become connected to the Word, and they will have power and brevity and weight. They will indeed bind and loose things on earth and heaven, as our God intended. His words made substance from the void and order from chaos – our words have the same potential if we learn to practice the discipline of silence.

The Practice

To experience solitude and silence, the world around does not have to disappear. It can’t, even if you live in seclusion. You have to develop an inner solitude and an inner silence. The goal of this inner silence ,again, is not just to be silent, but to hear that still, small voice of God. And when you are able to hear that still, small voice of God, you will realize that you actually are never alone. So you have great freedom. All this inner silence and solitude is, is listening: developing the capacity to listen to God’s quiet voice within you and through others.

Dark night of the soul. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, wrote at length on this topic in a book of the same name. About ten years ago I experienced a year-long dark night of the soul, and I expect I will again. It happened at a time when I was absolutely dependent upon my mind as a vehicle for knowing God. All of a sudden everything was dry, and I truly felt like I was in the darkness. I couldn’t connect with God experientially. I thought I must be doing something wrong, and other Christians around me agreed – Christians are supposed to experience joy and the abundant life continually if they really believe, right? Wrong. Isaiah 50:10 refers to this kind of experience of “walking in the darkness,” and how, when we find ourselves in this darkness, we are not to trudge ahead, lighting our own firebrands, but simply sit in the darkness and wait. As for me, it meant that God was doing soul surgery, that I was indeed pursuing him, and as part of my growth process he was freeing me from dependency on language, on logic, and on my mind as a vehicle for knowing him. He was forcing me to listen to him and to attend to him directly. We can learn a lot about God and talk a lot about God without listening to him or knowing him. He won’t settle for that; he will remove everything that gets in the way of knowing him, even if that includes our emotional joy. The dryness is purifying.

Our active practice

But if we don’t want the discipline of silence and solitude thrust upon us, we can choose to practice the disciplines ourselves. The best way is to take advantage of little solitudes during the day. Like most of you, my days are constantly busy, and I long for silence and solitude – far more than what I’m able to have with raising two small boys, being a wife, running my own business, writing, being a friend, and… When I first became a parent, for instance, I felt powerless and exhausted for a long time because I didn’t have any long blocks of time to meditate and just be by myself in the way I had been accustomed. But slowly I’m beginning to find those little solitudes and make much of them. For instance, on my way home tonight from a meeting, I decided to turn the radio off in my car and just experience the silence. Very often my mind begins chattering to fill the silence, but eventually, if I’m patient, it wears down and stops. Then I was able to enter into the silence and sense that even while I was doing nothing and saying nothing, all was well with me and my God. Prioritize finding those.

Create a particular place where you can go. There’s great value in ritual – if you go to the same room (or same corner of the room), or same place in the park, or same circuit around the neighborhood, when we use our bodies and our senses to establish physical associations with the experience of solitude, it’s easier for our mind to get connected with God and more quickly settle into that inner solitude and silence.

Discipline our tongue. Let the words we say be true and have weight. Censor meaningless talk.

Or go further – set aside a lengthy time of silence.

Exercise

For this week, I’d like you to meditate on Psalm 19, dwelling in it however long it takes for you to feel like you’ve absorbed what it has to offer. You may want to read it each day this week, or just once. Then I’d like you to mindfully use the little solitudes you can find in your daily schedules: the car rides alone, your kids’ naptimes or school times, your down time in the evening, the time in the early morning before you have to get out of bed. Consciously rest in that silence and solitude, realizing that you are never alone because God is always actively with you. As a further step, I’d like you to designate a daily proportion of whatever screen time you spend on solitude and silence. Just choose to spend 15 or 30 minutes in silence, taking a walk, sitting comfortably in a room, wherever you can most easily find solitude and silence.

As always, please post your experiences and/or comments here, or email me directly at info@amandarooker.com. Enjoy the re-creation!

Welcome back! Week 5 marks the halfway point in our virtual immersion experiment – if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! And if you’re poking around five months later, there’s no shame in that either. :) Everyone has their own timetable when it comes to spiritual journey, and sometimes a mallet just doesn’t make sense until you finally come across a peg. Or something. I’m a little punchier in the evening, so forgive me.

Definition

The words prayer and meditation are often used interchangeably, but in practice they’re significantly different, although related. While meditation is focusing on one word or thought for a sustained period of time, prayer is simply a conversation between us and God. It’s often thought that meditation is listening to God and prayer is talking to God – but if prayer is a conversation, we certainly can’t be doing all the talking. Experentially, I believe the difference is in the focus: in meditation, if we begin to think of something else, we discipline our minds to return to the thought at hand so it can sink in deeply and we can fully absorb its sustenance or its sharpening. In prayer, the conversation can develop naturally, such that both parties alternately speak and listen, but the participants can freely follow the conversational topics as they develop. The biggest benefit of prayer is that it develops your relationship with God. You share what’s on your mind, and you take time to listen to God’s response. The more time we spend talking with God, the more we’ll learn to recognize his voice – and when we quiet ourselves to listen, we’ll gradually hear more and more of what he’s saying to us.

The Prerequisite: Trusting God

Prayer is the language of intimacy with God. In my experience, the biggest block to actually praying (rather than merely believing prayer is a good idea) is believing that God really cares about us and wants to develop a relationship with us. If our heart does not trust God, we will not pray (for long) - no matter how good of an idea we think it is. How long would you have the stamina to try to hold a conversation with a blank wall? Or a belligerent boss? Just as we will avoid conversations with people we dislike (even secretly), distrust, or believe do not like us, we will avoid conversation with God if deep down we believe he doesn’t care about us. So if we find ourselves avoiding prayer, we can be sure that somewhere deep down, we don’t believe God cares intimately about us and/or we don’t trust him.

The good news is that we don’t have to unearth all the bad things that ever happened to us that might have caused us to believe God doesn’t love us or caused us not to trust God in order to learn to pray. The bad news is that we learn to pray simply by … praying. We just start talking and are respectful enough to give our conversation partner the chance to get a word in edgewise. If we feel that God doesn’t care about us, or we’re overwhelmed by some aspect of our lives, that’s exactly where we start. Imagine you were sitting down to talk with a best friend who had known you since you were a child, knew your strengths and weaknesses completely, and was always on your side. What would you say?

It’s so hard to believe that God longs for an intimate relationship with us. I don’t believe it half the time – but that’s where the discipline of prayer comes in. We sit down and talk with God and let him talk to us because we choose to live according to the truth – that God has already proven his love for us through the cross, and there is no more condemnation for anything we’ve ever done or will do – and not according to our unresolved hurt feelings. Jesus was not a staid, even-keel, philosophical kind of guy when he was on earth. His parables about what we mean to God were extravagant and passionate and almost impossible to get our minds around. He said God was like a father who, after his younger son weaseled him out of his inheritance and spent it all on drinking and sex and then finally returned home only when he had nowhere else to go, RAN WITH JOY to meet him – simply because he was his son and he was finally home. He didn’t grudgingly or self-righteously open the door, listen patiently to his son’s groveling, and then after long thought decide to forgive him – he ran to him, and immediately slaughtered the best calf and threw a huge party. That’s how God feels when you start a conversation with him, sharing what’s on your mind. Or – Jesus often spoke of himself as the bridegroom and we, his people, are the bride – before the wedding. That’s the kind of longing and passion our God has for us.

Our eyes and ears are dulled simply because we haven’t spent enough time with him to even know what he thinks of us. So we have to begin with discipline: choosing to start the conversation even though we don’t feel like it. But the good news is that all this is really true. The more time we spend with him, the more we’ll be able to receive his love, one trickle at a time. Soon the trickle will grow to a steady stream, and then a flood. But we need to develop the capacity for receiving that kind of love expressed through intimate conversation. We need to learn to trust slowly. We need to learn to pray.

The Practice

Prayer has as many forms as there are human beings in the world, and I was going to list several forms to help you in your practice this week, but suddenly I have been moved to spare you that, and to simply say, just start sharing your heart. Whatever you’re stressed about, whatever you’re angry about, whatever seems simply beyond your abilities, whatever you’re excited about, whatever you’re thinking at all – even if it’s wondering whether you should get a snack, share it with God. Simply share verbally or through your thoughts. And then, when there’s a natural pause in your side of the conversation, extend it. Listen. And see if God answers. He usually answers in the same language as your thoughts. Something will occur to you that has the inexplicable (and usually unexplainable) weight of truth. You simply know something deeply that you didn’t before. That was God answering you. Sometimes you will simply feel the comfort or safety of a presence. That was God answering you. Then keep the conversation going, until it’s time to get on with what’s next in the day.

Exercise

So for your exercise in prayer this week, the only discipline I want you to have in prayer is to set aside thirty minutes for each of the next seven days to have a conversation – to speak the language of intimacy with your God. No holds barred. The only rules are that you hang in there with him for thirty minutes, that you share honestly, and that you give him a chance to answer. Another week we will cover the discipline of praying for others, for examination, for praise and thanksgiving, and for all the other types of prayer, but for this week, I am convinced that we all need to focus on developing our personal intimate relationship with God – to move past whatever blocks we may have as a result of our history or our beliefs regarding whether he is really for us or not. He’ll tell you. Just ask him.

I look forward to seeing what this week brings! As always, post your comments, experiences, and questions here, or email me directly at info@amandarooker.com.

Welcome back! I hope your forays into the discipline of seeking guidance – both privately and corporately – have been fruitful. The challenge to seek guidance through another person is something I would never have initiated on my own unless I was assigned to do it – and then it was a huge relief and gift, because only after I had actually sought it out did I realize my soul had been longing for that kind of connection with another for a long time. We were made to live in community – and not just living in close proximity physically, but sharing our burdens with one another. This kind of disciplined, deep connection is sacramental in the most basic sense: it’s a physical means of spiritual sustenance that we really can’t go without for long. I hope you were inspired to find new ways to listen for God’s voice in your life.

The past few disciplines required quite a bit of conceptual explanation, so you may be pleased to know that this week’s post will be short and to the point. Meditation is a practice that many religions – and more recently, even the science-minded – have encouraged for millennia, so I probably don’t need to convince you of its worth. It’s the actual practice that is the most challenging, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to experience it for yourself and discover both the benefits and the challenges.

Definition

Meditation is simply focusing your attention on a single thought or concept to allow it to sink deeply into your soul and thus transform it. Historically, Christians have meditated on scripture passages, traditional prayers, or God’s voice heard internally. You can profitably meditate on both longer passages and single words, although different techniques help bring the most out of each.

Christian Meditation

Even though many religions and worldviews actively practice meditation, Christian meditation is a distinct practice in that its goal is attachment, not detachment. Christians value connection, relationship, awareness, and attachment to God (and by extension, what is of real and lasting goodness), and we focus our thoughts upon a specific Scripture passage or observation in order to connect ourselves to the living God and to hear what he would say to us. Our God is a personal God of love, and this kind of love is not a vague sense of goodwill and “to each his own,” but it is a sacrificial, connected, committed, interdependent kind of love.

Recently I had the change to experience the difference for myself. Due to a long-term (but now thankfully resolved) illness, several years ago my adrenal system shut down, which is the part of us that produces adrenaline and hormones and any feeling of wellbeing or energy. As part of the recovery process, I was asked to practice yoga and/or meditation three times a week. Being the curious person that I am, I tried yoga. My intent was to practice my own meditation with God during the yoga exercises. The first several months were fantastic – focusing only on my breath and the movement of my body in the moment released a lot of physical and mental stress. But I found you really can’t practice yoga and practice Christian meditation at the same time – the physical exercises really do require you to empty your mind in order to focus on the pose and your breath. So I just absorbed the whole process and practice without too much worry. But over recent months, I’ve realized that although yoga does dissipate my physical and mental stress, my spiritual self has also begun to feel vague and disconnected – almost like it was drugged – or, in fact, dissipated. I had trouble deeply connecting to people and to events around me. And I realized that I was experiencing the spiritual results of this kind of detachment meditation – which, if you are a practitioner of yoga or other religions who value detachment, this is exactly what you want. I heard a classmate, while talking about the benefits of yoga, express it perfectly: “I feel like, bombs could be going off around me, and I wouldn’t even care.” This is the exact opposite of Christian virtue and the Christian worldview. Yes, we can expect to experience peace in all circumstances. But meditation, and spiritual formation in general, leads us down the path of caring MORE about others and the events going on in the world around us, not less. Connection and attachment – i.e. sacrificial relationship and true community – are virtues and part of our good design and intent as human beings.  So even though Christian meditation and Eastern forms of meditation might use the same term and look the same on the outside, they actually transform your soul in opposing ways: Christian meditation focuses not on detachment but on attaching to God, and becoming capable of loving others more. Others’ experiences and thoughts on this are most welcome.

The Practice

Scriptural Meditation

Scriptural meditation, also called lectio divina (which, as you can probably deduce, simply means “divine reading”), begins with finding a quiet place and choosing one story or even a single verse of Scripture. Scriptural meditation is not intellectual study, but an attempt to listen with your heart. How is this passage a living word to you, in this moment? So if the passage you chose was a story, use all five of your senses to imagine the situation vividly. Choose one of the characters and imagine what they might be feeling and experiencing - and how it relates to your own experience. Just read the passage over and over again, allowing the words to sink deeply into your heart.

Centering Down

Another form of meditation is “centering down,” or “centering prayer.” This gives you a chance to release the negative thoughts or emotions you need to release, and receive the good that you need to receive. Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) recommends a “palms up, palms down” exercise, which uses your physical body to mirror the spiritual intention. If you want to release something negative, you might say, “God, I give you my anger (depression, illness, anxiety, etc.),” and place your palms down on your knees. Conversely, if you sense a deep need for something, you might say, “God, please give me your forgiveness (peace, love, joy, patience, etc.),” and place your palms up on your knees. And just wait and rest in the silence, allowing God to do the spiritual work in your heart.

Meditation on Creation

This has been one of my favorite practices of late. This is simply the practice of meditating on our natural world, with delight and awareness and a sense of connectedness as part of God’s creation. The natural world reveals much about the nature of God and ourselves as his handiwork, particularly in the diversity of species, slow and cyclical growing rhythms, tiny detail, massive tectonic power, interdependence, and beauty. Look out the window or take a walk, focusing on specific attributes of the world around you, recognizing that God is the creator of all things and delights in revealing himself through his creation. And see what insights come.

Exercise

Your exercise for this week is to practice one form of meditation each day for seven days. You may alternate between the forms listed above, or you may gravitate towards one and practice that form each of the seven days. The length of time you’ll find profitable will vary based on your experience, and can be anywhere from five minutes to an hour. For a beginner, five minutes can seem like an eternity. But I would recommend that you aim for at least fifteen minutes a day for your practice. If you’d like to try lectio divina, I would recommend beginning with the book of Matthew, which includes many rich passages on Jesus’ teachings, healings, and personal interactions. Go very slowly through these passages – do not even try to get through this entire list in one week. Pick only one healing story, or teaching, or parable each day – and feel free to spend a whole week with any one of these passages. Sometimes one word is particularly rich, and you’ll spend all your time on just one word.

His Sermon on the Mount, which encapsulates some of his most difficult and transformative teachings, are found in Matthew 5-7.

Some of his healings are recorded in the entire chapter of Matthew 9 (although many others are interspersed throughout Matthew).

And many of his parables are found in Matthew 13; Matthew 18:23-34; and all of Matthew 25.

Practical tips: When setting aside time each day, choose a time of day when you can count on quiet for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Protect this time as vigorously as you would protect an appointment that cannot be rescheduled. Practiced regularly, meditation will connect you deeply to God and his heart – and the good that he wants for you. It will be become food to your soul that you won’t want to go without. But bear in mind that if this is your first foray into sustained meditation, you may find it difficult to stay focused. Don’t worry – just let the anxious or distracting thoughts move through your head, and repeat the thought or verse or word or observation at hand. Every moment begins anew. I sometimes keep a pad of paper near me to write down those distracting thoughts so they won’t keep coming back – inevitably it seems that when I sit down to meditate, my entire to-do list suddenly appears in my brain. Not a problem – just write down what you need to do later, and tell yourself you will get to it later, but not now. Then repeat the thought, or verse, or observation you left off with.

I have specific questions for each of you that I’d like you to post answers to by the end of the week: What has been your experience with meditation in the past? Which form(s) of meditation did you choose this week? What insights did you receive?

And enjoy!

Thanks for pushing through the difficult week of submission! Most of the disciplines are easy to understand and affirm, but hard to do – submission, I think, is both hard to affirm and hard to do. But we needed the foundation of  submission to move on to the discipline of guidance. Even if we are capable of hearing the voice of God (and, not insignificantly, knowing that it’s God and not someone else), we need to know how to submit to that guidance if it is to be of any use to us.

Definition of Guidance

The discipline of guidance is developing a listening relationship with the living God, who lives in you and desires an intimate relationship with you. Our search for guidance is not a search for answers, but discerning the voice that is already constantly speaking.  Very often when we struggle with discerning God’s voice, we’re straining to hear an answer to a question he’s not answering – and ignore the answer he’s giving. Guidance can be individual and corporate.

Individual Guidance – A Placeholder

For now, it’s enough to know that when seeking guidance from God individually, his voice is gentle but constant. For example, in 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah had just emerged from a dramatic showdown between the God of Israel and a rival god, Baal, in which the God of Israel was victorious (see the full story here). However, he had to flee for his life, and found himself exhausted and discouraged in the desert. He went to the top of the mountain to listen for God – and found that God was not in the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice. If we expect dramatic epiphanies whenever God speaks, we will miss the clarity of the still, small voice that is so subtle it mingles with our own thoughts.

Although we will spend plenty of time learning how to listen to God privately in the coming weeks, this week we will focus on corporate guidance, which is hearing God’s voice in community. Like submission, corporate guidance is another against-the-grain but foundational concept in practicing the Christian disciplines, because it acknowledges that we are not little gods unto ourselves, but truly interconnnected. We need to understand the importance of corporate guidance before we can fully understand the role of individual guidance.

The Context of Guidance: Not Answers, But Mature Relationship

In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard likens hearing God, or knowing God’s will for our lives, to the way a parent might interact with his child who is playing outside. The child could make many choices that would still be within the parent’s will, and the older the child is, the more he’s capable of making good choices on his own, rather than constantly asking the parent what to do. The child is free to play according to his own design and own unique interests, and this pleases the parent. Now, if the parent very clearly asked the child to come inside, then it would be disobedient to play in the sandbox – even if the parent had said yes before, and the child was capable of playing in the sandbox. But with the lack of a clear directive, the child is free to either come indoors or play in the sandbox – both are fully within the parent’s will. When my children were two years old, they were constantly asking me what they were allowed to do. “Can I play with my work truck?” “Can I play in the sandbox?” “Can I take my shoes off?” Now that they are three and five, they have a better sense of what they are allowed to do and are more self-directed, which of course pleases me. Also, what they are allowed to do in the first place changes with their ages. When my oldest son was two or three, he was absolutely forbidden to take one step into the road without holding my hand. Now that he’s five, I know he’s learned to look both ways, and he is allowed to cross the street if I am outside with him. When he’s ten, I’m sure he’ll be running out the door to explore the entire neighborhood.

Our maturity in hearing God and receiving his guidance follows much the same trajectory. At the beginning, once we realize God is indeed speaking to us and we can actually understand him (very much like a toddler), it’s appropriate to ask God about everything we’re doing, especially if we haven’t been in the habit of involving him in our lives and we don’t trust our instincts. But God will father us in that he will provide well-placed challenges to mature us, and he will give us a clear directive if we need it. What pleases God are mature individuals with the eternal and abundant life of Christ so powerfully active in them that they naturally desire and choose the right and good thing. We won’t need him to tell us what to do at every turn because we will no longer be infants, but adults. This is his goal – this is spiritual formation – this is what the disciplines will do if we stick with them and stick with God. It’s the natural result. So as we practice the discipline of guidance, we find that at the beginning, we ask much and hear little; later we ask less and hear more; and in maturity we ask little and rest much, trusting the character of God enough to know that guidance will come when we need it.

Corporate Guidance

If we practice the discipline of guidance in isolation, we become very vulnerable to deception and despair – precisely because growth requires so much waiting and so many unexpected directions and results. Even as we receive individual guidance, we need to be sharing and walking alongside other believers. Seeing that others are having similar experiences encourages us and helps us stay steady spiritually for the long haul. Even at our most mature and complete, we were made to be in community.

Receiving guidance from the body of Christ truly is sacramental, which means that God is using something physical to convey something spiritual. When we receive guidance from the mouths and words of our own physical brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a sacred moment, and it is nourishment that Jesus intends for us to partake of whenever possible.

Biblical history of corporate guidance

God’s constant attempt to communicate with his people has followed the same dynamic throughout history: God seeks to draw near, while his people seek distance.  After Israel’s exodus from Egypt, God communicated clearly and corporately to his people: he was visible to every person simultaneously and without ambiguity. He appeared as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and through other physical signs and manifestations: the manna appearing each day, the water from the rock, his presence on Mt. Sinai.  But the people were overwhelmed by the presence of the Lord and insisted Moses speak to God for them. By Exodus 18, the people of Israel were coming to Moses for every little question and issue. God still spoke to Moses conversationally, face to face, but from then on in Old Testament history, God’s people had a mediator, embodied in the prophets and judges and kings. When God would have chosen intimacy, the people’s own desires and distrust distanced themselves from direct communication with the living God.

As history progressed, the mediators moved from the center of the community to the periphery. The prophet became the voice crying out in the wilderness. When Jesus came, this was very much the case – the prophet John the Baptist was quite literally crying out in the wilderness, and the messiah himself was born in a stable and forced to flee to Egypt as an infant for his life. He was not born a king or even a great teacher, but a carpenter. And when he began speaking, he was shunned and threatened by those in authority. Only the prostitutes, lepers, and the poor wholeheartedly welcomed him. But even so, when Jesus died on the cross and rose again, God reestablished intimacy with his people through the forgiveness of sin and gave the gift of a constant spiritual counselor inside our very bodies – the Holy Spirit. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God could once again communicate directly with his people.

But when we receive the Holy Spirit, we do not become little gods unto ourselves. Jesus made clear that when two or more are gathered in his name, whatever they ask will be given them (Mt. 18:19). If we really believe Jesus is present with us and will speak, then when we all agree, there’s great authority and power in that decision, and we can treat as directly from God himself, and not just someone’s good idea.

This idea of guidance through the body of Christ is crucial to Christianity, because even though Jesus came from the outside, those who accepted his rule became a gathered people – they did not follow him alone and in secret, but as we read in Acts 2, they had to gather together. Why? Because when we become Christians, the structure of our life changes entirely – we no longer live for ourselves, but we enter into God’s purposes for the entire world, across time and space. We become grafted onto the vine of Christ, on which there are many branches – or, as Apostle Paul puts it, we become part of a body of which Christ is the head (1 Corinthians 12). Alone we are merely an eye or a foot. The whole body working together activates our individual spiritual gifts to inform each other, and for the mind of Christ to be made clear to us as a whole. God has a larger plan, not just for our own lives, but for the entire world – and he wants to use us to bring it to fruition.

The Practice of Corporate Guidance

Practicing corporate guidance takes great humility and courage, because sharing our struggles with others goes against the grain of our cultural values. If we value rugged independence and success, admitting that we can’t figure everything out on our own seems like failure.  But whether we know it or not, we cannot live our lives in isolation – we simply weren’t made that way. We must ask the question: do we want to hear God, or do we want to appear successful in the eyes of others? When we can finally decide that we want to hear God, it’s easier to conjure up the courage to share our struggles with another trusted friend or mentor. Here are some ways we can begin:

  • When you need to make a significant life decision, ask two or more separate trusted friends to pray/contemplate on your behalf. If they agree, take it as the voice of God and don’t look back.
  • Call together spontaneous groups of discernment over a particular decision.
  • If you’re in a position of leadership at a church or like-minded organization, hold business meetings that seek God-given consensus rather than compromise. 
  • Meet with a spiritual director (see below).

Spiritual direction

Spiritual directors, although very common in the Middle Ages, have only recently experienced a renaissance as people are realizing their need for such a relationship. This is not an ordained or institutional position, but a particular role one believer can play for another. A spiritual director is simply someone who can usher you into God’s presence: someone who willingly sets themselves aside for your good alone, who has eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying to you, and who can clearly give voice to it. Ideally they will be comfortable with the process of spiritual growth, both in you and themselves, knowing that God always has a transformative word for us wherever we are on the journey. Even if we believe we have fallen away, a good spiritual director knows God will never let go of us.

Relationships with individual spiritual directors can be long-term or short-term. He or she can be an ongoing mentor of sorts, like spiritual mentors for those preparing for ordination or joining a monastic order, or you may meet for  just one or two sessions as you’re trying to discern God’s voice in a particular situation.

Whenever I have the opportunity to practice spiritual direction, the basic rhythm I follow is simply to get to know each other and understand why the person has come, and then we just move into a time of prayer when God can speak a living word to the person’s heart. It’s both that simple and that miraculous.

Limitations of Corporate Guidance

And as good as corporate guidance can be, it’s also good to acknowledge that it’s not perfect. Authoritative leaders might quench the life and spirit and uniqueness of believers. Unresponsive or resistant people might refuse to hear the voice of God from wise leaders. Groups (leaders and people together) can become isolated from the body of Christ when Scripture is not the ultimate guide. The clearest sign of this is when, even though the body is unified, they begin exhibiting the works of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit. And of course, there are natural human limitations – we may simply hear wrong, and our spiritual directors might hear wrong, too. For all these reasons, we must always be humble and willing to yield (again, why submission is so important). The good news is that God will keep speaking, and we will always learn valuable lessons through our weaknesses and even our mistakes.

The Fruit of Guidance

The fruit of guidance is a deep and abiding sense of trust and rest. We’ll become more intimate with God’s ways and know that he is fundamentally our parent, growing our hearts into maturity. Living in that posture of trust is what will allow us to enjoy those moments in the backyard when our father doesn’t have to shout instructions constantly – in the stillness we know that all is well, and we have reached a level of maturity in which we are free enough to explore and play within the boundaries that have already been set. If and when we get into trouble, our Father will let us know. We’re utterly secure.

Exercise

For this week, we’ll dabble in both individual and corporate guidance. I’d like you to think of a burning question you have, and first, privately ask God about it and listen for an answer. Remember that his voice is gentle but relentless – and often sounds very much like our own voice because he speaks the language of our heart. Give yourself the full week to discern whatever God might say. Also, take the risk of sharing your burning question with a trusted friend or mentor, and ask them for their input. This can be done within or outside of any religious context. The point is to recognize that we are indeed all connected, and God uses the voice of others as well as our own to communicate with us.

And as always, post your experiences and questions – or email me at info@amandarooker.com.

Welcome back to Week Two of our experiment in Virtual Immersion!

Now that we’ve become more aware of how our current habits and practices really do reveal who we are and who we will become (for better and worse), and have taken note of where we might need to both limit and nurture ourselves, we’ll move on to our second spiritual discipline: the discipline of submission.

Definition

Like the discipline of rule, the discipline of submission isn’t so much an action as it is an attitude of mind and heart. Submission is simply the willingness to yield to another’s thoughts or actions, and it is rooted in the belief that serving others is the path to true greatness. Its directive is found in Ephesians 5:21: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The phrase “be subject” can also be translated “submit”: We are to submit to one another. Why? Because others hold power over us? Because they are better at something than we are? Because they’ve earned our submission? No: We submit to them out of reverence for Christ, which means that we submit to one another not only because we are trying to follow Jesus’ example, but also because Jesus had a hand in our creation and created all of us in his image. We submit to each other to honor both his example and his handiwork. Even and especially when they (and we) don’t deserve it.

The Boundary and the Freedom

As we will see in the weeks to come, each discipline limits a particular harmful characteristic while growing a particular virtue. Submission limits our pride and demanding spirit, which results in the freedom from needing to control our lives. In this freedom, our own rightful gifts and responsibilities have room to grow. We live more and more out of the true self, rather than being hampered by responsibilities that are not ours.

The True Self and the False Self

The discipline of submission appears early in this study because it above all brings us face-to-face with the fundamental paradox of Christianity. On one hand, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1) and his goodness is stamped indeliably upon every single human being. On the other hand,  Jesus taught that to save our lives we must lose them and says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:11ff). Without delving into the meaning of the latter passage, let’s name the obvious paradox: how can we be both good and evil?

The answer can be found in the concept of the true and false self. We can be both good and evil because we all really have two selves within us: the true self that God made in his image before we were born and that is good and will live forever, and the false self that we created ourselves out of defensiveness, fear, anger, and hatred. Every moment we choose to live out of either our true self or our false self. The apostle Paul calls these the “old self” and “new self,” as we saw last week in Ephesians 4:22: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

These words sound offensive if we think Paul is calling our whole self “corrupt and deluded by its lusts,” because we all know by experience there is some seed of good in everyone, no matter what they’ve done. Not everything in us is bad and needs to be rooted out. But he really is talking about two different selves that are already in us: we must nurture and grow the true self and relentlessly kill the false. God is already working to help us do this, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you’ve ever felt everything in your life is turning to ash, it’s not because God hates you, but he is likely trying to help you kill the false self that is rooted in anything other than submission to God. (Even if you are pursuing what seems like an unquestionable good. God wants us to relate with him directly, not mistake the gift for the giver.) In contrast, when you notice a place in your life that is taking off with almost no effort of your own, that may be God helping you see what is true and living and eternal within you, and thus helping you grow the true self. Just as God wants us to interact with him directly and not just the good things he’s given, God also only interacts with and grows our true self, however stunted it may be. Which may be why our demands of him usually go unanswered – when we grow demanding, we’re almost always operating out of the false self.

This is why the discipline of submission is so foundational. Practicing submission often quickly reveals the presence of the true and false self within us, and how often we live out of the demanding false self when dealing with others. Our false self has to be perceived as right and has to control the outcome. Our true self sees and honors the image of God in others, and considers their needs before our own.

If we are accustomed to living out of our false selves constantly, this concept of having two selves can feel much like being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. When I first fully internalized this concept, I was extremely disoriented – I had so fully lived out of the false self in my life (needing to be right, needing to be in control) that I had absolutely no awareness of the seed of a true self that never really developed. If this is your situation, rest assured that your true self is indeed still alive – it’s just pure potential. When put in the right environment – like practicing the disciplines – God will give the growth. It’s how you were designed. Your true self just needs to be named and invested in, but it will take time.

Contemporary Context and Common Obstacles

Even though submission is foundational to the practice of Christianity, Immersion Week participants usually find it the most difficult and controversial discipline to understand and to practice. Why? 

Our culture

First, our American culture and values are dead-set against submission. Instead, we are to defend our rights (woven into the fabric of our nation’s founding), prioritize our own needs and wants (via consumerism), and simply barrel through others to get what we want (the rogue or rebel is usually glorified).

Active, not passive

Second, we often misunderstand submission to be passivity and equate with the loss of self. It’s quite the opposite: submission requires action, not passivity. You must choose it freely, or it is slavery, not submission. And it certainly results in the loss of self – but only the false self. Jesus taught that to save our lives, we must lose them (Matthew 16:25), and submission helps grow our true selves more and more so that we no longer need to be right or superior – we can be content in being ourselves.

The limits of submission

And third, we rightly discern that there are limits to the discipline of submission – limits that were embodied and intended by Jesus himself. He said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). So it works both ways: even those in authority are to be more like slaves than lords to their followers.

Slaves? Really? But what about those who have no intention of pursuing our good? How do we practice submission in the face of injustice or outright harm? Many come from a background where they didn’t have a voice or a self at all, and must constantly work against the grain to believe that they are indeed valuable and have the right to speak up and establish good boundaries for themselves. Does submission ask them to undo all of that? As stated above, submission is neither passive nor rooted in the belief that we are worthless doormats. It again requires us to return to the concept of the true and false self. We are to love your neighbor as ourselves. Without questions, the true self loves itself – not because we’re so enamoured with ourselves but because we choose to believe God: he created us good and in his image. On the other hand, the false self prioritizes itself, lording it over others. As we are growing the true self, we must also kill the false self – we must not take on the tactics of our enemies. We are to respond to others – even our enemies – with honor and respect.

Now if our true self is good and valuable and worthy of being protected, how can we lay down our rights? We can only do this if we know and believe that God is our creator, protector, and provider. God is our protector – not us and not anyone else. When we yield to another, God steps in to protect us – often in ways that aren’t apparent until much later. His agenda is usually very different from ours and can be hard to discern except by revelation or hindsight. Because of this, our primary submission is not to others, but to God: we can only relinquish control if we believe he is not only in control but is actually working for our ultimate good. That’s why submission is the hardest for those who do not believe God will come through for them and protect them – those who have felt they have had to take control of their lives because no one else would. If this is where you have been, then begin to take these issues up with God – tell him how you have experienced him, and point-blank ask him where he has been in your life. And then give him time and space to answer. We’ll learn how to do that more practically when we get to the disciplines of guidance, meditation, and prayer.

But yes, there are limits to submission: as Richard Foster asserts in his chapter on submission in Celebration of Discipline, the limits of submission are where it becomes destructive.When a relationship becomes harmful, it is good and right to protect ourselves and remove ourselves from that relationship – while recognizing and honoring God’s image even within that person and having the hope of reconciliation.  

Practice

So now  that we understand more about what submission is, how do we practice it? We practice the attitude of submission through the action of service. Think about your everyday experiences. For example, when you disagree with someone at work, are you willing to yield even when you’re certain you’re right? If the bank teller asks a person to come up before you when you were actually waiting longer, can you let it go? This doesn’t mean you don’t speak up when necessary – by all means, make your perspective known respectfully. But there comes a point when you can choose to yield or you choose to insist on getting your way. In both the practical action of service and conscious attitude of yielding control, we choose to practice submission rather than demanding our way. We choose to live out of the true self rather than the false.

Exercise

So for this week, I’d like you to cultivate the willingness to yield in your everyday relationships: your spouse and children, your colleagues and those in authority, checkout clerks and those in the service industries, people at the telephone company or health insurance company, etc. Do you become irate in “unfair” situations? Do you have to be perceived as being right? When you find yourself becoming demanding, internally or externally, remember that you do not have to have control over every relationship or every outcome. Loosen that grip. Affirm that God is in control and God is for you, not against you. And in that freedom, choose to honor the other person.

Also, I’d like you to choose one small project you can do within the course of the week that is purely a service to someone else. Volunteer at your child’s school; at the homeless shelter; at the church. Write a letter to someone you know is lonely. Offer to babysit for a family who is far from extended family. Any act of service allowing you to put aside your own preferences and priorities for the needs of someone else, giving you an opportunity to submit to them in a very practical way.

Again, post comments, questions, and experiences freely. This is usually the hardest discipline to understand and to practice, so be sure to process through the obstacles. In particular, in this post I took for granted that God is in control and God is good, simply because those are foundational Christian principles. If you feel you need more evidence than that, that would be a great discussion topic. Also feel free to email me directly: info@amandarooker.com.

Hi everyone – welcome to Week One of Virtual Immersion!

As I noted before, this will  be a 10-week virtual version of the intensive, week-long Immersion Week we hold at LivingStone Monastery in Newport News, Virginia, several times a year. Participants are immersed (thus the name) in the various spiritual disciplines, cloistered in community and learning and practicing a new discipline each day. By the end of the week, our hope is that they will have become deeply acquainted with the richness and value of the classic spiritual practices, not only intellectually but experientially, and will have new tools to grow and maintain their spiritual lives and their intimate relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

For this 10-week virtual course on the spiritual disciplines, I will post on a new discipline every Tuesday. Please read the post thoughtfully, do the exercises, and post comments, questions, and experiences liberally. You may also email me directly at info@amandarooker.com. I will be using very few links and references in the text of the post, so if something is unclear, please post your comments and questions, and we can go deeper into the primary sources. I love to get to know people of different spiritual backgrounds, and I value your perspectives. But my only disclaimer is that this will be taught from a consistently Christian perspective. It’s the only authentic way I can teach this topic. If you want to know more about me, see my website.

A quick word about the biblical citations: I’ve hyperlinked the biblical quotes when possible so you can see the context. I prefer using the New Revised Standard Version, but that’s hard to find on the web. The only place I found where you can see the NRSV in context is part of another website that I have not fully investigated, so I can’t recommend any content you might find there outside of the text itself.

We’ll cover these disciplines in the weeks ahead:

  1. Rule of life
  2. Submission
  3. Guidance
  4. Meditation
  5. Prayer
  6. Solitude and silence
  7. Fasting
  8. Celebration
  9. Simplicity
  10. Hospitality

Also, if you intend to participate in the ten online sessions, please email me your email address so I can keep everyone up to date on any administrative issues that may arise.

Our first post will be a double-length post, because I provided some background information on the course itself as well as the information on the discipline of rule, our first and foundational discipline. So don’t worry – after today, the posts will be half the length. This is good news for both you and me.

Let’s get started!

Why Christian?

Every organized religion I’m acquainted with has its own version of the spiritual disciplines, and it is possible to teach and practice the spiritual disciplines “inclusively.” But this program, like Immersion Week at LivingStone Monastery, very deliberately teaches and practices the spiritual disciplines from the Christian perspective. This is because WHY you practice the disciplines makes all the difference in the world as to whether they will be life-giving or unbearably burdensome. Christianity is different from any other organized religion in that we do not need to do anything to earn favor with God. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, died on the cross and rose again to make the “once for all” sacrifice to reconcile us fully to God. No other sacrifice, no other devotional practice, is necessary for us to know God and be known or to love God and be loved fully. It truly is finished. Christians practice the spiritual disciplines not to follow a formula by which we can make God do what we want, or by which we can earn his approval, but to get to know God’s heart more and more. The spiritual disciplines establish a deep, intimate relationship with God that he actually desires more than we do – a relationship we were created for and long for and constantly attempt to create substitutes for.

For those who would like a distillation of Christianity, here’s how I would define the heart of it: (1) human beings, whenever given the chance and left to our own devices, will choose to set ourselves up as our own god and control our own lives. Trying to control our own lives is the essence of sin, or separation from God. (2) God created human beings in his image for relationship (and his image is male and female; I use the male pronoun for expediency) – even when we constantly choose to separate ourselves from him, he chooses to pursue us in love. (3) The pinnacle of this pursuit was the historical life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in which God himself, the second person of the Trinity, made a mysterious but effective sacrifice that once for all reconciled all of humanity to himself. Humanity’s only necessary response was to believe that (a) our need to control our own lives inherently separates us from God and we are powerless to save ourselves, and that (b) Jesus was indeed fully God and fully man and his sacrifice reconciles us fully with God. Once we accept this reality, we are adopted (or welcomed back) as sons and daughters and heirs of God. The father always welcomes the prodigals home with extravagant love. Obviously I left a lot unexplained and unreferenced, but that’s how I would define the gospel in a nutshell.

In light of that, two important things need to be said:

(1) Even though I will teach from the Christian perspective, you do not have to be a Christian to learn about or practice the spiritual disciplines with profit. All of our souls benefit from these particular practices - again, not because of the practices themselves, but because these practices bring us close to God, and intimacy with God is the one thing that truly sustains our lives. Jesus was and is a real person, but we don’t have to have our theology straight to know him or follow him. Our God is a consuming fire, which means as we get to know him, he explodes definitions and consumes even our concept of what Christianity is. This journey is fundamentally a relationship, not a moral code. He will draw near to us, wherever we’ve been and wherever we think we’re going. He always meets us where we are and always speaks our heart language to us. So if you are not a Christian, I strongly encourage you to just dive in. Treat this as a “taste and see” experience. A new and interesting cultural immersion. And see what might take root. When I first began practicing the spiritual disciplines, I was a spiritual seeker and not at all a committed Christian. I just wanted to find out what was real, live a good life, and do the best I could with what I’d been given. But much to my surprise, I found that the disciplines weren’t neutral tools I could use to chisle myself into my own ideal, but quite the opposite: they introduced me to a living God who is constantly working to grow me into what he intends me to be – using the good and bad experiences of my life.

(2) Having said that, being a committed Christian is the only way to keep yourself from turning the means of grace and life into the means of burden and death. In other words, if you don’t really believe that you are fully right with God and loved by God no matter what you do (because of the real and necessary sacrifice of Jesus, not because we somehow earned God’s approval by being good enough or lovable enough), you will end up trying to practice the disciplines perfectly to earn approval from God, yourself, or others. Either you will become consumed by legalism, which is the quickest path to separation from God, or you will become overwhelmed and give up. These practices are light burdens and are meant to be life-giving, because they connect us with the giver of life. If they are burdensome, that means legalism has crept in. Receiving the grace that comes from the gospel is the only way to combat legalism. The difference between living by legalism and living by grace is like the difference between building the likeness of a tree and planting a seed – and in both cases, expecting fruit.

 Why be spiritually disciplined?

The first discipline we’ll discuss is the discipline of rule. What if you’re a more spontaneous person rather than scheduled? And if Christianity is more about grace than legalistic rules, why order your spiritual life in the first place? The very concept of having an ordered life is becoming more and more foreign; thus the discipline of rule is our foundational discipline of thought and intention.

Discipline One: the Rule of Life

A rule of life is simply doing the same practices habitually or cyclically, allowing repetitive practices to structure our life. In this context, the particular practices we’re talking about are the spiritual disciplines, the things Christians do that connect us to God and spiritually form our souls so that our actions reflect our identity. When we become Christians, accepting that we do need miraculous help to get connected to God and that Jesus has indeed provided that connection, our identities change drastically: now that we are reconciled to God, we are the body of Christ, sons and daughters of God, members of the kingdom of God, salt of the earth, and light of the world. This is who we really are. But we are not capable of acting like it. Establishing a rule of life, or practicing the disciplines, is how we develop that capability of living out who we really are.

Scheduled vs. spontaneous

Even though we may know that doing things like the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation and fasting may yield good fruit, we may still have some resistance to forming a rule of life for ourselves. Why? The personality test that was in vogue when I was in high school, college, and seminary was the Myers-Briggs test, which evaluated four different key aspects of our personality: whether you were introverted or extraverted, whether you made decisions primarily by intuition or by gathering sensory information, whether you primarily interacted with the world through thinking or through feeling, and whether you preferred to go through the day with a schedule or just by perceiving the needs of the moment. So you’re left with a four letter code that explains who you are: I happened to be an INFP. That last distinguishing characteristic is what I want to draw attention to: some people need a schedule for the day, some people are more spontaneous. I was trained to think it was a personality thing. In which case, why do all Christians need a rule of life? Isn’t that the same thing as a schedule? Why can’t we just interact with God when we feel like it? Isn’t this supposed to be a religion of the heart rather than doing what is externally right? Why does sanctification have to be scheduled?

I think the mistake is in believing that spontaneous and scheduled are two mutually exclusive personality types: we either tend towards controlling or planning things, or being spontaneous and letting things just burst out all over the place. But our experience has surely taught us that growing relationships – and any living thing – requires both order and natural growth. To grow a fruit-bearing plant definitely requires work – planting, hoeing, thinning, pruning, watering, cultivating soil, etc. But these practices don’t create the life of the plant – that’s already inside it. These practices, this ordering of its environment, this rule of life, so to speak, are what allow the life already inside of it to grow naturally and abundantly. So I’ve found it helpful to think of the spiritual disciplines as simply the practical things we do that grow the true self, the eternal living being in us, to full maturity so it can bear the full measure of fruit it was created to do. We learn a lot by simply looking at creation – examples of life are everywhere – from the uncultivated field of weeds that choke out any fruit bearing plants to the overcultivated soil that now is barren. There is a balance, and I think that balance is found when we remember that we are growing something living, not building something dead. So whatever your personality – disciplines help all of us live abundantly. Too little order will kill us as certainly as too much order.

So how do our practices change us?

From the beginning, God has shown us that what we do always both reveals and shapes who we are.

Our practices REVEAL who and whose we are.

God marked his people Israel from the beginning by what they did, by their practices. The Ten Commandments and the Law showed the world what it meant to be a chosen people, a holy nation: the practices of circumcision, of worshiping no graven image, of leaving gleanings for the poor, of limiting revenge only to match the original offense.

After Jesus came, Acts 2 shows us that the earliest Christians were doing what Jewish people always did, adhering to temple worship and set prayer times, but soon distinctive practices arose. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate thier food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-45). Their bodily, visible actions distinguished them and revealed who they were – to others’ benefit as well. This is particularly relevant for us, who live in a world where the idea of identity is getting more and more diffuse and easily fabricated through all the technology of social network. Our bodily practices, not just what we say or write or blog, reveal who we really are, who God is, and what is real – and the world longs to know what is real.

Our practices SHAPE us by disciplining us and drawing us near to the God who changes us from the inside out.

Two passages read together help illustrate this issue – with very strong language. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans highlights the problem of being unable to do what we know is right and actually want to do: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7:14,18b). The letter to the Ephesians points out that distance from God destroys our ability to trust our gut: we can’t trust that what we want is good. “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles [those who don't know God] live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spiritit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24).

Our spontaneous feelings don’t always give us good advice, because we’ve lost sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit. We have to be instructed in what to do because it is our nature to live out of the old self – that’s where we’ll live and that’s what we’ll feed if we live spontaneously. What feels very right may lead to death. What feels wrong may be the path to life. After we have been reconciled to God by Christ, we need to grow into this new identity, and the good news is that the more and more we choose to put on the new self and put to death the old self, the stronger that new self will be and the more we can trust our instincts because we will desire what God desires and we will hear the Spirit’s voice. Doing the disciplines will feel less life-shattering and more like soul maintenance. But the point is that practicing the spiritual disciplines show us which is the old self and which is the new. They show us what is real and eternal and worth investing in. They instruct our soul.

 And more than just putting to death the old self and growing the new, the disciplines allow us to draw near to God. In one sense, the disciplines are not mysterious at all – in fact, they parallel the advice you might get from a marriage counselor if you and your spouse feel like you’re not in love anymore. They are the very things we humans naturally do to maintain relationships with people we love. If someone we love sends a letter, we read it, and we don’t just read it, we pore over it, finding all the nuances beneath the words and savoring it over and over again. Or you could say that we practice the discipline of study and meditation. It might not sound as romantic, but it’s the same practice. If you think about the disciplines as ways to maintain a healthy relationship of intimacy and authenticity, you’ll see that many practices are just about setting good boundaries (fasting and simplicity), honoring (guidance, submission) and just enjoying God (celebration, worship). When we draw near to God, we will become intimate with him and enjoy his presence. We’ll have a real relationship, person to person, where you know his voice without question. I hope this aspect becomes most alive to you throughout these weeks, because as I said before, one of the biggest dangers in practicing the disciplines is that they will become new laws and new sources of condemnation and separation from your God. The opposite is true: practicing the disciplines let us experience God’s affection for us even and especially when we discover our inability to meditate, to fast, to pray. When we draw near to God, he changes us from the inside out; the disciplines do not change us from the outside in. If we think we are achieving our own spiritual growth, the disciplines will become another heavy burden that we will eventually have to put down.

Why grow spiritually?

A question that may emerge is why we want to invest in our spiritual growth in the first place – if we really are secure in Christ, and that eternal life is in us no matter what we do, why bother excelling in the spiritual life? Why bother becoming advanced in the spiritual disciplines? We’re not going to make God love us any more or less. For me the answer is: to keep awake. Throughout the history of Christianity, those who practice the disciplines and become capable of hearing God and doing what he asks are indeed used dramatically by God. We may think God is not dramatically active at this point in history, but that is only because we don’t have the advantage of hindsight. Just like the first believers, and those at many turning points in history, it is no less important for us to stay connected to God, not just because we want to be like Jesus inside and out, not just because we love God and he loves us, but because Jesus commanded us to keep awake. He will return like a thief in the night, and he may need people to prepare his way, like John the Baptist and the prophets before him. Our rule of life, our practicing the disciplines, is how we stay awake and prepared to do his bidding. Being ready is an act of love on our behalf.

The Aesthetic Bonus of a Rule of Life

Now those are the practical ways a rule of life is valuable – it both reveals who we are and shapes who we are. But the second reason why a rule of life is valuable for all Christians, even the ones who don’t like schedules, is a purely aesthetic one: it’s deeply satisfying.

When we establish a rhythmic pattern of deeply meaningful actions that connect us to God, we learn to dwell in the beauty of the familiar. We experience, for example, just how powerful the words of scripture are because even though we may read the same passage over and over again, its meaning is made new every morning. Those who come from a liturgical background experience it through the Sunday liturgy and the liturgical year. I’ll try to create a similar experience for you during the week of meditation through a monastic liturgy of morning, noon, and evening prayers. There is freedom and beauty in the familiar, because we are free from the tyranny of our emotions, of what we feel like doing in the moment, of having to recreate the wheel every time we want to get close to God. If you want to explore this idea in more detail, Kathleen Norris, who is a poet, wrote about her discovering the beauty of liturgy as Benedictine oblate, in her book The Cloister Walk. Reading that book is what sent me to seminary. I was on the way to write or edit full-time, but I read that and thought, I have got to be tapped into that eternal rhythmic reality all the time. (Of course, now I’ve learned that you don’t have to be a professional minister to experience that constant eternal rhythm.) But true creativity and true meaning are found in this beauty of the familiar, whether they are familiar words or familiar actions. If they are words or actions of life, they will be new every morning. Now initially this rhythm will not feel creative or meaningful – it will be boring and it will be dry, as we detox from needing to be entertained or be in control of our every action. But once we detox, practicing the disciplines will feed us and we will be deeply satisfied.

On a larger scale, when we establish a rule or a rhythm of life, we are entering into the creative fabric of the universe. God created us in his image, and he also created the sun, the moon, the stars, the seasons, and time itself. The sun establishes a daily rhythm; the moon establishes a monthly rhythm; the seasons establish a yearly rhythm. He created order out of chaos and his order is beautiful; he created these rhythms as a backdrop against which we can establish a relationship with him and enjoy him forever. When we decide to establish a spiritual rhythm to establish our relationship with him, rather than just ride the chaotic waves of our emotions and do whatever we feel like doing, we enter into the creative, ordering power of God. We find that the world, even and precisely because of its repetition, is new every morning, because God made it that way. We don’t have to create it, we just have to notice it and live into it and enjoy it. So forgive me for being too grandiose, but as for me, creating a liturgy for my life has made me feel like I’m creating like my creator, and am tapping into the creative fabric of the universe. For someone like me, who was dubbed spontaneous instead of scheduled by Myers-Briggs, and who wants to feel free to love and express and be creative, I needed to see it this way before I could accept it. It’s not just some list of rules that shackle our creativity. A rule of life, and the disciplines themselves, free our creativity, because we don’t have to waste our creative energy creating something that’s already been established and has already been proven rich and fruitbearing.

Conclusion

So establishing a rule of life is important because we are not just spiritual beings but physical beings. What we do on a very daily basis both reveals who we really are and shapes who we will become. We have the ability and the creativity to choose spiritual practices that will bear good fruit instead of unconscious destruction. Those daily random decisions you make can be yielded to him so that every moment is important and your life as a whole is ordered. And when your life is ordered and bearing fruit, your life will be compelling to others, not because you do all the right things or have all the right things to say, but because people can just absorb the good things of God from you. The particular spiritual disciplines we’ll be studying and practicing over the next weeks have stood the test of time as practices that will order your soul to bear good fruit that will last forever and that no one can take from you.

Exercise

Last week, I asked that you prepare yourself for the coming sessions by examining your current rule of life – your habitual actions on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. If you haven’t done that, take time to do it this week. Then look at the natural schedule of your life. What practices or habits have been life-giving, and why? What practices or habits have been life-draining or destructive, and why? Spend some time in solitude and meditation, and consider what places need to be better ordered or limited, and what places may need to be nurtured and grown.

Scan the following list of the disciplines we’ll cover, and without knowing anything about them but their name, choose one or two that may address the needs you’ve named.

  1. Rule of life
  2. Submission
  3. Guidance
  4. Meditation
  5. Prayer
  6. Solitude and silence
  7. Simplicity
  8. Fasting
  9. Celebration
  10. Hospitality

And keep your initial rule of life and what disciplines initially appealed to you. You’ll be amazed at the comparison by the end of the ten weeks.

Please freely post comments, questions, and experiences. Tangential questions are welcomed and expected. Remember, if you’d rather direct comments or questions to me directly, my email address is info@amandarooker.com.

I look forward to seeing what this week brings!

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