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!

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