spiritual journey


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!

With a new year comes a new focus – hopefully one that will help me meet my goal of posting weekly!

Even though my primary training and experience has been in spiritual formation, I’ve been trying not to focus on spiritual issues in this blog – first, because I was burned out on being all spiritual, all the time; and second, because  most of my clients deal with very tangible topics. But this was only making me avoid my own blog. So for a time, I’ll get radical and just write about what I know: how we as human beings grow spiritually. Just like our physical beings, our spiritual beings are living things created to grow and bear fruit  over time. And whether we want to practice sustainable communication in a virtual world, or just remain standing in a rupturing economy, we need to know how to stay spiritually rooted in times of crisis.

The only way we can grow and thrive spiritually is in the context of a deep and intimate relationship with the living God. But because we are also physical beings, there are particular things we can do that help us nurture this relationship in a concrete way and hear God’s voice more clearly. These cultivating practices have been called different things at different times, but historically Christians have called them spiritual disciplines. Whatever you call them, they work. I have seen over and over, both in my own life and in those of others,  that these practices really do cultivate what is eternally good in us 0ver time. Virtues, abilities, creativity, etc. But these practices are not a formula that guarantees growth. They simply put us in the hands of the one who gives the growth – and very often, what looks like freefall in the moment will enable exponential growth much later. If nothing else, the disciplines teach us humility and patience – the precursors to peace.

I am part of a team of teachers at LivingStone Monastery that offers a week-long spiritual retreat several times a year called Immersion Week, where individuals cloister themselves at the monastery to learn and practice key spiritual disciplines. I’ve been particularly moved by not only the participants’ deep hunger to establish these sustainable rhythms in their lives, but the deep changes that result after only a week. I wonder if the times ahead will make spiritual disciplines even more relevant: my generation in particular has been raised to expect prosperity, and for most of our lives, we’ve been able to achieve it – if not the reality, then at least the image through consumer debt. Upcoming economic changes may strip from many of us both the reality and the image of material prosperity – what will remain? Practicing the spiritual disciplines allows us to invest in the good and the eternal within us, and we become able to persevere for the long haul, embodying joy and hope in the midst of crisis not only for ourselves, but for our families and friends and nation and world.

Each week I’ll post on a new spiritual discipline, and each new discipline will build upon practicing the previous. I’ll generally follow the curriculum of Immersion Week (whose foundational text is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline), so if you find you’d like to practice these in community and with a spiritual director, feel free to contact LivingStone Monastery to sign up for the next Immersion Week. Straight information is good, but practicing in the context of community is what really allows these habits to take root.

In preparation for our first discipline, the Discipline of Rule, here’s your first exercise: What activities do you practice habitually – on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis? (Tell the truth, now. No one has to see this but you.) Do your habits reflect your values?

I do not have all the answers. I don’t know where the healthy balance is in using technology and using our bodies. I only sense that we’re out of balance, and as a mother of two incredibly active young boys, my most constant feeling is that I’m failing them, precisely because I don’t know the answers to these questions. I fear I’m drugging their active, quick brains on too much TV simply because sometimes my own body is so tired. I do not have this figured out, and I have DESPERATELY NEEDED to figure it out, thinking that if I could name exactly what is bad about too much TV or too much internet, I could finally set some limits and stick to them once and for all. And succeed at parenting in this high-technology age.

But my husband reminded me of something a theologian said long ago: we will never be anything but beggars in this life. We are justified in no expectation and no sense of entitlement – especially success. Anything we have is gift and blessing, and we have deserved none of it. Yet still we receive it – sometimes abundantly. The sooner we accept that, the freer we will be. We have been ALLOWED to be successful at some things, and to fail at others. It is not solely due to our effort (although our effort has a role).

So beginning today, when I feel like a failure in raising my boys, I’m going to try to simply accept that, yes, I can’t provide everything that my boys need. I have failed them in the past, I am failing them now, and I will fail them in the future. Out of no fault of their own, they, like every single other human being in all of history, have an imperfect mother. I will make mistakes out of ignorance and out of willfulness. I will try not to cover over that reality anymore with anxiety that leads to striving more and more to learn more and argue better and insist on my own way to distract people from my weaknesses and failures. I sense that the more I admit that I am broken, the freer I will be. And that freedom naturally yields energy and focus and joy.

Really this blog is about becoming embodied – choosing to live in my body and call it blessed, however broken and imperfect it may be. It is blessed and can give blessing through its weaknesses, because I notice that when I admit my weaknesses, I am able to have compassion for others in their weaknesses, and I am better able to love unselfconsciously. I’m better able to enjoy the moment, enjoy the day, enjoy my life, because the pressure to be perfect is gone. This above all is what will keep communication sustainable – and human.

The aspect of becoming embodied I’m working on most right now is this attempt to recognize that parenting, more than anything, has tested this iron will of mine to strive to be perfect at all costs. It has tested it, and it HAS BROKEN ME. I cannot master parenthood. I have wrestled with God over this daily for five years solid. I walk with a limp. But I am still blessed, because our bodies were made to be broken. Their fragility is part of their good design. Their healing capacity is also part of their good design. And where they heal, they become strong places of compassion. I can only assume the same is true of our spirits.

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