Lent is just around the corner. Some might think that it is just one more thing to add to my daily challenges. I can understand that. Can I suggest another option? As part of Lent what one thing could you drop from your life that would give you a little time to squeeze in some time with God. I would recommend as your pastor this one change might just add to your life more than you know.
This year, I will be exploring six disciplines of the faith as presented in Richard Foster’s classic book, “Celebration of Discipline.” It was written in 1978 but is still considered an excellent source for exploring your relationship with God.
The disciplines that I will reflect upon in various medias are Meditation/Prayer, Study, Service, Simplicity, Submission and Fasting. I will make available a resource sheet at church and online that will give you examples of things to do and questions to stir your imagination. Some of these disciplines you may want to do daily. You may just do some once. Some just may not work for you. But I am asking you to consider these instead of giving up chocolate.
My plan/hope is to connect with those of you on Facebook and hear about your stories of way you have practiced these disciplines that might excite someone else to try. Our Tuesday evening Taize services will be based upon these themes. My idea is to generate an excitement around connecting with God.
As an example, I was recently in a very low and confused place in my life. I have developed friends in the area with whom I share personal faith stories. During this down time, I asked one of my friends to keep me in her prayers. I soon discovered she was going to have a very serious heart exams and she asked the same of me. Right after that conversation I ran into two other people who asked that I pray for them. That sense of community beyond the doors and community of the church is so helpful to my understanding of God and his love. The love for God that I share with these people beyond our doors helps me see God in the world.
That is but one way that these disciplines keep me in touch with Jesus. I will be sharing other examples during Lent and hope you can share yours with me.
In His Service
Celebration of Discipline is the primary text that I am using for our Lenten theme and reflections. Below is a layout of disciplines that I will be covering at our evening Taize services and on our church Facebook page. You are not required to follow this order in your personal devotions. You are encouraged to explore them in any order that serves you best. My primary emphasis is that you be able to explore as many disciplines in you daily life allowing God to work through them to develop a deeper connection with God in your life. You might buy or download the book as your own. However this all develops, I hope that God touches your heart and shapes your life with his unconditional love.
Confession and Worship
I confess that life begins with confession and worship follows. Humbling myself before God is one of the most healing parts of my weak. To confess to God my sins, failures, and shortcomings lets the air out of my inflated ego. When I confess to God, I no longer need to be something that I am not. Just saying the words is healing.
Confession is a discipline but its real power is in grace. When we confess we experience God’s grace. There is no greater gift that God could give. And the great thing is that God delights in giving forgiveness. The Old Testament is a long story of sin and forgiveness. God’s heart always leans in the direction of restoration. The Israelite can’t help but wander away from God’s ways just as we do ourselves and God sent shepherds and prophets to bring them home. Like the prodigal son, the father runs out to the son to welcome him home.
Out of confession and forgiveness grows worship. Worship is giving thanks to the worthy one, Jesus Christ. Knowing that I have been set free of the shackles of sin, I am unburdened of the heavy yoke that I have carried around so long.
Is worship discipline? Yes, it is. We are commanded by God to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. God does not say this to have power over us. He does this so that we might have life and have it abundantly. God knows that we need to be in relationship with him. He has made us this way. Our sin is that we do not want to be in need of anyone. We want to rule our own lives and make our way through this life on our own. As my dad use to tell me, “The middle letter in Sin is “I”. We want to live unto ourselves.
But worship is community. We all fall short of the glory of God and are in need. Everyone who sits in the sanctuary is in need of God’s love and forgiveness. No one can point at another person claim that they are better than they are. That is what the world teaches us. God teaches us that we are all in need.
But the good news is that God comes to us. God offers himself to us. We but receive him. Now that may sound backwards, but it is not. God came to the earth. He tabernacleD with the Israelites in the desert. God came to us Jesus Christ. Who in their right mind would go out of the way for a sinful, stiff necked, people? God would. As Michelangelo depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God’s majesty arm was reaching down to Adam. God is pure love.
We are in our greatest moment when we know and experience that love. Then and only then do we fully grasp worship. If our attitude in worship is that we having communion and that the service will go 10 – 15 minutes longer, we are to be pitted most. It shows that we have not understood what that moment is about. We are receiving the greatest gift of life. We are in full communion with God. God is present with us as he promised at the Last Supper. And moment is about pure love and forgiveness. And if we think we are not in need of it, we are especially in great need of it.
Thus, the discipline of worship. It is right, our duty and joy… to worship God. Because in doing so, we discover the joy of life on this earth until the day when we will no longer need communion but will be in full communion with him in heaven.
The discipline of service is the road to humility. One cannot just plan to be humble. Seeking humility goes nowhere. But as soon as you seek to be a servant to another, you humble yourself. You place another before you and that is humility.
At the Last Supper, Jesus set this discipline before them. He first knelt down and washed their feet as did a house servant of that day did for their master when he come home from work. To be the greatest is to be the servant of all. He came to serve and not to be served.
To serve someone else does not automatically fulfill the discipline. One can serve with a desire of getting recognition for their work. This is not the type of service that Jesus is talking about. This is self-service. The need to be rewarded in any way, even just a kind word, is self-gratifying. This is another way of having control over when, where, and how you serve.
To be a servant of another is to be out of control of the situation. It means being called out of your routine schedule or plans and putting what is in front of you and serving another ahead of your own desires. What greater gift can a person give than to lay down their life for another? This is usually unplanned. Better yet, it is one thing to help someone you like or figure that you will get something in return. Help someone you do not like or know is unable to return the favor.
The beauty of this discipline is that it calls us out of ourselves. The desires of the flesh or world are in a constant pull for our attention. To serve God daily is to begin each day seeking to serve God anywhere that we can be of service. The emphasis is upon serving God. To serve the neighbor in the smallest of way is to serve God, even giving a drink of water to another.
Keeping God in the center of our thoughts is critical to this discipline. When we are able to do this we have a better chance of winning the tug-of-war with sinful selfishness and experiencing the joy of being in communion with God.
But to be clear, being a servant to another does not mean you will never be hood winked or walked on. Jesus was the greatest servant of all and it got him killed. But he did it out of love. The same is true for us. If we serve out of love and serve another with the understanding that we are serving God, and we are walked on, God will bless our humility. We will walk humbly with our God.
When I was young simplicity was easier. It wasn’t that I did not want or covet that which my friends had. Simplicity was easier because there seem to be less to want.
That being said there was one thing, as I got older, that I came to desire – nice clothes. The reason was that I wore my share of hand-me-down clothes. So, when kids at school had clothes from upscale stores, I envied them.
When I got older and was a DINK (Double Income No Kids) I sought to feed my passion. I decided that it was my turn to own nice clothing, and I did, but only for a short time. Because I learn quickly that happiness was not found in nice suits. I hated wearing a suit. Think of the times that you have seen me in a suit.
What I learned through that experience was happiness wasn’t found in things. Things can lift your spirits for a while, but the deeper joy of life is found in loving and serving God.
The emphasis is upon serving God. Simply leading a simple existence isn’t spiritual. In fact, self-righteousness can be born out of self-denial if is done for your own gain or self-importance. If you live a simple life as a way to make yourself appear holier than another, then it was not done as a spiritual discipline.
Scripture calls us to live our lives unto God and by living our life in service to God by serving our neighbor, we will know joy. The emphasis is upon pleasing God.
God warns against trying to find happiness in material things. You cannot serve God and mammon. This does not make mammon bad, but the worship of mammon is. To covet what our neighbor has is bad, but to take joy in our neighbors success in not. Our joy comes from loving God and neighbor. To love our neighbor is to wish the best for them and to help them as we are able.
Most of us do not live a pure life. We slip into greed all the time. Envy gets the best of us. To help us with this struggle, one might pause and reflect before we think that owning something will fulfill our hopes and dreams.
On my trip to Jerusalem in 2000 our tour guide told us that Bedouins had lived a simple life for decades – until. Until there were satellite television! Why was this so? Once they had a small television and small satellite dish, they experienced television commercials. We lust for that which we can see. As soon as they starting buying stuff, their ability to move around freely got harder and harder.
This is not to say that there were not people of wealth in the Bible. Abraham had a good bit but how he used it mattered. He saw it as something given by God and to be used for God. God was the centered of his concern.
In my older years, I have lost the lust for things as much as I used to have. Don’t get me wrong I do not lead a pure life. But I experience more peace with less. I am beginning to shed things that I thought I would never shed. In all fairness, I think it also goes with aging and children growing up. I might be wrong.
But I have known friends who have lived simpler life styles and devoted themselves to serving God. Their life is not without their struggles but when I speak to them, they are not as weighted down by wants and worries as my friends who are still in want of things.
But as Richard Foster says, it is less about the things and it is more about our love and devotion to God. When we place God first, the other falls in place.
Studying the word is one of my favorites. As a young boy, I have pondered God all my life. Delving into the word however difficult it can be at times delights me. My desire for learning grew out of wonder when listening to sermons. I could not always understand what was being taught or proclaimed. In addition, I was confused when my friends talked about other ways that people understood scripture. I was a slow reader and as a result, I flunked confirmation. That is correct. I flunked it but the pastor passed me because of my devotion to the church and my eagerness to learn. So when I say that I love this discipline I speak from deep within my soul. I will never learn enough and I will never stop searching.
But I need to add that this discipline alone is not enough. My desire to understand God intellectually hit a wall when my daughter had a brain tumor. At that moment when I learned of her condition, it didn’t matter how much I knew about scripture or God. I needed God’s presence and mercy to calm my soul, dry my tears, and come to my aid. He did! I learned through that experience about God’s love that comes through the people of God. God is not known alone with a book in a room. God is fully known and experienced in community.
That being said, study is repetition, concentration, and reflection. You can never read enough. The more you read the scriptures and books about the scriptures the more questions you will have. In fact, it is a quest. I know people who read the scripture daily is large bites and they are forever learning more. So the way to begin is just read. Read a Gospel or Letter from the New Testament. Read Genesis or Exodus! I assure you that after reading those two books, the rest of the Old Testament will forever will be referencing back to them. Read one of the prophets. Go to our church library and read a book that teaches ways to read the Bible. There are websites that can help you. One of my favorite is Enter the Bible. Google it and you will be amazed about how much information there is. Read, Read, Read. Repetition and concentration.
Reflection. Scripture is best understood when read with others. When you read with others you will see so much more through other people’s eyes who have read the very same thing and experienced it differently. Be open to hearing others and don’t be afraid to discuss your different understanding. There are no stupid questions. There is only a quest to know God. Ask questions of the text. Don’t just drink the cool aid. Drill down deeper and be bold in your exploration. God had big shoulders and a big heart. He delights in your desire to know Him better.
God is not just in a book. Look around you. Take a moment and explore your world. What does God’s creation tell you or teach you. Walk in the woods, look up in the sky, and look around you at all the people. God created all of this and God shines through all of it. Come to love it as God does. While this may not be seen as academic it is just as valuable to discovering God through your mind’s eye.
I have a disclaimer. Fasting is not a discipline that I have practiced much at all. One reason is that I have mild blood sugar issues that leave me very weak when I do not eat. But after reading Celebration of Disciplines I have discovered that I can partially practice this and I would like to try again. The author is clear about people, who cannot observe this discipline because of health reasons, not to do it. But for those who can, it is a great discipline that is mentioned often in scripture.
Fasting isn’t about losing weight or some fad. It is a spiritual discipline that helps us better appreciate our connectedness and need for God. It is a discipline mentioned my many people in the Old and New Testament, including Jesus. For centuries, fasting was part of the life of the church. But in these modern times, not so much.
Fasting is centered on God. No matter what other benefits come from it, spiritual fasting helps us realize that we do not live by bread alone. We live by the God’s word alone. In fact, fasting can be seen as feasting on the word. For as we fast, we meet Jesus in the word. We discover our hunger for him when need for food is out of mind.
There are many ways that people have fasted. Since I have not practiced this discipline to any real depth, I am limited by what I read. What I have learned is some fast from lunch to lunch. This is best for beginners. Others have stretched it out to three days, while others have gone a week. But always be sure to drink plenty of water. In fact I would strongly recommend to speak to someone who has done it before. My best efforts may include cutting out a meal each day for a period of time.
My desire as I try again is that I am made mindful of God grace through providing me with my needs which I may not otherwise be aware as I feed my stomach.
Meditation has a greater emphasis on listening. Prayer is a learned conversation taught to us by God. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray and his answer was our Lord’s Prayer. But Jesus did much more. He modeled prayer. My experience is prayer is more about a change in me, but that is not to say that God cannot change the world around me. God ask us to knock and request our needs and the needs of others. It is as if God expects us to pray and by practicing pray we discover just all that he will do in our behalf. Jesus prayed over the disciples and even promised to pray over all of us. When I think about Jesus praying to the Father in my behalf, I am strengthened for the road ahead of me. If we do not believe that God will listen to us then prayer will not last. But I think it is important for us to look to see if God is answering our prayer. Out first notion of an answered prayer is the beginning of hope filled life. The more I pray; the more I am encouraged to pray. I am at a stage in my life that I wear his ears out. Do…
- What one simple thing would you like to pray for to God? Pray it.
- When you pray do you expect God to listen and respond? If God ask us to pray, then why should we think otherwise? Be bold in prayer, but be willing to change you thoughts and ways to God’s way so that your desires align with his.
- Know that God is praying for you when you can’t find the words to say. At those times just sit with him. Let him speak for you.
- If you pray for something and you never get an answer or the answer that you wanted, maybe the next prayer is to ask why.
- Praise God in pray even when everything isn’t going your way.
The purpose of meditation is not to get away from life but to be alone with God.
The practice of meditation is foreign to many but to those who even dip their toes into the water of this discipline have found it to be as important as breathing. At its core, meditation is pulling away from life to be with God. Jesus himself did this. It short, it helps strengthen your connection to the heart of God’s desire for your life.
The easiest way to start is just to do it. As you practice it more and more your will discover your own particular way that best works for you. While there are many models to follow, do not fall into the trap of trying to do it just like someone else. Be honest with yourself and listen to yourself. I am guilty of trying to follow someone else’s ways and have failed miserably. The moment that I found my way through practice (trial and error), I became in love with meditation.
The goal of meditation is not about controlling the outcome or using your analytical mind to figure out something. It is more about listening or observing. It is about being quiet and letting God minister to you.
Here is a short list of things that have worked for me. But again, you must find out what works for you.
- Finding a time and place to pull away. At first, I was more rigid about my time and place. With time and practice, I am more free flowing in my practice. But most important is being intentional. Because it is so important to me, intentionality is like eating. I know when I am hungry or even starving at times. But a regular practice is usually healthier.
- Some places that I have used are sitting in my backyard, a quiet room in my house, driving down the road with the radio off, when I exercise, after reading a piece of scripture, in my office, on a walk, at my child’s practice field, in the sanctuary, lying awake at night, etc.
- Don’t punish yourself when you miss a day, even a few days or a week. Come back to it to enjoy. The joy of doing it will draw you deeper into it.
- Don’t expect your time listening to God to always reveal some great truth. More often than not, it will not be that way. Rather consider it more like sitting with a friend. The visit was plenty.
- The things that I discover in my meditation are usually for me, but there are occasions that I share them with others. But when I do share them, it is only to share. They are not to defend or prescribe.