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Just before Advent I did a series on the importance of the Spiritual Disciplines, or Holy Habits, in our spiritual formation. I introduced the idea of abiding in Jesus and how the Disciplines help us to do that, I wrote of why it is important to abide in Jesus in our daily lives here and here, and I articulated how abiding in our daily lives helps us when the storms come here and here.
But what are these Holy Habits? If they truly are essential to our becoming like Jesus, how do we weave them all through our days so that we are awakened to the promised presence of God in our lives?
I’m going to begin with a couple of disclaimers.
First, this is a very brief overview. If you want to go more in depth (and I pray that you do!), I would encourage you to read Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. Most of the ideas in these next three posts on some specific Disciplines are from his seminal book, and he writes with much more wisdom and knowledge than I.
Second, you should not try to cram all of the Disciplines into your life at once. Try one or two at a time and find what fits best with your personality, with the way God created you. Once you are comfortable with a few, stretch yourself once in a while and try one that challenges you.
Now that I have dispensed with those, I hope you will stay with me as I take the next three weeks to briefly describe several of the Disciplines. These posts will be meaty, and I probably will not try to weave art throughout as is my wont. After these three weeks, I will return to my normal style. There are, of course, more Spiritual Disciplines than those I will write about. These Holy Habits are simply the things that Jesus did while walking through this life. These Spiritual Disciplines are our way of imitating Christ.
Let us leave surface living to move into the depths of God.
Our world is full of busyness, full of hurrying, full of distraction. If we are to move deeper into the things of God, we must learn the Discipline of meditation. Foster describes Christian meditation as the ability to hear God’s voice and obey His word. We engage in specific meditation exercises at specific times, but for the aim of bringing that reality into all of life.
It is helpful to practice this Discipline every day, for it does take Discipline and practice to get better at focusing yourself. Find a quiet place, free from distractions. Find a position that is comfortable. Sometimes you can close your eyes; other times you can look at nature or other works of beauty.
Meditation on Scripture is a good way to begin. Take a verse, or a phrase, or even a single word, and dwell on it. Mull it over. Seek to hear the God who spoke that word speak to you. Use your imagination to place yourself in the scene.
There are more ways of meditating, and Foster describes them in detail. Most of all, be patient with yourself. You are swimming against the tide of culture. It is well worth it.
Prayer is one of the non-negotiable Holy Habits.
Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us…The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ. ~ Foster
In his book, Foster sticks with intercessory prayer (praying for others) while acknowledging that there are many other forms of prayer.
We must learn to pray. It does not come naturally. You are free to question, experiment, even fail. I must admit to you that intercessory prayer is a very difficult thing for me. I have seen many prayers go unanswered, at least in the way that I and those who prayed with me hoped, so I will admit that I do not understand this kind of prayer. I can only, in this space, summarize what Foster says and let you question and experiment and come to your own conclusions.
Once we understand that praying involves a learning process, we are able to continue to try without giving up. If our requests are not granted, we seek to discover what went wrong, whether we prayed wrongly, or something within us needs changing, or persistence is needed. Then we try again.
One of the most important pieces of learning to pray is listening. If we are not listening to God, are not attune to His Spirit, our prayers are vain repetitions. Foster says that as we listen, as we meditate, it is when we have an inner sense of compassion rise up, a compulsion to intercede, that we have a yes from God to pray for the person.
Pray simply. Pray while imagining a healed situation. Pray while imagining Jesus standing over the person and healing them. Every night I have begun to go in to each of my children while they are sleeping, place my hand on them, and ask Jesus to flow through my hand and heal any emotional trauma and hurt feeling they might have received that day. It is, I suppose, my current experiment.
Our culture today is completely opposed to any form of self-denial. Fasting, therefore, unless done as a form of weight loss, seems obsolete. Jesus, however, seems to assume that those of us who follow Him will fast regularly (although it is not explicitly commanded). There are both full fasts (abstaining from all food and drink except for water) and partial fasts (a restriction of diet but not total abstention) mentioned in the Bible. Mostly fasting is private, except for a few times of public fasts for specific purposes.
Fasting must center on God. It must above all be God-initiated and God-focused. Secondary benefits must never replace God as the center. Foster writes that more than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is hugely helpful for us who want to be controlled by the Spirit alone. Fasting is a reminder that God alone sustains us.
Begin slowly if you have never fasted before. Try a partial 24 hour fast, perhaps from lunch to lunch, which would mean that you are only skipping two meals, and drink fruit juices. As you go about your normal day while fasting, pray and worship. Make every task sacred by the hunger you feel; allow your physical hunger to awaken you to the presence of God. After trying a partial fast several times, try a normal 24 hour fast. Drink only water, but lots of it. If you can, use your meal time for meditation and prayer.
If you feel that God is calling you to a longer fast after this, I would use the recommendations in Celebration of Discipline as a guideline.
Lastly for this week is the Discipline of study. Paul says in Romans that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Discipline of study is the primary way in which we renew our minds in order to transform them. If we do not know the truth of God, if we do not know Him and His promises through the study of His Word, we cannot be changed to look like Him.
Foster writes of four steps of study. First is repetition, which regularly channels the mind in a specific direction. Second is concentration, which centers the mind and focuses the attention on what is being studied. Comprehension is the third, which brings us to a new level of insight and discernment. The last step is reflection, which defines the significance of what we are studying and allows us to see things from God’s perspective. All of this requires humility, the acknowledgement that we are only the student, dependent on God for understanding and insight.
Study is different from devotional reading. Study seeks to understand what the Scripture means; devotional reading seeks to apply what it means to me.
There are many methods of study. Take a major book of the Bible and read it straight through, noticing the structure and flow of the book. Jot down thoughts and areas of difficulty to return to later. Take a smaller book and read it through each day for a month. Write down what you find. Use Bible dictionaries and commentaries, many of which can be found online or at your library. Study some of the classics of Christian literature. Once again, Foster gives many more ideas for how to practice the Discipline of study which I do not have the space or inclination to repeat.
Still with me? These are all Disciplines that Foster categorized as “Inward Disciplines”. Next week I’ll summarize the “Outward Disciplines”. I pray you will meet me here.