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Living with Disciplined Intent
Welcome to this the tenth lecture in this course entitled Dynamics of Christian Spirituality – A Theology of Prayer and the Christian Life. We have covered considerable territory. In the first lecture we started with an overview of the whole thing. In the second we looked at the history of Christian spirituality, how the great cloud of witnesses has sought after God and the things of God and the different insights they continue to provide for us today as a rich resource. And then with two lectures a piece we looked more carefully at each of the three essential dynamics of Christian spirituality, the relational, the transformational and the vocational. In the last lecture which was called an integrated spirituality, we considered how important it is that we give attention to all three of these dynamics noting that the Holy Spirit himself is always nudging us and encouraging us to grow in each one of these three areas, but they are so interconnected that we dare not focus on one at the expense of any of the others, all three are vitally important. And that leads us today to the topic of Living with Disciplined Intent. And our key verse for this tenth and last lecture is found in 1 Timothy 4:15 where we read these words of the Apostle Paul to young Timothy, “Be diligent in these matters, give yourself wholly, entirely to them”. As we begin, let us pray again. Father in Heaven, infuse our hearts with a determination to make this pursuit the most important thing in our lives. Give us the determination, give us the spiritual strength to make this our priority in life. And now may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together be pleasing in your sight and nourishing to our souls. In the name of Christ, Amen.
There is a line of very impressive buildings and public spaces that run in a north-south direction right through the heart of Beijing, China. This central axis of Chinese history and culture includes the forbidden city which for centuries was the fortified palace residence of China’s emperors. The temple of Shangdi , the supreme god of ancient Chinese religion, is also here and that temple has been of such significance to China that it survived even the cultural revolution’s wholesale attack on religious faith. And then there is Tiananmen Square, the vast central gathering place of the new People’s Republic of China. I arrived at that square at dusk one evening just before dark. A soldier stood guard at a flagpole as a large crowd of patriotic Chinese gathered for the lowering of the flag at day’s end. At one end of Tiananmen Square in the distance Chairman Mao Zedong's body lay in state and high on the tiled roofed red wall along the opposite side of the square just above us hung his massive picture, his portrait. In a nation of over a billion citizens, this man stands alone. His name and his picture have become symbols of China. As I looked at this memorial to China’s revolutionary hero my thoughts turned to another Chinese citizen whose greatness is largely overlooked by the world. Somewhere in the surrounding drab sprawl of low budget, weather stained apartments an elderly Chinese man lived out his final days in relative obscurity and hiddeness. At one time, Wang Mingdao, who lived from 1901 to 1991, was one of China’s most prominent preachers. Like so many other believers in this large, large nation he was persecuted by the communists who came to power in their revolutionary victory of 1949. He was persecuted for his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the government’s authority over the church of Christ. He was imprisoned. He was subjected during his jail time to intense, unrelenting abuse, ideological and psychological. Eventually in 1956 this Christian leader, who was nicknamed Iron Wang for his lifelong toughness, this leader despite his nickname broke down, he confessed his errors and renounced his Christian convictions. He was released a broken man. By all accounts the atheist government had won. But, it was not the end for Wang Mingdao. Overcome with remorse, he claimed the grace of God’s forgiveness and renounced the compromises he had previously made. He rebounded like Lazarus from the grave. He was promptly arrested again. He and his wife, Jingwen, were sent back to prison for years to come. But this time he stood firm, he was resilient; he suffered greatly until his release as an old man in 1979. Now, not all Chinese Christians supported Wang’s convictions, but his defiance of the secular powers was a powerful inspiration to the rapidly growing Chinese house church movement of the twentieth century. His life is a challenge to be faithful to the calling we receive, not necessarily the calling we might choose. He is a reminder that faithfulness is not always easy, yet the discipline of being faithful will make us, like it made Wang Mingdao, changed people.
Now, North Americans are great travelers; they are not the only ones of course, but they are among the great travelers. The long journey is a central idea in their minds. Americans celebrate many journeys and many highways like the Canadian TransCanada highway that goes from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There are a number of novelists, book writers, storytellers who capture this, and there are many songs about the freedom of the open road where you can get out on the highway far from the city and roll down the windows and let the wind blow through your hair as you drive off in complete freedom. These are popular ideas, but what is interesting is that journeys, or pilgrimages, are also central themes in the Bible. You will recall that Abraham followed the call of God and set out in obedience from his hometown on the Euphrates River in modern day Iraq. He lived in tents and journeyed all his life and his descendants, the Jews, escaped from slavery in Egypt squeezing through a water-walled canyon in the Red Sea. Their exodus journey became the central metaphor of salvation, and in the centuries that followed their devout descendants, their hearts set on pilgrimage, rallied annually in Jerusalem to celebrate the high festivals together. Jesus never invited his disciples to adopt a comfortable sitting position for very long. His call was to movement, to follow him. The Apostle Paul saw the Christian life this way as well. He said in Philippians chapter 3, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,” he said, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus”. In calling them to do the same, the Apostle Paul urged believers to keep in step with the Spirit, keep moving with the Spirit. But you know, the most important journey a Christian takes is never measured in miles or kilometers, it is not even one that crosses land or sea or geographic territory then, it is rather an inward journey, the journey from the head to the heart. It is the journey from knowledge to experience, from a mere mental or intellectual awareness of truth to its deep internalization and implementation and actualization in our relationships, our souls and the ways we invest our lives. This is where, as we say, “the rubber meets the road”. Donald Coggan, a former arch bishop of Canterbury, the leader of all the Anglican churches in the world, he put the challenge we are talking about here very succinctly when he noted that the journey from the head to the heart is one of the longest and most difficult we know. It is interesting isn’t it? The journey from the head to the heart is really only about half a meter at the most, half a meter, a few inches, but it is a long and difficult journey. To take what is in the head and get it down into the heart where it can change everything. I cannot think of a single giant of Christian spirituality who would disagree with the statement by this former arch bishop of Canterbury. John Calvin was a theologian of great intelligence and a large mind. In his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is really the number one theology text book of the entire reformation, there John Calvin acknowledged that truth must never be allowed to merely flit about in the brain like a little butterfly or a fly. No, he said, it must take deep root in the soul. And likewise Ignatius of Loyola at the beginning of his famous book, Spiritual Exercises, reminds his readers that what fills and satisfies the soul consists not in knowing much but in our understanding the realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly on the inside. Yes, it is not how much we know that matters ultimately, but whether we deeply understand the things we know and can enjoy and savor and meditate on them deep within our hearts.
Now, so far this course has been almost completely informational. It has provided knowledge; it has provided a way of seeing the topic of Christian spirituality. We have been trying to make sense out of what the Christian life is all about. However, the goal of Christian spirituality lies beyond understanding what it means to live all of life before God, to understand this is only a means to an end. The higher goal is to experience these things in our life. Understanding the dynamics of Christian spirituality gives us something to aim for and that is a good start, but it is only a start. We need to make real progress toward the goal. There are many ways to make coffee. In our home we enjoy coffee a great deal, especially coffee from Brazil or Ethiopia or Columbia or some of these great countries. We usually prepare ours by dripping hot water through a cone-shaped coffee filter full of ground up coffee. But recently one of our daughters gave us a new gadget, a new toy for Christmas. It is a coffeemaker that uses a plunger. The official name for this particular kind of coffeemaker is a French press. It pushes fresh ground coffee forcibly down through boiling hot water and the result is a rich coffee brew, perhaps the best there is. That is a lot like it has to be with the truths of the spiritual life, they have to be pressed down hard into our hearts in such a way that things really do become new and different; otherwise, our experience will remain thin and weak, barely changed at all and lacking the tell-tale aroma of God. Truth must be pushed down until it becomes internalized, deeply rooted in the soil of the soul, shaping our habits and involuntary responses, altering the default settings of our hearts and minds.
Now, I think one of the most important things to realize is that spirituality is more than just an option for Christians, it is absolutely essential. Let me explain. We have to start thinking about spirituality in a new way. The problem is that it is frequently regarded as an option for believers. It is considered a good thing, sure, it is a good thing, especially for some people, but so many times we view it as less than necessary for everyone. It is welcomed as a healthy pursuit for a subset of Christians who happen to be into that sort of thing. They are inclined toward spirituality but it is not for everybody in the church. Well, correcting this misperception, this error in thinking is absolutely crucial. We have not wanted to say that our salvation, and in this sense salvation is a code word for guaranteed admission to heaven, we have not wanted to say that our admission to heaven depends on diligently focusing on living a spiritual life. We have not wanted to say that because it sounds like works, you see? Sometime Evangelicals commend spirituality by saying, “Well, you see, if we are spiritual people our godly lives will give credibility and lend power to our task of witnessing and sharing the Gospel”. So, our spirituality helps us be more affective in evangelism. Then again, all too often Christian church leaders who are just so frustrated by the weak level of morality or Christian spirituality in the church will try to promote spirituality by making lukewarm Christians feel guilty and ashamed of themselves. These are not the best ways to encourage Christian spirituality. You know, the problem is that none of the dynamics of Christian spirituality, the relational, the transformational, the vocational touches directly what many Evangelical Christians assume are the mechanics of getting and staying saved. For us the heart of salvation is thought to be justification by faith alone. By faith we preach, sinners acquire eternal life. Ultimately then, salvation is a matter of position being viewed just as though we have never sinned. It is a matter of status; I belong to God by faith in Christ. And everything else like spirituality is optional, it is icing on the cake, it is nice stuff but is not essential, that is the way to think. Well, I think there is a better way to view this matter. It starts with realizing that our salvation involves justification, but it involves more than just the legal transaction, the legal decision we call justification. We certainly should celebrate being justified and declared righteous in God’s eyes by our faith in Christ alone. This is a gospel truth that frees our hearts, yes, and it gives us confidence before God indeed, but we undermine authentic spirituality when we make justification by faith the central idea in our understanding of the Christian life. We need to see justification as one important aspect of something even more central. And what is even more central? Our supernatural union with Christ through the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, that supernatural union whereby we are joined to the vine as vine and branches, that supernatural union whereby we are in Christ and Christ is in us. That is what I am talking about and that, according to the Scripture, seems to be the central thing. And so, when you start to see union with Christ as central, then you can no longer be indifferent or ignore the godly impulses, the godly power that flows into our lives. Indeed to ignore that is very dangerous and we can see that in reality. Ignoring or opposing these impulses of God’s spirit in our heart now that we have been united to Christ will only undermine or delay or hurt his saving activity in our lives. I mention saving activity, obviously salvation in the New Testament sense is about more than future blessings. It includes those, but it is about more than that. Salvation in the fullest sense is God’s campaign to deliver us from the power and the effects of sin as well. It is a campaign that is already underway. It is supposed to begin making a positive difference right now. As a result of our union with Christ, God’s life begins flowing into our own and the process of salvation, God’s campaign to deliver us from the power and effects of sin, is launched here and now and our Christian spirituality is part of how that campaign goes forward.
Let’s talk about a passion for spirituality. The mystical town of Assisi has a kind of transcendent spirit to it as it rises above the fertile plain of Umbria in the middle of Italy. It is now one of the most respected and revered locations in all the Christian world. It was here that Francis back in the, well he lived from 1182 to 1226, a long time ago, it was here that Francis the privileged son of a wealthy merchant once lived. Here he played and fought at dives alongside his friends. But one day as a young adult he had a powerful vision of God and chose to pursue his new call with his whole heart. He had a charismatic personality, he had a natural gift of leadership, and before long an eager band of friends of his rallied around him to form what became the Franciscan Order. Francis’ extravagant generosity toward the poor put him on a collision course with his frustrated father who feared that the family fortune would be squandered by Francis and all these poor people who kept showing up. Well, climbing up through the steep cobblestone paths of Assisi one day, huffing for breath as I did, I thought about the day almost a thousand years earlier when Francis publically renounced his family’s wealth. He had chosen in his dramatic way to take off all his clothes and stand naked in the town square as a public declaration of his resolve, his decision to give up everything to pursue God and God’s best. And from then on he and his friends had to beg for their food and basic needs as they cheerfully served others. This was the beginning of a radical discipleship that changed the face of the church in the middle ages. You see, the passion for God of Francis of Assisi and of Wang Mingdao and others like them challenges us. We are reminded that authentic spirituality is often costly and countercultural for it requires that we keep ourselves from being polluted by the world as James put it in James 1:27. We have to be prepared to live as resident aliens, not as citizens. Perhaps it is time for a new monasticism, a fresh way of living in opposition to the polluting influences of our mainstream cultures.
My wife and I began to think about studying in Scotland while we lived in Canada. The more we talked about it the more it became a dream we shared. Eventually some tough decisions had to be made. My wife Kate was pregnant. We had considered using our modest savings to make a down payment on a house in Vancouver’s rising real estate market, but decided in the end to put all the savings we had into our overseas study fund. We also added a little inheritance that had been left to us by a great aunt. In response to our critics we announced bravely that we were prepared if necessary never to have our own home. Then we sold our car. Then I remembered actually crying as the new owner drove it away. I should not have been so attached to a vehicle but I was. And there we were, left with a few pieces of luggage. We headed for the airport and our flight across the ocean. For the next three years we walked places or took the bus, we gave up eating meat, most often for a steady diet of eggs and we celebrated our wedding anniversary by sharing a can of Coca-Cola. We were poor but we were living our dream. Now, after a year we came back home to Canada to show off our little newborn daughter to her grandparents and other family members. One night we were having dinner with some friends. Now he had a great job as an executive in a big corporation. Their new home was huge and it was very elegantly decorated. There was a luxury car in the garage and a nice minivan in the driveway. Over dessert my friend turned and said, “You know, we would give everything to do what you guys are doing.” Well, it is always nice to hear your friends support your big decisions, I appreciated that, but I could not help thinking to myself, that is interesting, giving everything, that is exactly what it is costing us. Everything has its price and church history suggests that the spiritual life is no exception. Dissatisfaction with mainstream life can lead some to despair, but for others it can prompt us or be a stimulus toward a radically different set of values. The spiritual journey from head to heart requires a passion for the real thing. It is hard, Jesus said, for those who are rich, for those who are already comfortable. He says this in Matthew 19:23. But there is a future for anyone who is willing, if called upon, to give up everything. How deeply do we want to experience authentic spirituality? How high a priority is it going to be for us? Life has a curious way of delivering what really means the most to us. The obituary, the report on our death that someone will read at my funeral will reflect the things that were most important to me while I lived. If this is so, or since this is so, we can see what A. W. Tozer meant when he claimed that each one of us is as spiritual as we really want to be. This is where disciplined intention comes in. Neither our natural dispositions nor the contemporary environment today is conducive or encourages the cultivation of the spiritual life. As a result discipline becomes so important, discipline, the business of firmly resisting and restraining these powerful, negative forces in our lives. Dallas Willard forcefully insists on this. He says, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning our salvation, it cannot be earned, but the life of a Christian is not without effort.” His distinction between effort and earning is well worth pondering. It is true that our salvation can never be earned, but too many have mistakenly assumed that because grace is free no exertion is required of us to live the Christian life and this is simply untrue. We are called to participate with all our hearts in the purposes of God for us and the world. And it is precisely because God is already at work in us that we, as it says in Philippians, are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Living with disciplined intent must begin with creating space for God. We cannot by ourselves create or demand a relationship with God, but we can position ourselves in ways that are welcoming toward him. We can realign our priorities. We can clear out some of the clutter, the silly and relentless busyness, some of the distractions, all these layers of superficiality that get in the road of authentic life in the Spirit. We can never, of course, make God come and renew us. We can only extend our heartfelt welcome and wait, yet, we can do so with patient anticipation knowing that he desires relationship as well. You know, reaching up in a posture of invitation requires that we practice the Sabbath principle. Strict observance of the Sabbath day, which is Saturday now, is obsolete for Christians, but the value of a day of common pause which traditionally has been Sunday, a day of common pause continues and the Sabbath principle, which is a principle rather than a day and is not tied to the weekly calendar at all, the Sabbath principle is certainly still in effect. Our world today is not very welcoming to the idea of cultivating life in the Spirit and it is easy for us to underestimate how seductive the social environment is. It is easy to underestimate how many ways it keeps us distracted from the truly important issues of life. Sadly, many people of moving toward eternity without any appropriate focus on what is really important. Jesus accepted the rhythms of human life before God and he paused from time to time to reconnect, to be renewed and to regain perspective. We must learn again to be still and attentive. It is a discipline of faith to trust that our needs will be take care of even if we pause for a moment and allow the competition to run ahead. Yet, there are such compensating benefits to setting aside all our hyper-activism, withdrawing from our otherwise caffeinated, hyper-caffeinated existence and choosing to live the Sabbath principle before God.
There are at least three kinds of space we can create for God. The first is chronological space and by chronological space I mean simply setting aside the time necessary for a relationship to God and the experiencing of his renewing touch and guiding command. Chronological space or time is difficult to create because our lives are already full. Often it takes something drastic like an illness putting us flat on our backs or maybe losing our jobs to slow us down; otherwise, every moment is filled with what can be easily justified as useful and necessary activity. Our first reaction is to try to create space by cranking up the intensity of our lives one more notch. It is like adding more pounds of air pressure to a already fully inflated tire. You know the only real solution comes through giving something up through relinquishment. We have to decide what we will give up in order to create chronological space. Something has to be subtracted. This is the hardest but perhaps the most important aspect of the matter. The second kind of space we need to carve out is psychological space. It is pointless to set aside time for God if other things continue to dominate our consciousness and distract us from the relationship with him. It is not enough to sit down and pray if our minds just flood with items on our things to do list. I can recall one of my theology professors years ago explaining with respect to worship – that it is not enough to attend church on Sunday morning, we also need to get to bed at a reasonable hour on Saturday night so that we might enter into Sunday worship with a clear, well-rested and focused consciousness. That is just one example of how psychological space is created. The third variety is physical space. We are earthlings, tethered to this planet, the earth, and our physical location affects our lives with God. We cannot engage very well in extended prayer with the television on, for example. We cannot hope to get very far if we feel obliged to answer all our incoming cell phone calls or at least check the number to see who it is. No, I know a hardworking mother of young children whose only escape from the endless demands of the home is to hide for short spaces of time in the darkness of her bedroom closet, and there huddled in that little tiny space she connects with God. Some of us may find a particular environment, whether that is outdoors with nature or in a church sanctuary rich in symbols and beauty, we find a particular environment conducive to communion with God. Others of us have a special place they like to return to for important times of prayer, a particular chair near the window perhaps or under a favorite tree on a cliff overlooking the ocean, or the city, or whatever. They find that doing so helps them to center in on their relationship with God. It requires self-discipline, it requires adjusted priorities, it requires the relinquishment of old habits to create space for God. It is difficult to make the necessary changes but great is the benefit of stepping off the treadmill and paying attention to the things that matter most.
Let’s consider the matter of reading the Bible and in particular reading the Bible slowly. The Evangelical tradition is Bible-centered and a daily quiet time for personal Bible reading and prayer is perhaps our main spiritual discipline. For this reason something needs to be said about the meditative use of the Bible as an aid to spirituality. We must learn to read the Bible in a way that nourishes all three dynamics. Christians have worked hard to develop good and proper approaches to Bible study. We have adopted good methods for interpreting the Bible correctly and over the years we have used a rather sophisticated set of scholarly tools to help us like commentaries and concordances to name just two. Our goal has been to discover the truth, not invent it. Yet despite its positive achievements the normal methods of Bible study by themselves have not served the church as well as one might hope. Some of these normal methods of Bible study, which use what is called the historical grammatical method of biblical scholarship, they can actually damage the vitality of the church because of their deficiencies in encouraging three things. Their deficiencies in encouraging encounter with God, personal formation and practical application. If I were to paraphrase the famous handwriting on the wall of King Belshazzar’s Babylonian palace, these methods of Bible study have been weighed in the scales and found deficient or wanting. The spiritual instincts of the people of God cannot be satisfied with an approach to the Bible that fails to connect its readers directly with God, an approach that minimizes personal formation and fades out when it comes to making practical applications. Fortunately there is an alternative approach, which is not new really but rather a rediscovery of a old and respected tradition of encountering God’s word. This approach goes by a number of names including a meditative approach to scripture or the spiritual reading of the Bible. Now, perhaps you have heard of the famous comedian, the Jewish comedian, Woody Allen. He tells the story of how some years ago, when it was a very popular idea, he learned to speed read, that is right to speed read, to read very fast. So having taken the training he tried out his new skills on Leo Tolstoy the great Russian novelist, his great novel, big, thick novel, called War and Peace. Wood Allen breezed through this massive book, he said, in about thirty seconds. Thirty seconds. Looking up afterward he reported on what he had gleamed from this thirty seconds of reading. The book, he said, is about Russia. That is all he could say. By contrast, the spiritual reading approach to the Bible, which emerged early on in the history of Christianity in the Benedictine tradition of divine reading, this spiritual reading approach to the Bible is characterized by unhurried, reflective consideration. It is about the slow reading of Scripture. Through its posture of silent, attentive listening, the meditative approach to Scripture opens the reader up to the quiet voice of God. It sets a tone of humility and receptivity rather than one of assertiveness and control. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, like many others recommended this approach. He claimed that is was the best way to wait for the word to address us personally. In Life Together, his little classic on Christian community, Bonhoeffer warns against neglecting to listen for the living voice of God. The unacceptable alternative is just to chatter on in God’s neglected presence. The Bible is a collection of God’s past communication and where God has already spoken is a logical place to look for him to continue to speak. Meditating on Scripture makes sense for another reason; it helps us internalize the truth. The goal here is not to discover new thoughts but to allow familiar or neglected ones to penetrate our hearts. So, the literature on spiritual reading is full of imagery of slow chewing and slow digestion. The Anglican prayer book, for example, includes a prayer that we may inwardly digest God’s word. We do not always find this easy, it is a radical suggestion for us to read and to be formed and transformed rather than gather information. We are information seekers, we love to cover territory. Finally, meditation on Scripture creates a context in which it is possible to develop creative connections between what the Bible is saying and our immediate life situation. This dovetails with an emerging awareness these days that the significance of a particular scripture is not so much in the text itself as it is discovered in the interaction between the inspired text and my reality as a reader. In other words, it is in this living dynamic interaction between inspired ancient writing and the things that are happening in the reader’s situation right now. If our imaginations have been thoroughly baptized into the larger truth structure of Scripture, if we live and think in the biblical world we will have a kind of protective firewall against misleading ideas coming into our minds. It was Bonhoeffer who forcefully criticized the common way in which sermon-building preachers deflect away the pointed message of the Bible from themselves. “Do not ask how you should tell it to others”, he urges pastors, “but ask what the Bible is telling you”. Good advice. It is important; therefore, to keep from reading only for information or merely to perform our official ministry duties, otherwise, it is almost impossible to listen to what God may be saying to us personally. The link between what a text composed perhaps thousands of years ago in the ancient near east meant at the time and what it now signifies in our personal situation today is not according to some straightforward logical circuitry, it is not a simple matter of connecting the dots on the page. No, we need the spirit’s guidance as we venture beyond the texts historical setting to its present day application to us. And the spiritual reading of Scripture addresses this by giving God room to speak. This spiritually expectant approach to Scripture which I have been commending has long been celebrated in our songs of worship. For example, in the hymn Break Thou the Bread of Life, Mary Lathbury and Alexander Groves wrote, “Beyond the sacred page I seek thee, Lord; my spirit pants for thee, O Living Word!” This lyrical phrase expresses very well the pattern of going to the word, not as an end in itself but so that through it we might connect with God and his transforming touch and his guiding voice.
Now a brief word about the classic spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are time-honored practices that help us create space for God, internalize his truth and obey him with courage and consistency. These disciplines, it is very important to underscore, are not self-improvement techniques, rather they are ways in which we try to cooperate with the movement of the spirit in our lives. Perhaps just a little bit of pastoral advice is appropriate here. Each one of us must find out which disciplines work best for us as unique individuals. This is not the same as saying that everybody should gravitate to what they find easiest. No, because often God challenges us at the points of our weaknesses, but we should be attentive to which disciplines seem to be most satisfying and most fruitful for us as individuals. And second, we should not be so ambitious as to set ourselves up for failure. It is better to attempt baby steps than giant leaps forward. And try not to be too hard on yourself when your humanness shows through. Remember, as a follower of Jesus you are invited to join a religion totally immersed in grace. Many outstanding resources dealing with spiritual disciplines, there is a lavish number of them really, these resources are readily available today. Even if it were desirable, though, it would be impossible to summarize here all the insights they contain. It will be enough to note that they start with a firm resolve to take advantage of the means of grace by engaging in consistent prayer, meditating on Scripture, listing to the Word as it is preached with integrity, accessing the ordinance, the sacraments of the church, regularly confessing ones sins, singing edifying songs and hymns and joining regularly with other believers in worship, fellowship and service. Those are the basic things that we all should be doing, but there are a myriad of classic disciplines as well. There is meditation, contemplation, self-examination and confession, fasting, journaling, retreats and simplicity to list just some. All these disciplines share some common purposes. They make us more attentive to the presence and leading of God. They allow God’s truth to take deep and enduring root in our souls and like the plunger in a French coffeemaker they push it down from our heads into our hearts and out from there to guide our hands and our feet. Now, some disciplines address in a special way our chronic struggle with the inward curve, the selfish inward curve of our human natures. They help us open up space for other people in our lives. They are medicine for our predisposition to be totally self-absorbed. Hospitality and neighborliness are two important examples. The discipline of generosity which also enlarges our hearts and widens our horizons is another. These spiritual disciplines include taking advantage of spiritual directors and mentors and friends. “Soul friendships are special gifts for to them, those friends”, David Benner explains, “I am able to bring my whole self, especially my inner self”. It is humbling, in a healthy sense, to discover how much our spiritual lives are dependent upon and enriched by the contributions of others. Augustine understood very clearly the communal nature of Christian existence. “Shared was our loss”, he explained referring to, of course, the fall of Adam and Eve, “shared was our loss and shared be our finding. We fell together and we must recover together”. His idea for Christian community was summed up in an eloquent phrase, “one soul and one heart intent upon God”. Finally, there will be a place for developing a personal rule of life, a rule of life after growing in our self-understanding, after listening to godly mentors and after weighing the deepest desires of our hearts, it is appropriate to establish a flexible yet deliberate plan of action for the cultivating of our own personal spirituality. This is a discipline of a personal rule. Now, there is freedom here in all of this to choose what is most compatible with your own temperament and inclinations. Some, for example, may find that fasting brings clarity to their thought and deeper spiritual wisdom, but for others fasting brings only fatigue. But again, depending on our makeup music may or may not figure large in our personal rule. Connecting with God’s creation will be more soul-nourishing for some than for others. We will be drawn to a greater or lesser extent to the power of liturgy, symbolism, even architectural settings. We all require companionship and solitude, but we will gravitate to different mixtures of these essential ingredients. There is freedom here. But a final word on the unexpected disciplines. So far we have been considering the classic spiritual disciplines, but sometimes the discipline God allows into our lives is highly individualized and determined by our unique circumstances. We may have been injured in a traffic accident or we may lose our job or become obliged to care for an aging invalid relative. We should not curse these events as bad luck or become embittered by them. Even through such highly undesirable experiences the dynamics of Christian spirituality can flourish in new ways. In all such forms of suffering God is still compassionately at work salvaging good for those who love him. This is what he assures us in Romans 8:28. These unique circumstantial disciplines are like refining fires that produce qualities of character within us that are of enduring value to God’s glory. Their ultimate purpose is to see the relational disposition, the moral character and the purposeful actions of Christ mirrored in his resilient followers. With this we conclude our course. God has invited us to experience the fullness of all this by living our lives as Wang Mingdao lived his, with disciplined intent. A great deal hinges on our response to God’s invitation to do so.
As always I have some helpful guides to suggest, and the first of these is Francis de Sales who lived from 1567 to 1622. De Sales, whom we introduced earlier in this lecture series, was a leader in a spiritual renewal movement that emerged as a counterpoint to the often violent post-reformation religious conflicts in Europe. He wrote a treatise entitled On the Love of God which explored what it means to love God fervently, but his most significant legacy has been enduring classic Introduction to the Devout Life. In it de Sales offers many doable spiritual exercises that appeal to the mind, the emotions and the will as means of internalizing truth. Another pair in this case of helpful guides is John and his brother Charles Wesley who lived almost the entirety of the 18th century. The Wesley brothers were leaders in the Great Awakening and co-founders of Methodism. John remains an inspirational example by his joyfully disciplined life, attentiveness to formation in small groups, or classes as they call them, and tireless efforts in outreach and practical service. The many hymns and songs that his brother Charles wrote embody and perpetuate his teachings and are themselves a reminder of the unique power of music in Christian spirituality. The Wesley legacy is accessible through good biographies and volumes of selected writings and by browsing just about any Christian hymnal in the world. Our last guide is Margery Thompson. Margery Thompson studied spirituality with Henri Nouwen. Her book Soul Feast is an eloquently written and beautifully presented invitation to consider the privileges and disciplines of the spiritual life. It is really one of the very best books available. Margery Thompson is a frequent contributor to Weavings, a small journal of the spiritual life. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and serves with the Upper Room ministry in Nashville Tennessee and there lives out her commitment to cultivating family and church spirituality through publishing and writing.
Here is a summary of what we have covered now in this last lecture ten. We explored the challenging journey from knowledge to experience, a journey the Spirit wants us and encourages us to take. It must begin and be sustained by a passion for the things of God. It then requires creating space for God in our busy and distracted lives. Our temperament, our individual temperament will be a factor in determining the specific mix of contemplation and activity that is best for us, but in general we all need to resist the hyperactive and superficial tendencies of global modern culture. Spiritual disciplines are time-honored practices that help us create space for God, internalize his transforming truth and experience his guidance and strength in our lives.