Today is Fat Tuesday, the day where you and I can get so much sin out of our lives that we can rightly prepare for Ash Wednesday and 40 days of preparation for Easter. While not getting into the questions surrounding why an individual should go overboard before a time of repentance, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday was originally begun to get in the last bit of rich food and celebration before the more somber time of fasting arrives on Ash Wednesday.
It seems like a lot of Protestant churches are now taking part in Ash Wednesday and remembering the Church Calendar period of Lent. Why, when I was a kid, Lent was just for Roman Catholics, not for Protestants of different stripes. But after my time in Church History classes in my undergrad education at Vanguard University and my time at Fuller Seminary, I have come to the conclusion that it is a helpful practice for the Church. There will be people who take part in the time with little thought, that will always happen, but the focus on sin, repentance, and the cross will make the victorious resurrection and vindication of Jesus that much sweeter on Easter.
If you feel called to give up something for 40 days, then that is great. But please, don’t go flaunting it around everywhere like a martyr. Fasting from something is meant to be between the individual and God, not a regular Facebook post about the desire to eat chocolate or drink coffee again. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18,
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Whether you do or do not begin the fast in the Lenten season, I hope you would at least commit to remembering God’s mercy through his action in Jesus. As I have said in a previous post years ago, “we should participate in Lent not out of superstition or thoughtless ritual. Lent ought to be a time of contemplative thought upon Christ and His salvific mercy.” While Christmas reminds us that God came to us, Lent and the Good Friday will remind us that God brought us back into the fold by bearing our sin.
And boy, am I thankful for that!
(Part 3 of 4 on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Life Together)
If we are honest, most people have had a bad experience with church. While some might have been burnt by Christians in some capacity and don’t want to be a part of it (which is understandable), others might fall into the category of Christians, according to Bonhoeffer, “who cannot endure being alone.”
Community and Solitude
Let me unpack the connection between community and solitude. For a lack of a better name, those “who cannot be left alone” group have a problem. They need to have others meet their needs. Even though these individuals require others to meet their needs, they are often disappointed when other do not (stay with me!). The reason for this is because they cannot be alone. Sit with that thought for a moment.
This group is looking for a “spiritual sanatorium” in church when they really need an encounter with God alone. They’re looking for others to solve their problems when they really need God to root it out. Sounds intense, doesn’t it? Bonhoeffer, quit meddling!!
The Furnace of Personal Transformation
Being alone is something we all must face. Alone we stood before God called, alone we had to answer his call, alone we must pray, and alone we will slip into death and give an account to God. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community,” as Bonhoeffer wrote.
Before you despair, listen to this good news! “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Into community we were called, and in this community of the called you (and I!) will struggle and pray. In death, life, and on the Last Day both of us will be a “member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.” As Luther would encourage us, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me.”
Thus the tension: in fellowship we learn to be “rightly alone” and only in “aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship.” Silence and speech are both marks of solitude and community, respectively. Silence does not have to be frightening. It is the stillness of the individual under God’s Word. Silence is knowing deeply that we are waiting for God’s Word and coming from that same word with a blessing.
Henri Nouwen would call this the furnace of personal transformation, since we would be alone before God. It forges the individual not only in right hearing, but right speaking as well.
Being alone offers the opportunity to intercede for others. Intercession is a lynchpin for Christian fellowship, the fellowship lives and exists by the intercession for one another, or else it collapses inward.
You might be asking yourself what about those really annoying people. Even for those who might repel us, bringing him or her to God’s presence will shift our focus and the reality that they are a poor human in need of grace will come into clearer focus. The repelling nature will fall away and we will see that person in their need.
Setting aside time to be alone will transform us. It is through those times that we will receive strength and blessing. The blessing of aloneness will then lead into blessing of fellowship. The strength of fellowship and strength of aloneness is done solely through the strength of God’s Word. As you can see, both being alone and together are so essential to life in the community of faith.
Now that we’ve walked through the intensity of being alone, now we get to the good stuff next time. Until then!
Have you tried a time of solitude?
“Who can really be faithful in great things if he has not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer Life Together
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The alarm clock beckons me to begin a new day, a new chance to go after my dream.
What a battle it is to roll out of bed when I really want to hit the snooze. And hit the snooze again. And three more times for good measure.
Apparently I have hit the snooze button too many times and my wife either wants to kick me out of bed or throw the phone out the window. Good thing I have Applecare on it!
I have hours to work on my dream, if I could only get out of bed. To exercise, to pray, to read, and to write. Too often the worries of the day rears its ugly head and steals those moments. Too long have I gone without pushing myself further and hustle after my dream a little bit harder.
How can I claim to be a person who pursues big things when I have hit the snooze button one too many times? I have found that little things are often the most important things. Little things like making the bed and cleaning off the counter help to instill the discipline to do bigger things. It’s like when I played baseball. The little details of a swing needed to be worked on day after day until I would be able to swing the bat with ease. The little things of life are often the most important part of laying down a good foundation, one of a solid life.
What little things have you been working on?
As mentioned previously in other posts, my Spiritual Traditions class from earlier this year has prompted me to consider the necessity of discipline. I know that it is not a new thing to say, but we live in a culture that generally has a short attention span. Even within the evangelical wing of Protestantism, we have elevated spontaneity to a position of the ideal. Prayer should be spontaneous, service to others should be spontaneous (Random Acts of Kindness… which actually is acts of kindness done on purpose, not random at all!), and other parts of life should be done with randomness. Spiritual Traditions has confronted me with the reality that so many great men and women of the faith practiced discipline and purposefulness amidst their life on Earth. They prayed at regular times, concentrated on their tasks, and was present with other people. In short, they were focused.
Often times I have viewed my relationship with God as an unscheduled time of conversing. If I jumped out of bed too late, the first thing to go was my devotional time. If I was running late somewhere, I would quickly ditch times of prayer. I wouldn’t stand up somebody else so easily! Since I like being on time to places (most of the time when it is within my control), not showing up for people would not be an option. Yet, when it came to God, and time spent with him, I would quickly alter things because he is so flexible- He’s God, after all. I would move God to a different time in my schedule if I needed to do something else. Can anyone else relate? I think that I need to further cultivate the habits and character traits of being reliable when it comes to prayer. After all, if Jesus often went away in times of prayer, then perhaps I also need to do that very thing.
Please hear me, I am not suggesting that we should create disciplines for the sake of discipline. Punctuality and reliability are two admirable traits; however, these traits applied to a relationship with God should not be the end result. Just like eating right and working out are means to an end of being healthy, so it is with living in a spiritually disciplined life. Spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, and times of solitude, should be a means to an end- to become closer to God and aligned with his will. So I would encourage you to spend some time in prayer this week, blocking off a part of your day and meeting with God one-on-one. Sit and listen. Sit and pour out your heart. Be open and vulnerable, you never know what God might do with a willing heart.
The Christian message is not the elimination of desire but the transformation of desire. The overcoming of destructive desire and developing the inward reality of right desire is what we are after and what we can experience as our life is soaked in Jesus and his way.
As I have been working through my Christian Spirituality course, I have been introduced to many incredible people of historic Christianity. While their writings and practices in regards to living a disciplined life are very helpful and challenging to me, the use of near stoic language can be a little disturbing. Even though I am a pretty calm guy, not prone to emotional outbursts, I do like reserving the right to emote. That is why I appreciated the observation of Richard Foster in Longing for God where he responded to the idea of “apatheia.” That is where the individual aims to live completely removed from any want or desire. Many desert monastics would eat just enough food to survive, deprive themselves from sleep, and so on. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?
This is not the aim of the Christian message, as Foster rightly pointed out. Christianity is about transformation, a righting of our desire. It is about being aligned with the desires of God, being molded ever so slowly into the image of Christ. The Apostle Peter put it another way, writing, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” (I Peter 1:14)
It is not about being some killjoy who is dour or in a constant cloud of contemplation. It is about a deep, overflowing love that is rooted in Christ. That is why I like the idea of a rooted theology, where we are tied inextricably to the life giving power of Jesus. As the Church moves into the period of Lent this month, I would encourage you (and myself!) to use fasting from things we like (whether it is chocolate, alcohol, Facebook, or Doritos) in order to bring ourselves closer in alignment to God. Ask the Holy Spirit to transform your desires to be closer to Him. At least consider it. Let’s make it a joint venture!
Have you ever had that period in your life where you felt drained, empty, and utterly spent? I have felt that way many times in my life, even in seminary.
I, like most Christians, will simply drudge along or quit my habits for a bit, taking a break from it all. So the question that has plagued me for sometime was, how can someone who maintains a routine in a life of busy-ness, still stay vibrant in their relationship with God? After all, there has to be something more than just getting by with life and “mailing it in.” To quote a Switchfoot song, I want to thrive and not just survive!
This question was posed to me again while reading through books for my Spiritual Traditions class. The books looked over the lives of many giants of the faith from the initial generations and onwards, providing solid glimpses into their habits. The thing that stuck out to me was that their routines and rhythms worked. They thrived in their lives through a rhythm of life centered around Christ. It made me further conclude that we are creatures of habit, and cultivating a flow of prayer and Scripture reading will help the individual grow in depth.
These monks and nuns lived a life of incredible intimacy, and the theme that I have picked up in their lives is that they lived disciplined in their world. They lived according to certain guidelines, praying at regularly assigned times, and spending purposeful time in study, solitude, and silence. Their routine of faith opened up opportunity to be flexible in their spiritual lives.
Of course, most people cannot become monks and nuns. Most people have jobs, family commitments, lives, and other responsibilities which keep them from the life of a modern day monk (which are as important, in God’s eyes, as a life dedicated to vocational ministry at a church/monastery) . Our hesitancy of any sort of religiosity (read: stereotypical “Pharisee religion”) in contemporary Evangelicalism is what holds many back, including me at times. However, being spontaneous all the time can be draining. Borrowing from Paul, I would suggest that the training our spiritual bodies like an athlete opens up new avenues of intimacy and depth with God. With joy and the inner-working of God’s gracious Spirit, any person can indeed cultivate a more full life. God can be a part of the busy life we lead when we are intentional with our time. So I would like to encourage you this week to schedule time of devoted prayer, setting your alarm clock fifteen minutes earlier or kneeling next to your bed for a few minutes. Invite God along your busy life, you won’t be disappointed.
For one of my classes about Christian Spirituality, we were assigned readings about some of the great men and women of the faith. Monks, nuns, preachers, and theologians were all introduced to us and their spiritual practices were explained. While all were very impressive and they challenged me to take my faith more seriously, one of the men in the book stuck out to me. St Benedict of Nursia was a monk who created a monastic order that was centered around discipline and rules. Benedict saw the disorderly conduct of those within monasteries and tried to bring some order to the situation. Instead of allowing the monks to live disorderly lives , he wanted to cultivate a community centered around order and discipline through, what is now called, the Rule of St Benedict.
The rules promoted a balanced life, one that is centered around prayer, work, meditative reading of Scripture, and community. Benedict understood that we are creatures of habit and that if everyone (including himself and future leaders of the monastery) lived under these rules, then they could encounter God more distinctly.
The idea of discipline and balance could be used today. What is nice about Benedict was that he sought to help forge a path for many people to be more intentional in their spiritual growth. For me, I must set up a rhythm where I do certain things at certain times. Being disorderly and random when it comes to creating good habits (secular or sacred) rarely works. In fact, it is the purposeful choices that I make that will shape me to become a better person. Just as going to the gym is tough the initial few weeks, the more one does that act, the easier it will become since it is transformed into a routine. This routine and focus will help quiet those obstacles that frequently drown our dreams and goals for a more balanced, spiritual life. As Henri Nouwen called our minds a “banana tree full of screaming monkeys” when it came to silence and discipline, these disciplines will help overcome those unruly pests with the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.
*A word of warning: Routines can become stale. But more on that in next week’s post.
A year ago while I was learning about spiritual disciplines and silence, I was presented with the idea that for me (a Westernized person) embracing silence is like trying to ignore a tree full of screaming monkeys. With that in mind, I heard on the radio awhile back about a recent book on Willpower. The authors were discussing the necessity of developing habits and how discipline in one area will help form people holistically across the board. For example, discipline in exercise will help form people in such a way that they would perform better in other areas, like writing. Good eating habits leads to development in disciplines of writing. Developing self-control will help make the person better in their life endeavors across the board.
The lessons of the book correlate over to the spiritual side of humanity as well, but more on that in next week’s post. Suffice it to say for now, I can testify that when willpower has been diminished, my life typically slips into a muddy mess. However, if I become a more disciplined person in my life in one area that typically helps in other ways. Delayed gratification and focus are two areas I am trying to currently cultivate. I find that when I have a vision and work towards it with tenacity that I develop happiness and peace. Stuff gets accomplished and I can sleep peacefully that night. The trick is to learn to quiet the tree full of screaming monkeys that so frequently occupy the space between my ears! Silence is hard and being intentional in our own formation is very difficult. Yet, I am confident that it can still be done, depth of character and spiritual transformation is possible.
Being disciplined, that is something that must take root and then I can actually get stuff done. Now, it’s time to develop that habit. Sooner, rather than later.
How do you develop self-discipline in achieving your goals? This might be a good question to consider for your New Year’s Resolutions.
2012 begins! There are many things that we can do with the start of another year. I hope to get the most out of it since the Mayan calendar tells me that the end of humanity will come very soon. So what will I be planning on accomplishing before the clock tolls December 21, 2012?
I just read through a short book by Seth Godin called “Tribes” and Godin brought this term to my attention. A sheepwalker is someone who always does what everybody else has done. Instead of challenging the status quo, our default position (read: my default position) is to slowly move along and to react to situations. Becoming a leader is something that everybody can do and is not just reserved for dominant personalities. Find your passion and others of similar minds will follow.
I want to document what I’ve done in this upcoming year. I want to record where I’ve been to (even if it is just the local Starbucks) and who I have seen. There is no excuse to record these, now that I am a pretentious iPhone owner…
This is the big goal for 2012. It is not just a wish or resolution that falls to the wayside by Groundhog’s Day, it is something I am going to work on this coming year. It might be a small book review, or short article. That’s fine with me. Hopefully it will start me on the road to writing more and more.
So, what is your goal for this final year in existence?