By Kerrie-Anne Crosby
At this last stage of our Rhythms series we are looking at a classic work by Richard Foster called, The Celebration of Discipline. Sounds horrible and religious, not very Tribe-like, I hear some people thinking.. Bear with me, while I strive to prove the exact opposite!
Disciplines are the things that disciples do. At Tribe we have been calling them rhythms. In society if you say “discipline” you are most likely to imagine spanking a child, or “time out”. But this does a massive disservice to the concept. If you want to become like someone or to master something, then you regularly practice to make it so. You study the person you want to become like, or you repetitively undertake the art or activity you wish to be good at. This is true of our ethical, spiritual, social and individual lives.
Foster tells us that the spiritual disciplines are not practiced for their own sake, or it becomes mere religion. There is a corresponding freedom that can be found when a discipline is undertaken. This freedom is the goal.
There are plenty of life examples, e.g. practice the elements of piano for long enough, and you become free to play anything you like. Practice the basics of cooking for long enough, like chopping, flavouring, preparing meat, making sauces, and you are able to make whatever you want excellently. Work consistently at weeding, watering and planting your vegie patch and you become an expert at home gardening. This is true of almost everything in life, right? The old maxim, practice makes perfect? It is true of following Jesus as well. If we want to live life the way of Jesus, then we make the present and ongoing decision to act in that way. When we discipline ourselves a certain way, we grow and gain freedom in that area.
We will be looking at three levels of classical disciplines that have been practiced by followers of Christ – and many other peoples and faiths too – over the ages. They are inward, outward and corporate disciplines. These are not every possible discipline ever imagined, there are many that you may choose to pursue in your own life that also produce good outcomes, but these ones are what many Christians would consider to be cornerstone rhythms for life. We will use them as examples of good rhythms – some will align directly one-to-one with Tribe values, and some might seem to be a bit further away. Make your own decision about them as we go through.
Whatever the rhythms that you work on, at Tribe we want to encourage and celebrate the end goals of these rhythms with you. By working out your own rhythms, you are intentionally setting goals for your life that will enrich it and the lives of others around you. I think that’s something to celebrate. Yay for rhythms!
The inward disciplines are traditionally what people think of when you say “spiritual discipline”. There are four that Foster discusses. They are, meditation, prayer, fasting and study. I want to go into more depth on one of them (meditation) to get to some juice, but they are all great and I encourage you to research the ones that grab you.
The first is meditation. It involves quieting ourselves, our own hurriedness, our need for results, our selfishness and listening to the eternal. The goal is to move past detachment, which is the goal of the Eastern tradition of meditation, towards attachment – a “familiar friendship with Jesus”. Not the mushy kind of attachment either, but the intense, awe-filled kind we get a glimpse of in the upper room scenario. Meditation is filling our minds with good, not just emptying it of the bad. When we meditate, “..we create the emotional and spiritual space..” for Christ to transform us internally.
Meditation as a Jesus follower consists of sinking down into the light and life of Christ.
“We can descend with the mind to the heart most easily through the imagination”. We should use our imagination to help us meditate, in a similar way to how Jesus used parables to ground his teachings in the senses. This is to “take seriously the idea of incarnation”, that God is enfleshed in us, and our experiences are sanctified. He takes our lives and understanding seriously, meeting us where we are at. It is not so much about shying away from thoughts or distractions as pursuing them. I find this to be a refreshing take on what was in my mind, a very ascetic, almost impossible task. The one thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to “do” meditation. It is whatever works for you.
Foster speaks of four kinds of meditation:
Meditation on Scripture
A normal part of life for the Hebrew people and for Jews of Jesus’ day. Take a word, a story, a line or a passage and immerse yourself in it. Feel it with your senses and let it wash over you. Matt suggests taking a phrase, say from the Lord’s Prayer, and using it as a mantra, then thinking on it and praying back into it.
This is classical meditation, the art of calming and sinking down inside yourself. Some helpful tools for doing this in a Jesus-centred way include: “palms down, palms up”.. Palms down, release your busyness, fears, anger, anxiety, and negative thoughts over to God. Breath out and stay for a few moments in that space. Then, turn palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from God. Breath in and be in that space. Repeat.
Meditation on nature
Maybe the easiest for some people to achieve, it is “the discovery of God in his creatures.” A walk in the bush, a swim at the beach, or meditation by a lake can help restore serenity in an otherwise frenetic schedule. Even the smallest details in nature are worth examining and contemplation. God is often to be found in nature.
Meditation on the events of our time
Almost the exact opposite of the simplifying and purifying exercise of the previous form, meditation on current events can be draining and depressing. However, Thomas Merton writes that the person “.. who has meditated on the Passion of Christ but has not meditated on the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz has not yet fully entered into the experience of Christianity in our time.” We have the ability and the obligation, as God’s ambassadors for his new kind of Kingdom, to understand the deeper meaning behind the events of this world. This may require a certain level of maturity on the part of the disciple, and is definitely a practice that can be done in community in order to share the burden.
Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is. Foster says that, “to pray is to change.” And that with “..real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him. To desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”
Prayer is the method of conforming our desires to Christ’s.
In reality, meditation and prayer go hand in hand. The only definitive difference between them is that prayer will involve interaction on our part, whether verbally or internally, speaking or listening. Meditation is often the context in which prayer might take place, but not always. Like when you’re in the middle of a tough day and you don’t have the space to meditate, but you internally push out a desperate prayer. Or when you are praying together with a friend, or in house church, meditation is a little harder to achieve. But for inward, personal prayer, meditation of some sort is a great place to start.
I found this chapter the hardest to get through. I’ve never been good at fasting and I suppose it’s partly because I haven’t been fully convinced of it being a helpful tool.
Foster sets out a good case for fasting. From the teachings of Jesus we learn that fasting was not so much commanded as expected. This is true of the culture Jesus came from, but the argument might be made that it is even more necessary in this consumption-oriented culture today.
More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.
When you are depleted on a primary level, all the anger, pettiness, fear, and jealousy rises to the surface. This is a huge benefit to those who are serious about following Christ. However, Foster warns that unless our fasting is centred on worship, upon God, then it becomes just another religious observance.
Study enables us to know the truth from questionable doctrines and ideas. Here the Holy Spirit is allowed to renew our minds. Unless we open ourselves to learning and changing (“metanoia” – changing one’s mind), we will remain closed to this renewal, and potentially trapped in fear-based thinking.
Study and meditation also overlap, however they are distinct. Meditation is devotional whereas study is analytical.
This line sums up for me what makes right-hearted study so important as a rhythm: Arrogance and a teachable spirit are mutually exclusive. Consistent study fosters humility.
Corporate disciplines are rhythms that Jesus followers do together regularly. They vary greatly across the spectrum of the church. Some congregations put a high value on their collective worship, others put greater value on corporate prayer. Still others say that all those things are nonsense, and we should focus on eating lunch together! Foster’s four are confession, worship, guidance, celebration. Here I go into depth more on worship.
I know that personally, I would once have thought of confession as a private matter between me and God. Any sense of corporate confession is often seen as too Catholic, heaven forbid! Foster says it is both/and. In being open with others we are the same with God. Bonhoeffer says, “When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” This is in keeping with John 20:23, where followers of Jesus have been given the authority to forgive sins in his name. We are able to make God’s forgiveness and freedom real to others, a huge privilege. The message to the other is: if we can love and accept them in spite of their issues, then does not God? We are sinners together in our common humanity.
At the heart of corporate confession is vulnerability. It is only in being real about our mess and failings with each other that we can possibly hope for lasting community, where we can experience the freedom of forgiveness and acceptance of who we are. Transparency, integrity, maturity, genuineness, authenticity. All these good things are the fruit of mutual confession. We avoid hypocrisy, lies, shame, shallowness, and that Sunday mask, where we open ourselves up to confession.
Another word that is loaded with preconceptions for all of us. You’ve probably heard people say, “All of life should be our worship.” Nice cliche, Mr Christianity! But what does it mean and is this even viable? Is this even a corporate thing?
Worship is the human response to the divine initiative.
Firstly, we need to learn to trust our feelings again. We aren’t whole without our emotions, and it is fine to experience them in relation to God. We can worship him with our mind and with our soul. There has been a natural swing away from overly-emotional forms of worship in parts of the church. We can understand that while also embracing the idea of wholeness of person as part of a life of worship. How this looks for each of us might vary, but in the final analysis worship isn’t even about us.
Often worship happens in us spontaneously, in response to a moving song, or beauty in nature. Foster says worship is experience, not merely an event. He also says that, “the issue of high liturgy or low liturgy, this form or that form is peripheral rather than central.” What is important is “Spirit touching spirit” – or that feeling of transcendence. If one form helps you experience this, then great. If another hinders you, then drop it. This is immensely freeing. If singing isn’t your cup of tea, well then don’t! Find your own expression. But then how do we conceive of this personal preference to worship in a corporate way?
The greek biblical writers called it koinonia, participation in a deep inward fellowship with others, together in the Spirit. For Foster this is more than just the psychology of the group – which today we have to admit is a bigger part of gathering together than we used to think. There is a unity of cause and feeling when followers of Jesus gather, and when we worship together there is the “divine melting of our separateness”. When worshipping the God revealed by Jesus, the all-accepting and loving Father, then we can realise our interdependence and our humanity together. This is what Paul means by “in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.” We are all human, we are all one, when we are “in Christ”, feeling his Presence together. The discipline of worshiping together is just that, something we practice because we believe there is value in that togetherness of purpose and intention.
Companionable silence or contemplation, watching a moving movie, listening to a story or poetry, walking at sunset. Any of these activities, and many others, can help bring about the experience of corporate worship, koinonia. Let’s not limit ourselves to traditional ideas and thereby discount the whole concept.
Foster says that in the West the Church has had a preoccupation with private guidance as a result of our obsession with individualism. The Church hasn’t always been like this. Foster stresses the communal side of guidance to counteract this, although he acknowledges the proper place for individual guidance in the spiritual life (here Foster refers to “individual” guidance as things like dreams, visions, Scripture reading, etc.). One of the essential functions in the historical church was that of the spiritual director, the fathers of ancient faith. Mentoring can function in much the same way, and is a valuable avenue for mature growth. However Foster means something even more corporate than one-to-one guidance.
Corporate guidance comes with a knowledge of the direct, active, immediate leading of the Spirit together.
Communal guidance in a group can come in the form of a prophetic insight into the role of the church in the events of the day, or an understanding that a group of believers might share about certain issues in society. Foster talks about some examples from the book of Acts, where the whole group of believers together heard the Spirit about sending Paul and Barnabas on their mission trips, or when the much-debated resolution came to the major disagreement between the Jerusalem church and Paul over how much Jewish law was necessary for new converts. Corporate guidance was a feature of both scenarios, in different ways.
This has got to be the favourite discipline, am I right! Foster points out that because there is always work to be done, there is a biblical mandate to “Jubilee”, which was (in part) an appointed time for all of Hebrew society to freely and equally celebrate together what had been achieved. Without rest and celebration from work, there is no joy in life, merely the endless cycle of routines. The ancient Hebrews were really good at instituting corporate celebration. They had festivals, feasts and weekly days off from doing any labour, otherwise known as the sabbath.
If you are miserable in life, then there is no real joy in celebration, only escapism. If you are fearful, then joy will likewise elude you. Freedom from self, anxiety and care form the basis for proper celebration. You cannot bypass the ordinary and the everyday, there has to be genuine peace in your life in order to celebrate. Celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed.
In this results-focused, possession-gathering, anxiety-inducing, fast-paced culture, we really need to make a concerted effort to let ourselves enjoy life. It has to become a consistent part of the rhythm of our lives, or life will pass us by and we miss opportunities to laugh, banter, dance, eat, drink and be merry with people. Hence celebration can be a discipline. Just like house church dinners could be..
What were your initial reactions to the concept of spiritual disciplines?
What makes the idea of self-discipline so difficult today?
Have you ever been burnt out or turned off by a religious burden to have Quiet Time, or something similar?
Can you see a way where internal disciplines might be freeing rather than constricting?
Was anyone taught to mistrust the concept of meditation? Have you deconstructed/rejected/adhered to this teaching?
Is meditation something you feel you could attempt? Why or why not? [no right or wrong answers here!]
Why do you think God can be found easily in nature? Does this statement ring true for you?
Do any of the corporate disciplines really appeal to you? Any that are off-putting? Any you feel we should be doing together? Why?
How do you feel about worship as a corporate discipline?
Are there other inward, spiritual or collective rhythms not mentioned that you feel are important?
Have you developed any other life disciplines that have a spiritual edge?
How does the idea of being a “desiring” human affect how you would go about spiritual disciplines? Is it different/easier/harder than self-discipline as a “rational” being?