Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Disciplines (part 4)

seedling4.jpg   In the last post I compared our responsibility in our own spiritual formation to that of a gardener in his garden. The gardener has plenty to do, but the growth itself he has very little to do with. All he can do is provide the most favorable conditions and care for growth to take place. The way to do that is to do the things that good gardeners have done for ages. He needs to learn and practice the wisdom of those those who know more about gardening than he does.

It’s the same for us who are trying to cultivate a life in Christ. Learn and practice the wisdom of those in scripture and those saints who’ve lived  in the two thousand years since. All the while remembering that what our efforts in the spiritual life do, as Henri Nouwen points out, is to create some space and some time in our busy lives for God to shape us into His image. 

The Disciplines

Most  Christians are pretty familiar with the disciplines of reading and study of scripture, prayer, fasting, worship, service,  but I’d like to talk about a few that aren’t so well known. My reason for choosing these and not others is just my own preference, and the way they have shaped my thoughts on the christian life.

Practicing the Presence

Apart from scripture itself, and then A. W. Tozer’s “The Pursuit of God”, Brother Lawrence’s classic “The Practice of the Presence of God” has probably affected the way I look at Christian spirituality more than any other writing. I recommend it (and “The Pursuit of God”) without reservation. It simply makes more sense, as a way of living, than any other book I’ve read outside of scripture.  

The simplest and most profound of his thoughts on the spiritual life is this. “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s presence by continually conversing with Him.” I know, it doesn’t sound like much. But as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized what a revolutionary way of living it actually is, and how thoroughly biblical, both in doctrine and practice it is. I’ve also noticed how different it is to the way the average Christian I see, including me, lives.

One of the most basic ideas in scripture is that God is always, and everywhere, with us. There is no place where we could go that He is not already. Well, if that is true, then maybe I ought to start living like it is.

Some folks will object, not to the truth of it, but that it’s so elementary and basic. Surely there’s lots of stuff more important we should be doing.

Before you dismiss it though, look at a few things it can do.

  1.  It makes all of my life spiritual. All of it. From the grand to the menial, I now do it in the conscious presence of God. There is no sacred-secular divide.
  2.  It takes scriptures that sound very mystical and spiritualized and makes them ultimately practical. “Pray without ceasing.” is now a do-able reality, not a pious ideal. “Whatever you do, whether eating or drinking, do to the glory of God.” is now an ordinary meal shared with God, the provider, whom I thank for it. Not some special, religious ceremony I have to perform. 
  3.  I begin to see Him at work all around me. He feeds the birds of the air, not in some ethereal, poetic sense, but right there in my front yard. He clothes the flowers of the field. Each one of them. And then as we walk together, he shows them to me, if I will just pay attention. 
  4.  It broadens my very narrow understanding of prayer. In addition to prayer being a set apart, special time where I bow my head, close my eyes and talk to God, my whole life becomes prayer, an ongoing converstion. In fact, for me, one of the biggest benefits of this ongoing conversation with God is that I have to, at some point, shut up. Listening and watching have become much more valuable to me than speaking. (Not that I always do what is more valuable)
  5.  It makes the “contemplative” person one of the most practical, down to earth folks on the planet. If I am consciously living my days with God Himself, listening more than talking, paying attention to what he’s doing, and then doing the things he places before me in my ordinary life (for this is what a true contemplative does in my opinion) then I will love those around me in the most practical, humble and useful ways there are. A very real way of living life the way Jesus did. “I only do what the Father tells me to do, I only say what I hear the Father saying.”
  6.  It makes me honest. If God is right there with me, knowing everything I know, hearing and seeing everything I say, do and think, then it makes no sense to try and fool him. I can quit trying to “get right” before I can talk to Him (as if it were possible), stop pretending to be more holy than I am, and begin to be honest with myself and talking plainly with Him. 

Before you think that I have attained any competence in this, let me tell you that it is the most difficult thing I have ever tried to do. I just can’t do it consistently, at least not yet. Simple does not mean easy, as we sometimes think. But time after time I keep coming back to this simple practice as one I must keep on trying to do.

The next post I want to talk about solitude.


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