As I come to the conclusion of my ten-week project, needless to say, because of the many major changes and disruptions in my life over the last few months, the “rule of life” developed by this researcher and spouse, was not followed consistently. It would be so easy for me to fall into legalism and feel as if nothing was achieved over the past ten weeks simply because the “rule of life” developed was not followed precisely. I believe many who begin to journey down the road of spiritual disciplines, attempting to live a “rule” which will help them to dive deeper into their relationship with God, quickly give up because they fail to fulfill the requirements for success they themselves created. The question that needs to be answered at the end of a set period of time is not, “Did I follow the rule precisely? Did I check-off each week the practices I promised to fulfill?”
The question that needs to be answered is, “Am I closer in my walk with God and living more effectively for Him since I started practicing the following spiritual disciplines, attempting to fulfill the “rule of life” I created?” Has this pastor and spouse grown closer to God and one another? Is this pastor and spouse living more effectively for Him since starting to practice those spiritual disciplines addressed in the “rule of life” created? My wife and I both believe the answer is “YES.”
Certainly, over the course of the last ten weeks, my wife and I have prayed together more often than in months past. The establishment of a “rule” helped push the discipline of prayer and study, reminding us each day to take time to be, to sit, with God. The establishment of a “rule” and knowledge gained about other spiritual disciplines helped open my wife and I up to Lectio Divina, vigil keeping, and the need for periods of silence. Even though several of the spiritual disciplines were not practiced consistent with the “rule” developed, there were several times over the ten weeks where God’s “still, small voice” was heard in a powerful way and God’s truth helped my wife and I deal with the many transitions and changes surrounding them. Though a spiritual retreat was not taken together, there is a commitment to go on spiritual retreat quarterly beginning this fall. Furthermore, the “rule of life” created for this project will be reevaluated, rewritten, and recommitted to this summer for the upcoming year, and the blog, “Deep Draughts of God,” will continue so that others may learn, share, and dialogue.
God is ready for us to spend time with Him. God is ready for us to embrace Him and allow Him to embrace us. God is ready for us to take time, to be intentional, in growing our relationship with Him. I will not give up trying to spend more time with Him, to go deeper, to listen, for God is waiting for me. And it is only in His strength that I can be the leader, the husband, the father, God has called me to be.
God is waiting for all of us. Why? The answer is simple. God loves His children and He has great plans for those who will sit with and draw strength from Him.
As part of our “rule of life,” my wife and I wanted to practice the spiritual disciplines of fasting and vigil-keeping. In my experience, in the United Methodist Church, there has not been much taught on these two spiritual disciplines and I have rarely seen a calling to put them into practice as a congregation. As a pastor I have often failed to do this.
Fasting is defined by Lynne M. Baab as “the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation.” Elmer Towns defines fasting as “a nonrequired discipline (you don’t have to do it) where you alter your diet (there are many kinds of fasts) for a spiritual reason (there are many reasons to fast) and accompany the experience with prayer.”
During the season of Lent, fasting is often practiced as individuals “give-up” something for forty-days, reminiscent of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Such fasting can include everything from food to television to chocolate. Fasting from consumer items or everyday practices can free up time for prayer and Bible study, as well as money for service projects and missions. One can also fast from attitudes and behaviors such as gossip, pessimism, selfishness, or impatience.
Many times Lenten fasts are legalistic practices learned from childhood rather than spiritual exercises practiced in order to grow closer to God. Foster writes, “Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained. Like the prophetess Anna, we need to be ‘worshipping with fasting’ (Luke 2:37). Every other purpose must be subservient to God.” One might fast in order to know God more deeply, to wait on God for answers to a problem, to lay one’s fears before God, to listen to God, or to simply worship God in both in word and action. Towns writes, “When the dark days come, remember to fast and pray. Why fast? To wait on God. When you are praying, fasting, and waiting, you are putting yourself in a position where God can help you. God is always there for you, but when you fast, God comes to help solve your problem. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their stamina, even when things go wrong.”
Vigil is often defined as a purposeful watch kept during sleeping hours in order to pray, meditate and fast. Foster uses the term “watchings,” defining the term as “abstaining from sleep in order to attend to prayer or other spiritual duties.” Heather Hughes explains that the word vigil “comes from the Latin vigilia, originally for a soldier’s night watch, but adopted by early Christians for a nighttime synaxis, or worship meeting. Now we most often hear the word referring to the night office of the Liturgy of the Hours, evening worship the night before a religious celebration, or the wake after a loved one’s death.” St. Benedict’s rule included the observance of such vigils or “watchings.” Dallas Willard describes “many nights when [he] would awaken about two o’clock and spend an hour of delight before God just dwelling in one or more phrases [from the Lord’s Prayer].”
Heather Hughes explains that keeping vigil
is an act of prayer and communion with God which helps us to know him, and thus ourselves. This increased awareness then aids us to rightly discern the what, when, where, and how of future action…
…we become aware of our surroundings – God’s good, yet fallen creation. We get to know who we are and how we fit into the divine plan. Beyond this, we begin to discern how we might enter more deeply into God’s work in our own souls and the world around us…
We are given the chance to become fully awake…
I have had wonderful experiences with fasting and vigil-keeping in the past. One Lenten season, my family and I fasted from television. Every night, for forty days, instead of flopping into the recliner and turning on the television, we sat as a family and talked, played games, spent time together. I remember it being a wonderful couple months. Then, over the last two years, serving in Rock Hall, Maryland, our Women’s Ministry sponsored a reading of the New Testament beginning on the evening of Good Friday and ending with the Easter Sunday sunrise service. Men and women in the congregation would sign up for half-hour blocks, come to the church, and simply stand in the pulpit, reading the New Testament aloud, following where the person before them stopped. I had the privilege, along with my wife, to read at two and three in the morning. The church was quiet except for the scripture being read, there were no distractions, and there was a heightened awareness of God’s presence. Many people who read spoke of this awareness, this closeness, they felt to God as they read or sat listening to His Word in the early hours of the morning.
Unfortunately, with the busyness of life and the many transitions our family has recently dealt with, these were two more spiritual disciplines that my wife and I did not practice as we had hoped we would when we wrote our “rule of life.” But I look forward to fasting from those things that take my time away from God and people like television. I look forward to the times that I will intentionally wake up in the early hours of the morning or the midnight hour in the months to come simply to sit and talk to God.
That is the word, isn’t it? Intentional. We must be intentional. That is the whole purpose of a “rule of life.” It helps us be intentional in our spiritual disciplines, pointing us in a direction we know will lead us into our Heavenly Father’s arms. When we fail, we get back up and try again, not out of guilt, but out of hope. This is the hope, that with God’s help, we can build new habits and practices, new ways of daily living, that will help us to “pray without ceasing” and to “walk as children of the light” in relationship with the One who placed the light in the sky and in our hearts.
Surrounded by a culture of busyness, hurry and noise, it is extremely difficult for one to step outside of their surroundings and enter into the solitude and silence where God’s “still, small voice” can be heard. Kenneth Boa, in Conformed To His Image, explains that the culture holds such influence over the Christian that “people typically approach the spiritual life…supposing that their actions and service will lead to intimacy in their relationship with God.” Boa writes,
While the greatest commandment exhorts us to love our Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), we tend to reverse the order, thinking we can go from the outside in rather than the inside out. Instead of ministry flowing out of our relationship with God, many people suppose that ministry will determine their relationship with God…The focus of the Christian life should not be deeds and actions but a relationship; it is centered not on a product but on a Person.
Many people miss the point that while intimacy with Christ leads to holiness; attempts to be holy do not necessarily lead to intimacy.
One must step outside the hustle and bustle of the world like Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Paul, and especially Jesus, taking time to be alone with God. Throughout the scriptures, such time is essential to Jesus’ spiritual life. If it was essential for Jesus, how can anyone believe that they do not need times of solitude and silence, to hear from God, to rest in His presence?
Robert L. Plummer defines solitude as “complete aloneness for spiritual purposes” and defines silence as “complete quiet for spiritual purposes.” Ruth Haley Barton defines solitude as “the discipline that calls us to pull away from life in the company of others for the purpose of giving our full and undivided attention to God” and silence as “the spiritual discipline of withdrawing or abstaining from noise, words, and activity for a time to become more attuned to the voice of God.”
As my wife and I attempt to follow a “rule of life” in the midst of great chaos and time-marking events in our lives including moving to a new community, buying our first home, watching our oldest son graduate high school, searching for scholarships and going through the process of preparing for college, and beginning as pastor and leader of a new congregation, we have found it almost impossible to take time for silence and solitude.
Our minds are a jumbled mess as we contemplate a to-do list longer than the 127 miles between our previous Charge in Rock Hall, Maryland and our current ministry appointment in Rising Sun, Maryland. How do we take time for solitude and silence? How do we hit the “pause” button and slow down? How does one force one’s self to escape to the wilderness when the world has pushed itself in and appeared to erase any escape route from the hectic pace of this life?
It is understood that one must force one’s self out of the hustle and bustle. It is understood that only by relying on God’s strength and Holy Spirit is it even possible to take such a step. Even so, my wife and I have failed to find the time, have failed to escape to the wilderness, have failed to crawl up in God’s lap and take in the silence and solitude surrounding the divine. The world with its many changes and challenges has taken precedent and quite honestly, has completely overwhelmed us.
But there is hope. Writing and trying to follow a “rule of life” has shown us, very clearly, that if we believed we were taking time for solitude and silence with God, we were wrong. The “rule” showed us what we need to work on in the upcoming months as we break ourselves in at a new church and grow to love a new church family. We want to “press forward” in this area, finding time to simply “crawl up in God’s lap.”
Our “rule” is not a legalistic set of chains that bind us and pull us down in despair when we fail to follow, but instead our “rule” is an opportunity to note areas in our spiritual lives and spiritual practices, in which we are not committed, and to set goals in those areas as we revisit our “rule.” The purpose of these goals is to help us grow closer and more intimate with our Creator. Through this project, we have been shown one area of spiritual discipline, solitude and silence, that we want to continue to attempt to make time for, not because we have to or because we will have failed if we do not, but because in the solitude and silence we will find the “still, small voice” of God.