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.
As my wife and I continue to attempt to live out our ten-week “rule of life,” life keeps getting in the way. Between preparing to move to a new appointment, buying a home, walking with our oldest through graduation, reading for future classes while finishing up current projects, searching for scholarships, and saying “goodbye” to so many people we have come to love, our “rule of life” is often dropped.
I am thankful to Harold Miller’s book, Finding a Personal Rule of Life, and Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives For Spiritual Transformation. Both Miller and Barton are clear that one is not to make a “rule of life” a legalistic experience. Barton also stresses that there are different seasons to life, some more difficult than others. She writes, “Our expectations about ordering our life during the different seasons need to take into account what’s real and can’t be changed; otherwise we set ourselves up for frustration and failure. This is a place for learning how to be compassionate with ourselves, because God certainly is.”
My wife and I are certainly in a difficult season of transition and find ourselves having to be “compassionate with ourselves” when it comes to our following the “rule of life” we developed for this DMin project. I have quickly discovered that the “rule of life” I have created, that calls on my wife and I to practice seven spiritual disciplines over a ten-week period, is somewhat unrealistic. As Barton points out, “Developing a rhythm of spiritual practice takes time” and it is also extremely personal. Our “rhythm of spiritual practices also needs to be ruthlessly realistic in view of our stage of life,” Barton writes. Certainly, practicing seven spiritual disciplines over ten weeks together during a difficult season in our lives is somewhat unrealistic; yet, it has not been unfruitful.
My wife and I have certainly prayed more together in the last couple months than we had been recently, and we have heard God speak to us through His Word, through music, through messages, and through others, addressing directly issues we are dealing with in our lives during this period of transition.
But I have come to believe that the best approach to developing a “rule of life” would be to focus on one spiritual discipline such as prayer or meditation, silence or fasting. Work on that spiritual discipline over the course of a couple months, practicing it as often as possible, allowing it to draw you into the presence of the Creator. This is what I hope to do following this project, having read, studied, and practiced the seven spiritual disciplines of Prayer, Study (both Biblical & Devotional), Meditation, Silence, Solitude, Fasting, Vigil Keeping. I plan to focus on one or two disciplines at most, diving deep into God’s arms. As Barton suggests, “It’s best to try each discipline one at a time and work with it for a while rather than trying to load on too much all at once.”
For those of you following this blog and our process in following the “rule of life” we developed, perhaps instead of attempting all seven spiritual disciplines being practiced for this project, you might pick one or two to focus on. Remember, as Barton explains things will not always work out as planned as life happens, but “The point is that we know that we have set our intention. We are faithful to it to the best of our ability and to the extent that the day-to-day circumstances of our lives allow.” God sees our heart and when we are unable to maintain the disciplines as we planned, God, seeing a heart yearning for a deeper relationship with Him, will seek us out in the midst of our real life, in the midst of our day’s activities.
Don’t beat yourself up, don’t give up, and don’t set unrealistic expectations. Make it your clear intention to grow closer to God, to open your heart and life up to Him more so that He may descend and make you whole. The spiritual disciplines do this and allow God the opportunity to enter your life in ways more powerful than can be described here. Focus on one or two spiritual disciplines. Write a “rule of life” that is realistic and regular, allowing God to do remarkable things in your life each day. And never forget, when the day gets away from you and you find that you have not prayed or meditated or had any time of silence and solitude, you realize you have not followed the “rule of life” you set, get back up and commit yourself once more to spiritual practices that will open you up to God’s transforming work in you.
Rev. Drew M. Christian
As I’ve mentioned, my wife and I are attempting to live a “rule of life,” practicing seven spiritual disciplines over a period of ten weeks. Currently, we are exploring the discipline of Lectio Divina or “divine reading.”
We are currently in a whirlwind of change and transition, perhaps more than we have ever experienced. We are attempting to pack a house to move to a new community, a new congregation, and to move into a house we just purchased (a new experience for us as we have lived in parsonages for the last seventeen years). Furthermore, our son graduated this past Saturday and has left us for the next few weeks to live and spend time with his best friend forcing us to experience a short period of the “empty nest syndrome” (something we are definitely not ready for). On top of that I am working on a doctoral project, we are short by over $7000 for our son’s college tuition for 2013-2014 and scholarships are hard to come by, our finances are strained as there are many expenses involved with moving and buying a home, and I am attempting to transition the churches in Rock Hall to a new pastor while at the same time attend meetings and meet leaders as I transition to the new church in Rising Sun. There are times we just sit unable to move because we are overwhelmed with the to-do list.
Yet, yesterday, with many of these things on our minds, we sat down to pray and practice Lectio Divina. The lectionary passage we drew from was Luke 7: 11-17.
In this passage, Jesus, entering town, runs into a mother, a widow, who is burying her only son. Jesus saw her and had compassion on her. He says to the young man, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
The people were amazed and shouted praises to God. They said, “God has come to help his people.” And news spread about Jesus throughout Judea.
Before reading the scripture, my wife and I prayed that God would speak to our hearts through His Word, that God would speak to our situation, our need, our fears and worries.
We then read the scripture aloud three times, pausing between readings to simply sit in silence and think about the Word we had just heard.
After the third reading and the third period of silence, we asked one another what stood out for us in the scripture.
For both of us, the phrase “God has come to help his people” stood out. In the midst of all the difficulties, stresses, responsibilities, transitions we face, God’s truth does not change or tremble. “God has come to help his people.” And my wife and I, along with you who are reading this blog, are His people. We need not be afraid.
There was one other verse that stood out for me during our time of reading, listening and reflecting. “Young man, I say to you, get up!”
I felt God saying “Stop wallowing in worry…stop being concerned with what tomorrow will bring…stop allowing the weight of responsibility and tasks that need to be done to weigh you down…”get up“…”get up” remembering that “God has come to help his people,” God has come to help you.”
“Get up” and do what you can to complete the list of responsibilities before you, but also “get up” in prayer, looking up to God, remembering that God will help you, will provide for you, will carry you if need be.
My wife and I then prayed, asking God to help us “get up” when we started to feel the world weighing down on us. We asked God to help us remember that He was alive and well, ready to help us through our difficulties, through the upcoming life transitions. We prayed that God would send His Spirit to help us trust fully in Him for all things. We thanked God for His Word and for speaking to our hearts and our situation.
Through Lectio Divina, through prayer, through intentional time focused on God Almighty, we cry out to God with the words of Frederick Littledale’s hymn:
“Come down, O Love divine, Seek Thou this soul of mine, And visit it with Thine own ardour glowing; O Comforter, draw near, Within my heart appear, And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.”
“God has come to help his people.” Just spend some time in prayer, and in reading and meditating on His Word, and you will discover this truth. “God has come to help his people.” Wow! What a privilege! What a blessing! What great comfort!
Rev. Drew M. Christian
Lectio Divina is a Latin phrase meaning “divine reading.” Kevin Irwin defines Lectio Divina as “...a holy reading of the Scriptures…requiring prayerful reflection on the text leading to communion with God in prayer.” Evan Howard writes, “Lectio is not so much about reading a book as about seeking Someone,” or as Basil Pennington is quoted, “…lectio divina is: letting our Divine Friend speak to us through his inspired and inspiring Word.”
As part of the spiritual discipline of meditation, my wife and I practiced lectio divina yesterday before a time of prayer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines meditation as a time that “...lets us be alone with the Word…We ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us…We expose ourselves to the specific word until it addresses us personally.”
The practice of lectio divina has four parts: 1) lectio (reading); 2) meditatio (meditating); 3) oratio (praying); and 4) contemplatio (contemplation).
First, one might read a chapter, collection of verses, or passage. Often this is done silently but might also be read aloud, allowing one to hear the words as well. Secondly, one should spend time repeating over and over and reflecting deeply on one or several selected verses. Thirdly, one recognizes that “understanding of the text must come from the Spirit who inspired it;” thus, as John Wesley wrote, “our reading should…be closed with prayer, that what we read might be written on our hearts.” Lastly, one sits quietly before God, having read, meditated, and prayed over His Word or the inspiring Words of one of His servants. During this time of contemplation one follows the teachings of George Whitefield who taught,
“We often pray best when we speak least. There are times when the heart is too big to speak…and perhaps the soul is never in a better frame than when, in a holy stillness and unspeakable serenity, it can put itself as a blank in Jesus’ hand, for him to stamp on it just what he pleases.”
Writing about Carthusian abbot, Guigo II and his twelfth-century classic, The Ladder of Monks, Muto summarizes Guigo’s description of the spiritual practice of lectio divina. She writes,
“Turning to the text in the initial act of reading, we pray that the Holy Spirit will open our hearts and enlighten our minds so that we may imbibe, beyond information, the formative meanings disclosed in the text, reading, so to speak, “between the lines” and remaining receptive to the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use the power of the word to touch and transform our lives. We abandon the potentially arrogant position of being a textual expert and become a disciple who not only reads but also prays with these words, who hears them not only in an auditory manner but also with the ears of the heart.”
Recently, my wife and I turned to the Epistle lesson for the week, found in the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of scripture readings, including an Old Testament passage, Psalm, Epistle lesson, and Gospel lesson each week. Each year follows one of the synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew, or Luke. The Gospel of John is interspersed throughout the three years, especially during the Holy seasons like Lent and Easter. Over the three-year cycle, one reads through much of the Bible. Many Protestant churches use the Revised Common Lectionary as it follows the Christian year and helps churches and pastors not focus simply on familiar and comfortable Biblical texts or jump around helter-skelter in the scriptures. You can follow the Revised Common Lectionary at…
The scripture my wife and I focused on was Romans 12: 9-16.
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, persevere in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
First, I read the scripture aloud several times, slowly as to hear each word, listening for the word or phrase that stuck out each time I read it. What word or phrase was I drawn to each time I heard the scripture read?
The phrase that stood out for me was “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” The phrase that stood out for my wife was, “…persevere in prayer.”
Since these two phrases or scriptures were back to back in the passage read, we focused on the two verses…”Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, persevere in prayer.”
I lifted these two verses up multiple times and we simply sat quietly, letting the words sink in, applying them to our current situations, issues, and emotions, letting the words speak to us.
Then we prayed, each taking turns, asking God to help us never to be “lacking in zeal,” to keep our enthusiasm, our “spiritual fervor,” for God’s work and His church, regardless of any struggles we might face. We prayed that God would help us, through His Holy Spirit, to “persevere in prayer.” We prayed that God would allow our enthusiasm, our joy, our zeal to be contagious, helping others to get excited about all God is doing and can do.
Lastly, we sat for a few moments quiet, listening, before we said our morning prayers, lifting up our family, friends, and churches, along with our worries and concerns to God.
It is a simply process, yet extremely difficult for so many of us in our hurried pace and busy schedules. What is difficult is that we need to be intentional about making the time. What is difficult is we need to learn to be quiet for awhile and not talk, just listen for God to speak. What is difficult is that sometimes what we hear through His Word, the phrase or scripture that will immediately connect with us, will also challenge us. At times we will not like this.
Lectio Divina is a process to “chew” on God’s Word, allowing it to sink in and attempting to hear what God wants to say to us individually through His Word. As with any practice, the more we do it, the more impactful and successful it will be.
Take time to sit with God this week. Take time to practice the spiritual discipline of Lectio Divina. Allow God’s Word to speak to you. Allow God, Himself, the Creator of the Universe, to speak to you.
Rev. Drew M. Christian
Thomas E. Trask and Wayde I. Goodall write,
“As any vineyard or orchard owner knows, dried up, dead branches do not produce fruit, for the branches are unable to receive nourishment from the vine. If the branches are healthy and properly connected to the vine, however, so that nutrients can flow through them, they will produce fruit as healthy as the vine to which they are attached. Likewise, we will produce the kind of fruit that pleases God if we are connected to his Son. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). When our lives are totally committed to God and we are determined to obey him, we will bear the fruit of Christ because he is the Vine! We cannot help bearing all the fruit of the Spirit when we remain in him.”
The spiritual disciplines of prayer, study (both biblical and devotional), meditation, solitude, silence, fasting, and vigil keeping, lead to a greater outpouring of the “fruits of the Spirit” in one’s life. As part of the journey my wife and I are traveling, it is our hope that the “fruits of the Spirit” will become more striking in our lives as we “gaze on the Son” and “drink deep draughts of God.”
Rev. Drew M. Christian