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Spiritual Disciplines as Identity Shaping ©

Imagine for a moment that you are asked to represent your country in a long distance run at the next Olympic games!  With exultant pride you commit yourself to a rigorous training regimen. But … activities have a way of intruding and every time you are scheduled to train something comes up. Never-the-less, you remain deeply committed to representing the United States at a gold medal level in the upcoming Olympic race. You buy the best running shoes. You dress in training clothes that purport to enhance your natural ability to run a long-distance race. You subscribe to “Runners World” magazine to learn crucial tips on how to run a long-distance race. But … activities have a way of intruding and every time you are scheduled to train something comes up. You fly off to the Olympics and march with great zeal and even greater pride in the opening ceremony planning to train hard the next day. But … the next morning you have trouble getting up. You celebrated a little too hard in the aftermath of the opening ceremony. Yet your commitment to run well remains strong!  Passionate in zeal and ardent in will, you look forward with assiduous determination to the race ahead. Finally, the big day for the race comes. Resplendent in a gleaming United States Olympic runners outfit, you take your place at the starting line. The gun goes off!  You burst to the lead and for the first ten yards you are in front of the entire pack of runners. At 25 yards other runners start to pass you. Within 50 yards you are desperately gasping for breath. By 100 yards you have collapsed in a heap on the track. You failed to train for the race and so lost abysmally! I have offered a shortened paraphrase of the opening illustration from the third chapter of The Life You’ve Always Wanted written by John Ortberg. Entitled “Training vs. Trying” the 3rd chapter of that marvelous book is worth the price of book all by itself!  It points us to the central aspect of the spiritual disciplines in building a Christ-centered identity. In a series of blogs, I have written about the crucial issues facing us both individually and collectively as Christian in divisive hyper politicized culture and country. Ø  Beyond Political Identity: Grounding Ourselves in the Word and way of God - July 25, 2018 Ø  The Identity Dilemma – August 3, 2018 Ø  Recovering a Christian Identity – August 10, 2018 Ø  Recovering the Fullness of the Christian Story – August 17, 2018 My focus has been on the primary contention that our identity “in Christ,” as disciples of Christ (answering the great command of Matthew 28:16-20) – committed disciplined followers of Jesus as Lord and Savior – must claim first place in our lives. Cultural identity – whether driven by politics, ethnicity, or nationality – cannot claim primary allegiance and identity for Christians. Our primary point of identity should be in allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord (faith biblically defined as trusting obedience). Again, I emphasize, “The days of casual Christianity are fast fading. This is a good thing, not something to be feared or fought. Painfully we are learning that the Christian faith cannot be subsumed under any political label. It is not something that adheres to the conservative wing of the Republican Party or the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The challenge from the Master cuts across our conventions and finds its own identity in Christ and him alone towering above all Pygmies pretenders (be they party, nationality, ethnicity, economic or anything else.” Each of the last two blogs have argued for concrete actions that help us as disciples claim our primary identity in Christ. First, we must live out of a self-conscious personal and public commitment to Christ as our ruler – our master and commander. This involves a “long obedience in the same direction.”  Second, we must be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2) through a recovery of the fullness of the Christian story.  This involves biblical and theological work reclaiming core doctrines like creation, fall, the cross and resurrection (the full implications of salvation in and through Christ), and the development of a robust understanding of the purpose and ministry of the church as the Body of Christ (unfolding in the fullness of sanctification – holiness of heart and life). In this blog I turn to a third intensely practical step in claiming and reclaiming a primary identity in Christ. The practice of spiritual disciplines is a non-negotiable element of gaining and maintaining a Christian identity. As I ruminate on what guides us into a primary identity centered on Christ (over and above a political or cultural identity), I find myself returning again and again to some of the distinctive Wesleyan points of emphasis. The original Wesleyan movement was a Christian recovery of vital spiritual disciplines which buttress and enhance a ministry of holiness – sanctification. We modern Methodists usually jump at this point quickly to issues of sanctification – holiness of heart and life – with emphasis in missional outreach activities of love, justice and mercy. To our detriment we tend to skip over what led people to call us (derisively at first!) “Methodists.”  Namely, we were methodical about Christian discipline (what is loosely called spiritual disciplines today) and practice. To live with a vital Christ-centeredness as our primary identity necessitates the “methodical” practice of spiritual disciplines. Think of the first gatherings of the Wesley’s (John and Charles), Whitefield, and the gang at Oxford. They formed a “holy club” with a deep practice of spiritual disciplines yoked to mutual spiritual accountability. (I once heard a campus minister say, “after all, the Methodist movement started with a bunch of college kids who were determined to take Christ and living as a Christian seriously. He is right!) This lead to the initial commitment to small group discipleship in what were called “Class Meetings.”  Such discipline anchors us in Christ and to each other simultaneously. Other basic practices include (but aren’t limited to): Ø  Regular weekly worship of God Ø  Regular participation in Holy Communion Ø  Daily quiet time for prayer and spiritual reflection/growth Ø  Searching the Scriptures Ø  Regular engagement in the deeds of love, justice and mercy (especially with the poor and hurting) Ø  Financial giving/generosity Over the years, I have written numerous blogs on the topic of spiritual disciplines, excellent resources abound. We do not lack for resources or materials. Our challenge is to develop and keep the discipline of spiritual formation. If we are to recover our primary identity in Christ, we must recover the “holy club” practices and daily disciplines. We need to be what we are – methodical about our practices. I want to emphasize two crucial practices. The first, as I have noted earlier, involves regular participation in a small group (“class meeting”) for spiritual encouragement, support and accountability. The second crucial practice is the great need for quiet time for prayer and reflection. My spiritual mentor, Dr. Sid Spain, has drilled into me the mantra to “make the time and find the place.”  Making time, rather than finding time, involves disciplined commitment. For me, it is regularly15 minutes at the start of the day. (Lately I have found myself expanding the length to 30 minutes when possible.)  Sid pushes me to spend time in quiet – utter quiet and stillness. His graceful prodding is a real blessing in my life. Sid is taking his congregation through the great spiritual discipline of Lectio Divina or Divine Reading. He comments that the Lectio Divina “is a traditional way to read scripture, meditate and pray. Lectio Divina helps us deepen our awareness of the Presence of God and our communion with God. It also increases and deepens our knowledge of God’s Word. In divine reading, we do not approach sacred Scripture merely as a text to be studied; we open ourselves to Christ, the Living Word, inspired, taught, and experienced by the Holy Spirit.” He shares the practical steps taken in engaging in Lectio Divina: “First, we read the passage—usually three times. The first time we simply read the passage we have chosen and listen for any word or phrase that stands out to us. The second time we read more slowly and linger with any arresting word, phrase, or thought that rises from our reading. The third time we allow our attention to dwell on that part of the text. Feel free to make notes on what you are thinking. At another time, these thoughts may guide further research, study, or writing. The second step is to meditate on what you have read, to focus on how the passage speaks to you. Sit and let your mind sift and sort your thoughts on the text. Follow the path of your questions and insights. The third step is to pray; take time to articulate your thoughts in prayer to God. The prayer can take any form—a question about what you have read, a prayer of thanksgiving for what you have read, a prayer for yourself or someone else whose name or special need has been sparked by what you have read, a song or verse of praise. The fourth step is to contemplate. In contemplation we try to sit in silence; we ask God to help us still the thoughts and feelings that fill minds—we sit still, in silence, and simply listen. This is usually the difficult part of Lectio Divina for most people—few of us are comfortable with silence, and many of us have a hard time sitting still for any length of time without “doing” something. Be patient with yourself and don’t try too hard. This is a place where good intention really counts. However persistent, random and chaotic your mental and physical fidgeting may be, God will honor your desire to experience the Presence of the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”  (Dr. Sid Spain, Pastor of Eagle United Methodist Church, Eagle, Colorado) The discipline of Lectio Divina or some other similar system that makes time for quiet, prayer, and scriptural guided reflection is powerfully life transforming. I am convinced that we (in America) live life at a pace that is simply unsustainable. This is part of the reason for things like burnout, the growth of angry reactivity (and rabid partisanship), divorce and a veritable epidemic of loneliness among younger adults. It is worth careful reflection that when Lord commands Elijah to stand before him on Mt. Horeb God speaks in the quiet. “The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound, “Thin. Quiet.” (I Kings 19:11-12) Some translations render the phrasing “the still small voice.”  Others, “a gentle whisper.”  I think the New Revised Standard translation is best. It renders the closing, “a sound of sheer silence.” We need the discipline of spiritual quiet and attentiveness to tune both our hearts and minds to hear the Lord speaking to us above and beyond the cacophony of modern life and especially American political clamor. In the spiritual disciplines of a “methodical” identity, we are anchored in Christ. Here we find our identity in relating to the truly triune greatness of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, we are delivered to grace filled faithfulness. Such is the topic of my next blog.