Making Spiritual Disciplines More Than Just Another “To Do”

Spiritual disciplines aren’t just one more thing to keep us busy. They don’t exist to occupy our mind. We don’t do them as penance. Spiritual disciplines are here for us as tools to focus on God, put him first and find our ultimate delight and fulfillment solely in God. Too often in the past, I have taught the “how to’s” of the disciplines without teaching the “Why”. The key ingredient to making the spiritual disciplines (things like prayer, fasting, scripture reading & rest) effective is identifying their purpose.

Why do these things? We do them because they draw us closer to God. Left to ourselves, doing the things that come natural to us, drawing near to God is difficult. It takes us doing things that at first don’t come natural to us (like abstaining from food!) in order to get in tune with God on a level that goes beyond the ordinary. Once we understand that these practices draw us closer to God they more easily become a natural and regular part of our lives. But before that can be true we have to really, really desire God. If we don’t desire God, we won’t desire to be closer to Him. If we don’t believe we can actually find fulfillment in God we won’t desire to draw closer to Him.

The effectiveness of the spiritual disciplines rest solely on our desire for God. Without that we are just going through the motions. Once we understand that and FEEL that draw and that desire, the disciplines become powerful, transformative and normative in the Christian life. What once felt so unnatural becomes a natural part of our lives. So before we teach the disciplines, let’s make sure we start with the “Why” otherwise we are just teaching more “to do’s”. More on the disciplines in some upcoming posts.

P.S. – As I have been studying through the disciplines I have been convicted that one has been missing from many lists is the discipline of waiting (read Psalm 37 and see if it doesn’t come across that way to you). It is also one of the most needed disciplines in Western culture today.

Shame: Us, God & Psalm 25

In the beginning, God made everything unashamedly good,  “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen 2:25). Fast forward one chapter…the fruit, a serpent, temptation…being like God?, a bite…another bite, fear & shame. It went like this,

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” – Gen 3:6-10

Their reaction to their actions was a classic shame response – they tried to cover it/themselves up (with fig leaves and actual hiding) because they were afraid. Shame has a way of making us afraid to face reality. Sometimes shame comes from something we have done. Other times we feel shame because of something someone has done to us.

Recently, I have had several conversations with people who are facing tremendous levels of shame and fear. They are going through this same process we see in Genesis 3 – poor decisions were made and ever since they have experienced shame, fear and have tried to cover it up. But you can only cover it up for so long before you realize that freedom only comes in answering God’s question, “Where are you?” When God asks that, he really needs to hear our honest answer. Maybe our answer is that we are in a really dark place because of our decisions. Or maybe our answer is that we are in a mess because of what others have done to us and we just cannot let it go. If we are going to get past the shame we have to start with telling God where we are, right here and now. If we aren’t honest about that and express it to Him, it can never be fully dealt with and healing will come slow, if ever.

One of the places I have turned in helping people deal with shame is Psalm 25. I am going to let this psalm speak for itself…just notice how the end of shame comes from God and our trusting in His guidance.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
    in you I trust, O my God.
Do not let me be put to shame,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
No one whose hope is in you
will ever be put to shame,
but they will be put to shame
who are treacherous without excuse.

Show me your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths;
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.
Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love,
for they are from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you are good, O Lord.

Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way.
10 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful
for those who keep the demands of his covenant.
11 For the sake of your name, O Lord,
forgive my iniquity, though it is great.
12 Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord?
He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.
13 He will spend his days in prosperity,
and his descendants will inherit the land.
14 The Lord confides in those who fear him;
he makes his covenant known to them.
15 My eyes are ever on the Lord,
for only he will release my feet from the snare.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 The troubles of my heart have multiplied;
free me from my anguish.
18 Look upon my affliction and my distress
and take away all my sins.
19 See how my enemies have increased
and how fiercely they hate me!
20 Guard my life and rescue me;
let me not be put to shame,
for I take refuge in you.
21 May integrity and uprightness protect me,
because my hope is in you.

22 Redeem Israel, O God,
from all their troubles!

If you are dealing with shame, hand it over to God…follow His lead and let him redeem whatever it is that has happened to you or that you have done in order to get beyond what you are going through. When God deals with it, that is a profound act of grace.

Experiential Study of the Psalms

We studied the Psalms in our 20s & 30s class a few months ago. In doing so, we made an attempt to not just talk about the psalms but to allow the voice of the psalms to speak into the class itself. We wanted to hear what they say and then reflect on them rather than get caught up into all kinds of lecture on poetic tools, authorship, and all of that (all good topics for study of course!). I also just uploaded this in the Bible Class Archive. This study put the free material in there over 3000 pages!

Here is the pdf of that study we called Psalms In Real Life

Teaching the Psalms: Experience First, Discuss Second

When I started teaching the psalms a few months ago I started with a pretty standard teaching method, discuss your topic for a while and then dig into some examples. After doing this a few times I realized it didn’t really work as well for the psalms. You get a bunch of people talking about what lament is, how you do it, why we can relate to it and then read a few psalms to actually get informed after we had already had a lot of discussion. The weakness here is that you have people throw around opinions for 20 minutes before you even read a Lament psalm together. I realized it would be a lot more effective to let a few Lament psalms sink in and then talk about what happened. So we would read a Lament psalm say 2-3 times over and over again, let it sink in and then talk about what we heard and relate it to our lives. Then we would try another psalm and do it again. This became the approach for the class and it seemed to work really well. Maybe that will be helpful to someone out there who is trying to figure out what approach they want to take to reading and/or teaching the psalms.

Who Do You Find in the Psalms?

I have been teaching the psalms over the last two months with our 20s & 30s class. After the first three weeks I noticed something that had never occurred to me before. It hit me that a lot of the ways people approach the psalms have a lot to do with finding ourselves in the text. We have psalms for all seasons: lament when times are tough and praise psalms for when times are good. Walter Brueggemann took this approach in his books The Message of the Psalms & The Spirituality of the Psalms when he divided the psalms into three categories: Psalms of Orientation (all is well), Disorientation (things are tough) and Psalms of New Orientation (things were tough but now things are back right again). He noticed that the psalms seemed to go through these moves pretty regularly. I have to say that I love that way of dividing the psalms. I am not being critical of it and I think it is a good tool for studying the psalms. The weakness of this approach is that it has us trying to find ourselves in the psalms again. That isn’t a hugely bad thing. I think God wants us to find ourselves in the text, relate to it, let it speak to us, etc.

However, there is more to find in the psalms than ourselves. If we go there and just find ourselves and nothing more than we are to be pitied because we have no hope. Our hope comes from the Lord. He is who we find in the psalms over and above ourselves. The psalmist is not looking to find himself in these psalms. In all types of psalms the psalmists are looking for God. They already know where they are and if things are good or bad. If the psalms are only a mirror of our own condition with no offer of hope or change to be brought about from God on high then we are in trouble! In any and all circumstances of life, God is to be sought out, either to cry out for help or to praise with music and song. So I have adjusted my approach to not try to solely find myself in the psalms (while that can be helpful) but to first and foremost find God there and let Him work on me.

Psalm 23 from the Jewish Publication Societies Translation of the Psalms

The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff–they comfort me.

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long years.

Worship as Visceral, Whole Body Experience – Psalm 63

A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.

1 O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

6 On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
7 Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

9 They who seek my life will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
10 They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.

11 But the king will rejoice in God;
all who swear by God’s name will praise him,
while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

When did David actually see God in the sanctuary? How did David’s soul cling to God? How is a soul able to thirst? For David worship was visceral. It was real and powerful and profound. It wasn’t a mental exercise. It came out of real circumstances (in this instance time in the desert). It was an outpouring of everything. Worship was a complete unity of worshiper to the worshiped. It captured all the senses and involved all of David’s attention. It wasn’t singing through a song because it happened to be the one projected on the screen. It wasn’t going through motions, checking boxes, or a mental exercise. For David, worship was an exercise of the soul. It was a response to the reality of the presence of God. Worship was so real and powerful to David that it was in that moment that the unseen became so real, so present, so heavy, that he was able to say he had seen the Lord and beheld him. That is real, powerful and profound.

How do we make Sunday seem like anything but ordinary? How do we take the routine out of Sunday worship and reconnect it with the heart and soul of worshiper and the worshiped? When was the last time worship felt like that for you?

God’s Involvement in Our Suffering

People say you learn a lot about God when you have children. It is true. Lessons are everywhere if you just have your eyes open. One struck me last week I wanted to share. When Jonah is teething he frequently gets high fevers and has twice had febrile seizures. We were monitoring his temperature this weekend and at one point it hit 105! So we did what we hate to do but know is best for him. We got the lukewarm bath ready, got him undressed and placed him in it. If you have ever attempted such a thing you know how miserable it is. They hate it and fight you ever minute of the way. It is agonizing. He does not know it is what is good for him. He just knows it does not feel so good. From his perspective it is terrible.

But as his father I know it is what he needs and there is no safter place for him to be than in my hands. And so I gently but firmly do what has to be done whether he understands it or not. It is for his health and safety. Even though he does not understand it, it is necessary.

I think that is a good picture of the involvement of God in our suffering. People often think God must be the last one to know how bad things have gotten and so we ask him where he is or why he is not doing anything to help. Little do we know he is the first to know and we rest in his hands even though we do not understand what is happening or how he is involved in it all. There is no safer place to be than in the hands of our Father, whether in suffering and pain or in comfort and peace. I think this is reflected very well in Psalm 23.

What lessons have you learned about God from your children or your suffering?

Books of the Bible and Application to 20 Somethings

In teaching 20s & 30s on a regular basis I am finding the need to be relevant more and more important. It is not that relevance didn’t used to be important. It just seems theology disconnected from real life application tends to fall on deaf ears a lot quicker in young adults than in my experience in teaching older adults. Can anyone relate?

While all the books of the Bible have relevance and application there are several that stand out to me that seem to resonate very quickly with where many in their early adult years find themselves. Here are a few. What would you add?

  • Gospel of Mark – action packed, to the point, and it doesn’t get any better than studying about Jesus when it comes to spiritual and identity formation. Today’s young adults are people of action and Mark tends to resonate well with them.
  • Joshua – Trusting God’s lead & promise going into uncertain circumstances.
  • Ephesians – I love them emphasis on where God has brought us from and where he is taking us to. This is spiritual formation and transformation at its best. So many of our young adults have not grown up as Christians, just like many in the first century, and can relate well with letters like Ephesians.
  • Psalms – Are young adults aren’t afraid to express their emotions, much like David in the psalms. The full range of emotions and the since that the psalms are very real is appealing and attractive to young people.
  • James – oh, so practical. Straight to the point with no beating around the bushes. So why not add Proverbs too.
  • Proverbs – See James.

There are so many one could add to the list (again, all are relevant in their own way). What would you add and why?

God Does the Healing

My father-in-law who is a chiropractor pointed out that all the medical professions do is line things up for the body to work properly and heal. They don’t actually do the healing. God designed us in such a fantastic way to be able to heal our bodies. He knit us together so perfectly (Psalm 139:13-14). Doctors take credit for much and rightfully so but in the end it is God who does the actual healing. Doctors didn’t design our bodies. Doctors don’t make chemical reactions react the way they do in just the right sequence to bring healing. God does. When Jesus healed people he actually healed. He did more than just line the body up to heal itself…that can takes days, months and even longer. When he healed people he instantly made them whole and well again. He had the power and authority to do that because of his divinity.

As I pointed this out to Jim today he made the point that this is also true spiritually speaking. Evangelism is an effort to line things up so that God can work the way He works. We don’t do the saving. We don’t do the healing. We just allow ourselves to be used to put things in an advantageous position for God to do those things himself. It is important for us to realize that evangelism and bringing spiritual healing to people doesn’t solely depend on us getting it all perfect and having just the right words to say. All we can do is position ourselves and others in the most advantageous position as possible and then realize that the other 99% of healing is wholly dependent upon God.