(note: this is part one of two).
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said (Mark 1:17)
One: Following Jesus – a rule of life
Training. There has always been a part of me that was very attracted to the ascetic life. I’ve been fascinated by the desert fathers and their countercultural practices and I admire people who train hard on any regimen, physical or spiritual. And yet as I reflect on my years of following Jesus, I think I have lived a rather “undisciplined” life. It might go without saying that our culture is usually no help here: we are tyrannized by the urgent, we feed voraciously on the opinions and approval of others, we value style over substance, and our attention spans diminish as our distractions increase. But there is a whisper in the soul, the echo of a voice calling us to a deeper life with God. Spiritual disciplines have seemed something I needed and something I should be doing. But I was nervous about them. I was afraid of failing at them, or that they wouldn’t yield what they promised, or that pursing them hard would be some kind of theological mistake or rabbit-trail.
Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines put an end to my wrangling and settled the issue for me of the purpose and place of the disciplines in life. The Spiritual Disciplines, or “training for kingdom living,” are not a special set of religious practices pursued as a backdoor attempt at meriting favor from God. They are a simply a means of daily grace from God: training methods that teach us to follow God in the midst of the unique, daily life that he has given to each of us. My own discipline had been spotty and accidental at best. I read regularly to renew my mind, I run to train my body, I work on loving my wife – so why is it that I take so little pains to train my own soul?
Around six years ago I came to the unsettling conclusion that despite my language to the contrary, I had not really decided and intended to follow Jesus with all that I am and have. Rereading some books, skimming selections in the Devotional Classics, and meditating on Psalm 27 brought me to the point where I could no longer think of any reason to hold back from such an intention. As C. S. Lewis said, I wanted to be made into a “little Christ:” to take on his character, formed from the inside out, and to be a genuine follower of Jesus. The only thing that kept me away was my own (still large) selfish will. But that, too, had to go. To borrow Annie Dillard’s words, I wanted to see the stars: therefore I chose to walk into the dark.
With that in mind, I wanted to adopt a “rule of life.” In classic times, askesis meant “practice, training” – a program of activity that allowed you to do what you could not simply by direct effort alone (it’s the verb behind Acts 24:16). It provides an ancient, well-worn pathway to walk in the desire to follow Jesus. A related word is gymnazo (“to train,” as in 1 Tim. 4:7-8). It was time for Andy to enter what the ancients called “the gymnasium for the soul.” Eugene Peterson once proposed that the following three activities serve as the historic, foundational askesis for all Christian believers.
- the practice of common worship: joining other believers in regular worship of God.
- practicing the presence of God: routinely turning our thoughts, desires, and actions to God.
- daily praying the Psalms: working through them as our teachers in the school of prayer.
Any life with God begins only at His invitation and by His grace. Given my historic lack of discipline, I tried to adopt these three classic practices as my own – adding to them the daily reading of chunks of Scripture. There are many variations to this and tons of classic spiritual practices, chief among which is the simple obedience to Jesus in thought, word, and action. Some people add physical or dietary regimens for a time, various working, resting, reading or speaking habits, and so on (see Willard’s book or Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook for a wonderful survey). Take up the ones that suit your need at the present moment, remembering that the spiritual disciplines you adopt are “tools,” not “rules” (as my friend Nate Stratman memorably puts it).
So what about you? Have you ever thought about or adopted a rule of life? What have been your own spiritual practices? Do you find yourself interested, intrigued, or drawn to this?
(Up next: part 2 – when spiritual formation clashes with student ministry in church-world)