Spiritual Disciplines & The Classroom of Life

Photo Credit:  HFT Design

Photo Credit: HFT Design

LET’S GET SPIRITUAL!!!

What does it look like to live a spiritual life?  This is a question that I have had since I was young.  Even before I became a Christian I was drawn to spirituality and religion.  I wanted to know what it meant to be close to God and live a holy life.  Holy people are attractive to me.  Their selfless living, their intimacy with God, and their insight into life are things that I desire for myself.  This is why I was so drawn to the spiritual disciplines when I started my Christian walk;  practices like fasting, retreats of silence, lectio divina, and so forth.

In fact, if you want to make any money writing Christian books just write on discipleship, being “missional”, or the spiritual disciplines and you’re guaranteed to have a bestseller.  Why?  Because there is a powerful interest in rediscovering and re-applying these ancient practices of the Church, especially in evangelical circles.  During my years as an InterVarsity staff worker I would regularly take retreats of silence or practice disciplines like fasting as a way of growing in my walk with Christ.  I could easily do an hour-long daily devotion, complete with Scripture reading, journal writing, and praying.  I loved it.

A RUDE AWAKENING

However, my spiritual equilibrium was not to last, because my life was about to be interrupted by one of the greatest challenges to my spiritual walk that I would ever encounter:  children.  With the birth of our first and, two short years later, the arrival of our second, I quickly came to the realization that the days of hour-long devotions had come to an end.  With the kids waking up ungodly early and going to bed ungodly late, the academic demands of seminary, the responsibilities of work, and the need to continue to nurture my marriage with Jenny, I suddenly realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to enter my personal monastery and meditate on my place in God’s universe.  Why?  Because the barbarian hordes named two-and-four-year-old would regularly storm the cloister and upend the furniture.  And my spiritual life began to suffer.

Furthermore, this season at seminary has not made it easy to stay spiritually healthy.  In fact, I am convinced that nothing will endanger your faith as much as getting an M.Div.  This is largely because the things that you once enjoyed doing purely for the joy of doing them (studying Scripture, praying, sharing your faith, reading theology, going to church, etc) suddenly become homework assignments.  Furthermore, studies have shown that whenever you attach an external motivator (a grade) to an internal motivator (a love for reading the Bible), the joy you have in doing that activity drastically decreases.

The result was that these past 12 months have been some of the driest and most frustrating that I have had spiritually in recent memory.  My patience with my kids has been shorter, my desire to read Scripture almost gone, and my prayers increasingly scattered and disjointed.  But what I began to realize is that these issues were merely symptoms of a deeper problem

A STUNTED VIEW OF SPIRITUALITY

But if I’m going to be completely honest, the reason why this period has been so dry has very little to do with the kids or seminary.  While these two things have certainly been a change, it would be a cop-out to blame them for my spiritual drought.

So why haven’t I been able to cope?  Well, because I had developed a stunted view of the spiritual life.  I had come to see “spirituality” as something that could only be achieved through special practices and disciplines like fasting, retreats of silence, long devotions, extended prayers, and so forth.  These were my God times.

I had inadvertently defined spirituality as a rhythm of life that took me out of the world to “get away with the Lord” and now family and seminary were messing with my spiritual mojo.  I did not have the tools or resources to cope with these changing realities because I had not developed a view of spirituality that was able to encompass things like taking my kids to the bathroom or writing a paper on denominational history.

FINDING GOD IN THE MIDST OF THE MUNDANE

The truth is that I desperately needed to have my understanding of spirituality redefined.  Luckily, the answer came through one of my readings in seminary:  Here I Stand by Roland Bainton.  In that book Bainton summarizes Martin Luther’s view of “vocational calling” in the following way:

“God has called men to labor because he labors.  He works at common occupations.  God is a tailor who makes for the deer a coat that will last a thousand years.  He is a shoemaker also who provides boots that the deer will not outlive.  God is the best cook, because the heat of the sun supplies all the heat there is for cooking.  God is a butler who sets forth a feast for the sparrows and spends on them annually more than the total revenue of the king of France…As God, Christ, the Virgin, the prince of the apostles, and the shepherds labored, even so we must labor in our callings.  God has no hands and feet of his own.  He must continue his labors through human instruments.  The lowlier the task the better.  The milkmaid and the carter of manure are doing a work more pleasing to God than the psalm singing of a Carthusian.  Luther never tired of defending those callings which for one reason or another were disparaged.  The mother was considered lower than the virgin.  Luther replied that the mother exhibits the pattern of the love of God, which overcomes sins just as her love overcomes dirty diapers” (Bainton 233-234).

What this helped me realize was that true spirituality is found not in retreating from the world, but in seeing and depending on God as we go about our daily tasks.  Rather than waiting to meet God in a day-long retreat of silence or feeling like I need an hour-long devotional time, God is pleased to meet with me as I wash dishes or bathe my kids.  He has made me a husband and a father, a preacher and a student.  As such, doing homework well is more pleasing than five hours of solitude.  Playing with my kids is holier than skipping out on a meal.

Furthermore, it is in living out these callings that I am actually driven back to God.  He uses my life as a husband and father to round off my rough edges, to highlight my selfishness and sin, and to form me as someone who loves and cares for others.  As such, these moments actually become a motivator rather than a hindrance to prayer.

It makes me think of John the Baptist’s advice to those who came asking, “What shall we do?”  Rather than tell them to put on a camel’s fur coat and run into the wilderness to pray, he told the soldier to do his duty well and the tax collector to be fair and honest in his accounting.  He pointed people back to their daily lives and said, “Live your life to the glory of God.”

For the Christian, spirituality is about seeing God in the midst of the daily grind.  It is about seeing the mundane circumstances of our weeks as holy moments.  It is about encountering God in our daily walk, for he is a God who was incarnate in ordinary flesh, the divine and holy one who walked dusty roads with the “average Joe”s of the world.

SPIRITUALITY FOR THE AVERAGE JOE

What I’ve slowly been learning is that God does not call us to retreat from the world.  He doesn’t ask us to renounce the lives he has given us.  He doesn’t call us to leave our jobs in order to become monks (or nuns).  He places us in everyday circumstances and uses everyday tasks to serve others and to shape us as his children.  Rather than meeting us through additional practices and spiritual disciplines, he desires to meet us in the disciplines of daily living as we perform the tasks and functions to which we have been called.

This is not to say that spiritual disciplines are not important or have no value.  Rather, it is to say that they are optional and extracurricular; do them if you have time and only if they are helpful.  But what matters more is learning to see God in the midst of our daily lives, in the context of our immediate relationships, and as we perform the jobs and tasks which have been entrusted to us.  For these are holy moments, divine friendships, and disciplines which shape and refine us as people who know and trust God in all moments of life.

While I still have not figured out what spiritual value a paper on denominational history has, I’m beginning to see my daily moments as great times of learning from God as I play with my kids, love my wife, and dedicate myself to my studies.  Thanks be to God for meeting with this average Joe in the midst of the mundane.

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