Spiritual Disciplines: Awakening to Life

08.29.19 | Leader Development, Discipleship Formation | by Melissa Lauber

    Leaders practice disciplines

    Church leaders must have, more than other traits, a deep and abiding commitment to spiritual disciplines, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, often stresses when she speaks at churches. This commitment is not to show how holy these leaders are. Rather, God uses these disciplines to lead them into life and awaken new insights into discipleship.

    The reason we practice spiritual disciplines, the bishop said, is to be awakened to God and conformed to the image of Christ. A rich practice of spiritual disciplines is not something to be squeezed into one’s busy life. Rather they are central, forming habits of grace that will shape how we encounter the world and how the world encounter us.

    What are spiritual disciplines? They have their foundation in the Spirit, ruach in the Old Testament, pneuma in New, which calls people to respond to the presence, call and rhythms of God within us.

    The mystic Brother Lawrence refers to spirituality and “the practice of the presence of God.”

    Disciplines can feel like a more antiquated word. It refers to practices, things we do with rigor because we believe they are sacred, things we allow to govern our thinking and actions.

    There are several biblical spiritual disciplines: fasting, prayer, sabbath-keeping, worship, tithing and others. But there are also practices created by groups and individuals that perform a similar purpose to draw the practitioners into the presence and promise of God.

    Clergy are called for set-apart ministry, and, as part of their ordination, answer 19 historic questions whose answers help shape a determination to employ all their time in the work of God. In United Methodist churches, the laity are not volunteers “doing” ministry. Rather they are disciples, called by their vows to support the church through their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

    Together, both groups are called to work in partnership with one another to create communities of faith in which people can grow deeper in their discipleship and go out to serve and transform their communities and world.

    Wesleyan Means of Grace

    Courageous and forward-leaning mission congregations practice spiritual disciplines. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, taught that God’s grace is unearned and that we were not to be idle waiting to experience grace but we are to engage in the means of grace.

    The means of grace are ways God works invisibly in disciples, hastening, strengthening; and confirming faith so that God’s grace pervades in and through disciples.

    These means of grace can be divided into works of piety and the works of mercy for individuals and communities.

    Works of piety include:

    • Individual Practices – reading, meditating and studying Scripture, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living and sharing our faith with others; and
    • Communal Practices – regularly share in the sacraments, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study.

    Works of mercy include:

    • Individual Practices – doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others; and
    • Communal Practices – seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (for instance Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor.

    Making disciples, growing faith communities and transforming the world is part of a spiritual adventure that is empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit as churches engage in the means of grace. Spiritual goals are accomplished by connecting the means of grace with proven vibrant church practices such as planning, strategic direction, prioritization, clear focus, alignment and developed discipleship systems.

    Fasting for the heart of God

    This Lent, in the 40 days leading up to Easter, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling and Cabinet are calling upon the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference to fast one day a week.

    Fasting is biblical, cited time and again as a practice used by people in any number of circumstances to align themselves with the will of God. Jesus fasted and called upon his disciples to fast.. Throughout time and tradition, fasting is the most universally applied discipline.

    John Wesley believed so strongly in the spiritual power of fasting that he refused to ordain anyone into Methodist ministry who did not fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

    For those who are new to fasting, it is important to note this practice is always accompanied by prayer. It is an exercise of penitence and sacrifice that builds self-control and demonstrates our reliance on God.

    “Man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word spoken by God,” Jesus said. Fasting draws people into the heart of that statement.

    While abstaining from food and drink, except for water, from sunrise to sundown is a traditional method of fasting, there are many variations on this practice. Some people add juice, others revise the time period, some fast from things other than food – like television or spending money.

    It is also possible to adjust a fast to, for example, eat only one meal per day; or eat a limited diet abstaining from animal products, alcohol and sweets; or from sugar or snacking.

    When we fast, we reorient ourselves away from the things that distract us and place our focus on God. The intention of fasting is not deprivation, but to place our hearts in alignment with God’s will. As David wrote in Psalm 69:10, “I humbled my soul with fasting.”

    For anyone with any health concerns, it is always necessary to consult a doctor before fasting.

    This Lent, the intention of the conference-wide fast is to take people out of the realm of the physical to focus their attention on God and to shift attention from the immediate things that demand our energy and attention to who and what God is calling us to be.

    Daily Themes for Lenten Fast

    For those who need a focal point in their fasts, the following daily themes are suggested. The first focuses on a social concern, and the second on a ministry area.

    For example, if you pray on Tuesday, read Tuesday’s focus and pray about one or more of the things, let it enter your thoughts; during mealtimes, devote time to reflecting on this; and when you’re hungry, lift these things to God’s attention and ponder how they might influence your daily life and ministry.

    United Methodists do not fast on Sundays during Lent. Rather, they look upon Sundays as mini-Easters and celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

    Monday – Immigration. Pioneering new faith communities – for our churches, for expressions of the Gospel being lived out in people’s lives, for new beginnings, and for the places where God’s presence is keenly needed or felt.

    Tuesday – The Opioid Epidemic. Advocating and acting – for those who are hurting, in need or facing trials; for the places where darkness has overcome the light; for immigrants; for justice and God’s shalom.

    Wednesday – Homelessness. Building Generational Bridges – for children, youth and young adults experiencing joys and challenge; to find meaning, a sense of community and love in every season.

    Thursday – Gun Violence. Living Abundantly – for those who are sick or tired in body, mind or spirit; for hope to be born or rekindled; for health and wholeness; for people to thrive and live in the abundance of God.

    Friday – Racism. Leading Boldly – for those in leadership in the church and world, for our communities, nation and global community; that people may be fully alive in all that God calls them to be.

    Saturday – The Future of the Church. Awakening Faith – for the heart of each person, that they may more fully know God; for our churches and a revival of discipleship; that we each may become living prayers.

    Silence and Solitude

    For you: In Psalm 46:10 God commands us, “Be still and know that I am God.” Just as Jesus withdrew from the crowd, we are called to regularly escape the noise and busy-ness of our lives to rest in silence and solitude. 

    Create a place and time of quiet to listen for that “still small voice” of God. When we’re not overwhelmed by the clamor of technology, it’s easier to rediscover our true selves and reflect on the holy.

    Your church: Even though it might seem to evoke a sense of discomfort for some, provide for more time for silent prayer and reflection in worship; or offer your sanctuary or some other sacred space to hold a silent retreat for an evening.

    Practice Gratitude

    For you: This spiritual practice might best be described by the theologian Henri  Nouwen: “Gratitude goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

    Your church: In the prayer list in the bulletin, or during the sharing of joys and concerns, solicit and include prayers of gratitude. In Sunday School classes, encourage the children and youth to create gratitude journals and to recognize and count their blessings together.

    Lectio Divina

    For you: With a spirt of wisdom and play, choose a passage of Scripture. Study it in four phases:

    Lectio: read it slowly, aloud, two or three times, savoring each word and phrase.
    Meditatio: reflect upon what you read, moving into the test, experiencing it also.
    Oratio: respond to the text, talking with others or journaling your response to how it speaks to you.
    Contemplatio: deeply contemplate the text and explore how it can be applied in your life.

    Your church: Gather a group to share together in lectiodivina. Broaden the focus to explore imago divina, using the same process to consider images and pictures that stir the soul. You might want to also consider creating a florilegium – literally a little book of flowers – with Bible verses that have struck your group and a word or two about how they are meaningful. The florilegium could be used as a devotional piece for the congregation.

    Breath Prayer

    For you: Based on the book, “The Way of a Pilgrim,” from the 1850s the breath prayer in its simplest forms, joins your inhalations and exhalations with the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” These words can be adapted. Breathe in saying a name of God that means something to you; and exhale with three or four words you wish to share with God.

    The Breath prayer can be used when you’re walking or in a contemplative setting. It can also be used with prayer beads or knotted strings.

    Your church: Take time during worship to teach everyone how to pray with their breath, and incorporate it into the liturgy. Use sermons, conversations, art or Bible study to explore, as the Pilgrim did, what it means to “pray without ceasing.”

    Ignatian Examen 

    For you: Created by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Examen is a method of reviewing your day in the presence of God. Set aside about 15 minutes for reflection and consider the following:

    Ask God for light; looking at the day with God’s eyes and not just your own.

    Give thanks for the day and review it while guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Face your shortcomings, in your life and yourself.

    Look forward to the day to come and invite God to be present.

    Your church: Create a small group that can share, in Ignatius’ words, their “consolations and desolations” – or moments of the enlivening and stifling of God’s spirit. Pray for one another. Follow Ignatius’ other remarks:  “Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God,” then, “Go forth and set the world on fire.”

    A Few Other Spiritual Disciplines

    • Find a spiritual director who will provide you with disinterested loving attention as you share your soul in deep and authentic conversation.
    • Spend time serving others. With Christ in mind, put your love into action.
    • Tithe, faithfully giving a percentage of your income to God’s work through the local church.
    • Practice small and unexpected acts of kindness.
    • Grab your smartphone and go on a photo safari, taking photos of where you see the sacred in things.
    • Each time you wash your hands, remember your baptism.
    • Use your body in prayer – kneel, lie prostrate, dance, raise your arms and carry yourself into the presence of God.
    • Walk the Stations of the Cross, or if you are feeling creative, using art or writing, design pieces to illustrate each of the 14 stations and use these in a time of contemplation. Learn more at www.crivoice.org/stations.html or www.catholic.org/prayers/station.php
    • Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word shabbat, which means to cease.
    • Practice patience.
    • Embrace simplicity throughout your home and life. Discover what is essential.