Friday, July 20, 2012

What I learned from a humble college professor in Kansas

We do not become authentic Christians by osmosis. A disciplined spiritual life is necessary to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus.. The serious practice of what the church has called “holy habits” is imperative.
The basic spiritual discipline is that of prayer. All of the other disciplines flow out of this bedrock relationship to God. Daily communion with God gives us both the desire and the power to practice the other disciplines.
Praying can lead to problems. It did for Daniel of the Bible. His prayer life got Daniel in trouble. With most Christians it is the lack of prayer that results in difficulty.
Daniel made the mistake of praying to the wrong God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By doing so he violated the law of Persia that prayer should be offered to no one but Darius, the king. The penalty for breaking this law was death (thrown to the lions).
The officials of the king were smart enough to know that Darius was a mortal man, not a god. If nothing else they would have learned as much by observing the behavior of Darius’ predecessors, Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar. But the officials were jealous of Daniel’s popularity with the king; they did not want to share their power with Daniel. So they deceived the king into passing the ordinance forbidding anyone to pray to any god other than King Darius.
The naïve king did not realize that the ordinance was treacherously designed to eliminate Daniel. So, caught praying, Daniel was hauled before the king and thrown to the lions. Even though he expressed to Daniel the hope that his God would save him, the king went on his way, assuming the worst for Daniel.
The next morning the king found that Daniel was alive. God had closed the mouths of the lions. Darius was “exceedingly glad” and immediately decreed that all his people of Persia “should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, enduring forever.” Daniel’s courage and faith in God made a difference for the entire nation.
Daniel’s trust in God was so strong that he did not panic in the face of death. Centuries later the Apostle Paul demonstrated the same confidence in God. He kept the faith despite persecution and threats of death. Both Daniel and Paul were disciplined in prayer. Their confidence sprang from daily communion with God. Their examples inspire us to pray and trust God.
There are special people whose examples motivate us to seek a more disciplined spiritual life. God used the writing and the example of Richard J. Foster to inspire me to take more seriously the holy habits of the spiritual life. Foster is the most highly respected Quaker author of our time.
I met Foster before his books made him the best known Quaker in the world. When I arrived in Wichita, Kansas, to speak to the student body at Friends University, Foster met me at the airport. Then a professor of theology at the university, he had volunteered to serve as my host for the week. We loaded my luggage into his rundown station wagon and headed to the campus.
His casual dress, and his warm and unassuming manner, made me feel welcome and comfortable. His gracious hospitality made me feel at home in a town I had never visited before. I told him how much I had enjoyed his book, Celebration of Discipline. The book had been published about two years before and was becoming quite popular. At the time neither of us had any idea that his book would sell more than a million copies and be named one of the top ten books of the 2oth Century.
I realized later what a beautiful thing had happened to me. Foster made no effort to impress me. He put aside his own work and took the time be my host. Months later it dawned on me that Richard Foster, the most famous man ever to serve as my chauffeur, was simply practicing the simplicity that he describes in his books as one of the basic spiritual disciplines of devout Christians. His book, Freedom of Simplicity, is one of the best I have read.  And I know from personal experience the man practices what he preaches!
Foster divides the holy habits into three groups: the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study; the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service; and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
When I read Foster’s Celebration of Discipline from time to time, I try to guard against heaping shame upon myself for my lack of discipline. Shame seldom propels us into growth. When we examine our spiritual life honestly, most of us come away feeling guilty. We feel we do not measure up very well compared to the zeal of a Daniel or a Paul.
Guilt hinders our spiritual progress if we allow it to hang around and whip us down. But guilt can help us if we let it motivate us to forgive ourselves for past failures and make a fresh start in living a seriously disciplined life for Christ.
The best way to approach spiritual disciplines is to set aside some time and get into them one day at a time. We should make sure we have the right motive – not to become more pious than other believers but to become more useful to our Lord Jesus Christ. The greatest reward of spiritual growth is a deeper friendship with God.
I know a man who runs a hundred miles a week. He wants to become as strong as he can be so he can compete well in his next marathon run. He is disciplined for a purpose. If he can practice discipline in order run well, surely I can practice holy habits in order to please my Lord and become a more effective servant of the One who died for my sins.
It makes sense to do the best we can to become the best that grace can make us. Our growth in grace honors our Lord. That makes it worth any price we must pay.
Where shall we begin? Each of us must decide. As for me, I feel the Spirit nudging me to improve the simplicity of my life. Freedom from the tyranny of things is a reward that will bless me – and make me a blessing.
Begin anywhere the Spirit leads you. Don’t wait for someone to join you. Be a self-starter. Be a Daniel. Be disciplined regardless of what others may think. For most of us the room for improvement is the biggest room in our spiritual house. Get started – now. + + +

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