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Tag: spiritual discipline

Spiritual Calisthenics

Have you ever tried to do something that flat-out humiliates you? Something you have absolutely no idea how to do and is so far beyond your abilities? Don’t stop because thats a perfect metaphor for the spiritual life.

Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

1 Timothy 4:7b-8, NIV84

In fact, that’s exactly how I feel–that hopelessness and embarrassment–about calisthenics skills. Most other physical pursuits I’ve tried have seemed attainable if only I’d put more effort in. I’d either already mastered the movements, or at least have been familiar enough with appropriate foundational movement patterns that I was able to do it in a small number of tries. Basketball, soccer, weightlifting, and marathon running are simply not that difficult. They are all composed of very basic movement patterns that literally everyone uses every day of their lives. The coordination takes only a modest amount of training and practice to become proficient. You just add weight or try to move faster.

Body weight calisthenics skills are something else altogether. Instead of standing on your feet and legs-your strongest body parts-you stand on your hands and arms-much less strong. Instead of using your legs to perform explosive movements with your arms, you use your arms to perform explosive pull-ups and muscle ups. Your anterior core (abs) become no less important than your posterior core and shoulders for stabilizing body movements and isometrics. And almost none of the skills-planche, levers, handstands, crosses, etc.-have equivalent movement patterns commonly used in everyday life. It is embarrassing trying to learn skills that your body has literally never had to perform.

If we are honest, this is exactly what the life of the Spirit is like. In our everyday lives-especially in the US-our survival depends on our ability to be materialistic and self seeking. We have no need or practical experience with (so-called) esoteric spiritual practices that place a sense of the transcendent over our sense of self. We have no practical or useful experience prioritizing our ability to anticipate spiritual movements. We literally have no understanding of how to perform miracles or communicate in the unseen world using unlearned languages. It is exceedingly difficult for us to fight demons because we have been told from birth that they don’t exist. Therefore we live under curses and demonic possession unaware. We do not expect healing because we believe healing only happens in stories. Like in a handstand, our world is turned upside down.

Unfortunately, while you don’t need a handstand to face reality, you do need faith. If you want to live in God’s world, you must have faith in Him and know what pleases Him. You must learn to recognize his activity and learn to join what He is doing.

What can we do when our experience is wholly inadequate to reality? Well, we have some tips from the physical challenges posed by calisthenics skills. Notice that there is some level of baseline strength that one must have in order to turn your world on its head. You cannot attempt a handstand if you cannot do a push-up. And there are disciplines that start from where one is to progress them to the more advanced activities. You may not be able to perform a front lever raise today, but a number of exercises performed consistently over time can help you bridge the gap.

While there is much about our spiritual lives that is beyond our ability to control, there are basic disciplines we should pursue in obedience while our spiritual strength grows. Do you pray? Do you read and meditate on Scripture? Do you cultivate a heart of worship? You cannot expect to perform miracles or even be other-centered if you don’t consistently engage these basics first! Work on the basics and make room, by faith, for God to move in your life.

Build your spiritual core.

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Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Let me say that this statement contains a useful summary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes to be the essence of Christian life, lived for the purpose of building up others in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in the first chapter of his book, Life Together, which crystallizes his theology of Christian community. As time permits, I will try to share a few reflections from this book that I believe are encouraging. I have finished reading the book for some time, but it is difficult to write a review so I will share a few thoughts over the next week or two as I have opportunity. Let us start by discussing the quote above.

We see his emphasis on grace. If you have read more than one paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing–in most cases even only one paragraph–you will know that Bonhoeffer believes that the grace of God in Christ is the reason for living. It is the rationale and motivation of our ethics. It is the breath of life and the substance of what we call death. To Bonhoeffer, grace is everything, and so it is fitting that this quote from his book, Life Together, begins with grace.

We see that his focus on grace yields to his acknowledgment that God allows us to live in community with other Christians. I’ve written recently about how much I am disappointed and dissatisfied by church. I think that Bonhoeffer, even if he saw exactly the same data that I experience, he would conclude that even the church experiences that I have had are a supreme gift of grace that must prompt a response of praise and gratitude and not one of self-righteous complaint. When Bonhoeffer wrote this book–one of his last–he was writing as a pastor who was a leader of a non-sanctioned non-denominational seminary in Germany during the Third Reich. Communities of authentic Christianity were not common. So he wrote this with the understanding that the enjoyment of Christian community for many could be abridged at any moment by the governing authorities. Thus, not only is it grace, but it is a privilege if God calls you to live in Christian community with others. If He calls you to respond to Truth in Christ, He does so without respect for your external circumstances. Many are called to labor alone. That is not my call in Christ, thank God. He allows me to live in community with other Christians.

And this brings us to the third thing we see here: community. If we are in Christ, our lives are not our own. Bonhoeffer understood that our lives are lived in Christ, through Christ, expressly for others and not for ourselves. To me, this truth is tricky because, of course, it is only possible for me to be self-aware, physiologically. I can only be aware of things that are revealed to me, speaking from what I understand of our cognitive processes. However, in Christ, our lives are not our own. Starting in my own household, since I am married my body belongs to my wife and not to myself. The desires of my children often come before my own, discipline notwithstanding. Choices that I can make, even if I do want to satisfy my own desires, are circumscribed by household resources that do not belong to me but to my household as a unit. And this is before I leave my doors. If I read the Scripture, yes I am transformed but my transformation affects my brothers and sisters. And much about my spiritual journey cannot be accomplished if I am isolated from my brothers and sisters. How can I experience grace if I never need to ask for forgiveness? How can I experience kindness if I am never put in a position to rely on the sovereign choices of others? I cannot develop self-control or patience if I am never subject to the will of another. I cannot exercise love or be loved if I am not in any relationships. It quickly becomes clear that what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit cannot be cultivated outside of community. It also becomes clear that these fruit are not produced for our own sustenance, but for the sustenance of the entire body.

How is God calling to you to live for the Body? In what ways can you thank God for the Christian communities around you?

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nurture your first love

So, someone asked me this week while I was in a meeting, “Do you get the runner’s high?” I replied, I’m not quite sure what that is. I can say, however, that running has captured my competitive instinct (at least what’s left of it), and my drive to push myself to new levels has taken me to levels of commitment I could never have imagined. I enjoy exercising quite a lot, and I especially enjoy the rewards of building and executing a training program from research and reflection. I am training for the Baltimore Marathon after having run the Baltimore 10-miler (2 yrs in a row, now) and the Dreaded Druid Hills 10K. Exercise and competition has always had a large role in my life, and I have already started to select some challenging running goals for 2013.

This running thing is part of the reason I’ve failed to write consistently on this blog. There’s only so much time to be distributed among my wife, my son, my work, and my running. Most everything else comes somewhere below that.

If you’ve been reading this blog (or if you casually peruse some of the recent entries), you’ll be able to guess that I’m not totally comfortable with the last sentence of my last paragraph. Because, in that paragraph was no mention of my Bible study. Ever since planning to take a break from more intense study back in May, I just have not gotten back into it. And I’m certainly feeling the effects.

We all have that time in our lives where we tell ourselves that we’ve been pushing it, and we just need to take a break from that discipline that has been consuming us. We do so only to find that the discipline we’ve pushed aside is the very thing that has kept us going. That keeps us in joy and at peace. And that keeps us in communion with God.

While I’m writing these words, I’m being reminded of a conversation I had with my discipleship group at church. We were discussing various things, but when the issue of discipline came up, I told them I think a lot of our success in spiritual discipline comes from God’s release into that practice. For some of us, we are gifted and dedicated prayer warriors who never grow weary at waiting and listening for God while opening their hearts to Him; others are sublime in their service to their communities and the Body; others are natural worshipers, practicing the Presence of God in every moment and can draw others near as the Sprit moves freely through Him; others voraciously read the Word of God, while being given profound insights to encourage, instruct, correct, and exhort themselves and others. While every believer has all of these things in some measure, when we go out of our personality to pursue something for some wrong motive, we distance ourselves from God’s move in our lives.

I feel like I was doing that a bit in moving from my discipline of study. While I was, and do, feel that I am lacking in worship or prayer, part of that is discipline on my part while part is that God has not released me into those special roles. He has, however, given me a life and a personality that empowers me to spend large blocks of time in His Word. While I need to open my soul and seek God for a heart of Worship and incessant prayer, I must do these things in addition to the disciplined and organized study of His Word.

That was a long way to say: “first things first!” I guess I can sum it up by saying that there’s always a place for rest and a break, but be sure to have a plan for how that break will end.

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#66: God brought you through the struggle… Now what?

Last night, I was asked to share my testimony with the Navigators fellowship at Bowie State University. I shared, but departed greatly from my prepared comments, so I’m writing an abridged version of my thoughts here. A few points of background to start:

1.) The Navigators is a Christian organization emphasizing one to one discipleship. On campus, new members and new believers start out in introductory small groups, then progress to smaller, life-sharing relationships facilitated by more senior students and Nav interns. The campus ministry is led and directed by a Nav missionary.

2.) Bowie State is an HBCU in Bowie, MD. I love HBCUs, having attended one, and I was so excited to have been a part of that fellowship last night. The students are dedicated and colorful. I missed the expressiveness and rhythm that was the background of my Howard life, and I had a taste of that back last night.

Let’s go now to the thoughts:

So, it should be apparent now that Rev. Osaze and I are good friends and he is one of my role models. Let me say something here that I say to myself on the way to the classes I teach that I’d first heard on one of his albums: “Dear Lord, if anything’s said of me, help them to forget it; if anything is said of you, help them to remember it. Bring glory to yourself in Jesus’ name.”

There is a hip hop artist who sings a song that resonates very much with my life. Da T.R.U.T.H. has a song, “My Story,” with a lyric that goes something like this: “I ain’t got no horror story, God kept me in my youth I give Him all the glory!”

When I first heard this song, I realized that we often enthusiastically seek God when we are deep in trials, especially trials that attend poverty, poor choices, and poor discipline. We ask God to remove from us the vicissitudes of abuse and structural violence, and hold those who survive such madness in special esteem. Overcoming trials gives us special purpose, but when the trials are removed, what purpose motivates us?

I realized that I had this problem, because I’d be ashamed that I didn’t come through anything major or have any drama in my life. And I see around me in the fellowships I’m in almost an apology for God’s material blessings and protection over their lives. How ironic that we always ask for God’s protection, then treat His provisions with contempt! This contempt is the reason poorer communities are full of faith, while wealthier ones forsake God and trust in their riches.

But when God keeps you, what will you do? You must solve this dilemma now. It is urgent, don’t wait! God gives wealth and provision so you can focus on Him and fix your gaze on Him. What is the purpose of life when you’ve all you want and need? Where can you go to get a large enough vision for a blessed life? You must resolve to see God.

[a brief aside, that last sentence is so much more important when your life revolves around ideas… being convinced is not the same as being convicted. more on this some other time]

If you do not resolve this motivation in your heart, you risk glorifying the struggle without a vision for your time of blessing. The Biblical account of Israel’s history testifies to this truth repeatedly.  If you trust in God, he’s there. But without a vision for our blessed times, we perish despite our resources. Trust in wealth, he withdraws. One of the clearest examples of this in the Scripture is Israel’s national state of affairs when the priest Samuel was called.  At that time, Israel had enjoyed 400 years of freedom from Egypt, and had failed to trust God.  On the contrary everyone “did what was right in his own eyes.”  Consequently, God had not been speaking for some time… [Samuel 3:1 (ESV) “Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.”]

As I said earlier, we see this withdrawal in our lives. We do not hear God speak, or tangibly feel his presence.  As a result, if you feel that you have the resources to make it through your circumstances, you see no need for God.  In short, Poor=religious:Rich=self reliance.

But why is it that we don’t hear from God, when we know that He is always there? The short answer: We don’t invest in God. Consider some common choices we make that reflect our priorities: “Have you ever taken a vacation day away from work to pray or read the Bible?” “Have you ever been late to a business meeting because you were in prayer or reflection?” “Have you ever sacrificed time with work or hobbies to get just a little more time with God?” [When evaluating priorities, apply this to other things we also claim are important to us… like our wives, kids, etc…]

Investing in God does not mean just “spending quite time” with Him.  Rather, investing in God is planned, intentionally structured Bible reading, querying, reflection, meditation, and prayer.  It requires a lifetime of dedication, the results of which many may not see in this lifetime.  We often marvel at the spiritual fortitude of those who have mastered spiritual investment, but rarely desire the transformational benefit of God’s full presence enough to make the requisite sacrifices.

I believe that we are not necessarily creatures of habit more than we are creatures of investment. If you follow this blog, you know that I am a new engineering professor who is training for a 10-mile race.  This is approximately 1.7x my distance PR at the time I chose to run.  If I am to be successful, making a habit of running everyday will not suffice.  Making planned investments in consistent training, rest, and diet will.  Another example is my friend Tylon training as an amateur bodybuilder.  When I first met Ty, he was slim and totally unimposing.  Now, folks ask him what his secret is for “getting big.”  He has made planned investments in his training, rest schedule for each muscle group, and careful approach to his diet over the past 8 years. The difference between investment and habit is planning and intention over long periods of time.  Investments are non-linear in their returns, and operate according to systems dynamics that make them highly sensitive to small changes in inputs and sometimes path dependent.  According to this definition, ask yourself what you are currently investing in?

Last semester when I was starting as a professor, I asked myself “What am I consistent in?” “What am I investing for?” I noticed for me, it was nothing! Not physical endurance, not academic excellence, not my family, and certainly not God. It is hard to invest in God because we cant see Him, and He controls the reward. He reveals Himself, or dwells with us at His initiative. Investing in God requires planned and structured approaches to study of the Scriptures, study of history and philosophy, and, most importantly, structured time in solitude and prayerful meditation.  Not only that, but building on the non-linear reality of good investments, God never entrusts His presence in individuals who do not invest in Him over long periods of time.  I realized that I was losing a lot of time and spiritual power not seeking God just for God.  It is hard to invest in God, yes.  But if we don’t, what are we really saying we want from Him?

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