Introduction to the Disciplines
Last week, the season of lent began, and we started a series on the Spiritual Disciplines.
I began the series with the call to discipleship. Jesus’ effective invitation: “Come, Follow me.”
We talked about how the Church is a gathering of the called out ones. Indeed, that is exactly what the word “church” means. Ekklesia, the greek word for Church, means a gathering of the called out ones.
But we also learned that the “call out” is only the first step for the Church. The second step is to enter a discipleship relationship with Jesus.
We talked last week, how this is very much like an apprenticeship relationship. Apprentices stick with their teacher. They do as their teacher does. And one day, they become the kind of people who are capable of carrying on the work of their teacher. This is what is means to be a disciple. The Church has been called out of the world and into a discipling relationship with Jesus. Together, we are learning from him how live life in God’s Kingdom.
Called to be with Jesus. Become like Jesus. And carry on the work of ministry of Jesus.
That’s who we are. And growing that direction is what we’re aiming for this lent.
Now, in order to become like Jesus, we can’t just try to emulate Jesus in the moment. We will never be as merciful as Jesus, as consistently as Jesus, or as just as Jesus, as consistently as Jesus. Becoming like Jesus is nearly impossible through will power alone.
The key to becoming like Jesus is to realize that his discipleship program is a training program, not a trying program.
This principle is easy to understand.
If you want to play the piano like Glen Gould, you can’t just listen to him play Bach’s Variations on youtube, and then sit down at the piano and expect to do the same thing. You need to practice. Submit yourself to the authority of a teacher. Play scales and master the proper fingering. And then, one day, after training, you’ll be able to sit down at the piano and play Bach. Maybe not like Glenn Gould. But who knows!
The same principle goes for sports. If you want to Run a marathon, you have to train. You can’t go from couch to 42km in an afternoon. Start with 3km. Work your way up to 10. Get an accountability partner. Run together. And slowly, your body will become capable of 20, 30, and 40kms.
Well, becoming like Jesus is just like this: John Ortberg, put it like this:
“The need for preparation, or training, does not stop when it comes to learning the art of forgiveness, or joy, or courage. In other words, it applies to a healthy and vibrant spiritual life just as it does to physical and intellectual activity. Learning to think, feel, and act like Jesus is at least as demanding as learning to run a marathon or play the piano.” John Ortberg
In other words, if the goal is to become like Jesus—which is the goal of a disciple—then we need to train with Jesus and allow him to school us in the practices that will lead towards greater maturity in him.
This is where the Spiritual disciplines come in. First let me define a few terms. Discipline, what is a discipline.
Discipline = “Any activity I can do by direct effort that will help me do what I cannot now do by direct effort.” (John Ortberg)
Example: Today, I can learn to play scales by direct effort. That is within my power. Tomorrow I can play: Twinkle Twinkle little star. Two years from now, I can play Bach. You start with something you can do now through direct effort, and work your way up to something you cannot now do by direct effort.
So what is a Spiritual discipline:
A Spiritual Discipline — “Any activity that can help me gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modelled it.” (John Ortberg)
For example, Jesus modelled radical forgiveness. He forgave the very people that were nailing him to the cross. That’s hard to do. If you’ve ever been wronged, you know how hard it is to forgive. But is there any activity or practice that I am capable of today, that will help me grow that direction?
Maybe I can start by meditating on the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. I can commit to praying it everyday. Or maybe I can memorize the passage where Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And maybe I need to let someone in on my struggle. Someone who can encourage me and keep me accountable.
You see how this works? The Spiritual disciplines are the scales of the Christian life. They are the practices we can do today, that help us live like Christ in the future.
There are a lot of caveats that could and should be mentioned at this point. I’ll mention the most significant one. Practicing Spiritual disciplines is not about proving ourselves to God or our peers. We don’t get extra credit points in heaven for practicing the disciplines. Nor do we need to do them to be welcomed in. Is that clear?
The disciplines are valuable insofar as they help us grow to become like Jesus. If they become an end in themselves or are not helping us love God and neighbour like Jesus, then they should be dropped.
And, so, with that long introduction complete, let’s explore our first discipline. Meditation.
Psalm 1; John 15:5-8: Colossians 3:15-17
Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
In order to graduate from seminary, I had to jump through a lot of hoops. I needed to pass orals exams, submit sermons for evaluation, and make my way through extensive psychological testing, etc…
In addition to all these things, I also had to pass a “Bible Knowledge” exam. I guess the seminary wanted to make sure that her students could wield the Sword of the Spirit with some degree of accuracy. Fair enough.
The problem with the Bible Knowledge exam, from my perspective, is that it was more of a Bible Trivia exam, than it was a Bible Knowledge Exam. The test was done online, and it was multiple choice. Here’s a sampling of what we were asked?
What was the name of Moses’ Father-in-law?
On what mountain did Elijah meet with God?
Then we’d get a passage from the bible. Like this: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” And the question would be: Is this quote found in Isaiah 11; 42; 60; or 61?
Thankfully, you were allowed to take the exam multiples times. Which was good, since I failed the first two attempts.
Looking back on that experience, sometimes I wonder about the value of that Bible Knowledge exam. Studying greek and Hebrew was valuable. Studying Paul’s letters with Dr. Weima was valuable too. Those classes helped me grow in knowledge and in my love for God and his word.
But that multiple choice Bible Knowledge Exam…. Did it help me out, as a Disciple of Jesus?
In his classic book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster argues that the desperate need of our times is not more intelligence, but depth of character.
What we need most crucially today is not communities of Christians who can pass the bible trivia exam, but communities of Christians who are letting the words of Christ dwell in them richly, so that they may be saturated in the Lord’s will, like Jesus was saturated in the Lord’s will.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ bible meditation routine. We know he was raised in a God fearing home, with God fearing parents. And we know that God fearing parents in Jesus day were supposed to write the commands of God on the doorframes of their houses. They were supposed to impress them upon their children; talk about them before they went to bed and after they got up. (Deut. 6)
We know that many Jews in Jesus day had the entire Torah memorized. We know that the religious feasts and festivals featured many re-tellings of the story of how God had rescued his people from Egypt.
And we know that one day, instead of returning to Nazareth with his parents, Jesus stayed in Jerusalem. He was found In the Temple. He wanted to be where his Father’s word was read and discussed.
Jesus quoted the old testament extensively throughout his ministry. He used it to shield himself from the flaming arrows of the evil one. He called upon it in order to speak truth when confronted by the Pharisees.
We have to remember that Jesus wasn’t walking around with an NIV in his back pocket. Nor did he have “google”, to help him search key words.
The word was just in him. Part of his body. His mind. His soul.
How did it get in there?
“Well, he was God?” You might say. That is true. But you have to remember that Jesus wasn’t quoting the Torah as a 6 month Baby. He had to learn how to speak. He had to learn the law.
Jesus didn’t start his ministry officially, till he was about 30 years old. We don’t know exactly what he did during his 20s, but what we see displayed in the gospels tells us that he spent a lot of his 20s meditating upon God’s word.
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
There are two Hebrew words for Meditate in the Old Testament: Haga and Siha.
Haga is the world used in Psalm 1. It means: to mutter, murmur, repeat. When I was in Israel, staying in a Jewish hotel run by Orthodox Jews, I saw a few people doing haga with the Old Testament. They’d be sitting on chairs. Rocking. Mumbling the words of the text underneath their breath.
To Haga is to dwell with a particular text. To let the words roll over your tongue again and again. Blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord. Blessed is the one whose delight is the law of the Lord.
The goal of Haga is to have the words move from your mind to your memory to your heart. So that they become apart of you.
Siha is similar to Haga, but it carries slightly different connotations. To Siha is to muse over, ponder, reflect upon.
Siha is about savouring. Instead of wolfing down the word, you take a bite, and note its subtle texture and flavour. You wonder what the Chef had in mind when he chose that flavour. You enjoy the experience and talk about it with your friends.
In Psalm 119, the Psalmist Siha’s God’s law.
I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you….
With my lips I recount
all the laws that come from your mouth.
I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
I meditate [Siha] on your precepts
and consider your ways. Psalm 119:11-15
That last line really highlights the line before. To Siha is to consider. Ruminate upon.
Whatever the difference in nuance, the goals of meditation in the Old Testament are the same. The goal is a deeper love of God and a closer walk with God, through a thorough saturation in his word.
Fundamental to this is too things. First a genuine love for God and desire to commune with him. And secondly a realization that his word to us is not a text to be objectified, but a love letter to be savoured.
Some of you lived in the days when people still sent physical letters. And you immigrated to this country not knowing if you’d ever see your parents again. So, when you arrived, you sent your folks a letter. And when they received it, you just know that they paraded it through their village, holding it close to their chest. They read it out loud. Multiple times. And then they wrote you a letter in response, you did the same with theirs.
The content of the letter was precious because the letter came from the beloved. Now imagine instead of savouring the words, because of your love for your beloved, you started analyzing the penmanship and grammatical structure of the letter. Such study can be fruitful. Indeed, study can be a spiritual discipline too. But the goal of meditation is not to get lost in the details. The goal is to have an encounter with God himself through the word that graciously reveals his character and plan.
The fact that biblical meditation is scripture based is important. This point contrasts Biblical Meditation from eastern forms of meditation.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but meditation is all the rage these days. Many People are seeking opportunities to detox from social media and clear their mind. Secular professors of wellbeing are assigning meditation in their coursework. Headspace, an app created by a Buddhist monk, turned entrepreneur, has 31 million users worldwide.
In eastern forms of meditation, the goal is to clear the mind. To detach from the world. There is an emphasis on self-forget-fullness. Becoming one with the universe. Through this process, it is believed, you get insight into yourself, mastery over your emotions. And then you can experience peace within.
Now I don’t want to slam Easter forms of Meditation. I’ve never tried it, nor do I know much about it. And if people all over the world are giving it a try, then that seems like a good conversation starter to me.
But for our purposes today, it important to see that there’s a big difference between biblical meditation and eastern meditation. The goal of Eastern Styles of Meditation is to detach from the world. The goal of Christian meditation is to step back from the world in order to attach to God. And to enjoy loving communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, using his word.
Another crucial thing to understand about Biblical Meditation, is that a secondary goal, which is basically an extension of the first goal, is obedience.
I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you…. Psalm 119:11
When we meditate and savour God’s word, the content makes a home in our minds and hearts. And once inside, the Spirit can use it to protect us and change us.
Notice how Jesus stood firm against temptation in the wilderness. He simply quoted texts from Deuteronomy. He had hidden God’s word in his heart. And it came out when it was needed.
Brittney shared a story with me on Friday that illustrates this point nicely. And I share it today with her permission.
In our house, after breakfast we go through a routine we call “morning time”. Its basically family devotions. One piece of morning time involves memorizing scripture. Texts are chosen seasonally. And at this time, Brittney and our children are memorizing Philippians 4: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition… and so on.
So everyday, since Christmas, Brittney and our Children have been meditating on these words. Repeating them. Brittney has even created actions.
Well last week, after morning time, Brittney took our playful children to play-fair park. Playfair park, if you’ve been there, is known for its rhododendron forest. Giant Rhododendron’s. In about a month it will be the most beautiful park in all of Victoria. You should go check it out.
Now our Children love this rhododendron forest. They love it, not because they love flowers, because they like to hang from the rhododendron’s like monkeys. And they like doing this thing they call a tree transfer. Which is basically jumping from one rhododendron bush to another.
Sometimes I wonder if we should let our children climb these beautiful plants. But they look strong enough, and there are a lot of them. So, what’s the harm.
Well, this past week, our children were accosted by a local horticulturalist while swining from the trees like monkeys. This woman was livid. She lost it on our kids.
My poor children were scared. Near tears. “Our mom lets us climb,” they said.
Brittney was far enough away to witness the encounter, but not close enough to stop it. But when she saw this woman yelling at our children, her mama bear instincts kicked into gear. And you guys don’t know Brittney like I know Brittney…. But as she was storming over to intervene, a word from Philippians 4 popped into her head out of her heart. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
And in that moment, Brittney made a decision to try to live into that verse.
Do you see how this works? The more the scriptures are in us, the more God can use them to grow us and change us. A year ago, Brittney probably would have just reacted to this situation.
But because she’s been training. Allowing the word to dwell in her richly. In that moment, she was able to respond in a more Christ-like way.
Meditating on scripture in order to commune with God. Some of the disciplines are optional. But, to my memory, no Christian in history has made any progress in discipleship without incorporating some form of Bible meditation into their routine. It is the sword of the Spirit, the means through which God transforms our mind.
So, how do we do it.
I’d like to say that I’m an expert. But I am not. I’m more skilled in the discipline of “study” then I am in meditation. This is a growth area for me. One that I’m taking on for lent.
Since hurry is the enemy of meditation, time and space need to be set aside for this practice. You need somewhere to retreat, where you won’t get interrupted. The phone can’t be on. Lest you hear one of those dreaded “dings”.
Don’t make quantity of scripture the goal. Make communion with God through his word, the goal.
When I’m doing well at Meditation, its usually because I’ve chosen a particular book to read. And I have my pen and paper beside me. I read, and then I write. I read, and then I write. I write what really stands out. And then I chew on that. Read it a few times more.
Often, this leads into prayer of some sort. Or more journalling on a particular verse in the Bible.
Remember, the goal of meditation is not trying to master the text, but to have the text get inside and let it lead you closer to God.
You may want to study something deeper on another occasion. That’s fine! Study is a spiritual discipline that is connected to Meditation. Its also very important.
There’s no hard and fast rules to follow with Meditation. Literally, creating time for it, and space for it is all that is needed. And then, all you need to do is give yourself the freedom to let the Spirit lead as you ponder the love letter that God has given us.
The whole bible can be used for meditation. But I wouldn’t start in Chronicles, or even Leviticus. Go to the Psalms or the gospels.
A good place to go this lent is the passion narratives found at the end of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Choose one, and work through it slowly. Let God reveal to you the depths of his love for you in Christ.
I want to conclude this sermon, but offering some space for meditation.
Instead of responding with a song, we’re going to listen to a song. The song is an invitation from Christ to his Church. This invitation is found in Matthew 11: 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”