Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ashes and abstinence

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of a 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter Sunday. In my childhood religious tradition, we marked this season by getting a mark--an ash-imprinted cross drawn with the thumb on our forehead. This ceremony traces its history back to 6th century Roman Catholicism and gained universal acceptance 500 years later. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of humility and repentance. Thus, the Ash Wednesday custom signifies subjection to God's rule and sorrow for having broken God's law: "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes." [Daniel 9:3]

With ash comes abstinence. Traditionally, Lenten observers have given up something during this time. Some abstain from television, others from caffeine, meat, chocolate, Facebook, their mobile phone or the sports section of their newspaper. This voluntary "fast" accomplishes three spiritual goals.

First, denying our appetite and passions is symbolic of the daily decision we must make to say "no" to the cravings of our flesh. Jesus said,“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" [Matthew 16:24]. The normal spiritual life is a humble discipline of denial.

Second, abstinence turns our heart to God. The conscious act of turning down whatever my heart or stomach yearns for brings to mind the reason why I'm abstaining in the first place. In other words, the moment I say "No," the question comes, "Why?" Instantly, the Lord and my life in Him come squarely into view. Conscious refusal leads to conscious reflection.

Third, refusing the common, expected "food" each day leads me to lean upon the Lord for my daily bread. The more that is stripped away, the more that I discover the sufficiency of God for everything I need. I also find that He is more satisfying than anything else in the world. I want to be able to unreservedly say, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you" [Psalm 73:25].

Noel Piper reflects, "Traditionally Lent is a season of sober, realistic reflection on our own lives and our need for a Savior. It is a time for turning away from anything that has kept us from God and for turning or returning to him. It is a time to pray that God renew our love for him and our dependence on him." This year, I invite you to join me in this spiritual exercise. Let's enter into ashes and abstinence as we journey to the cross and resurrection of Jesus who gave up all for us so that we might gain everything in Him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

the 31 day experiment

Day three. A small distance in a larger journey I began last Sunday.

We began our study on The Lord’s Prayer [see Prototype] and learned that prayer isn’t automatic to the spiritual life. Jesus’ followers asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. Prayer is a learnable discipline. And it takes time to build discipline in the spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul describes the spiritual life as a race and a fight. Both require effort and training. To his young disciple Timothy, Paul urged, “[T]rain 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 4:7-8]. The Godward life requires deliberate work. But, this work yields a payout for those who discipline their mind, heart and body. Donald Whitney affirms, “The Gold of godliness isn’t found on the surface of Christianity. It has to be dug from the depths with the tools of the Disciplines” [Spiritual Discipline for the Christian Life]. Speaking of the disciplined life, I’ll never forget the teaching of the late Vernon Grounds, “Ruts of routine are God’s grooves of grace. They are the roads that God uses to direct us to Himself.”
There are a number of spiritual disciplines practiced by Christians throughout history: Bible Study, verse memory, fasting, verse memory, meditation, silence, solitude, worship and prayer. In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ gives His disciples a template—a prototype prayer. One writer calls this “The prayer that teaches to pray.” The Lord’s Prayer isn’t intended to be prayed [though you can] as much as it’s intended to lead me into deeper praying. Each phrase unfolds something of the glorious nature of God and the depth of my human need. In fact, the very practice of prayer leads me into more prayerfulness.
When I was in college, I stumbled across a book titled The 31 Day Experiment. The author pitched that good habits are formed by 31 days of discipline. Do anything for a month and it becomes lifestyle. So, I choose to discipline myself in prayer. Not just spontaneous praying when I see a sunrise or think about my friend in need. But a focused, regular rhythm of prayer. I need more of this.
In November 2010, Tiffany talked me into running. I had resisted the exercise for 45 years. Then, on a whim, we went out for a casual, 3-mile jaunt. It took me three days to catch my breath. Over the next few months, my body adjusted to the habit and, very soon, breathing became easier and three miles became five and more. I recently ran 15 miles—a goal that seemed impossible to me a year ago. But, discipline makes distance possible.

I want to run further in knowing God, hearing God, experiencing God, being changed by God. This spiritual distance is possible through spiritual discipline. It’s day three. And, I’m running.