A Virtual Celebration

A "home port" for the adventure of blogging our way through Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline - both as a first-time read through, and then as practicing the disciplines in my own undisciplined life.

Friday, September 30, 2005

An exercise in rigorous honesty...

Make sure you check out Erin's post over at Biscotti Brain. She obviously has been reading my mail - because she spoke much of what I also struggle with, but just haven't had time to pour out in print. Thanks, Erin, for that piece of rigorous honesty.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The least-favorite Discipline

"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."
(Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, chapter VII, section 17)
Well, we're not talking about lust or sexual behavior, but perhaps Augustine's favorite quote is appropriate as we begin reading about fasting - easily the least-practiced of the spiritual disciplines in America in the 21st century. It wouldn't be hard for a guy like me to pray, "Grant me the willingness to fast, and to be still - but not until after the cookout tonight..."

The interesting thing I've found, in reading the study guide, is the use of fasting as a way to slow down the mind and disconnect from the materialistic, consumerist world that we live in. Fasting becomes a way to free the mind and the soul of distractions - which (for me, anyway) is certainly something worth working toward!

Foster suggests that fasting as "withdrawing from consuming food for a period of time" is perhaps the least useful kind of fast we can adopt. Some others he suggests are:
- a "fast" from people - entering into a time of solitude
- a "fast" from the media (at least partly akin to the "turn the damn TV off week" project)
- a "fast" from using the telephone. (This one made me smile, if only because I have several friends who cannot bear to hear a cell-phone ring without answering it - and often engaging in extended conversations while sitting there with me. I'd love to recommend a "fast" for them...
In short, a "fast" might be from anything which we have given excessive priority in our lives...perhaps abstaining from the things that are edging closer to "idols" or "other gods" in our lives.

The other image that Foster suggests is that fasting is a way of clearing out room, in our bodies <or in our minds, so that the spirit of God may fill us more completely. It is not a commandment (or what one friend calls a "demandment") - but it is a practice given by God to clear out some of the weeds and underbrush in our lives, if only for a little while.

I'll be fascinated to hear what you experience as you read, and as you try this oft-neglected spiritual discipline!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Simple, powerful, honest

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me
to face my perils alone.

(Thomas Merton, from "Thoughts in Solitude")
This prayer just seemed so right, today...and so much in touch with what we've been reading on prayer. I thought of people in transition, people praying for direction, people in doubt...and this prayer just came to mind.

It's estimated that two million people are on the road, fleeing yet another hurricane - and many of them were already refugees from the first hurricane. Hearing their stories on the radio - and of all the emergency personnel, who have been working flat out for weeks, now having to face yet another impending disaster - gave me a great deal of gratitude for dry land and clear skies today.

Two friends from Chicago, mother and son, are mourning the loss of a father and grandfather. The mother, especially, had been involved in 24-hour a day care
for her father for years, and is now facing not only her grief, but a profound change in the direction of her life. Another friend is facing sentencing on a drunk-driving charge. Though the arrest sobered him up a year ago, his life could still change dramatically in the next twenty-four hours.

My own life is in a state of flux - opportunities closing, others opening. On the one hand, my job is likely ending at the end of the month. On the other hand, my boss wants me to work through the weekend to meet an almost-impossible deadline. Yet I want to attend my friends' grandfather's viewing tonight, even though I've already got two committments I need to make, and there's two full days of tasks I need to get done at the same time. And so it was easy to hear this prayer, and the plaintive cry, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going."

But the reason that I love this prayer is its bare-naked honesty. I give thanks to God for the gift of a person who, though deeply spiritual, was willing to admit that "the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually
doing so." The AA text talks about honesty, too - saying that "there are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest." So this idea of being willing to be honest in my prayer life seems to be pretty central.

Rev. Jane Henderson, who in 1995 was the assistant to the Episcopal bishop for the diocese of Trenton, NJ, once said in a talk that she understood the word "confession" to mean "to bring my whole self to God." I like that image - the prayer that says, "OK, Lord, here I am - all of me. Sins, warts, shames, embarrassments, blessings, skills, talents - everything I am, everything I love or hate about me. This beautiful, horrible mess is what You claim to love - what You claim to have sent Your son to save. And today, I'm going to take You at Your word." That level of honesty is critical to prayer, I think.

My friend Ed in Kansas often would start prayers at our morning bible study with the words, "Good morning, God..." I adopted that in my own prayer life, because it ties in with my understanding of Jesus as Emmanuel ("God-with-us"). I'd much rather have an understanding of God as one who would be willing to hear "Good morning" from a poor soul like me. I think having a clear idea of Who I'm praying to is important to my attitude toward prayer.

Today, every one of us have challenges - though, thank God, today mine do not involve abandoning my home and my possessions and fleeing destruction. But every one of us has some uncertainty or struggle that could easily cause fear - I know that I sure do. So praying a prayer that includes the words "I will not fear" is exactly what I needed to do today.

I once heard a recovering alcoholic's prayer, and it too is one I identify with - one worthy of praying today:

"God, I've got to get outta here, and just hit-it-an'-git-it - though I really don't wanna, very much. So I need Your guidance and Your strength today - to go out and do my very best to help others, and to not hurt anyone or anything if I can help it. I'm
gonna trust that You're there, and that Your will is for me to do this. Sure do thank You for all You've given me. Amen."

Amen, indeed.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Chapter 3 - The Discipline of Prayer

Nothing improves one's prayer life faster than big trouble. (Anonymous)

To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives. (Foster, pg. 33)

Boy, ain't it the truth. Many times in my life, I've decided not to ask for improvements in my prayer life for that exact reason: I don't want to ride the tiger that will chase me back to God.

But Foster's quoting of Martin Luther - I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer - struck a chord with me. And his statement that "For these explorers in the frontiers of faith, prayer was no little habit tacked onto the periphery of their lives; it was their lives," has much to recommend it for my own life.

But he also points out that if we're reading this book, we're probably not anywhere near these Goliaths of spirituality. This is where the image of Max Lucado has been very helpful: Max says that some pray-ers are Concorde jets, and some are Cessnas - but they both are in the air, drawing closer to the Light. Most days, I'm a Cessna, I think - and missing on one cylinder, to boot. But most days I'm also gaining altitude, rather than headed for the ground!

From my good friend Joe Crowther's study on prayer, I'm reminded of Martin Marty's image of prayer: We speak; God listens. God speaks; we listen...in an endless cycle. For me, it doesn't matter who initiates the cycle (although I'm more likely to hear God if I speak to God...). It is all about talking to a friend, as my buddies in recovery would tell me.

And I'm ever so grateful to Pastor John Frey pointing me to Psalm 13 - a prayer of lament. Compare the words of a recovering alcoholic who is struggling with unfair treatment at work and Psalm 13. First my brother alkie...

WTF, God? How long is this gonna go ON? I keep trying to do my best, and these yo-yo's keep SCREWING me, for no very good reason. It just sucks, God, and I'm tired. You've got to give me strength to go through this, or I won't make it. I know you can - just please help me, now. Amen.

Then Psalm 13:
1 How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
4 my enemy will say, "I have overcome him," and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.

You'll likely never hear the first one in church - which is too bad; the honesty could do church-goers some good. But (as I pointed out to my friend) both are perfectly acceptable lament psalms!

The one big warning Foster gives in his study guide is toward this idea that "the universe is fixed - all I can do is show up. Nothing - and certainly not prayer - is going to change anything." I am continually reminded of Nicky Gumbel's words when talking about healing prayer: When we prayed for no one, no one was healed. When we prayed for everyone, some were healed and some were not. So in which direction do you think we ought to go?

Happy reading - I'll look forward to hearing your comments. Keep us "post-ed"!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Links and responses to the first week

OK, so we have a number of responses to the first week's reading:

My buddy Wes D., from Kansas, puts in his 50 cents worth (2 cents would just never do!) in three posts over here at spiritual response.

Erin at Biscotti Brain is traveling, but taking her book with her. She, Sue at InnerDorothy and Poor Mad Peter over at Another Country are our Canadian contingent.

I want to mention Peter's posts here because he offers some cogent critiques of Foster's work here, here and here. Peter's stuff has great value, because it's easy for those of us who don't know any better (or don't have as much experience as he does) to see Foster's work as without flaw. What he writes doesn't dissuade me from reading - primarily because I'm more of a babbler than a writer, so Foster's style doesn't bother me as much. But I'm grateful for what he's written, and the analysis he's shared. The annoying thing is that Peter's going to be taking an extended leave from us, because some yo-you wants to pay him to do writing, and he thinks that should take precedent over our little study. You'll be missed brother - and come back when you can!

Virtual neighbor and frequent Ragamuffin commenter TK, from New England, has these words here

Then we have Faraja Mugamu, who (I'm guessing) is a friend of Messy Christian's. You can find her post on the introduction here and here

And lastly (but NOT leastly!), my friend Cherri, from Kansas, who is working on the the whole blogging thing, sent this comment to me to post for y'all...
I am reading CoD for a couple of reasons: 1. An old college friend of mine recently told me she had read this book 20 years ago and it changed her life. (after living half a country apart since college we recently discovered we are working in similar areas of ministry with only about ten miles seperating us.)

2. I was blessed to hear Richard Foster in person recently and I can really grab on to his preaching.

3. My dear friend Steve has provided and is encouraging this on-line study.

In my first read-through into chapter 1 I hightlighted and tagged material that popped out at me (there is a lot of pink highlighting). But curious, as I go back through now to note what I wanted to write about other things began popping out at me. But one of the first things that grabbed me was in the intro and then carried over into the 1st chapter. Our life takes affirmation from others. And what I received from this is that I should not look for who can affirm me but pray as to whom I can affirm. And that affirmation to me will come but I shouldn't fret about it. If I will but listen to God I will receive.

Foster write vastly of 'community'. In the intro he writes of 'teaching in community'. Being in "each other's homes-laughing together, weeping together, learning together, praying together. Some of the best teaching times grew out of the dynamic of those home settings . . ." And thorugh this life of community we can be the answer to a 'hollow world'.

So thank you to all who have been reading, and commenting.

So...has anyone tried actually sitting down and practicing meditation, yet?...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Seven pitfalls to avoid

This week, we begin studying the first of the inward disciplines, meditation. But before we start that topic, it's important to see the road ahead, and see a number of deep holes we can fall into as we travel.

In his guide to Celebration, Foster lists seven common pitfalls to studying these disciplines. They're worth noting:

1)The temptation to turn the Disciplines into law - "you must do this or you will fail [or not be good enough for God's love, or whatever]."

2)The failure to understand the social motivation for the Disciplines. Foster says that these "are not a set of pious exercises for the devout, but a trumpet call to obedient living in a sin-wracked world."

3)The tendency to view the Disciplines as virtuous in themselves. This is one of those Pharisee-like views - that somehow studying (and practicing) these disciplines somehow "earn us brownie points with God." These practices simply help us place ourselves before God.

4)The tendency to focus on the Disciplines, rather than on Christ.

5)The temptation to elevate one discipline over another; that meditation is more important than fasting, fasting is more "pure" than solitude, etc. This also extends to the idea that if I get the practice of one discipline "down pat," I've done all I needed to do.

6)The tendency to believe that these 12 disciplines are the exhaustive list of all spiritual disciplines. There are many ways in which people throughout the ages have found to enhance their devotional lives; Foster suggests these practices simply as a general overview of the "top 12" of spiritual disciplines over the last two millenia of Christian practice.

7)The last one is the one Foster wants to warn us against the most: the tendency to spend time studying these spiritual disciplines, and not practicing them. This is very similar to what Nicky Gumbel (of the Alpha program) talks about owning a hot new foreign-made sports car. I can read the owner's manual all I like (even learn German or Japanese to appreciate the nuances in the original language!). I can highlight all the great bits about high-performance tuning and driving skills and such. But until I actually get in the car, turn the key and put it in gear, I've not done what the owner's manual was preparing me to do - to get in the car and drive.

Of course, it's dangerous to get out and drive. There are techniques I need to master. Perhaps I'll stall the car the first 10 times I try to let the clutch out. Perhaps I'll grind a gear or two. But it doesn't matter - because we are called to try, not to succeed on the first attempt. There is an element of fear here, as well, so Foster's words are helpful here:
To discuss the Disciplines in the abstract, to argue and debate their nature or validity - these activities we can carry out in comparative safety. But to step out into experience threatens us at the core of our being. And yet there is no other way. Prayerfully, slowly, perhaps with many fears and questions, we need to move into this adventurous life of the Spirit.
To which I can only say, "Amen."

Monday, September 05, 2005

An introduction to Celebration of Discipline

Everyone things of changing humanity and no one thinks of changing himself.
(Leo Tolstoy, quoted by Richard Foster from Frank S. Mead's Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations, p. 400)
If you've made it here, welcome to the great adventure!

First, I want to give thanks to Messy Christian, and others who began blogging through Richard Foster's spiritual classic, Celebration of Discipline. When I read about it, I got a twinge of guilt - because I had a virtually untouched copy of Celebration that had collected dust on my shelves for, well, years. (It's interesting to note that my copy is a 20th anniversary edition, even though the 25th anniversary edition has been out since 2003.)

At the time, I didn't think I was ready - spiritually or emotionally - to make a commitment to the study. (After all, I was having trouble with the discipline of even every-other-day blogging!) But with the start of a new school year, and a series of endings and beginnings in my own life, this just seems to be something that has been on my heart for a while. So if you're still with me, welcome!

If you're like me, you may have some trouble understanding what discipline means, in this context. For some, it brings up the idea of some sort of pseudo-monastic deprivation - something one has endure in order to get "enlightened" or "spiritual." Especially for folks new to spirituality and folks who do not necessarily want to accept all of Christianity at first, this may seem like just more works-righteousness - "if I do this, and do that, and do the other thing, then I'll feel better, or look better, or get the (fill in the blank) that I need."

What drew me to this text is that it echoes a great deal of the spirituality at the core of the 12-step programs - the 11th step of which says that [we] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. And here, on pages 44-45 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, is where the intersection between the 12-step community and the Christian community occurs. Bill W. writes:
If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism [or anything else!], many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn't there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly.

Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that's exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.

Foster quotes Henri Arnold, "We...want to make it quite clear that we cannot free and purify out heart by exerting our own 'will.' " He then points out that this experience is common to all the great Christian devotional masters - St. Augustine, St. Francis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, you name 'em.

Both the 12-step practices and the Christian faith tradition tell me that I can't "think my way into right action" - I have to act my way into right thinking. The disciplines, then, are a way of acting which leads to thinking more about God and desiring to draw closer. The beauty of Foster's work is that he has distilled immense amounts of Christian experience across the centuries to provide us with 12 practices which have been common to people of faith for generations.

One of the things that seems to appear only in the table of contents is an actual list of the actual Disciplines as Foster describes them. His list of 12 disciplines are broken into three groups:

Inner disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study;
Outer disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, service; and
Corporate disciplines: confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

For the first week, I'd like to suggest that the foreword, introduction, and chapter 1 (The Spiritual Disciplines) will be our longest reading. But I think reading the introduction will be critical - because in reading it, I realized how much brokenness that Richard Foster brought to the process of creating Celebration of Discipline. He didn't write this book because we needed it - he wrote it because he needed it.

Later in the week, I'll post some suggestions and some pitfalls to avoid in reading and using this text and this study.

For now, if you have a blog, and post on the CoD topic, send me the link, and I'll create a weekly summary of posts from participants. I'll be creating a link-list with the folks who have acknowledged that they're "in" with us, as well.

Happy reading - and thanks for joining me on this journey! Soli Deo gloria! (to God alone be the glory!)