One of my students decided to practice a new spiritual discipline: Rather than gazing down at his shoes, he would look up when walking the university halls and greet others walking by. He said this was difficult for him, even at a Christian institution, as he was shy and awkward. But this discipline, he discerned, would shape him to be more like Christ and maybe touch the heart of someone in need of friendly recognition. It’s a small thing, but our spirits are shaped by small things repeated over long periods of time, and he hoped this practice would shape his character for good.
Spirituality is about attending to the movements of the Holy Spirit in one’s life and community in order to draw closer to Christ and Christlikeness. Often we associate spirituality with such ancient practices as prayer, fasting, worship, solitude, and silence. But Christian spirituality is not just about these “sacred” activities; it includes “whatever you do” (Colossians 3:23). In the Reformed tradition, we speak of living coram Deo, before the face of God, which means that all our acting, thinking, and feeling happen, as R. C. Sproul says on his Ligonier Ministries blog, “in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.”
Our congregational leaders decided for Lent we would focus on such an “everyday Jesus spirituality”—spiritual disciplines that run us off the beaten trail of traditional religious practice. Grounded in Scripture, we want to meditate on repeated behaviors that can draw us closer to Jesus but may not first pop to mind when we say “spiritual disciplines.” Think of it this way: Christians often customize Lent by “giving up” something that distracts them from growth in the fruit of the Spirit. For some it’s coffee; for others it’s chocolate, screen time, or buying books. This Lent, we wanted to add something to our daily ritual rather than take something away.
Spiritual disciplines, however, are not just about doing the right things. The Pharisees read their Bible and prayed every day, but it drove many of them deeper into pride and prejudice. Jesus called the Pharisees religious vipers and spiritual graveyards. Spiritual disciplines are not defined by what you do, but by the desired goal of the activity, and the key desire for Christians is to become more like Jesus. Anything can be a spiritual discipline if it gets you to become more like Jesus. You could say that spiritual disciplines are defined by this Christian motive and intentional repetition.
For example, if you pray to impress others or to feel superior, prayer isn’t a good spiritual discipline. But if you, as a young family in our congregation does, pray whenever you hear a siren for the person in trouble, it will, over time, stimulate and strengthen your awareness of others’ pain. Again, this is not a grand heroic feat, but it incrementally moves our hearts toward Christlikeness. It’s the heart that matters.
Our congregational leaders were inspired by two books. Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, 2009) is a beautifully written reflection on paying attention to “everyday altars.” While its focus is not particularly Lenten, it reminds us that “anything can be a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way—once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way” (82–83).
Taylor at times draws from different religious traditions as if all traditions were different versions of one narrative. We did extra work to connect the series with Jesus, especially the Lenten perspective that points us to spiritual disciplines. Vivid: Deepening Your Colors by Sydney J. Hielema and Aaron Baart (Dordt College, 2013) is a helpful companion resource that provides good grounding in a holistic, Jesus-centered spirituality that celebrates the struggle to nurture kingdom practices in our daily lives.
We brainstormed briefly about an image to give coherence to these two months of worship, and an image of footprints towards the cross seemed apt. While it loses the community context of our spiritual journey, it reinforces the everyday ordinariness of our spiritual disciplines. Feel free to come up with your own image.
You might even come up with your own preferred spiritual disciplines to replace one or more of those below. Not all that are mentioned in Taylor’s book are featured here, and our Easter theme of “Starting Over” is our own original Christian spiritual discipline. As we said in the introduction, anything can be a spiritual discipline if it shifts focus away from yourself and onto Jesus and his mission.
This Lenten series was a cooperative effort of the preaching team and worship team at New Life Christian Reformed Church in Guelph, Ontario. The series was graced by the Passion story artwork of Phil Irish in the gallery at the back of our sanctuary and enriched by the blessing poetry of Jan Richardson. Both of them have graciously agreed to allow Reformed Worship to share their visual and written artwork. RW readers should contact them directly for further use.
The Spiritual Discipline of Getting Lost (Taylor, Ch. 5)
Something we often miss in this text is its introduction: “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1). Could deliberately “getting lost” actually be a Spirit-led discipline? Taylor writes: “If someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times” (78). In fact, she adds, “God does his best work with people who are truly, seriously lost” (73).
Faith involves following the Spirit into uncertain places. We see it in Abraham, who left Ur of the Chaldees not knowing where he was going; in the Hebrews, liberated from the routines of Egypt for the wilderness; and in the early church, commanded by Jesus to give up family ties and go to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth spreading the good news. Faith, by definition, is a journey into unknown territory, a pilgrimage into ministry and mystery. Getting lost is not an escape, but a willingness to be displaced, vulnerable, and exposed, open to prayer and personal transformation.
The text continues: “to be tempted by the devil.” In the wilderness we are tested, seduced by spiritual shortcuts and the false promises of possessions, popularity, and power. Yet the truth is that the devil’s easy way is the harder way, and Jesus’ harder way is the easier way. The good news is that God offers spiritual resources to help us: The Scriptures defend the truth, and the angels guard us. An additional comfort is knowing that Jesus, too, was lost in the wilderness and withstood the test. The goal, in the end, is ministry in God’s kingdom.
Practice getting lost, being vulnerable, and moving with love into uncertain places where the devil may threaten. This is the path of discipleship that is truly following Jesus.
The Spiritual Discipline of Being Grounded (Taylor, Ch. 4)
Being grounded means being in touch with and connected to your surroundings and standing on firm footing. In this text, Jesus is walking and ministering, but he is neither agitated by the recent past (casting demons into pigs) nor consumed by the urgent future (confronting the desperate situation of Jairus’s daughter). He is so aware of the present moment and the various sensations that assail him in the midst of the crowd that he can discern precisely when a woman touches him and is healed.
Practicing being grounded means when worry creeps up on you or distractions call to you, you focus on God’s presence in the here and now. You listen and attend, neither dwelling in the past or rushing headlong into the future. Your vocation, your mission, is clear. Your mandate is the healing of the world—including your own healing, which we must realize is tied to the healing of others and all creation.
Taylor mentions the practice of labyrinth walking as a way to focus on the present and on God’s presence. She writes, “To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time. Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are” (56). We need to learn to be where we are for Jesus’ sake.
“Do not worry about tomorrow,” says Jesus (Matthew 6:34). The kingdom of God is here and now, even if not yet. Trust, obey, and participate in the healing of creation.
“Be Still, for the Presence” Evans, LUYH 532, SNC 11
“O For a Closer Walk with God” Cowper, LUYH 324, GtG 739, PsH 551
“Every Move I Make” David Crowder Band, Sing With Me 18
“Guide My Feet” Spiritual, GtG 741, PH 354
The Spiritual Discipline of Physical Labor (Taylor, Ch. 9)
Genesis 2:15; Ecclesiastes 2:18–26; 1 Thessalonians 4:11
Jesus was a carpenter and his disciples were fishermen. They had no cars, harvesters, dishwashers, or escalators. Their life was lived close to the earth, and we can assume that the ministry of teaching, healing, and feeding could be exhausting. Lent is often a time to make our life harder and thereby turn our attention to God and his grace.
We can view manual labor simply as part of the curse after the fall from grace in Eden. Taylor writes that we live in “a culture that regards physical labor as the lowest kind of work” with “people who do [menial tasks] for a living . . . at the bottom of the economic ladder.” Truth be told, some work, because of its oppressive conditions, mindless repetition, or meaningless waste, can smell of the curse.
Taylor reminds us, however, that “Adam” means “earthling”—we are a combination of dust and divine breath. Humus, humility, is our very being, and our divine commission is first of all to till the earth and keep it. That commission came before the fall. Good, meaningful work can be a gift. Even the preacher in Ecclesiastes, after despairing about the futility of work, commends the satisfaction of work as one of life’s pleasures.
St. Benedict’s monastic practice can be summarized as ora et labora, prayer and work, contemplation and action. By “work” Benedict meant physical labor: By engaging and tending the physical world we get in touch with our humus, our humanity, as well as the creation, which is the real, God-beloved reality around us. We should not look down on manual labor as beneath human dignity, for in fact it can be a spiritual practice. Housework, too. “Cleaning refrigerators and toilets helps you connect the food cycle at both ends,” writes Taylor. “If all of life is holy, then anything that sustains life has holy dimensions too. . . . No task is too menial to serve as a path” (151).
We are the “beloved dirt-persons of God,” Taylor says, and physical labor reminds us what we are and to what we shall return. There is delight in seeing something weeded, planted, built, or cleaned, especially when we do it prayerfully as a service to others and to God.
“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” Hernaman, LUYH 132, GtG 166, PH 81
“Lord of All Hopefulness” Struther, LUYH 378, GtG 683, PsH 558
“For the Fruit of All Creation” Pratt Green, LUYH 396, GtG 36, PH 553
“God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending” Edwards, LUYH 876, GtG 716, PH 422
In your mercy
in your protection
in your care
in your grace
With your justice
for your labor
by your love
and fit me
for your work.
—© Jan Richardson, from Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas. Used by permission.
The Spiritual Discipline of Saying “No” (Taylor, Ch. 8)
Exodus 20:8–11; Mark 2:27–28
The consumerist lifestyle clutters our space: Costco shopping carts piled like towers, highway traffic jams laced with road rage, floods of email messages you really don’t need, and three kids going to three separate programs in one evening. Together, Taylor says, these behavior patterns create “killing rhythms of drivenness and depletion, compulsion and collapse” (134).
The spiritual discipline of saying no often means saying no to more. For some it is the very structure of the Lenten season—saying no in order to open space for God. In fact, every no is a yes and every yes is a no. A no to more activity can be a yes to prayer.
Saying no is harder than saying yes. Saying no is indeed the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines, says Taylor (125). This brings us to the fourth commandment. Once revered in Reformed circles, it has become the one most easily dismissed, the one that seems almost frivolous in its impracticality: Keep the Sabbath day holy. The English word Sabbath is derived from the Hebrew word shavat, meaning “to cease and desist.” Sabbath is a big NO. Previously it was supported by national laws, but the cultural pressure now is in the opposite direction. 24/7 is the new default, a huge cultural shift more significant than we probably realize, and we are left exhausted and bereft.
Sabbath is saying no to business as usual and deliberately creating regular moments of rest, recreation, and reflection that celebrate God’s abundance and grace so that when the hard winds of adversity blow down your door and sweep through your hallways, you will be able to remember, picture, and believe that Sabbath peace is real, possible, and even bound to be our future, for we live into an eternal Sabbath.
The Lord of the Sabbath said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The Message translates it this way: “Come to me. . . . Learn the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28–30)—not the “killing rhythms” of a military-industrial, “shop-till-you-drop” society, but the “unforced rhythms of grace” in God’s new kingdom in Jesus. We are called to practice Sabbath—and not just once a week.
“Lord of the Sabbath and Its Light” Anonymous, The Cyber Hymnal, 4018
“O Day of Rest and Gladness” Wordsworth, GtG 393, PH 470
“In God Alone” Taizé, LUYH 433, GtG 814
“Come to Me, O Weary Traveler” Dunstan, LUYH 123, GtG 183
The Spiritual Discipline of Pronouncing Blessing (Taylor, Ch. 12)
Genesis 21:12, 22:18; Numbers 6:24–26
If every believer is a priest, we can all pronounce blessing. Blessings are good, true, and beautiful words conferring divine favor and help, and they both comfort and challenge the recipients.
We often forget about the challenge of a blessing. The Abrahamic blessing, the foundation of God’s covenant with his people, is not a blessing of special privilege for his family to establish a private refuge from the world in which God’s gifts continue to shower upon them alone. The blessing is for the whole world—all creation, in fact—to share. Blessing bestows favor and comfort but also commissions us to pass on the blessing to all creatures great and small.
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing specifically on the poor, the bereaved, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In the Beatitudes, weakness is strength, poverty is wealth, and mourners have comfort. It’s an upside-down culture of blessing in the mirror of our glamour-obsessed world. We live in a sinful milieu, and God wants to redeem what is ripped, hurt, and dying. That’s the message of the cross.
The opposite of blessing is cursing. We are cursed when we turn from the gift and task of blessing, when instead of channeling God’s grace to creation we resent it, neglect it, and thwart its flourishing. To wallow in a self-absorbed lifestyle is to be cursed and to pass on the curse to those around you.
God calls us to bless, and when we make a spiritual practice of blessing—as parents, neighbors, and coworkers—we participate in the mending of creation, the ministry of Jesus.
Believe me when I say
there is nothing
this blessing would not do
to protect you,
to save you,
to encompass you.
would stand between you
and every danger,
to wade with you
into the waters that come
It would make
a way for you
through the waters that come
I cannot explain
this blessing feels
but I can tell you
it has more than pledged
itself to you;
it would lay down
its life for you
and not once
look back in regret
nor go in sorrow
for what it has chosen
so deeply blessed,
so utterly encompassed—
what will you save
it is owed,
you cannot imagine
failing to pass along
that casts its circle
through this perilous
and precious life.
—© Jan Richardson, from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief. Used by permission.
Sixth Sunday: Palm Sunday
The Spiritual Discipline of Waking Up to God (Taylor, Ch. 1)
Genesis 28:10–16; John 12:12–36
The people who shouted “Hosanna!” at the gate of Jerusalem had very clear—and very wrong— ideas of who Jesus was and what he had come to accomplish. They wanted a Messiah who would put their Roman oppressors to flight; instead, Jesus was tortured by the Romans, offering the enemy forgiveness as he died on a cross.
Taylor says she grew up believing that people met God in church, not realizing that the whole world is the house of God. “The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do” (7).
We look for God in predictable places with our old, self-serving expectations. To be truly saved, however, is to seek God beyond our confining expectations and to practice being awake to God’s presence and power in surprising, even counterintuitive places. Like Jacob, we are excited when we encounter God in the wilderness. We have visions of earthly connections to God, and we see God’s glory right where we are, however ordinary or destitute.
There is something more inspiring than winning, and that is the suffering love and amazing grace of God in Christ. We can practice seeing God in odd places, in the wilderness, and especially among the hungry, imprisoned, and forlorn (Matthew 25). This is the message of the donkey Jesus rides on, in its ordinariness and humility. It foreshadows the events to come. God is evident in the beauty of creation and in the glory of a kingly parade, but he also comes most profoundly into the dark places, seeking their redemption.
“Hosanna (Praise Is Rising)” Brown, Baloche
“Defender of the Poor” Janzen
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” Wesley, LUYH 56, GtG 82/83, PsH 329
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Calling” Iona Community, LUYH 128
The Spiritual Discipline of Feeling Pain (Taylor, Ch. 10)
Psalm 22:1–5; Romans 8:18–25
We live in a modern world desperate to escape feeling pain. Pills, alcohol, mindless electronic entertainment—all work to distract us from the message pain offers us—not only our own pain, but the groaning of all creation as it chokes on the excess of our greed and disregard. We are like lepers, impervious to the warning that pain offers, and we suffer deeply as a result.
C. S. Lewis famously said in The Problem of Pain, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Feeling how great our sin and misery are can be the beginning of the spiritual life, when we stop running away from the Father’s house and come to our senses. Something stinks, we are hungry and thirsty, our body aches, and we can imagine a better world. We realize how far we are from flourishing and blessing.
Frederick Buechner calls us to “the stewardship of pain.” He writes: “I think [the stewardship of pain] means, before anything else, to keep in touch with your pain, to keep in touch with the sad times, with the hard times of your past. . . . I think that it is often those times when we were the most alive, when we were somehow closest to being most vitally human beings. Keep in touch with it because it is at those moments of pain where you are most open to the pain of other people—most open to your own deep places. Keep in touch with those sad times because it is then that you are most aware of your own powerlessness, crushed in a way by what is happening to you, but also most aware of God’s power to pull you through it” (Buechner, “Stewardship of Pain,” Live Deeply: A Journal of Hope and Transformation, Feb. 2, 2005, bit.ly/2NSIJK7).
God in Christ felt tremendous pain at the cross: the pain of being abandoned by friends, of physical torture, and the absurd torment of being forsaken by himself. Yet we call this Good Friday. Pain can have redemptive purpose. We need to stop the treadmill of desperate escape and listen to our pain. It tells us something is dreadfully wrong. The discipline of acknowledging our pain can be the road to hope and healing.
“Throughout These Lenten Days and Nights” Gertmenian, LUYH 134
“Christ, the Life of All the Living” Homburg, LUYH 137, PsH 371
“Go to Dark Gethsemane” Montgomery, LUYH 161, GtG 220, PsH 381
“Man of Sorrows—What a Name” Bliss, LUYH 170, PsH 482
And All Be Made Well
A Healing Blessing
That each ill
be released from you
and each sorrow
be shed from you
and each pain
be made comfort for you
and each wound
be made whole in you
that joy will
arise in you
and strength will
take hold of you
and hope will
take wing for you
and all be made well.
—© Jan Richardson, from The Painted Prayerbook (paintedprayerbook.com). Used by permission.
The Spiritual Discipline of Starting Over
Jesus’ followers were confused and disappointed. Mary was unaware of the dramatic change of events even though evidence was right before her eyes. The disciples were afraid, gathered in a locked room. Thomas was skeptical, even in the face of Jesus, not sure what to make of the good news. We can all get in a rut where we can’t image a new day with redeemed relationships, alternative vocation, and a fresh perspective on the future.
Easter can be understood as a divine move to start over again on a cosmic scale. It is no coincidence that the first scene of the resurrection happens in a garden. It’s an echo of Eden, a sign of the renewal of creation. God saw the rebellious and broken creation and sent prophets to call people to repent, turn around, and follow God’s design for fullness and flourishing, but they turned away. Finally God sent his own Son as a sacrifice for sin, to absorb the evil of a treacherous humanity, reverse the curse of death, and work the redemption of all creation, God’s original garden.
We are called to practice resurrection, to practice starting over—not from scratch, but like a fresh chapter or page in a story in which the plot arcs toward resolving conflict, healing fractured families and bodies, and mending a polluted creation. Faithful discipleship means turning from our disappointments toward prayerful hope and joyful service. Mary’s eyes opened wide, realizing it was Jesus before her, and she was commissioned to go and spread the good news. The fearful disciples were emboldened, urged to leave their locked room and live resurrection lives. Finally, Thomas touches and is touched, and he learns to trust. It’s a new day for everyone.
Each new day is an opportunity to practice starting over—in a new place with a new practice, a new perspective, and new people. The reality of the resurrection tells us not only is this possible; it’s the movement of God in the world and our gift and calling as Christians. Starting over is Christian hope in action.
“In Christ Alone” Getty and Townend, LUYH 770
“Death Was Arrested” North Point InsideOut
“Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing” Crum, LUYH 203, GtG 247
“Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing” Wren, LUYH 206, PsH 413
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