The Discipline of Study

We know that our God often uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27), so does that mean that we should remain foolish? Can we just trust that in our stumbling stupor we will somehow shame the wise? Of course not! Paul is clear: “Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do.” Ephesians 5:17 (NLT). All of the spiritual disciplines, including study, help us to “place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.” Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) p. 7. One result of transformation is understanding what the Lord wants us to do.

Unlike fasting, which is a struggle to say the least, study is kind of my thing. I’ve done Bible Study Fellowship (BSF), Community Bible Study (CBS), Beth Moore studies, and others. All of these are great, but the absolute best program I have ever been a part of is the Fellows Program through the C.S. Lewis Institute. And I think the depth of this program is related to Foster’s four steps of study: (1) repetition; (2) concentration; (3) comprehension; and (4) reflection. Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) p. 64-66. If you get a group of people to read a book that’s one thing. When you get to unpack a book of spiritual truth, or a selection of Scripture, with people who have taken the time to really read it, mark it up, and digest it in a manner similar to the way Foster recommends, then that is a whole other thing. A much better thing! And I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to do this with many, many books. In the course of the two years of the program I sat around with incredible people and chewed on about fifty different books — heavy, well-written, challenging books. We read Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Schaeffer, Murray, and many others. (I also attended lectures given by Henry Blackaby, Ravi Zacharias, J.I. Packer and others). More than any other experience in my life, the Fellows Program taught me to study. It also meant that the very few hours of television that I used to watch had to be discarded. Because study requires time; it requires concentration; it requires reflection. You can’t do that and watch television at the same time.
So I have a long way to go with the discipline of study–especially right now because I am not currently doing any formal program. I need to come up with a plan for myself. This book is part of that plan, but I need to formalize what I intend to do next, and what Scripture I intend to study. (not just read or meditate on, but study). And I need to tell someone about it so that they can hold me accountable. As Americans we have so many resources at our fingertips that we are really without excuse.
In short, I agree with Foster, “Study is well worth our most serious effort.” May we spur one another on to make that effort.
And for those of you reading along, I’d love to know what you liked best in this chapter and also if you’ve found a particular program helpful in learning to really study books and/or Scripture.


First a bit of housekeeping. I thought Richard Foster should know that I was blogging about his book so I emailed him. An assistant of his got back with me yesterday and requested that I properly and fully cite his work, and encourage my readers to buy the book, which of course I am happy to do. So once again here is the link for ordering Celebration of Discipline. Also you may want to check out Renovare, which is the ministry founded by Richard Foster.

Now back to the disciplines. Can I just say that fasting is a difficult topic for me to discuss? The idea of fully revealing my spiritual immaturity with this discipline makes me want to crawl under the table. I am not a disciplined person in general. With regard to food I’m about as undisciplined as you can possibly be. And we all know people who are toothpick thin and joke about their indulgences, but my level of indulgence is something these people know nothing about. I mean I still kid around about it, but really it is not funny. It’s gluttony. It’s sin. And sin isn’t funny. If God hadn’t been merciful in giving me a good metabolism I think I’d be morbidly obese instead of just overweight. I mean it. So there is absolutely no insight that I can add to fasting. I’m about as newbie as they come. And for me, efforts to fast, however short are tainted by a dieting mentality. I am already prone to think way too much about how I might lose these twenty extra pounds. So it’s a serious issue because as Foster indicates, the biblical fast always centers on God. Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p.54.

So personal insight into the how and why of fasting? None. But I was convinced even before reading this book, that there is a biblical call to fast, and Foster is methodical in going through the biblical foundation. He also explains that, “Fasting helps us keep balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them.” Celebration of Discipline, p.56.

I need balance. I need discipline. I need moderation with food. I need to not be enslaved by cravings. I need to consume less. I need to think less about what I will consume. Oh my, there is a lot of work to be done in me. May I cling this week to Philippians 1:6, “being confident that He who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion…”

Jesus in a Chair

I went away for the weekend, without my family, and I stayed in a delightful bedroom which looked out onto the Chesapeake Bay, pictured above. This photograph was not taken from my bedroom, but was right below it on the lawn. I slept with the window open, the gentle breeze lulling me into a slumber so deep it bordered on comatose. But in the middle of the night, the door to my bedroom flew open. I was startled awake and my heart raced, but then I saw Jesus sitting peacefully in a little wooden chair beside my bed. He wasn’t at all concerned about the open door. He was just staring at me.

“Well, if Jesus is here,” I thought, “it’s probably alright if I just go back to sleep.” And so I did. I didn’t even bother to close the door.
There’s a few things you may want to know before making any judgments about this story. The next day, in broad daylight, my door flew open again, but it seemed to be caused by a sudden gust of wind. It was still a little odd, but I think I just didn’t have it closed tightly, and the pressure change somehow opened the door. The second thing is that I am a very, very deep sleeper. One time when my husband was working overnight our security alarm went off in the wee hours. Guess what I did? I stumbled out of bed, made my way over to the keypad and punched in the code to turn it off. Is that funny or what? “Intruder, schmuder, I’m trying to sleep!” I was horrified in the morning when I put the pieces of the night together. Thankfully, something other than a criminal had tripped the alarm. The third thing that might be of interest is that I’ve never before had such a Jesus-sighting.
So honestly I don’t know if I was just tired, scared, or that Jesus was truly visible in that chair. Each is possible and I don’t think it matters one iota what really happened. Because what I know in my heart of hearts is that Jesus was there in the room with me, because He is always with me. He told us that He is the Good Shepherd, and He is. (John 10). He knows me, and He cares for me. He patiently uses the crook of His staff to guide me; He uses the rod of His staff to shoo away predators. Sometimes my Shepherd leads me beside quiet waters, and He always restores my soul. There is no need for me to fear evil, because He is with me. (Psalm 23).
So maybe Jesus was sitting in the chair, or maybe it was a figment of my imagination. Would that be bad? I don’t think so. Who gave us our imagination anyway? Do you use yours enough? I’m thinking that maybe I don’t. The Psalmist certainly was adept at using his. What beautiful word pictures! I am so thankful for all the vivid comfort woven through the Psalms.
I know some of you were expecting to move on in the Richard Foster book to the discipline of fasting, and we will on Thursday, but this extra post gives a few people a little more time to catch up. Plus I think this Jesus in the chair experience raises an important issue which applies to both meditation and prayer.
Foster said it best:
To believe that God can sanctify and utilize the imagination is simply to take seriously the Christian idea of incarnation. God so accommodates, so enfleshes himself into our world that he uses the images we know and understand to teach us about the unseen world of which we know so little and which we find so difficult to understand.
So may we boldly ask God to sanctify and utilize our imaginations this week!

Intercessory Prayer

I’m so excited that a number of people (even a few with whom I am not related!) have decided to join me in reading Celebration of Discipline. I also have a few friends who are currently reading this book in small groups (merely by coincidence, if you believe in such things), and I hope they will check in and maybe share some thoughts too. I have never read anything that so systematically addresses spiritual disciplines, and even though we are only on the second discipline, I’m already reassessing some things.

Foster focuses mainly on intercessory prayer, and I think it is important to limit ourselves a bit given the topic is simply inexhaustible. So what I’d like to discuss is the following question: what did you find most thought-provoking in this chapter? In other words, what has really stretched your thinking about prayer?
For me it was a great and needed reminder that prayer changes the course of human events. We cannot understand how exactly this change occurs, and we don’t need to. At least initially, we just need to accept it. Because until we believe that prayer makes a tangible, objective difference, we cannot pray with power. Once we start praying we can see results, and the how question becomes less a curiosity. I mean, in a sense, who cares how it works? I have no understanding of electricity. I just know when I flip the switch the light comes on. And that mystery, created by human hands, doesn’t bother me a bit. The divine mystery of determinative prayer should bother me even less.
Last month I blogged that the ultimate purpose of prayer is to align our will with the will of our Heavenly Father. At first glance that may seem to contradict the above paragraph, but if you look closely, it does not. The pivotal point, the point that I am so thankful Foster reminded me of, is that our Heavenly Father’s will is actually fluid. Foster writes that the Bible “speaks of God constantly changing his mind in accord with his unchanging love.” I think perfect alignment is usually struck by us doing most of the realigning, but amazingly, almost unfathomably, God’s will is subject to change too. A corollary is that neither Jesus nor His disciples prayed with my trusty proviso, “if it’s Your will.” And that makes sense to me now, because when we really know God we aren’t going to pray for things that would be outside His will, as defined merely by His character. But quite honestly, the idea of letting go of “if it’s Your will” is almost frightening to me. Maybe that reveals how “half-hoping” some of my prayers have been.
So what does all this mean for us? It means we have a daunting responsibility to pray. May we rise up and pray believing prayers for others this week.
And I know some of you probably got something totally different out of this chapter, and I cannot wait to hear about it.

Christian Meditation

Before we jump into the book, let me lay out my plan. For the next six weeks I plan to blog twice each week. I’ll be using Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, as a jumping off point and hope to add Scripture and other sources to the ideas that Foster shares in each chapter. So today, we’ll look at meditation, and then on Thursday, we’ll jump into prayer. With a Monday/Thursday pace it will take us six weeks to go through the book. The great thing is that these are such discrete topics that I think anyone can truly jump in anywhere. And although I’ve only just begun reading, can I just say that I absolutely love this book. It is timeless. It is brilliant. The writing is simple and anointed. I’m so excited about studying the disciplines, implementing the disciplines and about the transformation I expect God to work in my own life.

The first discipline that Foster addresses is meditation; he devotes seventeen pages to the topic, so a couple of paragraphs can only begin to scratch the surface. Please read the book! But one thing that is clear is that we should meditate. After all, the Bible says to. The Lord told Joshua to meditate day and night. The Psalmist meditated “all day long” and claimed to have “more insights than all [his] teachers” as a result. Paul said we need to renew our minds, that we need to be in control of our thoughts, setting our minds on things that are true, noble, just, pure, and lovely — that we need to meditate on these things. (See Romans 12 and Philippians 4).
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet many people, myself included, have spent years in good, Bible-believing churches without a single mention of meditation. One explanation might be that many people associate meditation with Eastern religions. This association is totally misguided because the two practices are actually opposite. The goal of Eastern meditation is to empty the mind, and despite Elizabeth Gilbert’s great writing in Eat, Love, Pray emptying the mind in this way has no place in the life of a Christ-follower. No, Christian meditation fills the mind with God’s word and God’s truth as revealed in creation. There is also a contemplative and quiet component, but the goal in this phase is to hear from God. This is very unlike Eastern meditation, where detachment is the key and the ultimate desire is not to hear from anyone or anything but to merge with the Cosmic Mind.
So in a sense, Christian meditation is a willingness to listen, and an expectation that something will be said. But listening takes time and “God’s acquaintance is not made hurriedly.” (E.M. Bounds). We need to persevere, even when we are not in the mood, even when we don’t feel edified or renewed. As Bonhoeffer said, “The person who waits upon moods is impoverished.” Meditation takes practice and commitment.
As for the “how” of meditation, Foster has some good ideas for beginners, and I highly recommend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Meditating on the the Word. Although I’ve meditated before, I’m definitely still a beginner. The means I’ve used in the past are very simple. I have taken my Bible and read the same verses, maybe three to five, over and over again, asking the Holy Spirit to help me understand and apply the passage. The Psalms lend themselves very well to meditation and are a good starting point. I’ve also meditated over a short passage in a group setting, which was very interesting, and aptly proved that God can speak new wisdom to us in the most familiar passages. The other thing that I have done is to use the little notebooks pictured above. I can carry these anywhere, and they are filled with verses and a few quotes I find to be particularly poignant. Bonhoeffer said, “It is often better to read a little in the Scriptures and slowly, waiting until it has penetrated within us, than to know a great deal of God’s Word but not to treasure it in our hearts.”
Obviously there’s a lot more to be unpacked from Foster, and elsewhere. So I’d love to know your thoughts about the book and maybe what spoke to you the most in this first discipline.
At the very least let us walk away emboldened, as Foster said: “We learn to meditate by meditating.”

A Vision with a Task

A vision without a task is but a dream;
a task without a vision is drudgery;
a vision with a task is the hope of the world…

I’ve used this quote before but it is so apt now, as I make a stab at something new. My vision for the task of reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is to spur one another on to apply the biblical principles and practical truth of this book in everyday life (here is the link to order the book). Of course, this will work best if participation is not limited to my sister and me, and I am just going to trust that some of my regular, non-commenting readers will join us.

But I also want to clarify a couple of points about this vision. It’s important to know why we’d want to grow spiritually, why we’d invest time reading this book. We want to live lives more like Christ, but why? There are lots of possibilities: to represent Christ better to the non-believing world, to live with greater personal peace, or to model Christ-likeness for our children. These are reasonable motivations.

One unreasonable motivation is that right living will earn us God’s favor. This is a prevalent and insidious line of thinking, but upon examination it doesn’t make a lick of sense. For one thing, if it were true then God would not be entirely sovereign; we would exert some control over Him by following a list of rules. But that’s absurd, and if you’ve been alive for a few days you’ve likely noticed that God’s ways are not our ways, and that His thoughts are not our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8). If this is not obvious already, perhaps a quick visit to a nearby hospital will confirm this truth. Also see the book of Job, which is brutal in its demolition of this live-it-right-and-be-blessed mentality. No, it’s not about merit. God always deals with us on the basis of grace because He loves us and because we are incapable of earning anything good from a holy, perfect God.

I recently read that while some may try to acquire presents from God, the true aim is to enjoy His Presence. (M. Wayne Brown, Water from Stone).

And that’s a great motivation for trying to grow spiritually, isn’t it? We can enjoy His Presence. What a gift! May Celebration of Discipline aid us in unwrapping this unfathomable gift, may we lovingly spur one another on in this effort, and may the transformation of our lives be a testimony to those around us. Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love God. I ‘ll be praying that in the weeks to come we will know and love God more deeply, and that we will enjoy His presence more than ever before.

Next week, we’ll talk about the inward disciplines. For now, God bless and happy reading.

Solving the Image Problem

A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old, Will, met a boy we’ll call “Joey.” Will had certain expectations of Joey since the boys met in a church setting, but Joey was not the most charming of fellows. In fact, after many grievances Will was just utterly exasperated. “You know,” Will said, “I’m just having difficulty believing Joey is a Christian.”

Although we’ve had some good laughs over it, Will’s disappointment actually raises some interesting questions. Why do Christians have such an image problem? And what can believers do about it?

First of all, Will is my first-born son, and I may be just a tad biased, but I love his logic, because he didn’t say, “wow, that Joey is kind of a jerk, this whole Jesus thing must be a fraud.” And that may sound sort of silly, but that’s what a lot of people outside the church actually do. All it takes is one or two bad seeds and some people are really turned off by Christianity. Criticisms are often well-founded, and the stories which begin “I knew a Christian once who…” are common and discouraging. However, the idea of turning away from Jesus Christ based on the imperfection of His followers seriously misunderstands a vital biblical truth. The fact is, “Jesus Christ didn’t come to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.” (Ravi Zacharias).

So it’s first and foremost about salvation, not transformation. But people, like my son, like me, like you, still expect transformation. Should we? The answer is yes. Absolutely yes. The problem is that you don’t know how people started out, so you can’t judge their journey, and thankfully that’s not our job. Our job is a personal one: to pursue a life that glorifies God, a life that is not a stumbling block for others, a life that does not reek of hypocrisy, and one that is ever-imperfect but by God’s grace improving.

I’m never going to get it just right. I’m still going to falter and sin, and disappoint people I love. I’m still going to give critics a chance to point and scoff, “Look at her and she says she’s a Christ-follower!” But even though perfection is unattainable I want my life to be as Jesus-like as possible, don’t you? Just think, if the millions of Americans who claim to be Christians made this their goal, surely that would solve the image problem, right? No, it wouldn’t. While books like UnChristian are enlightening in terms describing the depth of the problem, there is actually no hope of fully fixing our “brand.” After all Jesus was neither hypocritical nor judgmental yet His image problem eventually sent him to the cross. Jesus led a perfect life but was absolutely despised and He said we would be too. (Luke 21:17)

So two thoughts to close. First, like Paul, we need to be a little more comfortable with the world hating us. (Galations 1:10). Secondly, although hypocrisy isn’t the problem, it is a problem, a big problem. So next week I’m going to start a series about living the Christian life right based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. I have never read this book in its entirety, but my goal is to tackle a couple chapters each week. I would be greatly honored if YOU would read it with me. My hope is that this series will be truly interactive. I mean what else are comments for? Why not order it right now, before you forget? Here’s the link.

Until then, may we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Him, and may we run the race set out for us, with grace and mercy and perseverance.