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“Do not doubt, but believe.” John 20:27

Ready for the race

Spiritual practices equip us to join Jesus in his mission to transform the world.

By Chip Hardwick

A person running down a road

Photo courtesy of istock.com/ RichVintage

Fasting. Reading the Scriptures. Praying. Keeping the Sabbath. These are a few of the spiritual practices or disciplines that Christians have pursued over the centuries in order to have a more vibrant faith in Christ.

Many of these practices are as old as the faith of the Israelites, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to do. Some time ago, in the adult Bible study I was leading, someone asked why we don’t engage in these spiritual practices as consistently as we think we should. Here are some of the answers the folks in the Bible study gave:

  • It’s so hard to know how to pray.
  • When we start reading Scripture for the first time, we’re like, “What??!?”
  • We may confess our sins, but the same old sins come around again and again. 
  • It’s so easy to tune out during worship when the sermons get boring. (I tried not to take this comment personally.)
  • Fasting gives us headaches.

Any of us could probably add items to this list. One of my own hesitations about spiritual practices comes when I read Scripture passages like Isaiah 58:1–12 and Matthew 23:23–24. In verse 6 of the Isaiah passage, God takes the Israelites to task for their insincere fasting, admonishing them, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (New International Version). In Matthew, Jesus complains about the Pharisees’ inadequate tithe. Such passages reinforce my feeling that if I don’t get these disciplines right, it might be better not to pursue them at all.

For many of us, spiritual disciplines already have two strikes against them: they are difficult to initiate, and they have a certain risky aspect to them. If we take another swing at putting them into practice, we risk striking out. Still, there are good reasons to go ahead and swing the bat.

A means to an end

Person climbing mountain

A Journey with a purpose: Spiritual practices are a means to an end, not the end itself. They help us to accomplish something that is much more important—to live a life of mission.. Photo courtesy of istock.com/Adventure_Photo

Spiritual practices become more meaningful when we recognize the difference between the means (how to accomplish a goal) and the end (the goal itself). Here’s an illustration: Every year, around May or June, I start preparing for the Peachtree Road Race, a 10K run on the Fourth of July in Atlanta. I start exercising more: I hop on my bike; I hit the gym; I pound the pavement.

Now, I like doing all of these exercises, some more than others. But I don’t start exercising more because I enjoy it. Nope—I do it because I know that the Peachtree Road Race is a challenge. Sometimes there is 90 percent humidity on race-day morning, and you’ve sweated through your shirt before you even get to the starting line. (Did I mention that it’s in Atlanta in July?) Plus, six miles is six miles. I need to get in shape, and that means I need to exercise. All those hours spent exercising aren’t an end in themselves—they’re the way to get ready for the race.

John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park (CA) Presbyterian Church, connects physical workouts to spiritual practices in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted. “Spiritual disciplines are what calisthenics are to a game,” he writes. “Once the game starts, basketball players get no bonus points based on how many free throws they shot in practice. The only reason to practice them is to be able to make them in a game.”

Spiritual practices are a means to an end, not the end itself. They help us accomplish something else, something that is much more important than simply being able to say that we have read all the way through the Bible or that we have written in our prayer journals every day. So what’s the something else? What end are we working toward when we do these practices?

When we participate in these spiritual disciplines, our goal is that God would use them to strengthen us to live a life of mission. We are preparing ourselves to join Jesus in his mission to transform the world through sacrificial love. We worship, we read theological materials, we give something up for Lent in order to equip ourselves to extend God’s blessing to others, so that others would experience more of the life God wants for them.

The reason God is so combative with the Israelites in Isaiah 58 is that they have forgotten the true purpose of their fasting. Likewise, Jesus scolds the Pharisees in the Matthew 23 passage for not recognizing that disciplines such as tithing are not ends in themselves but the means toward living a life of mission.

The amazing thing is that when we take part in these disciplines as a means to bless others, we get blessed too. In Isaiah 58:11, the prophet assures the Israelites who faithfully practice the spiritual disciplines, “The Lord will guide you . . . and satisfy your needs . . . ; and you shall be like a watered garden.”

A dance of blessing

A woman by some mountains

Photo courtesy of istock.com/Photomorphic.

Spiritual practices are a means of equipping us to lead a life of mission that extends God’s blessing to others. Spiritual practices are also a means by which God blesses us.

The relationship of means to ends looks something like a three-partner dance. Unlike the traditional two-partner dance, in which one person takes the lead, in this dance all three partners—spiritual practices, God’s blessing of us, and our blessing of others—take turns leading:

1) Sometimes we undertake spiritual practices in order to bless others, and then God blesses us. Maybe we give up a meal for Lent, for example, and give the money we would have spent to a food bank, and then God blesses us with the knowledge that others will live a more abundant life.

2) Other times, we experience God’s blessing of us and feel the divine presence in real and tangible ways. This mountaintop experience leads us to pray and thank God with more regularity. Those prayers, in turn, open our eyes to others’ needs, leading us to bless others by serving them.

3) Then again, our blessing of others—by serving them on a mission trip, for example, or through a ministry closer to home—brings the joy that comes from taking part in God’s mission to transform the world. This, in turn, inspires us to be more faithful in our prayer life or more sacrificial in our giving. Or we find that our blessing of others makes our spiritual practices (worship, prayer, Scripture reading) more meaningful, so that they become a channel of God’s blessings of forgiveness, love, and peace.

No matter which partner takes the lead, spiritual practices play a key role in this dance of blessing, opening us to God’s blessing and enabling us to extend the blessing to others. We don’t take part in these disciplines simply to check them off a list or to feel better about ourselves. The purpose of spiritual practices is to equip us for a life of mission, in which we are a blessing to others. And along the way, God blesses us, too.

Now, let the dancing begin!

Chip Hardwick is director of Theology, Worship, and Education for the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).


Learn more about spiritual practices

Books

Spiritual practices are a means of equipping us to lead a life of mission that extends God’s blessing to others. Spiritual practices are also a means by which God blesses us.

Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, by Christine Pohl (Eerdmans, 2011). Explores four Christian practices—gratitude, promise keeping, truth telling, and hospitality—that build vibrant communities of faith.

Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana (Chalice Press, 2012). The author, a Presbyterian minister and former columnist for Presbyterians Today, describes her family’s yearlong quest to embrace the discipline of Sabbath keeping.

Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, by Marjorie J. Thompson (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). First published in 1995 and still a bestseller, this book is a classic introduction to spiritual practices.

Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation, by Lynne M. Baab (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). Thankfulness, fasting, and contemplative prayer are among the practices included in this exploration of the spiritual journey as a pilgrimage with others.

A Spirituality of Service, by Jerry Aaker (Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, 2012). The author, who worked for Lutheran World Relief, Heifer International, and similar organizations for more than 40 years, reflects on how service among the world’s poor has shaped his faith and spiritual practices.

Online resources

Spiritual formation for Presbyterians (practices, definitions, frequently asked questions, and resources, including the Spiritual Formation Leaders Network).

The Company of Pastors, a program for pastors and other congregational leaders that helps nurture habits of daily prayer and Scripture reading and regular theological reflection.

Practicing Our Faith, resources and spiritual practices from a wide range of Christian traditions.

Renovaré, an organization founded by Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, offering resources on intentional living through Christian spiritual formation and discipleship.

Examen, a one-page guide to prayerful reflection on the events of the day in 
order to detect God’s presence, a practice that dates back to the 16th-century 
St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Comments

  • Thanks, I needed that. Really. by Doc McKay on 01/04/2013 at 10:54 p.m.

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