Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Guidance

We are continuing to look at the Spiritual Disciplines, and this morning we are looking at Guidance. Guidance is experiencing an interactive relationship with God that gives direction and purpose to daily life. Guidance is how we make an important decision as God’s people. It is how we see our options and then choose one of those options.

The Bible gives a lot of direction on how to live, and it is important to know our Bible, so that we know the general principles that should direct us. When we look at the Ten Commandments, for example, we see that we shouldn’t worship other gods, or steal, or murder, or lie. But, the Bible doesn’t necessarily tell us who we should marry, or if we should get married at all. The Bible won’t tell us which career we should pursue, or if we should change careers. The Bible won’t tell us precisely how we should help a family member or friend who is in trouble with drugs. And, when we are diagnosed with a serious illness and the doctor gives us three options for treatment, the Bible probably won’t tell us which medical treatment we should choose.

When it comes to these kinds of specific personal issues the Bible doesn’t always have much guidance to offer us besides some general principles. General principles are good for how we should direct our lives generally. But, most of us aren’t usually trying to decide between stealing our neighbour’s car or going to Bible study. In that case, the Ten Commandments’ direction to not steal is helpful.  
It's also worth saying that we probably shouldn’t expect God to give us direction on things that are plain in Scripture (Lk 16:31). If God has told us not to steal, we probably shouldn't ask God if it's okay to steal (unless there are some extreme circumstances we are dealing with). …. 
We need more specific direction to decide if we should go back to school or stay with our career. Many of our decisions aren’t actually about right and wrong, they are often a matter of calling. We are often having to decide between two good things because it is unwise or impossible to try to do both. Or, maybe you shouldn’t do either because you are already over committed.

Jesus was well aware that we were going to have to make decisions that require more specific direction than the general teachings given by him and the rest of Scripture. In John 16 Jesus tell his disciples,
 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12-13).
 So, what we need are practices that can help us learn the direction of the Holy Spirit.

There are a few practices that can help us make a decision in these matters. There are things we can do as an individual. In this I would recommend Dallas Willard’s book, “Hearing God”.

First, it is probably a good idea to make sure we clear away anything that might make it hard for us to hear from God. If we have a blatant sin in our life that is persistent and we don’t repent of it, then it will likely make it harder to hear from God until that is dealt with. God might care more about that sin being dealt with than whatever we are trying to make a decision about. (Imagine a mob hit man trying to hear from God about what home to buy. God likely has larger concerns in that man's life.)

It is also important to come to God with an obedient heart. If we are unwilling to follow what God will say, then it seems unlikely that we will receive direction until we would be willing to follow the direction received. Why would God give us direction that we aren't going to follow? That isn't to say that we will follow that direction without difficulty or question. Jesus took some time to be okay with God's direction in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46; or consider Saul's experience in Acts 9).

We also probably need to slow down to hear the Holy Spirit’s direction. If we are really distracted and frantically busy we will probably not be able to hear from God until we find a way to become inwardly still.

The main way we hear God, personally, is through an impression on our spirit, or as an awareness of certain thoughts entering our mind. An impression on our spirit is something like the feeling of conscience. For example, when you are about to do something you know is wrong and something in you doesn’t feel right, that’s your conscience. Or when you know you should do something to help someone, the pressure inside you is your conscience. … Similarly, you will sometimes have thoughts enter your mind. You might have an idea, or an image enter your mind. That might be God communicating with you. (Which isn't to say that every thought in your head is from God.) …

It isn’t always easy to discern between our thoughts and God’s voice, though. … I once had a woman come to me absolutely certain that God told her to go to university to become a doctor, and that the church was supposed to pay for it. She was completely sure of herself. I was presented with two options- 1) Do what she said, and therefore obey God’s command. Or, 2) don’t do what she says, and be disobedient to God. … That is the problem with trying to discern God’s will on our own. Sometimes we twist our own thoughts to make them seem like God’s direction. She was not open to the idea that maybe she heard wrongly, or that something like this had to be discerned with a community.

Sometimes it is important to have someone else help you discern God’s guidance. There is an ancient tradition of going to a wise and saintly elder to help you hear God. There are a number of names for this kind of relationship- the most common name at present is ‘Spiritual Director’. A good spiritual director can be very helpful to see on a regular basis, but especially when you have an important decision. … Choose a spiritual director very carefully. Unfortunately, not all people who call themselves spiritual directors are good, and even if they are good, your personality might not ‘click’ with theirs. A good spiritual director can help you walk into a deeper relationship with God. …

When you look for a spiritual director you are looking for an experienced Christian whose life has depth when it comes to spiritual matters. You are looking for someone who loves God and loves you. You are looking for someone who understands suffering, and how someone can grow through suffering. It is also more important that this person knows God, rather than merely knowing about God. You can have a PhD in Hebrew and not really know God. They should be someone who listens more than they speak. They should be someone who helps you hear God, and not someone who just gives you advice as if they are God.

It has also been a practice in the Christian tradition to call together a group of wise, faithful, and prayerful Christians to help you seek guidance. When I was discerning a call to ordination to the priesthood my priests called together four people from my church who committed to help me discern if I was called to become a priest or not. We met once a month. They asked me questions, I told them my thoughts and doubts, and we prayed together. In the end they told me that I should go to seminary and pursue the priesthood. … It was helpful to have a number of people help me. They were honest enough to ask me hard questions and they loved me and the church enough to know that it was important to hear rightly.

We see this practiced in the book of Acts as the early church sought direction regarding how the Gentiles would be included in the church. In Acts 15:28 we read the conclusion to their group discernment- “…it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”. This doesn't have the ring of absolute certainty, but they had enough confidence to move forward on this important matter. 

We can hear God as individuals, and that is a norm as we live day to day. No doubt God also wants us to learn to make decisions on our own without having to be told minute by minute what to do, but there will be times when we are in need of guidance and it is important that we develop the skills and relationships that are important for those moments. It is important that we take time to learn to discern God’s voice within ourselves. … It is also helpful to have a mature Christian we look up to that we meet with periodically to help us discern what God is doing in our life. It doesn’t matter if we call that “spiritual direction”, but it is a relationship that many Christians throughout history have found to be helpful. Wise elders are very much in need in the church. … It is also important to have fellowship with other Christians in a small group. It should be a group of people we trust- people we can be honest with- people we can pray with- people who love us and who we love back- people who love God and yearn to know God better. … God wants to speak with us, and give us direction for our lives. For this reason we were given the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us. May we be attentive to all the ways the Spirit is speaking to us. AMEN

Monday, 15 October 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Fasting

Whenever I talk about the Spiritual Disciplines there is one discipline that people tend not to take very seriously- That’s fasting. The suggestion that people should try fasting is often met with laughter or eye-rolling. That just tells us how affluent our society is. We live with such abundance that the idea of going without food tends to be something that doesn’t seem realistic. Many of us believe it might even be dangerous or unhealthy to not have three meals a day. Most of us have missed meals, but it is rare to go a full day without eating something. We live in an amazingly abundant society, so we have the privilege of scoffing at the idea of going without food.

Richard Foster defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity”. Usually this is abstaining from food, but sometimes we will talk about abstaining from things like social media, television, or specific foods (many fast from chocolate and wine during Lent). It is especially important to have times of abstinence when we encounter something that is starting to enslave us. … Foster would say that a hunger strike or dieting is not necessarily a spiritual fast because they are not necessarily directed towards spiritual goals. … The discipline of fasting can’t really be understood apart from prayer. They go together- fasting adds a certain kind of energy to prayer. And prayerful repentance is particularly connected to fasting. As are preparation for ministry and when seeking healing.

When we search the Bible regarding fasting it becomes clear that it is has been a spiritual practice of God’s people throughout the Bible- Old and New Testaments. Fasting was a spiritual practice of Moses, King David, Elijah the prophet, Queen Ester, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, and St. Paul- to name a few. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. And Jesus assumes that his followers will practice the discipline of fasting. In Matthew Ch 6 Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast…” He says, “when you fast…”. The assumption of Jesus is that his followers will include fasting as part of their spiritual practice. … So, fasting has been a constant practice in the life of God’s people. The Early Church practiced fasting, as did many other Christians including: St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards, but many others as well. Fasting has also been practiced outside of Christianity- it is no exaggeration to say that fasting is a spiritual practice of humanity.

The Bible doesn’t explicitly describe how to fast, it assumes that people know how to do it. We also can’t really say that it is a commandment for us to fast, though it is an assumed part of the spirituality of the people of the Bible. …

The Bible seems more concerned with teaching us how to fast rightly, rather than convincing us to do it. At numerous points the Scriptures ask people to question their motives in fasting- Are we doing it to connect with God, or is it a show to impress others with how spiritual we are? Some of the prophets do this, and Jesus teaches about this in Matthew Ch 6. Jesus questions our motives, but he still assumes that we are going to practice fasting. Richard Foster also points out that in Jesus’ teachings “there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from his teaching than we do giving or praying. … Certainly we have as much, if not more, evidence from the Bible for fasting as we have for giving” (Celebration of Discipline, p52, 54).

There are at least two opposing fallacies when it comes to practicing fasting (and most of the Spiritual Disciplines). One, is to turn the practice into a legalism where you have to participate in fasting in order to be saved and to be acceptance by God. And the other extreme is to reject it completely because it is seen as too extreme, or as a part of a bygone era. Fasting is a part of the wisdom of living a spiritual life. The Bible and Christian history treat fasting with seriousness and that should make us investigate it seriously.

Fasting has been an assumed reality for the majority of Christian history, but the question remains- “why fast”? In our culture fasting might seem particularly strange because we are taught to indulge our desires and appetites. To resist a natural desire is considered unhealthy. We have come to believe that if we only had all of our desires fulfilled, that we would finally be happy. (The people I meet who give that kind of control to their desires are not happy people.) We live in a culture of indulgence. But, we don’t have to serve our appetites. We don’t have to be enslaved by our desires. When Jesus was fasting in the wilderness, he was tempted to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. He responded by saying “one does not live by bread alone”. Jesus adds that we live, rather, “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It is God who ultimately sustains us. It is God’s word that keeps us in existence at every moment. If God were to stop speaking us into existence, we would no longer exist. By fasting we express that our true hunger, our true need, is for God.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is advising a lesser demon, Wormwood, on the art of leading a human soul astray. At one point, on the topic of prayer, Screwtape advises,

 “At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (p16).
 Our bodies and our spirits are not independent of each other. Fasting uses our bodies to create energy for spiritual work.

So, what happens when we fast? There has been some recent interest in the area of fasting on the part of health researchers. 

 Jason Fung, a medical doctor, became interested in fasting because of his work with people living with type 2 diabetes (see The Complete Guide to Fasting by Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore). Fung became interested in fasting’s ability to control insulin and lower glucose levels in his diabetic patients. According to Fung, when we eat food it increases the insulin in our body. This causes our liver to store sugar in the liver and produce fat. When we fast, our insulin decreases, and we burn stored sugar and fat. While researching fasting Fung discovered it had a number of additional health benefits. Studies have shown that fasting lowers blood pressure, decreases risk of cancer, and increases growth hormone that helps maintain and grow muscle. Fasting has been shown to boost brainpower, slow the effects of aging, improve heart health, improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood cholesterol, decrease inflammation, and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Fung also mentions that many ancient cultures have used fasting as a medical treatment as well as a spiritual practice.

Human beings are made for periods of feast and famine. Throughout history we have experienced times of abundance and times of scarcity. Human beings haven’t always had access to three balanced meals per day, so it makes sense that our bodies have the ability to adapt to a lack of food by increasing our energy and mental sharpness, so that we can be better equipped to find food. There are days when we get three buffalo and there are days when no buffalo to be seen.

It is helpful to know some of the health benefits of fasting to help battle against some of the myths about fasting being crazy or dangerous. But, our primary concern here isn’t the health benefits of fasting. We are thinking about fasting for spiritual purposes. When we are fasting we realize how much time we spend preparing or eating food. That time can be used for prayer and study. When we get used to fasting we also notice there is a certain kind of calm energy that fills our minds and hearts. We gain a new appreciation for how little food we actually need. We gain a greater awareness of what we eat, and we reawaken a gratitude for the food we eat. We also become aware of how often we eat out of habit rather than out of need. I remember fasting one day and I sat down and grabbed a handful of nuts out of the bowl and put them in my mouth. I swallowed them by the time I remembered I was supposed to be fasting. That eating was not even on a conscious level- it was automatic. …

Dallas Willard has said that fasting teaches us to be “sweet and kind when we don’t get what we want”. When we first start fasting we can become quite irritable and it can be tempting to be short with the people around us. Fasting can help us to treat people kindly even when we are feeling internally irritated. … There are many other benefits.

So how do you fast? There are lots of kinds of fasts, but what I would suggest is eating no food (I know, duh). I still drink black coffee, black tea (no cream or sugar), or water. You might be tempted to nibble on something small, but that actually makes the fast harder because it sort of teases your body rather than allowing it to jump into fasting mode. When you first start you might feel a headache at some point. If you do, I usually feel free to take a Tylenol. I sometimes fast for up to 4 days. If you are going to do that it is easier to be away from home like at a retreat centre. At home I have fasted for longer period of 2 months eating one meal per day. And there are many other ways to fast.

There are some people who probably shouldn’t fast or who should be very careful about fasting- People who are diabetics, expectant mothers, children, people with heart problems, people with eating disorders, and anyone who isn’t generally in good health, should either not fast or be very careful about fasting. Do your homework. 

Fasting is about putting God first. It reveals what is enslaving us, but as we cut those ties, we also learn to “feast on God” (as Foster puts it). Ultimately, the only way we will know why we should fast is to experience it. Once we try it and we feel God using it to transform us we will realize that fasting is a gift, and God wants to use it to bless us.

As Jesus fasted in the wilderness he learned where his priorities were to be. He was to be faithful to his Father. The Devil tempted Jesus with many good things, but Jesus knew that they were not the best things. We too are tempted by many good things, but they are not the best things. Fasting can help us make more room for God and God will faithfully use it to bring us the freedom He wants for us. AMEN

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Mental Health and my realization

I know I usually just post sermons, but I have been reflecting on a realization that I had about a year ago.

Like most people, I have put in quite a lot of effort attempting to solve my problems- especially my mental and spiritual problems. The way I have often gone about doing this was analyzing my emotional issues and my sins. I would journal about my "issues". I would go as deep as I possibly could. I would turn over every single stone and scrape the green slime I found underneath into a test tube, which I would run through a centrifuge and then put under a microscope.

There were many benefits to doing this. I learned a lot about myself. I learned the beginning glimmers of thought that would turn into sin if left unchecked. I learned what traumas from my past were still effecting me, and many many other things. I learned a lot.

But there was a downside. I became so focused on sin and my mental state that I went down a deep dark hole and it felt like there was no bottom. Eventually, I think it led me into depression.

Through some of my training in preparation for being a priest I was taught to look for the pain because the meaning was usually where the pain was. As a hospital chaplain the joke was that you knew you did your job if the patient was crying. It was funny because there was a little truth in it. We were taught to look for the edge of the wallpaper and start pealing it back. I started to assume that a smile was really just a mask for pain. The smile wasn't real. I couldn't do any good work with a smile, but tears I could work with. The real spiritual growth happens through tears. ... I assumed that was true for myself and for others for a long time.

Now, I'm not saying tears are bad, and I'm not suggesting we all walk around with fake smiles on our faces. Be real, or at least find people you can be real with. What I am saying is that I fell into a trap. I came to believe that sadness and pain were real and happiness was not real. Happiness was a mask. It was an illusion. There was no depth or meaning in joy.

The theological reality, however, is that joy was first and is more foundational than sadness. Joy will be eternal in God's kingdom and sadness will have an end. Joy isn't a mask- joy is at least as real, or maybe more real, than sadness.

I had come to believe that I could reach a state of psychological and spiritual wholeness through dealing with all my problems. It's like I had a box full of strings with knots in them and my job was to sit and go through the box and untie the knots. Once all the knots were untied then I would finally be whole and free and happy. But the box never seemed to ever get empty. I got good at looking at knots. I got good at finding knots- sometimes I found knots where there were none.

My realization was that I was not going to find joy and wholeness by dealing with my pain. I came to believe that I had to find a way to focus on the beauty and joy that is more foundational to God's creation. I don't ignore my pain, but I no longer see it as more real than joy. When I realized this I felt like I walked out from under a dark cloud. The depression that had lurked at the edges of my mind for so long (see dysthymia) seemed to dissipate.

I'm not saying this is true for anyone but me. I know there are people who deal with incredibly debilitating depression and mental illness. I'm not saying that I have the cure for depression for all human beings. I'm just saying I feel like I found my way out and perhaps there is someone out there who will read this and that will be their way out too.


Spiritual Disciplines- Celebration

Today we will be looking at the Spiritual Discipline of Celebration, which is appropriate for Thanksgiving weekend. As a Christian discipline, Celebration creates the context for receiving the grace of joy that comes to us as a result of our faith and confidence in God.

It is sad that Christians are not often thought of as joyous people. And sometimes it’s a true accusation that some Christians aren’t very joyous. 
We can sometimes take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes in our desire to lead pure lives we run the risk of noticing every act that falls bellow the standard. We notice it in ourselves and we are plagued by guilt. Or we notice it in society and we are plagued by judgment. ... Sometimes we are so focused on issues of justice or the suffering of others, at home or abroad, that we feel like we don’t have any right to celebrate. How dare we? Sometimes in our teachings we can become obsessed with a sin-focus Gospel. We become all about not sinning, and turning to Christ to forgive us for our sins. These are important things, but they are not the only things. Surely there is a problem if our focus on sin drowns out the goodness and beauty of God. Or, sometimes we have seen less than wholesome examples of celebration and we worry that we will be drawn into drunkenness, lust, and all kinds of other temptations as a result of celebrating.  All of this means that, unfortunately, Christians are not always known as joyous people. 

It shouldn’t be this way though. St. Augustine taught that 

“the Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot!”.
 In the Old Testament, the people are commanded to gather together to celebrate certain feasts. And these weren’t two hour dinner parties, these were week long massive parties. (see here and here) … In John 15 Jesus said, 
“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
 Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunk (Luke 7:34). His first miracle in the gospel of John was turning water into wine so that a wedding party could continue on (John 2). Paul says that evidence of God’s spirit dwelling in you is a character marked by joy (see the Fruit of the Spirit- Gal 5:22). The Eastern Orthodox Theologian Alexander Schmemann said, 
“… from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of Joy… all-embracing joy”. 
“Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy”.
  From the beginning Christians were living a life where joy was more real than any suffering they were enduring. THink about the martyrs that faced their executions with courage. They could do that because they knew that the lion in front of them was temporary but the joy God has for them is eternal (E.G. Perpetua here, and Rom 8:18).  Suffering is temporary to the Christian. Joy is eternal.

Even though Joy and celebration are deeply embedded in our Scriptures, Christians aren’t always known for celebration, but, to be fair, the truth is that a lot of modern western society has forgotten how to celebrate. Writing in 1969 the theologian Harvey Cox said that modern people have been pressed 

“so hard toward useful work and rational calculation [they have] all but forgotten the joy of ecstatic celebration…”.
 We might have an efficient society, but we have a tendency to value work above all, and without celebration and times of joy our work can lose all meaning and motivation. We live in a society filled with anxiety and this is the enemy of celebration (Phil 4:6,7, Matt 6:25). 

According to Richard Foster, and many other Christian teachers, only one thing produces genuine joy- that is obedience. A life lived open to God, especially when dealing with life’s difficulties, leads to the possibility that misery can be transformed. God doesn’t just want to transform our miseries though, God wants to transform and sanctify our ordinary lives. As we offer our daily lives to God in obedience, God will use our lives to produce profound joy. In fact, Foster says that “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives”.

So how do we practice Celebration as a spiritual discipline? Perhaps we can follow St. Paul’s advice when he calls us to choose to think certain thoughts. He tells us to set our minds on what is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (Phil 4:8). These things point to the goodness of creation. As we turn to God in thanksgiving for the goodness of creation we shape our minds and become who human beings were meant to be. The theologian Alexander Schmemann said, 

“When man stands before the throne of God when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. … Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.”
 The word “Eucharisto” means “thanks” in Greek. If we cultivate a thankful spirit by focusing on the goodness all around us, joy will be a result.

This has even been shown by those researching in the field of Positive Psychology. (Positive Psychology focuses on having a healthy mind, rather than on just dealing with psychological problems.) They have 

“shown that people who are habitually grateful are happier than those who are habitually ungrateful; they are less depressed, more satisfied with their lives, have more self-acceptance and have a greater sense of purpose in life. They are also more generous.” (See Rupert Sheldrakes, “Science and Spiritual Practices”, chapter 2). 
So, a big part of celebration is focusing on gratitude for all that God has given. If you find it hard to find something to be thankful for try holding your breath for a minute or two and then thank God for oxygen and working lungs. You might want to make it a daily or weekly practice to "count your blessings". You can use a journal, or just do it in your mind, but list things you are grateful for. They don’t have to be big and profound. They can be small and simple- like the smell of newly mowed grass, or birds at the bird feeder. (see the Book of Awesome)

 Saying grace before meals, even if short, helps us be thankful for what God has provided.

Most of us have become uncomfortable with singing, and dancing, but all over the world these are the natural ways of celebrating. Most of us might have to rediscover these. These come natural to children, maybe they can teach us. Put on some music and dance by yourself. Gather around a piano or guitar and sing. Dare to learn a few folk dances, or some silly games.

Enjoy the art of clean comedy. Laugh, poke fun at yourself. Enjoy good comedy that doesn’t require crassness to be funny. (see reverend fun)

Image result for the best reverend fun cartoons

Image result for the best reverend fun cartoons

Image result for best reverendfun

Image result for best reverendfun

Enjoy the fruits of creativity- your own or someone else’s. Enjoy fantasy, imagination- art, music, story, and drama. Watch movies or go to plays. Read books out loud together. 

Find ways to celebrate with your family, friends, and community. Find reasons to gather like, birthdays, marriages, anniversaries, a new job, or reaching a goal. (We have friends who had people over nearly every Sunday. It was a potluck, so everyone brought something and they would add card tables to make a giant long table. There was always a lot of laughter around that table.) Celebrate Christmas, and Easter as spiritual disciplines. They can be rescued from the clutches of commercialism. And when you find yourself sighing, "I guess I better clean the house", remind yourself that this is a spiritual discipline. It does something for your soul and the souls of those who come. Redeem All-Hallows-Eve (Halloween) as a celebration of the victory of the saints over the powers of darkness through the power of Christ. Find or make up reasons to celebrate and laugh together.

Celebration puts us in the place to receive the grace of joy. Our call to joy is a call to believe that God’s goodness will overcome the pain of the world. Resurrection will overcome the cross. The Kingdom of God will overtake the Empire of Darkness.  The prophets talk about a time when God’s justice will overtake the suffering and evil in the world. For God’s people to celebrate in a world full of pain is a protest against the darkness. It is a declaration that God will overcome, and evil will not have the last word. We celebrate to express our faith that God is good and created a good world, and in the end joy is eternal and suffering is not. So we need more practice in joy than we do in suffering. AMEN    

Monday, 1 October 2018

spiritual Disciplines- Simplicity

Before I begin I would like to direct you to a couple resources. One is Richard Foster’s book, “Freedom of Simplicity” which expands on his chapter on simplicity in his book “Celebration of Discipline”. I have also been greatly helped in thinking around the topic of money by Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and his “Complete Guide to Money”. If you want to pursue this further please look those resources up.

We are continuing to explore the Spiritual Disciplines. This week we are looking at Simplicity. Simplicity has to do with a focused life. You know your priorities and they are not in conflict. As a Christian discipline we focus on God’s kingdom as our primary priority. After naming a number of things that people might be anxious about Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). Christian simplicity is a life with the kingdom of God as the central focus and the main priority. It doesn’t mean you don’t feed yourself, or plan for the future, but it just means that things are put in their proper perspective.

Simplicity has both an inward reality and an outward reality. And both are necessary to practice simplicity. If you just have the outward look of simplicity you become a legalist. You imitate the simplicity of the past, or of others, but it isn’t authentic to you. Some Christians have decided to dress simply, such as the early Quakers (or the Hutterites). They just wore certain colours. Generally, they dressed in the clothing of the working class. You can’t just start dressing that way without having the inward reality. It will just be a costume. It won’t be an outward expression of an inward reality.

Similarly, you can’t have an inward attitude of simplicity without it having an effect on your outward life. It will become hypocrisy. To have an inward focus of the Kingdom of God will set priorities for how we organize out life. It will help us determine what kind of car we drive, and how we dress.

The inward reality of simplicity is based on trusting God for what you need. You trust God to give you your daily bread. You trust God to care for you now and in the future. That also means to believe that what you have has come to you as a gift from God (Deut 8:17). The Kingdom of God is your priority and everything else finds its proper place in your life under that top priority. … The grace we receive from God in the practice of simplicity is that we become free from the hunger for status and luxury. We become free from anxiety about the future, and we become more generous people because we have a healthy detachment from possessions.

It is impossible to talk about simplicity in our society without talking about money. Money and material possessions are a powerful idol in our world. It can be an idol for those who have money, but also for those who don’t have money. The worship of wealth is pervasive. Jim Carrey has been quoted as saying, 
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”
 Our society seems to think it is the answer. We still think that winning the lottery will solve all our problems. … As Richard Foster says, 
“Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.”
 In the movie “Wall Street” the character Gordon Gekko speaks for the modern world when he says, 
“Greed is good”.
 The hero in our society goes from rags to riches. But, it wasn’t so long ago that the hero in the Christian tradition went from riches to rags. …

Simplicity helps us stand between two extremes- 
one is wealth hoarding and material obsession, 
and the other is a rejection of creation as evil in itself.

The Bible is full of warnings about making wealth into a God, especially when the accumulation of wealth comes alongside the oppression of the poor. As we heard in Ecclesiastes, 
“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money” (5:10).
 As Jesus has said, 
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. … no one can serve two masters; … You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:19, 24).
 There are many places in Scripture where we are warned about the dangers of making wealth the main focus of our lives.

The biblical tradition is also careful about not rejecting material blessings. The Hebrews are encouraged to enter the Promised Land which is full of material blessings- a land flowing with milk and honey. In Deuteronomy 14 God’s people are given the direction, 
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household” (14:22, 24-26).
 God wants us to enjoy the fruits of creation. … There was a group called the Gnostics who were around during the time of the early church. They rejected the material world as a work of the devil. The early church was quick to reject that group as heretical. The creation is good and to be enjoyed.

Christian simplicity rejects the obsession with and worship of wealth, but it also rejects the Gnostic tendency to demonize wealth. Christian simplicity embraces the proper ordering of wealth under the priority of God’s Kingdom. Wealth is to be used for God’s purposes. … Dallas Willard has said that if we reject wealth in the name of God, then we place it into the hands of those who are not concerned with God. The people we want to have wealth are those who love Jesus and want to spend their wealth under his direction. The world needs disciples of Jesus who spend their wealth under the direction of God.

In “Celebration of Discipline” Richard Foster gives 10 principles to consider in our practice of simplicity.

“First, buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.”
 Don’t buy things to impress people. 

“Second, reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. … Addiction is slavery. Refuse to be a slave to anything but God”. Watch for any desire that is overtaking your will.

“Third, develop a habit of giving things away”. Fight against attachments and the temptation to hoarding by giving things away. Get rid of things you don’t need. Richard Foster says, “ Most of us could get rid of half of our possessions without any serious sacrifice”.

“Fourth, refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry”. We don’t need a new iPhone just because a new iPhone has been released. There are a lot of people spending a lot of money learning how to sell us the newest gadget or toy. Don’t et them get into your head. Buy what you need and beware of the compulsion to get the newest thing.

“Fifth, learn to enjoy things without owning them.” Share things. Enjoy parks. Go for walks. Go to the library.

“Sixth, develop a deeper appreciation for the creation”. Enjoy being outside. Watch the clouds, look at the stars. Smell the flowers. Watch the birds.

“Seventh, look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes”. Avoid debt whenever possible. Save up to get what you need rather than going into debt. There are plenty of powers looking to take advantage of you by getting you into debt.

“Eighth, obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech. ‘Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil’” (Matt 5:37). Do what you say you will do. Avoid flattery. We shouldn’t require our signature on a contract before we take our word seriously.

“Ninth, reject anything that breeds the oppression of others”. Don’t allow your money to go to those who oppress the poor through sweat shops or other unfair labour practices. We should be conscious of where our bananas, coffee, and chocolate come from.

“Tenth, shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God”. Temptations to worship other “gods” are everywhere, don’t be fooled.

If we can learn the Spiritual discipline of Simplicity we will learn what Paul knew. He said, 
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:11-13).
 May God grant us the grace of simplicity. AMEN
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