Monday, December 26, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Fasting must be everyone's favorite spiritual discipline. We're all about denial of self, aren't we?

Actually, I think that's what makes this discipline so difficult. It's denial of self in a way we're just not used to. Food is the last thing that many of us allow ourselves to indulge in completely, without restriction. Complete hedonism. It's tough to reverse that.

I did some calculations, and after going to church for 40 years, I figure I've heard somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand sermons. I haven't heard a single sermon on fasting. Maybe it's the particular religious tradition I grew up in. But what makes it weirder is that we have examples of the early disciples in doing it (Acts 13:1-3, 14:23), Jesus did (Matthew 4:1-2), He expects us to do it (Matthew 6:16-18, 9:15), and it's described as a form of worship (Acts 13:2, Luke 2:36-38) . If there's something that people would suggest is required of us, you'd think it'd be fasting. But I don't remember it listed among the "5 acts of worship" in the many sermons I heard on that topic as a kid.

Richard Foster suggests that fasting can reveal some of the things in life that control us, citing Psalm 69:10 ("I humbled my sould with fasting"). - and mentions that fasting can reveal the things in life that control us. This takes on even more meaning when I read 1 Cor 6:12 ("All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything"). We all have things in our life that control us. For a lot of us, food falls into that category.

This brings us full circle back to denial of self. Jesus says annoying stuff like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24) and "any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple"(Luke 14:33).

That's what this life is all about, isn't? Dying to self? I think that's why we don't commit. Ironically, we don't want to give up what little control we think we have over this life. It must look silly to God.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

I hate that the intro to each of these blog posts is a comment about not writing blog pots. But, there you go.

Continuing going through the spiritual disciplines, we come to prayer next. This is a spiritual discipline that Christians everywhere seem to practice - in private and in public; it is talked about, preached about, and taught about.

But when I really got down to thinking about prayer, in all its ubiquitousness (is that a word?) it still seems as mysterious to me as meditation. (See previous post.)

I come from a cessationist tradition that denies miracles in the present day; but all my life, I've heard people pray to God asking for things like healing of the sick (and praising God when He's healed them). I have trouble putting these two things together. This past April, after the tornados in Alabama, I heard story after story of people saying that God protected them because they prayed. What about the people that prayed that weren't protected from the tornados? And just this morning in church, someone prayed about how he knew God loved us because of our material blessings. At times, I've asked God to help me pay the rent, and praised Him when I was blessed with the ability to make the payment. But a lot of people don't have material blessings, and can't make ends meet - but if they're asking for these things from God and He doesn't provide, does that mean He doesn't love them? (Of course, there's a whole other set of posts about our role in helping the less fortunate.)

It made me start to wonder how much praying was tied to meditating. I guess, when all else fails, read what Jesus said about it:

I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15:7)
This really got me to thinking. We like to throw around trite sayings like, "God always answers prayer - sometimes he says, 'Yes'; sometimes 'No'; sometimes 'Not now'." I've always hated that saying. But my own preferences aside, maybe the problem with us and prayer is that we don't know what to pray because we don't know God. We're not in tune with Him. Maybe it's taking that time in quiet meditation to understand who He is and what He wants that we're missing. Sometimes I look around at our current Christian culture, witnessing the hate, the hypocrisy, the utter selfishness we tend to project, and I wonder if we really understand God.

People always ask for things in prayer, adding "if it's Your will"; but I'm wondering, based on Jesus said - shouldn't we know?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines: Meditation

Yeah...I said I was going to start blogging again. Maybe I lied.

I've got a lot I wanted to put on here, but haven't had the time to fish it out of my head and put it on paper (screen).

But in our current church curriculum we're studying the Spiritual Disciplines for the next 2 months. I thought I'd follow Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster, and use that as a jumping off point for study and discussion.

Last week, we talked about Meditation.

Foster talks about a few different types of meditation:

  • Meditation where you ponder a short passage or scripture
  • Meditation where you turn your concerns over to God
  • Meditation where you think about God's creation - seeing God's glory in the creation around us
  • Meditation on the events of our time and understanding their significance

But if you look for the word meditation in the Bible, you'll have some interesting findings.

As Foster notes, David talks about meditation a lot in the Psalms. The first Psalm talks about the man who is blessed and says that he meditates on God's law day and night. I've actually been reading Psalm 119 recently (for example, look at verses 97-104). Here, the words translated from the Hebrew mean to ponder, study, reflect.

But try looking for it in the New Testament - you may not find it. The King James lists it in a couple places, but you won't find it in the English Standard Version, the New International Version, or The Message. (The ESV uses meditate once - to mean premeditate. And the KJV uses it in the same passage; but the only other place it uses the word, the ESV translates practice - 1 Timothy 4:15.)

Of course, we do see Jesus spending a lot of time finding a lonely place to be in solitude with God. Foster lists the following passages through the Gospels: Matthew 4:1-11; 14:23; 17:1-9; 26:36-46; Mark 6:31; Luke 5:16; 6:12.

So we see the example of Jesus; but I was curious if there were any teachings about it. All Foster talks about is "hearing the voice of God" (which confused me for a bit - I'll get to that in a minute). But the absence of the word meditate made me wonder - does Jesus ever tell his disciples to do this? He talks about prayer a lot, and while there seems to be some overlap between meditation and prayer, (meditation would use more contemplative prayer), they are separate spiritual disciplines.

But then I stumbled across the word consider which is used throughout the teachings of Jesus as well as the epistles. The first place I found it was Matthew 6:28.

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin...

The word that is translated into consider is actually a word that is a combination of two other Greek words: kata (meaning doing something intensely) and manthanō (meaning to learn or understand). It's the only time this word is used in the Bible; but I think it makes sense that we can say Jesus is telling us to "contemplate these things" or "meditate on these things".

And what's interesting about this passage - if you go back to the types of meditation Foster mentions, this seems to incorporate 3 of the 4: turning your concerns over to God, meditating on God's creation, and meditating on scripture (the last because, well, this is a scripture).

It gets even more intriguing if you look at the word used in Luke 12:22-29: not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing... Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

The word consider here is also two Greek words put together to make one word. But while the first part of the word is the same used in Matthew, meangin to mean doing something intensely, the second part of the word comes from a different word: noeō, meaning to observe, perceive or understand. So Luke uses a very similar, but different word to convey the same message.

These Greek words are translated as different words throughout the New Testament. I'll stop with one last example of the word that's translated as consider in the passage from Luke, above. It's used in Matthew 7:3:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Here, the word see just means "to look at". The word notice is the same word translated consider, above: to observe intensely. Personally, I think it's telling that Jesus tells us we see the problems in other people lives, but we need to really spend some time contemplating our own faults. But maybe that's just me.

Robert Foster states in his book that Christian meditation is the ability to hear God's voice and obey His word. This confused me at first - I was thinking "hearing God's word" as reading the Bible or being told about the Gospel. I thought, "how can meditation be about hearing and obeying God's word?" But he's talking about a more literal hearing of God's voice - and obeying that. He goes on to mention Bible passages on communing with God, including several from Acts that talk directly about Jesus guiding the early Christians.

I think that the Bible teaches us - through the example of Jesus, through the way the Holy Spirit led the Christians in the book of Acts, and through some of these other verses, that it makes sense to take time out to just sit and consider, or meditate on, or contemplate these things.

There's definitely history here - just look at Deuteronomy 11:18-19.

You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Should it be any different for us?

But my question is: can we literally hear the voice of God today?

I'll have to meditate on that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


As I mentioned yesterday, today we started our Bible class. After I talked about what I posted yesterday, I posed this light, easy question:

Is a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis necessary to our faith?

I think the discussion that followed was a good start for the first class. Our church has people from a wide range of backgrounds. There are people who believe that the 6 days of creation were literal. There are people who believe that evolution was God's mechanism for creating man. I think it's going to be an interesing study.

A few things that I didn't realize - the idea that the first chapter of Genesis may not be literal isn't a new idea.

Origen, the church father, scholar, and theologian who was born about 150 years after Jesus died, wrote:
Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars— the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. (On First Principles, Book IV)
Many medieval rabbis (and Torah scholars) considered the creation story to be symbolic rather than literal. From The Jewish Virtual Library:
Maimonides, one of the great rabbis of the Middle Ages, wrote that if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science proved a point, then the finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly.
This can be found in the The Guide to the Perplexed written by Maimonides. See also the Maimonides entry in the Stanford Philosophical Encyclopedia.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Tomorrow morning I'm going to start teaching a Bible class. I'm stepping into this with a bit of trepidation. I'm not qualified. And if I'm on a journey of faith, who am it to be teaching others about God's will?

So, maybe it'll be a chance for a number of us to start a discussion. To really look into what God says, and think critically about it. I'm nervous, but I'm praying I'm moving in the right direction.

I'm going to open tomorrow with my vision:

I want this to be a collaborative Bible study. That means that I want us all to be able to contribute to the discussion. I don't believe I'm qualified to be teaching - to impart my knowledge of God and God's word to you. We all have a lot to learn, and we all need to be better students of the Bible.

So, I'll lead the discussion. I'll tend to read and research, and guide the discussion. And keep us on track when we need to be focused. But, if we want to get off-track, and follow where the Spirit leads us, that's fine, too. I don't want to be all over the place, but if, when we're taking a specific path, you find that you've got something you want to understand, research, or discuss, bring it up. Maybe that can be our next discussion.

I'm hoping we can use this to jump-start some Bible study in our own lives. In addition to coming here and discussing these things, we all need to be able to go back and do our own reading and research. If I had a Ph.D. in New Testament Theology, maybe I'd be qualified to share the depths of my knowledge with you, but as it is, I think we all need to be studying and teaching each other. I hope that's ok.

So, we're going to use the Bible as our primary source. But - we all know that we all read the Bible a little differently. The greatest Bible scholars have read the Bible differently. And what we're working with here is a a translation of a copy of of a copy. So I think we need to be able to disagree, and have discussion, and read other sources.

If you've read something that contributes to the discussion we're having. - in a book, or a blog, or a Facebook status - feel free to bring it. I think that reading outside sources is important and necessary. Regardless if we disagree with them or not. They may be more important if we disagree with them - that will make us study harder and dig deeper into God's Word. And God's Word says that teaching is a spiritual gift - and I don't see anything that says that teachers can't be writers, bloggers, or friends on Facebook. Always keeping in mind what Paul said to the church at Thessalonica: "Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good."

St. Augustine (in the 5th Century) wrote something that I really like:

"In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture."


Back from the dead? I need to stretch some of my writing muscles. It's been too long. I'm back, as the creepy girl from Poltergeist might say.