A few sessions of childhood swim, ice skating, dance, gymnastics, and tennis lessons hardly qualify me as an athlete. I may be the only person you know who has never participated in a team/competitive sport. I once asked my parents if I could join a soccer league. My mom said no, citing scarred knees as unattractive on a girl; I’m pretty sure it had more to do with life’s chaos – me as the oldest of four kids, her job in real estate, and her travelling husband, last thing she needed was to spend hours field-side with a decidedly non-athletic kid.
I did, however, take piano lessons from age five to eighteen. Like most kids enrolled in music lessons, I didn’t love to practice but I did like to play well. The older I got, and the better I got, the more I enjoyed it. In high school and especially as I anticipated a recital date, I played for hours, working the music into my fingers, into my heart and soul. My favorite practice time (surprisingly, my parents didn’t complain – how did they not complain?) took place between 10pm and 2am, even on school nights.
The more I practiced and the better I knew a piece of music, the more the music had the power to take me out of myself, into what Madeleine L’Engle calls a kairos experience. I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self, as the music itself became all that mattered. “I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love” (Circle of Quiet, p13).
I’ve heard runners talk about a similar experience, once you move past the first phase of muscle fatigue (the “I don’t like to run, I don’t want to run, I can’t take one more step” feeling, because you keep going anyway), and then, apparently, some get to a euphoric state, a runner’s endorphin high.
Faith training can have similar results, yet even better as training our faith helps us to draw near to God on high.
At the gym there are so many different pieces of equipment, each with a different purpose but all with the purpose of increased physical fitness. Similarly, there are many different ways to exercise one’s faith, all with the purpose of drawing near to our beloved Jesus.
Commonly called “spiritual disciplines,” well, that just doesn’t sound all that fun, does it? But they can be. Even when they’re strenuous, they can lead to great joy.
Today is Ash Wednesday, a day focused on repentance and identifying with Jesus in His sufferings as we begin a 40-day season of giving up or taking on spiritual disciplines. In our church staff meeting this morning, we read this:
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love… Joel 2:12-13
I get that today’s focus should center on fasting, weeping, and mourning, but I’ve been thinking about and practicing to varying degrees different disciplines over the last few weeks. I have returned to the Lord, so to speak, and this morning I felt overwhelming joy. God drew my focus to His gracious, compassionate, slow-to-anger love. And the joy bubbling up in my heart. I almost giggled (inappropriately?).
Once a week or so during this Lenten season, from now til Easter, I will post a Bible study focused on one spiritual discipline; there are more disciplines than we can name, but we’ll cover fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. I’ll also include suggestions for practicing each discipline.
I encourage you to ask God to direct you to the exercises He’d like you to try. And don’t give up just because it’s uncomfortable at first (think sore muscles after physical exercise). You could try one exercise for all of Lent, or different ways of exercising one practice (i.e., different prayer method each day), or sample different practices throughout the season – ask God for direction and stick with it until He asks you to stop.
Here we go with an introductory study!
What practices or routines do you do to keep physically healthy?
Read aloud 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
How would you explain the metaphor of physical and spiritual training to someone who hadn’t read this passage?
What is “the prize” for spiritual runners (v. 24)?
What might “running aimlessly” look like in one’s spiritual life?
How could Paul have been “disqualified for the prize” (v. 27)?
On a spectrum from aimless running/air boxing to marathon champion, which physical activity might describe your spiritual life and why?
When have you experienced a connection between physical and spiritual discipline?
Reflect on your experience with any of these practices: fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. Which do/don’t sound appealing to you, and why?
Which of the Week 1 Faith Training Exercises (see below) might God call you to, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?
Pray that God will use your spiritual training to make you fit in new ways for Christ.
Faith Training Exercises
Fasting: Skip one meal and spend time in prayer.
Solitude: Memorize Psalm 46:10 and use it as a reminder throughout the day to be still before God.
Prayer: Set aside a regular time and place to pray every day.
Simplicity: Set a timer (20 minutes or less) and clear off one cluttered space, e.g., a junk drawer or desk top.
Confession: Invite the Holy Spirit to bring to mind sins you’ve committed. Confess them to the Lord and ask for His forgiveness.
Celebration: Do at least one thing each day that brings you joy: sing loudly, dance freely, laugh heartily, live boldly.