June Exercises: Fasting and Lament

Throughout Scripture we see the people of God repeatedly caught up in circumstances that are tragic. Indeed, since the fall the introduction of sin in Genesis 3 suffering and death have been an inescapable part of life. The world is broken and we are broken. Even Christ’s own resurrection, and its promise that one day all things will be revived and restored, does not shelter us from the current realities of pain and loss. Lament – the profound feeling and expression of grief and sorrow – is the right response to that pain and loss. This month we offer some suggestions that might help us grow a healthy view of life in a fallen world.

First we recognise that we have permission to lament as individuals and as communities. God does not consider it a sign of lack of faith for us to feel sorrow and grief. A large portion of the Psalms is dedicated to expressing grief and frustration. The Psalmists knew claims of injury and injustice could confidently be brought to God; only he could ultimately put things right. Lament – crying out to God in our distress – is actually a sign of faith, a statement that God is big enough to handle the world’s problems. It is a commitment to living out our faith in a fallen world, rather than our fantasy of a perfect utopia. Given the natural and personal disasters that take place in our world every day, it seems right to allow space in our lives for appropriate responses to be expressed.

Those who have learned to lament well tend to carry authenticity. That’s often why the Psalms surprise us with their honesty. When the writer is overjoyed, they tells us. When they are distraught, we read about it. There is no stiff upper lip. Instead we see evidence of a refreshing transparency. 

Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, after his son Eric was tragically killed in the climbing accident, wrote, “So I own my own grief. I do not try to pull it behind me, to get over it, to forget it. I do not try to disown it.” (Lament for a Son, 1987. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ) And so, our pain and grief can be fully expressed to God. We try to ‘own it’ in our prayers of lament.

Such prayers bring our pain before the only person who can make an ultimate difference – God. He does not promise us freedom from grief or suffering yet, but he does promise to meet us in the midst of them. And sometimes, in his timing, this may only be after a time of feeling very alone. It takes time for the initial shock of what has happened to sink in, time for our default protestations of disbelief and anger to subside, time for us to believe again Mr Beaver’s description of Aslan (representing Jesus): “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Corse he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (from C.S.Lewis, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.)

With that belief that God is good, in spite of the circumstances, comes a glimpse of hope. Almost all the Psalms of lament have, by the end, declared the goodness of God. He has met the writers in their trouble, or they rest in the knowledge that he is working to overcome evil – their cries have been heard.

Christian hope is unique and it can be held even through long seasons of lament. Through each of the weeks of this month I encourage you to try the following exercises in lament and fasting– click on the buttons below.

The power of submission

Week 3: Choosing to Submit.

Somehow we have concluded that submission is weakness, that it is somehow a sign of inferiority and incapacity. Perhaps this stems from childhood visions of surrendering to the local bully. We’d better submit to him or he’ll hurt us.

The willingness of Jesus to submit himself to his Heavenly Father subverts this distorted view. In the Garden of Gethsemanie, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:41-43). Jesus the Son submits to his Heavenly Father, and yet he remains equally a member of the Trinity, fully God, worthy of all praise. He chooses to submit but that does not mean he is without power. Indeed he says elsewhere in the Garden on that same night, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Mt 26:52-54). In other words, he has the capacity to remove himself from the Garden but he chooses to submit himself to the carriage of the Father’s will.

We see, therefore, that submission chooses to set aside one’s own will and power, in order that another’s may prevail. It need not imply powerlessness, but rather it requires that we have control over our power (rather than it over us) in order that we may set it aside. Our culture sells us the notion of ‘freedom’ as essential right, instead of willing submission to the authority of another– and yet such freedom ultimately enslaves us to our own whims. J.I. Packer explores this topic in depth in this linked article.

Look for opportunities this week to choose submission. Willingly decide to give heed to another person’s wishes or desires. You will need to exercise both wisdom and grace as you do so. Consider how you might bless that person in the very act of your submission. As you do, recognise that you are following in the footsteps of Jesus. Record your experiences of submission in your journal.

Sorry

Week Four: The power of an apology.

“Every discipline has its corresponding freedom. What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in society today” ~ Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 2008.

Few of us will have reached the maturity required to agree with Foster’s observation that always getting our own way is a “terrible burden”; for most of us, the terrible burden is when we don’t! Yet, as we pause and consider the upside-down nature of the Christian life, we reluctantly realise that he may very well be right. The self-serving life is never satisfied: our own stubbornness and impatience can so quickly enslave us. In seeking to serve ourselves we are never satisfied. Instead, we become a dog chasing its own tail.

Take some time this week to prayerfully reflect on your own responses to those situations when you haven’t got your way, when another person’s will has prevailed over yours. Has your impatience or intolerance introduced strain into that relationship? Might an apology be in order? Do so is an exercise in submitting yourself to the other person, as you rely upon their their gracious response to your request for forgiveness. 

If your impatience or anger tends to manifest in other ways (like, while driving!) you might need to address your apology to God. You might even want to take more time in prayer to ask him to reveal the reasons why you find those situations so frustrating.

Memorise

Week 2: Take time to memorise

This month, memorise a chunk of Scripture: perhaps a Psalm or a favourite chapter of a New Testament epistle. This kind of engagement with the Bible is not easy, nor does it give instant results, but it’s very worthwhile. Next time you’re stuck in a waiting room, or bored, instead of playing with your phone, begin to recite your memorised passage, mulling over it and meditating on the text. This simple activity turns ‘waiting’ into patience, submitting yourself to the limitations of dependency.

Slow Down

Week 1: Slow down to observe and enjoy

Patience involves learning to order our lives, habits and expectations well, in a universe where time is a dimension, as well as space. This month, try to slow down. Begin to view people and places differently. Here’s some things to try:

When you sit down to eat, eat slowly. Don’t rush, or try to get through the meal in order to get on with the next thing. Think about the food, engage in conversation, and enjoy the moment. Ask questions of your meal partner(s), and follow up with further questions. When you have finished eating your food, keep on talking. 

When you need to get somewhere local, try not to use the car. Make time to walk instead of driving. Walking will change the way you see your neighbourhood. It will create time and conversation. 

April Exercises

Patience and Submission

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was a landmark study into human behavioural psychology. Children were given a marshmallow and told that if they could wait 15 minutes without eating it, they would be given a second marshmallow. More than 600 children were tested, but fewer than 200 were able to resist the temptation. 

That experiment sums up our culture pretty well. We live in a culture of the ‘easy’ and the ‘now’. We have fast food— even instant meals. We can travel to the far side of the world in a matter of hours, communicate instantly— anywhere— and buy a staggering array of stuff at any time of the day. We can even pay for all this on credit so we can have it right now, before we can actually pay for it all. So when the delays and inconveniences of life inevitably come our way, our response can sometimes be a little out of proportion. Being stuck in traffic, stuck on hold, stuck in a queue, or stuck in ‘lock-down’, generates impatience that quickly grows into frustration, intolerance, and even into anger. 

The Christian response to all of this, though not easy to practice, is obvious: patience. The Biblical writers often encourage us to practice patience. They understand that much of life is spent waiting: for others, for a situation to change, for a set period of time to pass. We wait for food to be cooked, for rain to come, for scientific progress to mature. For Christians, our sense of waiting goes deeper. We wait for God to act; for Christ to return. Given all this, it is easy to see why Paul in his letter to the Galatians identifies patience as evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. 

Jesus Christ’s own example of living in our world was marked by true patience, and by the broader related discipline of submission. As Jesus declared to his disciples, “I do exactly what the Father has commanded me.” He was able to wait for the Father’s timing because he was submitted to the Father in all things and trusted him to act with love, goodness, wisdom, and perfect timing. Patience and submission go together as demonstration of trust in God, and in his way of doing things. 

For many of us, there seems to be an instinctive ‘recoil’ at the thought of submitting ourselves to another. Perhaps this reflex derives from the fact that this idea of ‘submission to authority’ has been much abused in churches and families. But in rightly fleeing from so many abuses, we may have become uncomfortable with something that is foundational to Christian discipleship: submission to God. This was the way of Jesus— “Father, not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42)— even in the Garden of Gethsemanie. 

As I write this, I am in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic where I am ordered by my government to isolate myself from others, staying in my own home. Most of my life outside my home has been ‘shut down’ in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Church has been closed. Public gatherings of all kinds have been banned. Even small social gatherings are forbidden: personal liberties are greatly reduced. But how long will this go on? I don’t know. No one knows. But I am called to submit my self-determination to the common good and take this opportunity to grow in patience and submission.

Richard Foster is particularly challenging on this topic of submission:

“Every Discipline has its corresponding Freedom. What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline– The Path To Spiritual Growth. (For a summary of this chapter, click here.)

Patience and submission are important disciplines because they strike right at the heart of human pride: God is God and we are his creatures— we are contingent beings, dependent upon him for all things. Our challenge is therefore to battle the instinct to always grasp for control, to demand our way and stand upon some presumed ‘rights’. Rejecting the way of pride means that we learn to wait. We learn the freedom of a willingly submitted heart. We learn to leave our marshmallows on the table— assured that God will respond in his time. 

In other places and contexts


Sitting still isn’t the only way you can begin to introduce the discipline of solitude and silence into your life. Consider the following suggestions that encourage solitude and silence. See if you can think of others. And try at least one of them this week.

Go for a walk alone, perhaps alone a beach, in the bush, or in a park. Use it as a time for observation, thinking, reflection and prayer.

 Visit an old church building. Find another church somewhere that is open to the public during the day. Quietly enter and sit or kneel for prayer. If you work in the city, St Andrew’s Cathedral near Town Hall is a favourite of mine. Another is St Mary’s Cathedral on College Street— although the religious sculptures might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Speak less. This is about how solitude and silence might effect our time with others. Thomas aKempis wrote, “It is easier to be silent altogether than to speak with moderation.” In group settings, try to moderate you contribution to the conversation— especially if you are usually an extrovert. Work on listening well instead. 


Stop!


While most of us are not ready to sign up for a month-long silent treat (as a friend of mine tried to do every year), we can all begin by introducing some less extreme changes into our schedule. Are you ready to take the two week ‘Blaise Pascal Challenge’? Here it is—

Stop. Sit down in silence for 5 minutes. Every day for two weeks. Do this with no one around, no phone, no book, no music. Nothing.

No doubt your mind will race with thoughts of incomplete tasks and urgent jobs. Just let them go. Don’t write them down for later. Just let them go. Instead, slowly become aware of the presence of God. Draw near to him just to be with him. Don’t ask for anything. Actually, don’t pray anything. Just be with Him and enjoy his presence. And if your mind just relaxes, that’s fine too.

If you miss a day— don’t sweat it. Try again the next day.  Over the two week period, see if you get better at this discipline. See if you actually start to enjoy it.


What’s your bias?


It might seem inconsistent for St Andrew’s which is committed to encouraging and growing gospel-shaped communities and small groups to be promoting solitude. But in fact we value both community and solitude because one cannot function well without the other. A glance at the ascetic or isolating cults of church history will quickly reveal the unhealthy consequences of neglecting fellowship— extreme isolation, austerity, and even mental illness. Alternatively, periods of church history closer to our own highlight the shallowness and weakness of the overly-socialised church, tending towards extreme distraction, stressful over-complication and the fear of ‘missing out’. 

Which of the two extremes do you naturally gravitate towards— fellowship or solitude?Do you prefer one so much that you are missing out on the other? If so, how might you bring more balance?

Find some time this week to sit quietly alone and consider these questions— for at least 15 minutes. If you can’t find that time this week, then your answers will be pretty obvious!


March Exercises

Solitude and Silence

Most of us struggle to spend time in solitude and silence, either because we can’t find the time, or more commonly, we don’t want to find the time because we dislike the sensation! Living in a culture dominated by busyness and background noise, we simply don’t know how to function without them. Consider the following quote: 

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room… What people want is not the easy peaceful life… but the agitation that takes our minds off it and diverts.. That is why men are so found of the hustle and bustle.

That observation should not surprise us. What might surprise us is that it was written by mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century. 

This is clearly not a new problem. Our culture’s methods of distraction might be unique, or perhaps new, but our reasons remain the same. This is how Henri Nouwen describes the modern-day experience:

As soon as we’re alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again… The distractions we have used to drown out our anxieties, fears and bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires are gone… and we want them back!

Very few of us will be able to read that description without recognising our own experience in it. We know that inner chaos well. But Nouwen does more than describe the symptoms; he also give some clue as to their cause. We don’t like being alone because we’re afraid of what might surface when we are. Indeed, we are mistaken if we think that solitude and silence are simply skills we haven’t yet learned. For most of us, this is an area of insecurity that is yet to be addressed. God is waiting to address it with us— alone. 

Learning to be alone well is an essential ingredient of a number of the other spiritual disciplines. Just as we will never learn to hear God well if we are constantly in crowds, neither will we learn to rest well, or serve well, or wait well. That is why it is so important that we first learn to be alone well. 

Community has a vital role to play in our lives, as we will discuss next month. But some of us use community as a distraction from questions or struggles that can only be answered in solitude. As we learn to exchange some of our time with others for time alone, we will find ourselves being comforted, shaped and encouraged in ways that simply could not have happened otherwise. 

Of course, there is no real solitude without silence. Earpods in and on, listening to a podcast or your favourite music is not really solitude. The posture required for the comfort and encouragement of solitude rules out multi-tasking and our ‘security blanket’ sounds of text messages arriving, notifications keeping us immediately in touch with the digital world, or the familiarity of music. As Nouwen notes, even reading can be a source of unwanted ‘noise.’ No matter how pressurised and chaotic your family life, there is a way for you to creatively find times of solitude and silence— and the weekly exercises this month aim to help you explore them.


February Exercises

Simplicity and Generosity

Describing someone’s life as “simple” could be interpreted as an insult. But “Simplicity” as it’s defined in the spiritual disciplines does not refer to one’s intelligence, status, or possessions; instead it offers a way of living where we are no longer defined or driven those things. Simplicity offers our heart freedom from its obsessions, attachment to riches, rank and reputation; there is freedom to live contentedly, freedom to live generously. 

Richard Foster describes our current condition: “Inwardly modern man is fractured and fragmented. He is trapped in a maze of competing attachments. One moment he makes decisions on the basis sound reason and the next moment out of fear of what others think of him. He has no unity or focus around which life is oriented.” Simplicity and generosity address this condition and those distracting attachments. They encourage us to develop unity and focus, which help us, as Christ commands, to seek first the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus and the rest of the Bible have a lot to say about the Christian life as one of single-minded devotion. But both Scripture and experience suggest two main obstacles lie in the way. 

The first is what pop-philosopher Alain de Botton calls Status Anxiety— a worry “that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society… that we are currently occupying too low a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.” Worrying too much about what others think surrenders to them an authority that rightly belongs to God. In the end, that becomes de-humanising. 

The second obstacle is Material Anxiety. Francois Fenelon referred to simplicity as “the pearl of the Gospel.” If we were honest, most us would rather have the pearls! And the house, the car, the holiday home, and the boat. Nowhere is our divided loyalty more obvious than in the area of material wealth. Jesus knew it, which is why warned us that we couldn’t serve both wealth and him. Cute car, flash yellow car, or no car—the problem is not necessarily in the having, it’s in the obsessive hankering. In today’s culture, the pressure to obtain a certain level of living can be relentless. To try and convince ourselves that we haven’t succumbed, Foster* notes that we cleverly rename the vices: “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.” Again, this is, profoundly dehumanising and, ultimately, profoundly enslaving. Few of us could honestly say, as the Apostle Paul does, that we have learned the freedom of contentment in all things. 

The disciplines of simplicity and generosity are powerful antidotes to status and material anxiety. They offer us a way to enjoy life regardless of our rank or wealth, and encourage us to locate our primary identity in terms our relationship with God and his Kingdom.

Sadly, living with simplicity and generosity is made more difficult for most of us have a remarkable sense of entitlement, We accumulate position and possession because we believe that we’re owed, by God and by others. This makes it extremely difficult to address the two obstacles above, and almost impossible to be truly generous. Very few of us give away as much as we could. Consequently life becomes cluttered and fragmented as we try hold on to everything we can for ourselves. 

Fortunately, this month we will be reflecting on creative ways to introduce simplicity and generosity into our patterns of life. The suggestions aren’t sensational or spectacular; instead they are… simple. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they are easy. Status and material anxiety are part of a cultural disease that is so widespread, even a small move in the opposite direction will take effort. But the resulting trust in God, and freedom from anxiety, will be well worth it. 

*Richard Foster quoted in Stephen W. Smith, Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You (Cook, Colorado Springs, 2010) p78.

January: Week 4

Writing your Rule of Life 

Now the fun part! By now, all of the usual ‘New Years Resolutions’ have faded away. This is different. This week we are recommending that you write out your own ‘Rule of Life’ (see Week 3). 

Don’t feel overwhelmed—this is simply a chance to intentionally write down a few guiding principles for the year. A common mistake with a Rule of Life is to aim too high, to include too many areas and to set unrealistic expectations in each area. This is not supposed to be your description of a perfectly pious life; this is meant to be a way to help you start examining your life and reflecting on it. What do you really want to focus on this year?

Don’t write too much—leave some room for improvement next year!

Consider whether there is someone you might like to share this with. Perhaps you could invite them, from time to time, to ask you how you’re going?

January: Week 3

A Regula Vitae

In his essay, “We Live by Rhythms“, Chris Webb explains that most of us would benefit from the Christian tradition of intentionally structuring our lives through a Regula Vitae—a “Rule of Life.” Don’t panic, this is not a legalistic set of rules to follow. Rather, it’s an invitation to write down some of your thoughts and responses to the questions you have been thinking about already this month. 

Regula was the Latin word for a length of wood with markings, used for measuring and alignment—similar to our present-day classroom rulers. We hold things against a ruler to see if they are straight and if their proportions and measurements are right. In the same way a Regula Vitae—a “Rule of Life”—is an opportunity for us to mark out some of our intentions in advance and then to regularly hold it up to our life and see how our alignment and proportions are fairing. When we align our habits with our faith, we become people who actually love God and our neighbour– as opposed to just knowing about them.

The importance of planning and reflecting on the patterns and rhythms of our lives has been long established by Christians of all kinds– even St. Anthony of Egypt. Some patterns are weekly (sabbath, church, etc), some patterns are monthly (e.g., giving from our pay-cheque) and some patterns are seasonal, as we go through different seasons of life. For further reading about fruitfully navigating the different seasons of life, I warmly recommend Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul.

Without committing yourself to anything at this stage, what worthwhile things might you commit yourself to this year? As you journal on this theme, try to describe what such a commitment would look like for you, and how it might benefit your relationship with Jesus Christ?

Some further thoughts on establishing a Regula Vitae for yourself:

January: Week 2

Spiritual Disciplines – Introducing some intentionality 

If you are still on holiday—ENJOY! Re-read the section on Spiritual Disciplines: Rhythms and Rules of Life, and in particular, the questions: “What sort of life do I want to be living?” and therefore, “What do I want the rhythms and habits of my life to look like?” 

Start to think about how you might answer these questions– don’t jump too quickly to shallow answers. Use your Journal. Perhaps a good first step might be to review, How you are living your life now? Some suggested steps for review:

  • Flick back over your 2019 diary and notice how you spent much of your time. Resist the temptation to go back and fix things or complete things you missed! This is a review– just notice where you spent your time.
  • Do a quick financial review: where did you spend your money in 2019? You might have clever bank statements that analyse your spending by categories.
  • Which relationships do you think you invested most into this past year?

These simple assessments of the way you prioritised your time, money and passion. See if you can think of other ways to objectively look at how you are currently living your life.

Are there any things you might change? What would you leave the same? Why have you chosen those things? 

Try to find three separate occasions this week when you can spend 15 minutes reflecting prayerfully on your responses. 

Recommended Reading: The Common Rule, by Justin Whitmel Earley.

Extract from “The Common Rule”:

Exercise: Short Kneeling Prayer at Waking, Mid-workday and Bed.

Meditation:

Christmas is about the advent of love in a loveless world. We delighted in the fact that God came to the world because he loved us.

This love is worth celebrating, and any good celebrating takes practice. Framing our days in prayer is to frame them in love. This is an act of embrace, of celebration of God’s gift of life – our lives and the life of the world. 

So when we wake up in the morning, we don’t ask what do I have to do today? We don’t immediately begin scheming on how we can justify our existence today. What we do is we get down on our knees in prayer.

This is a keystone habit, by framing the day with times of kneeling prayer we punctuate the day like a sentence, ordering the syntax so that that it begins to have meaning. 

This meaning continues into midday. I often notice the point I need to pray midday because I have an urge for a second cup of coffee, my mind starts to repeatedly drift from work, or I have an urge to search the Internet for – What? – I don’t know. I just want to search. This is the point where I’m looking down the barrel of the afternoon and I see all the things I’m not going to get done, I see  condemnation, failure, and disappointment. 

That is when I close the laptop, close the door, and get to my knees again to pray, usually, no more than 60 seconds, and this is the semicolon in the day that turns the sentence away from my failure and back towards God’s love

And then as the evening approaches we think, how I going to end this thing? By lying awake in bed letting all the replay tapes go? By browsing my phone for some current event scandal to bounce meaninglessly around my brains like an angry pinball? Am I going to spend it searching for one last bit of pleasure from God knows where on the internet? No. 

We place the period of God’s mercy and care for us at the end, on our knees beside the bed.  We made it through another one. Doesn’t matter whether you feel spiritual or not, it is just habit.

Practice:

The first question that may come to your mind as you kneel, “What do I pray?” If you’re not sure, try these Advent prayers. If you are prevented from kneeling because of health or because perhaps you don’t have a private place at work to kneel, try gently turning your palms upwards where you are.

MORNING:

  • Father, I pray that I would enter this day as your Son entered the world, full of love and hope. Amen.

AT WORK:

  • Jesus, I pray that I would be present in my work as you were present in this world, full of humility and service. Amen.

AT BED:

  • Holy Spirit, I pray that I would be at peace in my rest knowing that you came to bring peace to the world, and will one day bring rest to all things. Amen. 

January: Week 1

Spiritual Disciplines: Rest and recreation

It’s the first week of the year. RELAX! We are going to focus on the discipline of Rest for the whole month of May, but it’s worth remembering its importance here too. Most of us are enjoying at least a few days of holiday right now and most of us need it—we are in rest and recovery mode from the year that has just been. 

As you read the biblical passages of Creation during this time of recreation, have a think about the implications of that word: re- creation. “Recreation” derives from Latin and literally means, “to create again.” It was first used in the late 14th century to describe “the refreshment, restoration or curing of a person.” 

To ponder: What does this, and the Genesis account, tell you about the potential significance of this holiday time? What decisions are you making to actively ‘re-create’ as opposed to merely ‘chill out’?

Recommended Read: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by John Mark Comer. Podcast here.