From 1991 to 2007 my father, Richard J. Fos­ter, wrote essays for Ren­o­varé’s Per­spec­tive newslet­ter and a bian­nu­al pas­toral let­ter enti­tled Heart-to-Heart. As a young adult I read them. I kept them. They were blue. 

I remem­ber how intense­ly my father labored over those let­ters. In a day when writ­ten lan­guage is pri­mar­i­ly used to sell or manip­u­late and words are sel­dom assem­bled with care and thought, I find myself valu­ing writ­ing craft­ed with time, where the ideas and artic­u­la­tion have been wres­tled with and lived out. He has always been an inten­tion­al and thought­ful writer; I appre­ci­ate and admire this about him. 

In meet­ing with some friends of Ren­o­varé, the idea emerged that it would be help­ful if we con­tin­ued the prac­tice of giv­ing a reg­u­lar writ­ten teach­ing with­out ask­ing for mon­ey or try­ing to pro­mote an event. And so, for the next year I thought it would be fun to pick up where my dad left off and have com­mit­ted to writ­ing a month­ly Heart-to-Heart email. We also thought it would be inter­est­ing if I host­ed a fol­low-up pod­cast with var­i­ous mem­bers of the Ren­o­varé Min­istry Team dis­cussing the theme of each let­ter. Now, I cer­tain­ly don’t have my father’s insights or intel­lect, but maybe I can come with the same spir­it: to speak with my heart, hon­est­ly and vul­ner­a­bly, offer­ing some words that I hope might be of help. 

I recent­ly fin­ished writ­ing a book in which I spent four years prac­tic­ing the dis­ci­plines my dad wrote about in Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline. The book is a nar­ra­tive about my expe­ri­ences, suc­cess­es, fail­ures, what worked and what did­n’t. Dur­ing the project I uncov­ered a num­ber of spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es that sound­ed gen­uine­ly inter­est­ing, but I did­n’t have a chance to prac­tice them. The thought occurred that I could use these email let­ters as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with some new spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es and then share my expe­ri­ence along with a teaching. 

Recent­ly, dad men­tioned to me that he was con­cerned that peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion, and even some spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion pas­tors” do not real­ly under­stand the disciplines. 

I am con­cerned that spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion will eas­i­ly become just anoth­er fad in the vast kalei­do­scope of West­ern Chris­tian­i­ty. Often peo­ple think of the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines in terms of legal­ism. For them, the dis­ci­plines become sim­ply anoth­er task to add to an already over­com­mit­ted to-do’ list. Some con­sid­er the dis­ci­plines as giv­ing spe­cial mer­it or right­eous­ness before God. Oth­ers think of them as a way to gain sta­tus in cer­tain reli­gious cir­cles. Also, peo­ple will tend to think only in out­ward terms and miss the impor­tance of the inner trans­for­ma­tion of the heart.

All of these notions miss the mark entire­ly. They fail to under­stand the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines as a means of God’s grace for the ongo­ing for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty, body, mind, spir­it, soul. They miss the crit­i­cal point that God has ordained them for our train­ing in the way of Christ. The dis­ci­plines are not only how we grow spir­i­tu­al­ly but how we fol­low Jesus.

While I tease my father for his over­ly pes­simistic ten­den­cies, he prob­a­bly has a point. So, in the spir­it of keep­ing things sim­ple, I’d like to explore the foun­da­tion of what spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is about by giv­ing a brief overview of the spir­i­tu­al disciplines. 

The only thing we have any con­trol over is the actions we take at each and every moment. I can’t con­trol the past, nor can I con­trol the future, but I can do things to influ­ence my future. What I con­trol is how I spend this very moment, and even those actions are most often influ­enced by my desires, con­scious and sub­con­scious pres­sures, and the habits I’ve acquired through­out the years. In a sense the dis­ci­plines are about con­scious­ly choos­ing how we want to live. They’re about redeem­ing each moment and tear­ing down the divide of sacred and sec­u­lar. When I take time to prac­tice Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al activ­i­ties, even in the midst of my every­day life, these behav­iors become sim­ply a way of plac­ing my will and my life before God as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice (Romans 12:1).

Dal­las Willard often said that the out­come of our spir­i­tu­al activ­i­ties far exceeds what we put into them. In this sense the dis­ci­plines are all about grace, God tak­ing our lit­tle offer­ing of time and action and using it to trans­form us into peo­ple we were pre­vi­ous­ly unable to be; peo­ple who nat­u­ral­ly live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, and self-con­trol (Gala­tians 5:22). Cer­tain­ly spir­i­tu­al activ­i­ties — things like prayer, study and ser­vice — become ingrained into the habit­u­al struc­tures of our lives, but the real out­come we are look­ing for is the fruit of the Spir­it organ­i­cal­ly flow­ing through­out our lives. The dis­ci­plines are about the trans­for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty into the image of Jesus Christ. And in time, we become peo­ple able to respond to life as Jesus would if he were to live our lives. 

The dis­ci­plines are not about doing some­thing for God, or earn­ing right­eous­ness from God. When peo­ple use the dis­ci­plines in a phar­i­saical man­ner by cre­at­ing new legalisms for them­selves or oth­ers, they have missed the point entirely. 

We enter into spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es as an active response to God’s love. 

The dis­ci­plines should nev­er be used to bring self-con­dem­na­tion. Please do not set plans and goals in your spir­i­tu­al life and then end up using your fail­ures as ammu­ni­tion to prove you don’t mea­sure up. That is the way of the world, not the way of Christ. God is ever eager to meet us where we are, not where we think we should be. 

The dis­ci­plines are an invi­ta­tion, not an oblig­a­tion. Joy, free­dom, and laugh­ter are where this jour­ney is tak­ing us. Now cer­tain­ly the dis­ci­plines require ener­gies. And, some­times they lead us to suf­fer­ing as self-cen­tered­ness works its way out, but spir­i­tu­al train­ing is large­ly a move­ment of free­dom, a light bur­den, and an easy yoke. 

One of the things I think helps peo­ple enter into spir­i­tu­al prac­tices is to under­take activ­i­ties that are rel­e­vant and help­ful to our par­tic­u­lar time and sea­son in life. Don’t be bound to doing a dis­ci­pline the way oth­ers do it. Lis­ten to the Spir­it. What are you being led into? Where would God like to meet you today? 

You begin where you are. For some of us this may just mean get­ting enough sleep in order to begin restor­ing some sort of bal­ance to life. For many, the best thing they can do is just carve out space to qui­et­ly soak in God’s love and affec­tion. It is dif­fi­cult to active­ly respond to God’s love when we know noth­ing of it. Of course, this prac­tice will ulti­mate­ly lead us into joy­ful­ly tak­ing up oth­er dis­ci­plines when the time and sea­son is right. Don’t com­pare your­self and your prac­tice to oth­ers, don’t judge your­self as com­mit­ted or not, sim­ply just begin. 

Remem­ber the dis­ci­plines are not about self-help. While undoubt­ed­ly there is a cer­tain prac­ti­cal­i­ty to doing activ­i­ties that pull us from the press­ing chaos of life or things that move us towards serv­ing oth­ers, but, as best we can, we will want to turn our atten­tion to being present before God in the activ­i­ties we under­take. We are enter­ing into a life lived with God: atten­tive, sub­mit­ted, joy­ful­ly obe­di­ent. We are learn­ing how to die to our­selves for love of God and oth­ers, not self­ish­ly chase what feels good to us. Yet, of course, the dis­ci­plines can be fun, and enjoy­able. God is good like that and we can receive it. 

One final thought before we begin this jour­ney togeth­er: the form­ing of the human heart is slow work. This real­i­ty should­n’t be fought, but rather embraced. God seems to have designed human trans­for­ma­tion in the way he designed change in his oth­er cre­ations; mea­sured, grad­ual, mov­ing from one sea­son to the next, life and death. The cre­at­ed order is in a per­pet­u­al state of change. So we begin slow­ly, we pace our­selves for the long haul. And in keep­ing with this theme, the dis­ci­pline I’m plan­ning to prac­tice this month is just that: slow­ing.”

Thanks for read­ing. And may the grace and peace of Jesus Christ infect all you do. 

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Originally published August 2014