Introductory Note:

In the 20th Anniversary Edition of Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster honors God’s provision of “three converging influences” that deepened his faith and grew his appreciation for the crucial role of disciplines in spiritual growth. The following excerpt tells the story of three particular sources—from diverse branches of the Christian family—that had a deep, formational impact on Richard’s life with God.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Celebration of Discipline

It is a won­der to me how God uses squig­gles on paper to do his work in the hearts and minds of peo­ple. How are these squig­gles trans­formed into let­ters and words and sen­tences, and final­ly, mean­ing? Oh, we may con­grat­u­late our­selves on know­ing a lit­tle about the func­tion of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters in the brain or about how endor­phin pro­teins affect learn­ing and mem­o­ry reten­tion, but if we are hon­est, we know that think­ing itself is a mys­tery. Dox­ol­o­gy is the only appro­pri­ate response.

At this writ­ing, it has been two decades since the par­tic­u­lar set of squig­gles titled Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline was first pub­lished. After the first decade the pub­lish­er, no doubt puz­zled by its longevi­ty and pop­u­lar­i­ty, want­ed to cel­e­brate this mile­stone, and asked me to revise the orig­i­nal text — which I was glad to do. And now, after a sec­ond decade, the puz­zle con­tin­ues. Some­how (who can ever explain how?) peo­ple con­tin­ue to find help in their dai­ly walk with God through the pages of this book.

To cel­e­brate this twen­ti­eth anniver­sary the pub­lish­er has asked me to write an intro­duc­tion, and, again, I am glad to com­ply. And per­haps in ful­fill­ing their request it is appro­pri­ate to tell how the book, Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline, came into being.

Spir­i­tu­al Bankruptcy

Fresh out of sem­i­nary, I was ready to con­quer the world. My first appoint­ment was a small church in a thriv­ing region of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Here,” I mused, is my chance to show the denom­i­na­tion­al lead­er­ship, nay, the whole world what I can do.” Believe me, visions of far more than sug­ar plums were danc­ing in my head. I was sobered a bit when the for­mer pas­tor, upon learn­ing of my appoint­ment, put his arm on my shoul­der and said, Well, Fos­ter, it’s your turn to be in the desert!” But the sober­ing” last­ed only a moment. This church will become a shin­ing light set on a hill. The peo­ple will lit­er­al­ly flood in.” This I thought, and this I believed.

After three months or so I had giv­en that tiny con­gre­ga­tion every­thing I knew, and then some, and it had done them no good. I had noth­ing left to give. I was spir­i­tu­al­ly bank­rupt and I knew it. So much for a shin­ing light on a hill.”

My prob­lem was more than hav­ing some­thing to say from Sun­day to Sun­day. My prob­lem was that what I did say had no pow­er to help peo­ple. I had no sub­stance, no depth. The peo­ple were starv­ing for a word from God, and I had noth­ing to give them. Nothing.

Three Con­verg­ing Influences

In the wis­dom of God, how­ev­er, three influ­ences were con­verg­ing in that lit­tle church that would change the direc­tion of my min­istry, indeed, of my whole life. Togeth­er they would pro­vide the depth and the sub­stance I need­ed per­son­al­ly and the depth and the sub­stance that, in time, would lead to the pen­ning of Cel­e­bra­tion. But that is run­ning ahead of my story.

The first thing to hap­pen was pre­cip­i­tat­ed by an influx of gen­uine­ly needy peo­ple into our small con­gre­ga­tion. They sim­ply flowed in like streams after a thun­der­storm. Oh, how they hun­gered for spir­i­tu­al sub­stance and, oh, how will­ing they were to do almost any­thing to find it. Now, these were the castoffs of today’s fast-track cul­ture — the sat upon, spat upon, rat­ted on” — and so their need­i­ness was quite obvi­ous. Just as obvi­ous was my inabil­i­ty to give them sub­stan­tive pas­toral care.

This lack of any real spir­i­tu­al den­si­ty led me, almost instinc­tive­ly, to the Devo­tion­al Mas­ters of the Chris­t­ian faith — Augus­tine of Hip­po and Fran­cis of Assisi and Julian of Nor­wich and so many oth­ers. Some­how I sensed that these ancient writ­ers lived and breathed the spir­i­tu­al sub­stance these new friends in our lit­tle fel­low­ship were seek­ing so desperately.

To be sure, I had encoun­tered many of these writ­ers in aca­d­e­m­ic set­tings, but that was a detached, cere­bral kind of read­ing. Now, I read with dif­fer­ent eyes, for dai­ly I was work­ing with heart-break­ing, soul-crush­ing, gut-wrench­ing human need. These saints,” as we some­times call them, knew God in a way that I clear­ly did not. They expe­ri­enced Jesus as the defin­ing real­i­ty of their lives. They pos­sessed a flam­ing vision of God that blind­ed them to all com­pet­ing loy­al­ties. They expe­ri­enced life built on the Rock.

It hard­ly mat­tered who I read in those days — Broth­er Lawrence’s The Prac­tice of the Pres­ence of God, Tere­sa of Avila’s Inte­ri­or Cas­tle, John Woolman’s Jour­nal, A. W. Tozer’s The Knowl­edge of the Holy—they knew God in ways far beyond any­thing I had ever expe­ri­enced. Or even want­ed to expe­ri­ence! But as I con­tin­ued to soak in the sto­ries of these women and men who were aflame with the fire of divine love, I began desir­ing this kind of life for myself. And desir­ing led to seek­ing and seek­ing led to find­ing. And what I found set­tled me, deep­ened me, thick­ened me.

The sec­ond influ­ence came from an indi­vid­ual in that tiny con­gre­ga­tion, Dr. Dal­las Willard. A philoso­pher by pro­fes­sion, Dal­las was well versed in the clas­sics, and, at the same time, had an uncan­ny per­cep­tion into the con­tem­po­rary scene. He taught our fledg­ling lit­tle group: stud­ies in Romans and Acts and the Ser­mon on the Mount and the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines and more. But regard­less of the spe­cif­ic top­ic he con­stant­ly drew us into the big pic­ture. It was life-based teach­ing which always respect­ed the clas­si­cal sources and always sought to give them con­tem­po­rary expres­sion. Those teach­ings gave sources and always sought to give them con­tem­po­rary expres­sion. Those teach­ings gave me the Weltan­schau­ung, the world­view, upon which I could syn­the­size all my aca­d­e­m­ic and bib­li­cal training.

But it wasn’t just the teach­ing, or at least it wasn’t teach­ing as we usu­al­ly think of teach­ing. It was a heart-to-heart com­mu­ni­ca­tion that went on between this world-class philoso­pher and that lit­tle rag­tag band of Christ’s dis­ci­ples. Dal­las taught us right in the midst of our strug­gles, our hurts, our fears. He had descend­ed with the mind into the heart and taught out of that deep center.

Today, many years lat­er, I still rev­el in the impact of those teaching/​living/​praying ses­sions. It was, of course, teach­ing-in-com­mu­ni­ty. We were in each other’s homes; laugh­ing togeth­er, weep­ing togeth­er, learn­ing togeth­er, pray­ing togeth­er. Some of the best teach­ing times grew out of the dynam­ic of those home set­tings where we might go late into the night — pos­ing ques­tions, debat­ing issues, apply­ing gospel truth to life’s cir­cum­stances. Dal­las would move among us, teach­ing, always teach­ing. A spir­i­tu­al charism of teach­ing, I think. Teach­ing with wis­dom. Teach­ing with pas­sion. Teach­ing with heart. And always we expe­ri­enced a sense of the numinous.

The third influ­ence came ini­tial­ly from a Luther­an pas­tor, William Luther Vaswig. (With a name like William Luther Vaswig” how could he pas­tor any­thing but a Luther­an church?) Bill’s church, large and influ­en­tial, over­shad­owed our tiny Quak­er fel­low­ship. But what drew me to Bill had noth­ing to do with large” or influ­en­tial” or even Luther­an.” No, what I saw was some­one thirst­ing for the things of God. So I sought him out. Bill,” I said, you know more about prayer than I do. Would you teach me every­thing you know?”

Now, the way Bill taught me about prayer was by pray­ing. Live­ly, hon­est, heart­felt, soul-search­ing, hilar­i­ous pray­ing. As we did this, over time we began expe­ri­enc­ing that sweet sink­ing into Deity” Madame Guy­on speaks of. It, very hon­est­ly, had much the same feel” and smell” as the expe­ri­ences I had been read­ing about in the Devo­tion­al Mas­ters. This move­ment into prayer was actu­al­ly a two-pronged influ­ence. My pray­ing expe­ri­ences with Bill were aug­ment­ed by those of a won­der­ful­ly deter­mined woman, Beth Shapiro, who was the head of the elders for our lit­tle fel­low­ship. Beth was a nurse at a large hos­pi­tal, and after work­ing the night shift, she would come over to our small church build­ing in the ear­ly morn­ing and we, Beth and I would spend an hour or two, pray­ing for peo­ple. All kinds of peo­ple. Peo­ple in our fel­low­ship and peo­ple out­side our fel­low­ship. Whomev­er and whomev­er, Beth would want to pray for them.

Then we would often dis­cuss issues of the­ol­o­gy, of faith, of life. And what­ev­er we talked about Beth test­ed out at the hos­pi­tal. If we dis­cussed the Bible’s teach­ing on the lay­ing on of hands,” at work Beth would put her hands through the holes of an incu­ba­tor and place them on a pre­ma­ture infant, pray­ing silent­ly and lov­ing­ly, and watch that lit­tle one increase in health and well-being. These were the kinds of things Beth would do, not just now and again, but repeat­ed­ly. Through Beth I learned the neces­si­ty of bring­ing spir­i­tu­al real­i­ties into the press of raw humanity.

Now, these three influ­ences con­verged in those days of my young pas­tor­ing, and the result was a qui­et rev­o­lu­tion, inside and out. And in our fel­low­ship of needy seek­ers we were exper­i­ment­ing with every­thing we were learn­ing. Those were heady days, for we sensed we were on to some­thing of enor­mous sig­nif­i­cance. We were ham­mer­ing out on the hard anvil of dai­ly life all that appeared years lat­er in Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline. But, these influ­ences, by them­selves, did not move me into actu­al writ­ing. More was need­ed.… (The rest of the intro­duc­tion dis­cuss­es Three Empow­er­ing Cat­a­lysts and Three Divine Providences.)

What then, I ask you, is this book real­ly? Noth­ing but squig­gles on paper. But through the grace of God it has been used, lo these twen­ty years, as an instru­ment for human trans­for­ma­tion. For this I thank God. And what of its future? That I glad­ly leave in the hands of Divine Prov­i­dence. Soli Deo Glo­ria.

From the intro­duc­tion to the 20th Anniver­sary Edi­tion of Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline (San Fran­cis­co: Harper­San­Fran­cis­co, 1998).

Pho­to by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Text First Published January 1998 · Last Featured on August 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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