Here at St John's we are exploring the theme of Christian Practices, through Lent. Practices I have come to define as The Life of God (as with many of the things I teach and talk about, what it is only becomes clear to me long after I've started the preparation!).
Practices such as Blessing, Sabbath, Generosity, Hospitality, Truthfulness, Forgiveness - Ways of being that embody what God in the Risen Christ is doing in the world. Of course we tend rather to think about the Disciplines of the Christian life in Lent - Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving being the three chief ones, taking our lead from the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading, in Matthew chapter 6. Lent is a time for disciplined self examination, that opening up of the Heart of the matter as we seek to follow Christ more closely, and the disciplines are helpful in that regard. But how do they relate to the Practice of the life of God? To many in this age they seem quite antithetical - they seem negative, the path of Self denial - how can they bring forth Life. Shouldn't we just get on with Living the life of God?
But that is precisely it, for as soon as we try to 'Live the Life of God' we realise that we cannot. We fall flat on our faces. It is as if we have seen a beautiful painting, or eaten a Cordon Bleu meal, or watched a sportsman perform as the height of his game and said, I'm going to do that!! And go buy some paints or food, or go out on the Sports field and, either metaphorically or literally, fall flat on our faces. For the truth is that the artist or the chef or the sportsman has been training for years and years and we have not. And of course we know this so if we really want to master these things we set about the discipline of doing it and getting it wrong and so learning and repeating over and over again, til it comes right
Yet somehow we think that this matter of Living the Christian Life, the Life of God should be easy - until we try to do it. And then we get discouraged and give up. Or we hear from others on the way that it is hard and so don't even bother to try. Forgiveness is a good case in point here. We see it and we say "I could never do that!" Except the truth is you could, we all can - we are made to, it is part of our human nature made as we are in the Image of God.
this is where the disciplines come in. Before Jesus steps a foot into the ministry of public arena, he goes through a fierce discipline and testing - before the Father will let him loose on the world, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, to learn through the discipline of fasting.
So what is the role of the disciplines with regard to the life of God? Isn't it enough to keep on trying and failing until we get better? Well the Wisdom of the ages tells us that that generally isn't the way, that if Christ had to fast that he might Love the world as his Father does, then so do we. As Dallas Willard points out, we can't expect to imitate the life of Jesus if we ignore the dimension of disciplining ourselves.
Let us imagine for a moment that learning to Live the Life of God is a little like learning to drive a car. When I learnt, my first teacher was my dad. It wasn't a great experience. Of course like most drivers he had loads of bad habits and so he passed them on. It was only when I sat with a qualified instructor for some focused tuition, that these became apparent. The disciplines are like those sessions with the Expert. They are times when the Only thing in focus is Living the Life. By fasting, or prayer, or almsgiving, we strip away anything that is Not to do with God and His Life, and we are subjected to scrutiny. Through which we learn something of what is getting in the way, blocking this Life of God.
(Another helpful discipline in this regard is having a good Spiritual Director - someone who is well versed in the Life of God and its ways and who can help us scrutinise the latest blockage on our path. this is never easy but, in our age subjecting our lives to the Scrutiny of another is perhaps even ore difficult and thus all the more necessary!)
The Disciplines uncover the heart and reveal what is hidden there - they reveal what is getting in the way of the Life of God as we seek to grow in faith and holiness. The Disciplines are like the tilling of the ground each season that it might bring forth more fruit. If the practices are the flourishing garden of the Life of God, the disciplines are the pruning shears and weeders that every gardener knows are Necessary.
Each of these three disciplines has an important role to play and so through the next three weeks we shall explore each one further. Beginning tomorrow with the discipline of giving alms.