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Nailing Down the Basics: Understanding Practical Spiritual Disciplines

The way we choose to live determines what kind of lives we get to lead.

Our lives as leaders affect our Life as leaders. You read that right. How we choose to allocate our time, what we are willing to skip and what we refuse to overlook for the sake of progress and speed in ministry will eventually determine two critical matters: whether or not our character is formed in such a way that it will be able to sustain us in places that our gifting opens doors to; and whether or not people actually believe that we can be either the key contributor or the chief bottleneck in their spiritual progress. The way we choose to live determines what kind of lives we get to lead, and eventually what kind of ministries we’ll oversee.

Consider the following:

Scenario One: Someone sits down in your office (i.e., Starbucks or a local independent coffee shop, if your coolness has reached independent-shop level—mine hasn’t), takes off his cap, sweeps his coif with one hand and, while letting out a sigh, pronounces with conviction one of the following statements:
A) “My faith in God has nothing to do with real life.”

B) “Your sermon was so bad last week, I tapped out halfway through. I didn’t even believe it was theologically possible, but I am pretty sure you’ve somehow lost my salvation. Thanks. ”

C) “I think you are the greatest person who ever lived. I don’t even need Jesus, if you will just hang out with me.”

As diverse as those statements may be, they’re all formed in the crucible of the same cracked cistern.

Scenario Two:
You sit down in your office. You look over your list of to-dos: the message prep, the meetings, the hard conversations, the copy to write, the people who want just a minute, the phone calls and everything in between. And you realize you don’t have time to do all this and spend time with Jesus. So you choose whatever the “all this” is, instead of time with Jesus. You choose the “all this,” day after day, because you know Jesus is better at dispensing grace than your to-do list is … so you let it ride.

Here’s my assertion. Scenario two, over time, leads to an increase of scenario one. (You will never completely lose scenario one, because some people will always be new and others will always be crazy.) But if you choose to live scenario two differently, over a long enough period of time, your life and your ministry will have fewer scenario ones. Which is good for you and everyone you serve.

In a fallen world, nobody becomes the person they were created to be without work, without discipline. Jesus revealed in the wilderness what escaped Adam in the Garden: There are no shortcuts to godliness, not even for God. No one drifts toward generosity, slides toward joy, coasts toward deep commitment and relational peace or stumbles toward true greatness. That includes us. If we are going to lead people toward an increasing devotion to Christ, then we must head down that road ourselves, and it requires work.

That work is profoundly simple and sometimes breathtakingly difficult. Eugene Peterson, in his latest work, The Jesus Way, made an observation about John 14:6—“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”—that has been bothering me (in the best possible fashion) since I first read it. Peterson says, “The Jesus way, wedded to the Jesus truth, brings about the Jesus life … But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way … In the text that Jesus sets before us so clearly and definitively, way comes first. We cannot skip the way of Jesus in our hurry to get to the truth of Jesus.” In short, we cannot point people to the truth and hope it will suffice to get them there, any more than we can point them to the moon and tell them to go. We must invite them into the means and the ways of Jesus—before and after we highlight the propositional realities which require only understanding, not movement. And toward this end, we must be on the way ourselves.

If you can teach best when you are actually inviting people into a process you are pursuing, how do you pursue that process? You can open any one of three great books to find well-known descriptions of timeless spiritual disciplines. Two classics and one soon-to-be will help you more than I can here (I cannot urge you strongly enough to pick them up and let them wash over you—in fact, if you have to choose between finishing this article and reading one of these books, I will catch you some other time). They are: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines and John Ortberg’s The Life You’ve Always Wanted. Because they do such a great job of talking over the timeless, I will walk through the immediate.

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The following are the steps before the steps, the disciplines before the disciplines that might help you as you seek to practice the way of Jesus, which we have been called to invite people into. Some of it is so practical you may wonder if it can still be spiritual, but often the most practical thing you can think of is the most spiritual thing you can do. So indulge me as I state the overlooked obvious.

Make decisions in advance.

Resolve in your heart the means by which you are going to engage in the way of Jesus over the next season of your life. My father took me to a conference that Peter Drucker spoke at before he died (Drucker, not Pops). He was a delightful little Yoda-esque man (again—Drucker, not Pops) who spoke with the most winsome German accent you’ve ever heard. And he said something I will never forget: “Vhat you vant never to forget—you must institutionalize.” In other words, for our purposes—if you are going to integrate prayer, fasting, devotional (not message preparation), scripture reading, community, celebration, solitude, etc., into your life, you can’t wait until it feels convenient to do so. Drucker’s lesson is the same as Proverbs 5: If you wait until a decision has to be made to make it, you have waited too long.In a world where we champion personal freedom and romanticize the effortless grace of the saints, it is easy to forget that what appears to be an easy and spontaneous righteousness is more spiritual muscle memory than freewheeling godliness. They are not just trying hard to be godly; they’ve entered into training that’s born fruit. It only looks effortless because of effort exerted when no one was there to observe it. In 1 Timothy 4:7 Paul says, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” They took that seriously. They made decisions in advance; they institutionalized what they wanted never to forget.

Get your body in the right place.

I have attended and now overseen many a wedding rehearsal in my 30 years. And toward the end of the rehearsal, I always tell frazzled couples daunted by the task set before them the same thing: “If you can get your body in the right place tomorrow during the ceremony, everything will work out just fine, because I can whisper you through the rest.” That analogy holds true in most of life and certainly in our devotional lives. When you get your physical body in the right place to engage in sacramental disciplines, God can and will whisper you through the important stuff. Engaging in a spiritual practice does not mean we are performing some great feat that draws us closer to God through the vast strength of our righteousness. We are willingly admitting our weakness and putting ourselves in a position of surrender to God so He can pour His holiness into us. As we put our bodies in the right place and become “living sacrifices” (whether the right place is on a bench with a Bible, at a feast with friends, in a corporate worship service or on a long run), we seek to get in positions where we are open to His whispers. The task is difficult but not daunting. His whispers are sometimes painful, but never bitter. Give it time.Eternal changes are rarely finished in a day. If you choose the way of Jesus, it is a lifelong way. You can get away with being a full-time Christian leader and a part-time Christ follower for a while, but eventually you will speak and do what you are, and since you are a leader, other people will follow. So, offer yourself up to Jesus daily, forever. The very essence of discipline is staying true to what you know to be wise even when it doesn’t appear to be adding to your productivity.

Spiritual disciplines aren’t magical self-help practices that make you a better you—they are tools that enable us to experience God, life and one another more truly.If you don’t eat the bread you are offering to others, you can starve to death in the process of ministry. You weren’t made just to change the world. You were made to be changed by God for the sake of the world He loves better than we ever will. If you are going to change the world without the world changing you, then you have to be transformed by God, and that transformation happens daily, along the way. The way of Jesus, the way of life and life in all its fullness.

About the Author: Isaac Hunter is the pastor of Summit Church in Orlando, Fla.

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