I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen this week. His insight, somewhat counter-intuitively, is that “in the spiritual life, the word ‘discipline’ means “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” Rather than constraining us, it’s about freeing us!
For Nouwen, “spiritual discipline” is about creating some boundaries to prevent everything else in your life — every last space and time and thought and feeling — from being filled up with lesser goods. It’s a reminder that we all need to do some literal and figurative spring cleaning, even in the fall. Emptiness can be a good thing!
Spiritual discipline promises that there’s some space in my life, room left for God. I’m not too occupied, pre-occupied, full, tied up, stuck, scared. Spiritually, to be disciplined is to commit to creating space, even an emptiness in life, where something can happen that I haven’t planned or authored or counted on.
Nouwen delineates 3 different disciplines and a movement from the first through the second on to the third. He finds them in Luke 6: 12-19:
“Now it happened in those days that Jesus went onto the mountain to pray, and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.
When day came, he summoned his disciples and picked out twelve of them and called them apostles: Simon, whom he called Peter; and his brother, Andrew; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew; Thomas; James, son of Alphaeus; Simon, called the Zealot; Judas, son of James; and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
He then came down with them and stopped at a piece of level ground where there was a large gathering of his disciples. There was a great crowd of people from all parts of Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and be cured of their diseases. And people tormented by unclean spirits were also cured. Everyone in the crowd was trying to touch him because power came out of him that cured them all.”
Three separate, but consecutive spiritual disciplines:
~ time on your own with God;
~ time in the intimacy & formation of a community of disciples;
~ time when disciples go out in the world in service, to preach & to heal.
Nouwen believes there is an importance in the order or timing of the stages:
We often want to do something all by ourselves, without even thinking of turning to God for help. When it doesn’t work, we turn to our community of support, hoping they can figure out what’s gone wrong and offer some solutions. Only when that yields no solutions do we begin to think of going to God in prayer.
This Bible passage reverses the order of our usual movements:
The night comes first for our time “alone” with God. Remember that in the Bible, the new day begins at sundown. So we begin each day in the positive, preparatory darkness of our time with God. Nouwen says that more than anything else, this time is about “placing ourselves,” hearing and beginning to believe that no matter what, we are beloved by God. That assurance counts for more than we can imagine.
Having dedicated yourself to God and listened for the calling God’s placing on your life, with dawn, you need to gather a community. He’s clear that he isn’t talking about formal communities. Community is not an organization. Community is rather a way of living. You have to be relating in community with people who likewise are being sent in mission, the community that is to live and walk and work together as we struggle to realize our service together.
In the afternoon, we are ready to go out into God’s world, prepared to minister and make our difference.
Nouwen believes that these three disciplines, in this order, are what makes room in our lives, and in our churches and in our world, for the kind of change God is waiting to see. Space that we create for God! How empowering to consider that mortals are given the way to make room for God! (Though not surprising when one sees how small and vulnerable our God is willing to make Godself… in a manger, on a cross, in our world.)
Our church program year starts up this week. Worship is back at 11 a.m. Adult Forum will be considering what to do with the space freed up in the Fox Building (yes, the answer should be “make room for God!”). Sunday School will get started (making room for God in our children’s lives). I’m looking forward to seeing everyone back… or at least more of us, gather each Sunday.
So this week, will you pray for the start up of our church program year? And make sure you make some room in your life for time alone with God. Before, on Sunday morning, we get back to making room together in the intimacy and formation of time as a community of disciples. Think of the service we can then accomplish in mission!
See you in church,