Fruit of the SpiritPosted: June 18, 2011
The Monday Bible Study group and the Diaconate have begun reading a book by Phillip Cary entitled: Good News for Anxious Christians 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do. In chapter one the author talks about “spiritual formation.” And by the way Jim Norris will be teaching a class in spiritual formation beginning the second Thursday in August, and running for four to six weeks. Spiritual formation is an answer to the question, how is the human heart formed by the spirit to follow in the way of Christ? Paul identified nine virtues that result from Christian devotional practice, the fruits of the spirit — Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control. So what are the devotional disciplines that shape a heart where the fruits of the spirit abide?
The first devotional discipline that opens us to the spirit is prayer — regular intentional prayer. Not a lick and promise whenever we’re in trouble. But regular disciplined daily prayer that leads us into deeper relationship with God. This week I ran across a minister’s prayer. Oh Lord, “May the members of my congregation be as free with their money as they are with their advice, and may their minds be open as their mouths.”
Of course, a major portion of our prayer time has to be devoted to listening — quiet, devoted listening, not to all of the voices inside our own heads, but listening to the silence, “be still and know that I am God.”
If you need a model for organizing your prayer time, a number of years ago Bill Viall found the Prayer Wheel in a diabetes management magazine. It was developed by a physician, a psychiatrist who found that if he could help patients to pray, they reduced their stress levels and their overall mental and physical health improved. So once again I have printed some copies of the Prayer Wheel, and they are available outside the sanctuary.
We are preparing for Robert to visit us come the end of July in time for Vacation Bible School in August, and that reminds me of a story about prayer. There were two little brothers who were visiting Grandma. They were about to go to bed, but before they slept they prayed. The older boy started to pray. He prayed about the day he had and about everything he had done. The younger boy then started to pray, he prayed much louder than his older brother, and he prayed for a bicycle and toys, and when he finished the older brother asked him “Why are you praying so loud? God isn’t deaf” and the younger boy responded and said, “Yea but Grandma is.”
The discipline of prayer flows into the practice of meditation. And on the subject of meditation we can acknowledge many of us are plagued by a whole troop of drunken monkeys that continually agitate our consciousness, when we try to be still. There are some aids to meditation, guided meditations, mantras, but ultimately we just have to discipline ourselves through practice.
Another meditative practice is the singing of spiritual songs. Paul recommends this discipline in his letter to the Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Songs are stored in a different part of our brains than prose. I have known people who lost the ability to speak after a stroke, but they could still sing. Having a repertoire of spiritual songs can be a powerful force in shaping our affections. If you were to suffer a stroke, and you couldn’t speak, would you rather be able to sing, “Morning Has Broken,” or “a Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”
Another powerful discipline in spiritual formation is Bible Study. Engaging with the scriptures gives us input from outside of ourselves in forming our relationship with Christ. When we do not enter into regular Bible Study, then the devices and desire of our own hearts take over and inevitably lead us astray. We begin to form images of Christ that look like ourselves in our best moments, the fair haired blue eyed cocker spaniel Jesus, rather than the Jesus who was a revolutionary First Century Country Rabbi. If we continually approach God as if we are the smartest person in the room, well remember God is God and we are not, and inevitably we are not as smart as we think we are. Here at United Church we have a Monday afternoon Bible Study, a Thursday evening Bible Study, and a Sunday morning Bible Study. Starting this Fall we will also begin an on-line Bible Study, where people can jump in and participate at any time. And our Bible Study leads into the Sunday morning sermons, and the lessons used by our children’s Sunday School. So I believe the opportunity for Bible Study will be available, if we take a few minutes from our busy schedules to connect with the scriptures.
Another discipline that can help to open us up to ideas and images beyond ourselves is devotional reading. The women’s fellowship orders the daily devotional called “These Days.” It is available in Fellowship Hall. Another devotional booklet published in Nashville is the Upper Room. The United Church of Christ has an online daily devotional to which you can subscribe, by going to: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/. Opening ourselves up to a daily spiritual reminder can help us become more God centered, rather than self-centered.
Journaling is another spiritual discipline that can help us to recognize God’s movement in our lives. Years ago people wrote in their diaries. The importance of journaling is it encourages us to conduct a daily review. I remember the Birmingham 8’s meeting with the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Groom in Boston. When we asked him about how he connects with the divine he reported: “I do a Jesuit thing. At the end of the day, I go back and look for the God moments. I have yet to find a day that I couldn’t find at least three God moments.” I think that is what journaling can help us to find, the trajectory of the God moments in our lives. Sometimes they aren’t obvious on a daily basis, but when we go back and re-read our journal entries over several months time we can begin to connect the dots between the God moments, and we can perceive the trajectory of God’s presence in our lives. People have been journaling for centuries, by keeping a diary. A diary can be a powerful spiritual discipline. I have some home grown materials for organizing spiritual journaling based upon the Lord’s Prayer, if you are interested.
Group study and prayer is another tool in spiritual formation. How can we discern the difference between the devices and desires of our own hearts and God working in our lives? Ask some good spiritual friends. A couple of weeks ago I shared with you some really good advice from a counselor in group therapy. She said, “if one person tells you, that you are a horse, they’re crazy. If two people tell you, that you are a horse, well maybe you’d better think about it. And if three people tell you, that you are a horse, you’d better get the saddle and bridle. Group study and prayer open up the possibility that good friends might be able to share with us the truth we don’t want to hear. And as much as it can hurt, truth is a gift that is essential in the formation of a loving heart that follows Jesus.
Still another spiritual discipline in our spiritual formation is almsgiving – charity, regularly practiced. God does indeed love a cheerful giver, and we develop a generous heart by regular giving. We can pray about generosity, we can read stewardship devotionals, we can sing: “take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee, take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.” But to actually embrace generosity, we have to give. And for those of us who are stingy, and I am first among them, we only begin to loosen up our spirits by sacrificing some of our own consumption and giving to others.
The final spiritual discipline I want to mention is worship and communion. Many churches have approached worship attendance as an obligation and a duty. For years it was a mortal sin in the Roman Catholic Church if you missed Mass. Worship is not an obligation, or a duty, it is a gift. Worship is time when we gather to pray with and for a community of spiritual friends, who have covenanted to pray with and for us. And when we gather in the name of Jesus, we become the Body of Christ, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” I am in the midst of them. And when Jesus is in the midst of us, synergy begins to happen. The power of God becomes available in ways that we can only describe as mysterious. When God is in the midst of us our energy is multiplied. Rather than 5 + 5 equaling 10, 5 x 5 equals 25. In the communion we experience that mystery of becoming the Body of Christ, so we can be sent into the world to make a difference, to free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, to comfort the afflicted, to spread the love of Christ.
We don’t have to use all of these spiritual disciplines. The good news is we can pick and choose what works for us. But as we grow in our spiritual maturity through practiced devotion the fruits of the spirit will dwell in our hearts. And the fruit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.