Spiritual Practices (A New Why)

We’re in the middle of a series called Whole Life right now. The subtitle dubs it: “A Series on Integrated Spirituality.” What we’re aiming at is an integrated life. Any kind of spirituality that fractures our lives—instead of putting our lives together—is not a truly a Christian spirituality.

And so, over the last few weeks, we’ve been exploring basic spiritual practices—reading Scripture, waking up to God in prayer, how we think about the work of our nine-to-five. Today I want to glance at what the Church broadly calls “The Spiritual Practices.” These are things that we can do during the day or the week. They’re rubber-meets-the-road practices that we can build into our lives that help put our lives together, that wake us up to grace, that fill us with love.

When we’re talking about Spiritual Practices, we’re not talking about a cut-and-dry list of certain formulas (e.g. do these things and you’re guaranteed certain results). And depending on where you look or who you ask, you may get a different list of practices. But there are—broadly speaking—tried-and-true practices that those who have gone before us would say: “Try these. These will guide you into life.”

In his masterful work called Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster recognizes twelve disciplines (or practices) and divides them into three categories: he talks about the inward practices of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study; the outward practices of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service; and then corporate practices of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I didn’t grow up with much exposure to these—and you might be in the same boat as me. But it’s helpful to hear that there is a long, well-travelled path of practical, rubber-to-the-road, how we can practice our faith and experience a more integrated—a more centered—a more whole—life. Some of these might be familiar to you, some of them might not be. I would highly recommend Foster’s book, if you’re looking for a solid, practical resource on what you can do to practice your faith in a tangible way. (I honestly haven’t found a better resource.)

The first thing I wanted to do this morning was this: I want to make sure you know that spiritual practices exist. Almost the only spiritual practices I heard about growing up were to read my Bible and to pray. It’s only been in adulthood that I’ve discovered other spiritual practices that have unlocked what it means to read the Bible—what it means to pray. For me solitude, confession, and meditation have been game-changers. I don’t know what spiritual practices might unlock doors for you, but know that they are out there. 

Joe already mentioned this at the beginning of the series, but it’s worth hammering again: Our spiritual practices don’t change us; practices make space for the Spirit to change us. Spiritual practices don’t change us…they don’t change our lives. The spiritual practices are not our way of working hard
to somehow clean up our own lives in some sort of way. There’s a danger that when we talk about something we can do that somewhere within us we’ll start quietly thinking that we’re making ourselves more presentable to God… or that it’s up to us to somehow make ourselves more whole, more loving, more alive. 

Spiritual practices do one thing. It’s a vital, important, central thing that spiritual practices succeed in doing—but it’s not changing our lives. Spiritual practices open our lives up to change. We’re not making ourselves presentable to God; we’re making ourselves present to God. We’re not somehow securing God’s love. We’re waking up to how secure we are in God’s love. Intentional spiritual practices open us to the work of the God who wants to make us alive.

The spiritual practices are NOT an ancient form of self-help or a way for us to channel our own willpower. To quote Richard Foster for a moment:

“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Practices—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Practices are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Practices can do nothing; they only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace.” (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline)

The Spiritual Practices are NOT ancient self-help—they’re not the big guns on how we can finally change ourselves or save ourselves. If you’ve ever felt incapable of changing yourself, it’s because you are. We’re helpless to change ourselves, helpless to save ourselves, helpless to grow grain. The church has long recognized that what we can do is “sow to the Spirit.” But the mysterious Spirit of God is the One doing the work.  

The gospel is that God changes us and God loves us before we’re changed. The good news is that God wants and can and will do what we’re helpless to do: God can and will put our lives together and make us fully and forever alive. AND… God loves you right now, even with our lives fractured and our feeling less than alive. 

Even when we’re lost in death, God loves us. That’s what the cross is about, by the way. Jesus is God meeting us in our agony—in our brokenness and rebellion and death—and saying, “I’ll take all of that.” And three days later he walks out of the grave, looks at us, and asks: “Now… are you ready for something new?” That’s the gospel. Not that we save ourselves… but that God saves us. Not that we change ourselves… but that God changes us. Not that we make ourselves lovable… but that God already always loves us.

Spiritual practices are ways of opening up to the reality of God’s life and God’s love. We can invite and prepare and welcome the Spirit of God to change our lives. We can get the soil ready… but we can’t make anything grow. That’s always up to God—by his grace, in his timing, in his power. And the good news is that with his grace, in his timing, through his power, God can and will put our lives back together. 

You’re invited to believe that. You’re invited to trust him. For the five-hundredth time or for the first time. And spiritual practices are a way of leaning into that trust.

We’re halfway through the sermon—we actually are!—and we haven’t read in Scripture. Good grief—we better get to that.

I want to read a story of out of Luke 5 this morning, because I think it gives us a good framework for how and why spiritual practices change us.

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5v1-11)

It’s a simple story: Jesus is teaching people and they’re crowding him, so he gets into the boat of Simon Peter and teaches them from there. When the teaching is done, he asks Simon (v4) to shove out a little deeper and throw out his net. 

Simon Peter, bless him, has just pulled an all-nighter of manual labor (v5) AND just cleaned his nets (v2) with nothing to show for it AND just sat through a sermon. I don’t know with certainty what he’s thinking about, but I can tell you 100% what I would be thinking about: sleep.

But Simon Peter responds (end-of-v5): “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

And then—in what follows—Peter experiences a transformative experience of the presence of God. Now, there are countless things we could say about this story, but I think it might be really instructive about spiritual practices. Even though I haven’t seen it on a list somewhere… evidently fishing can become a spiritual practice. The normal, ordinary, everyday task of fishing became a moment that opened Simon Peter up to the presence and power of God. 

Peter is a fisherman by trade—this is what he does. Big hauls of fish, small hauls of fish, nights where there are no hauls of fish—he’s pretty familiar with the job and the water and the results. But what seems to make this haul of fish different—what seems to open Peter up to the life of God—is a change in his motivation. Why is Peter letting down the nets?

He tells us: “Because YOU say so, I will let down the nets.”

Someone watching from the shore doesn’t see anything different in what Peter is doing. “Well, there’s Simon Peter doing what he always does, living his life, throwing out his nets.” The outward action looks the same… and yet Peter has a new motivation for why he’s doing what he’s doing. Something within Peter has changed. The “why” is different.

The thing driving Peter in this moment is obedience to Jesus. He’s obeying Jesus—responding to Jesus’s invitation—submitting to Jesus’s instruction. That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing here. Suddenly his “why” is different. “I’ve been fishing all night… but because you say so. I’m doing this normal thing with a different reason… in obedience to Jesus, in dedication to Jesus, to serve and honor and follow Jesus.”

It’s just a normal thing that he’s doing—it doesn’t look any spectacular or different to anyone watching—but that’s what makes this moment different. And I think this is what opens Peter up to being shaped and transformed by this moment. 

Maybe this a good way of thinking about every spiritual practice we might bring into our lives: Spiritual practices are ordinary practices with a new “why.” Spiritual practices are ordinary practices directed at a “Who.” The inner decision of “why”—why am I doing this thing?—is the powerful, essential ingredient to spiritual practices. There’s a “why” baked into all the spiritual practices—an intentionality that says: “I’m doing this thing in response to you, Lord.” The why is new. 

Our motivation is such a powerful, essential ingredient that it transforms normal, everyday practices into spiritual practices. 

Even the most surprising of things can become spiritual practices. A couple of years ago, I was pastoring a small church in Denver and working another, full-time job, and we had a newborn with some medical issues, and we had a 12-month old toddling around. I could say “we were tired,” but that doesn’t really scratch the surface. 

The church’s situation was unique and small, and I didn’t really have anyone who was comfortable filling in on Sundays. So every week—after my 40-hour week at my other job—I would spend several hours on Saturday at a coffee shop named Ziggis piecing together the sermon.

One Saturday, I got to Ziggis at around 7:30am settled in with my Bible, my laptop, and (most importantly) some coffee… but then I just sat there. Staring at the screen. Friday night into Saturday morning had been a rough night with Daisy—she was on oxygen at that point—and new parents already live in a state of exhaustion. 

So I just sat there. Exhausted. Tired. Weary. And thinking: “Tomorrow morning is coming. I’ve got to get this done.” And then a gentle thought occurred to me…I think from the Spirit: “Stop the sermon prep. Go home. Rest. Preparing the sermon is important, but you know what is more important in this moment… your sanity. Your health. Your bride. Stop the sermon prep.”

The voices of “get the sermon ready” and “prove that you’re a good pastor” and “make sure you earn your keep” were shouting loud within me… but there was also something deeper whispering beneath all the shouts of fear and pressure and exhaustion. It was like the Spirit was inviting me to rest from having to get something else done. It was this moment where—strangely enough—stopping sermon prep became a spiritual practice.

Because of the “why.” 

I had this moment of surrendering something that I love doing, and the way people might perceive me on a Sunday, and the illusion that people’s spiritual lives depend on my clever words…. And I closed my laptop, got up, cranked the car, and drove home. I gave Joy a nap. Then Joy gave me a nap. We both got a bit of unscheduled rest. 

Strange as it sounds—in that strange moment sitting at Ziggis—trying to buckle down and plow through and get the sermon done would not have been an act of faith or trust. Plowing through would have been me continuing to live in a world where everything depends on meThe act of faith in that moment actually involved stopping my regular rhythm, going home, and resting.

All of this is strange. From the shore—from a distance—it didn’t look like anything special or profound. What I felt invited into in that moment might have looked like irresponsibility or laziness or I-don’t-know-what from the outside. From the shore it looked like a nap.

But the “why” was different. The “why”—the “because you say so, Lord”—transformed stopping sermon preparation into a spiritual practice. 

One of the current spiritual practices in my life involves my daily time of reading Scripture. My morning routine regularly looks like taking a shower, making a cup of coffee, and then reading a few chapters of Scripture at the kitchen table. By God’s grace over the years, I’ve fallen in love with Scripture. And my time slowly reading reorients me, it reminds me that I live in a good world and that a good God loves me.

And every morning—without fail—one or both of the girls come up to me and want my attention. Daphne will say: “Look at my umbrella. Look at my wand. Look at my costume.” Daisy will say: “Book. Read.” And she doesn’t mean a book about the saving work of heaven on behalf of humanity. She’s holding a book about Daniel Tiger or Toy Story. We wants to sit with her Papa and read. And every morning—without fail—I say “yes.”

They know with certainty that Papa likes to drink his coffee and read that big book. But I want to make sure that they know with as much certainty that their Papa loves them. I want to make sure that I’m not just reading about the love of God, but I’m actually embodying the love of God.

From the shore, it simply looks like I’ve stopping reading the Bible. And I have. But from the boat I’m falling on my knees and recognizing the goodness and beauty of God in the gift of my children. It’s this moment when I’m quietly saying “because you say so” to Jesus. I read these Scriptures because you say so. And I embrace this interruption because you say so.

The difference between normal practices and spiritual practices is the “why.” Normal practices become spiritual practices when the why becomes different. 

Our normal, day-to-day life is packed with moments—many of them annoying moments where you don’t really want to talk to that person right now—most of them ordinary, boring moments where you’ve basically got to be doing this thing anyway—and these moments are moments that we can offer to Jesus. 

This conversation isn’t the one I want to be having, but “because you say so” I’m going to be present with this person. I going to give them love—my full attention, my full empathy, my full time for the next five minutes. And suddenly we’re sowing to the Spirit. We’re getting the soil ready. We’re making room for God to grow his life within us.

As we start getting intentional about waking up to God with meditating on Scripture and prayer and confession, God starts to transform the things that don’t look “spiritual.” Suddenly throwing out the net again is a spiritual practice because the ordinary practice has a new why. Suddenly talking to that person you don’t want to, or reading a book to your child, or accepting your limits and taking a nap—suddenly the everyday moments of our lives can become spiritually electric… because the why changes. 

Central to every spiritual practice is the “why.” Spiritual practices are everyday practices offered to God.

The ordinary feeling of hunger gets offered to God and intentionally leaned into and becomes fasting. The ordinary experience of not talking gets offered to God and intentionally leaned into and becomes divine silence and reflection. Our ordinary suffering gets offered to God and intentionally leaned into and becomes a cross where we learn to trust God—a source of love and empathy for others. Ordinary moments of goodness and beauty get offered to God and intentionally leaned into
and offer us a glimpse of resurrection.

Where can I practice saying “Because you say so?”

We’re invited to be intentional with the normal stuff of our life—things like our hunger or our words or our time or our suffering. Every one of us already has an everyday life. We’re invited to submit that everyday life to Jesus again and again and again. And his Spirit transforms us through it.

May we remember what God is like—always eager and present and working to transform us where we are helpless. May we be awake to our lives and submit our everyday moments to Jesus, approaching them with a new “why.” May the Spirit grow goodness, beauty, and holiness in the everyday soil of our lives.