By: Lynne Baab
After church on Sunday, a family prays together for the upcoming week.
A small group sets aside a day to fast and pray for one of their members who has cancer.
A congregation buys copies of a Lenten devotional so everyone can spend time each day reading a Bible passage and pondering the meaning of the events that lead up to Easter.
Increasingly, groups of people–families, small groups, and congregations– are taking part in communal spiritual practices.
What is a spiritual practice? Anything we do that helps us draw near to God and walk with Jesus. Bible study, prayer, service, fasting, Sabbath-keeping, tithing, and other disciplines have been practiced throughout the history of the church. Today many Christians are discovering many new—and sometimes ancient—forms of these practices, such as contemplative prayer, lectio divina as a way to meditate on the Bible, Taizé singing as a way to rest in God’s peace, and environmental cleanup projects to care for God’s creation.
The terms “spiritual practice” and “spiritual discipline” are often used interchangeably. In his landmark 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), Richard Foster helped Christians rediscover the significance of practices that Christians have participated in throughout the ages.
A few years ago I was chatting with a theology student. When I mentioned that I have written several books on spiritual practices, he said, “There’s so much rhetoric these days about spiritual practices. The idea seems to be that if I get the practice right, then I’ll work my way to God.” He went on to say that theologians throughout the ages have affirmed that God meets us. He argued that it is not our responsibility to engineer a meeting with God; in fact, it is impossible for us to do so.
His words made me realize that two foundational ideas must always be made clear when encouraging people to engage in spiritual practices. First, we must affirm we can do nothing to earn God’s approval. God loves us before we do anything, and we simply cannot “work our way to God.” Second, that student is absolutely right that we cannot engineer a meeting with God. Through the Holy Spirit, God initiates meetings with us over and over. But are open to perceiving that initiative? Are we listening to God’s voice?
Spiritual practices open us to receive what God offers. In the interviews for my books on the Sabbath, fasting, and communal spiritual practices, I heard story after story from individuals who have experienced more of God’s love and joy because of spiritual practices. Life is so busy, my interviewees said, that it is vitally important to institute some kind of pattern of stopping and paying attention to what God is doing.
Our habits shape us. When we clean our house often, we get used to a clean house. When we make space in our lives to meet with God, we get used to experiencing that relationship. Spiritual practices are, first and foremost, a way to experience God’s presence and walk with Jesus. And God, who we know in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, is a God of grace, mercy, love, peace, and joy. We cannot earn God’s love. We can only set aside times and places in our lives to receive what God is offering us and give love back. The fourteenth- century classic The Cloud of Unknowing affirms that God “cannot be found by any work of your soul, but only by the love of your heart.” Spiritual practices help shape our hearts to love God, and they give us a way to express our love for God.
In the interviews I’ve conducted about spiritual practices, I’ve heard people talk about the desires that undergird their practices. Many younger adults express a strong desire for authenticity in faith. Congregations today must help their members engage in expressions of faith that feel honest and address real-life issues. Many kinds of spiritual disciplines help Christians bring their faith into their everyday lives in authentic ways.
Spiritual practices are experiential and participatory. The days are past when people came to church only to hear the choir sing, the minister preach, and the worship leader pray. Churchgoers today want to participate in worship and service. Spiritual disciplines are one way Christians can express their faith at church, at home, and even at work
Spiritual practices can help nurture an experience of God’s presence in a way that connects us with history. The early Christians fasted frequently. Medieval monks and sisters prayed in a variety of interesting ways. Many Christians today desire to rediscover ancient practices that shaped the church over so many centuries and enabled authentic, participatory faith.
Becoming Like Jesus
If Christ is in us and we are in Christ, then we can expect that we will become more like Jesus. And, of course, Jesus engaged in spiritual practices. Jesus’ first public appearance took place in the synagogue on the Sabbath, where he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus kept the Sabbath even as he reframed its priorities by performing miracles on that day. Jesus fasted (Luke 4:1-13) and spent time alone in prayer (Mark 1:35). And when he prayed, he expressed his submission to the will of his Father (John 17, Luke 22:39-42). Jesus is our model for spiritual practices.
Jesus also instructs his disciples about the spiritual practices of gathering together and celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 18:20 and Luke 22:19-20). When Christians gather for worship and communion, we are engaging in the central communal practices of the people of God. The practices of the Christian life—including corporate worship and the sacraments—play a role in the Holy Spirit’s work of helping us become more like Jesus.
Christians are called to participate in God’s mission in the world. In order to see God’s priorities and embrace them, we need to grow deeper in faith. Yes, we are new creatures in Christ, but we still need ongoing transformation, and spiritual practices are vital for this transformation. The New Testament affirms a lifelong process of growing into the image of Christ. All of us, the apostle Paul writes, “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV).
The Holy Spirit nudges us to draw near to Jesus so that we can experience God’s love, joy, and peace, and so we can be transformed into Christ’s image. All of this enables us to love and serve God in the world he made and loves. Spiritual practices are one way to embrace this life-giving gift.
Lynne Baab has written numerous books and Bible study guides about Christian spiritual practices, including Sabbath Keeping, Fasting, and Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. Visit her website, www.lynnebaab.com.