Friday, February 04, 2005

Disciplining the Missionary

I am not naturally inclined toward practicing the spiritual disciplines. To be honest, I don’t even like the word “discipline.”

Even though there has been a boom in such literature, and I have bought more than my share of “How to Pray” and “Meditation for Dummies” books, nothing spoke directly to me … the 21st-century multi-tasking, full-volume, broadband-speed kind of guy.

Let me describe my upbringing first – I am the product of a Pentecostal childhood, where “spiritual disciplines” meant learning to pray in tongues loudly, singing praise and worship tunes with bad guitarists, slide projectors and outstretched arms, and sitting through extremely long worship services. I was raised with an aversion to liturgy, and so was extremely excited to discover that I actually liked written prayers, ritual and mainstream Protestantism. Maybe because worship services were extremely anti-emotional. It was comfortable. I had never felt like the hand-waving kind of person; I preferred a more rational Christianity.

However, rational Christianity too often leaves me cold. I suddenly missed the live connection between my emotions and my faith.

So imagine my discomfort when I enrolled for a class in spiritual disciplines in seminary. I’ll never forget Professor Ruben Habito teaching us how to center ourselves with breath prayers … it drove me crazy! I’ll confess now that I didn’t pay much attention in class. I doodled, daydreamed, and picked on my classmates while Dr. Habito covered the breadth of Christian spirituality through the ages.

I just couldn’t do it, and didn’t want to do it. I preferred studying the history of Christianity, Reformation violence, theological debates over homosexuality and pacifism. Give me a good old Barth vs. Tillich fight any old day.

I didn’t like silence – while writing my papers on the atonement and pastoral counseling, I listened to U2, Bruce Cockburn, and Coldplay! I didn’t have time to meditate – I had a wife and kids! I didn’t want to fast – not when Wendy’s is running a special on a classic cheeseburger and a Frosty for $1.99!

Celtic Christianity? Just a fad sparked by Riverdance!

The Desert Fathers? They were anti-social freaks!

St. John of the Cross? Slightly unbalanced!

All-night prayer vigils? Only charismatics do that!

And then I became a pastor. Do you know what that means?

It means that you wake up every Monday knowing that, by the end of the week, you need to be ready to stand in front of a bunch of people and, for twenty minutes, speak -- not just about anything, mind you – but speak the Word of God.

It means that at any moment of the night or day, you might have to stand in front of a thirty-five-year old woman who has just witnessed the death of her eight-year-old child. And she will want you to say something meaningful and true about the God who claims to love her.

It means that you must spend hours in meetings run by people who claim to be Christians but who fight like cats and dogs. And you must have the inner strength and leadership skills to remind them all that they are the body of Christ.

It means that people look up to you, cry on your shoulder, ask you difficult theological questions, complain about your sermons, laugh at your imperfections, critique your leadership, put you on a pedestal, and mock you – all in one day.

I suddenly discovered that I was ill-prepared for the task ahead. Woefully. Dramatically. I was in over my head!

I tried calling Dr. Habito for advice, but he had returned to Korea to study Zen Buddhist Christian meditation. I looked up my notes, but they were full of doodles.

Through trial and error, various books, friends and colleagues, I discovered the vast wealth of time-tested and traditional tools that Christians through two thousands of practice have developed. They are called the “spiritual disciplines.” Things as basic as prayer, Bible reading, and solitude. Plus some things that take a little practice, like meditation, examen, and intercession.

I have learned that these practices can fill a dry soul with life-giving water. And I have learned that, even when the practices themselves feel dry and soulless, I do them anyway. That's where the discipline comes in -- you do it because it's right. You do it because you want to honor God. You just do it.

Those spiritual disciplines have helped me to survive eight years of ministry thus far.

One of the first things I realized upon arriving in Africa, to take over the Mission of an entire country, was that I would have to up the ante on the spiritual disciplines. I have had to increase my prayer time. Because I have so much more to do, I have to spend so much more time in meditation and quiet. Now that I am the pastor of twenty-two other pastors, I have had to increase the time I spend reading the Bible and other helpful study books.

I still struggle with what to say in prayer time. And I will probably always have to work hard to control my wandering thoughts and restless feet. Yes, it’s hard not to answer the phone during those times, too. But by the grace of God, I am learning.

I guess I’m finally in a place where I am learning what it means to have to trust completely on God. There are very few safety nets here. We’re kind of out here on a limb, hoping that the branch doesn’t break, and that we’re actually doing something that resembles the will of God. Every day, when I wake up, I have to start all over with God.

One of my favorite tools for prayer is a book called “The Divine Hours,” which contains prayers and readings for the different stations of the day. Every morning after my devotions, I pray the same prayer, which I have now memorized:

“Almighty God, Everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day. Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome with adversity, but in all I do, lead me to the fulfilling of your purpose through Christ my Lord. Amen.”

It is this prayer that keeps me going and, yes, centers me. Everyday.

A little discipline never hurt anyone …