Recapturing the Disciplines

By Neil Earle

This weekend sixty of us ministry team members and wives enjoyed what is called a retreat at the beautiful and peaceful grounds of the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino, CA.

But what is a retreat? Doesn’t the Christian church need “an advance” as one colleague quipped? Well, for one thing even Jesus desired getting time off with his disciples to think over where their ministry was going (Mark 6:31). For another, we need as pastors to listen to each other, to have some time to reflect in an environment conducive to creation and re-creation of how the Great Commission applies in our hectic day and age. For yet another, even major businesses and non-profits – especially in academe – are seeing the benefit of retreats to bond their employees more firmly around common goals and tactics.

One of the retreat leaders asked us to read Ephesians 3 and to reflect on it quietly back in our rooms for 30 minutes before lunch. Thirty minutes of total silence.

What’s going on here?

Listening to ourselves and for God

We should know that silence is one of the spiritual disciplines Christians have practiced for centuries when they either need recharging or just taking a fresh look at their relationship with God. “Be still and know that I am God” it says in Psalm 46:10.

We’re currently drowning in an age of spiritual fads, and many respected Christian teachers from J.I. Packer to the late Dallas Willard tell us that our theology is so weak that we can fit it on a bumper sticker. "Just ask: what Jesus would do."

Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard argues that just asking what Jesus would do is "not enough." You have to be in training, in the game, all the time, like an athlete (2 Timothy 2:5). The Super Bowl teams have their plays worked out well in advance from their playbook. Similarly, we can’t know how to respond in a given situation unless you’re in training and then it just flows from you. Things will come up. Jesus turned to the woman who touched his garment because he knew something profound had happened. He responded the way he usually did – with kindness and compassion and admiration for the lady’s faith. When we live like Jesus, practicing his way of life consistently amid all the pressures we find ourselves trapped in, then we won’t need to ask "what Jesus would do."

Willard is the author of a spiritual classic: The Spirit of the Disciplines. He sees clearly that Christianity is an hour by hour, day by day way of life, not just an emotional commitment made in a time of crisis. That’s often how it begins but then we move on out from there. As it says in 2 Peter 1:5-8: "And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge self control …For if these things be in you, and abound; they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Here are some disciplines high on Willard’s list:

  1. Silence and solitude: It’s hard to find this in Los Angeles, hence our retreat in a secluded part of Encino.
  2. Prayer and fasting: In the past we perhaps overdosed on fasting as a cure-all, and now it’s hard to get momentum back. But try it for 12 hours from 6:30PM after supper to 6:30AM the next day – no TV, no snacks, no normal conversation but a time you have set aside for God to come to you.
  3. Good works. Looking out for your neighbor’s needs. This could mean intentionally serving in a food bank or a homeless shelter. Something that gets us out of the humdrum and ordinary. It’s especially important to get our children involved in similar projects for their ongoing development as Christian workers.
  4. Celebration: Regular celebration of our relationship with God. Invite other people when God has blessed you, like the woman Jesus mentioned who found the lost coin and invited her neighbor to a feast. Generosity is a spiritual discipline that can be learned. Again we can’t leave our children out of this.

Quietly Bearing Fruit

Christians who have stayed in there for the long haul have learned to move beyond fads and spur of the moment responses into a steady ongoing commitment to a disciplined way of life, to bear fruit (John 15:8).

Steadiness is developed by silence and solitude. One key to understanding Paul is that he taught and practiced Jesus Christ’s life example. The newly converted Paul got alone with God and spent time in the desert for meditation and reflection. As he says in Galatians 1:14: "And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood; neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus."

When Paul was first called, he went into out into the desert, into silence and solitude.

Jesus, also, constantly sought solitude. He went into the wilderness to begin his ministry and was famous for seeking the cool grove at Gethsemane by night. One time he withdrew from the clamoring crowds to spend a whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12). He knew that prayer was vital to strengthening his relationship with God.

Escaping the Triviality

We all need quiet time to listen to the "still, small voice" inside us. We need to practice spirituality in solitude which is difficult in the present-day world. Satan’s strategy for our time is to keep us so busy that we have no time to develop deep relationships. He wants to trivialize our existence. The world is set up to make us think that waking up, gulping down breakfast, driving the freeway, punching in 8-9 hours work and then hitting the road back home is all there is to life.

Deep inside we all know better (Romans 12:1). So, let’s take one of the disciplines, prayer in solitude. Like everything else it takes practice and dedication. Here are some pointers.

  1. Be intentional. Set aside time for God through meditation – a time when we aren’t distracted by cell phone, the internet, our computer, television, etc. Teens in a Christian camp usually turn in their cell phones before the camp begins. No need to explain why.
  2. Have a place. Matthew 6:6: "…when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly." This is good advice. Find a quiet spot.
  3. Listen for God. Sometimes pray without speaking. We don’t always have to be talking. Wait and see what God has to say. This is the practice of “keeping vigil” as knights in the Middle Ages did the night before they were welcomed into the fellowship.
  4. Keep focused on Jesus and his sense of purpose. He had a plan and worked it. First Galilee, then Jerusalem. First the crowds then his disciples. Have a plan to incorporate some of these disciplines more or less regularly. Then we reap the blessing of Hebrews 1:1-2: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things by whom also he made the worlds." We begin to hear his voice.
  5. Then, focus on one or two themes or subjects – the parables, the Beatitudes, the Love Chapter. God will lead you from there.
  6. You’ll know you’ve had a good session of quiet when something concrete comes out of it and you have something specific to carry forth, refreshed and getting a handle on one or two issues that have been bothering you. That’s how you know the retreat was actually an advance and the disciplines really work.