“To be a Christian is to be a traveller. We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the course of our watch or the days of the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity.”
—Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way
The Christian life is not a static one. It is moving us someplace, and the Holy Spirit is our faithful companion, faithful to guide us to the place we are to be. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “You are what you think all day long.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we are defined by our thoughts, but two thousand years of Christian practices and tradition remind us that we become what we do. Our hearts are formed by, and our lives are shaped into, the practices we live out in our day-to-day lives. The danger in talking about spiritual practices, though, is that they can quickly slip from formative into legalistic, and then the old saying starts to ring true: “We only belong if we behave.”
I’d like to pull us away from a legalistic view and remind us that all good things take time. As any craftsman knows, the formation of something requires diligence and patience. We are not now what we will be one day, that’s true. However, we need not always be what we are right now. From the beginning, the church has used spiritual practices to aid and spur on the spiritual life. And, while this list is far from complete, it is an invitation to begin thinking and talking about how we are called to pattern our lives.*
We are constantly on the go. Social researchers tell us that we’re one of the most over-worked and under-rested cultures on earth. The expected norm for salaried workers is now often more than forty hours a week, often without overtime pay. Keep up or get out. Surrounded by this culture and this expectation, it’s easy to find ourselves succumbing, even if nobody is actually making us, or even if we work for ourselves. We still work longer hours, push later into the night, spend less time with family in order to make our way in the world. This lifestyle, however, is not sustainable, and we were not made for it. We are not machines, and our bodies will eventually break down.
I was recently speaking with a friend who said that one of the most subversive things a Christian can do is practice the rhythm of Sabbath, and I agree. We must remember the importance of stepping away, of ceasing movement and, instead, trusting in our stillness that God will provide what we need.
Take time away. If it’s impossible to take a full weekend, prioritize a single day to fully rest. Turn off your phone, don’t check emails. (This practice may even mean, from time to time, telling the church no, and that’s okay.) Spend your time doing things that give you life. Paint, take a walk, work in the garden, play soccer with your kids, cook, invite friends over, organize your garage, see a movie, read a good book, spend time in contemplative prayer, see a therapist. Anything but work. Remember that life is precious, and find the goodness in it.
For holiness people, confession can be difficult. We’re not supposed to sin; we are, after all, sanctified. We shouldn’t have anything to confess! Yet we know, in our deepest parts, that this is not true. We all have shadows, we all fail, and we all need forgiveness. The Bible tells us that all we must do to be forgiven is to ask. This is true. We do not confess to others because we believe mutual confession provides forgiveness. We do it for a different, yet significant, reason. Vassilios Papavassilou, a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church, explains the importance of confession beautifully in 30 Steps to Heaven: “We need confession, not because God needs to hear it; He knows what we have done. He sees and hears your repentance before you’ve even [confessed]. You need to hear it. You need to say it. I believe God forgives us more swiftly and easily than we forgive ourselves. But we seek not only forgiveness, but healing.”
Something powerful happens when we name our failings, speak them into existence, and allow others in on the brokenness. In that space, humanity embodies divine forgiveness. We put flesh and blood on what is so freely offered by our Father, and as we confess, we are also healed.
Find a spiritual director, therapist, or trustworthy friend (it’s important to remember that not all Christians are trustworthy with our hurts). Find someone you can be truly honest with and share your heart with that person. Bring to light your hurts and failures, and give yourself space to mourn your brokenness. Allow yourself to receive the forgiveness of the Father, embodied by the person you’ve chosen.
We are a people between two worlds. We have been born in this world but have accepted citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. We find ourselves living in the midst of competing worldviews, constantly torn between two sets of values and attempting to discern between two masters.
I have heard the Bible called many things: a user manual, a field guide, a historical account. However, as we read it, the Bible is, at its core, a demonstration of the character of God and of our call as God’s people. In the Gospels, we see Jesus demonstrate the good news in action. In the prophets, we get a clear understanding of what it means to embody justice and are reminded that God’s heart is for the marginalized. In the poetic books, we find language that explains the heart in ways logic and theology miss. In Revelation, we get a powerful promise of what is still to come: the kingdom of God in fullness and power.
The Bible, full of varied accounts and often broken characters, paints an overall image of what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. It gives form and shape to truth and helps us to discern what is real from what is false.
No matter what your preferred Bible reading plan currently is, commit at least to reading the Psalms every day. Historically, Christians have made it a practice to read Psalms through each month (about five per day). If that’s a bit heavy, commit to reading one or two per day. Read them slowly, as a prayer. Allow the language of the psalmist—whether it’s communicating anger, anguish, joy, or contrition—to take root into your heart. You’ll find, as you go through life, that the Psalms begin to come back in our own moments of anger, anguish, pain, repentance, or joy.
Our world clamors for our attention. Experts tell us that, over the course of a day, we will see an estimated five thousand advertisements. Our phones are a single swipe away. Emails and texts are constantly arriving, demanding to be read and responded to. Every day is a new news cycle, and there is no end to the amount of information our minds are barraged with. More than ever before, we’re a people who need silence.
God meets us in the silence. When noise isn’t present to distract us, to steal our attention from the present moment, to keep us from examining our hearts, silence begins to do the deep work of introspection. In the silence, we begin to see our truest selves—not the self defined by culture, family, or even church but the self defined by God. In the silence, we’re able to hear the gentle whisper of the Father. And in the silence we can hear our Father say, “You are enough.”
For a distracted world, silence can be one of the most difficult of the spiritual practices, but take heart because it is worth the effort.
Choose a day or time (it’s okay to start small), and carve out 10–20 minutes for silence. Whatever time you decide, set an alarm so as not to be tempted to look at your phone during that time. Find a comfortable place to sit, either in a chair or on the floor. Settle in and allow your body to relax. Take a moment and listen. Listen to the wind or the rain, listen to the creaking of your house, listen to your breathing. Simply be still. During these silent moments, some may choose to practice breath prayers, saying a verse from Psalms or a single word like joy, peace, or forgiveness. Others may repeat the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
In your practice of silence, remember to be patient with yourself. We are unlearning decades of life in which we’re trained to be distracted. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Return, as often as possible, to these moments of silence.
For the extroverts among us, silence can be guilt-inducing. Sitting still can feel impossible. For those unable to sit, silence is still possible. Take some time to get out for a walk, mow your lawn, rake the leaves, or weed your garden. Get away from noise and stress and find ways (like by doing something mindless) to allow your mind to focus, instead, on Christ.
In my tradition, the Church of the Nazarene, we have two sacraments, baptism and Eucharist. Baptism is a moment of confession and entrance into the already but not yet. Eucharist, through bread and cup, is an ongoing remembrance of our death and a celebration of the gift of Christ on the cross. Whereas we typically only have one baptism in our lifetime, the community of faith is invited to celebrate the Eucharist (thanksgiving) feast as often as we find ourselves convened for worship.
As we gather together, breaking the bread and drinking from the cup, we’re reminded that, while we’re not healed yet, we are becoming so. We are comforted in our pain and challenged in our complacency. In a mysterious way, as we take that bread and drink from that cup, we are becoming the very thing we consume. We become the body of Christ in a broken and fractured world. As Thérèse de Lisieux beautifully says, “Go often to Holy Communion. Go very often! This is your one remedy.”
Pastors: Be intentional about making the Eucharist celebration a central part of your worship gatherings. If you’re not comfortable doing it weekly, celebrate it monthly.
Lay leaders: If your local body does not celebrate Communion, consider approaching your pastor to ask if he or she would consider making it a more regular pattern of your faith community’s life together.
The participation in each of these areas is an invitation to participate in the life of prayer. As we live out the practices of grace, we find ourselves being drawn toward God. Our hearts begin to beat in rhythm with the Trinity. Our concerns align with the concerns of Christ. Our discernment comes into step with the Spirit. Prayer becomes less a collection of words we say and more a life we live out.
Rest is the invitation to step out of our busy lives and receive, again, the truth that God loves us and that this love is not tied to our production.
Confession is the invitation to repent of our failures and to receive the deep and unwavering forgiveness of our heavenly Father.
Scripture is the invitation to learn about the heart of God and our part in the restoration of everything.
Silence is the invitation to get past our own internal noise, to pull away from the chaos, and to hear the still, small voice.
Eucharist is the invitation to remember that this whole thing—life, faith, forgiveness, redemption—is because of Christ’s sacrifice, and our call as Christ followers is to the imitation of that sacrifice.
Through our commitment to the practices, we find ourselves formed into the life of faith, not where we simply pray, but a life where we live out the kingdom of heaven, right here and right now.
*If you’re interested in a more exhaustive list of the spiritual disciplines, I recommend reading A Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster.