"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, January 3, 2011

Marathon Training and the Disciplines

Happy New Year! It doesn’t take much for me to be optimistic, but this time of year seems to bring with it an extra dose of hope and maybe curiosity about what might be, what could be. I’m certainly on the resolution bandwagon, using the changing of one digit as an excuse to think about my goals for the coming months.

I’m still formulating some of my resolutions, I’d say, though Joann and I have discussed some of the resolutions we are considering. My only physical fitness goal is one which I’m not really counting as a new year’s resolution, since it actually began about seven weeks ago. I think I mentioned here that I’m planning on participating in the Olympia marathon in May.

In light of this, I began a training schedule several weeks back that I’ve adhered to religiously, one which is slowly increasing the distance of my runs and thus strengthening and preparing my body (and willpower) for the marathon. It’s taken some commitment and motivation to stick to the schedule, but I’ve done it.

And it’s felt so wonderful to have lived with such discipline in this area of my life. I don’t quite see the six-pack abs yet (forever optimistic about that). But I do notice my body’s strength and endurance to be increasing every week. And I’m happy with the simple fact that I’ve stuck to my schedule. Living with discipline has felt like a victory, and I’m certainly observing the fruits.

So in thinking about “discipline” in recent days, I began thinking about the “spiritual disciplines.” There are probably other helpful lists or groupings of such disciplines, but I’m most familiar with the twelve disciplines about which Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have written extensively. In the same way that it has become easier to run “well” as a result of disciplined training, I am hopeful that the practice of such spiritual disciplines might make it easier to live well—to live the kind of life that is more and more consistent with what I claim to believe.

The end result of my reflection is that I’ve decided to more consciously and intentionally practice these disciplines, possibly focusing on one or two in a given week and finding ways to practice them and incorporate them into my thoughts and routines. I’m not totally sure of my method yet.

I’m surprised and a little disappointed by the amount of criticism out there of such disciplines. I can speak to their importance to me, for sure. And I suspect their importance is tied to some more fundamental understandings about the Christian life that I probably do not share with those who critique them so adamantly. So…I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.

The primarily disciplines I’ll be focusing on are as follows: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, celebration.

There are several reasons I feel compelled to practice them with more fervency and intentionality in the coming weeks. For one, this particular list is balanced and comprehensive. I kind of consider myself to be “ecclesiastically homeless” in this season of my life. That is to say, I don’t know which denomination really captures my understanding of right theology and practice, and so I feel a bit more ecumenical, despite the apparent contradictions that come from identifying with multiple “tribes.”

That being the case, I’m drawn to models of spiritual formation that can assist God in holistically transforming me, recognizing the wealth of resources in the various streams of Christianity (and outside of Christianity, for that matter) that can assist me in my journey of discipleship to Christ in a way that is not one-sided (e.g., too Catholic, too evangelical, too charismatic, etc.) but rather, comprehensive.

Another reason has to do with the amount of personal study I do in theology. I love learning, and generally have a lot of motivation to read. This has been especially true in recent weeks, as starting a PhD in theology sooner than later is a growing likelihood. I’m already beginning to prepare by devouring as many books as possible that are relevant to the professors, programs, dissertations, or qualifying exams connected to the various PhD options I’m looking into.

And I do try to let the academic reading form me, change me, affect more than just my mind but also my character, values, habits, and actions as well. For me this relationship is important—dipping deep into the well of theology and related subjects while also pursuing what will change not only my opinions but my actions. I need the practical, and the spiritual disciplines are one good resource to assist me toward this end.

A related reason for engaging with the disciplines: I don’t do it simply because I feel called to it, but because of what I understand to be our call and responsibility and witness as a Christian community. To me, to be a Christian means not to be a believer, but a disciple. Am I just being semantically picky here? I don’t think so, given how easily we separate belief from practice, often understanding beliefs as just glorified opinions about something, rather than understanding belief in the sense of active trust, following, identifying with something so closely that its reality transforms us.

I’m not naïve to the fact that “Christian” has many definitions, and something or someone can be “Christian” and not think of their Christian identity in terms of discipleship. But I think we miss out on a lot by not taking seriously the call to discipleship.

For me, recognizing the missional character of our identity has been helpful, acknowledging that, whatever caused me to become a Christian—be it because of God, me, my family, my church, my friends, free cookies in the narthex after Sunday worship—part of my call as a Christian is to be a sign, a demonstration, a glimpse to others of the reality of God’s love and goodness and the saving, reconciling work of Christ.

Put differently, I have come to recognize my salvation as not something for my own personal security or peace of mind, but as more of a coming to increasing awareness of who God is, what God has done (and will do), and how God can transform my life now and free me from those habits, patterns of thought, priorities, values, and actions that are more destructive, unholy, and life-sucking than constructive, holy, and life-giving.

I believe God desires to shape me—and all people—into something more fully human, something more like Jesus, and—forgive the possibly abrasive, utilitarian sound of this—but something more useful to God. Becoming more disciplined is something I believe will bring more fulfilling life for me, and will also be more fulfilling for others, as the more free, alive, compassionate, centered, whole, peaceful, aware, joyful, and grateful I am, the more others with whom I interact will benefit.

In ways, some aspects of these practices are already present in my life; but I crave more, and think the structure of disciplined living will prove fruitful. There's definitely room for improvement and growth in my life.

I mentioned above that many are critical of an attempt to practice spiritual disciplines; I’ll share some of those criticisms and my responses in a couple days.

Ran a 10-miler yesterday, shooting for 11 next weekend!

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