This post continues my series on Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and summarizes what I've written so far.
In that book, Foster presents a set of twelve historical practices that have helped hundreds of generations of Christians feel closer to God. I say 'feel' to indicate that our proximity to God doesn't actually change over time. Once we choose to accept his Holy Spirit, he's with us, in us, and around us forever.
As I've outlined before, when we meditate, we open our minds to listen to the words God is already speaking. When we pray, we change our desires and motives to align more closely with what God is already doing in our lives and in the lives of those around us. When we fast, we remind ourselves that our typical daily sustenance isn't what actually keeps us going from day to day. Finally, since our minds are formed by habits of thought, and we're rarely creative enough to recognize a good thought even when we have them, study and learning provide all the raw materials for these disciplines to be fruitful.
Those are the "inward" disciplines. They're the things that, when practiced knowing that the choice to pursue God is infinitely more important than completing the actions "successfully," you'll find an inner peace (some call this a "centering") that you didn't realize God has already put in your heart. These inward disciplines help you see the work God has already done in your life. I don't think they actually develop anything new within you, but they help you to understand your place in the universe (that is, as a ruler of the earth by the authority of God, fully redeemed from the consequences of your sin by God himself)!
But our lives as aren't unidirectional. They run vertically between us and God, but they also run horizontally between us and every other person we meet. This is where the "outward" disciplines come in! These disciplines have fallen out of favor among many Christian groups, likely due to Jesus telling us, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven." But when you hear what the outward disciplines are, you realize that there's little to no risk of anyone seeing you practicing your righteousness.
Simplicity involves a rejection of our complex, harmful, and arbitrary social norms. It means that we come to a place where, when pushed, we fall back toward a solid foundation. Simplicity is centering your life on things that are certain, so when you fall, you fall back on something real and stable. This often involves removing objects, beliefs, or practices from our life that we might put our faith in rather than God's promises.
Solitude, fasting, and simplicity go hand in hand. Oftentimes, "getting away" is refreshing and a helpful reminder that the world doesn't rely on us for its functioning. But solitude is much more than that: it's placing your worth within your relationship with God (which will never fail) rather than your relationships with people (which will inevitably fail). In solitude, we remember and see that we're the image of God, not the image of humanity.
When we practice submission, we stop saying, "What would Jesus do?" and start saying, "What did Jesus do?" We recognize that God's wisdom is superior to our own, even when he did things that we think are stupid, like eating with prostitutes, using fishermen to teach people about God, not standing up for himself when put on trial, and finally–the most foolish thing of all–getting killed by a bunch of Bible school teachers. When we consider what Jesus practiced in his life, his teachings (especially in the Sermon on the Mount) start to become a lot less hypothetical and a whole lot more practical.
And, finally, service wraps up the list of outward disciplines. Strangely, this is the easiest to turn into something that people might see and praise you for, yet it's the most popularly taught among all the outward disciplines. I wonder why that could be... The important thing about service is summed up beautifully by Dorothy Day (the founder of a nonviolent, pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf):
There are two things you should know about the poor: they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful
If you walk away from your service smelling nice, feeling satisfied, and followed by praise and gratitude, you're probably doing it wrong.
The next category of disciplines is different. The inward you can do alone. The outward you do for other people, or in relation to other people. But the corporate disciplines can only be practiced with other people. That is, you do them together, as a group.
To contrast with the outward disciplines, when you submit to someone, or serve someone, it doesn't matter if the other person is a Christian or not. It doesn't matter at all how they react to your service or submission. However, if you practice a corporate discipline, it only matters if everyone around you is doing them with you in unity.
The corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I'll expound on each one very soon.