As we quiet our hearts during Lent, we’ll hear from the women of our church on their practice of spiritual disciplines. Every believer is on a transformational journey to grow in our relationship with the Father and become more like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our own efforts cannot accomplish this, but we do get to participate in the process. Even though the Bible doesn’t lay out a concise list of spiritual disciplines, the life of Jesus is our powerful example. The spiritual disciplines can usually be organized into two categories: abstinence (giving something up) and action. As we look forward to Easter, let’s see how we can pause certain parts of our lives in order to pursue Christ.
“And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him, and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, ESV, emphasis mine)
Our church is participating in a plan that gets us reading through the Bible all year. In this week’s reading, Moses is giving his people a recap of his life and a stern reminder of how God miraculously moved through their wanderings in the desert. Moses knows he will not be going with his people into the promised land, so this passage of scripture reads like a kind father, recounting important instructions and reminding them of God’s provision before sending his kids off to be without him. It’s a sweet reminder for the reader as well, that the God of the universe has His hand on history, both present and past. The part of the passage that whisked my mind into contemplation was this:
“And now Israel, what does the Lord require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep His commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of the heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet the Lord set His heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn….He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-16, 21-22, ESV)
There is so much packed into this passage that lends itself to contemplation. Our minds should lean into how powerful and all-knowing our Creator is and at the same time how intensely He singles us out. How can God be all knowing of all the people in all the world and still be so intricately involved with me? Perhaps the most intriguing part of this passage in my mind is this sentence: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn.” I had to turn to a commentary for more insight on this one. Here’s what I found: “All males among Israel had to be circumcised eight days after they were born. But this minor surgery was merely a symbol for the real work of cutting away the flesh…the work of taking our hearts inclined after the flesh and giving us hearts inclined after the spirit.” (David Guzik, Blue Letter Bible) If that’s not a model for contemplation, I’m not sure what is!
The rhythm of a contemplative mind does not develop on it’s own. We must take the time and practice to nurture contemplation and make our minds stay the course. We are by nature distractible. I’m reminded of the character in the movie “Up,” you know the one. The one that yells “squirrel!” during the middle of a conversation.
If contemplation is a worthy endeavor, and I believe it is, then we would do well to study what it is and practice it. Contemplation is best described as the practice of pondering, reflecting, and meditating. The practice of contemplation as discernment came up often in the Old Testament; 168 times in fact, over the course of 18 books, from Genesis to Micah. The word for contemplation in this instance in Hebrew is bîn, pronounced “bene.” There is another beautiful example of contemplation as a people in Nehemiah. The people in the first seven chapters of Nehemiah have seen Jerusalem’s walls inspected, tribes collected, and walls built. They’ve worked under opposition, sometimes with a sword in one hand and building with the other. Now, the work is finished and the prophet Ezra comes to help restore the law. The people gather as one it says, to listen. The Expositor’s Commentary says that Ezra likely was reading at least five hours per day from a platform so they could hear him. Which means the people stood attentively for five hours straining to hear the word of the Lord. They wept in conviction and repentance, but the priests righted their hearts into praise. The culmination of the conviction comes in chapter 8, verse 12. ”And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they understood the words that were declared to them.” They celebrated! They heard, they understood, and then they celebrated! In light of these examples from Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, here is what I think we can do to begin a contemplative rhythm in this Lenten season.
1: Pray for an open heart to understand God’s word. We often will read scripture as if we’re checking off a box for the day. If God’s word is truly alive and active, it will penetrate our hearts. They must be soft and moldable. A good way to start this prayer would be “Lord, you created my heart. Today as I look to you, break down walls I have put up in sin and pride. Open my heart to see you clearly today.”
2: Keep scripture ever before us, both physically and mentally. Consider reviewing the stations of the cross for ideas on praying through the road to the cross. Ponder the emotions and surroundings of Pilate condemning Jesus to die (Luke 23:18-25, but every gospel has it.) Imagine the people crowded around to see the spectacle of Jesus and the condemned criminals at his side. Later, think through Jesus’s exchange with Mary, His mother, as He sees her from the cross. She was there when He took His first breath and witnessed His last. What must she have felt and thought?
3: Contemplate our response to scripture. Do we think deeply enough to ask questions and seek answers? It seems that asking questions about scripture is easy enough but do we allow ourselves the space and time to find the answer? Do we find others that are asking the same questions about scripture and stop there, having found people like us? There are whole commentaries online now, free to anyone who will seek them. Since we have Jesus’s whole story to read and re-read, it’s sometimes easy to see the events of the crucifixion from above, as if we are disconnected from it. Our faith will be tested and get stronger through the fire. What is left is the beauty of a mind and heart aligned to God in ways it couldn’t have been before the test.
4: Engage God in conversations. My daughter recently pointed out that she wondered what God’s handwriting looked like when He wrote the second tablets with the 10 commandments on them. She envisioned God as having perfect script writing. The innocence of the question reminds us to find and embrace the innocence in our dialogue with God. Our prayer time with Him is not for us to have the perfect words or try to sound fancy. He knows us in the depths. He knit us together, and has numbered the hair on our head. He must have a sense of humor if we do, since we are created in His image. Find ways to see His humor.
5: Tell God you love Him. I know it may sound weird at first, like He should know that already, right? I have a few friends that when we get together, we always end our time together saying something like “love you!” I didn’t really grow up with friends saying that so I think it kind of means more now. Saying it to God helps cement the relationship we are cultivating with Him and immediately puts us into a thankful and grateful mindset. It’s hard to stay bitter and mad when you are telling the God of all the universe that you love Him. Imagine Him smiling as you say it.
6: Celebrate when we understand His word. Talk about His work we’re seeing with anyone who will listen. The Israelites listening to Ezra were right to weep in conviction but they were just as right to throw a party when they understood His word! When my kids get an answer right on a test, they do a little hip shake and a fist bump. God’s word is not all easy to understand. We are allowed to celebrate when something finally clicks!
One of my favorite musicians has a couple albums out that are dedicated to the Cross and the Resurrection. There’s a line in one song that puts me in a puddle every time I hear it.
“Daughter, listen, listen. Daughter, listen; He speaks your name.” 1
The words seem to single me out. I take those words as a promise that washes over me. Daughter, listen. He speaks your name too.
1 Andrew Peterson. “Risen Indeed.” Resurrection Letters, Volume I, Centricity Music, 2018.