Spiritual Practices

Throughout the history of Christianity, believers have found certain spiritual practices to be helpful in strengthening their faith. These disciplines often transcend denominational labels or individual church identity. Here are a few such practices we have found to be helpful in understanding:

CONFESSION

It seems you can do just about anything on the Internet. A website called dailyconfession.com invites people to "confess the sins you would never admit to your priest, or your mother for that matter!" It promises anonymity with confessions "shamelessly presented to the entire planet, for the whole world to read! Confess your sin now!"

However curious or bold it may be, the website misses the point on every level. Confession is not anonymous, it's not easy, it's not fun, and it's nothing to make light of. The only thing the website gets right is, yes, we should confess our sins.

Confession often brings to mind a scene from a movie--someone kneeling in a dark confessional booth, whispering reluctantly through a grille to a priest who listens and sternly assigns prayers for absolution. This activity is formally called the "Sacrament of Penance" in the Roman Catholic Church, and while some still call it "confession," many call it "reconciliation"--a term that perhaps best captures the purpose of confession.

The Catholic Church traces the practice of confession to Christ, who after his resurrection told his disciples: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:22-23).

It's from this verse that the Catholic Church derives the authority of a priest to hear the confession of another person. But hearing is different from forgiving.

"No Catholic believes a priest simply as an individual man, however pious or learned, has power to forgive sins," writes Edward Hanna in The Catholic Encyclopedia. "This power belongs to God alone; but he can and does exercise it through the ministration of men."

Hanna continues: "It is not true that for the Catholic the mere 'telling of one's sins' suffices to obtain their forgiveness. Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before."

Most Christians would agree with that, and there's no arguing that we are all called to a higher standard of living. But do we really need to confess our sins? And what's a Baptist to do without a priest to hear confessions in a booth?

The reality is that God knows what we've done; there's no hiding our actions or intentions from God. But spiritually, we need to demonstrate to God, ourselves and sometimes our family and friends that we understand we've sinned, we don't want to sin again, and we are committed not to sin again.

Such an act requires no intermediary. In Baptist theology, every person has direct access to God through prayer. We practice a kind of do-it-yourself confession.

Confession should begin in a spirit of honest sorrow and remorse that moves us toward repentance. Says pastor and author Max Lucado: "Repentance is the decision to turn from selfish desires and seek God. It is a genuine, sincere regret that creates sorrow and moves us to admit wrong and desire to do better."

We may be moved to confession during a time of prayer, or we may be so stirred by our conscience and grief that confession becomes a solitary, purposeful act. There is no litany for confession, but if our sense of conviction and desire for reconciliation are real, the Holy Spirit will guide us--not just in what we say and do at that moment, but in what actions might be taken to reconcile ourselves to those we may have hurt.

While it's unlikely we'll ever see confessionals in a Baptist church, there is a time and place to confess our sins to others. Sometimes a behavior or habit can be so overpowering, and so obviously damaging and dangerous, that we need to confess to others. In doing so, we acknowledge our weakness and ask for the prayer and support of others in overcoming it. As said in James 5:16: "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."

Even in the Catholic Church, most congregations are practicing confession now in the form of face-to-face meetings, and communal reconciliation services are common. They're acknowledging some circumstances require more than just confession, repentance and absolution; counseling and other special help may be needed.

The purpose of public confession is not self-flagellation, humiliation or punishment. The purpose is the same as with private confession--to restore broken relationships with those we have hurt and most importantly with God.

God never leaves us; through our actions, we turn away from Good and God longs for our return. Confession is the first step on the path back to reconciliation and communion.

FASTING

Fasting is a practice foreign to most evangelical Christians. We know it means abstaining from eating and it was practiced in biblical times. But the closest we come to fasting is for purely secular reasons.

When going to the doctor for a blood test, for example, we're instructed to "fast" for a number of hours beforehand. And some people say they are "fasting" to imply a brief diet. We assume the only people still practicing spiritual fasting are monks cloistered in some faraway land.

Fasting has been out of vogue for most of the past 150 years, but it's making a comeback as people of faith seek a deeper, more intense spiritual life. The renewal may be part of a general wave of interest in practices such as meditation that promote a break from our busy, noisy lives. It also may be that our modern obsession with fitness is adding to the interest, although true spiritual fasting is not about physical health.

"Fasting" comes from the Greek word nesteia--a compound of ne, "no," and esthio, "to eat," and the practice is mentioned throughout the Bible. Moses was the first person reported to fast in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus went into the desert and fasted for 40 days, during which time he resisted Satan's temptation to turn stones into bread. References abound, and they help explain the "whys" of fasting:

Leviticus 16:29-30. "This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work . . . because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you." Hebrew scholars tell us that "deny yourself" was synonymous with fasting, and this fast was for spiritual cleansing.

Psalm 35:13. "Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting." Through self-denial, one approaches God in humility and submission.

Isaiah 58:6. "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" Fasting breaks the chains that Satan has on us.

Matthew 17:21. When the disciples were unable to cast a demon out of a child, Jesus said, in a verse that is not in all biblical manuscripts, "This kind (of demon) does not go out except by prayer and fasting." A faith strong enough to cast out demons requires fasting and prayer. It's interesting to note that biblical fasting always occurs with prayer.

Acts 13:2-3. "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'" Through fasting, we're more attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

These Scriptures, and many others, show that fasting provides spiritual cleansing and strengthening. Fasting takes our focus off our physical being and our most primal physical desire--to eat--so we can concentrate on our spiritual being. In this state, it is easier to pray, listen to God's voice and discern God's will.

Many more verses in the Bible point to the occasions for fasting--seeking God's will, intercession, confession and repentance, to receive healing, spiritual deliverance, mourning, seeking protection, needing material sustenance, in time of fear, protection from danger.

There are several types of fasts, all with biblical examples:

  • Partial fast—a restricted diet. In Daniel 1:11-15, Daniel, Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego ate only vegetables and drank only water.
  • Normal fast—abstention from food but not water. While some in the Bible fasted as long as 40 days in this way, one to three days is common today.
  • Absolute fast—abstention from both food and water. Common sense--and doctors--warn that an absolute fast should not exceed three days. While the Bible gives examples of extended absolute fasts, the individuals were always sustained directly by God.
  • Natural/spontaneous fast—abstention from food for extraordinary reasons. We see this when someone is grieving and they lose their appetite, or when they are so caught up in a struggle that they forget to eat.

So when should we fast? The natural/spontaneous fast provides the best answer: When we are directed by the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, fasting is always connected with spiritual turmoil or an anxious heart. It comes naturally during a struggle for wisdom regarding a serious matter. It is not something planned ahead of time, not something to schedule in your daytimer or add to the agenda of a church retreat. As one writer puts it, "It's not something you choose, so much as something that chooses you, because it's that important."

The fast commanded in Leviticus for the Day of Atonement is the only fast recorded in the Bible for a specific day and occasion. That fast accompanied the confession of sin, but the New Covenant in Jesus Christ makes that "scheduled" fast unnecessary.

Like prayer, fasting should be a humble practice. Jesus instructs in Matthew 6:16-18: "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

And with that statement, Jesus answers one last question: What should we do while we are fasting? We are to carry on with our daily routines. In that way, fasting becomes a form of constant prayer.

FORGIVENESS

"Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

How often have we read those words and not really taken in their full meaning. It wasn't until viewing The Passion of the Christ that I fully understood their magnitude. Word became flesh--torn, bloodied, exhausted flesh--in that cinematic portrayal of the horror of crucifixion. And when I heard Jesus utter those words as he hung in agony--well, if he could forgive men for that, is there anything that can be said or done to me that can't be forgiven?

"No" is the only right answer. And yet why do we still hold on to our anger about injustices, some large, but many so small and petty? Why do we let them irritate us? Why do we let them fester? Why can't we do as Christ did and forgive?

The simple answer is our humanity. We are still so far from being like God. We view life and people with clouded, short-sighted eyes, and we react to things that happen to us with selfish hearts and self-centered minds. When we don't forgive, we are saying, "Look at me! Look what they've done to ME!"

God set the standard with the ultimate act of forgiveness--the sacrifice of his Son for our sins. Christ completed his Father's work by forgiving those who tortured and killed him. If we want to be God-like and Christ-like, then we also are to forgive.

Even before his crucifixion, Christ called us to forgiveness. In Matthew, Jesus prayed: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

Later in the same chapter, he instructed his disciples: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." This is the "golden rule" at its most basic: Do unto others (forgive) as you would have them do unto you (forgive).

Jesus taught that forgiveness has no limits. In Matthew 18:21-22, when Peter asked: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?," Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."

It's clear we are commanded to forgive and forgive without limitations. But what is the purpose of forgiveness?

Forgiveness may be the ultimate act of love. It says, "Even though you have done something unlovable, I will set that aside and still love you."

Forgiveness acknowledges our humanity, and that all are flawed and sinful. For every grudge we hold for something done wrong, are we any less guilty?

Forgiveness acknowledges the sovereignty of God. It says only God can judge and so we leave judgment to God.

Forgiveness helps reconcile us to each other. It paves the way for resumption of a loving and caring relationship.

Forgiveness helps reconcile our brothers and sisters to God. When we unbind them from our anger and resentment, we demonstrate the loving nature of God.

However, forgiveness does not mean we condone sin. In Luke 17:3, Jesus says, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him." The person being forgiven must acknowledge his or her actions, repent and strive to do right. As Jesus told the woman caught in adultery: "Go now and leave your life of sin."

Forgiveness is neither an act of self-sacrifice nor a sign of weakness. Rather, it is a statement of positive self-esteem and inner strength. It says: "I will not let this injury define me. I will not be a victim. I am bigger than this."

Forgiveness is realistic and practical. It acknowledges the continued damage caused by anger and the need to settle things in order to move on.

Forgiveness is healthy. Numerous studies around the globe have verified the positive impact of forgiveness on mental and physical health.

Finally, forgiveness is an act of faith. It says we trust God to settle things, to restore us and restore our broken relationships.

Just as we are to forgive, we are to seek forgiveness when we do wrong and humbly accept forgiveness when it is offered. It's bad enough that sin damages relationships, but if we don't accept forgiveness, we prolong and even worsen the damage.

By rejecting forgiveness, we tell the person offering it: "I don't trust you. I don't believe the strength of your love." Just as trusting God to forgive us is an act of faith, so is trusting the capacity of forgiveness in others.

Sometimes, however, our guilt and shame can be so heavy that while others forgive us, we say, "I can never forgive myself." As Christians, we should help lift each other out of the pit of despair and self-loathing by reminding that none of us is perfect, God is still in control and God's love is infinite.

God's mercy and grace are evident in the words of his Son: "Father forgive them."

HOSPITALITY

We've all known someone who is a natural host, who graciously welcomes guests and will drop everything else to dote on them and make them comfortable. Their door is always open, and so is their heart.

These people have what is often called the "spiritual gift of hospitality" because through their natural graciousness they reflect and spread the grace of God. But hospitality is also a spiritual practice to which all are called regardless of whether we are outgoing or shy.

Hospitality comes from the Latin "hospes," which means "guests," and this same root gives us words like hospital, hospice and hotel. In the spiritual sense, hospitality is more than just having the guest room ready. It's making guests feel like they aren't guests at all. It's bringing outsiders into the inside, making newcomers feel like longtime members of the family, team, club, class or congregation.

We get a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of hospitality through the Scriptures. In Leviticus 19:33-34, God told Moses, who in turn told the Israelites: "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt."

Hospitality was important to the functioning of the early Christian church. Worship was often held in homes, and church members would open their doors to traveling missionaries and apostles. More importantly, hospitality was seen as central to Christ-like living. In Romans 12:10-14, Paul instructed: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor . . . contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality."

Hospitality was listed among the key attributes of church leaders. "Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless--not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined" (Titus 1:7-9).

And in 1 Peter 4:8-10, we read: "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms."

Administering God's grace through hospitality is something we can do every day. At work, we can be generous and helpful to coworkers and especially to new employees and guests in the office. Walking downtown, at the mall or at a restaurant, we can help out-of-towners with questions they have about our city, showing them the best of who we are as a community. If we see someone at the grocery store who seems lost in the aisles, we can help them find what they're looking for.

As a church, we have so many opportunities to practice hospitality. It begins with the way we treat each other with respect, concern and love; it continues as we welcome guests and invite them to participate fully in Bible study and worship; and it extends into the community as we minister to the needs of others through our various programs.

Cindy Holtrop, program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Michigan, writes eloquently on the role of hospitality in the modern church:

"Generous, authentic and warm hospitality is life-giving to all who worship with you. And though the gestures are often small, they are still important because they give a significant message to people: You are valued. You are a person of God, and we welcome you in the name of Christ. We want to do everything we can to make you feel at home, so that you will be at home with God and experience the presence of Christ here."

She adds: "When we extend hospitality to one another, the temperature of strangeness, loneliness and alienation between people is lowered. We were once aliens. We were strangers to grace. And now we have been brought close to God through Christ and he now calls us friends. For that reason, we offer hospitality to each other, and we create a welcome space for guests so they meet God and God in us. The hospitality we show is a reflection of God's gracious character."

KEEPING SABBATH

Long before David Letterman made the "Top Ten List" a staple of late-night television, God gave the first Top Ten--carved in stone tablets and carried down from the mountain by Moses. Among the 10, number four--to keep the sabbath--seems straightforward enough. It just means go to church and then take the rest of the day off and relax, right?

Actually, keeping the sabbath is difficult in today's world where activities compete for our time and tempt us away from church, and in a culture that says if you're not busy, then you must be lazy. There's also disagreement about the validity of keeping the sabbath for modern Christians.

 "Sabbath" comes from a Hebrew root that means "to rest, cease, desist, leave off." For the early Israelites, the sabbath was a day of worship and special sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple. The day memorialized the seventh day when God rested as told in the Genesis creation story, and it reminded the Israelites of their deliverance from slavery and of God's special covenant with them.

While the temple activities were important, for the average person the sabbath was a day of rest at home. In a time when work was physical and life was extremely hard, the sabbath gave people physical, mental and spiritual rest.

Modern Jews, like their ancestors, observe the sabbath beginning at sunset on Friday and continuing until sunset on Saturday.

There are several explanations as to how Christians came to worship on Sunday, including memorializing the day of Christ's resurrection. Many historians point to the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity and proclaimed Sunday a holiday. Early Christians, who normally worked on Sunday but met for worship in the early morning or evening, took advantage of the emperor's proclamation and turned Sunday into a Christian sabbath.

Is the sabbath "holy" in and of itself? Some people contend that because it was included among God's moral commandments, it is holy and should be kept separate from all other days. Some say the sabbath was ordained a holy day in the creation story and we are to rest as God rested.

Others argue that while the sabbath does commemorate God's creation and reminds us of his omnipotence, it is no longer a holy day. They point to Jesus, who kept the sabbath as a Jewish tradition but who said in Mark 2:27-28: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath."

Furthermore, they explain that Christ brought a new covenant that frees us from the ancient laws. Rather than having one day a week to rest, we find complete and continuous rest through Christ. They point to Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Whether viewing the sabbath as a true holy day or not, most faith groups agree that it is worthy and wise to stop working for one day a week and be with God in a meaningful way.

Is it possible to keep the Sabbath as it was kept in ancient times? Yes, and some people do, but it is extremely difficult in our culture. It means no working of any kind, including cooking; no traveling; no lighting of fires, which some interpret to include no use of stoves, heaters, internal combustion engines or even electricity.

Then how should we keep the sabbath today? By participating in activities that focus our attention on God and the jewels of God's creation--our family, friends and nature.

  • Gathering in a community of believers--to worship God through hymns, prayer, Bible study, our offerings, communion and fellowship--is a most-worthy act of praise and thanksgiving.
  • Joining family and friends for a meal and fellowship acknowledges God's gift of special individuals who love us and support us.
  • Spending time in nature--whether in some form of recreation or quietly tending a garden--unites us with the miracles of God's creation.
  • Taking a nap and spending time in quiet prayer or reflection rejuvenates our body, mind and spirit. It prepares us to return to work on Monday with attitudes and behaviors that honor God and bear witness to our faith.

While many people are required to work on Sunday, most still have at least one day a week off. Whatever day that is, it too can be set aside as a sabbath. Because in the end, it's not the day of the week that is important; it's how you spend it.

MEDITATION

Meditation is a much-discussed and yet much-misunderstood practice. Many modern Christians scoff at it because of its ties to Buddhism and because it has been embraced by secular spiritualists in the West as a means of "becoming one with the universe."

But meditation has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian faith and thus a legitimate place in the Christian lifestyle as a way of being close to the one true God.

Depending on the Bible translation you read, "meditate" and "meditation" appear throughout the Scriptures. In Genesis 24:63, Isaac "went out to the field one day to meditate," and in Joshua 1:8 it says, "do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it."

The Book of Psalms is thick with references to "meditation," perhaps the most familiar being Psalm 19:14: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer."

In 1 Timothy 4:15, Paul instructs Timothy to "meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all."

In these verses, meditation implies thinking, learning, studying, even praying. But true meditation is much simpler than those practices, and yet its goal is a much deeper communion with God.

The Eastern tradition of meditation, as practiced by Western spiritualists, actually strives to clear the mind of conscious thought. The person meditating sits quietly and concentrates on nothing more than the feeling of air entering and leaving their nostrils. If thoughts begin to form, they refocus on breathing until the distraction goes away. Later when they've mastered the technique, they focus on a single word--a "mantra." By doing so, they block out the rest of the world and reach a deeper level within themselves.

Christian meditation applies the same technique but with a notable difference: Rather than seeking self-centeredness, the goal is God-centeredness. The practice was rediscovered in the 1970s from 14th century monastic writings. Today it often is referred to as "contemplative meditation" and begins with what is called "centering prayer."

Centering prayer begins by finding a still, quiet place. One sits in a comfortable manner with eyes closed and begins thinking about a single sacred word such as Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father, love, peace. Some suggest "maranatha," broken into four evenly paced syllables--ma-ra-na-tha. The word is Aramaic, the language Christ spoke, and it means "Come, Lord Jesus." Paul ends 1 Corinthians with it, and John does the same in Revelation.

The chosen word is recited quietly and continuously but with no effort to think about God, visualize God or talk to God. The purpose of contemplative meditation is to be with God and the Holy Spirit in a still, silent and attentive way, to move beyond all thoughts and just be. If thoughts, even spiritual thoughts, enter the mind, the meditator returns concentration to the single word. A minimum of 20 minutes is recommended, and twice a day--first thing in the morning and then in the afternoon or early evening.

Contemplative meditation has many benefits, but they are personal and can't be easily measured. On a spiritual level, it opens the heart and mind to a union with God that is deeper than thoughts and emotions. On a psychological level, it provides a temporary release from the troubles and stresses we carry around with us. And that release even benefits the physical body. Thomas Keating, a prominent teacher of contemplative meditation, calls these multifaceted benefits "divine therapy."

Contemplative meditation sounds as easy as just sitting down and being still, but it is difficult. The obvious challenge is to find a time and place to be quiet in a culture where we measure success by the tasks we've completed and the conversations we've had. A common pitfall is a desire to evaluate and perfect the technique while meditating, and that is counter-productive. The key to meditation is to clear the mind of all thoughts--including thoughts about the experience.

As pastor and theologian Henri Nouwen is quoted in Renewed for Life: "It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and discover there the small intimate voice saying: 'You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.' Still, if we dare to embrace our solitude and befriend our silence, we will come to know that voice. I do not want to suggest that one day you will hear that voice with your bodily ears. I am not speaking about a hallucinatory voice, but about a voice that can be heard by the ear of faith, the ear of the inner heart."

SEEKING SIMPLICITY

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

The original lyrics to the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts" speak of the freedom that comes with simplicity--achieving a "right" place and discovering "love and delight." It sounds so perfect, so easy, yet our human nature leads us to complicate things.

"Simple Gifts" itself provides a case history. Written in 1848 by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett as an easy-to-learn tune for worship, the song remained unchanged until 1944, when Aaron Copland wove it into his ballet "Appalachian Spring." Then in 1960, Sydney Carter wrote new words and it became the popular hymn "Lord of the Dance."

In the past 40 years, the tune has been stretched far beyond Brackett's intentions. Irish dancer Michael Flatley turned it into a Broadway spectacle, and a rock 'n' roll version became the theme of TV's "American Journal." Countless brides and U.S. presidents have marched to it, and Oldsmobile used it to sell luxury cars. So much for simplicity.

The truth is that simplicity is counter to the American way of life. We're a nation of consumers; our economy is based on consumer growth. We also believe that busy-ness is next to godliness. But the Bible doesn't prescribe that. While the Scriptures don't explicitly say "seek simplicity," that is the message between the lines.

When asked what one must do to be saved, Paul said simply, "Believe in the Lord Jesus" (Acts 16:31). When asked how to live according to God's law and will, Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12: 30-31).

Simple enough, but difficult even in the first century where priorities often leaned toward worldly goods. Jesus warned people then and warns us today of the dangers of a material mindset: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).

That last verse is the key point in seeking simplicity. Wealth and property are not inherently evil, but they easily distract and cause us to lose site of what is most important. Whether we are seduced by gold and gadgets or we just don't trust God to keep us clothed and sheltered, our tendency to accumulate things is damaging. We build up debt, work ourselves to exhaustion and neglect our relationships, health, even our faith. Rather than live in peaceful simplicity, we become consumed by stress and fear.

So how do we free ourselves and find simplicity? It begins with setting our priorities as Christ taught: God first, family and loved ones second. Focusing on these relationships, we should ask serious questions about what we have:

  • Is it really needed or is it just wanted?
  • If it is needed, must it be the newest and best?
  • Is there room for it in our home? Is there room for it in our life?
  • Will it simplify life, or will it create complications?
  • Will having it cause financial hardship and personal stress?
  • Will having it separate us from family?

Similar questions should be asked about our activities, because we can complicate our lives and harm our relationship with God and family by trying to do too much. This can be true in every area of life--from work to community volunteerism to recreation. It's even possible to bury our personal relationships with God and stifle our spiritual growth under the weight of "church work."

Simplifying our lives is an act of unselfish love at every level. Without all the "stuff" that demands our attention, we can give ourselves more completely to God and those who love us. Donating our excess clothing and housewares to a ministry or charity gives others the opportunity to enjoy nice things. Saying no to an event or assignment clears the way for someone else to participate.

When U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong announced he would not ride in the Olympics in Athens, his reasons were right on target. He said he needed to spend time with his children and added, "If I don't have 100 percent motivation for something that's an important event, then I don't want to take somebody else's spot."

Living simply does not imply boring austerity or joyless poverty. The Shakers, for all their famed simplicity, enjoyed a joyful life. Their name was coined by an outsider to describe the singing, dancing and "shaking" that marked their worship. "Simple Gifts," in fact, was written as a joyful dance for worship.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

SINGING

Music is all around us. It's inherent in God's creation. Listen carefully, and you can hear it in the breeze through the trees, the waves breaking on a shoreline, the creaking and shifting of rocks in the mountains, and most certainly in the chirps and calls of birds.

As the hymn says, "All nature sings, and around me rings the music of the spheres."

Just exactly when humans joined this chorus is not completely known. Most likely, music and singing developed alongside language and speaking, but there is a deep emotional quality to singing that sets it apart from speaking.

Think about it: When do you feel like singing? Usually it's when you're jubilant, or when you're sad.

There's something about joy that wells up in us and makes us want to sing. We find ourselves humming, whistling, singing. It may be a favorite hymn, a popular song on the radio or something we create in our head. Likewise, when we're sad, we dip into the well of our memory and pull up a song that consoles us--a hymn that draws us close to faith and hope, or an oldie that reminds us of special people or places.

The Scriptures are full of singing. The most obvious place is in Psalms, a book of songs and prayers largely attributed to King David that expresses the full range of human emotions and most notably praise and thanksgiving. A few examples:

  •  "I will praise God's name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving" (Psalm 69:30).
  • "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth" (Psalm 96:1).
  • "Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs" (Psalm 100:2).

Throughout the Scriptures there are specific instances of singing. When Moses and the Israelites witnessed Pharaoh's armies swallowed up in the Red Sea, they broke into song: "I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation" (Exodus 15:1-2).

When Mary learned she would bear God's Son, her joy was expressed in a song called the Magnificat: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1: 46-47).

Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, said: "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:19-20).

Paul practiced what he preached. When he and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they sang and prayed in their cell until they were freed (Acts 16:24-26).

As Paul and others demonstrate, singing is a natural response to many of the events of our lives, and most importantly, a natural expression of our relationship with God. For that reason, singing is woven into the tapestry of our worship alongside prayer and Scripture study.

So why do many of us leave the joy of singing to the choirs and ensembles? These groups hold a prominent place in our worship because of their special gifts, but aren't we all called to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord?"

While each of us is born with the desire and instinct to sing, something happens in our childhood years. Self-consciousness creeps into our psyche, and we become aware of our own voice compared to others. Those of us lacking perfect pitch and a strong dose of extroversion tend to hide our God-given instrument. We only sing when we're alone, and in church we shyly whisper or hum. The desire is still there, but we hold ourselves back.

There's a wonderful scene in the movie "My Best Friend's Wedding" where the bride-to-be is goaded into singing by her fiancé's ex-girlfriend. She stands up and sings with all her heart, and while she is painfully off-key, she is oblivious to her shortcomings and the stares of others. Her heart is overflowing with love for her beloved, and her face glows with unabashed joy. So too it should be when we sing words of love and praise to our Lord.

The truth is we don't know if Moses, David, Mary or Paul were good singers. All we know is they loved the Lord and sang praises without hesitation.

We'd like to believe the angels who sang in the heavens above Bethlehem when Jesus was born formed a choir of pure perfection. As for the shepherds who visited the stable that night, I have a mental picture of them walking back to the pasture singing a reprise of the angels' hymn. Filled with joy and wonder, I believe they couldn't help but sing.

And what did they sound like, these common men? I'm guessing they might have been a bit hoarse and crusty, unpolished and imperfect. I'm guessing they sounded a lot like you and me. 

STUDY OF SCRIPTURE

Imagine visiting a city in a foreign country without having taken the time to learn anything about its history, traditions, laws, customs, attractions worth seeing, places to avoid.

You'd probably stumble into some enjoyable experiences and real "Kodak moments," but you'd probably also get lost, perhaps even get into trouble, and most likely leave disappointed and wondering what you missed.

Now, imagine living without studying the Scriptures, without opening the Bible and preparing yourself for life's journey. Odds are you'd have some wonderful and meaningful experiences, but you'd also spend a lot of time lost, confused and struggling without direction or understanding.

The Bible is God's "guide book" for our lives. The old children's song says "the Bible is a story book," and that is true, but in those stories we learn how God loves and works with God's people and how we are to love and live with each other. The Bible teaches us about love, wisdom, worship, faith and ultimately God's authority.

The Bible itself--in the Old and the New Testament, in the words of the prophets, psalmists, Christ, the disciples and apostles--explains why we are to study God's word, including:

  • 1 Peter 2:2. "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation." Just as a baby can't grow without nourishment, neither can Christians grow without spiritual nourishment, and the Bible is the best source for that.
  • John 14:15. "If you love me, you will obey what I command." God's commandments for how we should live are in the Bible.

Other reasons for study include:

  • To discern God's will.
  • To avoid error and false teaching.
  • To teach and witness to others.
  • As an expression of love for God and his word.

It's easy in a church with wonderful preaching, well-prepared Sunday School teachers and other forums to become lazy about scriptural study. It's easy to sit back and listen to what others have studied, think about it and even join in the discussion, and consider ourselves well-studied too. But Christ has called each of us to a personal relationship, and while listening and participating in group study is great, we should never let that take the place of a personal quest for wisdom.

Some may find the Bible intimidating. After all, it is massive. It's full of ancient history, difficult words and grammar, concepts that are complicated and often difficult to understand, and quite often, messages that are convicting.

But the same God who created us has given each of us the capacity to understand Scripture in a meaningful way. The Bible is relevant on so many different levels--all the levels at which individuals think and live--and there is meaning for everyone at every stage of our lives. What's more, a passage read and studied yesterday may have a whole new meaning for us at a later date as our faith matures and as we experience more.

As with any kind of study, Bible study is enhanced with the comments of others. Their insights and opinions provide a counterpoint and help us form our own thoughts, which may be similar or completely different.

As Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said: "Always make it a practice to stir your own mind thoroughly to think through what you have easily believed. Your position is not really yours until you make it yours through suffering and study. The author or speaker from whom you learn the most is not the one who teaches you something you didn't know before, but the one who helps you take a truth with which you have quietly struggled, give it expression and speak it clearly and boldly."

With the resources available today, nobody can say they can't study because they can't find information. Go to your Internet browser and type the words "Scripture study" or "Bible study," and you'll find millions of websites that offer on-line Bibles in every possible translation, verse-by-verse expositions, ready-made studies on entire books, even chat rooms for Bible study groups.

Don't have a computer? The Wilshire Library has plenty of resources, as do public libraries and bookstores.

There also are numerous resources and guides for how to study the Scriptures, and that may be a good place to start--to get organized. We all learn in our own unique ways, and so there is no right or wrong way to study. However, you should keep four guidelines in mind:

  • Approach the Scriptures with an open mind and honest desire for truth.
  • Respect the Bible as the inspired word of God.
  • Believe the Bible can be understood and has relevance in your life.
  • Believe the Holy Spirit will help you understand it.

The rest is up to you. Unlike in school, scriptural study is not a practice that requires you to keep up or compete with the class. There are no tests, no grades, no graduation. Rather, scriptural study should be a lifelong pursuit of meaning that results in a meaningfully pursued life.