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Refreshing the Spirit

Richard and Nathan Foster share a laugh at Wycliffe College.
Sue Careless

A trio of writers offering two generations’ reflections on spiritual formation recently gathered in Toronto to discuss their experiences in building spiritual exercises, knowing God’s love, and cultivating the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Richard Foster, his son, Nathan, and Sharon Garlough Brown gave keynote addresses to about 170 participants in a Refresh! conference May 6-7 at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.

Thirty-eight years ago Richard Foster published his landmark work, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, which explored a dozen spiritual practices for the Christian life. Christianity Today named Celebration of Discipline one of the top ten books of the 20th century and it has sold more than 1 million copies. Foster recovered a Protestant appreciation for the ancient practices of the Church. The book examines the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting, meditation, and study; the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service; and the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

Now a new generation of writers has entered the field of spiritual formation, including Nathan Foster and Garlough Brown. Nathan Foster decided to spend a year trying to live by the disciplines his father had written about. He anticipated one month per discipline but the project took four years. Out of his experience came a spiritual memoir: The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (Baker, 2014).

Garlough Brown took a different approach. She also had grown up on Celebration of Discipline and had served, with her husband, as a pastor, spiritual director, and retreat leader in England, Scotland, Michigan, and Oklahoma. But instead of writing a treatise or a memoir, she wrote the novel Sensible Shoes (InterVarsity, 2013) and its sequel, Two Steps Forward (InterVarsity, 2015). Her novels follow four different women with different emotional baggage as they meet with each other and their spiritual director at a Christian retreat.

When the three authors addressed the same conference, a cross-generational dynamic emerged. The first evening Richard Foster spoke, then Nathan interviewed his father; the next evening, Nathan Foster spoke and Richard interviewed his son.

‘Start Small, But Do Start’

In one of their dialogues, Nathan asked his father, “What do you say to people in the midst of a big problem?” Richard replied: “Learn to be still and wait upon the Lord.” He compared faith to a car. “Sometimes you can’t put it in drive but don’t put it in reverse. Put it in neutral and wait on the Lord.”

He noted how in both the biblical narrative and today, God often gives his followers a promise, which is promptly followed by a problem. God also gives a provision to overcome that problem and fulfill that original promise.

Richard offered general advice about spiritual exercises, saying that while they do not earn us merit points with God, they can help us grow in grace.

“Start small, but do start,” he said. “Start right where you are in the hidden corners of life. Then watch how God uses the physical world to mediate his grace.”

We’re not merely to wait for virtues like purity or humility to descend upon us. There are things we can do that will train us in these virtues.

“We’re unkind to people when we’re in a rush,” he said. “We need to learn to appreciate the slow work of God so we can come into rhythm with God’s eternal patience.”

Knowing Our Belovedness

Nathan warned that doing spiritual exercises could actually make us worse off, rather like the Pharisees. We need to ask, Who are we laying our lives before? He said that too often Christians perceive God through a false lens as a “boss or judge or a cold, detached parent.” Many Christians do not know at an emotional level that they are really loved by God. Yet spiritual disciplines should be an active response to God’s abundant love.

“We need an awareness of our belovedness,” he said. “If spiritual practices don’t lead us to grace and freedom then we shouldn’t do them. It is not a question of mastering them but of being mastered by God. Potentially the most honest relationship we could ever have would be with God.

“Take your everyday life and offer it to God,” he added. “Be still and present before God. Don’t fret over what you can’t do. Find a pace you can live with and keep going. Don’t add on too much. And ask yourself: What did I learn about God from this practice and what did I learn about myself?

Cultivate the Spirit’s Fruits

Garlough Brown stressed that spiritual exercises take intentionality and practice and that the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, and peace need to be cultivated. “We can partner with the Spirit.”

She said false humility or pusillanimity simply says I can’t, while true humility says, I can’t in my own strength, but God can. She quoted C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Pusillanimity is a “smallness of soul, a faint-heartedness that shrinks back and sees only oneself.” It is a chronic sense of inadequacy, a despair over one’s weaknesses and limitations that is self-focused and self-absorbed. We are to be neither shrinking in fear nor puffed up with pride, but convinced that “God is good and God is for us and will enable us to do his will.”

We need to see ourselves and God clearly, knowing like Paul “we have this treasure in earthen vessels,” and that “apart from God I can do nothing.”

“I want to be humble without being humbled,” she said. “I want control over how I’m humbled. Pride is rooted in control while humility is rooted in trust in God. The glory of God is best glimpsed through our weakness.”

In cultivating the discipline of service to others, Garlough Brown said, “We can only offer to others what we have received but we’ve been extravagantly loved and served.”

To illustrate this, Garlough Brown had the conferees imagine Jesus kneeling before them and washing their feet. Then we were to imagine Jesus kneeling and washing the feet of the person we “find most difficult to love and serve.” Then Jesus rises and hands us the towel, she said, so that we might wash the feet of someone “who has made life a trial for us.”

She then challenged the audience to consider if there was “any concrete act of humility, love and service that God is calling you to undertake in love for Christ.”

From Obedience to Relaxation

Later in a workshop Garlough Brown described how as a child she had “lived in a box of obedience.” She was awakened to faith in college and drove herself to be the perfect Christian until she realized that she was “addicted to being useful and productive.” It was only when she faced a three-year period when she was not employed that she admitted that without her professional roles, she did not know who she was.

She sought a spiritual director who told her, “You have tried so hard to do things well for God. Practice relaxing in his love and grace and celebrate God’s love for you.”

Gradually she came to appreciate that “I’m the beloved of God.” Rather than seeing herself as a conduit through which God’s love could pour through to others (a conduit she describes as often dried up in all her anxious busyness), she realized she needed to think of herself more as a calm reservoir filled with God’s love that could spill over to others. “I had to first be at rest in his love.”

When asked how to handle the tough thorns and problems we encounter in life, Garlough Brown suggested giving yourself permission to grieve to God, to lament. She advised praying and asking: “If you are not going to remove this thorn, then how will you reshape me? Bring me to a place of rest. What do I need to learn from this so I can move on? How is God with me in this, making his presence known?”

Thorns that stay in place, she said, can give us a greater dependency on God and a closer intimacy with him.


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