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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Study

The original article was posted here. While the series was originally addressed to youth workers, the concepts apply to all believers.


This is the sixth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Full disclosure: It took me 17 years to get my Master’s degree in Theology. 
There, I said it. Not only did I take an outrageous amount of time to complete my studies, I even had to have my faculty advisor plead my case before the Academic Senate to receive my degree! I used to joke that after dealing with me that this particular institution had to create what I referred to as “Kelly’s Law.” Now they require that graduates have to complete their degrees within 10 years of when they start!
What took me so long, you may be asking? Life. I started my graduate studies during my first year working full-time for Young Life. They had a fantastic program that allowed their staff to take seminary courses as “intensives” (usually two weeks of lectures for four hours per day, with lots of pre-reading before and research papers after) that worked toward a degree. Naturally, the hope was that at some point the Young Life staffer would take some time off and go to seminary full-time to finish before Jesus returned!
However, two roadblocks impeded this plan: I got busy and distracted with my job, and I discovered that seminary is expensive. Many of my colleagues were understandably daunted by these two factors, and did not finish. I was able to keep plugging along with one to two classes per year, and somewhere in my late thirties realized I needed to focus and finish up. 
I tell you all of that to say: I know your pain. I know how incredibly full your lives already are with planning youth group, writing Sunday school lessons, organizing camps, recruiting leaders, sending out newsletters, returning phone calls, maybe even meeting with an actual student, talking to parents, attending sporting events, going to the bathroom…the list goes on and on. It seems unfathomable to pile on one other (large) commitment. But I can tell you with great confidence, it’s so worth it!
Richard Foster says this of the discipline of study:
“The apostle Paul tells us that we are transformed through the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). The mind is renewed by applying it to those things that will transform it. ‘Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8). The discipline of study is the primary vehicle to bring us to think about these things. Therefore, we should rejoice that we are not left to our own devices but have been given this means of God’s grace for the changing of our inner spirit.” (p. 62, The Celebration of Discipline)
Foster then goes on to say unless we integrate study into lives of church attendance, service, and devotion, we will remain unchanged. Why? “Because [we] have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study. Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free.
I can verify these wise words. I have always loved serving in youth ministry, and have had many a life-changing experience with students. However, wise counsel from one of my mentors continually rings in my head: “You can’t take people any further than you have gone yourself.” Certainly one could think that by working with teenagers that you only need a college education at most to stay ahead of them. Think again. I am so grateful for my seminary education, and more importantly, for the tools that education gave to me in terms of exegesis, hermeneutics, homiletics, and just plain old good study habits. For example, in preparing a Bible study for students, it could be tempting to rely on past lessons that have worked. But because of the discipline of study, I have grown to enjoy the opportunity to reflect on and explore a given text or topic more deeply. For as Richard Foster says, Reflection brings us to see things from God’s perspective. In reflection we come to understand not only our subject matter, but ourselves.I sometimes think I’m the one who has benefited far more from being in youth ministry than any of my students have. The discipline of study has brought me to richer places of experience and understanding of the love, grace, truth, and beauty of God.
There is not room here in this short article to break down all the aspects of the spiritual discipline of study. I heartily recommend Foster’s chapter on this particular discipline for a more expansive explanation. However, it is important to define the difference between the discipline of meditation (which I examined earlier here) and the discipline of study. Foster keeps it simple:
Meditation is devotional; study is analytical. Meditation will relish a word; study will explicate it. Although meditation and study often overlap, they constitute two distinct experiences. Study provides a certain objective framework within which meditation can successfully function.” (p. 64)
With that distinction in mind, and in light of my own experience in youth ministry, I will profile the three most important study practices that I have grown from:
  1. Education. As I mentioned earlier, though it took me most of my twenties and all of my thirties to complete, I am grateful for my seminary education. I understand that this is a remarkable privilege to have the access, opportunity, and fiscal means to pursue this education, and not something easily accessed by some. However, with the advent of online education, if you are not located near a reliable institution (an entire article could be written about what I mean about “reliable”!), work with other pastors and mentors whom you trust to locate a good online or extension program in order to get started.
  2. Discussion. Too much input without output leads to stagnation. You can only read so much without processing it with others. This is my only caveat regarding online education: classroom interaction was pivotal to my seminary experience. As Foster describes it, “Often my students and I will read from Plato or St. Augustine and have only a fragmentary grasp of the meaning or significance of what we have read. But when we gather for discussion, debate, and Socratic dialogue, insights emerge that would never have come without this exchange.” Even if you feel that graduate level studies are not an option, I know fellow youthworkers who gather together to read and discuss a book of theology in order to engage in lifelong learning and “iron sharpening iron” sorts of conversations.
  3. Reading. I will get somewhat opinionated here. There are a whole lot of “Christian books” out there, and many of them fall into the realms of romantic fiction, lifestyle advice, and general Bible study. I had a colleague challenge our congregation to read “not a Christian book, but a book about God once a year,” encouraging us to not pick up a superficial or devotional book (those have their place), but instead a book that is more rigorous, requiring concentration, time for comprehension, and maybe frequent dips into the dictionary to understand what is written! For example, early in my seminary years I started the habit of picking up every commentary written by John Stott. His books challenged me to work through scripture in a far deeper way than I had during my young Christian days. His writings helped me to define my personal ethics and strategically think through the day-to-day practice of my faith. Other mentors launched me into the works of classic Christian literature. Books like The Confessions of St. AugustineThe Practice of the Presence of God, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Table Talks, Wesley's sermons, Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and certainly all the powerful works of C.S. Lewis, are a great place to start. From there, you will develop a discerning palate for other authors who make your brain hurt!
This morning at church I read these verses:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19: 7-11)
Rather than take the psalmist’s word for it, we are called and beckoned by God to dig deeper and know the truths of these words for ourselves through sustained and deliberate study. Youth ministry is a challenging and intense calling, and we need all of God’s wisdom and resources in order to live out lives of integrity and enlightenment in front of our young people, their friends and families. Trust me—pursuit of study really helps you get there.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/study-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.5AGaI6Yu.dpuf

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Worship

Here's the fifth article in a twelve-article series based on the disciplines described by Richard Foster in his classic book from the seventies, The Celebration of Discipline. I adapted the ideas and content for the 21st century, especially targeting those who work with youth. But I believe everyone can benefit from practicing these disciplines. Give it a spin and see for yourself.

Spiritual Disciplines: Worship

We have all landed our jobs in different ways as youth pastors. Personally, I attended a church for eight years while I was on staff with Young Life, and as I decided to move on from YL, I was asked to plant the youth ministry at the church. Thus I had experienced life in this church as a member and lay leader for quite awhile before being hired onto the staff.
Frankly, in many ways the transition was a rude awakening. Previously I had absolutely loved attending every Sunday – the teaching was solid, the singing and sharing fed my soul, and the friendships were deep. I actually entered a season of mourning (unexpectedly) after the move. No longer were Sundays purely Sabbath for me. Instead, I entered what I would call the “twilight zone” for pastors, where we are invited to worship with our church family, yet also work at our place of employment. Huh??
Put another way, when friends asked me what it was like to move from active member to staff pastor, I said that I sort of felt like Jesus in Mark 5 when he was on the way to visit Jairus’ daughter. Despite being in the middle of a huge crowd, he felt the power go out of him and asked, “Who touched me?” when the hemorrhaging woman reached at his cloak. Not to put myself on the same level of Jesus (of course!), but Sundays at church included many individual encounters like that; nearly every person needed something from me—a hug, a question answered, a prayer, a comment. This caught me completely by surprise! I am not complaining; I’m simply describing my experience. But I was completely exhausted at the end of the day.
I had no idea what to do. I very much wanted and needed to worship with my church, but I cannot deny that I struggled greatly in learning how to shut everything out that was related to my job at church and enter in to worship. To quote Doug Lawrence from his article “4 Reasons Why Pastors Can’t Worship“:
Pastors have a lot on their minds and some of those things prevent them from fully engaging with the act of worship.
Lawrence goes on to describe some of those things: part of their job as worship leader is to sense the “spiritual temperature” during the service; pastors are often high strung (!) so they are aware of every detail and distraction; pastors want to be liked so they are attentive to the responses (or lack thereof) of those in the room; and (my favorite), we often develop a “been there, done that” mentality.
I am sure as you read this that you could add in several other variables that speak to your own situations. In smaller churches, the pastor has to lead worship, mow the lawn and restock the toilet paper! Sometimes youth workers are so busy running the youth programs that they will miss services because they are leading Sunday school with their students. Often those involved with youth wear other hats in church, playing music or singing on the worship team, offering an extra hand in the nursery, coordinating parking in between services… The list could go on. What this adds up to is that your “cloak” gets touched in multiple ways, your energy is drained and your focus gets distracted as you come to enter worship.
I am sure I do not need to tell you that that is a dangerous place to be in. Intimacy with God is not only our deepest longing; it is also the wellspring from which we are to draw our capacity for ministry and service. If we allow that well to run low, or even worse, go dry, we risk burnout and depression, among other things.
Thus I am motivated to write these monthly articles on spiritual disciplines. I have learned most of my lessons the hard way, and I would love to redeem my mistakes, at least in part, by sharing some of those lessons and giving others the opportunity to avoid them. If I was meeting with you in person, I would grab your shoulders at this point in the conversation and say, “You must learn how to fight for your own space to worship God!
So where do we begin, as people who are employed by the church, in learning how to worship without distraction? Let’s start with Henri Nouwen, the wise Catholic priest and writer:
Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.
Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.” (emphasis mine)
Those two brief paragraphs can be life-changing if you take them to heart. When I first read them, years ago, it was like a giant bell gonged in my head. I have given my whole ministry life over to discipleship—I love meeting with students for Bible study, organizing camps for them to spend time building their faith, and creating service projects that stretch them to apply their young faith in new ways.
But if I do not practice personal discipline of the kind that Nouwen describes here, the discipleship I so desperately want to cultivate in others cannot be maintained. Certainly, many of these spiritual disciplines are lived out privately in personal devotion. But as Christians we are called to weekly corporate experience with his Bride, the church, and this should not be sacrificed as we lead others in it week after week.
In fact, we need to reorient our priorities and perspective. Pastors are not only supposed to plan the services and lead the worship, they are also called to be the lead worshippers! What a grand privilege.
Now that does not require you to have the best voice or most demonstrative actions. Understood simply, it simply means we must flesh out the things we teach.
Before I go further, I want to be practical. Do not feel pressure to have a mountaintop experience every Sunday. Understand that especially if you are newer to your vocation and calling, what I am describing often takes years of experience to figure out. And let’s be honest, there are some Sundays where you are wiped out from an especially rambunctious group of students or a conversation that went sour. Come to God as you are, in complete honesty and confession. Enter the sanctuary expectantly, knowing that God will be there in the midst of His people.
In order to grow as a “lead worshipper,” allow me to share three practical things that I have discovered:
  1. Practice Sabbath diligently. I found that the best day for me to take Sabbath was on Saturday. By taking a day of rest the day before a full day of services and youth activities, I was rested and able to engage most fully in the wide spectrum of things that can happen on any given Sunday. Regardless of what day you take Sabbath, do your absolute best to come to Sunday rested and ready to serve and worship.
  2. Work with the other staff to protect each other. Talk this over with the rest of the staff as openly as you are able. While it may seem a little forbidding to admit that Sundays can be difficult for you, it can also create freedom in your communication. I know of one colleague who comes in just a few minutes late to the final service and goes up into the balcony for the majority of the service to be able to let down and enter into worship. She does this with the support of her senior pastor.
  3. Visit other churches on occasion, or perhaps regularly. Over the years I have had many pastor friends slide into Saturday night services at a nearby church to freely sing and be encouraged by the teaching of another pastor. Not only is it valuable to intentionally experience other forms of worship, it helps you avoid the “been there, done that” syndrome as you worship somewhere that you don’t know the order of worship and feel responsible for what is going on. It took some practice, but I learned to look forward to visiting other churches as a relatively anonymous participant.
I will finish with this brief passage from one of the psalms of ascent (120-134) as our ancestors entered worship at the temple in Jerusalem:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. (Psalm 122:1-9)
May we each enter worship as his servants and ministers, and never reach the bottom of the bountiful gifts of His presence and blessing as we share in worship with His people week after week.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/worship-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.gLJZNU1L.dpuf

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Prayer

At the end of September I decided to slowly re-release twelve articles I wrote in 2012 on spiritual disciplines for youth workers. Never fear, the ideas work for everyone! Just apply the examples to your own context. 

The original link is found here, and if you scroll to the bottom you can find all twelve articles. May this be useful in some way. 

This is the fourth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Say the word “prayer” to a youth worker, and I’m sure a slide show of images and emotions flood your mind. The spectrum probably runs from unspeakably sublime to the utterly mundane. I am reminded of praying under a full moon on a granite peak in British Columbia with a dozen juniors and seniors on a backpacking trip; the moonlight radiated off the bare rock in such a way that we were all bathed in a silvery glow. Our prayer time was so profound I can still remember its intensity over 20 years later. Yet prayer with youth also conjures up memories (nightmares?) of being a camp speaker for 300 junior highers, and telling them about Christ’s passion on the cross. With deep emotion and a grave demeanor, I called them to pray and consider the sacrifices of our Lord. In silence so wide we could hear a pin drop…a boy let out a massive fart, and let’s just say, the moment was lost!
Because of youth ministry, I have been laid out on my face before the Lord in desperation and fear. I have stomped through the snow in fury, shaking my fist at His silence. I have wept at His beauty and grandeur in hearing my students worship. I have shown up to a prayer meeting and fallen asleep because I have pushed myself too hard for too long. In any and all situations, prayer is an integral part of youth ministry. Whether we feel like it or not.
This is the fourth in a series of twelve articles on spiritual disciplines for youth workers. The twelve disciplines were chosen according to those examined in Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth. While each discipline contains particular challenges in being lived out, I would venture to say that I have found none of them more demanding than that of prayer. As Oswald Chambers, a speaker, teacher and missionary of unique insight once said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” If you really want to learn to be a good youth worker, spend less time trying to keep up with pop culture and more time with Jesus. Then, and only then, will you have what it takes to go long-term.
Countless volumes on prayer have been written, and one need only turn to the Book of Psalms to get started on the spiritual discipline of prayer for intimate communion with Christ. What could I possibly add to that? I will only share a few of my own lessons learned from prayer specifically as a youth worker, and hope that you will be encouraged.
I find that my own prayer needs as a youth worker have tended to fall, by and large, into three categories:
  1. Prayers for my students and their families.
  2. Prayers for more: more leaders, more money, more time, more energy, more kids to sign up for camp…more more more!
  3. Prayers for wisdom beyond my years.

Prayers for my students and their families.

Early in my career, all the needs of all my kids seemed like an almost insuperable burden. So many needs expressed by kids combined with so many glaring problems evident to me added up to a huge pile of worry. Sadly, I tried to carry those worries on my back. I misunderstood the implications of the famous words by Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Rather than think it is your job to carry the burdens of those many kids around you, entrust them to the broad shoulders of our Lord. I learned how to surrender it all, every day, at God’s feet. In fact, in the past few years, my prayers have become simpler: God knows what each person needs, far better than I ever will. So rather than recount all the ways a young person (or parent, or leader, or teacher, or whoever!) needs the Lord’s help, I simply say their name and commit them to Christ’s care. In the last year or so, I’ve picked up this practice described in the devotional Common Prayer:
Consider creating a space where you can get on your knees in the “secret chamber” and be with God. A friend from Brazil started a tradition of tacking prayers on her wall, so she could pray simply by looking at the walls and remembering the needs of her neighborhood and all the prayers God has answered.
I’ve listed particular students’ names on my “wall” both from long ago and right now whom God has put on my heart to pray for.

Prayers for more.

This is not just the dilemma of youth workers, but of just about every godly servant. But I have especially found youth ministry to be chronically under-funded and under-supported. As I raised money for Young Life, recruited (begged?) youth leaders for the fall, or tracked down gang members for camp, I often felt squeezed for (and tapped out of) resources. But whenever I felt at a loss, I call upon these words from Psalm 50:10-12:
For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it. 
I firmly believe that God just shakes his head at us as we stumble around, trying to do everything on our own, waiting to pray and ask Him for help as our last resort. Learn to pray first, and always. As I pray, my eyes are opened wider to his imagination and provision. God is always speaking to us, and we only miss hearing Him when we do not listen. The truth of this simple line has astounded me as I have taken it seriously:
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires. (Psalm 37:4)
In plenty and in want, pray first and foremost for MORE of Christ and he will happily answer that prayer!I have grown most in this practice by praying the Psalms. My favorite resources for growing in my understanding and enjoyment of the Psalms have come through reading How to Read the Psalms by Tremper Longman and God’s Prayer Book by Ben Patterson.

Prayer for wisdom beyond my years.

Though I am now at the age where I envisioned as a young youth worker that I would finally be “wise,” I know better than I ever have that I am utterly dependent on the wisdom of God for every decision and every responsibility placed before me. Fortunately, there is not enough room here to recount all of my foolish decisions, both great and small, that could have been avoided had I spent more time praying and less time panicking.
But one example stands out. I spent my first two years on Young Life staff (1984-1985) helping to get three junior high “Wyld Life” clubs started in town. It was a time of surprising, Spirit-filled success, and unfortunately, I took myself far too seriously. In approaching the fourth school, I threw up a quick prayer beforehand, gave my “spiel” to the principal, shared about our success at three other schools and our current work in the local high schools, then smiled and waited for the same results we had seen elsewhere.
The principal thanked me for the clear and enthusiastic presentation and told me she would contact us within the week. I did not know that as she closed the door she picked up the phone and called every other secondary-school principal in the district—eight in all—and scolded each one for allowing campus access to Young Life in violation of district policy.
While her interpretation of campus access policy was debatable, all the principals retreated immediately, deciding that our presence on campus was not worth arguing about. In one hour, I single-handedly lost our campus access for three new junior-high clubs and our five longstanding high-school Young Life clubs! My arrogance and lack of humble prayer before God still shames me. Fortunately, this event literally drove me to my face before God, seeking after His wisdom and insight. I am grateful for a hard lesson back in those early years of ministry.
As youth workers we will be thrown into many incredible and difficult situations. Just admit it NOW that you have no idea what to do! Instead, constantly consult with our Lord.
Don’t forget what I mentioned at the beginning as our highest priority, especially when it comes to prayer: intimate communion with God. As Richard Foster says, “All who have walked with God have viewed prayer as the main business of their lives.” May you discover this as well!
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/prayer-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.ERiOkp3V.dpuf

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Meditation

Starting at the end of September, I decided to start reposting a series of articles I wrote for the Center for Youth Ministry Training on the spiritual disciplines. Here's the original link, and at the bottom are the links for all twelve articles.
Since I wrote this in 2012, I would say that I am still learning this discipline. My life continues to be full of good and demanding things, but in the midst of it all, I really try to consistently carve out space in my life to listen for God. 
I purposely posted the image of a candle because of a great chapter on candle-lighting from Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. She says, "Candles seem to create peace. You don't find candles lit in frenetic house; you find them lit in house where people are trying to pay attention." May you make the time to meditate on and with God!
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
I started working with teenagers when I was a senior in college, volunteering with Young Life. When I went to visit my kids at school during their lunch break, sometimes the campus security would bark at me, “Get to class!” at the end of the period, thinking I was a student there. I scurried off on my bike and went back to my college classes, giggling.
Perhaps I was a few years older than the students I worked with, but I was still very young in terms of my development. I had endless energy and could work for days on end without real rest, staying up late to finish papers, waking up early to grab breakfast with a friend before class, and of course going non-stop on the weekends. I was constantly scrambling to cover all my bases, and somehow, everything seemed to get done.
Unfortunately, I kept up this pattern well after college graduation, even as I started working with Young Life vocationally. At the outset I breathlessly told a friend, “I can’t believe I’m getting PAID to do this!” My excitement for the tasks before me seemed to have no bounds. I maintained a constant pace of contact work with students, meetings with leaders, fundraising and administration, with some brief moments with friends squeezed in. My weekends were crammed full with various excursions, high school football games, church, and more meetings.
Regardless of my enthusiasm, this all came down crashing on me three years in. It started one day in the office, when I was alone, and I burst into tears. I could not figure out why I was crying, but I couldn’t stop. I pulled myself together, afraid someone would walk in on me, but that night the same feelings bubbled up in my apartment. A cloud hung over me as I tried to keep galloping through my tireless schedule. In a meeting with my pastor, when I told him what was happening, he ordered me to take a week off, right then and there. His family was heading out of town and he handed me the keys to his house. “Go on vacation for a week. Everyone will be fine without you. Don’t give out the phone number (this was in the days of landlines) and just get some rest.”
I numbly nodded my head and agreed to his prescription. I crawled into bed and slept for two days straight. I was completely overworked and exhausted, and it was purely my fault. As I emerged out of the fog, I realized that I had come to neglect healthy boundaries and self-discipline, all in the name of serving God. I was falling into depression. Something had to change.
Brennan Manning had just come on the scene and someone had given me his book The Lion and the Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. I peeled open the cover in between tears (I was still crying at the drop of a hat at this point) and read these words on the first page: “Religion is not a matter of learning how to think about God, but of actually encountering Him.”
In an instant I immediately knew what was wrong: I had left God in the dust of my unrelenting schedule and lost sight of my purpose. As the psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.”
I needed a life of Sabbath, rest, reading and prayer, where I wasn’t driven by adrenaline and compulsion, but by a sense of calling and transformation. In a nutshell, I needed to grow up and anchor my life in intimacy with my Lord rather than my own enthusiasm.
Where does one begin? I suggest that it starts with learning the spiritual discipline of meditation. As Richard Foster says in his classic The Celebration of Discipline, this means,
listening to God’s word, reflecting on God’s works, rehearsing God’s deeds, ruminating on God’s law, and more. In each case there is stress upon changed behavior as a result of our encounter with the living God. 
While we could spend the rest of our lives mastering this discipline, he saves the kicker for last: “Repentance and obedience are essential features in any biblical understanding of meditation.” Ooof! I am still convicted as I read those words. Meditation is not simply sprinkling a few minutes of reading and prayer onto my already packed schedule. Meditation requires that I come to a grinding halt on a regular basis, listen, pray, listen some more, contemplate, then if needed, repent and change course.
What is most challenging in all of that is cultivating the capacity to truly listen. After all, as we learn from the lyrical story of Elijah’s encounter with God’s “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19, God usually does not demand our attention like gale-force winds, earthquakes and fires do; rather, he is often the gentle whisper that requires focus, consistent pursuit and ongoing intimacy.
My first practical change as I emerged from that depressing crash all those years back was to commit to taking a Sabbath. I set aside Saturdays for rest and reflection. If I knew I had to be out of town for a camp or event, I adjusted my schedule accordingly, and scheduled another day that week. Previously, I waited until I hit the complete exhaustion stage before taking a day off. Now I realized I needed to consistently stop for rest and reflection, regardless of how many “shoulds” were competing for my attention.
Then I committed to consistent devotional reading, which then took me into reflection and prayer. As Foster says, “In meditation we are growing into what Thomas a Kempis calls ‘a familiar friendship with Jesus.’” Even better, he adds, “The perpetual presence of the Lord (omnipresence, as we say) moves from a theological dogma into a radiant reality.” Who can turn that invitation down?!
Make no mistake, I’m not saying we should try to develop some buddy-buddy, toss-a-softball-around relationship with Jesus. This is more like what Peter, James and John encountered in Mark 9 in the Transfiguration. When we contemplate the awe and power of who Jesus is in its fullness, coupled with our access to such intimacy, we will be forever changed.
Here is the goal, again according to Richard Foster:
What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.
Unlike eastern meditation, which seeks detachment from the world and its worries, we seek detachment and attachment–to Christ.
Since you only learn to meditate by meditating, start by committing to its practice. I recommend setting up a routine, which is needed to develop any other personal discipline like exercise, playing an instrument, or creating art. I was an English major in college and still occasionally aspire to being a writer. In order to do so, I have followed the advice of the writer Anne Lamott in her brilliant book on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“But how?” my students ask. “How do you actually do it?” 
You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day…you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voice of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt… 
Somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story…But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started. 
It is really no different in meditation. Start by being quiet before God, emptying your mind and heart of all the busyness. Do not be in a rush. You are seeking to enter the living presence of God. Like any other relationship, you cannot do that all at once; instead, it takes the cumulative effort of multiple memories and time logged. From there, I usually spend time on a psalm. I recommend regularly reading through psalms and using them as a template for your time of prayer.
Again, I cannot recommend Foster’s book enough, especially when it comes to the chapter on meditation. Seek out wise mentors in your life to find out how they spend time in Christian meditation, and learn from them. I finish with this wise counsel from Richard Foster:
You must not be discouraged if in the beginning your meditations have little meaning to you. There is a progression in the spiritual life, and it is wise to have some experience with lesser peaks before trying to tackle the Mt. Everest of the soul. So be patient with yourself. Besides, you are learning a discipline for which you have received no training. Nor does our culture encourage you to develop these skills. You will be going against the tide, but take heart; your task is of immense worth. 
I should have crashed and burned that sad summer day in 1987. But I am happy to say that in 2012 I am still steadily, joyfully pursuing youth ministry, and I attribute that longevity in large part to having learned the spiritual disciplines of rest, reflection, Sabbath and prayer. May your meditations be rich.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/meditation-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.9tOz9hmk.dpuf

Monday, October 5, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Simplicity

As I started on Sept 30 last week, I've decided to post some of my past articles on spiritual disciplines that I wrote for the kind folks at the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Memphis, TN. However, please keep reading, even if you do not work with young people. I wrote these articles for everyday people.

If you go to the original link here, you can find all twelve articles. Otherwise, just stay tuned for the rest of them as they pop up on this here blog. Thanks for reading -- feel free to pass along to others, make comments, etc.

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This is the second in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
There is a great deal of conversation about spiritual disciplines in the Christian world these days, but not much of it pertains directly to the world of those who work with teens. My goal in writing this series is to meet YOU in that unique place, and then call you to a place of depth and soul care. Take a few moments to keep reading…

There is a part of me that hesitates to write about this next discipline. If you know me at all, you’d know that I don’t hesitate because I am shy! I hesitate because I think of simplicity the same way I think of humility…
You know what I mean. In those rare times when God works in and through you to such a point where you actually do some kind and godly thing and it feels so great, you might say to yourself, “WOW, I was just really humble right then!” and the whole darn thing gets nullified right then and there…THAT is how I think it works with simplicity. It’s something you live out, not point out, in yourself.
However, as Richard Foster says in his classic book The Celebration of Discipline, “The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. So I will run the risk of nullifying my pursuit of simplicity today for the sake of greater discussion.”
What do I mean by “simplicity” as a spiritual discipline? Foster says it is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle. In other words, as we seek first His kingdom (Matthew 6:33) rather than seeking first after career or status or wealth or power, that singular focus on Christ should then flow out in and through our daily lives.
On one level, that sort of simplicity isn’t much of a challenge for youthworkers, who by and large are the most poorly paid of all pastoral staff, right?! However, we are also surrounded by some of the biggest consumers in the US today: teenagers. To quote the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “Typically unhampered by debt, bills and mortgages, [teens] spend freely and impulsively.” And because youthworkers’ lives, at least in the early years, are often unhampered from the bigger pressures of mortgage and pension, we can develop some very bad habits.
How did I come to practice simplicity? I backed into it. In February 2009 I resigned from a 15-year position as a youth pastor, from a church in which I’d been a member for 23 years altogether. This decision was the right one, but it was so difficult, nonetheless. I needed time to wait on God for what was to be next, and to recover from the jarring transition that it was, so I had saved some money to do so.
However, in my immaculate timing I made this decision one month before the historic financial collapse hit bottom! Amidst daily news of gloom and doom I tried not to panic, but also decided I needed to dramatically pare down my budget, not sure when I would be employed full-time again. Thus I declared 2009 to be The Year of Living Simply. I decided to buy nothing new (other than food). I refrained from spending money on entertainment – movies, books, music, eating out and travel. I let magazine subscriptions expire. I stopped buying gifts and just sent cards (sorry friends). These actions had taken up a third of my budget!
As I stuck to this approach, I learned three things rather quickly:
  1. It just wasn’t that hard. That sounds crazy, but once I got over the hump of this seemingly hard decision, I discovered that I wasn’t suffering. Richard Foster quotes the famous Arctic explorer Richard Byrd, who lived through months of deprivation in his travels to the North Pole: “I am learning…that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.” Indeed, I discovered the same. Once you wean yourself off the constant acquisition of stuff, you realize it’s all rather fleeting in its satisfaction.
  2. I was much more grateful for what I received. Once you orient yourself around God’s provision rather than thinking of it all as the fruit of your own labors, you see everything as a generous gift! The novelty of something new regained its meaning. When someone had me over for a meal, or took me out for coffee, or gave me a gift, I delighted in every part of it, since these things came less often.
  3. My default became “Why?” instead of “Why not?” While I had previously faced the decision of whether to buy something or not, now I operated from the assumption that I would not be getting it, and was forced (by my own decision) to think through what I “needed.” Rather than get something just because I had the money or because everyone else already had one, I jumped off the treadmill and thought through my spending far more carefully.
Let’s be clear–I am not advocating some dreadful legalism that disdains enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his provision and his creation. But I began to recognize how much of my joy came from stuff rather than from God himself and from the people and things he provided already. I also found that it caused me to simplify my plans with students as well. Fewer outings to trampoline gyms and more events in homes took away some of the flash and created that much more substance in our programming.
Interestingly enough, I also had more free time since I wasn’t busying myself as I had previously. I spent some of that new time reading up on monasticism and Benedictine spirituality. Monks take vows of poverty and/or simplicity–they hold belongings in common, because they believe that the more possessions you have, the more those things possess you! They meditate regularly on this passage from Matthew 6:19-34. Here are two excerpts:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v. 19-21)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (v. 25)
I am happy to say that after my Year of Living Simply that I am now quite gainfully employed. But that year instilled some good habits in me. So I am trying to pursue this spiritual discipline of simplicity in ongoing ways:
  • When I buy something new, I give something away. For example, when I buy a new pair of shoes, I give away a pair.
  • As I have mentioned here previously, I sold my car about a year ago. I now use my scooter, my bike, and public transportation (with occasional rides from friends). This slows me down and often forces me to think through how many things I try to do in a given day. I understand this may not be possible for many youthworkers, who use their cars as mini-buses for youth ministry! But intentionally changing transportation habits is a good start.
  • I eat seasonally. I love, love, LOVE red bell peppers and could eat them every day. And now, I can eat them every day, thanks to hothouses in South America and semi-truck trailers hauling food all over tarnation. But I choose to eat red bell peppers when they are in season where I live. By eating seasonally I am reminded to enjoy God’s provision in God’s timing. Sometimes he gives us things to enjoy, and sometimes he asks us to wait. And it is often in the waiting, and anticipation, that I learn how to deeply enjoy the things he gives me.
Here is the way that I remember this spiritual discipline of simplicity. It’s an adaptation of the 3 R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…
I say Repent (of my materialism), Reduce, Reuse, Refuse (to try to keep up with everyone else, and just buy the things I truly need), Recycle.
Tell me what you think… thanks for listening!
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/simplicity-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.jpqQEmQJ.dpuf

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Solitude

In 2011-2012, I wrote a series of 12 articles for the Center for Youth Ministry Training on the practice of spiritual disciplines for those who work and serve in youth ministry.

I chose the twelve disciplines that Richard Foster examined in far greater depth in his classic book The Celebration of Discipline. On one level, you could title my articles "Spiritual Disciplines for Dummies," not because youth workers are dummies (!) but because my articles average about three pages in length, whereas Foster's chapters are about 15-18 pages per discipline.

However, on another level I wanted to foster (pardon the pun!) a discussion about the disciplines in terms of today's culture and context. The original edition was written in 1978, with a revision in 1988.

I have used these articles in various places, and thought I would collect them here for easy reference. And I would add that I believe these articles apply to any believer, not just those who work with young people. Here is the first one, originally released on November 30, 2011.

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SOLITUDE: Spiritual Disciplines for Youthworkers

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Fall 2011 marked the beginning of my thirtieth year in youth ministry. There is a very long list running through my head of the many joys experienced in those years. There is a slightly shorter list of things I would now do differently. But perhaps most importantly for this column, there is a concise “must-do” list that I try to convey to anyone I meet who is just getting started in this grand adventure.
Certainly, these “must-do’s” would include some crucial elements like “take regular vacations,” “get really good at effective time management,” and “learn to live within a budget” But at the very top of this list would be this: “Develop robust habits of spiritual discipline.” Huh? Why does that sound so intimidating?
Unfortunately, in my first years of youth ministry, I took myself far too seriously. I was exhausted and stretched thin from overwork and stress. It took too long for me to recognize that my greatest need, beyond vacations, a good calendar and investment in a 401K (though I needed all those as well), was a hearty commitment to spiritual depth and growth. It is in my times with God that I hear His voice, gain strength, and receive insight as to what I am learning and where I need help. Regarding my ministry, it also gives me guidance as to where to go next. And as the saying goes, you can’t take people farther than you’ve gone yourself. In order to provide true leadership, spiritual disciplines are essential!
Richard Foster, in his classic book Celebration of Discipline, defines spiritual disciplines in this way:
“A Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort.”
Spiritual disciplines are actions of body, mind and spirit so that we might grow in grace and also draw nearer to Jesus.  Foster defines 12 disciplines that he considers most important to pursue. For a thorough study of each of these, I highly recommend this book.
Beginning this month, I will highlight one of these disciplines here at YMToday and talk a bit about how I see the value of that particular discipline in light of our calling as youth workers. We are starting this month because it coincides with the Church Year, which can and should shape our identity and priorities as followers of Jesus Christ.
In this first month we will explore the spiritual discipline of Solitude. Certainly, as those whose lives are intentionally filled with people 24/7, we may find the concept of solitude far too beautiful for words. I will be the first to admit that in the middle of a week at camp I would often take little mental vacations where I envisioned myself sitting next to a pool by myself, reading a magazine without a care in the world… That was “solitude” to me.
But let’s dig a little deeper. We need to go past the daydreaming stage. What does God want for us in seeking after solitude? I believe we need to acknowledge an interesting tension that exists for us here in the U.S. On the one hand, our American culture fosters and elevates independence as a key value. We are the land of superheroes, Captain America and the Marlboro Man. Personal rights predominate. We do not like anyone telling us what to do. So perhaps the concept of solitude appeals to that sturdy self-reliance? Perhaps. But we cannot forget that as Christians we are eternally connected with other believers. C. S. Lewis reminds us that “the New Testament does not envisage solitary religion: regular assembly for worship is everywhere in the epistles.” So to pursue solitude does not mean that the goal is to reach a state of “just me ‘n God,” or as a chance to just zone out and take a break.
At the other end of the spectrum, we live in a tremendously noisy, over-stimulating world. Cable allows us to have news and entertainment 24 hours a day. Our iPods, Kindles and the Internet ensure that we never lack for something to listen to, read about or watch. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter keep us wired to everyone we know. Text messaging offers endless communication and keeps us yoked to our students. If we wanted, we could make sure we are never alone, helping us to avoid perhaps the deepest fear of the human heart—loneliness.
Furthermore, Christians can sometimes be so actively involved with various Christian activities that they never sit still. As Christian author Rebecca Manley Pippert called it in her book Out of the Saltshaker & Into the World, Christians can occupy themselves constantly within the “Holy Huddle.”
So what really is “solitude” then, from a Christian perspective? Richard Foster describes it with these words:
We can cultivate an inner solitude and silence that sets us free from loneliness and fear. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment…
There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times… If we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart. (Celebration of Discipline, Chapter 7)
Solitude thus becomes the main way for you to grow in your love for Christ and to be encouraged and nourished to persevere in your ministry with students. Rather than waiting until you’re on the edge of collapse before scheduling a three-day retreat (where you just sleep the whole time anyway!), consider solitude as daily manna from God.
Foster expands solitude’s spiritual dimensions for us:
We must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully. We must seek the fellowship and accountability of others if we want to be alone safely. We must cultivate both if we are to live in obedience.
At the most fundamental level, solitude is where we seek God’s face. But how does one begin? I have learned that the best place to start is by cultivating the habit of listening, which Benedictine monk Cyprian Smith describes this way:
The whole spiritual life of the Christian is a process of listening to God, inclining the ear of the heart… We have to be very quiet and still within ourselves, very alert and attentive, if that word ["listen"] is to resonate properly in our innermost depths.
Two books that educated me most in my spiritual listening are titled Enjoy the Silence: A 30-Day Experiment in Listening to God by Duffy and Maggie Robbins, and Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan. These books are excellent resources to build the discipline of solitude in your life.
Once I committed to seeking after solitude as my best way to connect with God, I needed to explore four elements recommended for meeting with him:
Study: Some authors also call this Lectio Divina or “sacred reading.” This is reading with “the ears of the heart.” You are not reading merely to obtain facts or check something off of your to-do list. You are reading to slow down and get focused. Even more, you come to the text expectantly—you are assuming that you will get something from it, because it is a word from God. Sometimes those messages are loud and clear; sometimes they take some patience to hear.
Meditation: My friend Colleen says, “When we meditate on God, His Word and His world, we put ourselves in a place where He can speak directly to us.” As the Robbinses say in their book mentioned earlier, “Contemplative writers have compared meditation to the process of a cow chewing its cud… Meditation is taking time to chew and re-chew a passage of Scripture.” In the 21st century this may be a tall order for us. We are trained to be consumers, powering through words and information as fast as the microchips in our electronic gadgets will allow. It has become counterintuitive to simply sit on some words and let their meaning unfold for us. But that is exactly what meditation requires.
Prayer: After reading expectantly and listening patiently, we can now respond conversationally in prayer. The words of scripture we consider each day will prompt a variety of responses—some days we may erupt in praise, other days we may be humbled and stumble into raw confession. Still other days may cause us to commit to a calling God is making on our lives, and on another day we may simply call out to Him for guidance and help.
Contemplation: This can be the most delightful part of all, but perhaps the most challenging to practice. Analogous to the end of a great meal that was full of many courses and engaging conversation, there comes a point that goes “beyond words,” where the mere presence of others after a shared experience is enough. As Benedictine monk Luke Dysinger says, “we must learn to enjoy the refreshment of simply being in God’s presence.”
As with all of the spiritual disciplines of this year, they only begin to come naturally to you through committed practice. I recommend that you set aside (at least) 20 minutes each day. Furthermore, it is most helpful if you can designate a particular spot where you can be relatively quiet and private.  Should that not work out every day in the coming month, do not give up. This is about cultivating a habit for the long haul far more than it is about perfection in the first month!
The best book to start with is the Book of Psalms, but certainly, these four elements can be applied to any systematic reading of scripture. If you are daunted as to where to begin in your reading, you can use the classic McCheyne Bible Reading Plan—but don’t allow it to intimidate you. Don’t think of your time with God as simply another task to knock down on your never-ending to-do list. This is the heart of your day. Take the time you need to listen, pour your heart out, and be refreshed. You will never be the same.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/solitude-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.a7orMMSq.dpuf