One of the classes I have taught for years is Spiritual Disciplines. I am always amazed at how many students sign up for this class, even though they don’t really know what it means or what they might learn. Even if they went to church in their growing-up years, they probably don’t have much of a sophisticated idea of what spiritual disciplines means. They usually think it is going to be a course in prayer. Of course, prayer is a key classical spiritual discipline.
It goes without saying many students know what discipline means. They might be musicians, artists, scientists or athletes and in each case a fair amount of discipline is required to be successful. We know the very successful ones combine both significant talent and an equal amount of discipline. Without discipline the very talented ones cannot excel. Discipline is a difference-maker.
Spiritual disciplines are no different. Many of us know what it is like to pray haphazardly. We pray if we need something. We utter a prayer in the face of fear or danger. We hope the God of the universe hears us and acts kindly on our behalf. I had a friend once who called this kind of God our “cosmic bellhop!” I am not immune to my own sarcasm. Too many times I have uttered a plea to the cosmic bellhop. But I know this is not really my theology.
I see spiritual disciplines as means to an end. We don’t do any of the disciplines simply to be doing them. For example, we pray in order to connect and communicate with the Holy One. We do it regularly because that is how good relationships are nurtured. God is probably not that much different than other good relationships. I think the same thing is true for the other disciplines.
There is a range of disciplines. Meditation is probably as well known as prayer. My friend, Richard Foster, lists twelve classical disciplines in his famous book, Celebration of Disciplines. In addition to the two-already mentioned ones, there are simplicity, study, fasting, worship, celebration and others. All of these are means to an end. Discipline is always the one thing I can do to help my relationship with God---and maybe with others. They are a way to stay true to form.
If I can stay with the life of discipline, then I think there usually is some fruit that results. I thought of this the other day when I was working with one of the Psalms. Working with the Psalms is one form of discipline. We can use the Psalms with the discipline of study, meditation, prayer and maybe others. I find them to be a rich resource to nurture and nourish my spiritual life. They are not magic; but they are helpful to my understanding and growth.
Recently, I was working with Psalm 30. I have read the Psalms many times, so I cannot say, “Wow, I never read that before.” But there are times when something jumps out at me and I wonder, “did I ever read this?” One line stood out when I read that Psalm this time. This line suggests to me the possibility of spiritual transformation that can come to any one of us.
In conversation with God the Psalmist says, “You have turned my weeping into dancing…” (Ps. 30:11) I see spiritual transformation here when I see the transition from weeping to dancing. That clearly is a move from sadness to happiness. It transitions from something static to movement. We can go so far as to suggest that weeping is associated with death and dancing with life abundant. They represent the polarities of the human experience.
As I think more about this, I am confident we experience both ends of the polarity during different parts of our lives. I have wept at funerals and at certain aspects of inner deadness within my own soul. In fact, I probably worry more about the deadness I have inside---while I am still alive---than the actual moment of physical death. I am tempted to think that many of us spend too much of our time in this weeping mode. Our only question is whether we will ever get to dance?
I am confident the resounding answer should be “Dance? Yes, by all means dance!” But we typically don’t dance alone. We usually need a partner. And that is where God comes in. God is always the willing dance partner. God is the one who approaches us---even in our weeping---and invites us to dance. Saying yes to the invitation to dance brings spiritual transformation. We literally become new people. If there are tears, they are now tears of joy.
The really good news is the chance to dance is not a one-time fling. It does not mean we never will weep again. But spiritual transformation does put us in the place where we know the disciplined life can usually take us to the dance floor. Out there we always find a willing partner.