Welcome back! Last week we talked about being a disciple and I tried to make the case for being a disciple. I went through some of the things the bible tells us it takes to be a disciple like time, commitment, and self-denial. We talked about it being hard and not being something every Christian will choose to do. This week I want to go through some practical steps we can take to get us started on our journey. The one thing I have heard said by several different people is, the longer you are on this journey, the more you realize you are just beginning.
Paul talks about our part as disciples a lot, but a couple of the more noticeable places are Philippians 2
‘Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. ‘
And 1 Corinthians 9
‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.’
St John Chrysostom says it’s not enough to just show up and run. We have to train to box in a match or run in a race. We have to train to be the men and women we are called to be. He tells us to train our bodies so that when temptations arise we don’t give into them. Paul talks about those temptations in almost every letter he writes.
Paul also makes it clear that it is not because of what we want to do that we become disciples. It is always God working in us that brings us back to him.
Here are some practical steps we can take to be disciples.
Have A Guide
Just like we see Paul being a guide for those who were trying to be disciples in the churches he started, we need to have a spiritual guide who can speak into our lives. In the Orthodox church, we are well aware that we do not just become spiritual apart from the leadership of a spiritual parent. Our church teaches that we need a guide for the spiritual journey. This starts with our Father Confessor. Our priest knows us and knows our needs so he is our first guide. As we get started having someone to encourage us, who has been where we want to go, will help us stay on track when we start to get bored or lose focus.
While our priest is the first person to hold our hand as we grow, God puts other people in our lives who can walk with us as well. Most of the people I rely on for spiritual guidance aren’t ordained. They are men and women who have been or are where I want to be spiritually.
In order to be disciples, we have to be willing to listen to the people around us. If we can’t listen to the people we can see, how can we listen to God whom we can’t see? For me, having a person in my life who genuinely cared for my spiritual growth was a game-changer in my growth. I talked last week about the fits and starts my spiritual life had gone through over the last twenty years. Finally getting someone in my life who will walk me through the ups and downs of the spiritual life, someone to show me what I needed to do to take the next step got me out of just reading books and into the application of the spiritual life.
Have a Prayer Life
St. Nikon of Optina said, “Do not forget prayer─it is the life of the soul.” Having a prayer rule will help us to not forget prayer. It’s not really a rule but a practice to help us stay on track. This is also something you should work on with your priest or pastor. I don’t know about you, but I am prone to get overextended and try to do an hour of prayer when I haven’t had a prayer life. Instead of being ourselves and learning to walk before we run, we get burned out and give up on prayer before we really get started. A prayer rule helps us by forming a habit of when, where, and how long we pray each day.
Prayer is a conversation.
When we have a conversation with someone, we talk and we listen. Our prayer time should be the same. While many of us pray in the mornings, most of us only talk to God. We don’t spend time listening for him to speak to us. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom says in his book Beginning to Pray (Affiliate Link) that we need to spend time in quiet listening. Which is hard for us to do. Because, when we try to be quiet, everything we try not to think about appears. In the introduction to the book On The Prayer of Jesus, (Affiliate Link) we are told that the mind is like a wagonload of monkeys.
That’s where The Jesus Prayer comes in.
When we try to be quiet and listen to God, we lose focus. The Jesus Prayer gives us something to focus our minds on instead of the rampant thoughts. When we start to practice being quiet, we can recite the Jesus Prayer to bring our minds back to our true focus which is Christ. As we remain quiet when our mind wanders, and it will, we can remember the prayer and bring ourselves back from our wild thoughts. Not with force, but with peace.
Prayer is a two-way street. As we learn to pray through the guidance of spiritual adults in our life we will begin to grow deeper into a life of Christ.
Before reading scripture, we should pray and ask God to open our eyes and our hearts so we can learn from his word. We pray to be open to the Holy Spirit speaking in us so that we may understand what we read. In the Orthodox Church, we have a gospel reading and an epistle reading for every day of the year. There are also yearly bible reading schedules you can find online. Whether you want to read the whole bible or just the new testament there are dozens of options. Just taking the time to read these two short readings every day will give us a better overview of the bible than most people have.
The writer of Hebrews says that scripture is sharper than a sword and divides soul and spirit. When we read scripture it shows us who we really are and challenges us to be disciples. I think that is why 60 percent of all Americans say that the bible has transformed their life in some way but only 27 percent say they read it at least three to four times a week. We have the opportunity today that the majority of the history of the church didn’t have. The opportunity to read the scriptures. So let’s use this opportunity to be changed by God’s word.
Other Spiritual Disciplines
While prayer and bible reading are considered essentials by most churches, other spiritual disciplines are either not used by some or frowned upon entirely. St. Seraphim of Sarov puts it this way, “if prayer and watching gives you more of God’s grace, watch and pray; if fasting gives you much of the Spirit of God, fast; if almsgiving gives you more, give alms. Weigh every virtue done for Christ’s sake in this manner.”
There are so many spiritual disciplines we can use to stay focused on God. We can live a simple life so we can give more or just go out of our way to help the panhandler on the corner. We can journal which helps get thoughts out of our head or spend longer amounts of time in solitude to study scripture on a deeper level. The options are literally endless because we are all different. God made us the way we are so each of us can find him in our own way.
Find what works for you and helps your spiritual formation and do it. When we use the tools given to us out of love and not duty we understand the reasoning behind them.
When we begin to grow and become disciples we will want to begin following the great commission in Matthew 28. This is what being a disciple is all about, when we come to know CHrist, we want to share him with others. And, that is what the subject of next week’s podcast will be.
Remember that you don’t have to do everything at once. If we want to be like a Saint, we have to start where we are and nowhere else. We can’t be anyone but who God created us to be.
Thanks for listening, and if you get anything at all out of this podcast please consider sharing it with others. See you next week.
1 “State Of The Bible 2018: Seven Top Findings – Barna Group”. Barna Group, 2020, https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2018-seven-top-findings/. Accessed 12 July 2020.
2From @ChHunter66 Vespers to Matins on Twitter