There’s a group of men gathering twice a month here in Norwood. Our gathering is built around the opportunity and responsibility of deeper relationship with one another, and we are reading small digestable chunks of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline out loud to one another and spending time reflecting on what we hear. It is a simple series of acts; conversation, listening, reflection, consistent commitment to gather. But that kind of simplicity carries significant power. A men’s group I was a part of for five years before we moved to Cincinnati was one of the most transformative influences in my life. We grew in how to be more committed followers of Jesus and we grew in how to be better men. Different young men passed in and out of the group, but the group consistently got together; week by week, month by month, year by year. For that I say thank you to Jason Suter, Abe Halterman, Pete Acker, Matt Schwartz, Jamie Hewitt, Ben Dinkle, Mike Gilbert, Andy Hostetler, Jered Simmons, and several others. I clearly set up the order of names to reflect the sheer masculinity and crushing truthiness of said Jason Suter. No accident there. Beyond jokes though, I would not be the man I am today nor the follower of Jesus I am today without this group.
So I know how powerful the simple acts of conversation, listening, reflection, and a consistent commitment to gather are.
Last night in gathering with my brothers Kenny Havens and Matthew Wheelock (a smaller group than usual, but no less important), I felt some of the same power and potential for change in our time together. A common thread between the Virginia group and the Cincinnati group thus far has been Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. His writing and wise guidance has opened up my world of understanding. In Virginia, we read through the book; then a workbook entitled Celebrating the Disciplines that led us beyond intellectual understanding and into practice, which is very consistent with Foster’s guidance and, I should say, with the responsibility of the Christian life beyond intellectual belief and into bodily practice. We read slowly. Carefully.
One passage from last night struck me again in a powerful way. I have abandoned now the evangelical belief that human beings are incapable of transformation and unable to do anything other than to cry, “God, save me!” I have embraced what I believe to be a message much more worthy of evangelizing about, which is that human beings are deeply depraved and desperately in need of God, and upon kneeling before our Creator we first hear, then practice the fact that we are very capable of faithful, joyful, consistent life! Instead of leading me away from the Scriptures, embracing this message has led me ever deeper into the Scriptures, and I have found this expressed clearly, obviously, beautifully, convictingly, over and over and over again.
I want to quote the passage from Celebration of Discipline in its fullness so you can see how important it is too.
“There is a saying in moral theology that ‘virtue is easy.’ But the maxim is true only to the extent that God’s gracious work has taken over our inner spirit and transformed the ingrained habit patterns of our lives. Until that is accomplished, virtue is hard, very hard indeed. We struggle to exhibit a loving and compassionate spirit, yet it is as if we are bringing something in from the outside. Then bubbling up from the inner depths is the one thing we did not want, a biting and bitter spirit. However, once we live and walk on the path of disciplined grace for a season, we will discover internal changes.
We do no more than receive a gift, yet we know the changes are real. We know they are real because we discover that the spirit of compassion we once found so hard to exhibit is now easy. In fact, to be full of bitterness would be the hard thing. Divine Love has slipped into our inner spirit and taken over our habit patterns. In the unguarded moments there is a spontaneous flow from the inner sanctuary of our lives of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal 5:22,23). There is no longer the tiring need to hide our inner selves from others. We do not have to work hard at being good and kind; we ARE good and kind. To refrain from being good and kind would be the hard work because goodness and kindness are part of our nature. Just as the natural motions of our lives once produced mire and dirt, now they produce ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17).”
Foster, Celebration of Discipline pgs 8-9
Thank you, God, for the influence of all of these men guiding me from a stunted, mostly empty gospel without transformative power to a gospel that proclaims the reconciliation of all creation and the capability of humanity to leave darkness and live joyfully in the light!