The recommended reading for this sermon comes from Exodus 13-16.
I love to talk about spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are the things we do to intentionally connect with God. In the classic work Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster outlines 12 foundational disciplines. But these quickly become categories when we begin to think about practices such as journaling, truth-telling and caring for the earth. Intention is the key that ties all of these practices together. When we do something with the intention to enter into God’s presence we are practicing a spiritual discipline.
I am a late bloomer when it comes to the disciplines. I’ve been a Christian for decades but only discovered the importance of the disciplines about four years ago. I managed to sit through countless Sunday School lessons, memorized hundreds of verses at Awana and even went to Bible college and somehow managed to miss, or ignore, the truth that God and I could be connected on an intimate level.
Because God and I weren’t connected in that way, I got through life by sheer determination. But eventually determination has a way of running out and mine did. In 2010, our family moved from Fayetteville, North Carolina. We left a church that I loved and friends that were like family to me. I thought we would live in this place forever. I was very sad and resentful that we had to move. At the time of the move, we had three children under the age of four and our youngest was just a few weeks old. I was tired in every way possible – mentally, physically, emotionally. When we arrived in August we found a church home quickly and I dove into church activities desperate to think about something besides who needed to be fed or changed next. But while serving was meaningful, it drained away the last little bit of determination I had.
The whole “grit your teeth and get through it” method wasn’t cutting it anymore. I am very grateful that God chose that season to intervene. He prompted my good friend to give me a book for my birthday about the spiritual disciplines and I began to read it.
These were all things I’d heard of before – prayer, Bible study, fasting. But something about that vulnerable season allowed me to see, for the first time, the purpose behind why God invites us to do them. And it began to change me. The disciplines have opened up a whole new way of being with God for me. They’ve created a lot of mess too. But good mess. Like the mess of a demolition project before new construction can begin.
I am still a beginner at the disciplines but I’ve experienced enough to know they work. My hope is to share what I am learning about how the disciplines work and why they are necessary if we are going to follow Jesus.
And to do that, I need to show you “The Drawing”…
My pastor, Carolyn Moore, introduced our congregation to this drawing a couple of years ago and we refer to it often because it makes a lot of sense. You and I are the stick person. God is shown at the top of the picture and God wants to pour all of who he is on us: grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, identity and a bunch of other things.
The problem is that we were born with an umbrella. Usually umbrellas serve a useful function – they keep the rain out. But in this case, what the umbrella keeps out is God. This umbrella came to us as a part of the curse. It makes us feel like God is far away.
Since the fall of humanity, each person is born with an umbrella and the events of life work to reinforce the umbrella. Every time we are hurt, or sin or face a loss, our umbrella gets thicker and tougher. I was teaching this lesson to a group of older school age kids a few weeks ago and when I got to this point, one of the boys raised his hand and when I called on him he blurted out, “the Devil’s a jerk!” And what do you say to that except, “yes, he is…” The devil loves our umbrella and has a vested interest in keeping it intact. Adam and Eve didn’t have an umbrella in the garden but Satan helped them construct one with his lies about God and his goodness. And he’s all too happy to help us with ours too. That’s why dismantling our umbrellas is serious work.
Which leads us back to spiritual disciplines. When we do things that intentionally put us into God’s presence we are poking holes into our umbrellas. When, by faith, we choose to ignore our umbrella and talk to God and read his Word and confess our sins, our umbrellas get weaker and weaker until the rain of God’s Presence is pouring down on us.
That’s why the spiritual disciplines are necessary for all of us. Don’t hear “disciplines” and think nuns, monks and pastors. If you are a disciple of Jesus, he invites you to practice the disciplines. Because disciples are commanded to “Go!” – to go someplace spiritually. And we will need God’s presence on that journey.
In the Old Testament book of Exodus we read the account of the Israelites journey out of slavery, through the desert and into the Promised Land. This journey provides the ultimate illustration for our spiritual journey and Moses as their leader, demonstrates that the disciplines provide the access point to God’s Presence.
As we pick up the story in Exodus chapter 13, Moses has just wrestled a whole people group free from Pharaoh’s grip and around 1 million people have found themselves in the desert with limited provisions, no protection, and no plan. God’s presence is what stands in between them and death. Across what will become a 40 year journey, God’s presence will provide them with guidance and rest and nourishment. And God’s Presence provides those very same things for us when we become intent on dealing with our umbrella. It is his Presence that takes us from wandering through life, just marking time, to heading someplace with a purpose.
Those are the choices now facing the people of Israel. They are grateful to have been released but now they need to go someplace new and they don’t know which way to go. Moses has been back and forth across this desert before but not with this many people in tow. This time he will need a route that is safe and that provides access to resources like water and food. Moses will have to become totally reliant on God to direct this journey.
In Exodus 13: 17-18; 21-22, God’s Presence first appears to the people as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. For 40 years, when the pillars moved, the whole group moved and when they stopped, so did the people.
Now, I know what you might be thinking, because I think it too… it would be a whole lot easier to follow Jesus if he used the pillar system with me. I have prayed so many times, “Lord, if you would just tell me what to do, I would do it.” He hasn’t given us pillars but he has offered us his guiding presence through the practice of the disciplines. Listening prayer and solitude gives God space to talk. A community that is willing to enter with you into a discernment process can bring God’s perspective through new voices. Sometimes the disciplines don’t lead to specific answers but they transform us so that we begin to naturally know what the right thing is.
We are just as reliant upon God’s Presence to lead us through our lives as the Israelites were. It is easy to get off course and the results can be damaging.
My friend planned a scavenger hunt for my boys at the beginning of this summer. She hid clues at different locations at a nearby park and gave each of them a compass and a quick lesson on how to use it. At each stop on our hunt, we found a new clue, read the directions and headed towards our next location. It was lots of fun and the boys felt like great adventurers trekking through the woods but here’s the part of the experience that stuck with me. The clues always started with these instructions, “Get back on the path and realign your compass to North.” At each stop along the way it was necessary for us to first make sure that we were heading in the right direction or the rest of the clue wouldn’t make any sense.
That is just as true of our spiritual journey. We need to take frequent stops to allow God to realign our compass. Even if I start my day heading due north, pretty quickly the challenges of everyday life hit and I’ve drifted a few degrees off. It’s not so dramatic that someone else would notice. The really scary thing is that I might not even notice it. But if I go too long before resetting, I run the risk of getting way off track – in my thinking, my motivations, my desires – and ending up in a dangerous place. Practicing the disciplines allows God to guide us and reset our compass.
Now the Israelites are following the pillars and heading in the right direction, but after three days the little bit of water they fled with has run out.
Everyone is quick to comment on the grumbly Israelites… But think of them as refugees – fleeing with only the things they could throw into carts or on their backs. They are marching their children and elderly relatives through the hot desert. I would grumble too. They had experienced God’s miraculous rescue at the Red Sea and that was an obvious high moment. But the high moments don’t last forever. Someone said to me recently that the “spiritual life cannot be lived only on feelings and moments.” It’s hard to remember how excited you were a few days ago when you are dying of thirst today. In Exodus 15:22-25 we read that God provides water for the Israelites but not in a conventional way. He leads them to a place where there is plenty of water but it is bitter and undrinkable.
The journey God leads us on is complicated and confusing at times. God knows the Israelites are thirsty. So, why does he lead them to a place where they can’t drink the water?! See! It’s confusing!
The lesson we learn here is that his presence is the only thing that can make sense of our experiences. And, in that frustrating moment, Moses does the exact right thing – “He cries out to the Lord.” He practices a spiritual discipline – he prays. And God answers him. He points out a specific piece of wood and tells Moses to toss it into the water. Moses obeys – which is another spiritual discipline – and the water turns sweet.
This reference to “a piece of wood” makes me think of another piece of wood – the cross. Jesus’ work on the cross makes the things in our journey that are bitter into something sweet. But we can only see that perspective when we have been in his Presence.
Once everyone has had enough to drink, they realize just how tired they are. They have had big adventures mixed with intense training and teaching. Journeying is hard work. God knows what they need next is a place to rest. Exodus 15:27 describes a beautiful oasis complete with 70 palm trees and 12 springs.
I’m not a big camper but if I was going to pitch a tent, this is where I’d do it! It has shade and water and beauty. This sounds like the perfect place to rest! Setting aside a day, or even a season to rest, is a spiritual discipline. God calls it Sabbath. The Israelites could have refused this oasis. “No, no we’ve got this… let’s just keep going. We’ve got a lot of work to do as God’s chosen people… God needs us to keep going.”
Instead they submit to God’s direction and allow him to shade them with the palm trees, and refresh them with a never-ending supply of water from the springs. Do you allow God to lead you into rest? Or do you consider rest a luxury for the weak?
My husband and I have had an ongoing debate throughout our marriage about when is the appropriate time to get gas. He thinks it’s when the car is at a quarter-tank and I think we can wait until the empty light comes on. We often have a conversation that starts with him saying “I just noticed that the car is out of gas. We’d better stop.” To which I reply “No, it’s not. We still have a quarter tank. We could go for miles.” And I’m technically right, but is it wise to watch the gas tank run down to empty? My husband likes knowing that the car is ready to handle any emergency, or that we can go a few extra miles if a gas station doesn’t magically appear at the exact moment we need one.
God sides with Chris when it comes to our spiritual gas tanks. Don’t wait until it’s empty or near empty to fill up again. A crisis will come whether we are prepared or not and it stinks to have to stop at the gas station on the way to the emergency room. God has led his people to a place to rest and fill up and they gratefully follow him there.
As we pick up the Israelites’ journey in chapter 16, we read that they have now been on the road for about 43 days. This is the point at which the bread they had brought with them as they fled Egypt has run out. One million people are out of food. Exodus 16 tells the story of how God brings his presence to work in this new crisis. He provides meat in the form of quail and bread which the people call manna.
God’s presence has provided the people with direction, water, rest and now meat and bread. Just like the piece of wood in chapter 15 connects us to the cross, the flakes of manna spread across the desert floor reminds us of Jesus breaking a loaf of bread into pieces and asking his disciples to take and eat.
Here again, bread provided by God, is bringing life to his people. All the people have to do is go out and gather it. And isn’t it fascinating that God understands the people’s instinct to hoard. To just take what we need for that day requires trust in the source and the supply.
God designed manna with a very short shelf life. By the next morning leftover manna was smelly and full of maggots. If the Israelites wanted to survive they had to develop the discipline of gathering the bread each day.
In this same way, we are continually drawn back into God’s Presence because our supply runs out. Our supply of love, grace, patience, forgiveness, humility, everything runs out. So we are compelled to come often to gather the bread we will need to journey. It is a mercy when our bread supply runs out.
In July, I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala to take a class “Social Justice and Spirituality.” Early in the trip, a woman named Tita Evertsz came to lecture our group. She had to come to us, because the place where she ministers is too dangerous for us to visit.
Tita ministers in a slum called La Limonada which means “Lemonade” in English. La Limonada is considered to be the largest urban slum in Central America. It is less than 1 square mile in size and has around 60,000 people living in it. It is considered a Red Zone. Which means that the police have given up and gangs have taken over.
Tita came from that slum and returned as an adult after coming to Christ. She began working with gang members but quickly grew very discouraged by all of the senseless violence. In frustration she told God one day that she wished that she could prevent the killing instead of just trying to heal it. God answered that prayer by giving her the idea to start a school. So she did! Her goal is to give kids an education so that they can break free of the cycles that keep so many trapped there. But soon, the gangs started preventing children from crossing into other territories to go to school. So, she opened another school across the gang line for those children. Our professors referred to her as the Mother Theresa of Guatemala. While she was with us she shared the signs of hope she is seeing but she had many more stories of sadness and what looks to her like failure.
Someone in our group asked her, how she keeps her heart soft with all of the horrible things she sees. Her face grew sad, she looked down at the ground and said “You know, it is very hard when children get hurt.” Then she paused, lifted up her head, smiled and said “but I am addicted to his Presence.”
Spending consistent time in the Lord’s Presence through spiritual disciplines, allows Tita to go back into the horrible world in which she ministers and serve from abundance. It provides her direction and keeps resentment at bay. I’m guessing it would not take 43 days for Tita’s own supply of bread to run out. But she doesn’t have to worry about it running out because she can run to the source anytime and get fresh bread.
Exodus 16: 21 tells us one more important thing about manna… it melts. Can’t you sometimes feel your manna melting… when you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, or help a kid prepare for a spelling test or listen to someone’s criticism? These are the things that keep us going back to the source.
What would we do if we could collect all the manna we needed for a month in one sitting? We’d only think about it once a month. And for the rest of the month we’d feel pretty self-sufficient and in control. Instead God calls us to come in and out of his Presence until it gets to the point where we are able to see that we never leave it. Then our umbrella is in tatters and blown inside out and we are soaking wet.
I want to close by telling you about my plant. I have a hard time keeping it alive. It needs a lot of water and unlike everyone else in my house, it doesn’t remind me when it’s thirsty. When it’s gone too long in between waterings, it will fall into this very dramatic droop. The good news is, as soon as I water it, it springs back to life. But then I usually wait too long again and keep repeating the cycle. What I’ve discovered recently, though, is that when I remember to water it regularly, it flowers.
Things that are kept on the edge of survival do not bear fruit. Are you able to hear that as a truth for your soul? God designed the spiritual disciplines to open us up to his Presence. And that is where we receive the resources we will need for our journey – guidance and rest and nourishment.
Remember the great old hymn I Need Thee Every Hour? The chorus says, “I need You, Oh I need You, every hour I need you…” Every hour… not every week or every month… we need His Presence every hour, every minute. But here’s the problem… I don’t want to need someone that much. My temptation is to grit my teeth and get through life on my own power. But I just end up thirsty, out of gas and tired. And my journey gets stuck and I stop flowering. If you struggle with this too, the question God asks is, “Are we ready to surrender?” Are we ready to admit that we need him and humbly enter into His Presence regularly to receive the provision that he has for us?