A central theme of CAFO2016 was growing down before upward. (See the talk, “Growing Down.”)
It’s fair to ask, why would this matter for people already so committed to justice and mercy?
Because nothing but this downward growth will enable us to persevere through the heartache, disappointments and struggle that inevitably come as we draw near to the world’s hurt. Only by growing down first can we produce good fruit that will last.
But how? What can we do to cultivate downward growth?
Of course, we cannot create growth on our own, any more than a farmer creates an apple. God alone brings life. But He invites us to participate with Him in that downward growth, just as a farmer participates with God in cultivating a field.
To do that, Christians throughout history have embraced particular habits that cultivate downward growth. Jesus himself repeatedly did these things when he walked the earth as well.
These practices are often called “spiritual disciplines.” Indeed, they are disciplines: they require choices that don’t initially feel natural. And to have their full effect, they must become habits. That requires repeated effort – doing these things not just once or twice, but often, weaving them into the rhythms of our life.
But they not just disciplines, but also gifts. Yes, receiving them requires effort. But as we get to know these practices, we find them full of sweetness, even amidst the effort of doing them.
So we could also call these practices “gift habits.”
1. Scripture memorization. When we memorize Scripture, it sinks deeper than when we’ve only read it. The passages become part of our subconscious thoughts and character. I’ve especially come to value what comes in memorizing an entire passage or chapter – Psalm 139, I Corinthians 13, Isaiah 55, Philippians 2:1-11, or others that are especially rich for me personally. Ultimately, memorized verses and passages like these come to color our thoughts and even our desires. It is as if they are actually “working” – like a fertilizer that goes down far below the surface – releasing and feeding us in an ongoing way, even when we’re not consciously thinking about it.
2. Sabbath. Choosing Sabbath means setting apart a day each week to refrain from all our typical work. Instead, we receive this time as a gift from God for the sake of rest, play and worship.
Of course, we’re not under the Law, so we don’t have to keep the Sabbath. But as Jesus explained it, Sabbath was made for us. Sabbath is a hand-crafted present. It’s as if a rich friend said, “I have a gorgeous beach house I’d love for you to use any weekend. Here are the keys.” We certainly don’t have to take him up on that offer. But we’re the one missing out if we don’t.
As someone who can be very driven in ways both good and bad, a weekly Sabbath has been the single most sustaining practice of my life. I suspect I would have burned out long ago without it.
Sabbath is very hard for me to choose at times. I so often feel I need to get more done, sometimes desperately. That’s why Sabbath is a discipline. We have to choose to stop working. For me, that means committing pretty strictly not to do anything that is on any of my to-do lists. I have to set “walls” on either side of that 24 hours.
But when I do, the space within those walls becomes something very special, holy. I’m freed to rest and play and worship in a way I simply can’t any other day.
This is a deep-down rest and nourishment. Not only because we stop working. But because we are freed from the ridiculous notion that everything depends on our labor. Sabbath reminds that God is at work even when we aren’t.
3. Silence. We all want to be known and understood, so we talk…tell…speak. We also often imagine that our most important ministry comes through our words, things we say. In the discipline of silence, we hold back words – refrain from talking or blogging or texting. We choose a period of time, short or long, during which we will not express what we have to see (or do so only in limited ways, like only asking questions).
This puts us in a stance of listening – first to God and also to others. We attend to God’s still small voice. We convey love and value to others as well through our attentiveness to their words. In silence, we are also reminded that it is not our words that ultimately prove decisive others’ lives. It is God’s work in the hidden places – in their life, and in our life – that brings lasting change.
4. Saying Thanks. Nothing returns us to the Giver of all good things like gratitude. That’s why Scripture overflows with reminders to give thanks in all circumstances. When we choose to verbalize gratitude as a chosen practice – not just vaguely thinking about our appreciation, but naming the things we’re thankful for – it grows our roots deep into the Source of all gifts.
5. Solitude. Many Christians know how life-giving it is to spend time alone with God each day. Longer times alone can also be an immense gift.
My wife Rachel and I try to give each other this gift of solitude regularly, sending each other away for 24 hours alone every six to nine months. This time becomes a chance for life’s crazy merry-go-round to slow, for the noise to quiet, a chance to attend to God’s still small voice.
Most of us live lives saturated in stimulation. So solitude can make us feel antsy at first. That’s certainly the case for me. But as the spinning slows – as I listen, read Scripture, pray, journal, sing, take walks – I can almost feel my roots reaching down deeper into God’s life. I’ll confess: it’s always so hard to carve out time for extended solitude. But whenever I do, I inevitably think to myself, “Why did I wait so long to receive this gift again?”
6. Supplication. Prayer is the truest test of our desire to grow down. That’s because prayer rarely delivers immediate results on the surface. Most of the time, no one even sees us doing it. Prayer doesn’t grow us upward before the eyes of the world in status or influence or accomplishment. But nothing grows us downward more than reaching, clamoring, stretching toward God in the hidden places – asking His powerful work for good in others and in us.
7. Simplicity. Simplicity means going without things we don’t need to free ourselves for things that matter most. That might mean choosing to go without certain material items, like a newer car or a couch or a cappuccino to free up money for generosity.
But simplicity can be practiced in other ways, too. Simplicity might especially mean cutting out activities, even good ones.
This is what good farmers do every year to their trees – they prune them, often cutting off large sections of upward growth. They do this so that the fresh energy that surges through trees each spring can expand a strong root structure and then grow upward to the most important, productive branches.
For me, one key expression of the gift habit of simplicity has to do with technology. I choose times when I will go without certain devices. On weekdays, I’ve committed to not using text or email from the time I wake til after my quiet time and breakfast with the family. I do the same from when I get home from work til the kids are in bed.
When we prune things back in our life – whether material things or activities or technology – no one is going to cheer us for it. If people notice at all, it might be to criticize or express disappointment that we’re not accessible or not doing things they think we should do. But practices of simplicity – pruning back secondary things – are truly essential if we are to prioritize the things that matter most.
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Of course, these are just seven gift habits. Godly women and men throughout history have practiced many others as well.
But I have become convinced that choosing these – even starting with just one – indeed allows us to participate with God in cultivating downward growth.
These gift habits draw our roots deeper and deeper. Yes, most all of this occurs beneath the surface…out of sight…in the hidden places. But this unseen, downward growth will enable us to stand firm amidst the drought, fire and storm that always come as we engage the world at its most broken. And ultimately, we will see the good fruit that always rises from a vibrant life in the hidden places: peace and joy within, and good fruit shared to the nourishment of every person we encounter. What could be better than that?
“The Sower’s Song” was the closing song of the CAFO2016 — played by Andrew Peterson from his album THE BURNING EDGE OF DAWN.