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Forty Days of Fruitful Living
Practicing a Life of Grace
By Robert Schnase
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Robert Schnase
All rights reserved.
"I am the vine, you are the branches." —John 15:5
Jesus taught a way of life and invited people into a relationship with God that was vibrant, dynamic, and fruitful. He said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.... My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" (John 15:5, 8). Jesus wanted people to flourish.
Scripture is sprinkled with phrases that point to fruitful living—the kingdom of God, eternal life, immeasurable riches, a peace that passes all understanding, abundant life.
Jesus and his followers developed core fundamental spiritual practices that sustained them in God and motivated them to relieve the burdens that restrain people from flourishing by protecting the vulnerable, embracing outcasts, healing the sick, welcoming children, caring for widows, confronting injustice, pardoning sin, preaching good news, releasing people from the fear of death. They presented the gift and demand of God's grace to everyone. They granted peace. Paul writes, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). Scripture is unified around the theme of a vibrant, fruitful, dynamic life with God through following Christ.
How do I have the mind in me that was in Christ? How do I cultivate a life that is abundant, fruitful, purposeful, and deep? What are the commitments, critical risks, and practices that open me to God's transforming grace, and that help me discover the difference God intends for me to make in the world? How do I live the fruitful, flourishing life of a follower of Christ?
The fruitful, God-related life develops with intentional, sustained attention to five essential practices that are critical for our growth in Christ. Radical Hospitality in our personal walk with Christ begins with an extraordinary receptivity to the grace of God. We invite God into our hearts and make space for God in our lives. We receive God's love.
Through the practice of Passionate Worship, we learn to love God in return. We practice listening for God, allowing God to shape our hearts and minds through prayer, devotion, and worship. We love God in return.
Through the practice of Intentional Faith Development, we do the soul work that connects us to others, immerses us in God's Word, and positions us to grow in grace and mature in Christ. We learn in community.
Risk-Taking Mission and Service involves offering ourselves in purposeful service to others in need, making a positive difference even at significant personal cost and inconvenience to ourselves. We serve others.
Through the practice of Extravagant Generosity, we offer our material resources in a manner that supports the causes that transform life and relieve suffering, and that enlarges our soul and sustains the spirit. We give back.
These Five Practices—to receive God's love, to love God in return, to grow in Christ, to serve others, and to give back—are so essential to growth in Christ and to the deepening of the spiritual life that failure to attend to them, develop them, and deepen them with intentionality limits our capacity to live fruitfully and fully, to settle ourselves completely in God, and to become instruments of God's transforming grace. The adjectives—radical, passionate, intentional, risk-taking, and extravagant—provoke us out of complacency and remind us that these practices require more than haphazard, infrequent, and mediocre attention. Cultivating our relationship with God requires our utmost and highest.
These practices open our heart—to God, to others, to a life that matters. They help us to live a life of grace.
Read John 15:1-17.
Abundant life, the kingdom of God, eternal life, immeasurable riches, internal peace, a life of grace—what comes to mind when you reflect on these things? What kind of life does God desire for us? How can we have in us "the mind that was in Christ"?
Prayer: Lord, lead me to the rediscovery of wonder, awe, peace, joy, life. Help me find myself, my true self, in following you.CHAPTER 2
"Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers ..." —James 1:22
Picture the graceful performance of a gymnast. With effortless elegance, she balances on the high beam, lifting herself up on a single tiptoe and down again, bows low with arms gracefully outstretched. Her ease of movement, naturalness of posture, and energetic responses make her look entirely at home balancing on a beam only a few inches wide. She bends and stretches in ways that defy ordinary human athleticism, occasionally suspending herself steadily on one hand or two, other times leaping high above the beam as if free of gravity itself. She smiles, breathing easily and smoothly, as if the workout has barely challenged her.
How does she make it look so natural? It looks so easy precisely because she has worked so hard. She has repeated and practiced and rehearsed the hundreds of small incremental motions for years that combine to make possible such ease of movement. What seemed at first to be impossible, or extraordinarily difficult, became progressively easier and more satisfying through months and years of practice. It was not easy or natural until, through repetition, the muscles themselves developed the memory that the art requires. Hundreds of hours of effort, commitment, and practice prepared her to perform so naturally and gracefully.
Or watch young Little League baseball players practice. They scoop up ground balls, catch pop-up flies, throw the ball around the bases, and practice batting.
Now watch professional baseball players practice before a Major League game. These players are paid handsomely; they are elite athletes at the height of their careers. What do they do to practice before each Major League game? They scoop up grounders, catch pop-ups, throw the ball around the bases, and practice batting.
Baseball involves certain fundamental activities, and every play of every game involves those basic elements performed with endless variations. A player simply keeps repeating and improving on the same basic elements. No professional baseball player says, "I don't practice batting anymore because I learned that in high school."
Christian practices are those essential activities we repeat and deepen over time. They create openings for God's Spirit to shape us. They are not steps that we complete and put behind us never to repeat again. And practices are not static qualities that some people naturally possess and others absolutely lack. Anyone can start at any point and at any level and begin to develop the practices; with the help of the Holy Spirit, the practices will change who they are. Practices are not simply principles we talk about; practices are something we do.
Through practices we become "doers of the word, and not merely hearers" (James 1:22), and we weave together faith and action, theology and life, thinking and doing, intention and realization, heart and head with hands. Practices make our faith a tangible and visible part of daily life. We see them done in the life of Jesus, and we do them until they become a way of life for us. Even when we cannot articulate the content of our faith with confidence or detail, through our practice we embody faith and express our ultimate commitment to God and our desire to follow Christ. Practices represent our positive contribution to the transformation of all things through Christ.
Through practice, we open ourselves to grace and let ourselves be opened by grace. We follow Christ, step by step, day by day, again and again; and by these steps and through these days, we are changed, we become someone different, we become new creations in Christ.
Read James 1:22-27.
How do you think practice deepens the spiritual life? What patterns of spiritual practice already characterize your life? How does God use these to shape you?
Prayer: Help me both hear your word and act on it so my life serves you and I am not self-deceived, my God. Don't let me be fooled into merely listening without acting on your truth.CHAPTER 3
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."
The ministry of Jesus is grounded in personal practices. Jesus' life is marked by prayer, solitude, worship, reflection, the study of Scripture, conversation, community, serving, engagement with suffering, and generosity. These personal practices sustained a ministry that opened people to God's grace, transformed human hearts, and changed the circumstances of people in need. Jesus modeled going away to quiet places, spending time in the Temple, and listening for God. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, the tax collector in the tree, the rich young ruler on the road, the paralyzed man beside the pool, to the lepers and the blind and the widowed and the wealthy, to Mary and Martha and Peter and John. He held a child in his arms, noticed the woman who touched his robe, healed a soldier's servant, ate with sinners, told stories to Pharisees, and blessed the thief beside him on the cross. He intervened to challenge unjust systems that abused vulnerable people, overturning the money changers' tables and dispersing those ready to kill a woman accused of adultery. He connected people to God, opened their hearts and minds to God's kingdom, invited them to follow in his steps, and set them on a path toward God. Jesus knitted them into community, interlaced their lives with one another by the Holy Spirit, and wove them into the body of Christ, the church. By example and story, by lessons and parables, and by inviting them into ministry and sending them out in his name, he taught them to practice and live the ways of God. Jesus made maturing in faith and growth toward God unexpectedly and irresistibly appealing.
Christianity began as a way of life rather than as a system of beliefs, the way taught and modeled by Jesus Christ.
By repeating and deepening certain fundamental practices, we cooperate with God in our own growth in Christ and participate with the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual maturation. The fundamental practices are rooted in Scripture and derived from the clear imperatives of the life of Christ; they are distilled through the monastic formative exercises of the early church and are sharpened by the community disciplines of the early Methodists and other renewal movements. They find expression today in congregations throughout the world that intentionally cultivate authentic life in Christ and the formation of Christian character and service.
The Five Practices invite us along a pathway prepared by hundreds of generations that embeds us in community, connects us with God, and provides avenues for us to make a difference. They re-enchant the world for us. They tumble us headlong into the mystery of life.
When Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), he was not speaking arrogantly, egotistically, or narrowmindedly. He was expressing a genuine desire to turn us, to redirect us away from things that do not satisfy and toward the things that cause us to come alive. The time given to us on this earth is infinitesimally small compared to time itself, and so he desires for us to live it richly. Jesus asks us to build our houses upon solid rock rather than shifting sand. He invites us. He wants us to flourish.
Read 1 John 4:7-16.
What persons have lived the kind of life that makes you want to be like them in character, graciousness, generosity? How did they become like that? How did they cooperate with God in their own growth in Christ? How do practices turn us toward Christ?
Prayer: Stay with me, Lord, in my following of the way you have shown me. May your love become real in me, not disappearing from sight but becoming audible and visible in my words and actions.CHAPTER 4
"So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish.... Live a lover's life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God." —Philippians 1:9, 11, The Message
The Christian life is a gift of God, an expression of God's grace in Christ, the result of an undeserved and unmerited offering of love toward us. Every step of the journey toward Christ is preceded by, made possible by, and sustained by the perfecting grace of God.
However, becoming the person that God desires us to become is also the fruit of a persistent and deeply personal quest, an active desire to love God, to allow God's love to lead us. The fruitful life is cultivated by placing ourselves in the most advantageous places to see, receive, learn, and understand the love that has been offered in Christ.
So deeply is the notion of Christian practices embedded in our faith tradition that the name of the Book of Acts in the original Greek is praxeis, from which we derive our word practice. In the second chapter of the Acts (practices!) of the Apostles, Luke reminds us that the essential activities of Christian living include worshipping God, learning God's Word, serving one another, and sharing generously. The repeated pattern of these practices formed the early Christian church into a community that was so appealing in its purpose and its conduct of life together, that people were added to their number day by day.
The patristic and monastic teachers of the early church developed rich disciplines of daily practice that included hospitality and receptivity; worship and prayer; study and learning in community; service to the ill, poor, and imprisoned; and the stewardship of all earthly possessions. Daily and consistent practice helped Christ's followers accomplish the tasks given by God for the fruitful life. "Christian formation" describes the way our intentionally repeated activities help us cooperate with the Holy Spirit in God's "forming" of us into new creatures.
The early Methodist movement thrived under the rubrics of personal practices—worship, singing, fasting, and receiving the sacraments; searching Scripture and participating in classes and covenant groups for spiritual encouragement and accountability; serving the poor and visiting the sick and imprisoned; and tithing their incomes. John Wesley's was a theology of grace, focused on God's initiating love in Christ. The Methodist renewal, however, rested on practices, emphasizing the role we play in our own spiritual growth and the perfecting role of community to shape us. Early Wesleyans were chided as "Methodists" because of their nearly eccentric adherence to methodical ways of systemizing the practices of the Christian faith to promote learning, service, and growth in Christ through daily and weekly exercises and patterns.
Some people enter the journey with Christ through service; others through a growing sense of belonging. Small steps in one area are followed by giant leaps in another; there is ebb and flow, growth and setback, detour and recalibration. These are the essential practices that move us along the path in following Christ; nevertheless, no two journeys look exactly the same. Fruitful living is "a garden with a thousand gates."
God loves us and desires a relationship with us. Loving God in return changes us. Growing in grace deepens our experience of living. Serving others gives us something to live for. Living well involves keeping these truths in sharp awareness. The Five Practices take us to the things that last.
Read Philippians 2:1-13.
Who were you ten years ago in terms of character compared to who you are today? Who do you hope to be in terms of character and spirit ten years from now? How do you let God change you?
Prayer: Reach down to me just where I am, Lord, and help me flourish in my following in your way as I take the next step toward you. Grant me patience and perseverance as I practice your love so that things I formerly thought impossible become real in me in my daily life.CHAPTER 5
"We love because he first loved us." —1 John 4:19
"Accept that you are accepted." When I read this as a college student, those words by Paul Tillich jolted me into a new understanding of God's unconditional love. The pivotal first element in our walk of faith—the practice of Radical Hospitality—involves our saying Yes to God's love for us, a willingness to open our lives to God and invite God into our hearts. It involves our capacity to receive grace, accept Christ's love, and make room for God in our lives.
"Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?" Tillich asks. This was a provocative notion to me, an odd metaphor, to describe God's grace as something that strikes, that jars us into a new way of thinking, that collides with our old way of being. He continues, "We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace." The first movement toward the transformed life and becoming the person God wants us to be begins when we face the startling reality of God's unconditional love for us. Receiving the love and forgiveness of God and opening ourselves to the new life it brings can be as abrupt as lightening striking across the black night sky. It means we've been struck by grace.
The personal practice of Radical Hospitality begins with a receiving, perceiving, listening, opening, accepting attitude—a readiness to accept and welcome God's initiative toward us. It is sustained with active behaviors that place us in the most advantageous posture to continue to receive God, welcome Christ, and make room for grace. And so it involves interior decision and soul work, a listening and receptivity to God, as well as habits that transform us as we regularly, frequently, and intentionally make room in our lives for God.
Excerpted from Forty Days of Fruitful Living by Robert Schnase. Copyright © 2010 Robert Schnase. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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