ReArrangements - What constitutes a well-arranged life?

I’m pleased to be writing a new standing column for TCW, wherein I get to explore a thesis that (a) spiritual transformation is actually possible and (b) we are invited to cooperate with God in the work he wants to do in our lives. Here is the first column in what will be a yearlong series.

sheet-music-944796_1280ReArrangements: Transforming Habits

Why spiritual disciplines are worth celebrating

As a musician, I know that arrangements matter. I remember reading an interview with the guitarist from the Canadian group Blue Rodeo in which he explained that the band’s signature song, “Try,” had once been a lackluster rocker. Their record company had passed on the song, but the band experimented with the tempo. When they slowed “Try” down, it became a soulful ballad—and an obvious hit. The right arrangement made all the difference.

Every musician learns (sometimes the hard way) that making good choices about which notes are played—and how loud and long they are played—is the difference between cacophony and harmony. It’s not just in music that arrangements matter. Event planners, travel agents, florists, and funeral directors will all tell you that making good arrangements is their stock-in-trade.

I wonder, what might it take to have a well-arranged life? I’ve been asking that question, intermittently, but with increasing urgency since I came across author Dallas Willard’s definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in The Spirit of the Disciplines: “The disciple is one who, intent upon becoming Christlike . . . systematically and progressively rearranges his affairs to that end.”

I am interested in becoming more like Christ. I suspect that such a transformation might be the only way to make music out of the cacophony of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But how do I “systematically and progressively rearrange my affairs” to that end?

An Invitation to the Disciplines

Years ago, on a long concert tour, I noticed that our bass player, Dave, was reading a book called Celebration of Discipline. I found the title irritating. Dave was already notoriously more self-disciplined than your average musician. He ate raw vegetables while the rest of us devoured pizza. He went for morning jogs as we slept. His tour bus bunk was always unnaturally tidy.

So when I saw Dave reading Celebration of Discipline, I recoiled in a disgust fueled by self-recrimination. Of course Dave would “celebrate discipline.” He probably ironed his underwear.

After Dave finished the book, he began gently insisting that I read it. When I finally acquiesced, I discovered that Richard Foster’s famous treatise on the classic spiritual disciplines had something to say not only to neat freaks like Dave but also to messes like me.

“Willpower will never succeed in dealing with the deeply ingrained habits of sin,” I read in the introductory chapter. That rang true. There were small but insidious habits of my heart—petty pride, stubborn self-reliance, almost-unconscious strains of selfishness—that seemed hopelessly entrenched.

“The demand is for an inside job,” I read, “and only God can work from the inside.” In the Book of Romans, the apostle Paul refers to righteousness as a gift from God 35 times, emphasizing repeatedly that no one can achieve a justified and rightly ordered life on her own.

Not What I Expected

So far, Celebration of Discipline was reassuring. I shouldn’t expect my willpower to be sufficient. (Amen.) I should understand that inner transformation is purely a gift of God. (Amen, again.) But just when I was beginning to relax, Foster’s argument took an interesting turn: “We do not need to be hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness. God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so he can transform us.”

Reading those words, a picture came to my mind. I could see a pool at the bottom of a waterfall that I knew represented the blessings God has for me—peace, love, acceptance, wholeness, and the fullness of his presence. There was no fence around the water. I could jump in any time I wanted. But I was running distractedly around the shoreline—sweaty, parched, and complaining about my need for refreshment. It occurred to me that maybe the spiritual disciplines were simply ways I could wade into the pool and stand beneath the waterfall.

If the disciplines could become habits that would help me rearrange my affairs to be more open and receptive to God, then, yes—they were worth celebrating. So I read Foster’s catalogue of classic spiritual practices: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Some of them were strange and new; others were old friends.

I found myself thinking about a season, back in high school, after my first serious boyfriend and I had broken up. My youth pastor’s wife, Pam, sent me a card, and at the bottom she wrote Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” There was little doubt about the desires of my heart, so I considered Psalm 37:4 a contract. All I had to do was delight in God, and he’d give me back my boyfriend.

I wasn’t exactly sure what sort of “taking delight” in the Lord would meet my end of the bargain. So I picked up a copy of Our Daily Bread in my church’s foyer and began reading it at breakfast and right before bed. Pam had also given me the devotional classic The Practice of the Presence of God, and I decided I’d try to be like the book’s author, a 17th-century monk named Brother Lawrence, by practicing God’s presence all day long. “I’m walking to my locker now,” I’d whisper to Jesus between classes. “I’m going to science class.”

Two strange things happened. First, I started to genuinely delight in God—to look forward to our set-aside times together and to have a sense that he was with me throughout the day. Second, the more I delighted in God, the more the desires of my heart changed. After a while, I didn’t want my boyfriend back. God had literally given my heart new desires. An inner transformation had taken place, and I was learning to want the things God wanted for me.

The disciplines I had almost inadvertently practiced in that season—prayer, study, meditation, guidance—had indeed been means of grace. Years later, sitting on a tour bus reading Celebration of Discipline, I began to remember that spiritual practices were meant to be not chores but invitations—opportunities to “progressively and systematically rearrange” the habits of my life in order to delight in God—and to increasingly learn how much God delights in me.

A Well-Ordered Life

When I get up tomorrow morning, there will be a moment when I choose whether to start my day with the disciplines of silence and prayer or whether I simply hit the ground running. Either way, God will still love me. He’ll still be near.

Yet I know from experience that I am likely to encounter a day I begin with prayer much differently than a day I don’t. The events of a day initiated in my own strength seem to come at me frantically—as bullets to dodge in the hopes of surviving until dinner. When I begin the day in divine conversation, those events seem graced with potential and freighted with God’s involvement. The notes are the same, but the song has changed.

The right arrangement makes all the difference.

Copyright © 2016 by Carolyn Arends and Today’s Christian Woman


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