Monday, June 29, 2015

The Discipline of a Thankful Heart

            Discipline is a misunderstood and unappreciated word. When we discipline our children, it takes on a negative connotation. When we, ourselves, are recipients of discipline, we don’t like it. When athletes discipline themselves in training to achieve stunning victories, we admire them. We all want to enjoy the fruits that a disciplined life brings; yet we are often too lazy, disorganized or inexperienced and misguided to exact the discipline from ourselves that is needed to achieve those fruits.
            If you do any concentrated study of the word “discipline” you might find the following definitions:
            “ A course of actions leading to a greater goal than the satisfaction of the immediate.”
            “A disciplined person is one who has established a goal and is willing to achieve that goal at the expense of his or her immediate comfort.”
            “An assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be synonymous with self-control.”
            “To press on toward a goal.”
            “A discipline is something to which we submit in order to effect change…” (Moore)
            “A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” (Willard, “Spirit of Disciplines”) This statement seems contradictory to me: “within our power” seems to me to be something that we could do “by direct effort”. But maybe something in the meaning is lost on me.
            At any rate, when you study the word, you learn that discipline and practice of it breeds perseverance along with obedience and submission. At least that seems to be the end goal.
            Research the lists of the spiritual disciplines Christian teachers and authors tell Christ-followers to “practice” and you might find Bible intake (reading and studying the Bible), prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning on the list.
            Henri Nouwen defined the spiritual disciplines as a means “to create space to meet with God that you otherwise had not planned on.”
            M. Robert Mulholland said spiritual disciplines were “Things that intrude into our lives to align us with God’s purpose.” (That doesn’t sound too much like a discipline-drive result to me, though.)
            Donald Whitney defined it as a “A deliberately self-imposed habit that nurtures spiritual health and fosters spiritual growth leading to maturity.” (I like this one.)
            Willard said, “… spiritual growth and vitality stem from what we actually do with our lives, from the habits we form, and from the character that results.” (Now we’re really getting closer.)
            And Douglas Rumford thought they were a means to develop soul memory for reflexive spiritual responsiveness.” Bingo! That’s the one that strikes a chord in my soul. I don’t want to just “do” the spiritual disciplines to feel more disciplined. I want to do them knowing they will positively change my life. If muscles and brains have
“memories” that cause them to reflexively repeat an action, then it makes sense that my soul also has a memory that can be trained to respond automatically to any stimulus, good or bad.
            Building up, practicing, perfecting my soul’s memory, so that a God response is reflexive, automatic, second nature—an integral part of my being, of who I am. When that happens, He is more fully in me, and I am more fully in Him. With each change, no matter how miniscule, I get closer and closer to Heaven.
            And that’s why I am determined to practice the hard discipline, the one that is sometimes listed as an outcome of practicing all of the other disciplines; but one that I believe also ranks as a discipline by itself.
            Thankfulness. For how can it not be discipline to be thankful—to find something for which you can offer up thanks—when your heart is mired in the grief of loss and your happy, familiar world has crumbled around you?
            It does become a discipline to wrest yourself from deep within your agony, turn from complaining and give thanks. God prunes and it hurts. It is the way of the world, and it is the way with God, and it is good for us to be this woven tapestry of colors in His artistic, capable, creative hands. Pink for joy, blue for contentment, black for pain, red for excitement and life, maroon for a bleeding heart…
            And when we turn the tapestry over, we don’t see unfinished, disconnected ends and discordant colors. The face of Christ emerges, and we realize we have been molded and shaped into His image. We are complete.
            The more you “discipline” yourself to give thanks, the more you set a guard over your mouth and keep watch over the door of your lips and express thanks rather than complaint, the easier giving thanks in all things becomes. Automatic, this turning toward God and giving thanks, a way of living life that makes living life so much better and richer.
            It is not a fatalistic type of thanks, and an “Oh, well, I’ll suck this up and ignore it because I need to be thankful,” response. It’s a thankfulness that finds a place right next to the cry of pain, the voiced agony, the fear and doubt. It’s what breaks through in the soul because the soul has practiced the thankfulness in the good times. The thankfulness has become part of its memory, and the thankful heart provides more nourishment for a thankful soul. A thankful heart begets a thankful soul, and a thankful soul begets a thankful heart. 
            How much it is like breathing oxygenated blood is to a healthy heart and body. Bright red blood signals a healthy, oxygenated life, while deoxygenated blood lacks vibrancy. (Veins actually carry waste-rich blood back to the lungs and heart.) That the addition or subtraction of one element can so radically change the color of the fluid pulsing through the body. That the addition of the one element allows life to be stronger, more sure.
            Like breathing in air gives physical life to the heart and body, exhaling and inhaling thankfulness gives spiritual and emotional life to the soul. Joy is both breathed in and released. It makes the spirit more vibrant and sure, the heart happier.
            So how are you doing in your discipline of thankfulness? Are you practicing it daily? Are you finding something, no matter how small, for which you can utter thanks?
            Cultivating a thankful heart may be one of the single most important things we do for ourselves, and others.
            Self-discipline is a gift from God.
            Happy cultivating!

Until next week,

Thanks for joining me!