Formation | Community | Culture

40 Days of Formation

1.

My friend Brian Howard (nickname: Head Ball Coach) recently posted a great 6-minute TED talk that my friend Trey Kullman (nickname: The Triple Threat) forwarded me. In it, some Google staffer describes how you can do a lot more than you expect in thirty days if you really commit yourself. You want to write a novel? Just write 1500 words a day, and you’ll be done in 30 days. Want to get in shape? Consider working out every day for 30 days. The point is not just that you can do a lot in 30 days, but that 30 days is a good amount of time for you to turn a random activity into a regular habit. More accurately, if you want to become a writer, write something every single day out of habit, and if you want to remain in good shape, exercise moderately every single day. The point is not what’s accomplished in the 30 days but how the 30 days produces a new, life-giving habit, routine or rhythm in your life that lasts far beyond 30 days. (For more on the development of habits from a psychological and social standpoint, check out Charles Duhigg’s great book The Power of Habit.)

My Bible-scholar friends, however, will quickly catch the significance of a 40 day spiritual formation plan. 40 days holds a sacred place in the life of God’s people: the rains of the flood lasted 40 days, Moses spent 40 days with God on Mount Sinai, Jesus fasted 40 days at the beginning of his public ministry and remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection. So today, we celebrate the 40 days of Lent leading up to Resurrection Sunday, and many Christian authors use 40 days as a helpful period of spiritual training. In other words, the Bible, in all its wisdom, has one-upped Google again.  You think 30 days is significant? We’ve got history, son.

So, I have put together a 40-day plan for spiritual formation. This is a guide for myself, adapted from years of my own spiritual routines and rhythms, but over the next 40 days (not necessarily lined up with how I post things here), I’ll be working through this plan with a handful of my friends.

There are two ways I want to use this plan. First, I’m going to do the whole thing, straight through, no excuses, no mercy, for 40 days. To be honest, internet world, I’ve been struggling for some time in one of the three core disciplines I list below, and need some extra encouragement and accountability to drop-step me back in a healthy rhythm. (I prefer to use the phrase “drop step,” a basketball move where you back your defender down in the low post, then make one power dribble and strong step around him to score, over the phrase “jump start,” and you’re welcome to do this as well.) Second, after completing this plan in 40 days, I’m hoping to set it into an eight-week rhythm—40 days spread out over an 8 week period, averaging five days of spiritual practices weekly. (For more on developing spiritual habits, see my notes from N. T. Wright.)

So you, dear reader, can do either one: (1) Use this plan as a 40-day drop-step of spiritual formation, or (2) Use this plan as a daily guide to organize your spiritual disciplines at a sustainable pace for eight weeks at a time. I like to think there are three primary practices for core spiritual strength, so each day includes those three practices plus one additional activity.

But one final disclaimer. It’s crucial to remember that we Americans are groomed to constantly achieve and compete. We frequently want to ask ourselves, “How many widgets did I make today?” “Who knows how well I’m doing?” and too often, “Where am I at spiritually and how can I take it to the next level?” What is the next level anyway? Are we still talking about union with Christ? As one author has said, “it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit” (Nouwen). Such is another paradox of the Christian life: it’s important to be growing and challenging yourself spiritually, yet as soon as you become too inwardly focused, self critical and growth oriented, it begins to work against you. And then we’re thrown back upon our own incompetence and our great need of Christ, and then real formation begins. Confusing, right? So it’s good to gather accountability and devote yourself to something worthwhile, but there’s a reason this is a 40-day plan and not a 40-year one. The goal is the new habit—a devotional life that makes space for your soul’s growth in Christ.

2.

Remember, I’ve written each stage to be completed in ten days, but you can also plan to do the ten daily assignments over the course of two weeks. Each day should take you about 30 minutes, except for Sunday worship gatherings and every seventh day, which includes an extended period of extended Bible reading and study. If you’re a female, it’s possible that the days that include “call a friend” may take some extra time.

Day 1
Meditation: Psalm 1, Ephesians 1:1-6
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Sunday worship gathering and service
And: Fast from TV and social media

Day 2
Meditation: Ps. 3, Eph. 1:7-10
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Read a spiritual classic

Day 3
Meditation: Ps. 8, Eph. 1:11-14
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Kingdom Come prayer

Day 4
Meditation: Ps. 16, Eph. 1:15-23
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with community group
And: Life review

Day 5
Meditation: Ps. 23, Eph. 2:1-10
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a family member
And: Prayer for others

Some notes. The three-fold division of prayer—Heart at Rest prayers, Kingdom Come prayers and Prayer for Others—comes from The Prodigal Godfather’s Studies in Prayer. Heart at Rest prayers (these are daily in my plan) focus on our own heart emotions, spiritual needs and physical concerns as well as prayers of adoration and general thanksgiving (see Matthew 6:11-13, Psalm 40 and Psalm 131). I’ve got a whole essay almost ready for posting on this and preached on it in early 2012. Prayer for Others, not surprisingly, includes intercession and thanksgiving for our friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors, and church family (see John 17 and Ephesians 3:14-21). Kingdom Come prayers are focused on huge, eternal realities. In these prayers, we’re simply pleading with God for his Kingdom to come—right here and now (see Matthew 6:9-10 and Isaiah 64). But the point is not to be a prayer expert or get it right. The gospel’s for those who could never get it right or prove their religious expertise, and Jesus invites us to model our prayers after the honest, babbling requests of little kids.


Day 6
Meditation: Ps. 32, Eph. 2:11-18
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Journal about past week

Day 7
Meditation: Ps. 34, Eph. 2:19-3:6
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: Extended Bible reading: Isaiah 40-52

Day 8
Meditation: Ps. 40, Eph. 3:7-13
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Sunday worship gathering and service
And: Fast from TV and social media

Day 9
Meditation: Ps. 42, Eph. 3:14-19
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Read a spiritual classic

Day 10
Meditation: Ps. 46, Eph. 3:20-21
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a family member
And: Kingdom Come prayer

Final notes. By spiritual classic, I mean any book that develops a theme of Christian doctrine in a way that is life giving for its reader. My general rule of thumb is that the author has to be dead. Examples include: Calvin’s Institutes, Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy, Willard’s Divine Conspiracy, and anything in the Puritan Paperbacks series. The point of spiritual classic reading, as I intend it here, is not mastery of a theological category, but increased fellowship with God through an ongoing renewal of the mind.

And, of course, you may need to move around community activities like church attendance and small group participation based on your actual schedule and such. Again, the development of new spiritual rhythms is the purpose of this rigid-looking plan.

If you’re at Sojourn and are using this plan, I’d love to know about it.  Enjoy, folks!

Intermission #1

Some quick notes on days 1-10. I chose some of my favorite Psalms for this exercise, and I always enjoy working slowly through the first three chapters of Ephesians. I’m continuing to explore the importance of community and accountability in spiritual formation. I’m surprised that the relational aspect of our human nature isn’t more of a theme in our writings on prayer, holiness and Christian growth. (I have a hunch that it’s related to the fact that most Christian writing is done by former pastors, seminary prof’s and vocational writers—in other words, men and women who are no longer involved in daily church life and pastoral care—but I’m not quite ready to fully develop that hunch.) So I hope that these coming years continue to sharpen me in the interplay between personal devotion and commitment to others. That is, between formation and fidelity.

The second observation I took from days 1-10 is the power of praying big “Kingdom Come” prayers in warming up my heart toward the Lord. This is the prayer form, of the three I described above, that I have neglected most recently. I would think that coming to the Father with fervent intercession for his life to come crashing into ours would only be possible from an already warmed heart. But it’s often, if not typically, the opposite. I’ll read some Scriptures and pray for my own soul, still sort of waking up devotionally, but when I begin to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, it’s like blowing on a fire and watching the flames suddenly roar. I hope your experience has been the same!

3.

OK, folks. On to days 11-20, or weeks 3-4, if you prefer.

Day 11
Meditation: Ps. 120; Eph. 4:1-5
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with community group
And: Life review

By “life review,” I’m thinking primarily of those with an active Life Plan. If you don’t have one, not to fear; I’ll be writing on this at some point too. Until then, you could check out Michael Hyatt’s helpful summary.

Without a full Life Plan, you can still practice this ancient discipline called “examen.” In examen, we are examining our hearts and souls in the presence of the Holy Spirit. What is God doing in you? How is he inviting you deeper? What challenges are you facing? Use Psalm 139 as your guide.

Day 12
Meditation: Ps. 121; Eph. 4:6-16
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a family member
And: Prayer for others

Day 13
Meditation: Ps. 122-123; Eph. 4:17-32
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: Journal about past week

Day 14
Meditation: Ps. 124-125; Eph. 5:1-7
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Extended Bible reading: Isa. 53-64

Day 15
Meditation: Ps. 126; Eph. 5:8-20
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Sunday worship gathering and service
And: Fast from TV and social media

The psalms listed for days 11-20 are collectively called “The Songs of Ascents.” These songs were sung by the Israelites while traveling up to Jerusalem. They were “songs for the journey,” if you will. They embrace the human experience like few other bits of Scripture: praise, grief, hope, anger, joy, peacefulness. These psalms were probably the most life-giving texts I read all last year, especially in the seasons of sickness and sadness.

#126, in particular, was the most important chapter of the Bible for me last year. As you reflect on it this week, it is absolutely essential that you listen to Bifrost Arts’ song, Psalm 126. Trust me.

Day 16
Meditation: Ps. 127-128; Eph. 5:21-33
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Journal on marriage and family

You’ll notice, I hope, a strong family theme running through these songs and the well-known Ephesians passage. When you have time, write out some reflections on these passages for your own wife and children. If you’re not married, this is still a great exercise: pray for your future spouse and kids, and/or pray for the marriages and families surrounding you. If this is you, remember to praise the Lord for the gift of singleness, and prayerfully seek to use this season of life for his glory and for your formation. Parents, you’ll get another day to reflect specifically on parenting tomorrow (day 17).

Day 17
Meditation: Ps. 129; Eph. 6:1-4
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a family member
And: Journal on children and parenting

Day 18
Meditation: Ps. 130-131; Eph. 6:5-9
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with community group
And: Kingdom Come prayer

For the Ephesians text, read with your own work in mind. The “slaves” addressed here held valuable positions in society, often working as house staff, cooks, letter-carriers, etc. They were men and women with authority and under authority—like almost all workers today. So when you read this passage, don’t picture “Django: Unchained”; picture the staff at “Downton Abbey.” So as you reflect on the value of your secular or ministry work in Ephesians 6, get ready to add to it the great King David’s meditation that his heart is not too high or lifted up. How could someone with so much workplace responsibility (the chief leader of a million-person nation), legitimately pray such a thing?

Day 19
Meditation: Ps. 132; Eph. 6:10-17
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Prayer for others

Day 20
Meditation: Ps. 133-134; Eph. 6:18-24
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: 24-hour fast from food

I’m not an expert on fasting from food, and given my recent and chronic sicknesses, I may fast from something other than food, so I want to recommend a handful of resources from John Piper. (Teaser: Will J-Pipes make it into the Pantheon of Protestants? If so, will he make Level 4 (top 15) or a be an L5 (top five) guy? Tune in whenever I actually write the essay.)

If you’re new to fasting from food, I recommend starting by fasting from dinner to dinner—so eat both dinners, but fast the 24 hours in between. If you regularly do lunch meetings, then you can easily fast from lunch to lunch. Just be careful: you’ll be tempted to break the fast with a huge bacon hamburger, but after going 24 hours without food, your whole body will hate you for about eight hours. Instead, break a fast with a small salad or some fruits and vegetables. Lastly, if you have had recent struggles with an eating disorder or are tempted to fast simply for quick weight loss, instead seek the counsel of your friends and spiritual leaders, and trust their judgment.

When fasting is done under the right conditions and as a way of cultivating deep hunger for God, it is a hugely life-giving spiritual rhythm. I recommend at some point reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which includes a chapter on fasting. (One final note: I don’t recommend a 40-day food fast unless you are the second coming of Elijah (or is it “the third,” depending on your understanding of John the Baptist?), and even then I’d want to talk it through in community and work with a good MD. I had a Christian friend in college who tried to fast for 40 days, and his body began to shut down around day five and he had explosive diarrhea while walking across campus. Turns out he wasn’t the Second/Third Elijah.)

We’ll see you in a few days, friends!

4.

Welcome back, saintly workout warriors. I spent most of the morning in silence and solitude (hashtag: humble brag) and the afternoon getting caught up on work projects, so just a quick set of assignments for days 21-30 here.

Side note: When I was in college and part of a great parachurch ministry, there was a lot of spiritual competitiveness going on, and I could never quite keep up, so I devised a clever plan and named my bed the Word. Thus, conversations would go something like this.

Crusade Frat Guy: What up, player!
Me: That’s getting old.
CFG: Hey, hold up, dog; I noticed you were a few minutes late to O Chem-my. What the deal?
Me: Oh, yeah; I spent some extra time in the Word this morning.
CFG: Oh, tight. Seek that Kingdom, dog. “Clear eyes, full hearts”…
Me: “Holy Spirit.”
CFG: Yeah baby.. See you on the flip, bro squad.


Day 21
Meditation: Proverbs 1:1-7; Mark 1
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: Extended Bible reading: Psalm 119

Day 22
Meditation: Proverbs 1:8-19; Mark 2
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Sunday worship gathering and service
And: Fast from TV and social media

Day 23
Meditation: Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 3
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Read a spiritual classic

Day 24
Meditation: Proverbs 2:1-11; Mark 4
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Kingdom Come prayer

Day 25
Meditation: Proverbs 2:12-22; Mark 5
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with community group
And: Life review

Day 26
Meditation: Proverbs 3:1-10; Mark 6
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a family member
And: Prayer for others

Day 27
Meditation: Proverbs 3:10-20; Mark 7
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Journal about past week

Day 28
Meditation: Proverbs 3:21-35; Mark 8
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: Extended Bible reading: 1-2 Peter

Day 29
Meditation: Proverbs 4:1-19; Mark 9
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Sunday worship gathering and service
And: Fast from TV and social media

Day 30
Meditation:  Proverbs 4:20-27; Mark 10
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Read a spiritual classic

Until next time, bro squads:
Be easy.

5.

Homestretch! And time to get into some Old Testament narrative with the immensely significant first half of Exodus. These readings are longer than the ones we began with, but don’t lose the practice of slow, meditative reading, and consider picking one or two verses to pray back to the Father after reading through the chapters.

Day 31
Meditation: Exodus 1-2; Mark 11
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Kingdom Come prayer

Day 32
Meditation: Exodus 3-4; Mark 12
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with community group
And: Life review

Day 33
Meditation: Exodus 5:1-7:7; Mark 13
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: Journal about past week

As you enter the last three chapters of Mark, you’ll notice the speed of the narrative slow dramatically. Mark 1-8 covers roughly three years of Jesus’ ministry. Mark 9-13 covers about a week. And chapters 14-15, some 120 verses, describe the final 24 hours of Jesus’ life in great detail. (Spoiler alert: It’s not really his last 24 hours!) Because of the importance of the final events of Jesus’ life, and the length of these chapters, we’ll slow down and meditate more deeply on fewer verses.

Day 34
Meditation: Exodus 7:8-10:29; Mark 14:1-11
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Read a spiritual classic

Day 35
Meditation: Exodus 11-12; Mark 14:12-31
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Extended Bible reading: 1-3 John

Although this plan has you reading Mark’s gospel instead of the apostle John’s, keep in mind the context of John’s three letters. John was one of the dear friends of Jesus—most likely, “the one Jesus loved.” Remember that everything John writes to his church comes out of the deep, personal experience of spending every day with our Lord for three years! (No wonder he speaks so much of love for one another.)

Day 36
Meditation: Exodus 13-14; Mark 14:32-52
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Sunday worship gathering and service
And: Fast from TV and social media

Day 37
Meditation: Exodus 15; Mark 14:53-15:20
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a family member
And: Kingdom Come prayer

Day 38
Meditation: Exodus 16-18; Mark 15:21-47
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Call a friend
And: Prayer for others

Day 39
Meditation: Exodus 19-20; Mark 16:1-8
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with community group
And: Life review

Day 40
Meditation: Exodus 33-34; Mark 16:9-20
Heart at rest prayer
Community: Gather with friends
And: 24-hour fast from food

Forgive me for jumping over Exodus 21-32. It’s no less inspired by God than chapters 33-34. But given the rapidly closing window of 40 days, jump right to these two powerful chapters. “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Think about that for a while.

And when you’re done with the resurrection texts of Mark 16, and you’ve read Exodus 34:29-35 about the radiant face of Moses, you get one more bonus assignment. Read 2 Corinthians 3:7-18. And think about this for a while: we will, like Moses, have radiant faces through turning to Christ—reflecting his glory and being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory from the Holy Spirit. I think I could dwell on these passages for a lifetime. And if you want to throw in Psalm 34 (“those who look to the Lord are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame”), all the better!

Much love to you, friends.

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