Richard Foster on Teaching the Spiritual Disciplines to Your Church and Your Children

Richard Foster on Teaching the Spiritual Disciplines to Your Church and Your Children September 30, 2011
Richard Foster

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Richard Foster — he has a new book out, Sanctuary for the Soul — and speak with him about contemplative prayer in the modern world.  Foster is a marvel of grace and humility and wisdom.  I couldn’t decide what to do with this material, since it was too long to publish as a single article.  But it’s rich, and worth reading.  So I’ll separate it into coherent segments and publish it over the next couple weeks.  Throughout the interview he flipped through his Bible and read the passages he discussed.

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How can pastors help the men and women in their congregations to rediscover spiritual disciplines such as meditative prayer?

I would suggest that they begin with themselves. I would suggest that they come along on this for a couple of years by themselves. Enter the experience. Then they can bring others along with them. Look for people who are hungry for Life, and say, “Come with me.” And let’s see what we can learn together.

It’s not hard. You don’t have to develop a big program or anything. You just say, ‘This is what I’m learning. Would you like to learn it with me? We’ll meet together, learn to pray together…and we don’t look for a big anything. Let’s start with two or three people.” Take the first 4-5 years and see what happens with a small group. See if they can learn to still that frantic need to impress. That’s how a pastor begins: with themselves, with a few others, and it should very naturally flow out of that as time goes along. It will be tied to lots of experiences, lots of trials, tribulations. That’s all part of the deal.

It’s a quiet revolution. It’s not usually dramatic in any major way. We need to come to value that as a good thing. We learn the value of anonymity. This will not get you on any television show. It isn’t hard to get on television – just do something really stupid. And it’s no compliment. People who live and walk in faithfulness in this life will be basically unknown and unappreciated. And that’s just fine with them. So, pastors need to recognize the goodness of that – and not feel any great need to be important in the ecclesiastical affairs of life.

You know, the prophets are crucified, but only in Jerusalem. It’s very fine to be out in the little corners where nobody pays any attention to you.

Now, if something happens, and you become well known, there’s nothing wrong with that either. St. Anthony became known, but he didn’t try to. He hid from those who sought him out.

When we think of the spiritual disciplines, we too often think of adults going away to retreat centers in the mountains. What can parents do to help their children cultivate these skills and practices?

When our kids were little, I would often come in and set them down. We’d talk about how the day has gone and what’s up. After a while, I would say, “Let’s be still for a moment. Whatever it is…thank God for whatever has transpired. Let’s listen together.” Little children can do that. They can be quiet. Not for long, but they can be still for a moment. And become aware. Go for a hike in the woods and say, ‘The trees, nature, they’re always doing the will of the Father.’ So I would say to our son, let’s go and see the will of the Father. Let’s see what that teaches us.”

This isn’t some kind of big deal. It’s beautiful. Why not? Kids can do that. Our Renovare team now has developed a ministry among children. Paula Frost runs that. Our grandkids all love Paula. They always come to her conferences. She will take whatever we are working on, say the great streams of contemplative, holiness, evangelical, charismatic…she’ll teach that to the children in age-appropriate ways. They can do it. They can listen. They can pray.

One time, my son Nathan was ill. He was about four or five, and I went in to say his nighttime prayer. I said look, you don’t feel good. It’s like all these bad soldiers are inside you, beating you up. We’re going to pray that God will send a bunch of good soldiers in there to beat up the bad ones, help you get well. He got into it. But then he added, that the good soldiers would beat up all the bad soldiers by morning.

I didn’t say anything. The next morning, he comes running in, jumps in the bed. He says, “There are only two or three bad little soldiers left.” This was his way of saying he was feeling better. He wasn’t sitting there worried that there were a few left. He was just feeling better. Little kids learn how to pray. We learn to pray with the imagination, and sense that God is with us. And what the kids are learning is life with God. That’s what they’re learning. That’s more important than any of the other things. As we go along. And we walk with them through disappointments. If their friend dies, we ask how God is with us in this.

The first verse I ever memorized, myself personally as a young Christian, was not John 3:16. It was 1 Peter 1:7, “Let the trial of your ….though it be tried with fire, might be found with praise and honor and glory at the appearing of JC.” The reason that verse was the first I memorized as a young teenager was because my parents were dying, both of them. I had prayed that they might get well, and it wasn’t to be. I had to learn to live with that. To learn the presence of God with that, because those kinds of disappointments were going to come. If they haven’t to people, they will, but we better build a faith that’s strong enough to handle it.

And we have such a rosy-tinted view of life that a lot of people can’t survive it when things don’t go well. Today, it’s the quest for the holy grin [shows manic grin]. We need a much tougher, more rugged faith than that.

In the story of Bathsheba, Nathan tells David “you’re the man” who has dishonored God. The consequence could have been that the child he had conceived with Bathsheba would die. But David doesn’t take that. He goes in and fasts and prays for seven days. When the child dies, the servants were afraid to tell him. As they say, “He may do himself some harm.” That’s Hebrew understatement. They thought he would commit suicide. That was their faith. If the prayer works, great. If it doesn’t, then it’s disaster. “But when David realized that the child was dead, he washed himself, anointed himself, changed his clothes, went into the house of the Lord and worshiped.” That’s the faith of David. The child died, and David worships the Lord. That’s what we need to carry us through, because there’s a lot of loss and sadness and brokenness and we have to learn to walk with people through that.

That’s where meditative prayer is such a help, because it builds deep wells for these kinds of days.

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  • I’m glad Richard mentioned Paula’s work w/ children – great to hear that news! We’d hoped to meet Richard when we visited his church where our friend, Todd, led music for awhile. His book, Celebration of Discipline, was a gift I gave to my mom when I was in my early 20’s shortly before she died of cancer. She loved it, because she regained a sense of joy in her own Quaker heritage (though the Hicksite influence was stronger on our immediate family & connections w/Swarthmore College). Yet, she encouraged me to pray, even though she wasn’t healed, physically, and our broken family remained broken. Her habit of deep time in Scripture and quiet meditation and Meeting still is reflected in my walk, today.

  • DonnaKWallace

    Thank you, Tim, for sharing your dialog with us. Richard Foster has been one of my fathers in the faith when I found so little instruction from those in mega churches gunning for numbers and ambition all around me. I have often wondered how Richard would go about parenting little children.

  • Sr. Cynthia

    While I greatly appreciate what’s said here, one thing that always gripes me about interview questions like this is the unspoken assumption that only “pastors,” meaning ordained clergy, are capable of transmitting spiritual disciplines to others. By virtue of their baptism, all Christians are ministers and therefore authorized to do what Richard Foster talks about here. Why can’t Patheos do more to hold up the gifts, graces and abilities of us lay folks?

  • Philip

    Totally agree, I have been a believer for more close to 30 years yet meditative prayer and, perhaps, just be still with God, is so little mentioned in church. We really can’t stand up to difficult times in life if we aren’t living in His presence, nor can we enjoy His peace and joy that’s really our promised land in Him. My mom is suffering lung cancer now and I have to learn to live in His presence so that I can face the pain everyday.

  • Cynthia, you are right. I’m no theologian with high degrees, and that certainly is important, but there is also a basic human need that we all greatly desire. We all long to heard. I see your role and mine as offering “balm” for humanity’s hurts. I’m a Spiritual Director, called to be a Holy Listener like the Mommy or Daddy who sits at the child’s bedside and hears what that dear one has to say. How often do we just need someone to please listen while we sort out our thoughts? We seek the God who, as Paula D’Arcy has said, “…comes to you disguised as your life.” The spiritual guide walks with another through the sadness and brokenness of life. We listen,and in doing so, we find ourselves awe struck by how the Holy Spirit works in the others life and our own when all we did was “just listen.”