“Self-Discipline means to train ourselves to control our thoughts and feelings, words and actions, so we can become the best version of ourselves. Through self-discipline, we practice perseverance and preparation to effectively use our gifts and talents in any situation we are put in.”
This definition of our monthly virtue given to us by our chaplains stresses the importance of training and practice. As we know from our academic pursuits, our sports teams, and our choir rehearsals, it is only through dedicated and often daily work that we are able to master any skill. Our spiritual lives are no different.
If you have been listening carefully over the past few years in chapel, you already know that while I am Head of the Episcopal School of Dallas, I am not an Episcopalian. Instead, I was raised and remain a practicing Catholic, and my faith brings me great strength as I navigate the ups and downs of life, particularly in the last several months. As you know from celebrating Ash Wednesday in chapel yesterday, we are just starting the season of Lent, one of the most important times in the Christian calendar - important because of the focus it brings to the central story of Christianity - Jesus’s sacrifice for us on the cross. During these forty days, the church asks us to consider how we can prepare ourselves through our daily practice to be Christ-like so as to best celebrate and live out his example of suffering and redemption.
What may be counterintuitive then is that today I do not want to use this homily to talk first about the Gospel. In fact, I will not start by talking about Christianity at all. Instead, I want to present another set of spiritual practices, self-disciplines, if you will, which I have been exposed to that have had a profound impact on my spiritual life. By telling you about them, I hope you will gain an appreciation for them and those who practice them and see how we can learn so much from the people around us.
Thirty-three years ago, I was lucky enough to convince Mrs. Baad to marry me; some may wonder how I managed that. I will leave it to her to justify her decision. A native of Morocco, she, like just about every other citizen of that North African country, was raised as a Muslim. As a follower of Islam - which translated into English means “submission to the will of God” - she was taught the five pillars of the faith:
- Shahada: to declare one’s faith in God and belief in Muhammad as God’s last and most important prophet in a line of prophets that includes Jesus, Moses, and Abraham.
- Salat: to pray five times a day (at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening)
- Zakat: to give to those in need
- Sawm: to fast during the month of Ramadan
- Hajj: to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during a person’s lifetime if the person is able
Mrs. Baad and I have made it a practice during our marriage to participate as we could in each other’s faith traditions. A few years ago, those of you who were here may remember me talking about how her family showed me great kindness by celebrating Christmas when I was in Morocco.
Early in our marriage, I joined Mrs. Baad twice in celebrating the month of Ramadan - this year scheduled to begin in about a month on April 2nd. During this month, a healthy adult Muslim’s religious obligation is to fast each day from sunrise to sunset - no food, no water, no earthly pleasures of any kind while the sun is up. The purpose of the fast is to develop a spiritual purity that comes from feeling some of the physical and emotional emptiness that those less fortunate than we can feel when they have nothing to eat or drink. Additionally, there is a discipline of self-denial, which is powerful. Despite the ache in your stomach, the dryness of your throat, and the light-headedness that accompanies the low sugar levels, you must find a way to continue your workday, continue operating normally without so much as a sip of water.
When I fasted during Ramadan, I felt the same hunger and more. Not only was there empathy for the poor that rose up within me but also there was a strong sense of gratitude - gratitude that I was hungry by choice, a privilege that many in our world do not have. There was gratitude as well that God has provided me the means to feed myself every day, a luxury not enjoyed by all. These feelings that welled up inside of me during my observance of Ramadan have never left. I have developed an appreciation for the gifts I have been given because of the opportunity to practice self-discipline in this way. Twenty-nine or thirty straight days of fasting during the daylight hours is no joke, folks! It was a powerful spiritual exercise that only deepened the strength of my Christian faith. It was strengthened because of the shared belief between Christianity and Islam of the importance of feeling empathy for and helping the poor and the hungry. One feels this profoundly through the self-discipline that fasting can provide. It was impactful for me.
The second self-discipline I witnessed while interacting with my wife’s Muslim family was in the power of prayer. An observant Muslim is required at five different times during the day to stop whatever they are doing, give thanks to God, and meditate on the place God has in their lives. In a Muslim country, when it is time for prayer, you will hear “the call” sung through the PA system of each local mosque. A religious official will recite the ancient words which remind Muslims of their obligation to halt their daily activities and pray. Someone once asked me if I was made to feel uncomfortable as a Christian in a Muslim country when this was occurring. My reaction was actually quite the opposite. I was moved to see their devotion to God and inspired by it.
I was so inspired that I have made daily Christian prayer a part of my routine. Their self-discipline reminded me of the calming power of routine prayer and worship. We are lucky at ESD that our founders saw that same wisdom. Our Founding Tenet of daily worship gives us a routine opportunity to thank God and be reminded of his role and presence in the same way.
What you may have noticed earlier is that the three of the five tenets of the Muslim faith are identical to the call that many Christians are asked to perform during Lent. Father Nate talked about them yesterday. Just this Sunday, my pastor implored all of us to attend daily mass, to pray daily, fast for periods during Lent, and give to the poor in a way that forces us into the self-discipline of self-denial. In other words, take a daily habit you spend money on, maybe that daily cup of coffee at Starbucks, for instance, or perhaps some other indulgence you could go without and use that money to help others.
Let’s wonder for a minute what other image we might conger to encourage our Lenten discipline.
One reason we read the Bible and we study the lives of saints is that they offer us role models by which we can construct our spiritual lives. For instance, I have always been intrigued by John the Baptist - the voice in the wilderness who dressed modestly and ate only locusts and honey as he prepared for Jesus’s arrival. These characters allow us to set high and usually unattainable standards of how we might get closer to God. Perhaps, though, in striving to meet them, we improve.
In today’s Gospel, we heard the story of the Presentation. This is the time when Jesus’s parents brought him as a newborn to the Temple for consecration. There he was immediately recognized by the elder Simeon as the Messiah. While Simeon knew that Jesus would bring salvation to the Jewish people, he also knew that Jesus and his mother would go through great suffering.
The other character in this story is one less noted, but I ask you to consider. The prophet Anna is described as a widow who, after her husband’s death, spent the next eighty-four years never leaving God’s holy temple, devoting herself to fasting and prayer. I imagine her there, day after day, waiting patiently, waiting for God. Sometimes I wonder what that type of devotion must feel like - that of a modern-day monk or nun who closes themselves off completely from this world and thinks only of God. I do not have the calling or maybe the courage to make such a commitment. Few of us do. But I do think that maybe if we can incorporate at least a little bit of Anna’s complete spiritual self-discipline in our lives, we may get a glimpse of how she became closer to God - how she was able to immediately identify the revelation that was embodied in Jesus at the Presentation.
Yesterday Father Nate talked about how Lent should include the spiritual practice of fasting or self-denial from one indulgence and the addition or inclusion of a challenging practice that promotes our devotion. My prayer for all of us today is that the Holy Spirit can guide us to that one bit of fasting and one bit of prayer that brings us closer to God. May our self-discipline of Lent train us and prepare us to be the best version of ourselves.