Finding Foster

Long before Richard Foster authored one of the 20th century’s most iconic Christian books, Celebration of Discipline, he was a self-described “average student” at George Fox in the early 1960s, playing pranks, wrestling for Bruin Junior and learning a love for words under longtime religion professor Arthur Roberts.

Recently the renowned author, speaker and theologian returned to campus for his 50th class reunion and also to serve as commencement speaker, encouraging the Class of 2014 to recognize the immense significance of living what may seem like an ordinary life.

It’s been 50 years since you graduated from George Fox. What memories come to mind as you walk across campus?

It’s wonderful to see the canyon. Many of the trees there are the same – they’re old friends. They have grown a bit older and taller … I’ve just grown older! I also think of the people, like Arthur Roberts and Lon Fendall. Lon and I established a ministry called “Youth Accent,” and we would travel together to various churches to speak. Sometimes Howard Macy would join us and play the trumpet.

What are some of the crazy things you did as an undergrad student?

We had old Bruin Junior fights. And one time Ken VandenHoek – or maybe it was Lon Fendall – and I took an old two-seat outhouse and set it up in the middle of Wood-Mar Hall. We put it up in the middle of the night. No point to it. Just college guys having fun.

How did your George Fox education impact you?

I learned many things, of course, but the most important thing I came away with was a sense of the greatness and goodness of God and the importance and preciousness of people.

Who was the professor who had the greatest impact on you?

Arthur Roberts. I was a pretty average student and had to work harder than most to get the grades. But he was always quite attentive to me. And he loved words. It was his love of words – the beauty of words, words as a communicator of grace and beauty – that led me to become a writer. As a student I used words as propaganda; he used words to convey life. I will always remember his care with words.

Describe your typical day as a writer …

I spend all morning taking out commas and all afternoon putting them back in. That’s my day. I’ve written around eight books or so on my own and a number of books with other people, including one with a George Fox alumnus, Gayle Beebe.

What are your impressions of George Fox all these years later? What’s changed? What hasn’t?

Naturally there have been changes, but there is a continuity over the 50 years that is really rather striking. And the region isn’t that much different. This is a special place to me. A few years back Carolynn and I had to decide where we would be buried. We picked the Chehalem Valley. We took a picture of us standing at our gravesite and gave it to our kids. We told them, “This is the before picture; you have to take the after picture!”

What was your message at the May 3 commencement ceremony? Why this message?

I was planning a rather complicated speech on “the importance of the liberal arts,” but our granddaughter Autumn advised me to “speak to how most of the graduates will actually live and what they need.” So, I spoke about how most of us will live rather ordinary lives but tried to emphasize the immense significance of that ordinary life. It’s best summed up by the words of the French paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said, “Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things as to do ordinary things with a perception of their enormous value.”

While we’re on the subject of young people, what are your thoughts on reaching this generation with the gospel?

We reach young people in exactly the same way we reach out to anyone. We get to know them, become their friend and take an interest in what they are interested in. And we have to have a lot of patience in this work because young people, understandably, are terribly distracted. We have to be with people long enough so that those distractions can begin to drop away, so we become their friend. Gospel work is relational work. Always!

Let’s talk about the impact of your past work – particularly Celebration of Discipline. Did you have any idea it would become as popular and iconic as it has?

Even with little advertising, it went around the world – 26 languages I think. In 2000, I was at a conference in London when word came that Christianity Today named it one of the top 10 religious books of the 20th century. The conference manager called me with the news: “ CT has just printed their list of the top 100 books for the 20th century. You are in the top 10, and you are the only author still living in that top-10 list.” At the time I had the flu and felt terrible, so my response to him was to croak out, “barely living!”

What’s the message in the book that you think most resonates with believers?

Celebration was written for all those who are disillusioned by the superficialities of modern culture, including modern religious culture. I think this message resonated with people because of the deep longing for substance in the spiritual life. That longing continues to this day. Back then evangelism frankly had come to the end of its tether. People were asking, “What am I to be converted to?” You see, they did not see a substantive difference in the lives of Christians. Celebration worked on issues that have been posed for centuries, like, “What constitutes a good life?” and “How can I become a good person.” I was trying to introduce people to the great conversation about the growth of the soul and to interact with that tradition. I was seeking to help people see how the classical disciplines of the spiritual life are a means of grace for the transformation of the human personality into the image of Christ.

You wrote a follow-up book, titled Money, Sex and Power. That’s a pretty provocative title for a Quaker author …

It was funny. Back then the publisher heard that people would bring the book out of the bookstore in a brown paper bag. So they changed the title to The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex and Power. I personally like the original title better, but it was a little risqué for folks, I suppose.

What was the message of that book?

I was studying the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and I wondered, “Why did they pick those three?” I concluded they were responding to the three great issues in human life: money, sex and power. Their answer to those was poverty for money, chastity for sex, obedience for power. I proposed a different set of vows – simplicity (for money), fidelity (for sex) and service (for power) – as a modern-day response.

Tell me about Renovaré, the nonprofit you founded that helps individuals and churches grow in Christ through the practice of classical spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, meditation, etc.)

The idea for Renovaré came during an 18-month period where I felt led to be quiet. About six months into that time the vision for Renovaré came tumbling forth. I remember speaking out loud to no one in particular, “This won’t succeed,” because I know something about how movements come about and the resources that are needed . . . none of which I had. The startling response was all grace and mercy. It seemed as if God was saying, “I’m not asking you to succeed. Just be out there and see what happens.” So, I gathered a group of folks from around the world and for some 20-plus years now we have been sharing with people the great news about this wonder-filled “with-God” kind of life, and that through a process of time and experience we can be formed into the image of Christ. Remember the words of Paul to the Galatians, “I am in travail until Christ be formed in you” (4:19). We sum up all these ideas in our Renovaré covenant, “In utter dependence upon Jesus Christ as my ever-living Savior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend I will seek continual renewal through spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts and acts of service.”

What are you passionate about?

Certainly words are important, but not just words by themselves but as communicators of life to human beings. So I invest in people by communicating things that I feel are worthwhile. That is what drives me.

Who are your mentors and role models?

Dallas Willard from USC was a great friend. Historically, Augustine and Teresa of Ávila. Also Julian of Norwich. And, of course, George Fox and John Woolman. In the 20th century, I’d have to say Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Any forthcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

I’ve been working on a project on spiritual direction. But I am thinking of the informal, even unexpected ways we discover spiritual direction. I’d like to write about some people in my own history that in surprising ways were spiritual directors for me, and so this book will have an element of memoir to it.

What are your hobbies/interests?

Hiking. That’s what I do virtually every day. Recently I got into a snowstorm in Castlewood Canyon. It was great, glorious. Nothing dangerous. It just snowed and snowed and was almost surreal.

What’s one little-known fact about you?

I like to watch old M*A*S*H episodes. I don’t care much for TV, but that old show is great fun. Also, about 10 years ago I learned I had a grandmother who was Native American (Chippewa). When I learned that I decided to let my hair grow as a tribute to that wonderful heritage. At the time Carolynn said to me, “You’d better grow it while you still have a chance!” And, as you can see, my hair is now disappearing rather rapidly.

What would you like to be remembered for?

If people can say, “his was a life that was well lived,” that would suffice. Jeremy Taylor wrote a book entitled Holy Living and Holy Dying. I think I’d like to work on that first one for a while, holy living. If we can learn about “holy living” I imagine the “holy dying” will care for itself.