Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 7 Jan 2018 18:00

This is the text of Mike's teaching on Spiritual Disciplines at Worship and Word on 7th Jan 2018.

Welcome! I’m excited! I’m excited by this service. I’m excited by what God has in store for this church. I’m excited by what I perceive to be a new phase in our life together as the body of Christ in this place. I think that God is calling us into a time of numerical growth. I think that over the next 12 months the spirit will be working in our parish through your faithful life and witness to call new disciples into a journey of faith and to gather up disciples who have fallen by the wayside into a fresh journey. It’s going to be exciting and humbling to see God at work through you and me to bring resurrection into the lives of people here.

But. And this is a big but. I believe that this numerical growth will come about alongside a deepening and growth in our own discipleship. God is calling us all into greater closeness with him this year. You and I are being invited to grow into an increasingly confident people of God and to find ourselves increasingly dependent on God’s grace.

I am convinced that God will be bring new faces to this church this year. But I am also afraid. I am afraid that if the new people God is calling here do not find a joyful and confident people, growing in grace and deepening discipleship, then they will find that we have no gospel to offer. If people do not walk through that door and find a church full of people joyfully living out forgiven lives, if they do not find a generous people of God, if they do not find people who are daily dying to sin and living in the power of the resurrection, then they will conclude that we have no hope to offer them. And they would be absolutely right. If we are not witnesses to forgiveness and resurrection in our own lives then why would anybody else conclude that they might experience those things?

 

And so Jason and I are calling all of us to a season of concerted effort on spiritual growth. I need to hear that call just as much as you do, and I’m sure Jason does too. None of us here are spiritual giants but I think we are being called together to a time of growing closer to the heart of God, a season of learning afresh what it means to follow Jesus, a period of supporting a challenging each other as we grow together.

This is why we felt it so important to use this service as a chance to look at some of the classical spiritual disciplines such as meditation, prayer, fasting, solitude, worship and service. There are a number of reasons for doing this. Firstly, all of the spiritual disciplines are attested and valued in scripture. They are things done by the heroes of the faith, many of them are also documented as being done by Jesus himself. Secondly, devoted and joyful Christians through the centuries have practiced these disciplines and testified to the grace they have experienced through them. If such a cloud of witnesses celebrates these things then we should think  carefully before dismissing them.

You might hear the term “spiritual discipline” and think it sounds rather austere and pious. The kind of thing practiced by those devoted to the religious life and especially “spiritual”. It may be true that such people are particularly interested in practising such disciplines, but the causation is usually from the discipline to the character. Those who seem particularly devoted and spiritual are probably that way because they invest in good spiritual disciplines; they do not do spiritual disciplines because they were already particularly spiritual.

Having said that, the term “spiritual discipline” does sound austere, and so sometimes I refer to such  things as “habits for strong discipleship”. However, that’s rather clumsy so “spiritual disciplines” will have to do as a convenient short hand. Besides, I think we’d do well to acknowledge that spiritual growth does take discipline; it takes patience and perseverance, it requires grace and it requires us to be willing to work at things again and again.

 

So who are the spiritual disciplines for? It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to think that this kind of thing is for the really devout, the extra-holy. The truth is that spiritual disciplines are a gift from God for all people, whether you can dedicate hours to the careful cultivation of your inner life or have huge demands on your time which makes time for God a precious commodity. Everyone will benefit from time doing spiritual disciplines, whether it’s an hour a day or 5 minutes.

 

I’m going to talk about meditation tonight, but before I do just a few words of warning. Firstly, spiritual disciplines will not make you into the Christian you want to be. Time devoted to spiritual disciplines will begin to mould you into the Christian God wants you to be. Those two people may well not be the same thing and so spiritual growth may be an uncomfortable experience. If so, rejoice! It’s probably a sign you’re doing something right.

 

Secondly, spiritual disciplines are NOT a way by which we produce our own spiritual growth. One of the central insights of Christian thought is that we cannot improve ourselves or grow ourselves by sheer force of will and determination. Growth and developments are gifts of God according to God’s grace. Spiritual disciplines are the ways in which God produces our spiritual growth.

That said, spiritual growth is clearly not just a passive process by which we sit back and let God do all the work. Shall we sin more so that grace may abound? By no means! Richard Foster gives the wonderful analogy of a farmer. No farmer can cause her own crop to grow. The growth of a seed is a natural process which the farmer does not cause. Instead, the farmer creates the right conditions for her seed to flourish. She tends the soil; she removes the weeds; she waters and provides drainage. A lazy farmer could do none of these things and still his seed would produce a modest crop. However, the disciplined farmer produces a great harvest because she has created a good environment for her seed.

Spiritual disciplines are the ploughing, pruning, weeding and watering of the soul’s garden. Even a modest application in this direction will give a greater opportunity for your soul to respond to God and flourish.

Before I talk about meditation take a few moments to reflect on what I’ve said with the people around you…

 

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Christian meditation is nothing more or less than the intention to listen for the voice of God and to obey his word. It is the practice of being in God’s presence. For most of us this involves the conscious effort to withdraw from the clamour of the world into quiet, but many Christians have testified to this habit enabling them to enjoy the presence of God almost permanently. Jesus certainly seems to have known the presence of God and yet even he withdrew from the crowds to spend intentional time with his Father.

Some people are uncomfortable with the term “meditation” because of its Eastern religious connotations. However, Christian meditation is not the same thing at all. Buddhist meditation is focussed on detachment and the stripping away of our illusions; this is seen as a valuable end in itself. Christian meditation does seek detachment from the noise and clamour of life, and the stripping away of our illusions. But this is a means to an end. We seek detachment from the things around us in order to make space for us to become more attached to God.

Others worry that meditation is other-worldly and a way of avoiding the concerns and troubles of this world. Nothing could be further from the truth! The aim of meditation is closer union with God in order that we can see the world as it truly is. If we can do this then we are in a better position to engage with the world. Many involved in Christian meditation attest that the insights they get through meditation are often rather mundane and help them to deal with this or that issue in their lives at the time.

 

I’m no expert in Christian meditation. Far from it! I appreciate it when I find the time and space to do it. Unfortunately, I don’t make as much time as I’d like. In fact, if there’s any interest I’d consider forming a small meditation group to explore the discipline together and to encourage one another.

I’m going to describe 2 methods of meditation tonight. One of which we can try together now, another you can try for homework. Your homework is called “Palms down, palms up”. The idea is to first release your concerns to God, and then to receive from God in order to see your concerns in a new light. It’s very simple. You find a comfortable position and place your palms face down on your lap. This is a gesture of letting go. Take a moment to silently go over in your mind the things that trouble you and then in the silence you can pray. “Lord, I release to you my anger at so and so, or such and such”. Or, “Lord, I hand over to you my painful relationship or my health worry”. Or, “Lord, I surrender my money problems or frustrations at work”.

Then, turn your palms face up as a gesture of being ready to receive from God. For each thing you have released to God, ask to receive it back but in God’s own way. “Lord, may I receive your love for that situation about which I’m angry”. “Lord, help me to see this painful relationship the way you see it”. “Lord, grant me your peace about my money troubles”. Then sit in silence and receive from God. Many you’ll hear some direction. Maybe you won’t. Either way is fine.

The second form of meditation is called “Lectio Divina” (divine reading) or “Meditatio Scriptorum” (meditation on Scripture). This is a meditative way of reading scripture that attempts to involve the imagination and senses in a way that enables God to use his written Word to speak to us today.

I’m not going to describe it, so we’ll just do it… (for those reading, please get in touch with Mike if you'd like to know about this method).

 

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I hope you’ve found that helpful. I hope you might attempt to try it on your own at home or perhaps in a small group. Perhaps make a note of the things that come to you as you go.

One final word of advice as we start to go deeper together. If the soul is a garden for us to tend in order to create the right setting for the grace of God to be received and to flourish then two things follow from the analogy.

Gardening is a long-term project. Sometimes we get a quick win and easy gratification, but most of the time we invest now in what we hope to see in the future. Stick at it. The fruit may take time to come.

Secondly, gardening is a little-and-often things. Successful gardeners will be doing bits in the garden throughout the year, even when everything looks dead. It might be possible to do an annual blitz and keep on top of a garden, but an hour a week is time better spent than 2 solid days every year. Spiritual disciplines are about ordering the whole of life in order to receive God in the whole of life. May God bless you and shower his grace upon you as you seek him this year.

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