Spiritual Practices 1 — Introduction

We’re going off-lectionary for a few weeks; our Lenten, and pre-Lenten, focus is on spiritual practices or spiritual disciplines. Our home groups will be looking at some chapters in Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, and the series will aim to help in their study of that book.

So let’s begin…

As we listen for the Word of God,
let us pray:
Christ, in your power and wisdom,
you take what is nothing
and show that God is there.
Give us the desire to know you
in the riches of your poverty,
that we may rise with you,
the source of eternal life
now and for ever. Amen.

Psalm 1
Matthew 5.1-12

What are spiritual practices?

For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about spiritual practices, or as Richard Foster calls them, spiritual disciplines. What is a spiritual practice? It’s  something like prayer, seeking God’s will, and worship. It’s something we do intentionally to give us space to keep company with Jesus and learn to know him better. If that sounds too spiritual for you, or too religious, think of the spiritual practices this way: they are ways of helping us to be human. And if that’s too airy-fairy for you, let’s put it this way: spiritual practices help us to get to age 70 or 50 or 30 without succumbing to crippling cynicism or to terminal grumpiness.

Spiritual practices are not a set of regulations. They are practices that allow us to see life in a new way, in God’s way.

We’re going to look at some of these practices as we move through Lent, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the victory of Jesus over death at Easter time. We’re in good company here. The very earliest Christians valued spiritual disciplines. In Acts chapter 2 we read,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

The early believers in Jesus ‘devoted themselves’ to things that gave space in their lives for Jesus to be present to them: the apostles’ teaching about Jesus, fellowship with other Christians, Holy Communion and set times for prayer.

Perhaps you can see that many of us have already taken on some spiritual practices or disciplines. If you come to church in an intentional and regular way, you have fellowship with other Christians. If you listen to teaching about Jesus, if you come for Communion, if you pray regularly, you are already doing some spiritual practices, practices that help you to keep company with Jesus. Practices that help us to become more the people he wants us to be, and in fact, more the people we want to be—more compassionate, more faithful, more hopeful people.

Psalm 1 talks about choosing to walk in the way the way of the Lord, and proclaims that a person who chooses God’s way is happy. These people

are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.

When you’re out driving and the country is dry, you can see where the creeks run. Its greener there, there’s a line of shrubs and trees whose roots have found water deep down in the earth. That’s what this psalm is saying. Be a person whose life is grounded in God.

These spiritual practices don’t work automatically. It’s not like going to a soft drink machine, putting your coins in and getting a can of lemonade. God doesn’t just appear when we pray or worship him, and we can’t do anything to make God speak to our hearts. We certainly don’t put God under any obligation to appear to us in any way.

In spiritual practices like prayer, worship and confession we are putting ourselves in a place where we can spend time with Jesus. We are running the risk of allowing ourselves to be changed.

I said that spiritual practices put us in a place where we can spend time with Jesus. Let me give you two examples which I hope will make clearer what I’m saying about spiritual practices.

Spiritual practices are like surfing. I’ve never surfed, but what if I decided to give it a go? So if I practise here and now, what’s wrong with that?

Well, there’s no water for a start. And I’m dressed in an alb, not the best surfing attire. And I’ve got no board.

I haven’t put myself in the right place to surf, have I? I’d need to be at the beach. I can’t control the waves—there may be big surf, or it may be flat—but to surf I have to put myself in the right place. And I have to prepare myself; I have to put togs on if I want to surf. (Perhaps I won’t!)

Spiritual practices are like this. They require our preparation, and they put us in a place where the waves of God’s presence may be able to roll over us. We can’t control God’s waves, just as we can’t control the waves of the sea. But we can prepare ourselves by praying, or reading the Bible, or coming to church to worship God. And then we are in a place in which God can speak.

The second example: In January last year, a pilot called Chesley Sullenberger brought an Airbus down safely in the Hudson River after a flock of geese got into the engines after take-off from the airport at New York.

All this pilot’s instincts had been trained so that when the moment came he didn’t have to stop to think what to do; it just ‘came naturally’.

Spiritual disciplines help us to know the Lord Jesus in such a way that we will ‘just naturally’ live in his company. We’ll make choices that help us to walk with him when times aren’t good. We’ll be like the person in Psalm 1 who walks in the way of the Lord. We’ll find the blessedness of those who know the Lord, the blessedness of the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who know they are poor in spirit and therefore need the Spirit of God.

Spiritual practices are not for extra special Christians. They’re basic. They are for everybody. They have been found throughout the 2000 years of the Christian story to deepen people’s lives. If I taught them in a college course, they’d be part of Christianity 101.

Next week: we’re going to look at prayer. We’re going to find out more about how spiritual practices can change us. In fact, we may realise that, in Richard Foster’s words, ‘To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.’


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