Spiritual Skills

Continuing in the theme of posts based on sermons, a year or so ago I preached a series of 12 sermons on what have commonly been called the “Spiritual Disciplines.”  Several people said to me at the time that I should make them more widely available, and so over the coming weeks I hope to rewrite them into posts for this blog.  [Edit: The best laid plans!  When I wrote this I couldn’t have predicted how 2020 would turn out.  I may return to these posts at some point, but for now they are on hold.]

The 12 skills are taken from Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline.  They are Prayer, Fasting, Meditation, Study, Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service, Celebration, Confession, Guidance, and Worship.  While Foster’s book was a useful aid in my writing, I haven’t always approached these areas in the same way he did.

“Discipline” is a difficult word for many, not one that fills us with joy and optimism, so I’m opting for the title “Spiritual Skills”, which hopefully captures the essence of these as areas which we want to develop, practice, and become better at.  My aim in these posts is to be practical and encouraging, as we seek to grow in our relationship with God in Jesus.

That relationship is at the heart of Christian faith.  By definition, a Christian is one who is in relationship with the God of the universe; he is our Father, we are his children.  Like all relationships, this has highs and lows.  There are times of great excitement and joy together, and times that need more work.  Sometimes the other person feels close, physically or emotionally, and sometimes they feel distant.  Our relationship with God is no different.

You may be able to think of times when God has felt particularly close, the Holy Spirit has moved in amazing ways, and you have been full of joy and peace.  That may be in a big worship event at a Christian festival, at the top of a mountain gazing over God’s beautiful creation, in the silence of a magnificent Cathedral, or wherever it is for you.

We sometimes call these ‘mountain-top experiences’.  They are wonderful, but we can’t stay on top of the mountain for ever.  We have to climb back down into the valley.  Those experiences are so intense, so life-changing, that we want more.  If we are not careful we can fall into the trap of constantly chasing the next one, the next intense experience of God, the next high.  We will do anything and everything to find it, and if it doesn’t come… then what?  We risk putting all our efforts into chasing the highs, at the expense of learning how to live in the normal.

A marriage built on nothing more than the intense first flush of love, or lust, will fail when that feeling passes and there is nothing to sustain it through the difficult times.  A friendship with no foundation other than shared enjoyment of experiences will flounder when one person needs the support of the other through darker times.  So too our faith, if built on nothing more than wanting an intense experience of God, will not last in the time when those experiences are not available to us.

So what then?  How do we build a faith, a relationship with God, which can sustain us through the valleys, when God is present but not with the intensity of the miraculous experiences of the mountain tops.

I believe these Spiritual Skills are key to this.  Like all aspects of a relationship they need practice and development.  We will all have some skills where we are stronger, and others which we recognise as a weakness.  That should not be a cause of despair, but rather a starting point to encourage us to work at these things, to develop our relationship with God in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  My hope and prayer is that the Holy Spirit will use what I write here to aid that process for at least some of those who will read it.

A “sinful” woman

I don’t often preach “narrative” sermons, but yesterday preaching on the “sinful” woman anointing Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) I felt led to this retelling of the story from her perspective.  Several members of the congregation commented on how it drew them into the scene and allowed God to speak to them, so I offer it here with the prayer that it will do similarly to others.

She was used to being on the margins, excluded, looked down upon.  All her adult life it had been the same, ever since she had chosen her career.  Not that it had been choice, at least at first, more necessity.  The need to eat, the need for clothes, for a roof over her head, had driven her to sell the only thing she had which anyone would buy, her own body.

She saw the looks of course, saw the distain, heard the comments, sensed the disapproval.  Those religious types were the worst, doing nothing to hide their contempt for one such as her – dirty, unclean, excluded, a stain on society.

But he was different, the one they called Yeshua.  She had watched from a distance, seen how he interacted with the crowd, how he looked at people, how he spoke to people. She’d seen the compassion on his face, the tenderness as he reached out to heal, the gentleness as he spoke to people.

He’d caught her eye once – her instinct as always had been to look away, but somehow she couldn’t. He’d known exactly who she was of course – she couldn’t hide it these days, the way she dressed, and her profession wasn’t exactly kind on her body.  He’d known, as countless others before had known.  But there was something different in his response, in the look on his face, those eyes piercing deep into her, but with no hatred, only kindness.  And that look on his face, a new one to her, radiating pure love.  She didn’t see that – lust, yes, she saw that countless times each day – but not love.

Yes, this one was different.  Just that momentary look, but she knew in that moment that he loved her, that he would accept her – knew too that he could heal her, that the compassion he had shown to others would be available to her too.  And knew in that moment that she too loved him.

Wanting to show that love, but what could she offer to such a man – she had only one thing to offer to men, and somehow she knew this one wouldn’t be interested in that.  But she had to do something, to return the love that had been in that look.  All she had was that little jar of perfume, maybe she could give that to him, as a gift, all that she had.

Following him to the house where he is going for dinner, bribing a servant to let her in with the promise that she will make it worth his while later.  And suddenly she was there, at his feet, standing by the one who loved her.  The emotion takes over, and she’s crying, unable to hold it back any more, deep sobs wracking her body – releasing all that pent up guilt and shame at who she is, who she has become – longing to be able to change, to put all that behind her.

Her tears flowing from her, running down over her cheeks, dripping down onto his feet.  Desperately looking round for something to wipe them away, but she cannot see a cloth, so she grabs the only thing she has to hand, her long hair, fingers fumbling to undo the braids to let hang loose, to blot away the tears.  But still they keep flowing, running down in great rivers onto his feet, and she keeps wiping.  And then the jar of perfume in her hand, yes, that is what she must do, she pours it onto those feet, kissing them, anointing him, a symbol of her love, her devotion, her service of this man who has still not even said a word to her – but who deep down she knows is someone special, someone she must honour, love, serve, devote herself to.

She starts slightly as he speaks.  But not to her, he’s talking to another man.  She recognises him: Simon, the man whose house this is – one of those hyper-critical religious types.  She knows what he thinks of her, he’s made that abundantly clear on so many occasions.  Yeshua is telling him a story – a story about debt, about forgiveness – oh how she longs to feel that forgiveness.

But now he’s talking about her, talking to Simon about her.  Her actions, what she is doing for him – he’s noticed, he’s appreciated her little act of love, so small and insignificant, but Yeshua has noticed.  Then those words, words which strike straight to her heart – words she had longed to hear, but barely even dared to hope she ever would,  from anyone, least of all from one such as this: “Her sins are forgiven.”  Is that her, does he mean her?  Has she missed something as she tunes in and out of the conversation? Is he really saying she can be forgiven? It’s almost as if he senses her doubt, because he’s turning now to face her, fixing her with that look again, the one that goes straight through her – but the kindness in his voice as he says it again, directly to her this time, “Your sins are forgiven.”

She can sense the tension in the room, hear the mutterings, the murmurings, the disquiet.  It’s there, but it’s not there, fading away, insignificant.  Let them mutter, let them disapprove, she no longer cares what they think.  All that matters is Yeshua, what he thinks, those kind eyes, the smile on his face, those immortal words “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Peace, yes, in that moment, a peace she has never known before, never imagined could be known.  Deep peace, flowing as it were from him, into her, through her.  Peace with herself, peace of heart and mind, a deep, healing peace.  Peace in knowing that he forgives her, and that once Yeshua has forgiven then life will never be the same again.