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.