In the first half of the year, we spent a lot of time on the theme of Knowing Christ. We considered the idea that we are created for loving, intimate relationship with God our creator, who has revealed himself most fully in his son Jesus.
In one sense I wrapped that up before I went on holiday. But I’m not totally leaving it behind. I want to build on that theme in a new series over the next number of months.
The focus is slightly different. I suppose I’m asking things like…
- Who is this kind of spiritual life, or relationship with God for?
- Is it just for some kind of super religious elite?
- Or is it wider than that?
- What does the spiritual life look like?
- How do we grow in that relationship?
- Does it just grow by accident or do we need to nurture it?
- If we need to nurture it, how do we do that?
An expression I hear quite a lot is when people say they are spiritual, but not religious. I suppose they mean is that there is more to life than we realise, more than can be explained by our senses. Our world is mysterious. There is more to it than we realise. But equally they find ‘organised religion’ doesn’t really help answer the questions they have. Sometimes they sense it even gets in the way.
In fact for some people there is a tension between those two ideas – being spiritual or being religious. For some people church is the last place they would expect to encounter anything ‘spiritual.’
There are lots of reasons for that. Some good, some bad. It’s just how it is.
But it’s not just outside churches I encounter this. On Youtube I can find all sorts of videos along the lines of ‘why I hate religion, but love Jesus’ or ‘it’s about relationship not religion.’ Or when I do a google image search stuff like this comes up.
Christianity is not a religion.
Religion is humans trying to work their way to God.
Christianity is God coming to men and women through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now I sympathise with some of what that’s trying to say. But I suspect it’s a product of the fact that the word religion has got such bad press.
I’m not sure that such a tension really needs to exist. For at their best, they’re both about the same thing. In the few weeks before I went on holiday I spoke about how the word re-lig-ion has the same root as ligament. The purpose of good religion is to bind us together – body, mind and spirit; to connect us to God and each other.
Yes, religion has been used for quite destructive ends, and been used to justify many terrible things. But at it’s best it draws us together with others, bring wholeness to us and connects us with the divine.
What we believe has its place, but far more important are questions like:
is this life-giving? I mean Jesus did say he came to bring us life.
Is it true,
Far more people have experiences that they would describe as ‘spiritual’ than we realise. It might be a sunset or the birth of a child. Equally they might encounter it in the darker moments of life where they wonder if they can make it, if they can go on. Then from somewhere they discover strength or courage they never knew they had, or help comes from an unexpected source. We say things like ‘it’s like it was meant to be.’
Maybe it was.
Spiritual experiences are great and to be celebrated. But they can’t sustain a meaningful relationship for any period of time. They are very unreliable. You can’t just flick a switch and they happen. There is no magic formula for them.
Most of life is not lived in the real highs or lows or intense experiences. It’d be exhausting if it were. So if we are to live life in relationship with God, it can’t be built around great experiences. It’s only sustainable if we can find it in the ordinary.
So, are there ways in which we can encounter God and nurture relationship with God in the everyday experience of life?
Over the next number of months I want to suggest we can.
The spiritual life shares more in common with other areas of life than we realise. We can develop habits and practises which help to nurture our spiritual life.
For example at the moment I can’t speak Romanian. But if I took some classes, gradually, word by word, phrase by phrase, I’d slowly begin to develop my Romanian. When I spoke to Christian and Aurica or Beny and Elisabeta I could insist we only used Romanian. I could spend time in Romania. Over time I might become fluent. Some of you have had to do that with English since you came to this country. It was something I was unable to do, but I could develop.
Or I have run a few half-marathons. When I started running I could barely manage a few hundred metres. But gradually over time, by following a program, slowly building up the miles, I could slowly build it up to the point where I was able to complete races. Again through small, simple steps I built up my capabilities.
Could the same true of the spiritual life?
Can I become more forgiving?
Can I become more thankful or humble?
Can I learn to accept God’s grace more freely?
Please don’t think I’m underplaying the importance of grace in the Christian life. This is not about things we do to get God on our side. God is already with us. God loves us completely, just as we are.
However all relationships are two way. God won’t force his way on his if we do not want it.
Over the course of this series I want to offer certain practices that can help us nurture the relationship with God. Things which can create space for the living water or the wind of the Spirit which Jesus spoke about to move in our lives.
That’s what these 12 words are about.
I recognise that in my job, at this season of my life, without some of the responsibilities that others have to deal with, I have space a lot of other people don’t. So this is not about heaping more do this, do that onto you in your already busy lives. If the only people who can set out on a spiritual journey needs lots of time, freedom and self-discipline, it’s not going to work for a lot of us.
No, this is stuff that’s simple, doable and can be built into what we are already doing. They can help us to encounter God in the midst of all life.
One final thing before I dive in, is that growth and progress is rarely straightforward. I spoke a few weeks ago about how growth often comes in spirals rather than straight lines.
We go through cycles of learning. We start from the position of thinking we know something. Everything seems lovely and wonderful.
Then something happens which tells you this might be more complicated than I thought. And things don’t get better quickly.
It can develop into a crisis. You might even look back to the day where you wondered ‘how could I ever have thought that?’
But hopefully over time you come to discover a new way of understanding. It may be that what you thought was wrong. But often, hopefully, you discover that there was some truth in it, but you had more to learn to understand it more fully.
When we grow in a healthy way we don’t just go round and round in circles. We take what we learned from the experience and it launches us forward onto a new cycle of learning.
The spiritual life works much the same way.
We might liken it to seasons.
We have the summer of life when we are aware of God’s presence and goodness and worship comes easy. But if you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any length of time you know it doesn’t stay that way. Summer gives way to autumn. You become aware of needs within yourself, needs of others, need for help. And the spiritual life will pass through the darkness of winter in that period of waiting for rescue, when you might find yourself shaking your fists at the heavens, when you find yourself asking why? But then winter gives way to spring and we begin to see signs of new life.
Of course, it sounds nice and neat, but just like normal seasons it’s not always predictable. You might get a hint of summer in the midst of winter, or unseasonably cold days in summer. But it does help to unpack a little of how we grow. So over the four seasons we’ll consider three words for each season…
Here – when we become aware of God’s presence
O – where we respond in worship
Thanks – where we appreciate God’s goodness to us
Sorry – an awareness of our need for forgivness
Help –we discover weaknesses and appeal to God to strengthen us
Please – We see others in need, realise our own powerlessness to help, and turn to God
When – where we ask the great spiritual question ‘how long’
No – when we refuse to accept the world as it is.
Why? – where we will deal with lament and loss
Behold – we begin to see new signs of life
Yes – we begin to welcome the newness God’s brings
… – which is just about stillness. In the silence God prepares for us for what’s next.
The point of all this is that being a good Christian is not about trying to keep yourself in summer. Life doesn’t work like that. No-one should feel guilty if they find themselves spiritually in autumn or winter. It’s about whatever season we find ourselves in, God can meet us there.
Nor is it about getting through the stages quickly. Each season has lessons to bring and if we want the full life God has to offer us, we can live well and grow through each of them.
If you want to know where I am going with all this, my main source is this book – Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren.
I’m not following his scheme exactly (my seasons don’t even match his) but the broad scheme will be similar.