After the 24/7 week of prayer at Christ Church, the question that many are asking is when can we do this again? I think that many have experienced the work of God’s Spirit who creates a thirst for more of the life of that is found through simply ‘being with’ Jesus in the stillness of a sacred space.
Almost 10 years ago, I spent a week in such a space – the Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. Out of my time there came a short set of reflections on how we might go deeper with God in our everyday living; learning to create space in our lives to grow. From now and through Lent, one of the ten spaces will form a weekly blog that may be used with others or followed individually. I pray that some may resonate with you and your spiritual journey and become a lifelong way of drinking from the well of Living Water that is offered to us all in Jesus Christ.
Trying harder or training better?
Sunday 6th July 2008 saw what has been described as the greatest tennis match ever played. Defending champion, Roger Federer and the flamboyant Rafael Nadal traded blows from half past two until almost half past nine, including rain breaks, watched by a riveted Centre Court crowd at Wimbledon and ten million more all over the nation, including me in our caravan in Pembrokeshire. In between the rain delays the BBC showed a documentary tracing the remarkable career of Federer. What was it that made him such an exceptional player? Of course he had natural ability from childhood – Pete Sampras described it as “a gift”. He had great encouragement and support from his family who sent him to a tennis academy in Switzerland when he was eleven. However, the thing that struck me most powerfully in Federer’s story was the commitment and discipline he showed in devoting himself to practice and to training. His uncle, and coach, identified the big breakthrough with a decision Federer made in the year 2000. He was already recognised as an exceptional talent and was winning top class tournaments, but he knew there was more potential to be released. So a three year conditioning programme was devised which would develop his physical, emotional and mental capacities to the full. This, combined with hours and hours of coaching, led to Roger Federer reaching his full potential, and being given the reputation as the best player the world has ever seen.
We all know from our own experience the significance of practice. I would have loved to have been able to play some of the beautiful Chopin nocturnes on the piano – the ‘romantic’ in me would have been in its element! However, in spite of endless lessons, all paid for by my parents, this eleven year old just wanted to play football. Practicing was boring. So progress was minimal and the inevitable ending followed. Tim Henman, in one of his carefully worded comments at Wimbledon, reminded us that “practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.” If we really want something to become part of our lives we will practice doing it, so even though I got one of those great pearl river pianos later after, I wasn’t that good at playing it.
This principle of practice is fundamental to fulfilling our potential not just in areas of our lives like sport, or music, but in the most crucial of all ways – in fulfilling our potential as people. The Bible describes this potential as nothing less than becoming like Christ, the One who supremely reveals to us what God is like.
‘He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God.’ Colossians 1; 15
Everyone has this potential; it is a gift. What is more, God is continually at work in us to develop that potential through the Holy Spirit. Part of Christian prayer includes the recognition of God’s capacity to change us from within:
That we may praise God for creating us in his image, and that the Holy Spirit may transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ, let us pray to the Lord. (From the Benedictine Office of Vespers)
The big question for anyone yearning to move in this direction is of course, how?
Does this just happen automatically by God’s grace, or do we have a part to play in this process?
It might be helpful to pause and ponder how Jesus himself came to fulfil his God-given potential. We read that from the outset of the gospels that Jesus was divine – ‘God with skin on’ as I recently heard it put!
‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us …. full of grace and truth.’ John 1; 14.
But we also discover that he ‘grew in wisdom and stature’ as he lived in obedience to his parents in the family home at Nazareth. (Luke 2; 51, 52).
The life of a Jewish boy in those days was incredibly disciplined, learning vast portions of the scriptures and prayers by heart, observing regular times of worship and celebrating the Great Feasts with the family. He was an apprentice in the workshop to Joseph and no doubt became a skilled craftsman by the age of thirty, walking all over the countryside to find work. He was physically fit, mentally alert, emotionally secure and spiritually … well, what can one say?!!
Did this all happen by itself or did Jesus make choices to live life a certain way, and practice certain disciplines, in order that these things could grow in him?
During the three brief years of public ministry Jesus is clearly intent on training his disciples in the ‘life of the Kingdom’ and sends them out to practice doing the works of God. He left them with a Great Commission to make disciples (literally, learners), to mark them in baptism, and mature them by teaching them to obey all that Jesus had commanded them. (Matthew 28; 19, 20). It is worth noting that Jesus uses this phase ‘teaching them to obey’ which carries with is the practical implication of teaching them how to obey. It was not just a question of telling others what to do, but more a case of passing on practices that make life work as God intends and modelling it by the way they lived. Alongside this great purpose Jesus gave his friends a great promise that he would be with them always, and that the Holy Spirit, God’s ongoing gift, would become in them an agent of change to bring about the fulfilment of God’s purposes for the world.
Soon afterwards, we read of the believers ‘devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ (Acts 2; 42). The word used for ‘devoted’ in the Greek is a very strong one, implying an energy, commitment, a passionate striving to establish patterns of behaviour that would become second nature to them over time. The results of this devotion are described in terms of an overwhelming sense of community, where needs were met with sacrificial generosity and God was praised for all he was worth!
Into this Christ-centred community one of the Church’s greatest enemies was welcomed, the turned-around Saul of Tarsus, with his new name, Paul, and his new calling – to create communities of Christ-centred faith all over the known world. His letters to these young churches are full of teaching on how to ‘grow up in their salvation’. They reveal a man whose heart was yearning to see his ‘children’ mature and fulfil their potential (Ephesians 4; 1 – 16). To this end he uses language that would not be out of place in the gyms of our own nation.
‘Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things.’ 1 Tim. 4; 7b, 8a
The word he uses is one from which we derive our English word for gymnasium from – gymnadze de – literally ‘exercise yourself towards godliness.’
The crucial point I want to emphasise here is that it is clear from the examples of Jesus and the first Christian believers that the process of growing up God’s way includes directed energy on our part. It is intentional discipleship. We need to put in some training; we cannot do it by just trying harder!
One of the best things about living 2000 years AD is that we have 2000 years worth of people’s lives to learn from, and all their wisdom to draw upon. Given the access we have to their lives through literature and the Internet we must be the most privileged generation ever when it comes to discovering the secrets of how to live a Christ-like life. Yet, after almost 25 years in parish ministry I have to conclude that the way we ‘do church’ now is not really working very well when it comes to obeying Christ’s call to make, mark and mature people whose lives are devoted to becoming more like Jesus, and thereby fulfilling their God-shaped potential, and living out their God given vocation in the world. There is a big emphasis on conversion, and growing churches yet as Dallas Willard observes ‘conversion without discipleship is ineffective’. It clearly does not follow that simply because a church is growing numerically it is growing spiritually. I do not find any command in scripture to ‘grow churches’, but I do hear the call again and again to grow healthy disciples within the context of a loving community so that the life of Christ might be lived out in the world. Churches will grow when its members are maturing, as was the case for the Early Church, living out the gospel in practical ways as described in Acts 2; 43 to end. As it did so, ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’
As we look to the future, I have become convinced that we need to look to the past, for I believe that the Spirit is calling us to rediscover some ancient ways that have become largely lost in the rush for the new and the next.
Drinking from puddles or digging a well?
The story is told in the book of Genesis (Chapter 26) of a man who was really successful. Isaac had a large family and even larger flocks. However, his enemies knew how to limit his growth. They blocked up the wells his father Abraham had built thus cutting off his primary source of life – in effect, condemning him to death. Isaac had a choice. He could have moaned and complained, trying to scoop up enough water from the puddles that were left from the infrequent rainstorms, with the constant chant; “we can’t go on like this!” Alternatively, he could assess his situation and take decisive action; he could choose to do something about his life, and that of those he loved.
He chose to reopen the wells. It was not without its challenges. The herdsmen quarrelled over who the water belonged to, but Isaac went on digging more wells until no-one quarrelled anymore. He named this final well Rehoboth, which means ‘room’ saying, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.” (Gen 26; 22).
That night the Lord appeared to him saying, “I am the God of you father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendents for the sake of my servant Abraham.” (Gen 26; 24)
Isaac and his family worshipped the Lord, building an altar to remind generations to come of the Lord’s presence there, and what is more, Isaac’s enemies came to seek peace when they saw that God was clearly with him. All the effort was worth it!
Opening up the ancient wells is a task I have had a longing to do for many years, a task I believe God is behind in a mysterious way. It could even be described as a calling. I haven’t really known what that might mean in reality, but one verse from the prophet Isaiah has kept me wanting to find out:
‘With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation.’ (Isaiah 12; 3)
Now that I have some sustained space on my sabbatical to take a deeper look at what this could entail a definite sense of direction is beginning to emerge around what have traditionally been called the Spiritual Disciplines such as solitude, silence, prayer, study, confession, celebration, service etc,. We can see these ways being practiced in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries and onwards through the monastic movements right up to the Reformation in the 15th century. It was then that these ancient wells seemed to get blocked up in the Western Church with the recovery of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. It was an understandable reaction, for these disciplines had by then come to be seen largely as a means through which salvation could be secured in and of themselves. However, it is obvious that the past abuse of a gift is not a reason for not using it in the right way. More and more Christ-followers are discovering the value of these ways of shaping life, inspired by the writing of Richard Foster, John Ortberg and Dallas Willard for example. The resurgence of interest in monasticism reflects a resonance with these disciplines alongside a radical reappraisal of what it means to be ‘Church’. The popularity of the TV documentary ‘The Monastery’ and Abbott Christopher Jamison’s subsequent book ‘Finding Sanctuary’ are signs of this thirst for a way of living that works, a way of living that reminds others of Jesus, a way of living that sees our unique potential truly being realised and the subsequent effects upon our disintegrating society. In what follows I want to be as practical as I can in suggesting ways of clearing out what could be clogging up the wells and describing some often neglected tools to dig down to the water table.
Following a visit to the Hebrides this summer I am going to use Iona Abbey as the basis for exploring how each space in this sacred place might inspire us to develop a discipline that the Spirit can use to ‘form Christ in us’. The exercises offered at the end of each section create possibilities to practice those things that we want to become permanent, if not perfect in our lives. Chose what suits your personality best, and don’t try to do what I usually do and take on too many all at once. You don’t have to wear a habit, just develop one, or two!
Rev Jo Vickery