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Spiritual Life

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Have you ever had the experience of reading scripture, and you come across a verse and it hits you and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, that one’s for me.”

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Those words just get me. Because I’m tired, life is busy, and in ministry there’s always lots to do and more that you could do, and you have ups and downs, and you get stressed and you don’t eat well and you start worrying about things. . . and I bet lots of you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you just need to go to a quiet place and rest.

Jesus is talking to his disciples here, those who had just got back from their very first mission trip on their own. But he could have been talking to me or to you.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Rest is important. But it’s not just about rest. Because we know from other places in the gospel that Jesus would often seek out quiet times and places, to rest, yes, but even more importantly, to pray. And he taught his disciples to do the same.

Prayer matters to Jesus, and it matters to us.

We’ve just completed a survey here at St. Albans, and over seventy of you completed the survey. Thank you! You may recall that one of the questions we asked in the survey was, what was most important to you in a church. Do you know what the number one answer to that question was? Spiritual Growth.

Let me tell you a story. I had a friend who lived in my neighbourhood, about my age, we used to play hockey together on the outdoor rink. A number of years ago, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given six months to two years to live. A big shock, as you can imagine. But my friend was a very determined and organized guy, and so he made a list of all the things that he had to do. Start medical treatment, update his will, arrange finances for his family, get the proper benefits from work, and so on. His list was numbered in order of priority from one to about 10, and he as determined as he was, he began to work his way through his list. He made good progress until he came to number 8 on his list, and that’s where he got stuck. Number 8 on his list was “tend to my spiritual life”. That’s actually much harder than updating your will. Fortunately for both of us, a mutual friend got us together, and we started taking long walks around the neighbourhood, to talk about spirituality.

And I remember on one of our first walks, probably about mid-way through, when he asked me about how to be spiritual, I said to him,

“Well you know, prayer is the foundation of the spiritual life.”

And he looked at me, with a bit of astonishment, and maybe a touch of anger in his voice, and he said, “I’ve been going to church for most of the last fifty years. How come nobody ever told me that before?”

So listen up, because I don’t want any of you to be able to say that you’ve never heard this before, especially those of you who ticked off spiritual growth as the reason you come to church in our survey:

Prayer is the foundation of the spiritual life. There. You’ve been told.

Now, prayer can come in all shapes and sizes. We can pray with words and we can pray in silence. We can pray alone and we can pray together. We can pray by walking and we can pray with our breath. We can pray with images and we can pray with song. Prayer is a wonderful and varied gift. But what makes it prayer is this: when we pray, our intention is to enter into the presence of God, to create space for God in our lives and to allow ourselves to be shaped in and by God’s presence and actions.

That’s not always easy.

You know what? It’s not easy to run 10 kilometers either. But thousands of people in this city will run a 10k race this year. How do they do it? They train for it. They start by walking, they have a weekly schedule, they start increasing the distance and the pace, and before long they have the endurance and muscle tone to run 10k.

If you want to be fit physically, you have to exercise.

If you want to be fit spiritually, you have to exercise.

“Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest a while.” You make the time and you find the place.

The foundation of the spiritual life is prayer, and what makes it possible is spiritual discipline and exercise, done on a regular basis. And just like working out at the gym, it’s great to have a personal trainer.

One of my favourite personal trainers for the spiritual life is Henri Nouwen. In his book Spiritual Formation, he proposes five spiritual disciplines, which with regular use will open us to the practice of prayer and help us to live a spiritual life.

The first spiritual discipline is reflection. The spiritual life is lived in and through our everyday existence, and so we need to pause and reflect on our experiences. This may be as subtle as becoming attentive to our own feelings and actions, or it may be as simple as keeping a gratitude journal.

Second, we are read the Bible not as an academic study or a source of information, but with reverence and an openness to what the Spirit is saying to us in the present moment, trusting that this is where God’s story and my story will meet. Lectio Divina is one way of doing this.

Third, silence. The mystics all agree, that silence is the “royal road” to spiritual formation. As is said, God’s language is silence; everything else is a poor translation.

Fourth, Nouwen reminds us that we are to practice community. Christian spirituality is essentially communal, not individual, and so it must be practiced in community. It is in community, and not alone that we can practice forgiveness and humility.

And the fifth practice is that of service. A disciple of Jesus will always be responding to the needs of those around them in a spirit of true compassion. Make service a spiritual practice. Find a regular opportunity for service, and practice it with compassion.

Those are Nouwen’s five practices: Reflection, Listening to Scripture, Silence, Community and Service. Practice these as regular disciplines in your life and you will become more able to enter into the presence of God, to create space for God in your life and to allow yourself to be shaped in and by God’s presence and action.

Which is what prayer is.

And prayer is the foundation of the spiritual life.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest a while.”


Homily Yr B P16, July 22 2018, St. Albans

Reading: Mark 6.30-34, 53-56

Image by Rey Perezoso (Creative Commons)


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