As we begin 2020 many of us will be putting thought into our physical fitness, health and well being. Although it can be quite funny, or slightly depressing, when we look back on our new years goals later on to realise that we didn’t sustain them, a new year does provide a helpful opportunity to reflect and think about what is truly important. Whilst physical fitness is of some importance our spiritual health is even more important.
Let’s face it: we don’t live in a culture where it is easy to follow Jesus. Although we don’t face outright persecution from the government as some countries do, there are significant social hostilities that Christians face daily in the UK. The subconscious philosophy of our prevailing culture also means that it can feel difficult to believe. Our culture has generally rejected all supernatural understanding for an entirely natural order. Most people appeal to meaning from an entirely humanist viewpoint. And the big story that we’re fed is one of chronological snobbery: now humanity has developed enough to reject all supernatural belief. This postmodern philosophy is not without it’s victims. Most of us will know people who are struggling hugely with the lack of apparent meaning in their lives.
But as well as having an answer to give those who are searching, and caring for those for those who are struggling, we need to work at our own ‘spiritual fitness’ in such a climate. Personally, I know that I have a tendency towards melancholy and anxiety and so have to build into my life ways of bringing this tendency to God. Even as someone involved in church leadership the prevailing cultural narrative means that I often have to ‘catch myself’ trusting in human ability and reason and remind myself that there is God in whom I can trust. And so, as we begin this year, I’ve found myself thinking about how I, and those for whom God has given me responsibility and oversight, can allow my life to be formed more into the likeness of Christ.
I come from a tradition of Christianity that has many strengths but, at times, people can feel scared of drawing from ‘spiritual disciplines’ or the practices of the established church for fear that it leads to legalism. But if we want to be faithful followers of Christ in a powerful climate of unbelief we need to pay attention to our spiritual fitness. With this in mind here are some of the practices that I seek to live out, that I find keep me open to the work of the Holy Spirit, reliant on the grace of God and knowing Christ in my daily life. You may want to consider if some of these could be practices that could help you this year.
- Have a ‘Sabbath’. I have learnt that if I don’t build in a clear day or period in my week in which I ‘down tool’, my spiritual and mental health will suffer. Choosing to not work for a day is a powerful act of worship to trust God that he’s in charge. I often have to resist the temptation to work and don’t find it easy, but doing this blesses my family and friends because it recharges me and reminds me to celebrate the good and the rest of God that is coming.
- Make a regular space with God. Over the years I have had all sorts of patterns for spending time with God, depending on the season. In my early twenties I usually had a morning ‘quiet time’ before work given to reading through the bible and prayer. As my daughters’ disability got more severe I struggled to do this so gave time to worshipping or listening to things in the car. I’ve had seasons of being able to study the bible in depth, and seasons where I have just fallen on my knees in prayer and exhaustion. Recently, I’ve found myself using a short version of the Anglican ‘book of common prayer’ to anchor me throughout the day. However we do it I am convinced that a regular space to encounter God each day is necessary to sustain Christian discipleship.
- Go to church regularly. There are times in life when church life can be inspiring and there are times when it can just feel like hard work. But our worship is the act of going along in itself. Too often we talk about what we’re ‘getting out of it’ but that is to misunderstand Christian worship entirely. Serving one another, forms our character. Listening to and encouraging one another allows us to express love. Just being there is a statement to God that we need him and his church. It’s a statement that we don’t have all the answers and it’s a statement of worship.
- Serve other people regularly. The call to follow Christ includes the call to be a servant. In a culture that has a surplus of comfort and a deficit of meaning this can be so powerful. So serving one another in a church context can be an important way of reminding ourselves who we are. But there are many ways we can choose to serve our communities, our colleagues, our families too. Regularly serving people helps break the cultural mould of consumption. It can also be great fun.
- Have an honest space where other believers can speak into your life. We all deeply need this. And a Sunday worship service will rarely allow those deep and important conversations. Every one of us needs to fight our cultural individualism with the biblical vision of a church as a body. We need to invite other people’s voices into our lives. No matter how well we know the bible or how old we are, if we’re not allowing a few people to speak into our lives we are lacking in our discipleship. This could a church small group, a prayer triplet or whatever works. But at the end of the day we all need honest, vulnerable, open friendships.
- Learn to lament. It is wonderful to learn to praise God in any and every season and it’s powerful. But one aspect of worship that we find in the Psalms is to come honestly to God with our frustration, pain and anger. Some people find that reading these Psalms personally or corporately gives them permission to express pain to God. Writing your own lament psalms can be helpful too. Personally, I may often shout out my anger to God or prostrate myself on the floor. I find that the physical expression is helpful. The danger if we don’t learn how to do this is that we build a fake or dishonest relationship with God. Learning to lament is vital.
- Build in celebration. We live in a culture that has generally lost the sense of ‘high’ and ‘low’ times. We no longer celebrate the harvest or particular religious festivals in the ways that people used to. But celebration is so important for corporate life. Yes there is a discipline to the Christian life but there is also a joy. After all, Jesus partied a lot! Me and Han used to put in a day a month to do something a bit lavish that we wouldn’t normally do (we called it a ‘dee-dah day’). In our married life we still have a special date night every week where we make a real effort to enjoy ourselves together. Some people are naturally great at celebrating. They can be great to imitate if, like me, it doesn’t always come naturally. Celebration and joy is vital.
- Care for your body. Actually, some level of physical fitness and health is really important. Taking time each week to exercise and care for the body God has given you is a spiritual act because as a ‘soul’ we are both body and spirit. It can also be so helpful for your mental and spiritual health, giving you space to process things and time to reflect. Personally I find it vital.
- Work with God on your worry. Many of us are worriers and it has a big impact on our health, relationships and faith. When we allow worry to overtake us we are essentially forgetting about God. It’s so important to ask God and other Christians for help with worry that could so easily strangle the joy out of us. Right now I feel convicted to work on not rushing so much. This helps me remember that God knows my day and is with me.
- Give things away. After years of being bombarded by advertising many of us have a fear that we won’t have enough that can really strangle us. Generously giving away money, time or possessions can be a wonderful joyful act of worship that reminds us of our generous God and gives us a wonderful sense of purpose and ‘connectedness’ to others.
- Retreat. Alongside daily space with God it can be so healthy to have a monthly or termly longer time to reflect, pray, read, write and dream. Retreat centres can be helpful, but so can the countryside. Getting away from distractions to hear God and listen to his priority for our lives is so helpful.
- Engage with Creation. Just as looking after our bodies is a spiritual act of recognising God’s Lordship so recognising the splendour of creation reminds us who created it. Spending time away from the man made city to be in nature or just planting some vegetables or taking steps to better care for the planet can all be acts of worship and formation.
- Be creative. We are all creative beings. Even if you express this in maths, organisation, science or whatever, we are all imaginative, expressive and creative. It can be so helpful to find ways to do creative things that you enjoy. It’s so good for you. Personally, I’ve been provoked to enjoy making music again. I find that ‘creating’ releases ideas and joy and reminds me of the joyful creator I serve.
- Limit distractions. Probably one of the most helpful things most of us can do is manage our technology and use of social media. Technology has given us so much but can also bring a lot of stress and anxiety into our lives. Last year I put up a ‘phone shelf’ in our hallway where we aim to leave our phones. I’ve also removed nearly all notifications and work email from my phone. Maybe you could try something similar to aid conversation, community and rest.
- Stop and eat with others. Whether it’s in work or at home, stopping what you’re doing to enjoy good food and commune with others is so important. It’s something that we have to really fight for. But as we follow a Lord of was accused of always eating and partying, I think there’s something in this. There’s something about sharing food that allows people to open up in conversation and can bring a moment of rest that helps us reset. It also helps us resist the constant rush and stress.
- Get some input. I’ve often sought to have spiritual mother and father figures who help teach and lead me. I’ve not always used the terms ‘mentor’ or ‘discipler’ but I think that the concept is so helpful. Seeking someone who you know has wisdom or a closeness with God that you want is a great way of continuing to grow. Just be aware that they might not always say what you to hear! Feedback can sometimes be painful but it’s worth it.
- Share your faith. The final words of Jesus in the great commission are a powerful imperative for every single Christian. Whether it’s sharing our faith through words, actions, wonders, friendship we all need to remind ourselves to look outwards. Although the Christian life is more than evangelism, our discipleship is lacking without it. Our culture trains us to be consumers and very quickly churches can become introspective. Looking outwards is a great reminder to ourselves that we have good news, we have hope and that there’s a bigger picture than my little life.
There’s probably more that I could add but these are practices that I find helpful in ‘staying spiritually fit’. It’s not always easy to ‘believe’ in the culture we live in but there are things we can do to strengthen our walk with Christ. Are there a few practices I’ve mentioned that could really help you in following Jesus this year?