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Forgotten Treasures - Tools to Sustain Us on The Journey of Following Jesus

On Sunday 20th November 2022, we wrapped up our sermon series at SJB Church on ‘Stuff We Do That Helps Us Grow’ by looking at a few ‘forgotten treasures’ - tools developed over centuries that have blessed and benefitted people seeking to be yoked to Jesus and find his promised rest for the soul (Matt 11:29). This resource follows up on that sermon, and is designed to be used alongside our earlier resources on Rule of Life and Sabbath.


The basic idea

We live in a world that doesn’t make it easy to remain present to God’s presence. We inhabit the fastest and most distracted culture of all time. On top of that, most people’s lives aren’t changed just by hearing/knowing truth, but by developing habits/practices/disciplines. So we need some tools to help us walk the narrow road that few find. The good news is, those tools exist. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but just a few things that might help us if we want to be close to Jesus and become more like Him.


Fasting

This is more of a discipline than a tool. It’s actually a core Christian practice, part of the very basics, but something that has got lost in the Western Church over the last century or so. Jesus’ words ‘When you fast...’ suggest that it’s something he assumes his followers will do.[1] If food is a difficult issue for you or there are health complications involved, feel free to wisely avoid this practice without any guilt or pressure... but for most of us, it’s probably something we’re more capable of than we realise.


How does it work?

Simple really, just voluntarily go without food for a set period of time, and include some times of prayer within that (one good option is to pray when you would usually have been preparing/eating food).


What’s the benefit?

Fasting increases our dependence on God. When we’re physically weak, we can feel greater awareness of His strength. ‘Fasting… is a divine corrective to the pride of the human heart. It is a discipline of the body with a tendency to humble the soul.’[2] Sometimes our prayers seem to gain increased closeness or clarity. It’s a particularly good practice in those times when we feel a bit spiritually stuck, plateaued or dry, when we are finding other disciplines difficult. Fasting can help give us a bit of a kick-start.


Any tips?

Start small, just skipping one or two meals and fasting food but not drink. Work up to 24 fasts from food and drink (except water. Keep drinking water.). Don’t fast for longer than 48 hours without seeking medical advice. Don’t get sucked into a sort of ‘super-spiritualism’ where the physical feat becomes the goal or the focus. It’s a tool to help us honour God, draw close to Him and see breakthrough in prayer.


Slowing

It could be argued that this isn’t even a ‘spiritual’ practice but, equally, we might need it as a stepping stone towards some of the more prayerful stuff in this guide. In a fast-paced society, deliberately slowing life down when we can is just a wiser way to live... The basic idea is ‘slow down your body; slow down your life’.[3] We are integrated beings, not just ‘brains on legs’, so this makes sense. John Mark Comer has developed a list of ‘Counterhabits to wage war against what the futurist David Zach calls ‘hyperliving- skimming along the surface of life’.[4] Here are a few of them:


  • Drive the speed limit (‘not below... that’s just annoying. We’ll all hate you’)

  • Get in the slow lane

  • Be early for stuff (and don’t then just scroll on your phone)

  • Get in the longest queue when shopping

  • Turn your Smartphone into a Dumbphone (why so much attention to phones in this list? Because they are literally changing what it means to be human - that’s how much power they hold...)

  • Parent your phone; put it to bed before you and make it sleep in

  • Have set times for email

  • Have set times and limits for social media (or just don’t use it at all)

  • Single-task not multi-task whenever possible

  • Walk slower

  • Journal

  • Get out into silence & solitude[5]

You might only be able to pick two or three of those... but that might be enough to massively increase the extent to which you feel correctly yoked with Jesus, finding rest for your soul.


Sabbath

A whole day each week for Stopping, Resting, Worshipping and Delighting. This is such a big deal that we’ve covered it in this guide. https://www.sjbchurch.co.uk/post/sabbath


Lectio Divina

This is a 1600 year old way of engaging with Scripture, which treats the Bible not just as something to be studied, but as the living Word to feed on. It literally translates as ‘divine reading’, but in substance it is basically just slow and repeated reading of a passage/story/verse.


How does it work?

Often where this practice is won and lost is in the initial preparation. It’s good to get into a calm and receptive space (Psalm 46:10 ‘Be still, and know that I am God’). Deep breathing can be helpful. That’s not a weird, mumbo jumbo idea - again, it’s recognising the integration of our bodies, hearts and minds[6]. Deep breathing ‘directly impacts the part of the brain where stress dwells, encouraging our nervous system to slow down and eventually melt into the present moment’.[7]


After taking time to gather our scattered senses, Lectio has 4 movements:


Lectio (Reading)

A slow and gradual reading of the passage.


Meditatio (Reflecting)

Meditating upon and pondering on the passage... The English word ‘ponder’ comes from the Latin ‘pondus’ which relates to the mental activity of weighing or considering. To ponder on the passage that has been read, it is held lightly and gently considered from various angles.


Oratio (Response)

We’re sort of chewing on the passage and the thing that’s standing out to us, and reflecting some of that back to God in prayer (not necessarily with words)


Contemplatio (Resting)

Contemplation - more like resting in what we’re hearing, what God is doing - ‘silent prayer that expresses love for God.’ ‘Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love.’[8]


What’s the Benefit?

There’s a place for simply reading the Bible and definitely a lot of great ways of studying scripture too. Learning from experts about the original context into which biblical literature was speaking and the meaning of the original Hebrew/Greek words is super important, rewarding and worthwhile... but Lectio has different benefits. It’s a more prayerful, reflective way of engaging with God’s word and trusting him to speak through it. It is reading the Word with not only our brains engaged but our hearts, asking the Holy Spirit to iluminate what we’re reading. There is something about the slower pace and the repeated reading of the same passage multiple times that is really powerful, especially in its countercultural nature for our time and place. Another benefit of Lectio is that it can be practiced individually or in community. Some of the best Small Group sessions I’ve ever attended were Lectio Divina sessions.


Any Tips?

Again, start small, with short passages of Scripture. If possible, switch your phone off or have it out of the room. Remove as many distractions as you can. Take the necessary time to slow the body down before even beginning the first reading. Don’t worry if a Lectio session doesn’t seem to bring up anything particularly ground-breaking - you never know when God will lead you back to the same scriptures another time. If you do feel like there’s something important that God is saying through a Lectio session, it might be worth combining this with a more intellectual approach just to make sure things are things are sound theologically.


Examen

‘The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.’[9]

Typically, the Examen is practiced at the end of the day/week/month/year (or the start of the next). It was sort of codified by St Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises in 1524, but goes back way further. This tool stems from 1 Cor 11:28 - ‘Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup’. Some early Christians used to receive Holy Communion very frequently, so the examen of conscience became part of that. When monasticism developed, both Communion and, therefore, Examen became daily practices.


How does it work?

There are different ways of doing the Examen. Here’s a version five-step version that St. Ignatius practiced.


  1. Become aware of God’s presence.

  2. Review the day with gratitude.

  3. Pay attention to your emotions.

  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.

  5. Look toward tomorrow.

Or there are loads of ways to do Examen using just two questions. Here are a few options:


For what am I most grateful?

For what am I least grateful?


When did I give and receive the most love today?

When did I give and receive the least love today?


When did I feel most alive today?

When did I most feel life draining out of me?


When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, to others, to God, and to the world?

When did I have the least sense of belonging?


What was today’s high point?

What was today’s low point?


What brought me closer to God today?

What drove me further from Him?


What’s the benefit?

The Examen helps us to review the day and become more aware of where and how we met God throughout that day. It’s also a prayerful way to let the day go into God’s hands, so that we don’t carry our anxieties and frustrations into our sleep and into the new day. At the heart of this way of praying is the idea that all of life is a gift of God. Practicing the Examen guards against just getting caught up in the hectic flow and churn of life. It means we’re stopping to take stock of life. Over time we may start to notice patterns and implement good changes in our thoughts or behaviour as a result of using this tool.


Any tips?

Try out the different ways of doing examen and settle on one that works for you. Maybe try combining the examen with journalling, briefly writing down answers, and looking back over previous journal entries to note the patterns. Examen doesn’t have to take much time each day or week to make a big difference to our sleep, thinking, prayer life and overall outlook!


Contemplative Prayer

If everything in this guide is a tool-kit, we could say contemplative prayer is the screwdrivers. Plural. Because we all know there are about a million different types and size of screwdriver.


Okay, that’s hyperbole, but the point is there’s a whole world of prayer tools out there within contemplative traditions. Perhaps the simplest version, the real essence of this whole area, is just the kind of prayer that is less about a transaction of words and more about being with God. Theologically, we’d be right to say He’s always with us, but the amount we’re present to His presence often varies. Brother Lawrence famously wrote of ‘practicing the presence of God’ i.e. being more consciously aware of Him. 20th Century missionary Frank Laubach devised ‘the game with minutes’, in which he would challenge himself to spend more minutes in conscious awareness of God’s goodness and nearness than each previous hour. He urged Christians to attempt keeping God in mind for at least one second of every minute of the day. The effect on his own life was transformative.


One really simple way to get into this practice is this: sit still, breathe deep, shut off all other distractions and look at God looking at you in His love. That’s it. That’s all. Maybe try it for maybe 5 minutes once or twice a day and see what happens.


Centring Prayer can also be a great tool to get started on this stuff, and helps with the necessary slowing we’ve already discussed. It can help reintegrate the heart and mind, going deeper than just our surface level thoughts. Here’s a good guide on centring prayer https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/method_cp_eng-2016-06_0.pdf


Breath Prayer

This tool can be another great way into contemplative practice that really works for some people.


How does it work?

Pick a word, phrase or Bible verse to use in repetition. It might be scriptural, or personal, or simply the word ‘Jesus’. Breathe deeply, repeating your word or phrase either on the out breath or before the in-breath.


What’s the benefit?

This can help for people who need something concrete, less abstract than just ‘being with God’. It enables us to either drink in a truth and really digest it, or to affirm something we’re expressing to God in a more meaningful, less fleeting way. It’s a good thing to do while silent and still but is also compatible with everyday things like walking/running, driving, housework/DIY etc.


Any Tips?

Switch your phone off (or at least notifications) and get it out of sight (at least in a pocket) while you do this. Try it just for a few minutes to begin with. Perhaps combine with your regular Bible reading, picking a phrase that jumps out from the passage you’re already reading/studying. Be open to the idea that God might speak to you during this beyond the phrase you’ve picked, but be relaxed about the fact he might not. Unless you’re on the move, do try to remember deep breathing, for reasons mentioned above. Again, it’s getting our bodies to match what we want our heart/soul to be doing, recognizing that we’re integrated physical/mental/spiritual beings.


That concludes this little guide of Forgotten Treasures - Tools to Sustain Us. We hope and pray that we will all be blessed by this stuff we do that helps us grow - leading us closer to Jesus and helping us become more like Him.

[1] Matt 6:16 [2] Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast [3] Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry [4] Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry [5] Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry [6] ...which is actually really biblical. We inherit a wider cultural disconnect between body and mind that mainstream society is only just starting to move away from. That was based far more on dualistic greek philosophy than on an accurate biblical worldview. [7]https://www.asacredjourney.net/how-to-practice-breath-prayer/ [8]https://mcgrathblog.nd.edu/how-to-practice-lectio-divina-praying-with-scripture [9]https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/

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