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Sermon Summary - 25th September 2005 (7:00 p.m.)

   The following is a brief paraphrase of the first sermon in the 'Toolbox for the Soul' series.  This sermon contains information relevant to the series as a whole, but it was accidentally not taped.

     Nurturing the Garden of the Soul

   C.S. Lewis says that our souls are not something we are given, but an accomplishment.  One metaphor for a soul is that of a garden.  Whether it’s a productive, beautiful garden or a weedy mess depends on three things.  Firstly, the external conditions - particularly the weather.  This is like God’s action towards us, either by direct interaction or through the world and other people.  From our limited point of view, it doesn’t always seem like a positive thing: there are calm sunny days but there are also storms and fogs and frosts.  But although floods and lightning are destructive, some plants depend on them to create an environment where they can continue to grow.  As we saw in the recent series about Jonah, God loves us too much to leave us alone when we are persisting in taking the wrong direction.

   The second factor is the quality of the soil.  In the case of a soul, there are three things in particular that, as a sort of spiritual fertiliser, help ensure that the basics are there so that plants have good conditions in which to grow.  These three things are:
  • corporate prayer (e.g. worship in church),
  • Bible reading, and
  • private prayer.
   This series of sermons will be working from the assumption that these basics are already in place and functioning fairly well.  It will look at the third factor in the success of any garden: the range of tools available in the garden shed, and the gardener’s ability to use them effectively.

   A list of fourteen spiritual tools, from one of the books about pastoral ministry by Eugene Peterson, is:
  • spiritual reading
  • spiritual direction
  • meditation
  • confession
  • bodily exercise
  • fasting
  • sabbath keeping
  • dream work
  • retreats
  • pilgrimage
  • almsgiving
  • journaling
  • sabbaticals
  • small groups
Of course, this list doesn’t cover every possible spiritual tool.  For example, a writer with a Catholic background might have added the use of icons.

   To continue with the garden analogy: although a competent gardener will have a full range of tools in the garden shed, she or he will not use them all equally.  A good gardener will know when any one tool is the appropriate one.  Some (like secateurs or a trowel) will probably be used almost every day.  Others may only be needed once or twice a year.  Others again might never be used, but the gardener won’t be sure of that in advance.  For a garden or for a soul, different tools apply to different situations, and often you can’t tell beforehand which ones you are going to need.  If you have a well-stocked tool-shed, you’re more likely to be able to deal with the unexpected.

   An important point is that all gardens are unique, and so are all souls.  One person may use a particular spiritual tool every day which another person never needs.  This doesn’t mean that either of them is ‘doing it wrong’ - it just means that they are different people.

   The rest of the sermon was concerned with the first tool on the list: spiritual reading.  This doesn't specifically mean reading the Bible, or even books overtly about Christianity.  When Jesus was brought before Pilate, He said 'for this cause I have come into the world; that I should bear witness to the truth'.  The concept of truth is at the heart of Christianity, and 'spiritual reading' is any reading - or watching films, or anything else of the sort - that leads us towards truth.

   Note that this has very little to do with whether the content of a book - and particularly its setting - is literally factual.  The Narnia books take place in a completely invented world, but they contain many deep truths about the relationship between God and humans.

   Watching silly films which contain no truth whatsoever is not in itself a bad thing.  It can be a useful form of relaxation, but it involves switching off your brain.  In contrast, while 'spiritual reading' may indeed be entertaining, it's an activity which requires active involvement.

Text by Alan Firth, based on an original presentation by Kelvin Wright

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