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The Third Essential of Prayer is Presence. As one writer succinctly describes it, ‘Being present with the presence’. Now this may sound confusing, yet when Jesus promises to be with us always, ‘even to the end of the age’ this is the invitation to presence.

 

Often our humanity associates presence with feelings. Yet feelings are emotional states of response. My approach to God will prove different when feeling content and secure to when I have raging toothache. Often we make judgements about church worship, even whole church congregational gatherings, simply upon the feelings they induce. Nothing wrong with feelings per se, but be warned, they are an untrustworthy measure of reality.

 

Presence is an ever present truth and reality for God is with us always. The issue is will I rest in that reality, regardless of the flow of my feelings with undistracted mind and by my senses that continually send it information?

 

To acknowledge the reality of God and God’s presence, despite my ever changing circumstances, is to stand in the presence of God. It is no diversionary tactic, for the reality of such circumstances doesn’t change. What changes is the way in which I choose to frame them. I can look at them from the fears, anxieties or pleasures which they induce. Or I can perceive the presence of God, living the Godward side of my experience. This is quite the journey.

 

As my first wife, Katey, battled with MS, we managed our own journeys from different perspectives. Katey experienced the loss of physical and mental ability that accompanied the deepening hold progressive MS had upon her whole being. I fought anger, resentment, a sense of abandonment by God whom I’d served faithfully as far as I could tell. We both became consumed with our own presence, our physicality. We lived from a collapsing ego, unable to craft a world of any sense within which we might define ‘self’ in a meaningful way. And we proved a handful to others, most of whom, understandably, took a large step back from us and our situation.

 

Discovering we had nothing within to address such circumstances, that we were empty shells of humanity, we paused through exhaustion. Like Jacob we wrestled long through the darkness of our night. It was only as dawn began to appear above the horizon, the dawning of a recognition of God’s presence in the bleakest of contexts, that we both sensed something of God’s presence. God was not some external, impotent fraud outside and unable to intervene within our situation. God had always been accompanying us within this the bleakest experience of our life to date.

 

Presence is in the acknowledgement of God’s presence. It is neither something we can strain to grasp nor an escape from our challenging circumstances. It is the recognition that God is with us and God’s invitation is that we stand with that truth. The battle is always with my preconceived and usually preferred perspective on God and God’s work in the world. Yet, this can only ever prove to be a perspective. I have to discover the willingness and then the practice of re framing my life around the fact that God is always present. It is my walk of faith that can bring me to the place where I acknowledge that, regardless of such circumstance. This leads to the next important wrestling match; how to allow perfect love to cast out all fear! More of that later.

 

If you enjoy these blogs follow along with my daily devotions at Voice of Hope.

The Second Essential of Prayer

Once we have achieved an appreciation and something of a practice of ‘Stillness, Prayer essential #1, what are we to do in this new found yet soon to become familiar Stillness? The second essential is Attentiveness. Attentiveness has two meanings.

Meaning One

I guess we all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context, ‘Driving requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions‘, i.e. not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal. Once in the Stillness therefore it is not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the context to which such Stillness has introduced us.

As I sit in summer mornings enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus I can hear a cacophony of enjoyable birdsong filling the air. However, as I apply attentiveness, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. Naturally the ability to distinguish such sounds is dependent upon a certain amount of work carried out in familiarising myself with the different songs of British garden birds, and would prove of little value on a trip to Malaysia. Which goes to show that the attention we have given over our life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation upon which we establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear yet must learn to discern what it is I am hearing, an act of attentiveness.

Meaning Two

However, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others as in, ‘They live in constant, kindly attentiveness to each others needs‘. In approaching God it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist and measurable way attends to my ever swelling bandwidth of ‘needs’. Rather that I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. And that’s because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who determine to love and serve God. God is voiceless and shapeless without an engaged, redeemed humanity.

Purpose

God is purposeful in that there is always an end as well as a present in view. For me prayer once was a response to the present with little objective focus upon the end in view. In fact God thinks from the end backwards, in which case the present is rather more incidental than essential. Whilst this might feel like it reduces human value, it cannot, for such value can only ever be established with the end in view, i.e. I have been created human, in the image of God for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. Over investment in the realities of the present can only lead to stunted growth, in other words a deformity or abnormality perhaps in the aspiration that I’m invited to share alongside God.

Attentiveness affords me the opportunity to discern the present in light of the end in view. I recover perspective.

Illustration

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, the initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. I’ve no doubt God does intervene and physically heals today. We had both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer. Indeed we had experienced such healing ourselves. However, physical healing is incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where only death affords us the key to such completion.

Whilst Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we paid little attention in discerning the distinct word of God in the season. In fact we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what can only have been the devil’s work.

Exhausted and momentarily exhausted and disillusioned, where a moment is as a thousand days if not years, it was out of broken dejection, and the aloneness and sense of abandonment that followed in the melting away of an exhausted and confused congregation, that we together began to pay attention to God and seek to discern the voice of God. The end remained the same, ‘To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens: my eyes like the eyes of slaves, on the hand of their lords…our eyes on the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy…Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy‘.

We again reminded ourselves we are God’s property, albeit fearfully and wonderfully made. That God alone has the word of life and so it was to the Lord we directed our gaze. No longer consumed by physical disease we waited and began to develop an attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern God’s unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment. Attentiveness is a long way from the soothing balm of a hot bath of scented bubbles.

Such attentiveness was not primarily to provide us with any emotional satisfaction for we discovered that feelings are untrustworthy and in no way confirmed if God were present or not. Attentiveness was finding the capacity to rest in the reality that God’s will might be done in the earth and in the outworking of that will we discover God and deepen our understanding and appreciation of God, even as and when mortality brings death at an age my humanity might never understand and rail against.

Conclusion

So in the Stillness we learn to become attentive to God. Our own will, aspiration, assumption and perception will readily seek to occupy that Stillness. Only problem with this is that it must inevitable drown out the still small voice who is Jesus. I say ‘learn’ for not one of us can accomplish attentiveness without a disciplined commitment to practice; Intuition + Practice = Performance. Discerning different songs within the overwhelming orchestration that is the dawn chorus takes both knowledge and discipline, and is of course continually accompanied by doubt. In all such attentiveness it remains to me to discover what it is the Master says, where saying is not essentially an audible word. And where attentiveness may require nothing more of me than attentiveness itself.

‘if the Lord had not been on our side…then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent gone over us…Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’.

After some cold, wet weather, summer mornings return to my great delight. Having prayed the Trisagion, cup of tea in hand, I sauntered out to the best seat in the house to write. The sunshine is warm even as I sit in PJs and dressing gown, and the sounds of a waking world remind me of the goodness of God and fullness of life. Of course anxieties invade my head and seek to take hold of my attention, but I am able to acknowledge and set them to one side and write.

Birdsong is therapeutic in itself. Different sounds, interrupted by the heavy landing of wood pigeons on the roof of my gazebo, harmonise my thoughts and my spirits lift within. Its been challenging days with mum moving herself into a care home and Jayne experiencing severe pain due to the impact of full blown flu on her permanent chronic health condition. Yet, pressure is manageable when encased in nature. How is it the early morning sun lifts the spirit so? And to think I was fearful of this garden when moving from the urban concrete sprawl that I once called home, to this rural retreat.

The wholesomeness of the natural world stirs hope when so much of our reported world appears to offer little but fear. I understand that some TV channels broadcast log fires burning and these enjoy a committed viewing public. Perhaps simply filming and broadcasting the garden through the day might offer greater insight into life than all the journalists faithfully crafting their trade on a multiplicity of media platforms.

Life, for me at least, boils down to the simplicity of a stability of location, a pace where I know I am moving within my limits without choosing to be pushed beyond them and time to wait and watch. As the breeze reminds me of the presence of the natural world my eye drifts to the pile of cut laurel from which I will create fresh logs for two years hence.

Reflection:

Morning is the best of all times in the garden. The sun is not yet hot. Sweet vapours rise from the earth. Night dew clings to the soil and makes plants glisten. Birds call to one another. Bees are already at work.

William Longgood

 

Online Church has much to offer. In a society consumed with time management what better way to worship than in front of the familiar computer terminal? 

Time pressures increase. Care for families pulls us in two directions at once. Growing children at one polarity, ageing parents at the other. Jobs demand 24/7 attention with the access and demands of smart technology, adding to the pressure to survive with a national wage freeze set against ever rising prices. It takes huge amounts of energy and concentration simply to stand still. Stillness means to survive and not to flourish.

Church now demands more of me than I have left to give. It becomes an unhelpful distraction laden with ‘oughts‘ and ‘shoulds‘ all appealing to my overdeveloped sense of guilt. If only church might once more be about encountering God through welcome, confession, the liturgy of God’s word followed by Eucharist? I’ve little time to engage with fellow congregants and the project focused program developed by salaried leadership freaks me out with the thought of more demands made upon my shrinking time resource. What’s worse that it appears attendance alone satisfies the spiritual hunger of most.

I run and enter a desert of my own creation. Yet as the noises within my head subside, as I find some moments to draw breath, I rediscover that my Christian life is about friendship with God. I’m seeking to maintain friendships on an ever expanding circle of need and demand, that I literally have not one moment to discern that still small voice.

Online church enables me to pause, in stillness and personally encounter God. I am part of something far larger than myself, yet I need not commute to attend, nor invest time in interpersonal relationships. I experience the best in worship and the best in preaching. I am nourished and refreshed, better able to love God and neighbour. I am taking good care of myself. I begin to build up the right sort of love for self and so offer my neighbour a better deal.

The desert that I imagined was a wasteland incapable of supporting life, is in fact a city teeming with people, presenting a litany of overwhelming demands and burning every last ounce of creative energy from me. I must withdraw and make my space with God, so God can make some space in me.

As for those interpersonal relationships; well a small group meeting at a time that suits its members best is an oasis for me. More of that later.

 

patience

We all know patience is a virtue and one that is not particularly easy to cultivate. The current US culture, for the most part, is fast-paced and pressure-filled. Rapid-fire responses, productivity, and achievement are valued. Rarely do we give voice and praise to what is measured and slow.

Impatience is a disadvantage when it comes to our spiritual lives. As spiritual companions, we witness this firsthand in ourselves and in others. We may long to possess a saint-like inner landscape. We may become harsh and judgemental with ourselves when we do not make the spiritual strides we’d hoped.

In the process of our own awakening,
we cannot compare our growth to anyone else’s.
Each of us is growing emotionally, intellectually
and spiritually at our own pace,
in our own fashion, toward our highest purpose.
Each of us is exactly where we are meant to be right now—
or we would be somewhere else.
We are here, now, experiencing a growth pattern
that is uniquely our own
on a path that is ours and ours alone.

Patience in all things, especially with ourselves.

We can remind ourselves (and those we companion) not to compare the pace or pattern of our spiritual growth to that of anyone else. Comparison may be the name of the game in our competition-based world, but it is not so in the heart and mind of God. It is alright to go slow, to breathe, to wait, to listen, to rest into what is emerging, revealing, inviting. In fact, it is beneficial to do so.

Each one of us awakens
and grows into our spiritual nature
at our own rate.
For some, it will take many seasons
to realise our highest potential,
to come into our fullness.
This is a journey that cannot be rushed, judged, or compared.
Allow yourself to unfold and mature as Spirit intended.
Put your lamentations and worries aside.
Trust in the well-timed beauty of your own growth.

Patience in all things, especially with ourselves.

We can remind ourselves (and those we companion) to trust the timing of this spiritual unfolding. Each of us has been divinely crafted and lovingly made—being made—moment, by moment, by moment. Who are we to question the rhythm of creation, healing, and growth?

Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess and mystic affirmed, “At birth our divine potential is folded up in us like a tent. It is life’s purpose to unfold that tent.” We are co-creators. We have work to do, and yet, it is vital that we surrender the illusion of control to which we hold so tightly and, instead, align ourselves with the Spirit that steers and guides.

As the gardeners of our lives,
we can take all the steps necessary
to ensure the crop of an abundant existence.
We can prepare ourselves, nurture ourselves,
give ourselves what we need to grow and blossom,
but that is where the labour ends.
We can only do so much.
We must turn the results of our labours over to the Universe.
We must wait to see what grows.
Patience is in order
as we surrender to the will of the Master Gardener.
Everything grows in its own season,
in perfect timing with a cosmic plan
which is being laid out for us.

Patience in all things, especially with ourselves.

Indeed, “patience” can be our prayer.


Janice Lynne Lundy is an interfaith spiritual director and mentor, educator, and retreat leader who has been pointing people back toward the Sacred for more than twenty years. She is the author of several spiritual growth books, including Your Truest Self, My Deepest Me and Portable Peace. Her newest book is “Thank You” Is My Prayer to be released December 2016. Jan leads contemplative programs and retreats nationwide and serves as adjunct staff at Dominican Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, where she resides.

How do I “make straight the way of God”?

make_straightIt was a Native American chief who taught me the meaning of Christmas at a conference where interfaith leaders were gathered to discuss the relationship of religion to race.

Into the midst of the theological meanderings of those of us who wanted to write another paper, have another meeting, take another workshop to combat racism, the Chief brought the message of Isaiah again. He stood up slowly, folded his hands quietly in front of him, looked out over our heads and said softly, “I have spent my life teaching our children to say ‘thank you.’ Thank you for the grass. Thank you for the rain. Thank you for the stranger. Thank you for all the people of the world. I think that if we learn to say ‘thank you’ for everything, we will come to realise its value, to respect it, to see it as sacred.”

It was a simple speech but it had a kind of cataclysmic effect on my soul. It raised the spectre of Isaiah in me all over again. It made me think newly about what the scriptures are talking about when they tell us to “make straight the way of God.” I suddenly realised that Christmas is time to shout “thank you.”

Christmas is the commitment to life made incarnate. It is the call to see God everywhere and especially in those places we would not expect to find glory and grace. It is the call to exult in life.

Christmas is the obligation to see that everything leads us directly to God, to realise that there is no one, nothing on earth that is not the way to God for me. I knew instantly that the moment we begin to really celebrate Christmas, to look at everyone and everything as a revelation of God, to say “thank you” for them, that racism would be over, war would be no more, world hunger would disappear, everything would be gift, everyone would be sacred.

Indeed, it is simple but oh, so clear: All we have to do to “make straight the way of God” is to say “thank you,” to learn to live intensely, to have a zeal for life, to develop a passion for life.

Sr Joan Chittester

Don had a rare combination of strengths—common sense, administrative ability, thoughtful reflection—all wrapped in the gentlest of spirits. He was also in perfect health. Or so we thought, until he went out for a run and had a fatal heart attack.

nativityWhat I remember most about his funeral was the terror that ran through me as I thought about God in this context. Who is this deity who kills off the best people, or at least allows them to die? What else might this deity do?

Yes, such questions may be futile or, horrors, bad theology. It hardly mattered on that day. What mattered was that I felt a real fear of God—fear with an echo of awe.

“Fear of the Lord” pops up often in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a strange phrase, especially for spiritual directors. We’ve seen how fear keeps spiritual directees from living into the freedom that we, and I daresay God, wish for them.

Some commentators interpret the word fear in that phrase as referring to awe or reverence. That would be nicer. But I think it diminishes the echoes of awe within fear, and fear within awe, that I felt at Don’s funeral.

This strange dance between fear and awe shows up more often than we might think. Looking back on my own life, I can see the extravagant love of God, masterfully weaving the strands of my story. That inspires awe. I also see where the pursuit of God’s call has torn those threads apart: loss of income, boatloads of self-doubt, few tangible results. That inspires fear.

Many people have noted how the beauty of the night sky takes their breath away. That is awe. Yet the sight of the universe can unnerve as well, pulling the rug of our own perceived significance out from under us. More fear.

The awe-fear dance can overwhelm us. It was clearly too much for Job, the biblical character who, oppressed by tragedy upon tragedy, responded by asking God to just go away.Let me alone, for my days are a breath,” he says (Job 7:16–19). “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, … test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”

Perhaps it’s normal, even human, to feel both awe and fear in the presence of something greater or more beautiful than ourselves. Of course, we could just let the whole thing go—and let God go. Maybe Job had the right idea.

But that would ignore our deepest desire: to draw close to the One who, we are told, is the source of something even greater than awe and fear—compassion. So we continue on, embracing all aspects of our experience of the Divine: even the fear that, far from being obsolete, is part of the journey that leads to love.

John Backman

A regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths, 2012). He recently completed the spiritual direction training program at Linwood Spiritual Center.

 

Retreat Day with Dr Micha & Jayne Jazz May 25, 2016 @ The Wisdom Centre Romsey, 9:30-16:30 refreshments and lunch provided. All inclusive price £35.

Just a few places remain for this day retreat in Romsey Hampshire. We already have a group of twenty people booked to explore deepening their understanding of contemplative activism Please do let us know if this is a day that you might value.

We shall explore the whole area of attachment and detachment with the help of the text of Cloud of UnknowingScholars date the anonymous authorship of Cloud of Unknowing to 1375, during the height of European monasticism. Written as a primer for the young monastic, the work is instructional, but does not have an austere didactic tone. Rather, the work embraces the reader with a maternal call to grow closer to God through meditation and prayer.

Our day will begin with coffee from 9:30 and we shall make a formal start at 10:00. The day will be a combination of learning together and self discovery through directed, individual activities. The objective as ever is to take a step back from the busyness of life and  deepen your personal understanding and awareness of both God and self. The core theme in our time together will be to examine the relationship between contemplation and activism.
 
You do not need to have read the text of Cloud of Unknowing and I shall have copies in a modern translation available for purchase on the day if you think you might want to explore further in this wonderful contemplative fourteenth century text. Do however bring your own notebook and pen. Slides of the day will be circulated after the retreat as a PDF via email.
To book: Email stcuthbertsoratory@gmail.com.

What exactly is simples? I am in conversation with many individuals all of whom see that the answer to their stressful life lies in ‘simples’! By which they mean moving through a process to simplify life. I have a lot of empathy, yet everyone is starting from a different perspective as well as point upon the journey. I remember one time talking with a friend who was stressed in managing is portfolio of stocks and shares. My suggestion was sell the lot, remove the source of the stress. He looked as me as if I was mad. Perhaps the stress was in fact an essential component reminding him he was alive. I know not. Suffice to say over the next few postings I want to reflect upon the ‘simplicity’ agenda, as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s.

In mathematical terms I understand that to simplify something is to present it in its simplest terms. This can prove a struggle for a mathematician. Whilst life may not lend itself to mathematical simplicitysolutions.

What I hear as I converse with others is a desire to reduce the amount of pressure each of us feels in navigating our course through life. There are different seasons when distinct pressures apply uniquely, as when children first arrive and then at each stage of their development. Those first years struggling to meet mortgage payments relating to a house purchase, or to meet rents that seem to rise sharply every year. I am left wondering if it is in rearranging the externals that a simpler lifestyle is achieved or is it through a re-framing of how I engage with life, perceive myself and determine my aspirations? For me it is far more the latter than the former, then again I am somewhat mature in years.

Certainly from scripture my understanding is that it’s the lens through which we choose to peer at life that most forcibly impacts our reaction and resistance to circumstance. So I remain at the very heart of the challenge for a simpler life. My assumption is that much of the writings and musings  actually address actions we must take, itself often a further stressor as to do lists usually are, rather than a pathway to a more peaceable and therefore enriched and enjoyable life.

I want to explore the normal recommendations, including the large volume of literature that in some way simple means we contribute a vital service to our planet and humanity; no surprises that I feel a measure conflicted as to such a reality. The performance may in  fact be no more than an extra patch in my comfort quilt within which I wrap myself  in throughout my perennial search to find (or extract) some meaning and purpose for my life.

So simples it is and comments welcome as we engage with what has been a leading subject of discussion throughout my lifetime.

As you might expect, ‘Let’s Pray’ is a central pillar of our household together. Indeed as we enter a New Year, Jayne and I will be exploring both the involvement of imagination in prayer as well as, given her own struggles with chronic pain, the relationship between contemplative prayer and pain management. I am hoping to write about this journey as we go.

However, short and sweet, let’s pray today by joining in the following prayer.

‘Father, you established your ancient covenant by signs and wonders,

but more wondrously you confirmed the new covenant through the sacrifice of your Son.

Guide us as your church through the pathways of life,

that we may be led to the land of promise

and celebrate your name with lasting praise.

We recall, Lord, that all your ways are holy

and we desire to walk within them. Amen’

seeking

 

 

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