Archives for category: The meaning of life

Statistics reveal that ageing well is fast becoming the major topic for conversation. The ‘silver hair‘ market is a prime target for those seeking to monetise age. Many in the UK are retiring with a respectable pension, often a combination of private and company pots carefully invested. The generation of which I’m a part has seen house prices rise astronomically across their working life creating a very healthy tangible asset. Yet, some critical questions remain.

When non contributory state pensions were introduced in 1948, life expectancy in the UK was sixty eight. So retirement at sixty five left the taxpaying workforce to fund a three year state pension on average. Today life expectancy is around eighty, even though recent reports show the rate of increase in life expectancy is dropping in the UK. It is still rising historically, increasing by two years every decade over the last century.

This poses a challenge for us all. My generation is the first sandwich generation caring for children and ageing parents simultaneously. The current preferred method of managing old age through a network of expensive homes is probably as unsustainable economically as it is unpalatable socially. I’ve observed my mum become institutionalised within a year. Yes, at one level her anxiety about daily living that caused her to select a care home as an option have reduced. Yet, her limitless ability to find things to worry about has not deserted her. She dislikes the food, but fails to complain due to an unrealised fear of penalties. She complains about staff who change regularly and who she struggles to understand. As a business I guess it offers the ideal scenario. Hi yield and low cost meaning healthy profits.

But my mum is of a generation who enjoys disposable income. I won’t enjoy that luxury. And my daughter struggles to conceive of owning her own house, one financial nest egg gone, and she won’t expect to inherit anything from me as it will be absorbed no doubt in dealing with my own old age requirements, albeit this will by preference be in some hermit house.

So it is perhaps time to engage in an effective debate about ageing. The church, of which I have been involved in various forms for forty five years, is also at a loss when it comes to managing the ageing issue. It still believes it’s future is in directing its primary resources towards the young, who in UK are a declining percentile of the population. Whilst society’s fixation with sixty five as the retirement age means that older people are not effectively deployed in church life. This as much the responsibility of the oldies themselves, with their misdirected love affair with the idea of ‘retirement’, as it is of church leadership.

Here in the Oratory we are opening up this discussion as we gather people for retreats, seminars and through coaching. The tripartite life (education, career, retirement) is over. We now need to expand our engagement in life to reflect increased longevity. What’s more as has been said, ‘People yearn for eternity when the struggle to know what to do with a wet Sunday afternoon’! This is the testimony of many ageing people with whom I interact. We explore building an effective, holistic retirement plan to realise dreams and recognising the inner desire to continue t love and serve God.

Planning to make sense of faith and life through the autumn years is a key element of life here in the Oratory. If you want to join in drop me an email. I am also thrilled to have been invited to facilitate a round-table discussion on mortality and morbidity this autumn and if this interests you then email me for details.

Ageing well, in the full life God offers, is central to our journey here in the Oratory. We have taken a lead and so do be in touch if you want to explore ageing and continuing to serve God in the outstanding years of your life yet to come.

I was speaking with someone last week passing through one of life’s many transitions, and we identified the challenge of facing our fear.

Fear is an unpleasant feeling that troubles our whole physiology. It is born of something that lies beyond our control, often in the future and yet it troubles us deeply in the NOW. It impacts mood and our ability to get on with life. It dominates our thinking and can steal our sleep.

We all face fear of various degrees at different times. I well remember my mum expressing her deep fear of how to cope as the undertakers removed dad’s body from her home. There was terror in her eyes, even as she attempted to engage with the grief she felt from the loss of her husband of sixty three years.

Whilst that’s extreme, many focus upon their anxiety of what tomorrow might NOT bring due to lack of wealth, health or stealth. Problem is, as the gospel makes clear, I can only worry about today, since I’ve not yet reached tomorrow. Most fear it seems to me is a consequence of future thinking.

Money, or lack of it, is a common cause of fear. However, if I look back over my many years that have brought me to this point I have not been without all that I’ve needed. True I may have aspired to more or coveted by comparison with others, yet how can I possibly complain? A roof over my head, food to eat and the second of two perfect marriages, can a guy get any luckier?

Fear stalks us because it directs our attention to serve a situation that has not, and may never, arrive. I remember taking Katey, my first wife, with me on a working trip to Zimbabwe. We took some holiday whilst there and spent our tenth wedding anniversary up a tree house on safari. And this was a real luxury tree house let me tell you. We couldn’t afford the trip on paper, yet had we waited for when we could, Katey would never have enjoyed it, dying from MS in her early fifties. At that stage we didn’t know of her future MS diagnosis.

The future is a fickle mistress to serve. I know many people who even in their eighties are worried their savings will run out. They’ve saved faithfully for a rainy day, and failed to enjoy all the sunny ones now behind them. I know in actuarial terms I have just a 9% chance of reaching 100 years old. Making provision for my nineties is not on my ‘To Do’ list!

It is when facing our fear that we address the one limitation we place upon life’s enjoyment. We face it only once we acknowledge it, own it and choose to share it with people we trust. There may be real substance to our fear, yet we can do little about resolving our future apart from living as best we can today in both the service of God and of others.

 

I guess we all appreciate a companion. Be it another person or perhaps a family pet. Having a companion travelling with us through life’s journey offers support and encouragement.

Meaning of Companion

The word companion actually means to break bread with. This surely offers us a true insight into the reality of friendship and fellowship. Someone who is willing to share their riches with another truly carries the mark of one who loves God. Did not Jesus offer us the riches of heaven even as we laboured under the burden of separation from God?

Benefit of Companions

It is said that a problem shared is a problem halved. It is always helpful to be able to talk things through with someone else. When I set up Bowring & Jazz Ltd. it was with a companion. We are technicians in that we are excellent trainers and coaches. We also have experience in writing curriculum with a commitment to a contextual training style. Now we are attempting to build a business, late in life yet with a great deal of enthusiasm. It is good we can share our lack of business knowledge, make and talk through our mistakes and learn to support each other.

Seeking Companions

Life invites us to seek companions to share our journey. St Cuthbert’s Oratory offers companionship, virtual and actual, as we all seek to discover what Christian wholeness and wellness mean in a fast paced and often brutal society. My learning from my bitter experiences can not only help my maturing but might be offered as a piece of the bread that provides suitable sustenance to another.

Companions Together

The direction for these comments in the days ahead will be to offer companionship, bread for the journey, as we each make our way through life, carrying unique burdens, yet focused upon finding fullness and nourishment no matter what wilderness our footsteps lead us into. Journey with us here in the Oratory. Tell us your stories and share your thoughts by emailing me.

 

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’.

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.

Great meditative piece by Sr. Joan Chittester. A wonderful reflection at the start of Advent 2016. Take time to pause, read and reflect.

Pointing to the star
starsAdvent is the season of waiting. Its function is to remind us what we’re waiting for as we go through life too busy with things that do not matter to remember the things that do.  When year after year we hear the same scriptures and the same hymns of longing for the life to come, of which this is only its shadow, it becomes impossible to forget the refrains of the soul.

Advent relieves us of our commitment to the frenetic in a fast-paced world. It slows us down. It makes us think. It makes us look beyond today to the “great tomorrow” of life.  Without Advent, moved only by the race to nowhere that exhausts the world around us, we could be so frantic with trying to consume and control this life that we fail to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow.

It is while waiting for the coming of the reign of God, Advent after Advent, that we come to realize that its coming depends on us. What we do will either hasten or slow, sharpen or dim our own commitment to do our part to bring it.

The Liturgical Year by Joan ChittisterAdvent stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.

We all want something more. Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you? Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul?

 —from The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister, Thomas Nelson

Brexit is sinking in. The UK has left the European Union, although that Referendum outcome may in fact trigger Scotland to seek permission of its citizens to leave the Union and find a way of joining the EU in its own right.

Waving United Kingdom and European Union Flag

Waving United Kingdom and European Union Flag

Sadly, the anger that followed the outcome has only revealed just how conflicted the English, in particular, are. To claim that those who voted to leave are either racist or more accurately, xenophobic, is simply to reinforce the unhelpful polarity of the ‘In or Out’ Referendum question. There is a case to make that the EU itself and the apparent high handed behaviour of its institutions has enriched the soil in which nationalism and right wing politics flourishes. Austria only just avoided electing an extreme right wing President.

Sadly, the whole Referendum was unnecessary given that it was a vanity project for the Conservative Party. Having surprisingly seized victory from the jaws of defeat in a General Election just over a year ago, Prime Minister Cameron had no need to invoke his manifesto promise of a referendum, After all when previously elected he instituted a top down reform of the NHS, something not in the manifesto. The assumption in the establishment that the Remain vote would carry the day largely relied on inherent conservatism across the electorate fanned into flame through the dire warnings of ‘Project Fear‘, the economic melt done that would follow any exit from the EU.

So what have we learnt? The Brussels Trinity of Council, Commission and Parliament never saw Brexit as a likely outcome as simple moves to have their books independently audited or showing a face of flexible negotiation as available for any member state seeking to influence the Union going forward would have been well received by the UK electorate. As a result Cameron’s mock ‘re-negotiation’ carried no authority and the UK electorate lost faith that the Union was subject to the normal rule of political engagement, which is negotiation between competing needs and preferences between member States. It appears that critical decisions lie in the hands of unelected bureaucrats who perhaps profit personally too well from their appointment. As a result all claims that it is better to influence from within than to leave proved unbelievable to a majority of the electorate and the EU must accept some responsibility for that and its failure to play anything but hard ball, a policy it appears to want to continue post the Brexit vote, is to my mind, a strategic error, or deserving of the overworked use of the word ‘arrogance’.

I would like to think that given the narrow win for Brexit, the EU and the British negotiating team might recognise now is the time to explore a constructive working relationship between the EU and the UK. Continuing with a binary approach surely has no place in a mature democratic debate. Big questions face the leaders both within the UK and across the remaining twenty seven members as well as the EU unelected officers. The initial comments from the latter are not encouraging and only further fuel anger across the UK and incite movements to leave throughout the remaining EU member nations.

As for Scotland, can the SNP really say that it is in everyone’s best interests to exploit the voting figures to push for another Independence Referendum? Now is surely the moment when a party that actually enjoys the trust of their supporters and has engaged a large electorate in the reality of politics, to act as an effective honest broker in a fractured relationship between the UK and EU. Why would any right minded political figure want to destabilise the world more completely? Time will reveal how self centred and self satisfied the Scottish nation and political establishment has become.

Obviously, little will change in real terms. Immigration will continue, and to paint Brexit as a xenophobic reaction is plain wrong. However, there is a need for a clearly understandable Immigration Policy, something successive UK governments have refused to grapple with. There are plenty of examples elsewhere in the world such as USA and Australia, but in both confusion and challenge will always surround such complex issues. Overall the issue in the UK is less about a refusal to offer hospitality to victims of war and terror, and far more about businesses exploiting migrant labour and driving wages down in the lowest paid sectors in our economy. No right minded person wants to support such exploitation, yet I guess many are guilty of purchasing from Amazon, whose employees speak clearly of the terrible employment conditions they experience. I would be thrilled if the indignation this Referendum has stirred up might act as a creative challenge to all of us so that we might invest our leisure time into campaigning and working for justice and peace, using our diverse skills and different resource levels to work on behalf of those marginalised through no fault of their own. This truly is a consequence of globalisation that requires compassionate engagement.

The Media has shown itself highly irresponsible in the way it has fuelled polarisation within the debate. The result can be laid at its feet, even though after the outcome it acts both surprised and unhappy uk_regionalisationat the outcome.

The good news is that we may now invite those who are sixteen to be enfranchised in any future UK wide election. It has woken those who’ve lost interest and trust in politicians to the power and purpose of politics, that is young people, and they must be offered critical roles throughout all our political institutions. Just looking at the Commission and much of the critical officers who manage our political life, they are grey haired and out of touch with emerging trends in culture. Time to move people out of public life earlier and create more opportunities for the young.

I am very optimistic regarding the future for the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. We are wrestling with the end of the Nation State, the battle to give up on an idea birthed in 800 and which we thought had ended in 1806. I speak of the Holy Roman Empire. Europe has been fascinated with being joined together for centuries, and maybe this is the last attempt at establishing this expression of a mega state. In fact, just as Scotland seeks independence so do the regions throughout the UK. It means the movement of power from the centre, London and Westminster, to elected, representative bodies in the regions. If the Referendum revealed anything it revealed the privileged position of London, other urban centres to a lesser degree, and then what have been allowed to become the wastelands of our historic industrial landscapes. Yet government seems to have no policy for addressing manufacture, engineering and industrial development.

So the future isn’t bleak. It may be uncertain, yet this is a great opportunity and let’s demonstrate international leadership in building a political, social and economic model that offers hope to all our children and grandchildren, gives the necessary ability to respond to fast changing global change without being saddled with a bureaucratic response. Its a time for belief not bitterness and recrimination.

cloud_unknowingWe had a wonderful retreat day  in pursuit of the Cloud of unknowing.

A journey of exploring those attachments that might unnecessarily tether us and leave us earthbound even as our Spirit within yearns to discover and explore more of the life of God. Attachments that are both positive, yet run  the danger of obscuring God, and also negative in that they deceive us and delay our movement deeper into God’s heart of grace and full acceptance.

We faced the questions that for so long had remained unexpressed, carried as a burden weighing us down, invisible to all but ourself and God. And then took time in silence to consider such attachments and found creative ways to respond to the degree we felt able to on the day, whilst carrying the insights away to continue our meditation in the days to come.

We each sensed a sobering sense of God’s immanence and, whilst we dared to face ourselves in the questions God presented, we equally experienced an increased sense of God’s acceptance and peace in that God accepted us questions and all.

As ever such a privilege to journey with others as we waited and watched before learning to walk with less of a limp.

Keep in touch, we are a community that offers hope and sustenance to one another in the Way.

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.
%d bloggers like this: