It is Saturday morning. There is nothing I have to do – or nothing urgent. I sit at the open window in my pyjamas with the sunshine, the trees now in full leaf, the early morning birdsong, the air touching my face. This is what I want to do. This is how I want life to be always: nothing I have to do. I feel my upper chest relax, right into my shoulder joints, as I allow the truth and trust of this fully to sink in. Though it is my ritual upon waking to sit here, to pray and meditate, I don’t feel the need to do something ‘spiritual’. I want to sit and look out of the window and do nothing (except for the mostly unnoticed actions that occur autonomically: respiration, blood flow, peristalsis: this body is a dynamic system that does not rest – until it does).Continue reading
Sarah, one of my daughters, died suddenly about two months ago. Amongst other things she suffered from epilepsy and died unexpectedly one night after an epileptic seizure caused heart and respiratory failure. Its an unusual way to die, but it does sometimes happen, it always seems to be without apparent warning, and nobody appears to know why. It came as a terrible shock to her sisters and I, and indeed to all her family and many friends.
Her twin and I travelled down to the city where she died and visited her body in the hospital mortuary, something we both wanted to do. I wept there [we both did] and I talked to Sarah and said a prayer committing her back to the God Who had given her to us. I remember her and her sisters’ births, I was present at each of them, and recall how moved I was by a sense of wonder and awe at the creation of new life. Where did it come from? I knew something of the biology, and my part in it, but that in no way even began to answer the question ‘where has this new life come from?’. Seeing her dead body provoked a matching question: ‘Where has she gone?’ It was her body, it could almost have been her asleep, and yet the life force that is Sarah [call it what you will] was gone, where is she now?
The only answer that seems to do justice to the realities for me, is the one St John wrote about in his Gospel. In the Prologue he talks about Jesus being with God from the beginning, and laying that down in order to be born as a human being, and at the end of the Gospel he talks about Jesus returning to be with God again. I take it that this is the model for each of us. We come from God when we are born, and after we die, we return to God. While we are alive the divine spark lives within us, and our task, like Jesus, is to incarnate that divine spark as best we can in a manner that will be unique to each of us. I have felt increasingly sure over the years that there is truth in this way of understanding things, and Sarah’s death, her funeral, and all that went with it, has confirmed my faith in it.
I have heard many people say that there is no worse experience for a parent than to have one of their children die before they do. I have to say that I don’t feel that. Maybe in the future I will, but right now I don’t. Rather I feel a deep sense of privilege to have been gifted by God with Sarah as my and her mother’s child, to have tried my best to help the divine spark grow in her during her life, and then to let her go and return her with thanksgiving to the God from Whom she came, at her death. I’m also humbled to be aware that she did as much and more to nurture the divine spark in me, than I was able to do for her. Sarah taught me a great deal, and is a wonderful and rich gift to me. She would be astonished to hear that, of course, which is an essential part of the mystery of it all.
I’m left with a number of things to attend to. I need to name for myself where Sarah’s giftedness lies, both in herself and in what she called forth in me, and to do what I can to nurture it so that I can play my part in making it a giftedness for the world.
I need to do what I can to support her sisters and all those others who mourn Sarah’s death, just as they are supporting me.
I need to explore my deepening conviction that the dead, the yet unborn, and we the living, are all intimately inter-connected in ways beyond my understanding. Prayer and love, which I suspect are the same thing but in different guises, are the key to this I intuit.
And behind all of the above, I have to look after myself: allow myself the time and space to grieve; listen to my body, head, heart and soul and attend to their needs; and to let healing come at its own pace.
Prayer is anything that nurtures the relationship between us and God
God in creating us and giving us the gift of life, has initiated and continues to nurture that relationship
God is the primary pray-er, not us.
Prayer is time consciously spent in God’s presence.
All time is spent in God’s presence, whether I acknowledge it or not.
God consciously spends all time with me, nourishing our relationship, whether I acknowledge it or not.
God is praying in me, even when I am not consciously praying.
God is the primary pray-er.
God is not just praying in me but in all others, including the dead and the yet unborn, and indeed in all creation.
God made, loves, upholds and sustains everything that there is, was and will be.
As I sit here God is praying through the chair I sit on, the clothes I’m wearing, the air I breathe, the window I am gazing through, the trees & the buildings that I can see
As I go outside, God is praying in each person I meet.
As we meet, the God in me meets the God in them.
God’s praying thus unites me with everything else that God has created.
God is praying in each and all of us, and in everything.
I am united in prayer with all those who have lived before me, and the yet unborn
The former will be praying that I build on their successes and redeem their failings
The latter will be praying for the world into which they will be born.
United by God’s prayer, my relationship with all other human beings, is transformed, for they are now all my sisters and brothers, and their well-being is now my concern as mine is theirs.
Prayer calls us all to social and pastoral action.
Similarly, as I sense the God whom I know praying in the whole of creation so my attitude to creation is transformed.
God is in it and meets me there, God calls me to care for it, and for creation to care for me
In caring for the world and all of creation, I am co-caring with the God Who cares.
I am mostly not very good at all this, but my attempts seem to be accepted, and so I keep working at it.
When I get up in the morning I like to make myself a cup of tea, and a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon for my wife, and then spend time in prayer. Usually that means walking down to my shed in the garden, but earlier this year the weather didn’t encourage that, and instead I sat in the front room, still warm from last night’s fire, and found myself gazing silently out of the window, which faces south east. Each morning I either saw the sun rise over the horizon, or was aware that while I couldn’t see much beyond the road, nevertheless it got gradually lighter. The quality of the light was different, every day, and it always looked beautiful. And every day my heart and soul were lifted by a sense of awe and wonder, and I began the day with my spirits lifted. All because I watched the dawn.
There is nothing unusual or inexplicable about this. It happens every day, every where, and provided you’re awake and have your eyes open to the world outside, you cant miss it. But every morning I felt a sense of awe and wonder and began the day with a spring in my step, my faith in life and in God [what’s the difference?] deepened and nourished. It felt like a miracle. And of course that’s what miracles are: not inexplicable events ‘out there’ beyond the ken of current scientific understanding, but experiences ‘out there’ which deepen and enrich faith ‘inside’, such that I engage with life and the world more confidently and with greater trust than I might otherwise have done. The fact that there is a rational explanation of what is happening ‘out there’ when the sun rises, makes not a jot of difference to my experience and what that experience evokes in me. The miracle is in what happens inside, not in what happens outside. And it seems like a miracle because I have no conscious control over it, I certainly can’t will it to happen, and I experience it rather as a mysterious, unexpected, and wonderful gift, which I have done nothing whatsoever to deserve.
Looked at like this, miracles are potentially occurring all the time, and can be occasioned by all manner of events, many of them tiny and seemingly insignificant: the setting sun, the sight of the stars at night, the birth of a baby, the moment of death, the first heralds of spring, a friendly smile, any moment that touches the heart and soul in a creative and challenging manner, evoking awe and wonder.
But there’s the rub. They do happen all the time and so we easily take them for granted: we develop a sense of entitlement to such things rather than one of thankfulness; and we are usually too busy elsewhere to notice them. And if we don’t notice them and allow them to work their magic on us, they will have been to little avail for they need our active co-operation to maximise their effectiveness. Despite my winter awakening, I know that I still miss most of them, but I am more aware now, at least for a time, that I need to get better at paying them attention, because miracles are the food on which faith feeds.
Faith means trust. If I have faith in somebody it means that I trust them. To have faith in God is to trust God, to trust life. Faith in God is innate in all of us, it comes fitted as standard, when we are born. It comes as a gift. Some people seem to have been endowed with a lot of it, and nothing in life ever seems to shake it, others seem to have been born with less, and any serious setback seems to crush it. But it is innate in us and we never lose it entirely. The right stimulation will bring it back to life and strengthen it.
You can’t buy that stimulation: it’s not available on amazon. It comes, unexpectedly, out of the blue, as an unexpected gift. All we have to do is recognise it when it happens, receive it, and allow it to change us. When it does it feels like a miracle.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny.
People will often say that they can’t pray. When asked they will say that they are unable to make their minds still or empty of thoughts. Somehow they have acquired the fantasy that to be able to pray they have to be able to stop the hubbub of thoughts that happen. At this point I am reminded of what was said to me on a course in mindfulness: “When your mind wanders, this is not a problem.”Continue reading
Every day I write 750 words, sometimes more, never less, though on some days I can’t be bothered to engage and I have been known to cheat by typing the same words over and again.
Writing requires me to dig deeper into myself, which also requires (and is the same as) connecting with You. I cannot write words worth my while if I am not connected to myself-and-You, but it involves letting go of control of the flow of my thinking, and waiting. It is not in my gift to create. You are the Creator. On my best days, I am a carefully crafted but empty cup into which You drop a coin, freshly-minted and bright.Continue reading
People are frequently frightened
to give themselves into relationship
What will You require?Continue reading
I first met Roy Gregory many years ago as a fellow member of the ‘Soul Space’ team offering spiritual direction at Greenbelt. We got on well from the off, despite supporting rival football teams, and our friendship has blossomed over the intervening years. It was Roy who one day at Greenbelt was kind enough to tell me that he thought it was a pity that ‘Approaches to Prayer’, a book I’d helped put together, was now out of print. ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make it available on-line?’ he asked. I thought that was a lovely idea but I had neither the time or the skill to make that possible, and couldn’t see how it might be achieved. ‘Leave it with me’ said Roy.
As well as being the leader of a lively free evangelical church in St Albans, Roy also lectured in engineering at Hatfield University, where he had a friend who was skilled in web design. This friend said that he’d willingly put the book online and said what he would charge to do so. When Roy relayed this back to me I said that I couldn’t afford that. Roy went back to his friend, who was an atheist, and told him what I’d said, and was stunned to hear his friend say that his wife, a Christian, had told him that as the book was about prayer, he ought to do the work for nothing, and so he would. Cheekily I then asked if he might be willing to create an Annunciation Trust web-site, which would include the book, but would also allow us to put other things on it as well? Again, he agreed, and that is how this web-site came to be.
Roy became a much loved and valued member of the group of us who work under the umbrella of The Annunciation Trust and looked after the web-site once it was up and running, and so our friendship continued on after we had each left Soul Space. Five years ago Roy suffered a stroke, and lost the use of his left side, but with the devoted care of Christine his wife, their family and friends, and a range of skilled professionals, he has learnt to adapt and manage pretty well, although mostly confined to a wheel-chair. When I’m down in London from Worcestershire where we live, I go and visit him and Christine and we continue the stimulating conversations we began together many years ago.
All of this is by way of a very long preamble to a letter I received today, dictated by Roy and written by Christine, enclosing a ‘Christmas Reflection’ that Roy was ‘given’ this Christmas, and which with his permission I’d like to share with you here:
God sent down His Angels to Earth
To show how much His creatures are worth.
He came to them and shook them to the core
And changed their life for evermore.
All sorts of people in the midst of life,
Shepherds and kings and a carpenter’s wife.
The Angel said to Mary
“I am sorry this is scary”
You will have a baby one day
In a very different way”.
Mary was humbly obedient
Although it was inconvenient.
The shepherds saw Angels in the sky
It changed them in a blink of an eye.
Of this they had no choosing
Unkind friends said they’d been boozing.
The star led the kings and they were able
To find the Baby in the stable.
In awe they put aside their self-promotion
And fell on their knees in humble devotion.
These events people know they cannot prove
By faith they can see God was on the move.
We shall soon be taking down out Christmas cards. I send a lot of Christmas cards, and we receive a lot too. We noticed this year that most of the cards we received and just about all the cards we sent had an explicitly Biblical reference. Visiting other homes during the season and seeing other peoples’ cards we became aware that our experience is untypical: the majority of Christmas cards make no reference to the Biblical story. Some of our cards contained circular letters, and some friends sent circular letters by email explaining that they were not sending cards this Christmas but were giving a donation to charity instead. I confess that I only skim read circular letters. I also confess that I shall feel sad to be taking our Christmas cards down, our home will seem empty without them.
I remember being very moved by all the cards wishing me well that I received around the time of my cancer operation and as I was beginning my course of chemotherapy, getting on for two years ago. They were, for me, powerful symbols of the web of love and prayer with which I was being held. There were eventually too many for them all to be displayed at once, so like a large art gallery I began to rotate them, with some of display and others temporarily in store. Together they incarnated the love of God which was holding me through a difficult time.
I recently read somewhere that a friendship between two people who have a shared faith and who take prayer seriously is much stronger and deeper than one between two people who don’t, and I sense that there is truth in that.
Christmas cards that remind us of the Christmas story are very important. The sending of them is a reminder of a shared faith which deepens the friendship between sender and receiver, it anchors that friendship within the loving activity of a Love greater than ours, and it celebrates and witnesses to that loving activity. I know that they are not cheap to buy and that posting them in any number is a costly business, but faith is sometimes a costly business, and the sharing of it with friends to our mutual benefit, and the witnessing of it to others, is always likely to come at some cost. I don’t see it as an alternative to charitable giving at Christmas. Its not an ‘either or’ but a ‘both and’. If we seriously want to keep Christmas as Christ’s birthday, and to avoid it becoming overwhelmingly secularised, then the sending of Christmas cards produced by a charity of our choice, that tell the Christmas story, with a ‘religious’ stamp on the envelope, is vitally important.