The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Category: Opinion (page 1 of 2)

The Shift

Weeds creeping up between the paving slabsI keep returning to The Blessing that was given to me a couple of years ago. I see it as is a tectonic shift in image and attitude: from a god that is demanding, jealous, that needs to be appeased, to which we have to prove ourselves; to God whose Body is this world (and each creature in it), who made us to be free to enjoy the pleasure of simply being alive, the God whose quality is overwhelming generosity.

There is a lot wrong in the world. Inequality, poverty, epidemic, oppression, domination, violence, war, famine, environmental devastation, species extinction. These are frequently fatal to individuals, and may be fatal to many species including our own. These are all of our own making. Greed and lust for power are too seductive to give up.

This has nothing to do with God.

I see more clearly that the attitudinal shift offered to me is from fear to love: from fear of dire consequences from a god that demands compliance, to love of God from whom we come, from whose Body we are made, and in Whom we abide, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat.

The rejection or death of a god does not lead to atheism. This is a basic mistake we sometimes make. But no scientist who found flaws in her beloved and much-worked-on theory of how the world works would conclude that the world doesn’t really exist after all. No. She picks herself up and takes a closer look.

Some of the gods we have worshiped have been found to be punitive, oppressive, tyrannous, death-dealing, uncaring and dismissive absentee landlords. (The technical word is ‘idols’.) Let’s not conclude, therefore, that God is not. Let’s take a closer look.

My contention is this: there is no god that needs to be appeased. In this I agree with the atheists. This idol is a god out there somewhere who demands our compliance if we want to be safe. This god is nowhere to be found except in our own heads and projections.

I am still held in its thrall. Sad but true. I suspect I shall ever be a work in progress.

God is not ‘out there’. God is the very matter out of which the world is made. That matter is love. God sometimes seems to be a Person to whom we can relate, and who offers us love and acceptance without requirements, who appears in various guises, as an incarnation of the Christ or an enlightened Buddha, or as the neighbour, the person next door, some tree on a hillside, the blackbird singing in the dead of night, the weeds creeping up between the paving slabs, and the paving slabs. At other times God seems to be the World taking us into Her arms. At yet other times God seems to be my arms embracing the world with open-hearted love and amazement that I “should be, who nothing was”.

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

Demands

Everyday 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.

Recently, I have found myself revisiting that time when You revealed Yourself to me and poured Yourself into me. What a deconstruction of my world that was! You unveiled the undiscover’d country and changed my life. You gave me a new vision of life. You gave me hope. Life was no longer what my upbringing and schooling told me it was. Life was no longer about performance and achievement. Life became living in the reality of Your undemanding-yet-demanding Presence.

[Aside: Revisiting experiences of God, which Ignatius calls “repetition”, is important for developing and deepening a relationship with God. It is akin to the ancient traditions of memoria dei and Practising the Presence of God. Please read this piece.]

The system within which we live makes multiple demands, from the demand to pay taxes, spent in ways over which we have little say, to the lure of advertising to be a new, improved, upgraded myself.

But You make no demands. Who I am is what You want.

Being with You is demanding, but in an entirely different way. Your Presence ‘demands’ my presence, as myself, with no performance.

I am beginning to get it that You want me exactly as I am. In the moment that You showed Yourself to me, I knew instinctively that You wanted nothing from me. Quite the reverse. You wanted to give Yourself to me. All I had to do was to say “Yes”; and who in their right mind wouldn’t?

Nevertheless, this is difficult to believe and embody in the fullness of its implications. It will take me a lifetime to know in my heart of hearts that I do not need to change.

So here’s the thing: God needs nothing from you. Contrary to the populist opinion that God places requirements upon you and expects your compliance, a god to whom atheism is the best response, God wishes to give you God’s-Self.

This is the coin that rattled into my beggar’s bowl today: God is a giver, not a taker.

God is God. You are loved more completely and comprehensively that you can imagine, whoever you are and whatever you have done. There are no requirements, no demands. Anyone, any institution, any church that tells you otherwise is very much mistaken, or is lying for their own gain.

[Syndicated from thisbody.info.]

Embattled, not embittered

In recent years I have twice become deeply bitter about how I have been treated by others. I was certainly not without fault – and I was treated unjustly and with lack of kindness that hurt deeply. In both situations I became angry, and the hurt and anger transmuted into resentment and bitterness…

Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. Nelson Mandela, attr.

…and then into a desire for revenge.

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

I became consumed by wanting to get my own back on those who had hurt me.

Slowly I came to see that these feelings were doing me serious harm. I still think I was treated shamelessly, and my anger was a reasonable and healthy response; but the bitter poison of resentment was killing me.

I found a way back from this precipice to a more level landscape. What helped?

  • Awareness: seeing what I was doing to myself was the first and most important step.
  • Kindness: being kind to myself; learning to accept the kindness of others, again, again.
  • Trust: remembering, again, to trust that nothing can separate me from the love of God, which always remains, no matter what.
  • Nurture: embracing often the places in this body where I feel that love and trust.
  • Will: self-talk and, frankly, just choosing to stop.

I am not completely clear yet. I still catch myself rehearsing old complaints; but I have moved on, and I am still moving.


In spiritual direction I hear a lot of anger towards the church, much of it, though not all, from ministers of various denominations. They feel embattled. This anger is a reasonable and healthy response to unjust, hurtful situations:

  • about a managerial style of leadership more appropriate to a business;
  • about humiliation and hurt done to anyone who is not heterosexual;
  • about humiliation and hurt done to women;
  • about a lack of championing of the poorest people in our society;
  • about a lack of worshipful space in which there can be mystery and silence;
  • about a lack of challenge of simplistic or worldly – and therefore idolatrous, and therefore damaging – theology;
  • unsupportive, obstructive, undermining colleagues and bosses who are supposed to have your back.

They are right to be angry. There is much that is wrong. Anger is healthy. The danger is when their anger turns into resentment, bitterness, depression, or self-hate. They become embittered.

When I hear this, I get it. I feel love and sympathy – and I feel fear for them. I want to issue a warning and together find a way to honour the anger while steering clear of the poison.


To want to know, love, and follow Jesus; to have a calling, a passion; and to be able to follow: this is a blessing, a joy and a delight, and the best of all possible lives. But, to have a calling is to live aslant to the usual concerns: getting and spending; success and failure; conformity and being thought well of; as Ignatius would say, “riches, honour, and pride” (Exx.142). You will be misunderstood, misrepresented, advised that you are not being sensible, and possibly experience contempt and rejection. This is to be expected. Jesus knew this.

Maybe our anger is because the life into which we are called by the Spirit is ignored or ridiculed by those around us, especially when by sisters and brothers in Christ. Confusingly, Jesus suggests that we are blessed by this.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Luke 6.22

and,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5.10

So, whilst it may be right and healthy be angry, don’t let this anger turn into resentment, bitterness, depression, and self-hate.

These are my questions:

  1. What is our anger about? What feelings is the anger protecting? What resonances are there with earlier situations in your life?
  2. To what extent is our anger the work of a disturbing God who is always counter-cultural? To what extent is this the Spirit trying to speak to the Church?
  3. What are we to do with our anger?

What if, instead of allowing our anger to lead us into resentment, bitterness, depression, and self-hate, we were to see rejection as a necessary corollary of being called by God into fullness of life? True life in God is always aslant to the world.

More Ignatius: for those choosing to stand with Jesus:

There will be three steps: the first, poverty as opposed to riches; the second, insults or contempt as opposed to the honour of this world; the third, humility as opposed to pride. From these three steps, let them lead [us] to all other virtues. Exx.146

Strong stuff. Not comfortable. Not obviously attractive. But it points to a truth. Those who give themselves to anything truly worthwhile, who follow their star, will find friends, but also nay-sayers.

So, now to the important question: How are you to be embattled without becoming embittered?

You will be angry. As you should. It’s healthy. How can you turn from anger to kindness whilst retaining your calling to be aslant? How can the energy of that anger flow and be the spring of creativity, not stagnate and fester into bitterness? How can you speak the truth with love? How, finally, can you see through the behaviour that makes you angry, to the hurting heart or the wounded soul, the vision of which will sow in you the seeds of love and compassion?

First, trust yourself. If you have been doing what you think and feel is right, stick to that. (Ignatius: Do not change a decision made in a time of consolation. *Exercises.319) If you have been hurt, it is right to feel angry. There is no need to berate yourself for being human. Rather, be kind to yourself. Be tender with your hurt and angry self. This, surely, is how God is with you.

Seek out friends who are kind and sympathetic, and who don’t get pulled in by your anger.

Find a way to stay connected with God. God is not diminished by the Church or by idolatry. Learn to trust that God’s love remains for you and nothing can separate you from that love.

As a frequent practice, embrace and nurture the places in your body where you feel love and trust. These are your birthright.

And, yes: Make a positive choice to step back from the brink of embitterment. Give yourself a talking to and choose love.

Now, how is the Spirit speaking through your anger? How might you use the energy of your anger to express the concerns you have in skilful ways that can be heard?

[This piece has been syndicated from This Body.]

Has the English Church a future? 1

Who might save the Church?

There was an article on the BBC News web-site recently which began “The Bishop of Truro has said the Church of England has only “five or six years” to save itself’: “radical changes” were needed to halt a “steady decline” he said, and ‘the Church of England will struggle to exist in 10 years.’ This is probably not news to most of us, but what grabbed my attention was the notion that the Church has to save itself. It was not clear if the Bishop actually said that, but all too often those in authority in the Church give the impression that that is what they believe and it gives me considerable cause for concern.

My main ministry is in spiritual direction and the stock question of the spiritual director is ‘Where is God in all this?’ or ‘What is God up to here?’ or even ‘What might God be inviting you to be or do here?’ So naturally I am inclined to ask the same set of questions when faced with the crisis that is undeniably facing the church. And it takes me in quite a different direction from that which the article attributes to the Bishop.

It leads me to assume that the Church’s decline is something which God is bringing about and that there is some divine purpose in it. Our task thence is:

  1.  for each of us to ask ourselves what God might be calling me to be or do at this time?; and to learn to trust it;
  2. to notice what God appears to be calling others to be and do, and to see if there might be things we can do together;
  3. to assume that God is behind all this, and that our role is not to try and control what is happening but rather to trust and follow it. We need not know where we are going. Indeed its best if we don’t, because if we think that we do then we’ll certainly try to control it!

It’s a fundamental tenet of Christianity that we can’t save ourselves, only God can do that, and the same applies to the Church. To ask what the Church must do to save itself implies the opposite: that this is a problem that the Church has to solve by itself, or worse still solve by managing it, and it leads to what one senior churchman described to me recently as a culture of ‘institutional atheism’. A church that talks a lot about God but when push comes to shove appears to place its faith in secular management techniques rather than in the activity of the God about Whom it speaks.

[Read part 2.]

Has the English Church a future? 2

What is God up to?

My ministry means that I listen to people trying to hear and respond to what God is calling them to. Not altogether surprisingly there is a deal of common ground: God does not appear to be calling people in completely random directions. There are certain themes that emerge, and I begin to wonder if it is part of my responsibility to articulate them back to the church? I don’t claim that this is a comprehensive list, others would name other themes, but these will give you a flavour of what I sense that God is up to! And again, I doubt if much of this will read like news to you, but put all together it sounds exciting to me!

  1. The main institutional churches are dying. This seems a common pattern across much of Europe. Clergy are put under great pressure to maintain them, often very much against the odds. They feel that their primary task is to keep the numbers up and the finances healthy: ‘to keep the show on the road’. They mostly know that they are failing in this impossible task. They feel largely unsupported. They have little time for nurturing their own faith, let alone the faith of others. This ironically at a time when society’s interest in things spiritual is high!
  2. All alike, laity and clergy, are mostly feeling a great spiritual poverty. Many seek spiritual nourishment outside the local church. Hence the numbers of people seeking spiritual direction. Hence the number of extra parochial Christian communities: some of whom share a corporate life, others share a common rule of life. But all of whom seek to offer something people are no longer finding in their local church.
  3. While the number of mainline Retreat Houses is declining, there is a growing interest in domestic spirituality. People open their homes or gardens as quiet places for others to use [I’m sitting writing this in one such place in Lincolnshire]; others have ‘holy places’ in their homes in a way that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.
  4. Alongside this, there is a growing interest in contemplative prayer, and a burgeoning of people feeling a call to some degree of ‘solitary life’.
  5. There is a hunger for the ether of Christianity rather than its dogma. So people go on pilgrimage to holy places like Iona, Lindisfarne, and Glastonbury in this country and Santiago de Compostella in Spain ; they visit cathedrals; and attend festivals like Greenbelt.
  6. God is being encountered, and sometimes named, in the natural world. The old adage about ‘God feeling more real in nature than in church’ is very apt. Hence the interest in gardening, in wild life and wild places, in walking, in ecology, in the preservation of birds and animals etc.
  7. There has been a massive shift in our attitude to our bodies: God is encountered through yoga, dance, massage therapies, fitness regimes. Hand in hand with this goes a positive affirmation of our sexuality, with greater equality for women and growing equality for gay men and women, and indeed for those of all sexual orientations.
  8. Years ago the churches spent a lot of energy on ecumenical relations with very limited success. Nowadays at a grassroots level people move much more freely between churches. And the current issue is inter-faith dialogue.
  9. There is much involvement in social justice issues: The Church of England set up the Church Urban Fund to show solidarity with the poor in our own country, and local Food Banks do the same thing today; the fair trade campaign and the drop the debt campaign had massive Christian support; as has the plight of the Palestinians.
  10. There is huge interest in the arts [partly I suspect in reaction to much literalism in the churches]. So people find spiritual nourishment in art, film, poetry, photography. Novel reading groups are the new Bible study. And Christophers and the Sixteen go on annual pilgrimages around the country taking sacred music to packed cathedrals.

[Read part 3.]

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