The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

One True God

I recently travelled to Morocco to visit my daughter who lives in Casablanca. Six years ago she converted to Islam, and has settled amazingly well into her spiritual home. In our family we’ve always known her as Kate – a spirited, not always easy human being to live with! She has changed her name to Maryam Kate, and with that change of name has come an amazing transformation. Maryam means ‘beloved’ – which she is; it also carries a sense of ‘rebellious’ – which she was, and I guess can still be, but in a much nicer and kinder way!

Anyway, during my stay we set out to visit a local souk, and passed one of Maryam’s neighbourhood mosques just as the muezzin was calling the faithful to midday prayer. “Do you mind if I go and pray, Dad?” No, of course not. Look, there’s a chair there by the gate; I’ll wait here for you. “Thanks. I’ll just check it’s OK with the caretaker.” A conversation ensues in Dārija, the local form of Arabic spoken in Morocco. Maryam has managed to learn it well enough to understand and be understood most of the time! “He says no, you must come in Dad! Follow him; he’ll look after you. I’ll go to the Sisters’ entrance.”

I duly follow this upright gentleman dressed in grey kaftan and topi. His smile is warm and welcoming. He offers me a bag for my sandals, and shows me where to put them. I assume he will sit me unobtrusively at the back. But no, he beckons me towards a chair at the far edge of the vast hall, picks it up and beckons me forward. He places it at the far end of the front row, invites me to sit on it, and bows slightly and graciously.

As I sit in silent prayer to my God other men come alongside me, either spreading their prayer mat before them, or taking a few tissues from the boxes provided on which to rest their heads when prostrating. I am aware that I find the rhythm of their prayer calming and helpful: standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating – with the barely audible murmur of words learnt by heart at madrasa.

I am also aware that I am completely comfortable in that space, where I am drawn close to holiness. I find it an utterly authentic, spiritual experience praying – albeit in a different way – alongside these devoted men. And I find it impossible to believe we are praying to different Gods.

If there is one true God, then there can surely be only one true God. As we Christians say, ‘Hallelujah!’, and as Muslims say, ‘Alhamdullilah!’

Revelation

Regular readers will know that I like John Henry Newman’s words: “No revelation can be complete and systematic, from the weakness of the human intellect; so far as it is not such, it is mysterious … The religious truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, which forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines and isolated masses. Revelation, in this way of considering it, is not a revealed system, but consists of a number of detached and incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed.”

But I have gradually come to see that what Newman calls ‘religious truth’ is not confined, as I’ve tended unconsciously to assume, to the propositions of theologians. It includes that but goes far beyond it, and in doing so takes my breath away.

There is a strong Christian tradition that speaks of God being revealed in creation, to the point of describing creation as a second Bible. For many God is revealed primarily through the natural world.

I’m aware that for me God has been revealed through my own experience. I know the God Who loves and sustains me: God has revealed God-self to me directly & personally.  This ‘God Whom I already know’ is the same God that I recognise as revealed in Jesus, and the same God Whom I recognise in creation.  But there is more. This creative God is also revealed in all human creativity.

I’ve quoted the poet Alice Oswald saying about her own creative process: “The poem is not necessarily coming from inside you but is already out there and you’ve just got to listen & find it.”  It’s “A voice that is simply there and speaking and that I listen to.”  In order to do this, she has to concentrate very hard. And “When I write a poem, I try not to be aware of what I think, I don’t know if the poem thinks that.”   I’ve shared her words with two friends who are also poets, and they recognised what Oswald was saying from their own experience.  Is this not also revelation, in which something is revealed seemingly from outside oneself? 

Some sculptors describe a similar process to Oswald’s when they say that what they sculpt already exists in the wood or stone that they’re working with, and that their job is to find it.   But isn’t any creative process that we engage in, and we are all engaged in creative activity of one sort or another, much the same?  

The cook standing over a dish they are preparing & searching for the necessary additional ingredient to complete it, that they can sense already exists & that they seek to find.

The gardener pondering on the particular plant that needs to go in that space in their garden and sensing that it exists if only they can recognise it.

The decorator seeking the right colour for that space to achieve the effect that they want, and knowing that it’s there if only they can become aware of it.

The composer who talks of being given the music they write, as if it in some sense already exists ‘out there’.

Always there seems to be a sense that what is needed already exists and simply has to be sought for it then to be revealed. “Seek and you shall find.”

Whatever comes to us in this way reveals something of God and when trusted leads to faith.  It’s a God Who is revealed for most people personally and more powerfully through music, the arts and the natural world, and in our own acts of creativity, than in the words of theologians.  Crucially we need to recognise and name this, and then to trust it, to have faith in it.  As Newman said: Revelation……consists of a number of detached and incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed.”  This vast system is vast beyond our imagining and yet actively present in the life of each of us in a multitude of different ways. We both know it and also know that it is beyond our knowing.

First posted in http://contemporaryspirituality.blog

Two Dimensional Lent

The season of Lent is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. Last week I was sat in my shed listening to some Bach and floating prayerfully on it, when looking out of the window into our garden, I saw Sylvia tending a plant. To my eye the plant looked healthy enough if a bit droopy. Sylvia bent over it, some feat for a woman of 80, held the stems of the plant in her left hand and with her right cleared the ground at its foot, removing dead bits of plant and other detritus. She took the rubbish and added it to the compost, before returning with a cane, some green gardening string & a pair of scissors. She pushed the cane into the ground and then tied a piece of the string around it and the plant, thus holding the plant upright.  

I thought to myself that’s quite a good image of what Lent is about: clearing away what has died & encouraging new life. Traditionally Lent has been seen as more about the former than the latter, but both actions are necessary. I recall preaching at the beginning of Lent, many years ago, and encouraging a congregation to mark Lent by setting some time aside each day for a simple act of wanton pleasure, on the assumption that such an activity would almost certainly nourish their soul and thence deepen their relationship with God.

This Lent one of my wanton acts of pleasure [you are allowed more than one!] is to sit and listen to the music of Bach, and also Einaudi.  One of Sylvia’s, of course, might be tending to droopy plants.

Jesus Calling: a shorter version

John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus went to John to be baptised so he must have had something to repent of.

After his baptism, Jesus had a powerful spiritual experience in which God spoke to him.

The baptism & the spiritual experience were separate events. The latter is the main event.

John’s preaching and baptism was based on the assumption of a vassal relationship between God & Israel. God gave them land & a role, on condition that they abided by certain laws. Jesus must have felt that he’d broken them.

Jesus’ spiritual experience inaugurated a quite different relationship between God & humankind, one based on unconditional love, like that of a loving parent to their children.  It undercut the assumptions on which John’s call to repentance were based, and changed everything in our relationship with God.

Jesus ministry was based entirely upon his experience of feeling himself out of relationship with God & needing to repent, and then suddenly finding himself accepted unconditionally by God Who loves & delights in him.  It led him to see that with an unconditionally loving God there are no outsiders, only a human family whom God loves. 

His preaching flows from this experience. He sought to share it by treating other people as God had treated him, a process that would lead over time to His followers believing  that he had ‘incarnated’ God.

The Good News He preached invites us to hear those words “You are my beloved son/daughter in whom I am well pleased” addressed to each of us, and in response to try to live out of it as Jesus did, to incarnate God to others, as he did.

First posted in http://contemporaryspirituality.blog

The Calling of Jesus

This piece has been some time in its gestation, it’s something that I sense has been revealed to me over a period of time, and that it’s now time to share it.  I sense that there is truth in it. I might of course be wrong, or there might simply be bits of truth in it. So, I’d welcome your comments reader, on what I’m sharing here.  

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The Gospels are agreed that Jesus’ ministry began after His baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.  John had been ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. John’s baptism by full immersion in the river was a risky business, the person being baptised might not survive, that was the whole point of it. It symbolised a dying and a rising to new life.  But what did Jesus have to repent of?  It’s important to ask that question because whatever Jesus had to repent of provided the context for what came next. 

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The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner [1859-1937]

The journey of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to the land of Egypt takes place under the cover of darkness. The fact that it happens ‘by night’ (Matthew 2:14) underscores the urgent note of danger and the threat of death. As the angel announces to Joseph, Herod is seeking to ‘destroy’ the child (Matthew 2:13).

Henry Ossawa Tanner was was the son of a former slave & pastor who fled the southern states for safety in the north later becoming Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The artist was haunted by this story of flight, He painted no less than fifteen versions of it. Here, the fugitive character of the Holy Family is clearly foregrounded. With strong shades of blue and the use of shadows to intensify the drama, Tanner heightens the sense of forced migration. Mary’s donkey keeps close to the wall, moving slowly as if to avoid detection. The child is kept close to his mother’s breast, safely secured in her cloak, almost invisible. Joseph brings up the rear, fulfilling his traditional role as protector of the Holy Family. This is a family on the run, their ultimate destination uncertain. Yet there are also visual clues that the fugitive family will find a ready welcome amongst the strangers they encounter. 

First, they are escorted by an anonymous figure, leading them through the darkened streets. The intensity of the light emanating from the lamp he carries, illuminating their path, is a reminder that this child too will be a ‘great light’ for the people dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2). 

Second, the location of this scene is uncertain. Is it Bethlehem? Yet the family has apparently just passed through the gateway (suggested by the arch just visible in the background) into the town. More likely, then, they have arrived at their first port of call, offering a temporary respite from the dangers of Herod’s henchmen.

With thanks to father Patrick van der Vorst of ‘Christian Art’.

First posted in http://contemporaryspirituality.blog

Happy Christmas

I sense gloom and despondency in the air. Partly it’s directed at our government which seems burnt out & out of control, busy making the mess it’s created worse. Partly it’s despair at the situation in Gaza and Israel, where two sides each with a legitimate cause, their ownership of their land, seem intent in trying to destroy each rather than seeking a peaceful compromise.  Partly it’s despair at the continuing situation in the Ukraine. Of course, we feel helpless to do much about any of these, hence the gloom & despondency.  ‘Where is God in all this?  Why doesn’t He do something about it?’

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Supper with Jesus

This painting is entitled ‘Supper at Emmaus’ and Caravaggio painted it in 1602. He was a hugely gifted and theologically perceptive painter with a bit of a reputation for violent behaviour: he often had to leave town in a hurry.

Before we look at the painting, I want to ask you a question. What do you think of as being Jesus most characteristic activity? Healing, suffering, calling, teaching, listening, praying or whatever?  Having answered that, park your answer to one side for a moment.

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Just Knowing

I met recently with a friend who is having to rest and recover through the summer & into the autumn, after a spell in hospital suffering from a debilitating illness. The strange thing was, he said, that he’d planned some months before to clear his diary for those months in order to take life more easily. It was almost as if an unconscious something within him knew what was coming & had prepared him for it.

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O come, O come Emmanuel

An online retreat day for Advent

December 9th or 16th 2023

The words of the well loved Advent carol O come, O come Emmanuel have a distinctly biblical feel, differing from the more overtly celebratory tone of most carols that we hear at this time of the year.  For example, the actual nativity narrative doesn’t feature and there are no herald angels nor flocks being watched by night. 

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