The Annunciation Trust

to help you discover the God you already know

Real Life

I recently met up with some friends. It was a good meeting and I’m very glad that I went. But as I reflected on it afterwards I realised that the most significant thing about it for me was a chance remark that led to a brief conversation about something only loosely connected with the declared purpose of the meeting. I think that this is an example of what Gert Dumbar defines as ‘serendipity’: “find[ing] something that you haven’t been looking for but which changes everything that went before and comes after. The English word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole, who used it for the first time in 1754 in a letter. Walpole described the adventures of the Three Persian princes of Serendip. ‘By chance and shrewdness they discovered things which they were not looking for. They looked for one thing and found another. They were very surprised about this themselves.’ ” Dumbar links serendipity with creativity, and I agree.

Serendipity reminds me of synchronicity, which Jung defines as ‘a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.’ And Arthur Koestler as ‘the seemingly accidental meeting of two unrelated causal chains in a coincidental event which appears both highly improbable & highly significant.’ I have experienced synchronicity quite often and been very grateful for it. Its not the same as serendipity but it comes from the same stable.

For example, some months ago I was thinking about something and remembered a book I’d read years ago but had completely forgotten about, and had no recollection of its content. My intuition told me that this forgotten book might have something helpful to say about the matter I was thinking about, and so it did. Indeed, I found the writer so stimulating that I checked what else he had written and learnt that he’d written another book about a separate subject that I was also interested in. I ordered and read it and was glad that I had. In passing the writer made mention of a painting by Salvador Dali, a large print of which I had once owned and that had meant a lot to me. I wondered what had become of it and realised that I had no idea. ‘I have a feeling that I could usefully have another look at an image of that painting’ I thought to myself. The very next day a friend offered me a small block print of it that they no longer wanted. Of course I gratefully accepted it. I have looked and it speaks powerfully to me.

This morning I woke up in the middle of the night and found myself thinking about the serendipity example, my story of the Dali print, and the connection between them. I knew that I should write about them and that the wise course of action would be to get up and go downstairs and do so immediately while the thought was fresh in my mind. This happens to me not infrequently: I wake up in the night from a dream or with an insight and know that the wise thing is to get up and write it down straight away. I always resist, telling myself that I’ll remember it just as well in the morning, although experience has taught me that that’s not true, and anyway isn’t a nice warm bed too good a thing to abandon! So there’s an internal struggle, before I get up and act wisely. So it was, some time after five o’clock this morning and here I am at six sat at my ipad writing.

I think I know why I woke up thinking as I did. In a few days time I set out on an eleven day journey and in preparation was reflecting on it yesterday afternoon. I noticed that there are a couple of items on my programme that stood out as being slightly at odds with the declared purpose of the journey, and I wondered if they might lead to experiences of serendipity or synchronicity? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe others will. Maybe nothing will. Who knows? Certainly I don’t and can’t.

Jean S Boleyn wrote that “In the experience of a synchronistic event, instead of feeling ourselves to be separated & isolated entities in a vast world we feel the connection to others & the universe at a deep & meaningful level” and much the same might be said about serendipity events. They both suggest to me that there is a strong undercurrent in life over which we have no conscious control and that it is friendly and trustworthy, and indeed essential if we want to thrive. We mostly exist by splashing about on the surface of life but sometimes the undercurrent comes to the surface & we experience it. R S Thomas describes such a moment in his poem ‘The Bright Field’:

“I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way
And forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had
The treasure in it. I realize now
That I must give all that I have
To possess it.
Life is not hurrying
On to a receding future, nor hankering after
An imagined past. It is the turning
Aside like Moses to the miracle
Of the lit bush, to a brightness
That seemed as transitory as your youth
Once, but is the eternity that awaits you.”

Pain and suffering can cause us to sink beneath the surface and we panic as we become aware that we are out of our depth and sinking, before to our surprise the undercurrent bears us up again. Denise Levertov writes of that experience in her poem ‘Suspended’:

“I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.”

I have learnt over the years that ‘real life’ frequently happens in the undercurrent to what I plan, and that therefore there is wisdom in planning as little as possible, and when I need to, to try and do so with a light touch, with spaces left for the unexpected, and time factored in for reflection on what’s been happening, so that I recognise ‘real life’ when it happens, trust it and float with it rather than ignore it or swim against it: “You cant push the river” as van Morrison wrote.

All this is rather counter cultural in a society and a church that’s fearful and hence increasingly bureaucratic, where qualifications have to be shown, boxes ticked and due processes followed. I’m sure there’s a place for all those things, but they have a deadening effect on creativity. Meanwhile, I’m going back to bed.

Feral spiritual direction

I think of spiritual direction as one person helping another to recognise where God is speaking to them, and walking with them as they seek to respond. There’s often a degree of mutuality about it.

My friend Keith and I have been meeting in that way for a long time. But he couldn’t make our last meeting as he was on holiday, and we have been unable to arrange an alternative time until the autumn. Not to worry he wrote, I’m meeting with a couple of wise friends over the next few weeks and “some valuable spiritual direction has also recently come from a rediscovered favourite poet”. I replied that in my experience poets often make very good spiritual directors, as do dogs. Dogs sit and listen, pass no judgement, and accept and love you whatever you do. As of course do cats, although cats can be a bit more choosey as to their availability.

Another friend, Marion, also used to meet with me in this way. One day she surprised me by telling me that in fact she had two spiritual directors. “Oh, so you sometimes want a second opinion” I thought to myself with a smile, firmly put in my place. “Yes” she went on “I value our times together but if I need a conversation between our meetings then there’s a hill near where I live, and I walk up it because God always feel close to me at the summiteers was , and I can usually sense what He’s saying to me and what I need to do next.”

So poets can be spiritual directors as can dogs, cats and even hills. That wouldn’t be permitted in the Diocese where I live, because you need first to have been trained on a course, then be checked for whether you have a criminal record, go for safeguarding trading, and finally have a supervisor. Interestingly, God seems to subvert the bureaucracy of the church in these matters as in much else: there surely must be a feral side to the divinity. Praise the Lord for that! But of course He was feral in these matters too.

Probably I need to review my understanding of spiritual direction? How about ‘When a part of God’s creation helps another part to discern God’s voice & respond to it’? And might there be a sense in which that’s always mutual and thus relational?

Where does it come from?

I was praying for the dead one Sunday morning, and in particular I was holding my Dad in love before God. I don’t know why I was praying for him rather than anyone else, but I’d felt led to do so, and then I sensed him suggesting that I visit the local Quaker meeting one Sunday for worship. I knew that this was good advice, I trusted it and duly went a couple of weeks later. It proved to be very good advice indeed. [see ‘More Feral Priesthood’]

Subsequently I have been mulling on that experience. How did I happen upon that insight? Objectively, I obviously don’t know, but what are the possible subjective explanations? My heart and soul were focused simply on Dad and maybe that was enough? Dad had been a regular attender at Quaker meeting all of my life, and I’d been occasionally, but never with him, so maybe it came out of that somehow? But he wasn’t someone to suggest that I do something, to do so would have been out of character for the man I knew. Maybe my soul knew that it was good advice and delivered it to my conscious mind in language it would recognise? Or might there be an alternative explanation?

I’ve learnt not to believe in coincidences, but to assume that when they seem to happen I am often being alerted to something. A week or two prior to the Sunday morning I’m writing about, my friend Paul came to talk and was enthusing about Boswell’s ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ that he had been reading, and in particular he read me a prayer of Johnson’s that had impressed him and deeply moved me. It had been written in the early hours of April 26th 1752, immediately after the death of Johnson’s beloved wife:

‘O Lord! Governour of heaven and earth,
in whose hands are embodied and departed Spirits,
if thou hast ordained the Souls of the Dead to minister to the Living,
and appointed my departed Wife to have care of me,
grant that I may enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.
Forgive my presumption,
enlighten my ignorance,
and however meaner agents are employed,
grant me the blessed influences of thy holy Spirit,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The thought that the dead whom I hold in love before God in my prayers, would likely be doing the same for me is not new to me, and indeed I’ve come to trust that it is so. And the idea they might sometimes intervene in my life to my assistance, because they continue to “have care of me”, is not new either, for I’ve had several experiences when I’ve known that someone who is dead was communicating with me, out of a gracious concern. In two of those experiences it was someone whom I knew personally & recognised, and they acted a bit differently from how I had known them to act when alive: rather like my experience with Dad. But in both I had ‘seen’ the person concerned, while in this recent experience I saw nothing, heard nothing but simply intuitively knew something and from whom the ‘knowing’ came.

These intuitive knowings are quite common. I was praying this morning and a train of thought popped into my mind, that was certainly not consciously bidden. I ‘knew’ there was something in it, without knowing whence it came. Recognising both its authority & its authenticity, I trusted it, and followed to where it took me. Not all such thoughts that pop into my mind are deep and meaningful, but some certainly are, and usually I can recognise the wheat from the chaff. But where do they come from?

In one sense knowing where they come from is less important than learning to recognise and trust them. But in another sense perhaps not. Perhaps I can assume that some of them, [maybe all of them?] are of the order of what Samuel Johnson refers to with respect to the continuing care of his late wife, as:
“the good effects of her attention and ministration,
whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams
or in any other manner agreeable to thy Government.”

If so, then I am connected into a network of the dead, who seek, from time to time, to be actively involved in this earthly world in a positive and creative way. And it would be foolish of me not be open to their wisdom and advice. Sometimes I may have a clear sense of from whom the suggestion is coming, but often I don’t, and maybe it doesn’t matter?

Whenever I have tentatively aired these ideas I have been surprised by the number of people who not only take what I’m saying seriously, rather than ringing for an ambulance, but who go on to share personal stories of the known presence of some dead loved one giving them advice that they recognised as being loving and practical. Other faith traditions take all this more seriously than we do, although we in Western Europe probably did, before the Reformation..

There is another matter that intrigues me. The early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was now their Risen Lord and that for a time he appeared and spoke to them, and certainly could be relied upon to respond to their prayers, leading and guiding them with advice beyond anything he had said while walking the land of Palestine. Over the centuries the Church has continued to believe and trust in this, and has changed its mind on a wide range of matters because of it. I believe that the Risen Lord continues to act in this way: the problem isn’t that He no longer does, but rather that we don’t expect Him to and therefore don’t recognise Him when He does.

What is the difference between experiences of what I might take to be the Risen Lord, and say, the experience I had of being addressed by Dad? The obvious answer is that they are identified as coming from different people, one of whom has a greater authority. But is it as clear as that? I am able at least in theory, and sometimes in practice, to distinguish between the known felt subjective experience, apart from and before I began to put it into words and identify its source. Could it be that all of these experiences come from a single greater authority beyond myself, and that the culture in which I stand determines whom I identify as its source?

The Lords Prayer

The Gospels have two versions of the Lords Prayer, one in Luke and the other in Matthew. It is interesting to see them together, when it becomes clear that Luke’s version is shorter than Matthew’s.

Luke 11:2-4

Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come
Give us each day our daily bread
And forgive us our sins
As we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us
And do not bring us to the time of trial

Matthew 6:9-13

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name
Your Kingdom come
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And do not bring us to the time of trial
But rescue us from the evil one.

I reflect on several things:

[1] The editors of the New Testament were happy to include two versions of the Lords Prayer: they didn’t feel it necessary to choose one over the other. In this they are following an established Biblical principle whereby differing accounts of something are allowed to stand side by side.

[2] I think it more likely that Matthew’s version is an expansion of Luke’s, than that Luke’s is an abbreviation of Matthew’s. I find it more likely that Jesus’s words were expanded upon, perhaps under the guidance of the Risen Lord, than that the early followers of Jesus would have edited out some of what Jesus taught them.

[3] That would suggest that Luke’s version is more likely to be the original, perhaps even, that it was the one that Jesus himself used, before sharing it with his followers. The use of ‘Father’ rather than ‘Our Father’ would seem to point that way. It would certainly shed light on his spirituality if this were so, with its focus on God as Father, the announcing of the Kingdom of God, living one day at a time, the centrality of forgiveness, and its wish to avoid the time of trial. Luke’s version provides the richest summary of Jesus of Nazareth’s proclamation that we possess. In praying it we place ourselves foursquare behind him and express our commitment to his core Gospel message. It both inspires and challenges us when we pray it.

[4] But the early Christians felt themselves free to edit and expand it. It wasn’t seen as unalterable. The words of Jesus of Nazareth were not set in stone, but were adaptable, as needs arose, under the direction of their Risen Lord.

[5] That being the case there is no reason why we cant do the same, albeit with the same discernment.

Right now I’m experimenting with the following, while wondering what the Risen Lord may lead me to try as additions or amendments. Any thoughts welcome.

Holy is Your name
Your Kingdom come
Give us today what we need for today
Forgive us as we forgive others
And uphold us in our times of trial.


Joining up the dots

I’m attempting here to join the dots and link a number of things I’ve written about.

When we talk about Jesus we need to know which ‘face’ of Jesus we are talking about. Is it Jesus the man from Nazareth? Is it the Risen Lord? Or is it the Cosmic Christ? In a sense they are one and the same. But in another they not. If we asked a question, we might get slightly different answers from each of them. [See ‘Which Jesus?’, ‘Which Jesus: a further thought,’ ‘The Cosmic Christ’.]

While we can in theory distinguish between them, in practice they overlap. So the earliest followers of the man from Nazareth, knew that he had been killed, but they also knew that he had overcome death because he was still present with them, appearing to them, teaching and guiding them. They knew that the man from Nazareth and their now Risen Lord were one and the same and so in the Gospels where they later wrote down Jesus’ words and actions, its not always clear whether it’s the man from Nazareth or the Risen Lord that they are speaking about. That would not have been a distinction that would have made any sense to them: to them they were one and the same.

Once those who actually knew the man from Nazareth began to die out, it became important to record his words and actions not least because otherwise those who continued to experience the presence of the Risen Lord would not be able to make the connection between the two and thus name it. Hence the Gospels were written down, where previously memory had sufficed, and they have served as a crucial reference point ever since.

Today we are faced with a similar problem. The majority of people claim to have had an experience of ‘something greater to and beyond themselves’, although most are cautious about talking about it. Many would not use religious language in describing it, but the accounts that people give sound much the same whatever language they use. My personal experience has led me to assume, using the Gospels as my reference point, that at least some of these experiences that I have had are actually encounters with the Risen Christ, and my assumption is that that must be true for others too. But it took me a long time to make that connection, and I doubt if many people do, not least because we do not expect there to be one. I believe that the Risen Christ is alive and well and appearing to people of all faiths and creeds on a regular basis, while remaining mostly unrecognised. Roy Gregory and I edited ‘The God you already know’ partly out of this conviction.

This year alongside my Bible reading I have also been using ‘The World Religions Bible’ edited by Robert van de Weyer. It contains readings from a dozen faith traditions, one for each month. I’m only half way through but already it is obvious that there is a great deal of common ground in their wisdom and teaching. We should not be surprised. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel tells of the Word of God [the Cosmic Christ] that “through him all things came to be, without him no created thing came into being. In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it………He was in the world, but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognise him.” So the Cosmic Christ is the light of every human being: the divine spark within everybody. It is not then surprising to find this common ground. The man from Nazareth, the Risen Lord, ascended back into heaven whence he came, to sit at God’s right hand as the Cosmic Christ, where He is the indwelling light of every human being. Again, the faces overlap, are one and the same, but are known across the earth by a variety of different names.

But there is more. John’s Prologue makes it clear that the Cosmic Christ is involved in the creation of everything. Every thing in the universe has the Cosmic Christ’s fingerprints all over it. So it is that the Celts argued that there are in fact two Bibles. The Good Book and Nature. The Cosmic Christ meets people of any and no religious belief system, through the natural world, again, without necessarily being recognised.

To me this is a source of wonder and awe. But everything has its downside. One of the downsides of the overlapping, is the loss of the full humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. We project the Risen Lord and the Cosmic Christ, back onto Jesus of Nazareth, and lose something of his humanity. It gives us the glories of John’s prologue and the Birth stories of Matthew and Luke, but we forget that he was a human being exactly like us: born like us, he grew up just like us, he faced all the problems and opportunities that we face, he faced suffering and doubt as we do, and had a faith journey just like ours.

There seems to be a human tendency to do this with any figure whom we deem to have done great things: we tend to read that greatness back into their story, as being present from their birth and childhood: and we see echoes of the greatness to come, that were almost certainly not obvious to people who knew them at the time. We put them on a pedestal, and in doing so make them different from the rest of us, when in reality they’re not. In doing so we encourage ourselves to forget that we too can do great things.

We have done that to Jesus of Nazareth. Believing him to be the Risen Lord and the Cosmic Christ its inevitable and to some extent right that we do that. But it comes at a price. He ceases to be a fully human being just like us. He becomes somebody who has done something for us, rather than somebody who shows us the way. Following Jesus is about living a life modelled on his. He has shown us that this is both possible and what God calls us to.

I have been mulling for some time about Jesus spiritual life. I do so as someone who tries to take my own spiritual life seriously, and who often finds himself in conversation with others about theirs. My assumption is that Jesus’ spiritual life must have been much like ours.

Thus I assume that Jesus of Nazareth must have had the equivalent of a spiritual director: someone who encouraged and nurtured his faith in God, and from whom he learnt much about the Jewish scriptures and traditions. It seems likely that this would have taken place as a member of a group of young men who met regularly together as part of their training as young Jews. I assume that at least some of the first disciples whom he called in Galilee were probably part of that group, and who had already seen him as their leader. Hence the ease with which they left everything to follow him when he called them to do so. [See ‘Did Jesus have a spiritual director?’]

I notice that Jesus rarely began his teaching of his disciples or the crowds who gathered to hear him, by quoting Scripture. He did so the few times he preached in the synagogue, but hardly ever otherwise. Instead he told stories and gave spiritual teaching. Now where did he get those stories and that wisdom from? Some of the stories have scriptural echoes, others seem to have been drawn from his observations of everyday life. But I think that good spiritual teachers, ones who speak with authority as Jesus clearly did, speak primarily not from what they’ve read, or learnt from somebody else, but from their own experience. They speak from an inner knowing that only comes from their own experience of God. Much of Jesus wisdom and insight would have come from his own experience. [See ‘The Spirituality of Jesus’.]

I remember, many years ago, reading a novel about Jesus life before he embarked on his public ministry. The writer suggested that the story of the Good Samaritan began its life as something that happened to Jesus himself. He was beaten up & robbed on the road to Jerusalem, and was rescued by a foreigner, someone he’d been taught to view as an enemy, rather than by those he’d thought would be his friends. This experience affected him deeply, and changed his view of who were his friends, who indeed were God’s friends. Subsequently he found that non-Jews were often more receptive to his teaching than fellow Jews were, and he went out of his way to be alongside people whom his community saw as outsiders. This new way of seeing the world had its origins not primarily in traditional teaching but in his own personal experience of life.

We will never know if this is historically accurate, but it seems likely to me. The story of the Good Samaritan has a lot of incidental detail that’s not essential to its meaning, and that suggests to me that it may well derive from personal experience. There is a second story that Jesus told that sounds similar. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. I suspect that this too may come from Jesus’ personal experience. I have a hunch that maybe he ran away from home as a young man, not only to escape from his family, but also maybe from God? Why else would he also talk about the story of Jonah, who fled from God’s call to preach to Nineveh? Did Jesus feel a call to preach to the Jews and wanted to avoid it? It might explain why Jesus went to John for a baptism of repentance? Why else did Jesus feel the need to repent, of what? Interestingly the words spoken to the Jesus at his baptism could well have been the words that the father said to his prodigal son.

I wonder if Jesus fled from both his earthly and heavenly Father, and was overwhelmed when he found himself loved and accepted by both in such similar fashion. Maybe that’s in part why he addresses God as Father, and taught his followers to do likewise? And if Jesus saw the story of Jonah as a model, it might explain why he expected the people of Jerusalem to repent at his preaching as the people of Nineveh did at Jonah’s preaching, and why he felt that God had abandoned him when they didn’t.

I’ve been thinking about the Beatitudes recently. Luke’s version sounds simpler and thus more original. ‘Blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep’. After his baptism we are told that Jesus was led into the wilderness for a time. He must have been poor: there’s no indication in the Gospels that he ever earned his living and he’d squandered his inheritance. So he knew what poverty was, and he must have wondered as he pondered the call he heard at his baptism, ‘how is this going to be funded?’ He must also have known hunger in the wilderness: there was no food to be found there. Its not difficult to imagine that he spent time weeping there too: both tears of repentance at his attempts to avoid God, and tears of joy at knowing himself forgiven. The temptations that we are told that he faced there speak to these words too. The temptation to rule the world and become rich, to turn stones into bread to release his hunger, and to call on God to perform a miracle as outward proof of his forgiven and accepted status. So Jesus knew all about the realities of poverty, hunger and sadness. He also knew, from experience, that they were the source of blessing for him. So he was able to speak the Beatitudes from deep personal experience. I suspect much of his teaching came from the same source.

Why do I think all this is so important?
I believe that ‘the God Whom we already know’ is the God whom Jesus of Nazareth knew.
I believe that what John’s Gospel says about Jesus, namely that he was with God from the beginning, that he laid that down to be born as a human being, and was then returned to God at his death, all that is also true of each of us too.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth/the Risen Lord/the Cosmic Christ has shown us that this is true, and that this is the core of the Good News of the Gospel.
I believe that we are called to imitate Jesus of Nazareth, by heeding whatever God calls us to be and do, as he did, by trusting our own experience of God as he did, by trusting the Risen Lord to guide and uphold us, and by trusting that the Cosmic Christ is present in everyone and everything we meet .
What’s different about Jesus of Nazareth, is his calling, his vocation. Each of us has a distinctive vocation from God that no-one else has. Jesus had a distinctive vocation and fulfilled it. So do each of us, and our task is to fulfil it as well as we are able.

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