Thursday, 25 February 2016

Golden Slumbers. Golden Arches

There are two closing lines in the beautiful hymn, "Jerusalem the Golden", which read:
"O sweet and blessed country that eager hearts expect! Jesu, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest". I was reminded of them by Richard Foster's recollection of Charles Spurgeon's entreaty on fasting and prayer: "never has Heaven's gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory". Both quotes share the same sense of being within touching distance of an eternal home with God. And in Spurgeon's case, underlined by much of Foster's chapter on Fasting, it is that discipline that brought him closest to that spiritual epiphany.

Yet, if fasting is so efficacious, how is it "not for everyone"?  Foster points out that true fasting must be "God-initiated and God-ordained", yet some have not felt directed in this way, just as others have. A straw poll at home group this week showed a three-way spilt between those who had never fasted, had done so in the past or were fasting now. And the benefits were? "A slowing down. A receptiveness to God in a different, more relaxed, state" were reported.

All agreed that our eating habits, some would contend a modern obsession with food, can be a distraction from Godly living at best, at worst a different kind of idol. A golden calf from golden arches, you might say. Phones, tablets, media, work, relationships - also have the potential to distract us from God and yet all have the ability (well used) to help us in our Kingdom endeavours.

Imposing control over our will is the central but often seemingly impossible task of holy living. Overcoming sinful habits is one part of that. Another is those good and necessary things, like eating and drinking, the denial of which (for a time that is undamaging to our health) builds fortitude. In any case, God is needed as the reason, the power and the outcome.

In our weakened physical selves we might become - paradoxically - strengthened in our vision of God and his Kingdom - a golden Jerusalem, with milk and honey blest!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Godly Conversation

I met up with my new prayer partner this week; nothing new in the meeting; we've known each other for a number of years. But this time the topic was committing to pray to God, together, into the future. And yet something was troubling both of us.

"I get stuck in prayer when it becomes a rigid pattern...You know, you tell me A,B and C. I tell you X, Y and Z. And then we repeat as much as we can remember but in prayer-speak, as though God only arrived halfway through our meeting, and somehow needs to be brought up to speed".

"Yes, can't we just acknowledge the Holy Spirit with us and offer our conversation to God, as our prayer". The idea excited us, but we knew that we'd need to be attentive to God's leading...

And the conversation-prayer flowed wonderfully. There were questions, listening, clarifying, patience, responsiveness. We were acutely aware of God's presence with us in a unique and liberating way. We shared things that had heartened us, things that were frightening us, confessions and hopes. The Spirit guided at every turn, prompting bolder prayer and deeper listening ...

We learned a few things that helped our fledgling partnership in its new journey of Godly conversation,
  • To open and close in prayer as something offered to God and received from God. 
  • To be acutely aware of the Spirit alongside and within us, gave space for listening and were acutely aware of each other: our space, our feelings, our rights 
  • To take turns, carefully. Both of us avoided monologue. 
  • To know the subject area: things to be brought before and offered to God. Thanks, praise, sure, but also relationships, work and life. 
  • To recall what the other had said, to be patient, and willing to offer in response.
A Godly conversation, then, which turned a 'chat' into meaningful prayer under the Holy Spirit. It could work individually, in pairs or even in a small group. That time gave us a taste of (what Foster refers to, in his chapter on prayer) 'the growing perpetual communion' - the ultimate aim of all prayer. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Green Monsters and Yellow Submarines

In the past, when prayer has at times run dry, I have often turned to words that reassure me that I'm not alone:“We yearn for prayer and hide from prayer. We are attracted to it and repelled by it….What holds us back…is the notion that we have to have everything ‘right’ in order to pray”.

I paraphrase a little, but so writes Richard Foster in the opening words of his book called simply ‘Prayer’. He gives in that book a more complete picture of prayer that squeezing a huge topic into a single chapter of Celebration of Discipline might allow.

I offer you one image from the opening chapter of ‘Prayer’ that has stayed with me: “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, a child of God cannot pray a bad prayer”.

Green monsters, blue days, yellow submarines and dark nights. No prayer is too simple when offered from the heart.

We are in good company. Nearly all of the prayers offered in the bible are simple prayers. Children of God opening their hearts and making their requests.

Jesus taught the disciples how to pray. There is more for us to learn too, but its only worth learning if it makes us more open before God. 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Visitors' Book

High Trenhouse, Settle, North Yorkshire

In the 1990s, periodically, I used to invite the Shell oil marketing team I led to a retreat house in the moors high above Settle in North Yorkshire. Time away together changed much, but not everything. We shared our lives, our stories and used to pray together in the evening. People’s experiences of that were different. There was nothing conventional about the retreats, which were different to the ‘conference’ norms of the time. We became a close and trusting team.

Happy recollections of those times were prompted by this week receiving photographs of the visitors’ book from some of those occasions. My and others’ names were written inside, bringing back memories of faces, people and moments. The photographs were sent by a friend now revisiting the retreat with his own business.

At the end of the 1990s, based then in Claygate, Louise and I joined a home group, which after an eight year intermission, I have just re-joined. Much has changed, but not everything. Last night, we meditated on Wednesday’s scripture passage from Chapter 1 of Celebration of Discipline; very beautiful words from Psalm 1:1-3:

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers” (v3).

People’s experiences of meditating on that scripture were very different. One described being taken and opened out in choreographed movement; another that calm and peace had replaced resentment. A reflection, too, on a multi-facetted God (whom I had seen as the ‘planter’ implied by the Psalm). For one, the experience was bumpier and needs new entry points. “To breathe the name” became the mantra of another.

Meditation had allowed us, in individual ways, to abide in God for a while. “Opening ourselves to be acted upon”, as Foster describes it (p37). .

We had signed the visitors’ book. Yet we are also free to take up a more permanent residence. A place where we “realise that God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good…..His inscrutable love seeks our awakening”*.
*from Thomas Merton’s “Seeds of Contemplation”