Thursday, 17 March 2016

Ski Sunday

My television viewing, I have to admit, is usually based on sport, and this winter I have derived enormous enjoyment from watching the Alpine World Cup skiing, with highlights often captured on 'Ski Sunday'.

I have never skied myself, but I am a great admirer of those who do it well; for their strength, agility, courage and concentration. For the downhill competitors ski not on fluffy snow but on hard ice up to speeds of 75 miles per hour, where small misjudgements of line or contact result in calamity.

My Sunday afternoon musings as I view the snowy scene, have brought me to two understandings related to the spiritual life.

First, that the context of our communion with God is often far too narrow. We can concern ourselves with what we want, what we have, what we need to do. We are like anxious skier, rapt by the details of our own internal we have the time to study? Why can't we pray as others do? In this mode, we are kept in a kind of perpetual unrest - not allowing ourselves to 'be'. For to 'be' is to be attentive to God and the movement of the Spirit in the world and in the circumstances of our lives.

Next, that when we shift our attention to God, we are no longer the isolated, self-centred performer...but one existence in a vast world, directed by a single source of light. We are, to quote Evelyn Underhill: "like a chalet in the Alps, a homely existence gaining atmosphere, dignity, significance from the greatness of the sky above it and the background of the everlasting hills."

My favourite part of the World Cup skiing coverage is always when the camera pulls away from its focus on the course and the skier and shows us the full panorama of peaks, valleys and snow-covered villages. Thus I am reminded of the vastness of the enterprise and each person's small but unique place within it.

Friday, 11 March 2016

A racing certainty

Reference Point wins the 1987 Derby at Epsom
I have a good friend who is a close follower of horse racing. I don't share his enthusiasm to any great degree, but his dedication to the cause is remarkable. As long as I can remember, on raceday and before, he has studied the form of horses, jockeys, trainers, courses. He has studied the impact of the weather forecast and travel distances. Parentage too is taken into account and the strengths and weaknesses of 'line'.  He will observe behaviour in the parade ring and as they take their early steps towards the starting line. With him, the study becomes a science.

The focus of the study is, of course, to successfully predict the outcome of a particular race. Once his prediction is proved correct, or not - the studying stops. I have never seen him analyse the outcome of a race with any urgency, or to reflect on what was learned with any great enthusiasm. The point is - only - did his horse win or not?

I sometimes wonder if there is a danger of our spiritual lives bearing some of these hallmarks. In other words, did God give us what we thought he would? Or worse, did God give us what we wanted?

It seems to me that the discipline of Study reverses this process. Study is based on reflection, looking in the rear-view mirror of life and, as Foster puts it, 'seeing things from God's perspective....In reflection, we come to understand our subject matter, but ourselves." It is in reflection that we see God most clearly - in that way, the past offers a glimpse of his perfect love.

The extent of Richard Foster's reading list proposals may be either challenging or off-putting in their scale and ambition. Yet, reflection is something we can all do. We can do it today, when we are shopping, listening to music, walking the dog, or when a neighbour has left us to consider the conversation we shared. At those times, and at countless others, we can all ask ourselves: "where was God in that experience?". Or "how does God seem to working in my circumstances now?" Or "what am I learning about his desires for me?"

When we reflect in that way, continually growing in self- and God-knowledge over the course of our years, we are fully leading the spiritual life. We may not be able to predict the daily outcome, as the race goer would love to do, but we do meet the enjoinder of the letter writer:

"...let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (Hebrews 12:1)

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Down the Tube

Sitting on the London Underground this week, I became conscious of a tendency I have to judge others, positively or negatively, by their appearance.
Before me were the hard-working builder with paint-stained cargo trousers, “Polska” on his shirt. The tired-looking office worker, preoccupied with a colourful game on her phone. The Fijian student seemed powerful in rugby gear. The Daily Mail reader…you see, there I go again! The tendency I have (and I am not alone surely) to pigeon-hole people based on their appearance is not only a regrettable, but sinful one.
I was made especially conscious of it by reading Catherine Marshall’s thought-provoking piece, “Fasting on Criticalness”, on the train down from Sheffield. In it she describes her fasting from her own tendency to judge others and situations, instead engaging in exploration of her relationship with God and God’s people.
So, I began to look around the carriage, landing eyes briefly on each individual, praising God for something about them and turning those thoughts into unspoken intercession.
I was immediately reminded that of the huge potential of fasting. Not for exhibitions of holy living, but for removing those things that occupy spaces where God can be active. Jesus warned against the human tendency to judge others (Matthew 7:1-5).  Judging others is tempting – not least, perhaps especially, for Christians. It can seduce us into pride for the choices we make or doctrine we espouse.
Instead, fasting from critical judgement brings us into a creative place where we begin to see the potential of others with clarity, and in doing so we both honour God’s unique love for every human being, and we fulfil our purpose as those called – not to judge – but to love as God loves.