Thursday, 25 February 2016

on the riches of prayer

The poems we have reflected on over the last couple of Sundays were written by modern poets and fairly easy to understand on a first reading. This week we go back 400 years to the Welsh poet-priest George Herbert. Although he was dead by the age of 39 Herbert's output was prolific, and his thinking about how to exercise parish ministry in rural settings has had a long reach — still an influence on clergy today. He was also the writer of hymns, amongst others Let all the world in every corner sing, which we often sing at St Anne and All Saints.

Our poem today, is Prayer, and is considered one of George Herbert's finest:

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

What makes this sonnet reward re-reading is the density of meaning and ideas it contains. One of today's poet-priest's, Malcolm Guite, says this about it:

Its richly laden 14 lines contain no fewer than 27 images or reflections of what prayer might be for us. From the uplifting 'exalted Manna' to depth-sounding 'Christian plummet', from the heaven-ward ringing music of 'church bells beyond the stars heard' to the deeply incarnate discovery of 'Heaven in ordinary', Herbert's imagery captures the ups and downs of our prayer life and maps out for us the spiritual terrain through which we are moving.

The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press 2014

Rather than try and take all of it in at once, a good way to approach this poem is to pull out one or two phrases that particularly strike you as interesting — maybe because they are easier to understand, or perhaps you like the imagery, or find they resonate with your own experience of prayer.

A couple of lines stand out for me today — but the beauty of a jam-packed poem like this is that next time I read it something else will draw my eye.

'God's breath in man returning to his birth...'
Last week we recalled the creation story where God breathes life into the first human. Herbert beautifully imagines God-given breath being returned to its source when we pray. Here is praise that God's creatures offer up to their creator for all that we have been given, not least the gift of life itself.

As a child I was taught that the way to start a prayer was in thanksgiving, but it can be easy to forget that. What are the blessings that you want to give thanks for today?

And prayers can also be actions, not just words. In the same we that we use our God-given breath in praise (or hymns), so we can also use our God-given gifts and talents in service to God and others. By doing so, these also return to their source, their birth. This too is worship. What impact does your prayer life have on your way of Christian living?

'A kind of tune which all things hear and fear...'
I'm fond of the idea that the divine is a song reaching out across the heavens and earth, and that our job is to listen out and join in. Prayer is not only about talking to God, but listening for God so that we can tune in and join with the eternal song. This requires our prayers to be in step with what God desires. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for the kingdom of God, which Jesus announced, to grow and come to fulfilment. We pray so that we may become part of the kingdom project.

Rowan Williams writes:
Christians do not pray expecting to get what they ask for in any simple sense — you just might have noticed that this can’t be taken for granted! Rather, Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing — there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about. Which is why so many great Christian writers on the spiritual life have emphasized that prayer is not about feeling good. It is not about results, or about being pleased with yourself; it is just what God does in you when you are close to Jesus.
Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (SPCK)

When we are attentive to God, prayer happens, whether we have anything in mind to pray about our not. Our prayers are joining in with what Jesus is already doing. And often the biggest change that prayer will make in the world will be to us, so that we become better builders for the kingdom of God; agents of change in the cause of love and justice and peace. This is why silent prayer can be so powerful. By contemplating God in stillness and quietness, centring ourselves on divine love, we are switching on an inner wireless ready to listen to God's call on us and get in harmony with the 'tune which all things hear.'

Perhaps on reading this poem different things will stand out for you than did for me, and you might want to take time during the coming week to re-read it on a number of occasions and see what ideas stick out for you. Other poets have followed George Herbert's lead and also written poems in the same vein, collecting together their own images and metaphors for what prayer is like for them. You, too, might want to think about doing that this week. And if you do, I'd love to read it.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

on considering what will be left of us, when we've left

The season of Lent began a couple of weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, when the ritual of being marked on the forehead with an ash cross was accompanied by the words, 'From dust you came and to dust you will return; turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.'

It is rather stark being reminded that our lives begin and end as mere dust. Each Sunday this Lent, at St Anne and All Saints, we are reflecting on a different poem to help us journey through the season together. This week's poem Left is by Martin Wroe:

What will be left of us when we've left?

When we're gone.
Under, down, into darkness, earth and memory.
When our dust has shaken itself down
and reverted to its original state,
— and our ashes have snapped out of their delusion?
Will their little miraculous interlude have moved history's rudder?

What will be left of us when we've left?
Once the tears are dry on the faces of those we love,
What other trace will we leave?
Will the evidence be compelling?
What will the surviving witnesses say?
How will they know we were here?
Will someone's future be better because of what we did in the present?

How many breaths make a life?
How long does it take to make a difference?
When can I start?

What will history say of us when we're history too?

What will be left of us when we've left?

from The Sky's Window: Lines and lyrics in search of a numinous now by Martin Wroe

There is an exercise that is sometimes popular in the world of personal development, where you are asked to imagine your own funeral, and what people might say about you. And what you would like people to say about you, then use this as a catalyst for change in one's life.

Martin Wroe's poem challenges us to think about our legacy, and Lent — when we aim to strip life back to its basics and consider what matters most — is the ideal time for this.

'From dust you came...,' recalls one of the ancient creation myths when 'God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life' (Genesis 2.7). This ancient Hebrew story of us originating from dust is now corroborated by scientists who tells us that each of us, and our whole world, comes from the dust of cosmic activity. How remarkable that such tiny distant particles could be the stuff of life on this planet in all its complexity, and of humanity in all our variety.

'...and to dust you shall return.' One day our remains will break down again into natural matter. We start as dust, we end as dust, and today's poem makes us wonder what has gone on in between. Will our time here really count for anything? 'What will be left of us when we've left,' the poet writes. How will those who knew us 'know we were here.' What difference will we have made?

A wise woman once told me that she tried to live her life so that each day mattered. 'At the end of the day,' she said, 'I want to be able to look back and know that my day counted for something.' If making a lifetime worthwhile feels daunting, perhaps start with a more realistic ambition. A day. Today. What will you do that will 'make someone's future better?' What would make a difference to somebody else today? And then tomorrow, try again.

The prayer practice known as the Examen, is a wonderful way to ponder each day, at the end of the day; to reflect on when you most cooperated with God, and when the gifts of the Spirit (love, joy, peace etc) have been most present to you. And then, when have you been out of tune with God, felt least alive? This is not a judgemental activity, it is just about noticing. The more self-aware we are the better we can grow. And when we recognise those moments when we have chosen distance rather than closeness to God, we can receive forgiveness with healing and confidence. (If you've been exploring Pray-As-You-Go during Lent, you may have discovered the excellent guided Examen they provide and recognise some of the above questions from there.)

Building a habit of prayerful reflection at the end of the day, giving thanks to God for life-giving moments, and seeking renewal and healing for times we've detached ourselves from God, is a discipline that recalibrates our souls to the divine.

When people will speak of you after you have left them behind, will it be our godliness they speak about, the quality of our character?

I have heard many tributes given about the deceased at funeral services. What strikes me most is that people talk of concrete accomplishments far, far less than they do about the qualities of the person. It won't be your exam grades or qualifications, the money you've earned or the positions you've been employed in, the size of your house or the kind of cars you drove, with which they will sum up your life. It will be how you related to people, the difference you've made to the lives of others, the ways you shaped or influenced them, the example you set. In other words, the things you did for others will mark you out far more than the things you did for yourself.

The questions in today's poem cut right to the heart of many a eulogy. 'What... trace will we leave? Will the evidence be compelling?'

We change by degrees, small steps towards growth and wholeness (also called holiness). A day we can look back on in which we acted in love, felt joy, sought peace, exercised patience and kindness and self-control... a day like that, followed by another, then another, begins to change us, forms a character that bears a likeness to Christ. It is, as with him, our self-giving that we will be remembered for; the ways we made our selves, our time, our skills, available to others; our efforts in working towards the common good that help to 'move history's rudder.'

By setting aside passive living, the seeking out of our own comfort or merely drifting through each day, we can discover that life comes to us when we give it to others. It is then that we will perhaps better understand 'what will be left of us when we've left.'

Sunday, 14 February 2016

on the first sunday in lent

Each Sunday in Lent, at St Anne and All Saints Church, we are looking at a different poem to help us think about how we observe Lent together, and practise the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and acts of service.

This week's poem is simply titled 'Lent' and was written by Jean M Watt:

Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than black in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.

The desk in my study is on the top floor of the Vicarage, from where I can look out across Vauxhall Park. I have a view over the tennis court to the open, green space beyond. As I wrestle with deep theological thought (ahem), my eyes very occasionally drift out over the park to watch the dog-walkers, the joggers, folks just out for a stroll, and those sitting on a park bench sharing a can of Tennents Extra and shouting at the pigeons. All of life can be seen here, and if you are a regular visitor to this park you might want to bear in mind that I may have my eye on you...

But only for now. In a few short weeks the trees will have burst into leaf and my view of the park will be obscured by a curtain of green, drawn across the vista that occupies my most pensive moments. Soon, all I will be able to see is the other side of our street, and the park railings.

I enjoy being able to see the seasons change outside the study window, and the way my long-sighted view will become short-sighted for a while, before returning to long-sightedness in due season.

Watt's poem compares Lent to a tree that has lost all blossom and foliage. It's a time when we can clear out the clutter and noise in our lives, and draw our attention away from the things in life that are surplus to requirement. There is something stark about a bare tree in winter. Perhaps you prefer to see the blossom in spring, the greenery of summer or the golden foliage of autumn. Yet when you take all that away, you get a different view, an emptiness, that we should cherish because it allows us to see the bigger picture, perhaps even the possibility of seeing the stars.

Lent is a time when we can choose to see what is beyond those things with which we surround ourselves for comfort, reassurance or pleasure, but may also obscure the deeper richness of life. Here is a chance to strip our lives back to the basics; to enjoy simplicity; to focus on what really matters in life - rather than risk suffocating our souls with the junk we accumulate along the way.

Fasting, where we might give up luxuries like meat, chocolate or alcohol, is one way this is done. But a Lenten fast might also seek out simplicity in other ways: switching off the background chatter of TV and radio for a time each day to sit quietly in silence or in prayer; or taking a break from our electronic devices to take more notice of what is going on around us, or make more of the company of those with whom we share our homes. We may want to find ways of entering slow time, writing a letter by hand to a friend instead of pinging them a text or email; cooking a meal from scratch without popping anything into the microwave; putting a record on and sitting quietly to listen to it all the way through. You might even, dare I say it, get your Bible out and slowly read, then re-read, a favourite passage - the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5 perhaps, or the letter of James or a penitential psalm such as Ps 51.

There can be something wonderfully liberating about slowing life down, taking it back to its bare essentials, and rediscovering simple pleasures, making time to open up our horizons.

Noticing the needs of others is also a traditional Lenten discipline, giving money or time to respond to those in need with acts of loving service. We might also use this season to reflect on how our lifestyle - and the levels of consumption we so easily get caught up in - impact on the environment, or the lives of those who are paid a pittance to produce our cheap goods and clothing.

In the midst of this time of stripping life down to its basics, we are offered a gift, a chance to be in a place that is more receptive to God and take on for ourselves the divine qualities of love, generosity and grace. As Christians we journey through Lent with Jesus, inspired by his 40 days in the wilderness, a time that saw him living with only the very basics necessary for survival. Yet it was the proving ground for his mission and ministry. Time alone with God in an uncluttered way was the launching pad for all his teaching, healing and self-giving to come.

Lent can do the same for us, giving us time to touch base with the ground of our being, to reorder our priorities, so that in the claustrophobia of hectic modern life our outlook does not become so obscured by our busyness, possessions or preoccupations that we miss out on seeing the stars.

on the absence of posts in 2015

My posts to this blog have always been a bit sporadic at the best of times, but it is now over a year since I last wrote on here. The reasons are various but a key one is that much of my writing time went into a new book which has now been published.

Who Are We To Judge? Empathy and discernment in a critical age is published by SPCK and can be purchased with free post and packing direct from them, or from Amazon where a Kindle edition is also available. The Amazon listing also includes some nice reviews from my elders and betters :)

Meanwhile, back on the whiff of God I will be posting Lent homilies on here each Sunday over the coming weeks, which this year take the form of a reflection on a different poem each week.

Thanks for stopping by.