Sunday, 24 September 2017

on lessons for life that a four year old can understand

There is a famous essay by the author and church minister Robert Fulghum, entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindgarten. You might want to read a short extract from it before continuing by following this link:

It sounds simple, and it is. Yet, when we look at the world we begin to see that the grown-ups have not mastered the lessons of kindergarten.

Envy; a craving for wealth, power or control; judgementalism towards others; desperation to be liked by others; intolerant of others from whom we are different; the temptation to take what doesn’t belong to us; taking advantage of others to manipulate, oppress or exploit them, and so on.

The Bible has a word for this - sin. But nobody uses the word sin anymore so I prefer the writer Francis Spufford’s alternative - HPtFtU, which stands for ‘the Human Propensity to F*** things Up.’

We get so easily pulled off course from being our best selves by the shiny baubles of desire. The simple rules for living, that even a four year old can grasp, get thrown out the window. Instead, we open our newspapers and switch on the TV, and see the consequences of HPtFtU.

It was into such a world, some 2000 years ago or so, that Jesus Christ stepped with a real message of hope. It doesn’t need to be like this. We don’t need to be driven by the false desires of the world. We don’t need to pretend that we are someone we are not, because we are loved by God just as we are. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about our failures and mistakes, just be honest about them, because we are eternally forgiven.

Christianity is not, despite the best efforts of many, about rules or dogma. It is a spiritual journey towards the heart of God, and in becoming our true self. As Jim Manney SJ has written:

Beneath the love of money, possessions, honour and pride we will find what we really want - like a cook peeling an artichoke to get to its heart, or a sculptor chipping away at marble to find the beautiful form inside.

When we cut through our fakery to find our true selves, then we will discover what we truly desire, and find that this is also what God desires for us.

And this is our hope today when we baptise baby Sebastian: that this will be the start of a journey to discover who he really is. Parents and godparents will, I hope, help him to discern his true self and love him for whoever he turns out to be - just as God already cherishes him.

As his young life unfolds over the coming years we pray that he will find his way in the world, one that is authentic to him and in tune with God’s love for him.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

on examining our daily life

During my sabbatical this summer I discovered a prayer that I have been finding incredibly helpful during personal devotions:

In God’s presence I unwind the past day
Starting from now and looking back, moment by moment.
I gather in all the goodness and light, in gratitude,
I attend to the shadows and what they say to me,
Seeking healing, courage, forgiveness.

Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2017, The Irish Jesuits

Each part of this prayer is rich in meaning and significance so I want to break it down and look at it bit by bit.

In God’s presence
How do you step, for a time, into the presence of God each day? God is always with us of course, but life easily distracts us so it is beneficial when we take time to consciously attend to God’s presence. Perhaps, like me, you have a mind that constantly chatters away offering a running commentary on the day, on tasks to do, problems to solve, worries to assuage, the people we’ve encountered that rubbed us up the wrong way, and so on. It’s like a radio station inside our heads constantly yakking away and never letting us forget our preoccupations.

Daily prayer enables us to switch channels and tune into God instead, sitting with an awareness of God holding us, the hands of Christ reaching out to us, in the midst of our busy day. And with regular practice it gets easier to switch off Radio Me and tune into God instead. And when this is done consciously, reverently and attentively we begin to feel more in touch with the divine, with the ground of our being.

Like me, you might need a helping hand to tune into God: by reading a passage of scripture, for example, or using a prayer book; by focussing on breathing and stillness to help empty the mind, or to gaze at an icon or image in contemplation. You might find it helps to listen to some sacred music or worship songs, or to pray with a rosary or a holding cross. There is a rich Christian heritage of approaches to prayer to help us step into the presence of God, so don't be afraid to try out different things and discover what works best for you.

I unwind the past day… moment by moment
This prayer invites us to reflect on the last 24 hours. Perhaps that’s something you would prefer to do at bedtime and if that works for you, great. My head is not at its best by the end of the evening but I’ve found this prayer works just as well first thing in the morning.

Whenever one chooses to do it, take time to think over the last day. Starting from this moment, you might imagine in your mind’s eye a film of your day running backwards. Or you may prefer to recall the places you’ve been, the people you’ve encountered, the work you’ve done, and the moments of leisure you’ve enjoyed. Again, the more you do this the easier it becomes.

I gather in all the goodness and light
As you reflect on your day, what are the moments where you have felt most full of life, most energised or blessed? Most loved, even? The wonderful thing about this prayer is that it pushes us to consciously examine our lives, to see the good things that are there, and to name them.

The word gather suggests to me a kind of harvesting. We draw towards ourselves the memory and awareness of all that is good, all that is filled with light, and we hold it close. Don’t let such things go unnoticed or take them for granted, by dwelling only on life’s disappointments and challenges. Use this prayer to help take stock of the things in your life that have nourished and sustained you. And as you do so you’ll discover that, although they won’t go away, problems and concerns gain a new and more balanced perspective. Instead of overwhelming us we can hold them in check, and see them more easily for what they really are.

In gratitude
In what spirit do we undertake this exercise? I gather in all the goodness and light in gratitude.

In Britain today, like much of the world, we have become a nation of consumers, focussed on what we lack rather than what we have. Minds become preoccupied with what's missing in life, on the next thing we must purchase or acquire.

As Christians, we are encouraged to reflect on all God’s gifts to us and give thanks for them, mindful of the joy and gladness that our faith brings us. One of the things we looked at when we ran The Happiness Course earlier this year was how psychologists have identified gratitude as a key skill to master in order to attain a state of contentment, wellbeing and happiness.

Saying thank you, then, isn't simply good manners. It is a way of ensuring we give attention to the things in life that we are blessed with. When we concentrate on what we have to be grateful for, rather than fretting over what we lack, we come closer to experiencing the peace of God, a peace that passes all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phillipians 4.7).

I attend to the shadows, and what they say to me
The prayer doesn’t try to avoid the tough things in life, and gives a place to acknowledge that life is challenging. The shadow side of life is not to be ignored.

We all carry within us memories, experiences, and thoughts which are painful and difficult. We sometimes become preoccupied with our anxieties and fears, and act out of them rather than love and hope. We have desires and habits that we know are not always healthy or helpful for us. We find ourselves behaving in ways that we are later ashamed of. One of the ways we gain mastery over ourselves is to acknowledge and understand our brokenness.

We can’t always make sense of the shadow side by ourselves. Sometimes we need a companion to help us - a soul friend, a spiritual guide, perhaps a therapist. And while our shadow side can be a dark and complicated place, we have the assurance that Jesus is with us there also.

This prayer seeks self-knowledge and honesty about ourselves. Fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ can also help with this. Our reading from Matthew’s gospel today (Matthew 18.15-20) reminds us that sometimes those we are in communion with us as fellow Christians can help bring to light some of the dark truths about ourselves, provided we are humble and open enough to hear it.

The language of darkness and light is used a lot in scripture, and St Paul draws on it in Romans. ‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here, so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light' (Romans 13.12 NRSV).

Seeking, healing, courage and forgiveness
Where does such self-examination lead us? To act and pray for what we most need for ourselves. Healing for the parts of us that are wounded, not just in our bodies but in our psyche and our souls. Courage to face the challenges ahead as we continue to seek to become like Jesus, and journey towards wholeness. Forgiveness for the times we have got it wrong, knowing the cleansing power of facing up to the reality of ourselves and confident in the knowledge that whatever we have done, whatever pain we carry within us, we are utterly and unshakeably loved by God.