Contemplative Prayer

I think it needs to be made clear that the views and opinions expressed on my blog are my own views and not that of the congregation I serve, neither the wider Church in which I minister.
I feel the need to write this explanation now my readership grows and people within my own community wonder if the blog is a barometer of my own thoughts and feelings for them. There are no ‘hidden messages’ but if one wishes to read the postings as one might a horoscope than I’m sure there will be some truth found. The blog is neither a barometer nor is it a place to vent about what may, or may not be happening at the time. That would be out of place.
I write a lot. I read a lot. I reflect a lot. There are different blogs and paper journals for a whole variety of notes and thoughts. This blog happens to be about a guy who happens to be a priest and happens to live in Germany. Other blogs are about a guy who enjoys poetry, or a guy who likes short-stories.
So let’s finish with all of that and get on with things.
I have for, many years, practiced Centering Prayer. The key word is practiced.
It is a private thing which sometimes gives life and sometimes feels like just sitting around. I’m not an expert, nor do I feel any good at it. I won’t try and discribe it but link resources here for those interested.
Prayer is both public and private.
Years ago I underwent a mandatory ministry review. It was standardised and I see the importance of doing such reviews periodically in ones life. In my first formal review, one of the reviewers was a man who clearly had not read the instructions on the form. Or maybe he did read them and he made a point in sending me the final copy of his paperwork as well as sending it to my immediate superior and my bishop. The whole form was filled out in detail, even the parts that were left for me to contribute and my reviewer to take notes about my written material and my interview. What upset me the most from this blooper was that it gave someone who was very upset with me (I wanted as nonbiased a report as possible) because I didn’t come to a party to which I never knew I was invited. At the time it felt like someone had taken this opportunity for development and manipulated it into chance to take some revenge.
The portion of the form that I was to fill out about my own personal prayer life and prayer practice was completed by the reviewer. Apparently, and in the impressions of the reviewer, in the secret of my heart and home the opinion was that I was the worst person of prayer, that I was unable to connect with God, and that all I did was sit around staring at the tops of my knees.
How true.
It hurt. It hurt that someone would think that of me. It also hurt because it can be true. The mainline connection to God does have poor reception at times. I say this openly not that I feel this way at all now, but that it does happen. We shame people into thinking they must always be super Christians with a nice personal chat with God at the offer like having the red phone on the desk of some head of state.
At the moment, I am feeling really chuffed about my prayer life and my ongoing relationship with God. If one can admit to such a thing.  I become a squirrel to stash these thoughts away for the winter so I’ve got something to live off of for those barren times which do and will come.
I have come to expect that God comes and goes – well in truth that better describes me – like a thief in the night and a bridegroom early to the party. One practice that sustains me in the highs and lows is centering prayer. And today, praying in the church of St Martin the impact was powerful. Outside the church doors there is the Freiburg Christmas Market that has started and with it: the ‎people, the noise, the joyous chaos and the anxious signs warning of pick-pockets. All these things blend away behind the silent heavy doors of the church as they close. The innerior of the church this time of year has the old wooden doors of the altar opened up to show a biblical story carved out of wood. The contrasts are palatable.
To sit for 20 minutes in silence in that space makes praying come easier. At every level of experience it is like God takes the rough wood as well as the gold foil that represents the person I am, and in such, God is able to create moments of surprise and delight. To fashion these things and to rest and know that all shall be well.  To reflect on the present and the past and see that God guilds all things, like slithers of gold, as the John Bell song says.
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Promises

Julie Andrews acting as Mary Poppins talks of ‘a pie crust promise’ in the Disney movie of the same name, and describes the pie crust promise as: “Easily made. Easily broken.”

At its simplest, a promise is for an individual.  One person can promise to do things for ones self.  In the more complex, a promise is an oath, or pact between one person and many.  In another, a promise is between a person and God; and God and his people.

I make those famous ‘pie crust promises’ to myself a lot of the time.  I’m not one for New Years Resolutions, but I do promise to myself that I will do something and that usually works…for a while.  My newest promise to myself is to take more time for physical fitness.  I’ve found that living in the land of beer and pretzels has changed my features so exercise is something I need to do.  Self-care is a phrase that is thrown around among church leaders, yet our track record is pretty dismal.  Self-care phrases are surrounded by the words of expectation and guilt, namely, “would’a, could’a and should’a.”  “I really should exercise more!”,  prompts me into doing so under duress.  The excuses for not finding the time to exercise are rampant, as there always seems to be some more pressing issue, or meeting in the calendar to look after other than ourselves.

In the church congregation I have managed to pull a ‘Jephthah’.  What is that? Well Jephthah is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Judges and in his pride he publicly proclaims that as God as his witness he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to give God glory.  Tragically it is his loving (and only) daughter that runs out of the house first to meet her father.  Promising to do something and then not doing it comes with the speaking before thinking type of personality.  I’ve promised to do some things in the church and have not acted upon them with the speediness I had promised.  For this I am sorry and these things hang about on a long To Do list like some spectre of Christmas Past.

While the above promise mentions God, it is more a statement of oath that is a public one.  The promises, or oaths, that I made as a priest, are also in the context of community, but have a deeply personal relationship with God, and with God’s people.  Like at a wedding when one party makes oaths to the other (to love and cherish in sickness and in health) so too does the person being ordained priest make those similar statements to God and God’s Church.  “Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh? Answer: I will endeavour myself so to do, the Lord being my helper.” (Book of Common Prayer pg 576-577)  Judging from my bookshelf I read a lot of books about the world in which I might find God present.  Of course I study my Bible and attempt to pray the daily offices of Morning and Evening prayer, but the big word is attempt.  Does this count as endeavouring? I think that a lot of people do endeavour as these questions of promise and fulfilment are perennial discussion topics in a congregation.  It is in the struggle that we meet God, not in the giving up and walking away.

Perhaps I have now come full circle in my list of promises as I have, in the past, trained to run races and proudly remember making a very good time in one gruelling mountain race. I have not always run, neither have I always prayed the daily offices.  Perhaps it is the enduring of the promise that is the place of grace.  Rather than looking at a promise as a quick way to find a solution, or the fast track to complete a goal, a promise is an enduring relationship between me and God, just as it is a relationship between me and a community.  The promise is not the thing that will change us, it is the continual wrestling with ourselves, with the words we speak, and the work we have left undone.  The promise will rear its head again and again because we are cannot complete all that we have promised.  That is God’s work of promise that is completed for us, and so we continue to wrestle with our own promises and shortcomings and we end up being changed –  a people who run with a limp.

 

via Daily Prompt: Promises

This Child of Ours, this Miracle

This is a sad story.  It is a sad story because it is true, and the truth is often hard to understand at the best of times.  It is a sad story because it challenges our hopes, dreams and expectations.  Some of you may already have heard via social media that two year old Emiliya died yesterday.

I think I can address the community by saying that we are all shocked and deeply saddened.  In what seemed a tiny life full of health struggles, the community was encouraged by how God provided the necessary money for the specialized operation.  God seemed to have cleared a path as donors opened more than just their wallets – they opened their hearts to assist a family.  When so much was seeming to go right – when we felt God was listening to our prayers – we had so much hope.

Now we are left with a huge hole as Emiliya quietly passed away surrounded and held by her parents and close friends.

Questions certainly arise.  Pain and suffering are perennial issues in the life of a Christian. Anger and grief are also valid forms of expressing our surprise, and the Bible is full of personal struggles in the Psalms, Lamentations and the book of Job.

But why? Why, O Lord does it have to happen this way?  In our intercessions and personal prayers I have found it useful to reflect on what Bishop John Pritchard has written knowing that we live out our lives in faith.

“One person lived; the other died.  Why?  The short answer is of course that we do not know.  And that is not unreasonable.  After all, we are Macbeth, not Shakespeare, the creature, not the Creator, and it is not surprising that the characters in the play cannot understand the mind of the author except by ‘best guesses’….

…When a couple experience the massive privilege and responsibility of producing a child they find they have created another human being which has its own radical independence. They can care for the child, love, encourage, persuade, and eventually reason, discuss, even argue with the child, but they can never start again and  make this into a different child.  She has her own way of being herself, and the parents have to recognize that they have limited their absolute power in the very act of creating her.  Now we the have this child and not that child.

We can pray to [God] with confidence, knowing that he will use our prayer in ways which are good, just and kind.  We may not know precisely what will happen, but if God is unequivocally with us, then in some significant respect the situation we pray for will be changed.”  pg 14 The Intercessions Handbook, Pritchard.

Emiliya was a very strong and courageous child having struggled with her health.  Her parents are equally strong and courageous as they cared, advocated and persisted in hope.  Emiliya brought together a lot of people.  Friendships have formed because of this little girl.  As well the church gathered together for prayer and support.  We have, in faith, recognized that Emiliya is in God’s care and comfort.  That all of us, despite our strong desire to be independent, are ultimately God’s.  At the moment it is difficult to make some conclusions of how our prayers are to be worked out.  Looking deeply and knowing assuredly that God has heard our prayers and that we have all been changed by this action.

Do we fall into guilt? We need to tread carefully here as prayer that doesn’t seem to go the way we had prayed it to often ends up with a dreadful feeling of guilt.  We should take care not to pass blame upon ourselves.

The entire Sunday morning worshiping community surrounded Emiliya and her parents with prayers for healing.  I believe that we have been gifted by God with having Emiliya in our community, and God has gifted her parents with Emiliya in their lives.  She has helped us to draw closer to each other in prayer, and closer to God in faith.  In Baptism, where we symbolically die and are raised anew in Jesus Christ through the waters of baptism I have often used a song called, “This Child of Ours, this Miracle” by David Haas. Notice the way the parents, the community, and God are woven through the lyrics singing ‘this child of ours, this child of Yours’.

1. This child of ours, this miracle –
You have a dream and plan for it. You wash it clean.
You cradle it. You bless it and You call it Yours:
this child of ours, this child of Yours.

2. This child of Yours, this miracle –
reborn of Water and the Word.
The Book of Life records its name. You smile and angels celebrate:
this child of Yours, this child of ours.

3. This child of ours, this miracle –
whom Christ would die for, we may love and train and raise,
and teach and praise, and watch the Spirit mold a life: this child or ours,
this child of Yours.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we keep Ilgar and Nigar in our prayers.  Some of us who are close to the family are able to offer support.  And for those who have put so much effort and worked so closely with the family in raising awareness we will also pray for during these difficult days.

God, this child of Yours, we commend into Your care, and her family into the arms of Your gracious comfort.  May she rest in peace, and rise in glory.

 

Opposites

I will be the first to admit that I have an addiction.

I love books, and find that I can rarely pass a bookseller without walking away with one, or two books.  Unlike some people, I actually read all the books I buy.  I purchased a small book entitled “The Contemplative Minister: Learning to lead from the still centre.” by Ian Cowley. This small pocket book fit nicely into my jacket pocket while I was travelling via Easy Jet – as everyone knows that Easy Jet charges an arm and a leg for any extra baggage.

I finished the book during the flight.  Afterwards I really wondered if this was the idea given the title of the book.  I think I preached on the the first chapter, ‘Being and Doing’, but failed to listen to my own words.

One thing that stuck with me, however, is a small section called ‘Control of the diary’.  I flip through my diary and see that I spend a lot of time doing, and very little time being.  In essence, prayer has become the last thing on a long list of to-do items.  It shouldn’t be this way, even though I know it often happens to me.  My fast read, my full calendar were a really message to me about my own priorities.

I’ve started getting up earlier so that I may say the Morning Prayer office and not find myself rushing and speed reading; ready to jump up to another task.  The end of my day is completed with Evening Prayer, or Compline.  Already I have noticed my outlook changing.  I hope also that this prayerful lifestyle helps in the parish, as I pray for the many parishioners in the chaplaincy day by day.

A different perspective – Brussels

Social media and other forms of media are now flooding with reports about terror attacks in Brussels.  Air and train travel has been suspended.  I was invited, along with other Church of England clergy in the Diocese in Europe to travel to either Nice, France, or to Brussels, in Belgium for a special Chrism Mass.  Bishop Robert is in Brussels, and Bishop David is in Nice for the respective worship services.  Chrism Mass is where the bishop blesses the oils that are used in the rite of Baptism, in other words, Christening.

I write this from home in Germany. We have had a number of guests arriving and so it was not convenient for me to make the trip to Brussels for the Chrism Mass and I did discover that I had packed some small containers of holy oil in my boxes that arrived from Canada. I decided a couple of weeks ago, that as much as I would like to visit Brussels and join in the worship, it was not conducive to family plans.  Of course I now wonder where I would be if I had been traveling to Brussels.

Some have reported that there really are no safe places in the world anymore.  It is precisely this reason that it is important to remind ourselves of the need for healing in the world and in our relationships with others.  Chrism and the link with baptism reminds us all of our own death and hope of resurrection in Jesus Christ.  After watching pictures of people fleeing the airport I pray for God’s peace, healing, and a change in  perspective that we might come to live our baptismal calling.

At this moment I pray for those who have been traumatized in these recent events, for those who have died and the family and friends who mourn their loss of life.  In the words of the commission – the sending out of those recently baptized – “Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders, by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?

With the help of God, I will.”

Prayer

“Sunday must be your busiest day.”  This is a harmless question directed to the pastor of any church, but it also makes me want to expand on roles and what it is we do generally as Christians.  We all know what hours bankers hold and what they do, we all know what lawyers do and the business hours they may hold.  The question about busyness on a Sunday to a pastor tells me that most people don’t really know what the pastor does besides seeing him, or her, on a Sunday morning worship service.  In the past, in answer to the harmless question, “Sunday must be your busiest day”, I have written a series on a blog that featured my own day-to-day events so that many of my own flock might gain some insight.

Some may think that the pastor has little to do during the week and only really ‘works’ on a Sunday.  The same could be said of some skeptical of the Christian faith, that most people only act and behave in a ‘Christian way’ on Sunday morning in worship.  We know that this is not generally the case, but that our discipleship seeps through in all of our days and in all of our actions.
For this Lenten letter I want to say that I spend a lot of time in prayer…but this wains easily with the many distractions – emails being one of them.  I admire many of those in our church history who have claimed that the busier they become, the more time they have devoted to a lifestyle of prayer.
What is prayer?  Try this out with me, and maybe you will find that your own busiest day of the week is one that was filled with much prayer.  Try not to reserve all of your prayer time to Sunday morning, as this becomes like the phone call to loved ones each Sunday where we only have time to mention the briefest of details and the relationship might seem too one sided.
Here is one method of prayer that you might like to try this Lent.  Jesus frequently takes time to pray in solitude and such is the basis of the Contemplative tradition in our faith.  Most of us will find our days and weeks reflect a pattern: work, eat and sleep.  Our time is seen as valuable, and we dislike waisting it.  So over the next while try to carve out a simple 10 minutes for prayer with God.  You might like to set an alarm so that you are not worried about how much time you are spending.  I am sure that you will find it surprising how quickly the time passes and that you will crave more time with God.  So set ten minutes aside each day and you may sit in absolute silence directing your thoughts back to God with a simple word when your mind wanders (and it will!). Close relationship need no words to communicate; however, if praying like this seems too foreign, read a short devotional passage, or spiritual classic.  Another way of spending ten minutes in prayer is to write (or draw) your prayer.  What is important is that you prepare the space for prayer ensuring that you minimize the chance for interruption.  Note to self – turn off the mobile phone.
Let us, with the challenge of Lent, seek to foster a life of prayer amongst ourselves so that our busy days are also days founded in prayerful relationships.
Here is a short video from the Church of England “Just Pray” series that may speak to the lives of many in our congregation. Jonny on Prayer – CofE Just Pray

Home Groups

The meeting of Christians has not always happened on Sunday morning, and more and more people find spiritual nourishment throughout the week by meeting in small groups.  I was very happy to meet with the “North Freiburg Home Group” and participate in what they have been doing over many years together.  A small group of around 8 people have been meeting together in each others homes for several years.  They have alternated with either Bible Study, or book study to help focus there time together.  Strong bonds of friendship and fellowship are evident.

In my thinking, small groups have a lot to offer. One thing that I think is important to realize is that not everyone wants to be invited to a church worship service, but many people are spiritually hungry and seeking after God and will more likely like to explore their faith with others in a small group where there is an opportunity to believe, behave, belong and become a Christian.

Small groups, home groups, have the advantage of being flexible to the people who attend. An example of flexibility is the willingness to provide space for life’s circumstances.  Children might play together in another room whilst the parents study and pray.  If you work shift work, the group could accommodate you by meeting over lunch.  Such is the flexibility of those who participate.

Another reason home groups are great, is that you get to see real change in peoples lives as they grow and develop in their faith.  What is encouraging is that soon after this evening gathering, another couple in the church had an idea for yet another home group that they wish to help host and get started.  God is good.