Enjoy the silence

26 01 2011

So yesterday I wrote about listening to the radio less. This is essentially about reducing the amount of background noise, both sonic and intellectual. But toning down the wallpaper is not the same as knocking a hole through to the other side.

So what have I done to actually make time for silence?

Well I think it’s fair to say that I’m working my way into a daily and weekly rhythm that includes time to be intentionally still. Each morning, my colleague and I spend twenty minutes in silence as part of our morning office. And before Christmas I was more and more reliably including a midday office with ten minutes of silence and night prayer with a further twenty minutes. Over the Christmas break, I let it go. And it’s been more difficult to reinstate since coming back. I’ve been struggling more with another old habit – staying up late.

So it’s a work in progress, but I think there is real progress.

I’m realistic about where I’ve got to, but I’m approaching this with a sense of joy and freedom. I am not experiencing a ‘hardening of the oughteries’! It’s in response to a sense of invitation and call that I am engaged in this journey, not duty.

So what difference does this make?

Perhaps first I’d better reflect on what the experience of reasonably frequently (I can’t quite yet truthfully use the word regularly) spending time in quiet has been like. I know this is a well worn path. Many have been this way before. And my experience has been very similar to the little I’ve read of others entering into a contemplative way of life.

The first word one has to speak is ‘distractions’. We are so trained by our lives to live either in the past or the future that the mind very quickly wants to inhabit that territory. It’s difficult not to go over some incident that has been. Or to start to plan something that is to come. The ironic thing is how often those thoughts are about how I will share with others the beauty of silence and stillness!

You might notice, though, that I haven’t used the words ‘struggle’ or ‘frustration’ in reflecting on that. It seems to me that so much of our lives is cramming stuff into our consciousness (and in me thereby fermenting this sense of near dread that there’s something I’m missing). It’s not unreasonable to expect that given a bit of space, some of the excess of psychic noise will begin to bubble up and out. (I use the word psychic here in its psychological rather than parapsychological sense.) So I actually see this as a positive thing. That doesn’t mean I let the reviewing or planning instinct take over. I try to acknowledge it and draw myself back to simply searching for stillness.

The way that I do that is again very well known. I repeat a simple phrase or word in my mind, in time with my breathing. Mostly I use the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ; Son of God; have mercy on me; a sinner’ or occasionally: ‘in God I live and move and have my being’ or as in Advent: ‘mar-a-na-tha!’ (one of those deeply mysterious Aramaic words we generally equate with ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’). That does allow me to re-centre when the mind wanders.

It’s out of that experience, partly, that I have sought to reduce the level of ‘noise’ with which I surround myself (hence listening to the radio less, watching a bit less TV).

The other thing to say (again?) is that stillness is a better word than silence. It would be difficult to achieve with huge amounts of external noise, but on the other hand, true silence is not possible. There’s always the noise of the rain, or the hum of the fridge, or the sound of a car door being slammed, or birdsong. The essential thing is not to tune it out but to gently suppress the sort of categorisation I’ve just done. To be present to the unique sonic qualities of each vibration, without naming what it is. It’s about the unique gift of each sound actually being a doorway to being present to the immediate present moment.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I am brought into a deep sense of inner stillness, calm and presence.

So what difference does it make?

It doesn’t make me one of those annoying, superhuman, people who never lose it, are never phased or upset or worried. But there is a just emerging sense for me that there is a still centre to my being and that in that still centre I connect with Being and that there I am loved; utterly constantly and faithfully loved.

What difference does it make?

25 01 2011

According to Mozza, of course, it makes none. But I’m a little more positive than the mercurial Manc. Only a little ;-). I’m not talking about some dark secret revealed to a friend, but the thing what I blogged about yesterday – my desire to enter more deeply into a contemplative rhythm of life; to live a life permeated with silence.

So what difference does it make, this strange new sense of calling? I have responded in some practical ways. I have taken some real steps.

First, I will reflect in this post on one seemingly tiny thing that is actually, I think, quite significant.

I listen to the radio less.

Great, you might say, so now you’re less well informed. Well you might think that (unless you thought I was listening to Radio 1 or local radio). No. I was listening a lot to Radio 4. So I was, even if I say so myself, incredibly, magnificently well informed. But this was my routine — I would get up and put on the radio, then go downstairs to make breakfast, and put on the radio, then get in the car for the school run; and put on the radio.

So the upshot of all that was I was stupendously, fantastically well-informed. And that during those mornings with my family my head was somewhere else. At times I even shushed my children because there was something so interesting, so informative that I wanted to listen to on Radio 4. I was so concerned with the big world out there that I missed the entire universe of wonder right in front of me, every time my wife and children sat down together to eat.

I was not present.

So I took a decision. I turned the radio off. I listen to it much less. I am somewhat less well informed and somewhat more present.

How wonderful! Well, yes and no. Being present is hard. It’s scary, actually.

Being confronted with the reality of ourselves in the present moment can be mightily uncomfortable. That’s why most of us avoid it.

And I have been astonished to discover how addictive a simple thing like listening to the radio can be. There are times when it takes a conscious mental effort to leave it off. I don’t always manage it.

Why does it matter? Surely it’s okay to listen every now and again? Well maybe, but I feel that until I can actually manage to do without it, that I must do without it.

Does this sound mental? Maybe it is, a bit. But I do feel that it’s spiritually significant –this little skirmish with this little habit. It’s about how much I am truly prepared to truly embrace the gift of discipline.

And it’s interesting that when I do manage to be firm with myself, other things take the radio’s place. Like games on the iPhone. I had to delete one before Christmas because I found myself playing it in every spare moment, and even in some moments that weren’t spare.

But in the main, sticking to this small commitment is making a difference. I actually manage to complete things like preparing the breakfast in a reasonable time. And so I am not quite as much of a source of frustration for those closest to me in the mornings. And I give those closest to me much better attention than they were getting before. I am more present to them. They and I feel more valued, appreciated, loved.

And so I am just beginning to experience, in a small way, how simultaneously rewarding and challenging is giving up something good for something better. I suspect this little skirmish is going to lead me into others. I’ll let you know.

Got religion?

24 01 2011

Quite apart from my deliberations over my Sunday night conversations in the pub, I have been in the grip of something of a crisis. I don’t mean I’m having a breakdown or anything like that. Or maybe I am, of a sort. I think it’s more like what I understand the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to mean when he refers to a ‘krisis’. It’s a moment of realisation, a sort of existential confrontation with a bigger reality.

I have been feeling increasingly like I am playing at being a Christian. And that far from working as a priest being an expression of my discipleship, it’s actually a hindrance. Because being a priest can make you feel like ‘of course I’m following Christ’, whilst simultaneously evading the all-consuming implications of a life of discipleship. But this cognitive dissonance can’t persist indefinitely without reaching a moment of krisis. That came for me late last year.

I found myself increasingly troubled by the same insistent question:

Am I really prepared to live my life as if God is at the centre of reality?

That’s scary on a number of levels.

First it sounds like I’m a religious nut. There are people, I know, who read this blog, who don’t share my faith who are probably feeling a little worried, scared or disappointed. Maybe you thought that despite my faith, I was at least in other respects fairly sensible. But no, turns out I’m just as much of a nutjob as the rest. To those friends I say bear with me, it’s not going to make me into a relentless and annoying preachy sort who talks about nothing but God. And you might even find a point of connection with what I think this all means in practice.

The other level on which it’s scary is that I don’t wholly know the answer. I’m not sure I am prepared to live like that. What might it mean for my family? Will it be another thing drawing us apart, or might it be something that draws us together? On the other hand, the alternative is not particularly attractive either. I am finding it less and less tolerable to be a sort of nominal follower of the Way (I wouldn’t have said I was before this). But giving up and embracing a materialistic lifestyle isn’t much of a draw either.That seems to me to leave people exhausted, broke and broken.

But what does it mean in practice? What am I actually talking about if not that I will just bang on about God the whole time?

Well what it comes down to is a call to embrace discipline as a gift not a burden; to live in a rhythm of life that makes prayer the centre of everything. And I’m not talking about prayer in terms of nagging my invisible magic friend to give me what I want, not even what I want for MIMF’s sake over my own. No this is prayer as contemplation. This is about making proper time at set moments each day to be still and silent — that sort of deep and intentional silence and stillness that opens up the possibility of a real encounter with the Divine. I am hungry for that experience for myself and I am increasingly persuaded that it’s the most important thing I can do for the people of Somerstown and the city centre.

It’s good if there are effective managers and leaders of organisations and projects around. It’s good (but rare!) if Christian clergy are similarly ‘effective’, but I am finding myself more and more taken with the view that what people need me to be, whether they are members of the local Christian community or not, is a deeply spiritual person. They need me to be someone who has sunk deep wells into the Greater Reality, the Mystery of Being, the Wellspring of Life or if you prefer — God. Because people here, as pretty much everywhere, are so caught up in the daily grind and rush of life, of living in the painful past, the uncertain future or anaesthetising themselves with extremes of experience; they are so caught up in that that they cannot be truly present to themselves or the present moment or to the Eternal in that present moment. And most of the time, neither can I. But what people need is not someone with a load of good arguments and ideas about how that’s all wrong, but someone with a genuine and compelling story of a different sort of experience — the sort of experience that seems to be available to anyone who takes silence seriously.

And so prayer (or if prayer sounds too narrowly religious for you, think: stillness and silence) is not merely the thing that will sustain me in the primary work of Christian ministry. It is the primary work of Christian ministry. Because people see through bullshit. They’ll know if I’ve really been there or if it’s someone else’s story I’m trying to pass off as my own.

So I am in the process of attempting a re-ordering of my life. I am trying to get more religious; religious in it’s best sense: a commitment to a rhythmic life. Because the experience of monastics and mystics alike is that the reconnection (another meaning of religion) I desire is not achieved casually but through persistence. Have I ‘got religion’? Not nearly so much as I hope to yet.

There’s more to say on this, but for now, I think I need to stop. And be still.

Seventy times seven

3 11 2010

I am on a quiet day today, reading ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ by W.H. Vanstone. His reflections on the ‘phenomenology of love’ — the title of his third chapter — have set me thinking in the nature of forgiveness and fidelity.

What does forgiveness mean? I guess I would start by saying that it is a willingness or a decision (of the heart) to cut out an offence. I use that metaphor deliberately, as I think talking about brushing aside or sweeping away, for instance, would not do justice to the pain or cost involved in forgiveness. It is surgery. Without anaesthesia. It restores a relationship as if the offence had not happened.

But what if the offence is the utter betrayal of infidelity? Would we consider a wife who responded to her husband’s adultery with forgiveness seven times (let alone seventy times seven times) a heroine of love or something else?

I am trying to be careful here as there may well be people out there reading this who are tolerating a serial adulterer, perhaps even people known to me. I do not pretend to have any right to comment on your decisions.

But we might be more inclined to say that such serial forgiveness might be a failure of that other sort of love, implied in the traditional summary of divine law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour *as yourself*. It might be said to be a dereliction of one’s duty to love one’s self to allow such betrayal and abuse to be perpetuated. And it is the same Christ of the gospels who both sets such a high standard of forgiveness and appears to accept that infidelity invalidates the covenant of marriage. Is it possible to have both forgiven and divorced an unfaithful partner? Surely it must be so. Otherwise we ask that forgiveness robs us utterly of our dignity and self-esteem. I am not saying here that there is no way back for a relationship when there has been adultery. But I am saying that I think that living out the demands of the prayer that daily asks us to forgive others as we are forgiven does not mean that we must endlessly tolerate betrayal.

But what does forgiveness mean if the broken relationship is not restored as if the offence had not occurred? Perhaps it means that we do not place that person in a category other than ‘person’ in our own heart and mind. That we continue to view them as a person of unique and infinite worth, even if we have concluded, with sadness, that it is not healthy for either of us to remain together. And perhaps it means that we do not allow that experience of betrayal to so distort our understanding of ‘persons’ that we can no longer trust or love. Perhaps it is a restoration of innocence, if not relationship; something that is for our own benefit and for the benefit of others, as much as it is for the benefit of the one who has betrayed us.

That is all very well if we are talking about the utter betrayal of adultery. That sort of betrayal is not ‘all very well’. What I mean is that this understanding of forgiveness does not touch my experience as I have not needed to offer it or ask it in those circumstances.

But what is infidelity? Is ‘marital unfaithfulness’ merely a question of adultery or should we draw its bounds more broadly. I have lived up to my vow to ‘forsake all others’ but have I loved and cherished in times better or worse? Or have there been times when I have been indifferent, unkind or even cruel? I confess that there have. And not merely as that perhaps understandable sort of sulking or lashing out in the emotional heat of receiving offence, but through prolonged periods of self-absorption. It is clearly a deeper betrayal to withdraw one’s love and give it to another. But simply to withdraw it is on the same trajectory. What sort of forgiveness can I ask for in those circumstances? Is this not a sort of infidelity — a lack of faithfulness?

I am fortunate indeed to have been forgiven this more than seven times. Slowly perhaps, this forgiveness is transforming me; making me better able to love in a truly faithful way.

And perhaps this is a way too to understand the relationship at the heart of faith. Time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, the nation is ‘hewn by the prophets’ for their spiritual adultery. They literally engaged in the ritual worship of gods other than Yahweh. As a follower of the Way, I am not, I think, drawn off in idolatrous worship of false gods. (Though I do lust after the idols of consumer capitalism — iWant.) My infidelity is more along the lines of that self-absorbed indifference. Even the work of a priest, pioneer or otherwise can be a way of avoiding the call of God. So today I am taking time to reflect in silence; to be still and allow myself to be found; to experience and receive forgiveness and perhaps grow in faith/fulness.

To snip or not to snip, er, that’s not really our question!

29 03 2010

This is what Paul and Barnabas really looked like. Possibly. Not.

Previously on LA Law…

In my last post on the question of discernment, dear reader, we thought about how it was that Peter came to lead the church in a whole new direction.

According to the writer of Acts, he was the first to preach the gospel to people who weren’t Jewish (or Samaritan). He led the way there. He had a vision of new possibilities: something so shocking for him that at first he struggled to accept it. It was a really surprising thought for him. So surprising; so out of his comfort zone, that he saw that it must have come from God. And yet we also saw how it was also the next step in an ever outward trajectory on which Peter had already been travelling. For Peter, the authority of his vision was confirmed by the coincidence that followed. Immediately after waking from his ‘vision’ (nap/hallucination), he was invited to go into a place he would never have gone before.

But remember that when he got back, he shared that story with the whole church and together they worked out that this was not just for Peter, but for them all.

Job done. Decision made. But turn to Acts 15.1-35 and here we are just a few years later and  it doesn’t look so settled after all. It’s not that people want to roll everything right back. They don’t want to stop sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. But some people are now saying that these new believers have basically to become Jewish. The men have to be circumcised and all of them have to keep the law of Moses.

Paul and Barnabas are really pretty cross about it. They were sent out from Antioch to carry on what Peter started. They’ve been seeing people who aren’t Jewish come to faith. Those people have been baptised in water. They’ve received the gift of God’s Spirit.

But now some people are saying they’re second-class. Not even that. No class at all. Unless they become Jewish, they’re still stoofed.

It’s a massive question for the Church. Sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. That’s okay. The Church had already got that far. But if they accept the gospel; if they come to have faith in Jesus; do they have to become Jewish?

In the end, the Church says, no they don’t. Their faith in Jesus is enough. But that’s not all. There is something new. These new believers who aren’t Jewish have to live in a way that won’t offend Jewish people who don’t yet believe in Jesus. It won’t be business as usual for them anymore. They don’t have to become fully Jewish. But it’s not alright for them to live like pagans anymore.

That’s really interesting in itself. But in the third session at our weekend away, we didn’t think so much about the decision itself as how the Church came to that decision. We were thinking about how we can be a community of discernment. So we looked at how the Church exercised discernment together.

Here’s a few things that we noticed…

    This difficult question came up in Antioch. But it doesn’t get settled there. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem. That’s where these people who were making life difficult had come from. Paul and Barnabas could have told them just to get lost. But they didn’t. They knew that their home church was part of a bigger family of churches. This was a question for the whole of God’s Church to answer together. Even though Paul and Barnabas were apostles, they weren’t free just to do their own thing. They needed to settle this question with all the apostles. I think that had two things to say to us in our situation:

    1. We need to settle our questions together. We need each other in our little group: the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s! We’re in it together.

    2. But we also need to test out our answers with the wider family of churches of which we’re a part. First, for us here, that means our sister church in Somerstown: St Peter’s. But our Anglican family includes other churches in the local cluster of parishes and the city deanery. And we recognise too in all this, the authority of the apostle who leads the mission in our Diocese: the Bishop of Portsmouth.

    We’re not alone as individuals as we try to answer our questions. And we’re not alone as a community.

    This whole question erupted because Paul and Barnabas told a story. They’d just come back from their travels in Syria. They’d been sharing the gospel with people who weren’t Jewish. they’d seen them respond in the same way as Jewish believers had. They’d seen them receive the same gift that Jewish believers had. Telling this story when they got back to Antioch caused a big upset. It was just too much for the visitors from Judea. It sounded like Paul and Barnabas had lost it.

    But Paul and Barnabas can’t keep it bottled up. They keep telling the story. They tell it on the way to Jerusalem. And all the churches in Phoenicia and Samaria get excited. They tell it to the whole church in Jerusalem. And they tell it again to the special leaders’ meeting that gets called.

    And telling their story sets other people free to tell theirs. Peter shares his experience again. But it’s not just people who agree who tell their story. Those pharisee believers who find it all a bit much get a hearing too.

    But finally, it’s James who sets all these stories in the bigger story of God’s love for God’s people. Everyone’s story matters. Those stories make sense when they’re heard alongside God’s story. So we need to share the story of what’s happening for us as get stuck in with what God might be doing in Somerstown. All our stories need to be heard. We need to hear each other’s joys in what we’re doing and share in that excitement. We also need to hear each other where our story is one of really profound difficulty with where we’ve got to. And we all need to agree that God’s story is the one that will help us make sense of all of that.

      It’s really interesting how James handles that story. He uses Scripture. He uses the spiritual practices of his people; their Tradition. And he creatively reinterprets both.First James recalls a promise about the Temple as if it’s about Jesus. The temple was everything to the Jewish people. It was where God lived. It was where the people met with God. And there was a hope that one day everyone would come to know God by coming to God’s temple. That included people who weren’t Jews: the Gentiles.

      Now Gentiles are coming to God. But they’re not going anywhere near the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re coming to know God through Jesus. Only Jewish people could come into the central parts of the Temple. But anyone can come to know God through Jesus. So the ban on people who aren’t Jewish coming to know God is irrelevant.

      Second James reminds everyone that people who weren’t Jewish were allowed in the Synagogues. There were lots of people around who weren’t Jewish but who liked what the Jewish faith taught. These ‘God-fearers’ were allowed to be associated with the Synagogue community if they kept what was called the law of Noah. The law of Noah wasn’t as full-on as the law of Moses. It was Judaism ‘lite’. But it meant that these people who weren’t Jewish were at the same time, not pagan. They were not Jewish but their lives didn’t offend Jewish people.

      So James puts these two things together in a brand new way. Gentile Christians had already come to know God through Jesus: the new temple. They could share in a mixed community if they kept the law of Noah. That way non-Christian Jewish people wouldn’t be offended by the gospel.

      I think that should inspire us to look into the Bible and the Christian Tradition as we try to answer our own questions. Let’s bring our story and Gods story together in creative ways. We’ll discover new ways to be God’s Church. We’ll find new ways too to share in God’s mission.

    This all starts with a row. Things get a bit heated. ‘There was no small dissension.’ That could have continued. What Paul and Barnabas have been doing challenges everything that Jewish people hold sacred. It goes to the heart of their faith. It threatens to undermine the whole basis of the people’s covenant relationship with God. They could have been put on trial for heresy. Instead, they are welcomed by the whole church. Who they are and the story they tell is embraced by the whole community. They are generously welcomed. They enjoy the hospitality of the church in Jerusalem.

    That spirit of hospitality is right there all through the proceedings. Generous welcome is what characterises the whole process of discernment. People don’t talk over each other. Everyone is heard.

    Did you notice that it keeps saying so-and-so stood up. The pharisee Christians stood up to say their piece. Peter stands up to tell his story. This is people giving each other space and taking their turn.

    The other thing we notice is that people need silence. When the special leaders’ meeting is called, they all listen in silence as people take it in turns to share their story. They’re not grumbling. They’re not whispering to their neighbours in the meeting. They’re not trying to interrupt with their own thoughts. They really and truly listen. They give their full attention.

    It’s ever so easy isn’t it when we’re in a discussion not to listen. To spend the whole time while someone else is talking working out what we’re going to say when it gets to our turn. I can’t say from this reading that people aren’t doing that. It doesn’t get us inside their heads. But I’d like to think that they’re not.

    Really, really listening isn’t just about being quiet and not speaking. It isn’t just about being quiet on the outside. Really, really listening is about being quiet on the inside. That’s incredibly difficult. But if we really want to hear God in what other people say and in ourselves, we need silence. We need the sort of silence that penetrates deep into our souls.

    That sort of silence sets us free to be truly present to other people. It sets us free to be present to the moment we’re in right now. That sort of silence is a gift it takes a lifetime to cultivate. But it’s worth the effort.

    When it comes to the crunch, it’s down to the apostles and elders to find a way forward. They’re the authorised leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It’s their job to listen to all the different stories and weigh them up. They work out what they think is right. They appoint people to take the decision to Antioch.

    And even in that group, it looks like James has a special job. He presides over the meeting and sums up where it’s all got to at the end. He talks at the end about what he’s decided. He might be talking about his own personal point of view. Or he might be saying that this is what he’s decided on behalf of everyone.

    I think that’s more likely. He seems to be the overall leader of the Jerusalem church. He is Jesus’s brother after all!

    But despite all that, I still want to suggest to you that the whole church is involved in this discernment process. These leaders don’t take these decisions without the rest of the church. In fact the process starts and ends with everyone being involved. When Paul and Barnabas first arrive, it’s the whole church that hears their story. And it’s the whole church that hears the pharisee Christians object.

    Next there’s this discussion among the leaders. They work out a way forward. But finally, it comes back to everyone again. The letter to Antioch goes with the consent of the whole church. So the leaders have authority. But they’re not authoritarian. Their authority comes from the whole church.

    How does that work for our discernment? Well there are obviously authorised leaders in our setup. Alex and I have authority from the bishop. But decisions have to be shared with the church council – the PCC. The PCC’s authority comes from the whole church. They are elected by all the church members. PCC members have a responsibility to reflect the views of the whole church not just their own.

    And so it’s perfectly appropriate for all of us together to consider how we go forward with some of the important questions that we are faced with.