How do we follow the footsteps of Jesus into our homes, works, and relationships in a way that transforms our lives? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus shows us the way through watchfulness, a lost aspect of the gospel which is cultivated through contemplative practices like Lectio Divina, silence and the Jesus Prayer. The retreat will look at how these practices help us deal with time and work stress. This is an opportunity at the start of a New Year to take time out to take a fresh look at our lives.
This retreat is led by Shaun Lambert, a Baptist minister, frequent retreatant at Worth, writer (a regular correspondent for the Baptist Times and author of a recent thought-provoking book, A Book of Sparks, which mentions his Worth Abbey experiences) and good friend of the monastic community.
See link below for further details:
In various mindfulness approaches there are befriending or compassion meditations. These again have their roots in Buddhist tradition of metta or loving kindness meditations. These would include compassion for oneself, a stranger and even someone we find difficult.
Of course loving-kindness and compassion play a central part in Christianity as well. As I looked at these metta meditations I was struck by their similarity to the prayer of Ananias of Damascus for Saul of Tarsus.
In the Book of Acts in the New Testament in chapter nine Saul has his famous Damascus Road experience. He is on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of The Way (Christians) when he is arrested by the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Temporarily blind Saul is led into Damascus. A man there called Ananias has a vision from God who asks him to go and pray a prayer of blessing on Saul which will restore his sight and fill him with the compassionate presence of God, the Holy Spirit.
Ananias questions the wisdom of praying for a stranger and an enemy, but God encourages him out of the way of fear into the way of love. It is clear that the prayer of Ananias has a significant impact on Saul. When Saul talks about his encounter with Jesus, which includes the prayer of Ananias when scales fell from his eyes, and he is filled with the Holy Spirit, he says he has had three important experiences.
‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ (Philippians 3:12)
The word here for ‘took hold’ is literally ‘arrested.’ On the road to Damascus the love of Christ took hold of him.
When the scales fell from his eyes he ‘saw the light’. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 he says, ‘For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’ This reference to light shining out of darkness goes back to Genesis 1:3 where God said ‘Let there be light.’
So Saul was taken hold of by the love of Christ, and the light of the love of God shone in his heart.
He then says in 1 Timothy 1:13-14, ‘Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.’
The compassionate mercy, grace and love of God were poured into Paul like an overwhelming river.
I felt in part these experiences were because of Ananias’ prayer of befriending and compassion. So I have put them in prayer form that we can pray first for ourselves, then a stranger, then an enemy, and finally back for ourselves. In the words of one of Jesus’ most important statements ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39).
These are the prayers:
May the love of Christ take hold of me
May the light of Christ shine in my heart
May the love of Christ flow through me like a river
May the love of Christ take hold of him/her
May the light of Christ shine in his/her heart
May the love of Christ flow through him/her like a river
We pray it for our own self, then a stranger, then an enemy and finally for our own self again. Change is laid down by a succession of fresh experiences of love. In our prayer of blessing and befriending something real happens.
Lent, men and resilience in the face of recession depression
We all like to play with sticky snow that makes snowballs, and lament wet snow that cannot hold together. Fuller Youth Institute has developed the theme of ‘sticky faith’ for young people. They’ve developed it because the church is losing young people when they leave, what has been referred to as, the goldfish bowl of church and are thrown into the open sea of the world. Their faith doesn’t stick.
Have you also noticed the lack of men in the church? According to some recent research, at the current rate of loss there will be no men in the church in this country by 2028.
An implicit concept in the idea of sticky faith is resilience, faith that sticks even in difficult circumstances. The government has been focusing on preventing suicide among young men, but new figures show a sharp increase in suicide among middle-aged men. This is partly about a lack of resilience in the face of life’s difficulties such as losing a job, financial worries, or a breakdown in relationships.
Psychologists are seeing a rise of what they call ‘recession depression,’ with a rise in depression, anxiety and suicide ideation due to financial hardship.
The youth specialists from Fuller Youth Institute argue that the way to make faith stick is to notice God through spiritual practices. I think there is a similar lack of ‘sticky faith’ among men, and the solution is the same. These spiritual practices practised regularly are a key way to develop resilient faith.
The 40 days of Lent (which means spring) is an opportunity for new growth in creating ‘sticky faith’. Forty days is a significant biblical number. It is also the length of time that helps us, psychologically, to break unhelpful habits and start new helpful ones. Making changes stick is not easy. It is why Lent as a season is so important. I first really discovered the power of Lent and 40 days when I read Rick Warren’s bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. Ever since then I have taken Lent seriously. It can change lives, with change that sticks.
By the way, do keep eating chocolate; Lent is about something else. It is a chance to notice Jesus again in a fresh way.
One of the problems with creating ‘sticky faith’ with men is that they are presented with a distorted, feminised portrait of Jesus. We need to rediscover a lost portrait of Jesus: he is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild; he does not float around in a nightgown. Mark’s gospel offers us a neglected title for Jesus, one that speaks powerfully to men. Jesus is called the ‘more powerful one’ by John the Baptist (Mark 1:7). In the Greek he is literally ‘the stronger one’.
Who does this make Jesus like? It echoes the portrayal of Yahweh as divine warrior in Isaiah’s new exodus theology.
So Jesus is the divine warrior. But he was also a contemplative. Men like the idea of being a warrior, but how do we get men to take contemplation seriously, because many don’t?
One ancient term for a contemplative is that of a ‘tracker’. The contemplative was someone who tracked ‘the footsteps of the Invisible One’, in the words of a fifth century Bishop, Diadochus of Photike. This is the lost bushcraft of the soul that men need to be reintroduced to if they are going to be changed into the likeness of Christ and develop his resilience. TV programmes by wilderness experts like Bear Grylls and Ray Mears are very popular with men.
Lent is associated with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, where he battled Satan and contemplated God. It also echoes the story of the Exodus, the people of God in the wilderness journeying from slavery into freedom. Isaiah the prophet talked about a new exodus. As Christians we believe that is what Jesus came to fulfil, and Mark’s gospel takes up this theme.
Lent is also a time for recognising that in order for Jesus to do this, his journey needed to end with the cross and the resurrection. This process begins in Mark’s gospel with Jesus ‘the stronger one’ binding Satan ‘the strong one’(Mark 3:22-27) at the beginning of his ministry.
It is on the cross that he completes his eschatological victory over Satan, death and sin. That victory, won in principle, needs now to be won in reality in the present through hard conflict. Men who are caught in bitter existential battles with lust, greed, power and the slavery of the economic system – who are caught in addictions to pornography, alcohol, drugs and the emptiness of competing in the arena of consumerism – need to hear the language of the strong man being bound in their lives. This language needs to be part of their spiritual rebirth. Forty days of wrestling with these addictions this Lent might just be the breakthrough they need.
In my pastoral experience and in running a men’s group, and counselling men, helping them use the language of binding the strong man in their spiritual life is very important, as is asking them what is the strong man that needs binding. Which inner demon afflicts them the most, to use the language of the earliest Christian psychologists, the Desert Fathers? The afflictive thoughts they identified are still the ones that need wrestling with: gluttony, lust and greed; anger, sadness and spiritual apathy, or carelessness; vanity and pride.
We may have opened the door to Christ, but very often we fail to close the door to Satan; very often we fail to close the door on our sinful thought patterns. These thoughts are tracked and transformed through spiritual practices like Lectio Divina (a slow, prayerful tracking of God through reading Scripture in a meditative way)and the Jesus Prayer, the simple repetition with our breath of the ancient words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,’ which enables us to become aware of the presence of God. They also enable us to step back from the catastrophic thinking that can spin us into depression, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts, when we face redundancy or other difficulties, and help us to notice the small details of God still involved in our lives.
We need to go back to Scripture to recapture the true image of Jesus and men, and we need to go back to more ancient traditions than our own to challenge our thinking. Lent is a perfect opportunity to unplug from the things that drive us and consume us.
But just as we need to get our children to notice God more, and learn to pay attention to Him, so we need to do that with men. They need to be taught how to track God again, to relearn the joy, to borrow the words of a wilderness expert, of tracking the Mystery to its Source.
One of the lessons of the Lindisfarne Gospels was their slow, contemplative making. We can apply this practice to our children, marriages, work, relationship to the book of nature, peace. These things need a slow, contemplative making.
Michelle P. Brown’s book The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe would be one of my top three Christmas buys this year. In talking about the meaning of this book she says something deeply profound.
‘Jennifer O’Reilly has drawn attention to the patristic concept of the ‘inner library’ and the necessity for each believer to make him or herself a library of the divine Word, a sacred responsibility which Cummian referred to as ‘entering the Sanctuary of God’ by studying and transmitting Scripture. Books are the vessels from which the believer’s ark, or inner library is filled.’ (pp.398-399)
This says something about the meaning of our own lives, that there is to be a guiding inner ark. This ark carries not just our little self, but other things of the world, as the first ark carried breeding animals to save them. In our inner ark we are also to carry the presence of God.
What struck me was that this is a real carrying of what is there in the world. I might want to save the gerenuk, or Lindisfarne otters, and as I slowly contemplate them and grow in knowing about them, I begin to carry them with me in a way that might save them – because I bring this knowing to others.
Michelle P. Brown’s book was I believe a slow, contemplative making – and I write in praise of slow making. Inner arks, like books, are a product of slow making as well.
You could also read Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow.
Worth abbey retreat 4-6 January 2013. (Click on this link)
I am leading a retreat at Worth Abbey 4-6 January 2013 on silence, contemplation and watchfulness. Click on the link above for more details.
The rhythm of alternate
Mindfulness/MindFullness can be set at the centre of an alternate rhythm of life. It has an important community aspect within Christianity. It has to do with an aware and attentive rhythm of life that is alternate, that is other-focused.
When our lives are out of rhythm we suffer. If the rhythm of waking and sleeping is off-balance life becomes about mere survival. If in a marriage the rhythm of intimacy, affection and sex is imbalanced or missing then we experience emotional pain and depression. If we do not eat regularly, or we overeat or eat the wrong things we will experience ill-health as well as emotional roller-coaster rides.
But having a rhythm of life is more than just a life-work-home balance. Rhythm is built into the created order – whether it is the rising of the sun or the setting of it. Our bodies run to rhythms from the obvious heart beat, to less obvious beats.
But the rhythm of life we are seeking to establish seeks to do something else – it is a counter-cultural response to the cultural trends of our day – consumerism, individualism and narcissism. These trends make us too busy.
The wisdom about rhythms of life is to be found in the monastic movements both new and old. These rhythms used to be called rules – in the sense that they help us measure what is right and wrong.
How important is a rhythm of life? It is as important as breathing. If we do not live consistently within a spiritual rhythm of life we shall die of spiritual asthma.
There are a number of key scriptures that inform our rhythm, and should inform the discipleship of any Christian. Romans 12:2 tells us that our transformed mind becomes the rule(r) that establishes and tests the rhythm of life for us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…’
What are we to be transformed into? We find the answer in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness…’ We are looking to create an inner sanctuary that we can carry around with us into all of life. The most famous Rule is that of St Benedict. In his Rule Benedict explains how to live ‘a Christ-centred life with others.’
What makes up a rhythm of life and enables us to pay attention to the priorities of Christian faith and develop the awareness that can test what God’s will is for our lives? I have been looking at different communities to see how they live together; including Taize in France, the Bose community in Italy, The Moot in London, and the mayBe community. This is to try and answer the question, can a congregation be a real community?
Over the last few months we have explored The Moot’s structure to their rhythm of life beginning with spiritual postures – that develop the awareness of God’s presence in our lives. This begins with the idea of spiritual postures. This has been influenced by a brilliant book Faith Postures: Cultivating Christian Mindfulness by Holly Sprink. To The Moot this asks how we are in the present moment, in other words our way of being, not just doing.
An obvious posture is the one that sees the glass half-empty or half-full. The foundational posture is that of faith rather than fear. 2012 has been a year of fear in many ways and we need to daily re-align ourselves with a position of faith not fear.
A posture of faith and not fear needs to make vows, have values that guide the rhythm of life. We believe in a relational God who is presence, and so we are called to be present to each other. So presence to God, to each other, and to the world is a key value that we can vow to maintain.
One of the ways we can be present together is through hospitality. It needs an intentional rhythm. Another way we can be present together is through service.
As we work on a rhythm of alternate we are seeking something elusive, perhaps something we don’t believe in. This is what Abbot Christopher Jamison calls inner freedom, ‘Sometimes the way people speak about the human heart implies that in this interior world there is no freedom, that it is a fixed world that cannot be changed.’
There is freedom and we can find it.
The Moot’s address
Holly Sprink’s book