Joy made possible

So, our Easter celebration is over. We are released from the self-discipline of Lent. Now we can reflect on what the resurrection of Jesus means to us as we move back into our normal routines.

Doubts, disappointments and numbness can begin to creep in.

I discovered that the first Sunday after Easter is called Low Sunday or St Thomas Sunday, named after the apostle Thomas who declared he could not believe in the resurrection of Jesus unless he could see the nail marks in his hands for himself. Thomas speaks for many of us who need help to believe and to know what the resurrection means for us.

Choose_Life__Chr_512ca52449d24In my explorations about what Life to the Full might be I discovered  Choose Life, the collection of Rowan Williams’ Easter and Christmas Sermons given in Canterbury Cathedral during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. The sermons are inspiring. Each from a different perspective, and each sharing Rowan Williams’ incredible learning and knowledge. He leads us into layers of understanding about what life is and what it can be.

The first one to catch my eye is called Happiness or Joy, delivered in Easter 2011.  Rowan Williams suggests that the deepest happiness is something that creeps up on us when we are not looking.

We can look back and say ‘Yes, I was happy then’ – and we cannot reproduce it. It seems that, just as we can’t find fulfilment in just loving ourselves, so we can’t just generate happiness for ourselves.  It comes from outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty – but not from any programme we can manufacture. (page 192)

He goes on to explore what he calls authentic happiness or joy. To do this he takes us to the beginning of the resurrection story in John chapter 20:1-10 where the disciples are in the midst of shock, amazement and utter disorientation. As Jesus appears they are jolted out of everything that was familiar to them into a disturbing new world where even death is not what they thought it was, and so anything is possible. Jesus’ presence would bring alarming uncertainty. Hope mixed with terror.  And yet we are told that the disciples were filled with joy.

There is important information in this. Authentic happiness does not take away the reality of threat or risk of suffering. One of the hardest things to take hold of is knowing that we can we feel happy in a world so full of atrocity and injustice.  (page 194) Authentic happiness is not about feeling cheerful, or putting on a brave face. It is . . .

an overwhelming sense of being where you should be, being in tune with something or someone, being rooted in the moment in a way that doesn’t at all blur your honesty about what’s there in front of your eyes but gives you what you need to sit in the presence of horror and grief, and live. (page 195)

This is what having Life to the Full is about!  It does not come from our own efforts or will power. It comes from being connected to a reality and strength that is outside of our own efforts.

Christian joy, the joy of Easter, is offered to the world not to guarantee a permanently happy society in the sense of a society free of tension, pain or disappointment, but to affirm that whatever happens in the unpredictable world . . . there is a deeper level of reality, a world within a world, where love and reconciliation are ceaselessly at work, a world with which contact can be made so that we are able to live honestly and courageously with the challenges constantly thrown at us.

This is not a theoretical idea for our passive engagement.  Rowan Williams suggests two clear ways that we can actively support our own authentic happiness.

  • Make space to receive the gift of joy. For most of us, like the disciples at the first Easter, it takes a shock to break through the routine of our normal thoughts and experience before we can see things differently. Whereas those who take time in silence and reflection are often the people in whom we can see the greatest capacity for authentic happiness. Jesus often withdrew to a quiet place to pray. He modelled how to be in the midst of horror and grief and live. We ask ourselves ‘How can I make space in my life to receive the gift of joy?’
  • Challenge the things that make us anxious.  Jesus’ resurrection breaks open a new reality for us in which victorious mercy and inexhaustible love make the rules. With this comes the potential for joy that is not at the mercy of our feelings. We can create our own reality where anxious thoughts set our boundaries, or we can challenge our thoughts against the new reality where anything is possible and death is not the end. We  ask ourselves ‘What can happen when I challenge my anxious thoughts?’

When we do these things we can find ourselves after Easter, like the disciples, with our world turned upside down and joy made possible.

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Practicing the Presence of God

The Practice of the Presence of God

We often make heavy weather of finding God. Speaking as if he plays hide and seek with us, or he has rules about where or how we can meet him.

Here is a gem of a book that tells how a simple man in the seventeenth century gave up looking for help in books or spiritual practices and decided to explore God’s presence for himself. His heart’s desire was to give himself wholly to God and so he “began to live as if there was none but he and I in the world.” (page 31)

He felt that having a proper heart towards God would transform every act of “common business” into a medium for God’s love.  It is not what we do that matters but who we are as we do it.

The result was a long and challenging journey of transformation of himself from the inside out. He struggled with feeling unworthy and yet pressed on the explore the nature of God

I consider myself as the most wretched of men, full of sores and corruption, and who has committed all sorts of crimes against his King. Touched with a sensible regret, I confess to Him all my wickedness. I ask for forgiveness. I abandon myself in His hands that He may do what He pleases with me from chastising me, embraces me with love, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the key of His treasures; He converses and delights Himself with me incessantly, in a thousand and a thousand ways, and treats me in all respects as his favourite. (page 36)

Long before concepts like Mindfulness or de-cluttering became fashionable, Brother Lawrence followed his instinct and lived out a simple, uncluttered life. He read the bible and took the risk that it was true.  He acted on what he read. Learning was painful. He spent years disciplining his heart and mind to yield to God’s presence. He struggled, as we all do, with wandering thoughts.

The daily grind for Brother Lawrence was to serve in the kitchen of a Carmelite Priory in Paris. Despite his lowly position, his character was deeply attractive to those he met. His profound peace and wisdom brought people to seek his spiritual counsel.

In the end he described his life as one of “inexpressible sweetness” in the bosom of God (page 37).

What a great example of someone who followed the author of life to make the most of his life! We can learn a lot from him.

LENT – making it meaningful

 giving up for lent

Twitter was buzzing recently as 140 thousand people shared information about what they plan to give up for Lent. While Twitter users are not necessarily representative of the general population, the results make interesting reading. Using social media, eating chocolate and drinking alcohol are high on the list. Ranked 11th is giving up Lent itself. Looks like we know our soft spots well –  the places where we give in to self-indulgence and carry a bit of guilt.

For years I put myself alongside those who gave up giving things up. I have dabbled in giving up chocolate, or coffee, but I usually struggled to stay committed. You see my heart has not been in it.  Lent carries us directly to Good Friday where we remember the suffering and death of Jesus. In contrast to this, my small attempts at self-denial felt trivial and led me to nothing that was remotely life changing. I couldn’t see a meaningful link between chocolate and crucifixion. The church I attended paid little attention to Lent. Easter for us at that time was about Holy Week – but it all seemed to happen too quickly.  The momentum of life charged on and I was left once again feeling cheated.  This was a big moment and I missed most of it.

Lent draws us in. We share an unspoken belief that self-denial is a good thing to do and 40 days feels like an amount of time that can be endured. Some of us use Lent to kick-start change in our lives. Others use it as a way of proving to ourselves and to others that our self-indulgent habits are reversible. We reckon we are in control of what we choose to do. And we believe that the tension between self-control and self-indulgence can be mastered. After all, we cheered through the Olympics as countless athletes panted through their victory speech, elated at their success and struggling to believe the unbelievable.

And yet there is a spiritual dimension to Lent that we also acknowledge. All of the major religions recognise a period of fasting for the development of the soul. This is about taking time to reflect on who we are becoming. It can be serious stuff. The ancient ascetics gave their lives to the pursuit of this spiritual maturity, practicing harsh penances and purging themselves of all comfort. Our meagre 40 days of giving up a few pleasures would be wholly inadequate in their eyes.

The story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is sobering. It shows us that the battle against self-indulgence is part of being human. We constantly face temptation about who we are, what we own and what we do. Our choices have consequences.

So how can we engage with the tension between self-indulgence and self-control and use Lent in a meaningful way to gain some spiritual muscle?

Here are two resources that link together ancient spiritual practices with modern technology and amazing people. Together they have been transformational for me.

First I have read and re-read The Liturgical Year – the spiralling adventure of the spiritual life. This is a book written by a Benedictine nun that explores the liturgy – the major seasons of the church. In the liturgy, with its annual repetitions, we meet Jesus in history and we learn to recognise him with us today. Far from being a round of Christmas and Easter celebrations, walking in an annual cycle through the life of Jesus becomes ” an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fulness, the heart to alert and the soul to focus . . . It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life”.

Seeing the rhythm of the years from the perspective of Jesus’ life keeps me focussed on God’s bigger picture. It reminds me of the significance of time. It helps me to understand who I am and to explore the purpose of my life.

24-7 PrayerAnd the second change for me has been to engage with a rhythm of prayer, specifically to pray the Lord’s prayer at midday every day. I discovered the richness of this through 24-7 Prayer, an organisation that exists to encourage Christians in bringing prayer into all aspects of life. This online community has been an enormous encouragement to me. Many christians run away from set prayers that could become a religious ritual. But the Lord’s Prayer is deeply significant. It challenges who I am, what I believe and how I behave. And best of all, it reminds me at the very beginning, that I am a child of God.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was once asked, “If you could reduce all of Christianity down to the back of a single envelope what would you write?” To which he replied: “Well that’s simple, I would write out the words of The Lord’s Prayer”.

The 24-7 community gave us a challenge to set an alarm on our phones and pray the Lord’s prayer with them at midday every day. Have a look at the website here and consider whether this might work for you. The challenge is for life, not just for Lent.

How do you make Lent meaningful?