Prayer walking through Lent

Most of us believe that self-denial for a season is good for our soul. It reassures us that we are not locked into self-satisfaction and it encourages us to aspire to higher values.

But committing to self-denial for the 40 days of Lent needs a determined mindset and a calling to something higher.


Getting up at 6.00am daily through the season of Lent to pray and walk round our neighbourhood was my husband’s calling, not mine.  However, I found I could not stay at home under the comfort of the duvet while he set off into the frosty dawn. I knew the experience would be significant for him and I didn’t want to miss out.  So I joined him.

Ours is a middle class neighbourhood with 49 streets set out in three regions.  Our church congregation meets in the primary school building right in the middle. Generally people here lead independent and self sufficient lives. Everything appears peaceful in the dawn light. And yet we know that behind the locked doors, the shadow side of these traits is loneliness and vulnerability.

Each morning we started by reading scripture then asking God to guide our eyes, ears, thoughts and prayers as we walked.  Philip Yancey, when he prays for others, asks God to open his eyes to see that person as God sees them, and then to enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward them.

To give our prayers a framework we used the Caleb Prayer written by Roy Godwin at Ffald-y-Brenin in Wales. His book, The Grace Outpouring – Blessing others through prayer tells his amazing story of God working in sovereign power on people who weren’t even sure he existed.

O High King of heaven

Have mercy on our Land.

Revive your Church;

Send the Holy Spirit for the sake of the children.

May your kingdom come to our nation.

In Jesus’ mighty name.  Amen

Day by day the scene around us changed.  The frost lifted and splashes of colour appeared everywhere; daffodils, magnolia, cherry blossom.  Almost overnight the trees became green.  It felt humbling and inspiring to witness the power and glory of Spring unfolding around us.

And so we arrive at Easter Day – the day when everything changed.   Our 40 days of prayer walking is over. It has been a journey of sacrifice and discovery for us.  We look to see what God is doing in our community and what role we can play in bringing others to awareness of what can happen when Jesus makes his home in us.

If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you are not just believing an odd fact from two thousand years ago; you are trusting that there is a kind of life, a kind of love and trust and joy that is the very essence of Jesus’ identity which is now coming to life in you. . . . Jesus rises from the dead so as to find not only his home in heaven but his home in us.  (Rowan Williams Choose Life  p122)



Advent – beginning the adventure

Today is the first day of Advent, the start of preparation for Christmas. After years of frustration with the materialism that overwhelms this season I never imagined that a book about the Liturgical Year written by a Benedictine nun would be the place where I found release and hope.


Sister Joan Chittister published The Liturgical Year in 2009 as part of a series of books on Ancient Practices. The books respond to the hunger in every human heart for connection to God.  Joan Chittister has lived and taught spiritual practices as an internationally acclaimed speaker for over 30 years. Her writing flows like warm oil on my soul. She knows and understands the deepest longings of the heart and  she has wrestled with the complexity of living a life of faith in a cruel world. Reading her words is like sitting at the feet of a wise mentor.

The liturgical year is the christian church calendar that begins  at Advent and rolls through the following November. It walks us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But rather than it being a catalogue of days, Sister Chittister speaks of it as a framework for spiritual growth.

The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concern itself with the questions of how to make a life.

“How to make a life” – now that sounds practical and relevant.

We live our lives in a cycle of years with each bringing us something new and significant. The year I was born. The year my father died. The year I got married. Each year is unique.  It marks our lives like the rings of a tree and tells the story of who we are becoming.

Jesus walked the earth through many years. As we follow his life through the liturgical year he leads us deeper into the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Today we can go back to the beginning to re-enter the Jesus story.  We can learn more of what his birth, death and resurrection mean for us. We can gain wisdom to name and claim our days.

The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in spiritual growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening. page 6

Follow Jesus all the way to the heart of God?  Let’s think, pray and live our way into the adventure.

An easy yoke?

Man carrying bananas - Indonesia

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.

How many of us quote these words of Jesus, thinking they should be a comfort, and yet knowing in our hearts we don’t believe it?

We want to believe it, but the bewildering truth is that we don’t find it to be true in our experience, nor do we see it to be true in the lives of others.

These days the thought of being yoked to any religious culture is  likely to make many people grit their teeth to resist.  After all, religion is at the root of so much trouble between humans.

My impression of a yoke has always been about carrying a burden alone.  I think back to a time when I lived in the Far East.  Men of all ages travelled about carrying their goods strapped to a rod over their shoulders. The loads were clearly heavy.  They trotted along with a distinctive light-footed, bouncing step that set up a rhythm to keep the pressure of the load off their shoulders as much as possible. The heavier the load the faster they trotted.

So why would Jesus use a yoke and a burden as a metaphor for his relationship for us?

We can see that the metaphor is relevant for life as most of us lead it today.  We are bound, or yoked, to all sorts of things – our relationships, our possessions, our work.  And we know what it means to be burdened.  Who hasn’t felt weighed down with responsibility or burdened by guilt?

We rush through life to avoid giving attention to the things that weigh us down.  Being busy becomes an excuse for living with chaos.

So what can Jesus mean when he talks about his yoke being easy and his burden light?

Recently I discovered that the yoke Jesus would be referring to was a double yoke used to link oxen.  As a carpenter he is likely to have made many of them and been familiar with the need to match the yoke to the oxen.

Suddenly the metaphor feels completely different.  Jesus is inviting us into his yoke with him.

When Jesus spoke about his yoke, he was talking to  people who were weighed down by the burdens placed on them by the religious leaders of the day.  These leaders  would “tie up heavy burdens , hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”. He was speaking of the burden of religious rituals and rules that were added to the laws, making them unachievable.

Having no chance of ever being good enough is an impossible burden to bear.

But Jesus spoke tenderly to the people who were worn out on trying to be good enough.  He knows God and he knows how to get close to Him.  He is willing to spell it out slowly and clearly in a way that we can understand and follow. Reading the words in the Message translation of the bible help us to understand what Jesus is saying.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

If you want to know God, the more you think about what these words mean the more attractive Jesus’ yoke feels.

He knows the way.

You can take advantage of his strength, wisdom, knowledge and experience.

You find yourself slowing down . . . a burden shared is lighter.

You glimpse the possibility of learning to live freely and lightly.

Yes, perhaps it can be an easy yoke.


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.