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Those of you following the church year or lectionary will know that we are in Holy Week and last Sunday was Palm Sunday. I preached a short homily in ‘Home‘ – I won’t reprint it all here but just wanted to blog about the main point.

It seems to me that the events of Holy Week provide an interesting outline of the stages of faith. Palm Sunday is like early stage faith – it’s celebratory and euphoric. We backed the winning horse, we were on the right side all along, our guy got elected (we were looping some footage of the Obama election victory as the closest contemporary parallel to Palm Sunday). Our egos love this and it makes us feel good.

There’s nothing wrong with this – God smiles on it and Jesus didn’t rebuke the crowds for misunderstanding his purpose. But Palm Sunday isn’t really transformational. To be transformed we need to go through death and resurrection with Christ and in Christ (to use Saint Paul’s famous phrase). Death of ego, taking up our cross etc. But we don’t want to go that way – it feels like abandonment.

When we are led on (by the Spirit) from the certainty and euphoria of Palm Sunday faith – into the desert or wilderness, along the via dolorosa towards the cross – the huge temptation is to try to somehow get back to the Palm Sunday experience we once knew. But that’s not the way of Christ into which we have been called to follow. The Spirit leads us on to the cross where we commit our spirits into God’s hands – falling back into the arms of God in hope of resurrection.

Are you experienced?

Sorry for the recent blog silence everyone. It’s been a very busy time – we are opening the Stillpoint ‘Stations of the Cross’ Easter art exhibition tomorrow night at The Jam Factory (an arts cafe/gallery) here in Oxford. The image on the left is the front of the exhibition card which I designed. You are welcome to come along for a drink if you are local and are interested. But that’s not what I want to talk about today – I want to talk about experience.

We finished the latest series of Monday night meditation sessions last week and one of the comments made by someone has really stayed with me. This person said, “it’s so nice to be part of a group that talks about our experiences of prayer”.

I have reflected a lot on this. I think this person is right – we are very unused to talking personally about what actually happens when we pray, our personal experience. We can talk in the abstract, we can talk conceptually, we can talk theologically but conversation about our actual experience of the divine is quite rare. We would rather talk about the mechanics of prayer I think. 

Perhaps this is particularly English thing – we are just too embarrassed to talk about it. 

More widely it seems we would often rather talk about the form than the content. I for one am quite bored (and have been for some time) of talk about ’emerging church’ or ‘new-monasticism’ etc. etc. People make a living from talking about these forms and concepts and conferences and books abound on the subjects. But these things are just supposed to be vehicles which help to deliver an experience of God. We are in danger of becoming ecclesiological train-spotters, hanging around on platforms looking at the engines but not getting on the train and going on the journey.

To change the metaphor, we have become obsessed with the tools and we are often in danger of forgetting that the tools are there to do a job. What we do with the tools is much more important than the tools themselves. 

When we learn to use a new tool we go through some different stages. At first we are very aware of the tool, we’re very conscious of it. As we become more proficient the tool almost becomes an extension of our bodies and we’re not very aware of the tool anymore, we are focussed on what we are doing with the tool. Think of learning to drive or paint as examples.

Perhaps an obsession with church – be it new or old forms – is analogous to this early stage. I long for more conversation about our actual experience of God.

Zen Bishop

The new Bishop-elect for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan is in hot water with conservatives in the US because he practices zen. See articles on The Times website here and here if you want to read more.

There are a couple of things I want to say about this:

1. Firstly, as Ruth Gledhill points out in her article,  it’s sad that once again when truly unbelievable things are going on in the church (the Nazi bishop who wasn’t excommunicated etc.)  that this is the kind of story that makes the headlines.

2. It seems quite clear to me that Zen is not a religion but a philosophy or set of practices. There is no God in Zen. As such I don’t think there is any reason to think that a Christian can’t also find Zen helpful. I do. Bishop Kevin says that Zen practices deepen his relationship with Christ. I think I would say the same. As the Irish Jesuit William Johnston points out in his book ‘Christian Zen’, there is a difference between Zen  and Zen Buddhism. A Zen approach can be taken to any of the religions – so we could have Zen Judaism, Zen Islam, Zen Christianity as well as Zen Buddhism. I think Zen helps us to see but doesn’t tell us what we should see (a helpful phrase I have taken from Richard Rohr’s analysis of Eckhart Tolle) – i.e. Zen is about process not content.

I am resolutely Christian – for me it’s all about Christ who is the ‘really real’ (to borrow a phrase from Gregory of Nyssa). But there is stuff in Zen that can help me receive Christ and follow Christ and which I can learn from. Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr have been saying this for a long time!

So let’s lay off Bishop Kevin!

img_9438The Stillpoint launch on Wednesday night felt like a significant moment in my life – a moment of stepping into a new chapter and embracing a new vocational dimension.

120 people joined us at The Phoenix cinema to hear about the vision Ian and I are crafting for (and through) Stillpoint, and to  engage with Jamie Catto from 1 Giant Leap and his films – someone I think really has his finger on the pulse – and also to listen to Bishop John – the Bishop of Oxford.

Some may be sceptical of someone like Bishop John or see him as representing religion (bad) as opposed to new spirituality (good). But Bishop John really cares about the work Ian and I are doing and has a passion to see the church nurture a depth of spiritual experience. So we were really glad to have him there and his generosity has made it possible for us to get Stillpoint off the ground so he is very much a friend of Stillpoint.

Anyway – it was a good night and seemed to really resonate with a wide variety of people which is a really positive thing. Really pleased that both church people and non-church people connected with it and we very much want Stillpoint to resource all kinds of spiritual seekers without people feeling like it’s a way to get people to come to church (it’s not!). Of course it was just the launch so in a sense the real work now begins – next up is the Stations of the Cross art event at easter (more details on our site). There are also some photos from the launch night here.

stillpoint-logo-invert

Sorry for the recent blog silence – I have been busy…mostly with the following (and isn’t it ironic how busy one can become organising something called ‘stillpoint’!)

We are launching Stillpoint on Wednesday this week (March 4th) at a special event in The Phoenix Cinema in Jericho, Oxford.

We will be joined by the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, and also by Jamie Catto – one half of 1 Giant Leap (“genius film makers” according to Bono). We will be presenting the vision for Stillpoint and talking to John and Jamie as well as showing some chapters from 1 Giant Leap’s latest film, ‘What About Me?’

We have had a really good response to the invites we’ve sent out but we still have some spaces available. If you would like to come please let me know (leave a comment to this post).

prayer makes you more sensual

When you think about it prayer should make you a more sensual human being.

What I mean is that if prayer is largely to do with becoming present in the moment and awakening to our aliveness (in God – in whom we live and move and have our being) then it should lead to a heightened sensory awareness – we can expect to become increasingly sensitive to touch, taste, smell, what we see etc. as we will truly be in the moment and not off somewhere else in our heads.

Does that make sense?

nowhere to hide

When I started exploring the practice of meditation and contemplative prayer a number of years back one of the things that took me by surprise was that much of the practice in this sphere leads to a focus on a deeper knowledge of yourself. I always presumed that what is being contemplated was God but actually very often what is being contemplated is actually me (and I am aware of how clumsy (and subject-object dualistic that sentence is but go with it while I make this point and I might return to that another day).

Carl Gustav Jung was very interested in meditation (especially Zen meditation) as he saw it as a means whereby the unconscious becomes conscious, leading to greater wholeness. Much of Richard Rohr’s writing is actually about how the practice of contemplative prayer leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings and thereby a greater wholeness for us as people.

For me, an important part of this has to do with clearing away clutter and creating a space where you are forced to confront who you really are. In meditation and contemplative prayer there is really nowhere to hide – you have to face yourself.

Even in church – or whatever you call your holy place/gathering – there is a lot of ‘entertainment’….opportunities to distract yourself with the many good and noble things that are going on (and I am not suggesting we stop doing these things!). When you sit in silent meditation there really is nothing left to distract you. You have to look at the internal clutter and become aware of the white noise within.

No wonder many of us find it uncomfortable and make all kinds of excuses to keep from doing it. It is not meant to be easy but we must engage with it otherwise we will end up ‘entertaining ourselves to death’.

I have been thinking recently about how prayer/contemplation/meditation resembles going to a gym:

the gym is not an end in itself, it is a means to another end.
You don’t go to the gym for the sake of going to the gym. You go to the gym so that you are generally fit and healthy and have energy i.e. you see the benefits of going to the gym in your life away from the gym. In the same way, when we set aside very focussed periods of practice – either individually or as a group – we do so to see the benefits elsewhere. We ‘practice’ awareness and presence (to God, ourselves, our world) in our prayer periods so that we can take that awareness and presence with us wherever we go and whatever we do.

if you only go occasionally to the gym, even if you work out like a maniac, you won’t see much change.
There’s not much point going to the gym once in a blue moon and doing a major workout; then eating junk food and not exercising for weeks on end before you next go to the gym. You won’t see the benefit. Better to try and find a pattern of exercising that is manageable but regular. Little and often. Better to do a small amount of exercise regularly than a big workout occasionally. In the same way, we need to find a regular rhythm of prayer if we are going to see the benefit (better emotional tone, depth, generosity of spirit, love, wisdom, compassion, peace etc. etc.)

I’m sure there are probably other parallels as well, but these are just a couple I have been thinking about. If any more occur to me I’ll no doubt post them!

From Light to Darkness

conversion-of-st-paulHere’s a copy of the Homily I preached for the feast of the Conversion of St Paul last night at Home:

What can we learn from this story of Paul’s conversion that falls in our lectionary readings for today?

I would like to offer a few thoughts.

Paul’s conversion has often been seen as paradigmatic of conversion – in other words we have looked to narratives like this to give us a sense of what is normative in terms of people coming to faith.

People have therefore had an expectation of a sudden, dramatic divine intervention that brings them to a point of faith.

But I think many of us have come to see that – while that may still happen for certain people – for a lot of us that’s not what coming to faith is like. For many people it’s a much more gradual slow dawning.

In our huddle last week Andy helpfully reminded us that conversion is a lifelong process. It’s not about coming to a point of complete clarity about who Christ is, understanding all the necessary doctrine and giving your mental assent to it.

Let me remind you that in the gospels the disciples responded to a simple invitation from Jesus to “follow me”. There was no detailed explanation of theology. And in fact, as the gospel narratives proceed, the disciples continually misunderstand who Jesus is or what he is doing. Jesus is always saying to them “do you still not get it?”!!

So let me offer a different way of engaging with this story of the conversion of Paul which I hope will be helpful.

Because Paul – or Saul as he was known at that point – had a lot of clarity BEFORE his encounter with Christ. And counter to the way we usually think about it, his encounter with Christ left him in darkness! In fact he was literally blinded.

I think this is a very helpful paradigm for us to engage with.

We often start out very sure and certain – we know who the good guys are and we know who the bad guys are. The world is very black and white. We understand who God is and what God is about. We have all our theology worked out. We have formulated our doctrinal statements and positions and we are quite convinced that these accurately describe the true nature of how things really are.

I want to suggest that in terms of our ongoing conversion, this is early stage faith. And in fact, like Paul, our experience of Christ can often be a blinding.

Everything gets turned on its head and we are left in darkness.

This is important because often we think of the life of faith as moving from vagueness to certainty, or from darkness to light. And in some senses that can be helpful way of looking at things.

But the conversion of Paul suggests that coming to faith and growing in Christ can often mean a movement in the opposite direction – from light to darkness.

Or perhaps I should say ‘supposed light’. Paul was convinced he was right and he was in the light. But he wasn’t.

This should caution us to hold on lightly to our understanding of God. God will not be neatly consigned to our doctrinal formulations! The Spirit is wild and free and blows wherever it wills. We cannot box God in.

So if you feel you are in a state of spiritual darkness or spiritual blindness at the moment take heart!! Don’t be too quick to assume that this is not the work of God. It may well be part of your ongoing conversion.

In huddle last week we were talking about this idea presented by an author whose name I have forgotten who said that God’s work is more often than not done in secret, in hidden-ness, in darkness. We think God is absent, we begin to doubt our tightly held black and white beliefs, we think nothing is going on.

But all the time the seed hidden in the darkness of the soil is germinating and growing.

This author suggested that God works in this way because if we were aware of what God was doing we would resist it or try to control it.

And of course the mystics often talk about darkness and the ‘dark night of the soul’ – which we suggested this week was perhaps not the dramatic affair it is often thought of as, but perhaps feels very mundane and ordinary as though nothing were happening.

So while God is undoubtedly light – the scripture refer to God in this way again and again – our experience of this light – which is so bright and so intense, is often one of darkness : we are blinded by the light of God.

Finally, it’s important to say that God didn’t leave Paul this way and God doesn’t leave us this way either.

Paul was blind for some time though. It was a few days before Ananias came and laid hands on him and restored his sight.

Who knows how long your period of darkness will be?

Christian community can help sustain you during this time. Paul went to the house of one of the disciples and then Ananias eventually came.

Sometimes when you are in that state of blindness all you can do is be with your brothers and sisters – stay in the rhythm and flow of a worshipping, Christ-centred community – and see what God brings you.

But when your sight is restored you will see things differently, just like Paul did.

My daughter the Mystic

I took my two year old daughter to a play centre this morning. She loves going there – there’s tons to do : a big slide, ball pools, swings, etc.

One of her favourite things to do there is go on the trampoline. This morning was no exception. As she stood on the trampoline getting ready to bounce she noticed that there was a white cross marking the centre of the trampoline. She moved towards it and then – amazingly – she pointed at the cross and said “Jesus”. I was flabbergasted! So much so that I thought I must have misheard her and so I asked her to repeat what she said and again she pointed at the cross and said “Jesus”.

A little while later we went to the craft area to do some painting. Lily-Anna was doing a little painting and scribbling (she has only just turned two so scribbling is where it’s at right now) and then another little girl came and sat at the painting table. Lily was watching her intently (as she often does with other children). The other little girl was a bit older and therefore a little more advanced with her motor skills. She took one of the paints and painted a big cross in the middle of her paper which was going to form the beginnings of a pattern. Quick as a flash, Lily pointed at the other little girl’s piece of paper and said “Jesus”!!

In the car on the ride home she kept pointing out of the window and saying “Jesus” too!

An important part of contemplation – as I have said in the posts below – is to develop a sense of the presence of God in the ordinary not just the extraordinary; a sense that God is always present but we are too asleep to be alive to that reality. I don’t mind admitting that at the playgroup this morning I was not very conscious of the presence of God, but my daughter obviously was! Why should my awareness be dulled just because I am somewhere like that?

Maybe Christ was on to something when he told us that we must become like little children.