Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Simeon Centre and its vision

The energy of a centre for prayer comes from a listening ear, an obedient heart, and a driving passion to rediscover daily what it means to be friends with God  and to help others who cross our threshold to do the same. Over the past five years, since our launch, this has been our constant focus.
Based uniquely in an Anglican theological college, the Simeon Centre for Prayer and the Spiritual Life has had a fourfold role:
1.      in caring for the personal and spiritual formation of the Ridley Hall community. This is a ministry gladly undertaken by all, students and staff, for each other. Discipleship is the responsibility of all, and the Centre is the catalyst for this work.

2.      in the academic teaching of spirituality and prayer within the Cambridge Theological Federation, and more widely. Undergraduate modules, dissertation and thesis supervision, invitational events and periodic conferences all contribute towards this part of our ministry.

3.      in resourcing the wider church through offering spiritual direction, particularly to church leaders; through responding to requests for training and consultancy; and by leading, chaplaining and speaking at conferences, retreats and other events.

4.      in working with others across a range of networks, raising the profile of Christian perspectives in the public square and in the churches. Two years ago, we held a conference on ‘Dying Well’. More recently, we have been working with partner organizations and individuals on marriage, singleness and gender imbalance in our churches; on the ethics of human enhancement; on men’s spirituality; and next year (28th June 2013) we plan a day conference on Spirituality and Dementia.

The last item hints at the underlying questions which will remain at the heart of our vocation and our spiritual quest. We are creaturely beings, made in the image and likeness of a sovereign God, who calls us in love to stand before his majesty, to sit and feast with him, and to work towards the coming of his Kingdom.

In order to do this faithfully and well, we need to understand and engage with what it means to be human. In our contemporary contexts, how do we balance our understanding of disability with our hunger for drug and genetic enhancement? How, too, can we learn to value individuals as they are, while believing that God longs for them to be redeemed, more fulfilled in themselves and in life, and complete in Christ? And in relation to the way in which we do church, can we resist the temptation to gather like with like, so that the diversity and complexity of God’s created order is not compromised?

Strangely, then, we have found ourselves – as a Centre for Prayer – spending much time in busy thought (or doing theology!), reflecting on our humanity, believing that it is when we know ourselves fully as we are known by God, the relationship that we enjoy with him is restored, strengthened and nurtured.

To be human in a proper sense is, first and foremost, about gift, the gift of life, if you will. We believe that life is given by God who breathes life into us; and we are born again – redeemed – through the self-giving son of God. As inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven, we are given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, another kind of gift. Even the worlds that we inhabit are gifted to us for our care and stewardship. 

Solidarity comes a close second. There are as many theories about being made in God’s image and likeness as there are theologians, but my take on it depends on the implicit ‘we’ in Genesis 1. The nature of God is not plural but relational. The three persons of the one God dwell in mutual love, harmony and interdependent purpose. And it is ‘we’ who are made in that image, and reflect it in community, in relationship with one another, only fully as ‘one people’, only in mutuality and sharing.

It naturally flows from this that the virtues proper to being human, apart from the cardinal virtue of love, are those of companionship, hospitality, compassion, humility, vulnerability and reconciliation. If we live life in gratitude for its giftedness and in communion with one another, all relationships flourish, most notably our relationship with God. And since prayer is not a task, a duty or a work, but the language of a primary relationship, our praying will find its tongue when we are true to our common humanity under God.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Amos 4: A mini-Bible study

For busy lives, here's something you can do in five minutes. If you do, may it bless your whole day. At the end of Amos 4, the prophet says of God:

For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind,
   reveals his thoughts to mortals,
makes the morning darkness,
   and treads on the heights of the earth—
   the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name! 

There are three remarkable things to note:
  1.  Amos, like all the eighth-century prophets, has woken up to a much bigger vision of God than the one in circulation. He paints a picture of a majestic, all-powerful, terrifying yet immensely appealing God. This God is no wimp. Our God is an awesome God! Imagine him treading on the heights of the earth, dancing across the Alps, standing over the Himalayas!
  2. Remarkably, this God communicates with us, revealing his thoughts to mortals! This is not what we expect to hear in the middle of this spectacular picture. It doesn't cut God down to size. Rather, it causes us who know and love this God to lift up our heads, and almost to bask in his glory. He has chosen to share the mystery of his plan with us, as Paul makes clear in Ephesians.
  3. We all know that names matter. God's name is no idle giving of a title. This God is the Lord of hosts, the Lord of heavenly armies. This is no pacific God, but a jealous, a zealous God who is so troubled by his people's unfaithfulness and neglect that he goes to war. The unpopular flipside of God's love, his wrath, which is the major theme of this prophet's speaking, must never be neglected if we are to relate to God as he really is.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Why must cyclists take drugs? What's the fun in that?

I don't often get very angry, and Lance Armstrong's alleged involvement in 'the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen' has left me more bemused, disappointed and saddened than angry. After all, when those of us who do sport for the sheer enjoyment of overcoming (in part only) our own limitations, without chemical enhancement, I wonder where Armstrong's enjoyment of the sport, sense of humanity and personal pride went to. Can you win a race and be proud when the drug won, really?

I did get angry, however, when I heard Alex Dowsett's response on the news. The 24 year old British cyclist said that he believed that Lance Armstrong remains 'a legend of the sport' despite the doping accusations against the American.

What's worse, his remarks were made not because he doesn't believe the accusations. And I suspect that those accusations are fairly accurate. The US Drug Authority responsible said that it was as strong a case as any they had ever brought. Dowsett went on to say: 'He is still a legend of the sport. A guy who had cancer came back and won the Tour de France. It's not really important and I really don't think it matters what I think.'

Not important? Not his call? Of course it is. He is being listened to, watched and admired by a whole new generation of budding cyclists in this country, and as a role model he can't be neutral. What is it about this celebrity culture of ours that so craves victory that nothing else matters?

Over the past year, in my feeble 63 year old way, I have enjoyed discovering that I can run, just. 8.5 minute miles are about as much as I can realistically manage. But I have found myself childishly delighted, and running has brought me such joy - no fame though. In running, the bonus has been the discovery that it gives me the quietest and most solitary place in the universe, a place I've been looking for unconsciously for years.

And now, to cap it all, I have a distinct sense that running is a gift that I have to offer God. I can't explain it any better than that, but it has come to me that when I run, I am being truly myself, and that can't but delight God. So, please, please, don't let's allow hubris (overweening pride) to overwhelm us. It is our humanity and our pain that we celebrate when we run the race, not some fictive superhuman image.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Rowan Atkinson for Archbishop

My attention has just been drawn to an apparently unconscious comment on the BBC's news about the Crown Appointments Commission, in which the writer said "By trying to please everyone, Rowan Atkinson has pleased no-one. Religion must remain a matter of faith and principle, uncompromised by trendines."

Joking apart, it is briefly amusing that we can bet on the appointment at any bookie's in the country, and it is contrary to our Anglican understanding of episcopacy that we should put all the weight of future hope or distress about the Anglican Communion on the shoulders of the new archbishop. He is not going to make the difference, though he could be influential. The Cambridge historian EH Carr in 'What is History' years ago reminded us of the heresy of assuming that history is about a few important people.

++Rowan (Williams, not Atkinson) was right to observe that we need to replace him with two people. Not that he's arrogant, but the issues at stake for the Church of England are not the same as the issues at stake in the Anglican Communion. For what it's worth, I might as well join the fray, praying that it won't decline into affray when the announcement is finally made.

The Anglican Communion has over my lifetime turned from a family of churches into an unwieldy monster of an institution which has become far too self-important. To be Anglican is to be a Christian in a particular way, which I need not here define. The irony of the various Anglican schisms around the world is that if I find myself meeting parties or churches on either side of the great disruption, I feel at home, regardless of their institutional status. Hear me well, I do not find myself agreeing with everyone. How could I? But I do recognize that they are all family, and our quarrels, disputes and downright bitterness are the internecine wars of a family. 

So there is a significant part of me that is not worried whether the Anglican Communion falls apart or not. It has become a little too dependent on its organizational centre. We need instead to fall back on the centre of our own provisional status as church and our own human sinfulness. We also need Jesus Christ far more than we need a solution-solving communion-redeeming Primate. I also think that this is the moment for the leader of the communion to be chosen globally, from among the Primates, by the Primates... After all, we are not papalists. And though we come much closer to being conciliarists in our philosophy, we know that councils may err. Really we do!

So do pray for the new appointment. We need a wise, godly, thoughtful man. But above all, pray for the renewal and reformation of Anglican Christianity. Where it has grown cold, may the Holy Spirit warm it with fire Where it has strayed, may our Saviour recover it. Where it has lost faith, may the Father discipline and challenge it. And in all this, pray that we won't miss the beam in our own eye when we are too quick to jump to judgements about 'all those other wretches out there'.

The gates of hell will not prevail against Christ's Church.


Monday, 24 September 2012

Pray thankfully, passionately, with anguish and with perseverance

This morning, I was working on the prayer diary for the Fresh Expressions team, and found myself drawing from 1 Thessalonians for the opening passage of scripture. I used 1.2-3 'We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.' 

From there, I found myself wanting to encourage those who pray for the church to pray like Paul, and facebooked  'Pray for the church like Paul did, with thanksgiving, passion, anguish and perseverance.' Several people 'liked' it, and I thought that it might be helpful to unpack it a little.

For Paul, to pray with thanksgiving is to acknowledge what God has already done, in this case in the church at Thessalonika; to rejoice that the ministry that we share with God in Christ is bound to bear some kind of fruit (even if it's sometimes hard to see); to recognize that he and they are bound together for eternity; and to allow himself a little pat on the shoulder. We're not very good at this last one as Christians, feeling that it's somehow arrogant. I think that God gives us encouragements in our ministry precisely so that we can feel our hearts lift. All we have to avoid is being puffed up! He actually says in 2.20 that these Christians are his 'glory and joy'!

To pray with passion is to pray knowing that it makes a difference. And what a difference Paul prays for. In this letter, apart from praying that he will be united with them, he prays in Chapter 3 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Fancy praying for your own congregation or assembly, that they be so holy that they appear blameless on the great Day of Christ's coming. Passion is coupled with expectation, faith in boundless possibility and a great enthusiasm, therefore, to ask.

To pray with anguish is to carry the burdens of those for whom we have a care or a responsibility. I found myself asking when was the last time that I wept in prayer, and I'm not sure that I know the answer. Last year, I led worship with a group who had just had a gruelling study day on the abuse of children. I was 'warned' that they might be vulnerable, but didn't know what I was letting myself in for. The intercessions passed quietly enough, but at the end of the service, a young woman started to sob. I sat with her and her friend for a while as she sobbed and railed at heaven and screamed at God to stop the injustice of it all. So it was for Paul to pray with anguish.

To pray with perseverance to to do what Paul is talking about when he enjoins us to pray without ceasing. This text has been much misused in some contexts to pile one liturgical action on another. Nothing could have been further from Paul's mind. He simply calls us not to let go of the issues while they are still in front of us, to pray on our knees and throughout the day, to hammer like the importunate widow on the doors of heaven, to wrestle with issues until they are resolved. Why? Because God has amazingly invited us to share in his pain, his plan and his care for the world, as fully as he does, and calls us to be dissatisfied - as he is - until all the weeping and tears are over.

I write this not because I have achieved it, but because I haven't, as an encouragement, not as a condemnation, to kindle a fire that will not go out, because God first burned with love for you.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Praying for the conflict to continue? An alternative

The current political cocktail in South Africa is a potentially deadly one, and I find myself growing helplessly frustrated with the miners, with the dreadful demagoguery of Julius Malema and with the apparent inability of the police and the military to maintain the rule of law without resorting to terrible levels of violence. As so often, the less-badly paid act as a vanguard in political and economic unrest. The miners have more money, more health and more organization than their even less well-paid compatriots, and are able to demonstrate – and to resist – more effectively. Others follow in their train.

I know too that at the heart of this is the economics of inequity, coupled with the political savoir faire of a generation schooled in the conflicts of apartheid. Of all peoples, South Africans know how to storm the citadels of power.

Inside me, a voice shouts ‘Why can’t they just pay them more?’ The platinum, gold and other precious metals that they mine make many rich, but not the miners. Of course I would have to pay a price, in the cars that  I buy, the jewellery that I purchase, a soaring cost of living in the West and falling standards of life. No more cheap ride on the back of Africa and Asia, then?

I can’t quite get my head round it all. There’s no point in inducing liberal guilt, nor in simply reducing my own standard of living in protest. That feels too small. I know we are all in this together, and that the well-being of the world depends on cooperative action. That too feels like a distant joke.

So what shall I do? Well, I think I will pray that the problem doesn’t go away for South Africa, and that it has deep global political repercussions for us all. I shall pray that the simple economics of less platinum, higher price, begins to have the weight  of a global lesson in the ethics of cause and effect. God never meant us to live beyond our means, and I will prepare myself for a more realistic emerging lifestyle. It’s beginning to happen. May God’s kingdom of justice  and righteousness come, and may we be blessed by it when it does.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

God needs energetic Christians!

One of the ways in which I play with scripture is to summarize a chapter around a key theme; then I’m more likely to engage with it, and to remember it. Here’s an effort from some years ago preached in an Oxfordshire village, and now turned into a blog from my notes!

Hebrews 13 is summed up in my mind as ‘kingdom living’ and there are five simple but hugely demanding elements to that living. I won’t cross-reference them for you, but invite you to read the chapter, read the blog and examine your conscience.

We are to love one another as brothers and sisters, that is, as family. By this the writer is calling us to love out of knowledge, just as we have to do in our own families, where nothing is hidden. This is love, warts and all, love in all its messiness, unconditional, matched and trumped by Jesus’ unconditional love for us.

Secondly, we are to be hospitable. Again, there are no limits, because we don’t know when an angel is lurking! The bit that jumps out for me, of course, is that hospitality is not just to one another but to God. We welcome strangers as if they were the presence of God. Why? Because they are the presence of God. There is a ‘supernatural’ dimension to all hospitality – ‘the unseen guest’.

This is expanded in the third point, to our care for prisoners as if we were in prison with them. Hospitality is extended in this in a missionary direction: we go out to others; waiting for them to come in is not enough. We of all people go into the hard places, especially the places that non-Christians find difficult, the place of death, of disfigurement, of gross sin.

Fourthly, we are those who live free from consumerism. We do not need to purchase to find life. In that freedom, we live lives of appreciation, thankfulness, delight and pleasure in simplicity. Our language is still embedded with this ideal of ‘the simple things of life’. In recovering them, we return the world to God the creator, living in it with light and childlike footsteps.

And finally, this kingdom living is sacrificial: strengthened by grace, we respond to the cross by receiving gratefully (so hard for us to do these days!) and by responding with grace. We are called to speak gracefully of life and about one another, to serve gracefully, and to share all that we have. Sacrificial living is never spent. There is always more of life to give, under God’s grace.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Eyes to see: God in surprising places

The classical evangelical discipline of the ‘quiet time’ of Bible reading, study and prayer has sustained many generations of Christians, and continues to do so. For many reasons, not all to do with spiritual laziness, there are some who find this pattern and discipline difficult or unhelpful.  One of the aims of the Simeon Centre for Prayer and the Spiritual Life is to encourage exploration of new patterns and ways of prayer, both because guilt does not help our Christian discipleship, but also because God is not interested in style. What matters to God is relationship.

Two years ago, the Simeon Centre held a day on Spirituality and Creativity, using a number of art forms as the stuff of prayer. On June 9, another such day will be held on ‘spirituality and photography: praying through the lens.’ The purpose of it is threefold: to help participants to engage with a theology of beauty; to find ways of new or ‘deep’ seeing that might be revelatory; and to learn a little about the playfulness that ought to be inherent in our relationship with our heavenly Father.
We are familiar now with the idea that God, who is the goodness underlying all that is good, and the truth of all truth, is glimpsed through things of beauty. That’s why Paul enjoins us in Philippians 4 to ‘think on these things’. Play, too, is much more a part of Christian spirituality today. Perhaps the hardest thing for us to learn is the central theme of the day, that when we allow the Holy Spirit to give us ‘eyes to see’, we may once again glimpse heaven, and worship. To that end, the use of a camera may well become the ‘eyes of prayer.’

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Substitionary prayer and how to do it

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul speaks about the battles that we fight as disciples of Christ: Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

There are many strongholds ‘out there’ against which we stand in the name of Christ. In this we are prayer warriors. There is a multitude of ‘arguments’ against which we speak the truth of the gospel of Christ. In this we are apologists. For every ‘proud obstacle’ raised up against the true knowledge of God, we have the name of Christ, a stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall.

Perhaps the hardest battle of all is against the strongholds within ourselves, the habits, patterns of behaviour and learned responses which remain fleshly, sometimes years after we took our first stumbling steps as Christians. Once, we sought to overcome them, but have grown tired, jaded, and almost used to their company.

What’s instructive for me in Paul’s language is that he doesn’t speak about obliterating bad thoughts or fantasies, but about taking them captive, taming them, turning wild beasts into farmyard creatures who – more or less – behave. And there are several ways in which we can do this. We can
  • catch ourselves descending into unhelpful or dangerous spirals of dark or sinful thought, and tell ourselves off there and then. ‘Stop it, you silly fool!’ I say, sometimes aloud. And the wild thought usually listens, and lopes off into the undergrowth. 
  • crowd the beasts out with beauty and blessing. Against those murderous thoughts that I have when drivers carve me up, I sign the sign of the cross over them and bless the drivers instead. (Well, to be honest, I do on a good day!) 
  • turn those crazy twisted thoughts into energetic prayers. As someone said to me recently, ‘I have learned to turn my complaints into Kingdom protests.’
It’s the last of these I’d like to illustrate by offering you a short litany of substitutionary prayer to pray, as part of your arsenal against the strongholds within:

Lord, in place of the complaints I have voiced this day, I ask you to transform those unjust situations;
For all my cheap jibes at the expense of others, I ask you to make me humble;
For the congregations and Christians I have written off, I ask for their healing and restoration;
For the discrimination I have exercised in my head, I ask you to bring me to a place of meeting with ‘the other’;
For the little wars that I have waged, defeat my aims and make me a peace-singer;
For the pollution I have spilt through my mind and heart into a needy world, I ask you to cleanse not only me, but the other hearts and minds my actions have sullied.
And all these things I ask in and through the name of Jesus Christ, who hung in our place on the cross, and dying gave us life. Amen.