A monthly article written by Michael Trodden, the Rector of St Andrews Ampthill, St Michael and All Angels Millbrook and St Lawrence Steppingley.
Many people say they are 'non believers' because they have never felt the presence of God in their lives. They claim to have prayed many times but nothing ever happens to suggest that anyone 'out there' is listening.
Mark Barrett, a Benedictine monk was talking of a member of Archbishop Anthony Bloom's congregation who had exactly this problem. The lady concerned claimed that she had prayed all her life both in the public liturgy and private devotion but had never for a moment sensed the presence of God in her life. Were her prayers not heard? Was she not loved by the God to whom she was praying?
After talking to this lady about her prayer practice and her life in general, Archbishop Anthony offered her this advice; "When you next come to your time of prayer, don't kneel, don't recite any prayers or psalms, but simply sit down in your favourite armchair by the fire, relax and see what happens". Sure enough she followed the Archbishop's guidance, and simply relaxed by the fire in her sitting room. A committed and busy person, she had not usually allowed herself the 'luxury' of time apparently wasted in this way. 'What a lovely room,' she reflected, as she looked around at her ornaments, the furniture and the pictures that had accumulated in the many years she had lived in this house. She had never stopped to look at the room in this way before, but now she was suddenly aware of how blessed she was in the symbols of family and friendship that surrounded her. She was warmed by the fire, supported by the cushions of her chair, and delighted by the view from her window. Gratitude and joy for the richness of the life she had led were the emotions in her heart. Just as she had been instructed she made no special effort to pray, but inevitably she thanked God for all that this room and its contents represented to her. Gradually she realised that it was as if she was listening to God speaking words of love to her, and every aspect of her life was one of those words, mediated to her by the physical contents of the room in which she was sitting.
Finally it dawned upon her that this was what the Archbishop had intended to happen: she had been so busy in every dimension of her life that her busyness had carried over even into her prayer. She had talked to God, praised and thanked him, pleaded with him and complained to him, but never listened to him. Never had she stopped to allow her own life to become the word of God to her. This is what the Archbishop had discerned as he listened to her dismay, and his solution was to tell her to stop, to listen, to reflect.
This reminds me of one Lent in a former parish when I invited the congregation to read a certain book to help them to focus through prayer on Christ during his time in the Wilderness. One of the churchwardens challenged me and said it was no good expecting him to find time to read a book and pray he was far too busy running his company. I mentioned his situation to my bishop who said, "Well you'll just have to do the praying on his behalf." I prayed that he might yet make time to reflect on the prayers that he uttered week after week during Sunday worship. One of the privileges of the clergy's duties is to pray for their people but it is also our duty to challenge them and encourage their own spiritual development. As we follow Christ through Passiontide and celebrate his resurrection at Easter we need silently to draw close to him and realise the uniqueness of the victory he has won for each of us. If we make time to focus on that extraordinary event life will never be the same again for us even if we have to sit in a busy office.
I hope that the lady who was having the problem of discerning the presence of God and my busy churchwarden might eventually ask, "What is God doing right now in my daily life or in the life of the person I am praying for?" If we can see God to be working most deeply with our greatest needs of ourselves, of each other and of the whole of creation, then we may see answers to prayers that we had never dared hope for.
A Carmelite nun writes: In coming to prayer you must put yourself in the presence not of something but someone; you have confrontation not with an idea; you are face to face with a living being who listens to you, speaks to you and prepares to give you everything. In fact you stand before the face of the living God.
The following prayer comes from A Desert in the Ocean by David Adam:
I open my life to you, Lord,
I make space in this day for your coming
I move from busyness to your stillness
I move from sounds to your silence.
I move from insensitivity to awareness.
I thrust out from the land and look to heaven.
I open my life to you.
I open my heart to your love.
I open my ears to your call.
I open my eyes to your presence.
I open my life to you.
Many of you will know Mandy and I have recently returned from a previously postponed visit to this extraordinary country. Maybe we will write more about it in the future. However for the present I will offer this poignant memory:
On the last full day our party of 27 left the hotel at 6 15am to visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Our tour leader had arranged rickshaws to take us the mile and a half to the gate. Riding on one of fourteen rickshaws with Mandy along a dusty track where motorised traffic was prohibited in the early light was quite surreal. Our driver was hardly five foot in height, had a wizened face and coughed alarmingly as he pedalled along. I suggested that it should be me doing the work while he rode in the back but he assured me, "I am very good driver!" When we alighted I felt moved to give him a reasonable tip, the equivalent of about £2 which to him was a small fortune. He explained to me that he had been treated for chest cancer and I thanked him and wished him all the best. I last saw him performing a little jig with his 200 rupees. One of the many reminders during our visit of how fortunate we are but often do not appreciate it.
I actually forgot about Shrove Tuesday until it was far too late to have a pancake. Perhaps with my figure that was just as well! However I did not forget the next day was Ash Wednesday. Unfortunately it would appear that most people did or if they remembered had no intention of doing anything about it. I happened to visit two large Supermarkets that day and was tempted to go up to individuals and ask, "Do you know what day it is today?"
It is quite obvious religion is less and less relevant in most people's lives. I enjoy a bit of good natured banter in the pubs (I do not only talk about football!) but it is quite clear that while people (mostly!) appreciate having the local vicar around and have some respect for the Church, both as an organisation and as a building, they are not likely to rush to become regular worshippers. One of the Saturday newspaper supplements has a back page in which a well- known person is asked 'the definite answer' to a set of very probing questions; one is the order of service at your funeral. Sadly not many of them seem to require any religious content at all.
The author George Bernard Shaw joked that, "unlike the Scots and the Welsh, the English are not naturally religious so God created cricket to give them a sense of eternity". This love of the sport reaches its ultimate when England and Australia battle for the Ashes. In Jewish religion dressing in coarse and tickly sackcloth and sprinkling the ashes from the cold fireplace over your hair, while cutting back on what you eat, was a sign of penance. The Muslims have a month of fasting during Ramadam when they eat and drink nothing from sunrise to sunset. This is very demanding and during the feast of Eid at the end of Ramadan they feel a justifiable pride if they have kept the tradition without yielding to temptation. But some Jews in the time of Jesus went much further. They showed off that they could wear more uncomfortable clothing than anyone else, spread more ashes on their head and go without food and drink for longer. Jesus condemned this proud boasting about one's humility although he still thought there was a place for penitence in everyone's life. He told his disciples to continue to dress smartly when they were fasting, saying, "When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you".
In modern Christianity we are rather half- hearted about Lent. In some churches the ashes made from the previous year's old palm crosses are mixed with a little oil and used to put the sign of the cross on the forehead of each worshipper. A limited number of us observed this tradition on Ash Wednesday as a symbol that we are keeping the faith. Many of us keep a 'Lenten fast' by giving up things like smoking, alcohol and chocolate. But surely these are things that should be avoided in excess all year round for the sake of our health?
During the forty days of Lent we are supposed to draw close to Christ as he took himself away into the wilderness to examine who he really was and to understand what God's will was for him. It is appropriate that we should have a long hard look at our own lives during this season. Who is really pleased with themselves and satisfied with everything that they have done? By weak observance we miss the whole point of Lent. Surely our aim should be to demonstrate to ourselves and to God our deep penitence for the things that we have done wrong. Even if our belief in God is unsure this is an important discipline. You probably know from your own experience that if you do something to upset somebody, your relationship will be strained until you have said sorry and they have forgiven you. They cannot forgive until you have apologised and saying you are sorry is meaningless unless you genuinely feel it. You have to accept some of the blame for what has happened. So repentance is followed by an apology which is followed by forgiveness. But even after that your conscience still troubles you unless you can do something for those you have hurt, maybe give them a card or gift to make your apology visible. It is not a punishment; if the person you have hurt is fair they will make that clear.
In Lent we must take it further. When we wound another person think how often we wound our loving heavenly Father. God commanded us to love one another so when we mistreat someone whom God loves - and that is all of us- God is wounded by our heartlessness. So we need to apologise sincerely to God also. God does not demand payment for our sins but we need to make some sort of voluntary payment. That is why we discipline ourselves by going without something we normally enjoy. However it is more positive to take something extra on. There are no shortage of people who need help, or charities that need financial support.
Finally, as you consider Jesus in the wilderness struggling against his temptations represented by the character of the Devil, make a real effort to draw close to him by reading, prayer and using silence and you will learn just how much he loves you. He loves you so much that he died for you and suffered for your sins and mine. Draw close to him as he draws close to you.
THE COLLECT FOR LENT
Almighty and everlasting God,
You hate nothing that you have made
And forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
That lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness
We may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
Perfect forgiveness and peace,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Terrorism has no place in Islam as nearly all faithful Muslims will admit. As has been quoted recently in many places Allah says in the Qur'an:
'Whoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as f he killed all mankind, whosoever saves the life of one, t shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind...'
Qur'an 5: 32
Recent atrocities take me back to the mid 1970's when I enjoyed two marvellous tours around the early Christian sites in Turkey with my late father and Mandy. By chance we had the same guide known as Saba on each occasion, one of the most impressive men we ever met. He was a committed Muslim with a wide smile and wicked sense of humour. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the places
we visited and his desire to communicate was infectious. When he met our group of about 35 for the first time he sat us down on the coach and asked us to tell him our names. He listened intently before he put down his list and repeated our names to us from memory without a single mistake. For he remainder of our tour he never forgot a name. I wish I had that gift! On one occasion he stopped the coach at a small village and ran off down the road only to appear a few
minutes later with a couple of packages containing 'the most delicious homemade Turkish Delight ever!' which he passed round the coach.
At one of the sites of an ancient Christian church he asked us to be still for a moment while he said a Muslim prayer for peace and then, well aware that my father was a priest, invited him to come forward and offer a prayer. Touching
and impressive. I presume that Saba died many years ago; he most certainly will have gone to heaven where he will be shedding tears for the present world situation.
Soon we will be hearing the familiar readings and we will be singing those much loved Christmas carols with such sentiments as 'Hail, the heaven born Prince of Peace', 'All glory be to God on high and to the earth be peace', 'and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth'.
An ancient Jewish writer understood the problem of mankind is the heart - 'who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful'.
The evangelist J. John has written, "We were created in God's likeness to live in the world, and to enjoy an intimate relationship with him. Because God is love we were not forced into this friendship. We were given the free will to choose: to accept or refuse God. But right from the start, and then down through the years of history, we have turned away. We have turned from our Creator, choosing our way rather than his. We have shut God out of our lives." I believe that even worse than this is to invent a god entirely the opposite of the true loving God.
Because of the breakdown of our understanding of the true God, something or someone was needed to heal the huge divide. We required someone to stand between God and us, a go-between, someone who shared and understood our humanity yet who was untainted by our sinfulness. Since no prophet or priest could fulfil that role, God himself became man in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.
As we will be recalling during the season of Advent the Old Testament was pointing to a fixed moment in time when God would act in history and this is what happened at Christmas. The meaning of the season is God himself coming among us to restore the world we have messed up. How we need his Son more than ever before!
I have quoted many times before the words of my favourite verse from the carol 'It came upon a Midnight Clear' written by E. H. Sears and I will do so again.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man hears not
The love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, you men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
No doubt we will be singing our favourite carols again this year at church services and at secular occasions. Please make an effort to distinguish the proper carols from the annual dose of overplayed tedious pop songs and think of the meaning behind the words. Yes, many carols are over sentimental but they speak of a world 'where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in'. Surely this is the message we need to hear above the fear and terror that we have been subjected to so recently.
Obviously any Church leader is going to invite people to attend worship in great numbers at this time of the year but this year please let us make a greater commitment to show our 'Christian Colours' as positively as we displayed the red, white and blue of France so recently.
I leave you with the words of defiance that you may well have already seen on Facebook by Antoine Leiris who lost his wife in the Bataclan Club.
You have stolen the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred. I do not know who you are and I don't want to know. If the God for whom you kill so blindly made us in his own image each bullet in my wife's body would have been a wound in his heart. Therefore I will not give you the gift of hating you. You have obviously sought it but to reply to hatred with anger would be to give in to the same thoughtfulness that has made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, to cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens, to sacrifice my liberty for security.
We are only two, my son and I but we are more powerful than all the armies in the world. In any case I have no more time to waste on you. I have to get back to Melvil who is waking up from his afternoon nap. He's just seventeen months old ; he'll eat his snack every day and then we're going to play like we do every day. And every day of his life this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom because you don't have his hatred either.