On darkness

This morning I preached at our joint All Age service about darkness. This afternoon I was heartened to read this, by James Martin SJ, about newly-canonised Mother Teresa and her own battle with spiritual darkness.

What follows are some improvisations on the words I shared today.


I’m afraid – not of the dark – but of darkness.
This darkness is difficult to describe.
It is…

The darkness of depression and anxiety that creeps up on me sometimes.
The darkness of knowing that I might fail: in my parenting, in my ministry, or some other area.
The darkness of a fear that grips when I hear of more violence, more hate, more terror in the world around.
The darkness of thinking that this might be all that there is.
The darkness of a world without life, a tragedy without hope, a death without resurrection.

It is the darkness that lurks, as Doctor Who warns Amy Pond,

Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look. The corner of your eye.

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It is a darkness described by Mother Teresa:

In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing.

This darkness is very real and frightening.

Anyone who has wrestled with God – or God’s absence – in the long hours of night will know the suffocating, crushing, oppressive feeling of being surrounded by a darkness that is more than an absence of light.

This darkness is not right.
This darkness is not peaceable or calm.
This darkness is not harmless.

There is something in this darkness that is a theology without a language.
We barely talk about it, maybe because we are scared or embarrassed, or possibly because we don’t need to give it attention beyond that which it demands.

This is the darkness of spiritual warfare, spiritual battle, spiritual oppression.
It chokes, it robs us of life, it cuts us off from all that is holy.
It tells us of God’s absence, of love’s failure, of hope’s flight.

And yet, paradoxically, it is a darkness that I know more deeply the nearer I draw to God.
In this way, spiritual darkness is vocational.

With each glimpse of God, another small part of his kingdom is illuminated.
We see the good, and the bad.
The redeemed, and the not yet.
The light, and the darkness.

With each whisper from the Holy Spirit, we hear a little of her wordless groaning of intercession.
We hear cries of joy and pain.
Of laughter and sorrow.
Of relief and grief.

Perhaps only in the darkness do we see how much we need the light of Christ.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we come to know prayer as throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and saying I cannot live this life alone. I need God to get me through.
Perhaps only in the darkness do we feel most deeply the pain of those around us, and find the resources and compassion to bring light to the darkness of another.

This darkness is not from God.
It is more than God’s absence.
Yet with God’s presence, it flees.

Perhaps this darkness is always there, always threatening, always looming, but never victorious.

The closer we draw to God, the more we know love, light and hope.
Yet the more we know these things, the more we are called to journey through the darkness that they will one day defeat.

If you’re in darkness, hang in there. Shout prayers and scripture and the name of Christ at whatever lurks in the corner of your eye, right where you never want to look, and it will flee.

 St Patrick’s Breastplate
Christ be with me, Christ within me
Christ behind me, Christ before me
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Christ to comfort me and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.

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Eggs and Fish: A meditation for all whose prayers go unanswered

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

It’s not true.

God doesn’t always give.
We don’t always find.
The door doesn’t always open.

Who among us has not wept and pleaded in prayer; desperately seeking an answer from God?

Even our most noble, self-giving, and good hearted requests to God may be met with a wall of silence.

Giving up is an option:
God hasn’t heard me.
God hasn’t answered me.
God isn’t there.

If you need to give up, then stop here.
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For me, giving up on God is not an option.
I have lived with God too long.

So how do we deal with it when we pray for an egg and we’re handed a scorpion?
How can we go on with God, when the things we pray for don’t happen?
When the opposite happens?

Why does a good God seem to turn away when we cry for his help?

 

I don’t know.

 

I don’t know why some prayers are answered even as we speak them, yet others bounce off the ceiling and roll sadly to our feet.
I don’t understand the haphazard ways in which we hear “yes”, “no”, “maybe”.
Or silence.
I don’t know why God blesses some people in some ways with some answers.
And not others.

But I do know that every time I pray, prayer changes me.
Persistent prayer teaches me more about God, and more about my inner self.

What is it I truly desire?
Who do I believe God to be?
Where will I find happiness?
Who do I think is my true self?

Over time, prayer becomes an exploration of these questions.
Perhaps we find answers.
Perhaps we don’t.
Perhaps we discover better questions.

The biggest lesson I have learned about prayer is that persistent prayer, even 5 minutes a day, leads to peace.

And peace reframes our prayers.

God becomes not a benevolent and kindly old man who wants to slip a pound coin into our sweaty palm because he’s feeling especially generous one day.
Instead, God becomes a partner with us as we seek to grow, and change the world around us.

I don’t believe in a God who wants to be begged, pestered or nagged before he gives in to us with pity.

I believe in a God who has good gifts to give his people.
I believe in a God who calls us to join him in bringing those gifts to others.
I believe in a God who weeps with us in sorrow and laughs with us in joy.
I believe in a God who knows me intimately, who knows what I desire before I ask, who has blessed me richly in all I have.

Persistent prayer has taught me about this God.

I no longer pray just to get things from God.
When I do, I know I have regressed: I’m tired, depressed, beaten.

I pray because I love God and I love life.
I pray to change myself and change the world around me.
I pray to help me cope with a particular situation.
I pray because prayer is oxygen in this smog-filled place.

So if you’re that person, asking, seeking, knocking, and meeting only silence, then for the love of God keep going.

Pray as you can:
pray with words and sobs,
pictures and paint,
nature and dreams.
Just pray.

We won’t find the goodness and realness of God in God’s assent to our every whim, no matter how noble, how good, how selfless.

We find God’s goodness  when we persist in spending time with him, and find ourselves more fully transformed by prayer into who we truly are.

This is true gift.
This is real life.
This is the stuff of eggs and fish.

Barnabas: A meditation on encouragement

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


Speak words that bring strength, encouragement and comfort
(adapted from 1 Corinthians 14:3)

Child of strength
(I know you don’t feel it)
You have more steel than you know
And the disturbance within you is only a sign that
You are changing, journeying, living.
Do not be afraid of turmoil:
Have you forgotten your strength?
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Child of encouragement
Courage was planted
As a seed deep inside your heart
Long before you met Fear’s sweet seduction.
You cannot lose your courage
Any more than you can lose your heart
Though, as with your heart, it may wither with neglect.
Whose kind words watered the tender shoots of your courage?
Whose generous gaze shone sun on your emerging petals?
tulip

Child of comfort
Always be ready to console.
Be the arms that held you tight
As you wipe away tears of another’s broken heart.
Watch with eyes that notice:
Whose head is bowed?
Whose shoulders droop?
Who smiles shakily through misery’s fog?
Offer them this gift:
The best that they cannot see in their self.
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Julian of Norwich: A meditation on wholeness

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


God did not say ‘You will not have a difficult time; you will not be burdened; you will not be distressed’, but he said, ‘You will not be overcome’. God wants us to pay attention to these words so that we can always be strong in trust, in wellbeing and in woe. God loves us and delights in us, so he wants us to love him and delight in him, and trust him completely, and all shall be well.

Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 68

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 All shall be well.

How much did she cling to these words as she drifted in and out of sleep?
How much did they echo deep inside her mind, as she felt vaguely the priest’s anointing thumb press firmly on her forehead?

Did they seem solid and full of promise?
Or hollow shadows of a life that could have been?

Did her own soul feel the warm comfort of words that would shine so much light into the dark suffering of others?

In the years that followed, was it easier for her to speak these words to those who sought her counsel, and God’s love, than it was for her to hear them herself and believe?

All shall be well.

Not words of empty, saccharine nothingness.
Not a rebuke to end our complaining and silence our pain.
But a precious truth wrought by the wrestling of one near to death and close to God.

All shall be well.

Except sometimes, all is not well.

What is the “all” in my life?
Which parts of me need liberating, transforming, redeeming?

Even the darkest, most twisted and disturbing parts of me are not beyond redemption.
Just as Julian’s hours of darkness birthed a spiritual movement, so the most awful things I face may bring surprising liberation.

No experience is wasted.
Nothing will be left behind; cast off as meaningless.
All shall be made well, and all that is well shall make me whole.

All shall be well.

This is not trite comfort.
It comes at a cost.

It asks me to embrace every part of myself and my story.
It asks me to embrace those around me.
There are no lost causes.
There are no wasted moments.

Are there parts of my life I would rather turn from, suppress, be free of?
Are there people in my life I would rather turn from, suppress, be free of?
What would give me the courage to believe that these could be made well?

Can I offer all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I will be, placing myself into God’s hands?
Can I truly trust, in wellbeing and in woe, that all shall be well?

All shall be well.

A clockwork check-up

We have a clockwork baby mobile. It has a dial that turns and coils a spring. At the release of a switch, controlled by cogs, the spring slowly uncoils itself and turns the mobile.

Sometimes, the mechanism gets stuck. The dial will no longer wind, but the cogs won’t turn and the switch will not release the spring.

If the mobile is unscrewed, the coiled spring bursts from the mechanism as it releases its tension, and the mobile spins frantically out of control until it dissipates the energy that it has held captive.

Our souls are a little bit like clockwork.

Things happen. We are wound up, and our complex mechanism of cogs: our emotions, social graces, spirituality, common sense, rest and relationships, deal with the energy that is generated. Under normal circumstances, we are able to release our tension appropriately, creatively, beautifully.

But sometimes, our mechanism is a bit battered. Over time, as we cycle through coiling and uncoiling our springs, we get out of sync with ourselves. The mechanism jams. The switch fails. Our spring gets tighter and tighter with no way of releasing the tension. Eventually, the energy has to go somewhere.

Perhaps we implode.
Perhaps we explode.
Perhaps we seize up completely.

Repairing a jammed clockwork mechanism is a simple task, but it takes a bit of time and care, and you need the right tools.

20160414_111528Can you give your own clockwork mechanism a check-up?
What winds you up?
What helps you to release tension healthily?
Are you feeling tightly wound at present?
What tools do you need to dismantle your own mechanism, release the tension, and reset the spring?

The Annunciation: A meditation on partnering with God

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


She could have said no, you know.
Even as the angel told her what would be, Mary still had a choice.
The angel waited for her response.

God sought Mary’s yes.
He wanted her permission, her assent.

Mary could not have done this alone.
But neither could God.

Nothing will be impossible with God, says the angel.
And nothing would have been possible without Mary.

Mary needed God.
God needed Mary.

God’s suggestion
and
Mary’s assent
heralded an alliance of Heaven and Earth.
A union so perfect, so complete, so potent, that it would set the world alight.

And so as Mary cradled that embryo – then foetus – then baby, with her body, so God himself cradled Mary.
She became overshadowed by the Most High: held, protected, empowered.

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Have I known moments of annunciation? Perhaps…

…a creeping feeling of what will be.
…a prompt to become more fully who I really am.
…a nudge towards my destiny.
…an invitation to partner with God and await what unfolds ahead of me.

I don’t have to say yes.
But are there things that God cannot do without my yes?

Do I ponder, perplexed and disturbed as Mary was, on how God might be using my own moments of annunciation – and my quiet submission to them – to change my own small corner of the world?

And do I know that I am cradled, even as I seek the courage to say “yes”?

Is anybody there?

Is anyone listening?
Does anyone care?

These anguished and lonely cries are as old as human life itself. Wherever there has been life, there has been hardship, suffering, oppression, injustice, cruelty and pain.

I love ancient stories of faith and spirituality. They contain great comfort and wisdom for any of us who are asking these questions.

In our Morning Prayer readings we are hearing again the story of the people of Israel, who have been slaves in Egypt for so long, that they have forgotten who they are.

20160317_103816As they are oppressed, they cry out.
Not to God, but to themselves. To one another.

Honest, angry, anguished and lonely cries.
Just like our own.

Suffering can snatch from us our sense of self.
It erodes our confidence in our own identity.
We forget our own strength.
We neglect to retell our stories.
We lose sight of who we are.

How do we know if anyone listens when we cry out?
How do we know if anyone cares?

We don’t yet know how our own story will end.
We don’t know fully what freedom we will find, or what oppression we will face.
But we can treasure the stories of others.

The story of Israel is precious, because it tells of God’s response to our cries of pain.
We may not feel like anyone has seen, or heard, or knows.
But this is God’s response to the people of Israel, and to us:

I have seen
I see you, struggling.
I watch, as you put in all that effort, for… what?
I notice, when you shed a tear and quickly wipe it away.
I look on, as your busy mind fights the sleep your body so desperately needs.

I have heard
I hear the anxieties that nag at your soul.
I know your thoughts, the moment you think them.
I listen, when no one is there and you allow your grief to rise up.
Do you even hear your own cries?

I know
I know how hard it is.
I know how others treat you.
I know the guilt you carry at how you treat others.
I know things are not fair.
I know that you feel like you’re wading through treacle when you should be soaring on air.
I know you.

I will
I will act.
Circumstances will change.
I will not leave you alone.

You shall
You shall be free.

I Am
I Was.
I Will Be.
I Am.

If you want to read this story for yourself, or you want to know what happens next, you’ll find it in the opening chapters of Exodus, which is the second book of the Bible.

This too shall pass

This too shall pass is one of the proverbs I hold dear. I came to know it and love it after the birth of my second child. By then I had enough experience of parenting a newborn to know that the pain, the exhaustion and the anxiety of those first few weeks were fleeting, and would soon be gone.

And so here is a reflection, borne of my own experience of the tough times. If it’s helpful, I offer it humbly for your own meditation. If not, I hope you will find similar comfort in different words.

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This too shall pass.

THIS
Acknowledge the reality of what’s happening.
It is tough. Painful. Perhaps unbearable.
Name the feelings that it arouses.
Own them. Dwell within them.
Don’t suppress your emotions.
Don’t ignore how you feel.
Listen to your soul.
Talk about it, even to yourself.
Journal it.
Pray it.
If it’s awful, say that aloud.
Don’t try to flee from this moment.

TOO
You have been here before.
You have dealt with similar emotions.
Similar awfulness.
Past experience has equipped you to cope with this.
You may not feel you can deal with this, but you can.
This place may not be as new as it feels.
Build on what you learned last time you were here.
Stretch your resilience to new depths.
Like you did last time.

SHALL
The present moment is not everything.
Your current feelings are not the sum of you.
Detach and observe.
Don’t get swamped by that cloud of despair.
The future still has gifts to give you.
The future calls you to offer gifts for others.
Stay in the present, but keep an eye on all that is to come.
Promise and hope will follow after.
Events evolve, feelings change.
It won’t be the same by next week. Next month. Next year.
Not may. Not won’t. But shall.

PASS
This will leave you be, eventually.
Time will move on.
New developments will come.
You will find ways to adapt and survive and grow.
Circumstances will alter.
New strength will find you.
It might get tougher.
It might not.
You will change.
As clouds pass over the mountain tops, so this will pass over you.

This too shall pass.

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Our sin is too small

Sin
(/’sɪn/)

It’s not really a fashionable word. Archaic, damning, uncomfortable. The preserve of the religious or the old fashioned. A word we usually try and avoid.

Lent forces us to confront sin, knowingly or not.

As we enter a season of self-denial or renewed discipline, we may be setting aside things that we think might be associated with sin. Food, bad habits, unkind attitudes, silly distractions.

Perhaps when we think of sin, we think of something like the seven deadly sins:
Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride.

 We think of sin as action or inaction that damages others, spoils creation, and hurts ourselves.

But if this is all we think of when we think of sin, then our sin is much too small.

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Am I a sinful person? The question is a painful one to ask.

Most of us, on some level, feel woefully inadequate and painfully aware of our failings. We carry around the guilt of memories of times we have allowed the darker side of our nature to overcome us. And we carry around shame about the times we have felt not good enough, or simply not enough. Each of us will see brokenness in our lives.

Sin is about more than what we do, or don’t do.
Sin is about losing sight of our true self.
Sin is about forgetting the identity that God has given us.
Sin is about holding back part of our self from God.
Sin is about falling short of everything that we could do, and everything we could be.

To turn from sin is to become more fully ourselves.
To turn from sin is to embrace the darkest, most broken part of our self.
To turn from sin is to accept the part of our self that we hide away: the part of us that longs for wholeness, healing and acceptance.

This turning away from who we are not, and realising more fully our true identity, is what we see in those people who meet Jesus. Mary, his mother; the disciples; the men suffering from leprosy, paralysis and deformity in Luke 5 and 6; the woman who was haemorrhaging; Mary, Martha and Lazarus; the Samaritan woman at the well; the woman who anoints Jesus; the woman caught in adultery; the thief on the cross: All come to a fuller understanding of their identity and purpose after an encounter (or several) with Christ.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Deut 6:4-5

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Lev 19:18

In our self examination, how often do we consider whether we love ourselves?
We may feel that to do so is to be selfish or conceited.

But perhaps the first step to dealing with the brokenness in our lives is to learn to love our very self.

Perhaps we cannot fully love God and love others, until we first learn to accept the parts of our self that we detest.

Turning from sin is about becoming more the person that we are meant to be. This means tackling some difficult truths and travelling some dark paths.

I love the prayer of confession below because it sums up, for me, what sin and repentance are about. We are not naughty children, tempted by uncontrollable impulses and guilty of breaking the rules. Sin is more complex, more damaging, and yet infinitely more redeemable than this.

We long to be free and accepted and whole.
We are painfully aware that we screw things up.
We carry guilt and shame as tumours on our souls.
We are so overwhelmed at times by our own darkness and brokenness, that we feel we cannot go on.

But God is good, and he is calling us to name our darkness, to embrace our brokenness, and to accept the transformation of his love and forgiveness.

O God, Giver of Life, Bearer of Pain, Maker of Love,
you are able to accept in us what we cannot even acknowledge;
you are able to name in us what we cannot bear to speak of;
you are able to hold in your memory
what we have tried to forget;
you are able to hold out to us
the glory that we cannot conceive of.
Reconcile us through You
to all that we have rejected in our selves,
that we may find no part of your creation
to be alien or strange to us,
and that we ourselves may be made whole.
Through Jesus Christ, our lover and our friend.
Amen.
Janet Morley

God forgives you.
Will you forgive yourself?

Into the Ashes

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, are we concerned with our beginning or our ending?

We are at the beginning of Lent: forty days of fasting and devotion lie ahead of us.
We are perhaps considering beginning something new: a spiritual discipline, new habit, or acts of kindness.
We are reminded, as the cross of ash dusts our faces, of the new beginnings we have in Christ.

And Ash Wednesday is about our ending too.
We might be committing ourselves to ending bad habits, or denying ourselves something for a season.
We are invited to confront our mortality: to dust you will return.
We are marked with ash: the bleak nothingness that is left after glowing embers have died cold.

Ash Wednesday is a beginning and an ending.
Ash Wednesday is a liturgical staging post, encouraging us to take a moment, step out of our tired routines, and pause.
Ash Wednesday is a turning circle: an opportunity to look back, look ahead, put down, pick up, re-evaluate, take stock, change direction, and carry on.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we have the courage to face our ending.
Into the ashes we go, as we put on the symbol of all that threatens our wellbeing and happiness.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can wear death on our face and say that this is not the end.

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The ash that we wear is not a smudge, but a cross.
A reminder of the instrument of destruction that brought an end to death.
A statement that we find our beginning in Christ’s ending.

On Ash Wednesday, we are called again to faithfulness.
The crossed ash is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to us: the once-for-all act that has put an end to death and destruction so that we can face all our endings with courage and hope.
As we stop at the staging post, turn around in the turning circle, we do so confident of God’s unending love for us.

The ash that we wear today is not a curse, but a blessing.

Over two millennia ago, God was calling his people back to him through the words of the prophet Joel.
God is still calling.
Ash Wednesday is a day to hear the distant voice of our God, ever-patient, ever-loving, as he calls us back again to his mercy.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. 
(Joel 2:12-13)

This Lent, what do you want to turn from and to?
This Lent, what do you want to put down or pick up?
Is there “bleak nothingness” in your life?
What would transform this nothingness into a new start?
What signs can you see around you of God’s faithfulness to you?
Is God calling you to something?