In quietness and trust: Tell stories

This is the third in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Tell stories!

Stories can start anywhere.

“Mummy – what does that sign say on that bench?”
“It says it’s there to remember someone who died”
“Who died?”
“I don’t know – just somebody who liked this place”
“Do we know somebody who died?”
“Yes. Grandma died, just before you were born…”

And so I tell Ben the story of his Grandma. I tell him what she was like, and how much she would have loved him. About how I promised to tell him all about her. I show him photos. We talk about Heaven and Jesus and how many cats Daddy and Grandma had when Daddy was a little boy. And what their names were. And are there cats in Heaven? (My answer is yes). And can Ben have a cat at home? (My answer is no).

Stories tell us who we are.
They tell us where we have come from.
They might hint at where we’re going.

Kids love stories. So do adults – we just forget that we like them so much.

Stories make great prayers for kids. Not just reading the Bible together, or retelling faith stories. We find God in all sorts of stories. God is there in Stick Man and Dear Zoo. God is found in Sarah and Duck, and Peppa Pig. Everywhere we hear stories of love and laughter, of loyalty and trust, of hope and generosity – there God is to be found.

Just as we know ourselves by our stories, so we know God by his stories. The stories we tell to make sense of the world, and to process life. These stories all tell us a little bit more about who God is, and why he is, and how and where and what he is. This stuff – identity, security, revelation, thanksgiving, hope – is the stuff of prayer.

I try to tell stories to my kids. We read picture books; watch films; make things up. I tell them where they have come from – and what is important and why?

And I try to listen. I listen to their own fantasies and dreams and anecdotes. We explore and adventure together through story, and offer it all to God as prayer.

When we lose our stories, we lose our lives. But wherever there are stories, there is God.

(And while we’re on it, check out the brilliant Storytime Service website!)

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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.

The downward spiral of spiritual apathy…

…or why we all feel so tired, unfulfilled and sad.

Do you ever have moments of emptiness that are impossible to fill?

Times where you pour good food, great sex and extravagant purchases into a black hole that refuses to be satisfied?
Feelings of inexplicable guilt that are impossible to assuage for more than a fleeting hour?
A desperate need to flee your circumstances in your quest for happiness?

The problem might be acedia.

Acedia is a disease of the soul. We are so ignorant of its existence, never mind the damage it can inflict, that we probably have never heard its name.

Acedia is the spiritual apathy that leads us away from what gives us life.
It is a neglect of the soul, a hardening of the heart, and an embrace of everything that stops us from knowing ourselves.

In his book Finding Happiness, Abbot Christopher Jamison unpacks why acedia is such a problem for us. He examines it in terms of monastic life:

“I know that a monk can be overwhelmed by spiritual exhaustion; is it worth persevering, they wonder. The thought grows that this way of life isn’t valid for me any longer, that my companions are not right and that I should be doing something else, not wasting my life here. As the discipline of the monastic life becomes distasteful, so it is slowly worn away: less prayer, less self-awareness and a growing rejection of the life of the community. Alongside this is often found the impulse to replace spiritual exercises with more and more good deeds.”

The symptoms of acedia include:
– restlessness
– downheartedness
– exhaustion
– a lack of peace
– a yearning to escape
– anxiety
– feeling uncentred and unfulfilled.

Jamison argues that disdain for the familiar and a desire to give up are at the heart of acedia.”

Sound familiar?

Whether we are religious or not, we neglect the inner life at our peril. We are part of and we perpetuate a culture where profit and success are cherished above everything that is sacrificed for them: relationships, peace, rest, fun, prayer and stillness. When we feel unfulfilled or guilty or restless, the temptation is to continue to flee from our inner self.

We fill our lives when we should be emptying them.
We stay on the treadmill when we should be hitting the stop button.

I have started to identify what I think is an acedia cycle in my own life:

acedia cycle

It starts well (1). I give time to prayer, stillness, contemplation and reading.

From this place of rest and refreshment, I am able to live and minister effectively and happily (2). A healthy inner life feeds a healthy outer life, and an active outer life is rooted in a healthy inner life.

But then eventually I will begin to neglect the inner life (3).
Perhaps a busy week or a change of routine means that my times of stillness are pushed out.
Perhaps I lose the discipline of regular reading, and I forget the value of words that nurture my soul.

This neglect takes me to a place of acedia (4).
I feel increasingly unfulfilled, and I seek fulfilment in my work.
Working hard means I start to feel tired.
When I feel tired, I feel guilty and frustrated.
I try to deal with my guilt by working harder (5).
When I work hard I feel self-satisfied, and perhaps smug.
And then I feel tired and guilty again.
The drive to work harder means rest and stillness become of little value, and I enter a downward spiral of guilt and overwork that leads eventually to…

Exhaustion, illness and burnout (6), which necessitate rest and recovery (7). In the past, it hasn’t been until this crisis moment that I have become aware of my habit of overwork.

I am learning to recognise the warning signs, but the moment this downward spiral begins is the moment that I need the greatest self-awareness, humility and discipline. It’s also the moment I most need to hear the challenge that comes from God and others: How did you get to be so busy?

And so I am left wondering:

  • What other destructive cycles have acedia at their heart?
    Greed and over indulgence?
    Consumerism and affluenza?
    Gambling and other addictions?
    Infidelity and unhealthy attitudes to sex?
    Others?
  • Are there people who live consistently in the downward spiral of acedia and never find freedom from it?
  • If you recognise yourself in any of this, what are the warning signs that you need to be aware of to regain a balance and nurture your inner life?

Jamison offers two remedies for acedia:

  • The first is to fill our minds with things that will nurture us: resist gossip, and don’t read rubbish. Instead, read books that nourish, and talk about things that build up.
  • The second is to devote time to prayer, meditation or reflection. This should be regular and disciplined. But I don’t think it has to be onerous. Halfway through the morning, I make a cup of coffee and take it in the garden. The ten minutes I spend there, silent and contemplative, give my soul enough nourishment to get through the rest of the day. In this way prayer becomes a time to be cherished, and not a millstone.

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Acedia afflicts us all, and it will take each of us a lifetime to overcome. However much we fall into its grasp, let us not be so ignorant of its dangers that we cannot even name the source of our unhappiness, our unsettledness, our guilt and our anxiety.

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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Catherine of Siena: A meditation on becoming yourself

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.


If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.
Catherine of Siena, Letter T368

It is the hardest thing in the world.
To become yourself.
It involves more than simply being.

You learned quickly to hide your self away.
The knocks of childhood and the taunts of adolescence
Pushed your self into a shell that calcified and cocooned.

Becoming yourself is a conscious uncovering that leaves you vulnerable;
Emerging from your shell of self-preservation to stand naked in the world.

Becoming yourself is active resistance;
Breaking the chains of others’ expectations that hold you captive.

Becoming yourself is an act of courageous stepping up;
Grasping that you alone can do the work you are called to do.

Becoming yourself requires you to
know yourself,
love yourself ,
embrace yourself.

Becoming yourself is to become tinder for another;
You are not becoming yourself for your own self’s sake.

As you become yourself
You may never feel the heat of the fire you leave in your wake.

As you become yourself
You may never see the sparks left behind by your authenticity.

As you become yourself
You may see only sad, smouldering ashes where you thought there would be a blaze.

To become yourself is to take a risk:
You risk finding nothing inside your shell.
You risk stripping everything away to be left ashamedly exposed.
You risk fizzling out before you set the world on fire.

As you become yourself, may you come to know your precious complexity.
Beneath your precious complexity, may you find quiet simplicity.
In your quiet simplicity, may you find still pools of peace.

And bathed in peace, may you set the world alight.

Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.

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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.

“Ducks only”

There was an excellent piece of journalism in the Guardian just over a year ago about the travesty that is defensive architecture: the spikes and bollards and uncomfortable bus stop benches that are supposed to prevent “anti-social” behaviour.

What about defensive signage? That is, the signs around us that are designed to instruct, protect, control and inform. Some of these are good and necessary. Without road signs, for example, driving would be chaotic and perhaps dangerous.

But signs create a certain atmosphere, however unconscious we are of them. As a family we visited an attraction last week that was littered with instructive or prohibitive signs:

No entry for visitors
Disabled parking and drop off only
Private
This area is closed
No access to gardens
No entry (CCTV in operation)
No parking
No
No
NO

(The final three may have been exaggerated)

None of the signs were wrong in themselves. Some were helpful. But the cumulative effect was to create an atmosphere in which we were not cherished guests, but punters to be controlled and definitely not trusted. The atmosphere felt unwelcoming and tense: not very hospitable. A little eavesdropping on conversations between staff suggested they felt the tension too, with a panicky instruction to clear pots off a table quickly (in an otherwise half-empty restaurant) before a supervisor reappeared and saw it was dirty. The signs, and this conversation, reflected a place managed by a desire to control, and encourage ‘good’ behaviour and conformity. We’re not particularly unruly, but we didn’t really feel comfortable and at home here.

If the signs we display affect the atmosphere around us, they must also affect our behaviour and our emotions. On holiday last year in Anglesey, these signs didn’t make me feel especially welcome, as an alien in town:


If I was resident there, how would these signs make me feel? Suspicious, perhaps, of strangers who were not quick to leave? We seem to be increasingly suspicious, perhaps frightened, of those who are unknown and unexpected.

Do we display these signs because we are frightened?
Or
Are we frightened because we display these signs?

This sign, displayed last year on our local playground, with its imperative “do not”, suggested we weren’t in a place of games and fun, but perhaps standing on the edge of a live volcanic crater, or next to live electrical wires:

CQ8BGMuWwAAXtwR

I think the problem was actually that the playground surface was in need of repair. The one thing that this sign did was ensure a steady stream of daredevil kids vaulted the fence to play somewhere with such good advertising displayed!

Signs are important. But are we aware of how their tone can create a particular atmosphere, and engender particular feelings or behaviour? Who wouldn’t be put into a slightly better mood by this sign – informative and instructive, but fun – at Martin Mere?

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And so I’m left reflecting…

What signs do we see around us, in our neighbourhoods, and in people we know?
How do they make us feel?

What signs do we display?
On our homes, our clothes, and through our words and our body language?
What messages do they communicate?
Are these messages the ones we’d like to communicate?

Are there things we’d like to tell the world that we could begin to say through the signs we display?

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?