Making Space To Be With God in Advent

As Advent approaches, it can be easy to get swept up in the frantic search for presents, the battle to get the food shopping done, the endless list of chores before the family visits…

 

Yet at the same time, it’s a season when we’re looking to increase our time with God.  We want to study the Bible, spend time in prayer, meditate on those well-know prophesies of old and just be still in the midst of the crowds and contemplate the meaning of the season.

Advent is a time of waiting, of anticipation.  This season, just as Lent, is a time when we prepare ourselves to embrace the full meaning of Word becoming flesh, arriving as a tiny baby, dying as a Saviour.  Advent draws our eye back to the promises of God and gives us time and space to consider the riches of God’s plans for his people.

Maybe, then, we need to give ourselves a break and seek God in the simplicity of everyday life.  Maybe it’s quality, not quantity, God wants…

Grab the moments of stillness or quiet

Each day, there will be certain moments where you find yourself with a few minutes in which there’s nothing to do.  It could be whilst you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.  It could be putting the TV on mute during the adverts in a TV show.  Perhaps it’s at that moment where the kids/dog/spouse have gone to sleep and you can just pause momentarily.  At this time of year, standing in the queue at the shops, or waiting under a shelter while the rain stops can all be very practical (and regular) opportunities to take a breath and remember the presence of God among his people.

You could:

  • Have one short verse each day.  You can quickly re-read it through the day in the quiet minutes.
  • Have an email/app on your phone with an Advent reading or prayer timed to your lunch or coffee break
  • Use study notes that give you a brief 5-10 min reflection that can be squeezed in before bed/over breakfast/while dinner cooks
  • Choose a certain place in your house/office and start a habit of pausing there each time you pass and recalling something to thank God for this Advent
  • Recite a simple breath prayer at those quiet moments

Find chances to multi-task

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, suggests lots of everyday activities you could use to reflect on God’s presence:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Making beds
  • Drinking tea
  • Eating a meal

It’s both practical and thought-provoking!

Another simple thing that can be done is to take an ordinary daily task and practice doing it with God.  A classic example is a commute – perhaps listen to worship music, an audio Bible or podcast.  The “Christmas in Ordinary Time” series here http://contemplativeathome.com/page/5/ is a lovely one.

Walking the dog, going for a run, cleaning or doing the gardening are other things that can be done in God’s company.

Diary some extra time in

Think about taking opportunities to spend longer with God, even if it can only be occasional.  Look at your diary for the next few months for a day where there’s less happening –a group you belong to isn’t meeting, your partner/child/ housemate is going to be away, you’ve got an afternoon off work etc.  Book in an appointment with God at that time (give him a code name if needed – he won’t mind!).  Looking for these times can be a great way of setting aside time to go deeper. 

Why not take some time out:

  • Take yourself to a coffee shop and have a festive treat whilst reading a book/Advent study (Paula Gooder’s “The Meaning is in the Waiting” and “Walking Backwards to Christmas” by Stephen Cottrell are both fantastic!)
  • Go for a walk in the park and chat to God about what’s on your mind as you do
  • Book into a retreat centre for an Advent quiet day or prayer meeting
  • Visit a church service or event that you wouldn’t normally attend

Find the thing that makes you tick

  • Gary Thomas has written a great book – Sacred Pathways – which is widely available
  • NCD has produced a survey which can be accessed online: https://3colourworld.org/en/etests
  • David Csinos has researched this area – The Church of Scotland has a really helpful summary of his ideas.  It’s applied to children but makes an awful lot of sense for adults too

Work out when and where you feel most alive with God – your preferred spiritual style.  For some it might be formal worship in church, for others it may be getting outdoors in God’s creation, for others creative arts, quiet contemplation, acts of service, times of prayer/fasting.  This Advent, make an effort to find the things that get your heart racing or touch your spirit, and make time to do it.  If it’s something you enjoy, it won’t feel like a chore and will help you reflect with passion on this season of promise and anticipation.

More Words…

So, in my last post, I was exploring some of the challenges I have faced when helping people to understand the importance of “Spirituality” in their everyday walk with God (and, on occasion, in my job title!).  However, over the last few months, I have also discovered that the word “passionate” can also present some issues for a few people.

“Isn’t it all a bit exuberant and demonstrative if one is described as passionate?  We don’t do that – we’re British!”

“can’t it actually mean that you’re a bit excessive or radical?  Will it not potentially put people off?”

(This is a conversation I have had numerous times, so I paraphrase multiple people, rather than quoting individuals!)

“Passion” doesn’t mean that you have to be a raving fanatic, an overly-expressive bouncy person who waves their arms and spontaneously worships in the street or that you have to be all mushy and sentimental about God like you’re writing him a Valentine’s card (in fact, don’t get me started on that last point…!).   It doesn’t even mean that you always have to be happy – frustration, doubt and sorrow can all have a place in our walk of faith (just read the Psalms!). 

What it does mean though, is that there is a deep-seated sense of identity and conviction in your relationship with Jesus.

Passion means you’re authentic and real and that something holds a deeply-rooted significance to you.  It means that you’ve found something that’s really worth your time and energy.  It means someone or something has become a defining part of your identity and will shape your decisions and lifestyle.  That’s how we need to approach our faith.  As disciples of Jesus, we need to be real, to be seeking to become more like him and allowing his teachings and the knowledge of his sacrificial love to define our identity as a child of God.  How we do that can vary greatly: from denomination to denomination; from generation to generation and – in my experience as an individual – from day to day!

Passionate Spirituality isn’t about what you do, or where you do it.  It’s about the why.  It flows out of a heart that recognises the importance of having God at the centre of all you do and all you are.  Why do we worship?  Why do we pray?  Why do we read the Bible?  The answer to all of these questions should start with a desire to draw closer into God’s presence and establish his rule in our life.  What we do will be a more personal reflection of what helps us to fulfil this purpose.

If spending time practising the ancient disciplines of the saints of history is a way you can still yourself and feel close to God, then that’s wonderful.  Contemplative traditions are rich and beautiful and if this is something you have never explored, then I encourage you to have a taster. 

If sitting with a coffee, a note pad and your Bible for a good long session of exploring God’s word is something that makes you tick, then make sure you do that regularly – and if it’s not something you do, have a go!  The Word of God is an incredible gift and gives us a clear glimpse into his design for humanity, his saving grace through Jesus and the revelation of what true discipleship is about.

However, if cranking up the worship music in the car and belting your heart out is your “soul time”, or popping on boots and a waterproof and stomping around God’s beautiful creation gets your heart beating faster (not just because of the exercise), or if going out into the town or city where you live and ministering to those who need to experience some love and compassion in their lives makes you feel like you’re in God’s presence then, oh please, yes!, go and do it!

Live enthusiastically, love deeply, serve faithfully and be a whole-hearted, whole-of-life disciple…

Or have passionate spirituality…

Or refer to it as “soul-growing”…

God really won’t mind what you call it, as long as you’re finding your way to do it.  He just wants you to come to him.

 

If this idea of discipleship and spirituality is something you feel you would like to explore further, then I would be delighted to meet and have a chat – please do get in touch – lisa.holt@covcofe.org

It’s Only Words…

“What is in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”

– William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

One of the most common questions I’ve had since taking up this post has gone along the lines of “Passionate Spirituality?  Isn’t that all about mindfulness and meditation?”  Someone else asked me whether it was “contemplative stuff with candles”.  The most entertaining was a comment I read online, along the lines of “I tried it once.  It wasn’t for me”.

 

The idea that spirituality is something we do as a one-off made me smile (like dyeing our hair purple or running a marathon – bucket list checked!).  However, at the same time the fact that it is clearly so misunderstood that it can be reduced to a “thing you tried once” made me really sad.  Passionate Spirituality should be an integral way of life for the effective, spirit-filled Christian

I think the issue is often with the word “spirituality”.  For some people, it conjures up ideas of Eastern philosophy, zen-like attitudes and yoga.  For others, it directs their thoughts to the resurgence of interest in New Age spiritualities – crystals, Gaia philosophy and inner-goddesses.  Others do see it as a Christian concept, but as a discrete branch within Christianity that takes a narrow view of contemplative prayer or ancient monastic traditions only followed by the holiest of people.

From the start, I want to make it clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with contemplative prayer, meditation on scripture, lighting candles or any other form of expression that a person’s faith is drawn to.  There is a rich and symbolic history behind all of these things and the opportunities they present to “be still and know” God’s presence are incredibly valuable… 

…but these are still only a tiny selection of the ways in which we can have a passionate spirituality at work in our lives.  So, let’s strip it right back and work out what it’s all about.

Let’s start by using different terminology.  If “spirituality” has connotations for you that are negative, confusing or just plain vague, let’s talk about “discipleship” instead.  The origins for the word are well-known to be focussed on learning from or being a student of someone, but the Latin word for disciple also had close ties to the word “Capulus”, meaning “to grasp” or “take hold of” (commonly used to refer to the handle of a sword).  So discipleship could be seen as grasping learning and understanding about God.  Passionate Discipleship, then, is about being eager and enthusiastic in doing so.

Passionate Discipleship actively seeks opportunities to draw close to God.  Passionate Discipleship seizes time, space and activity in which to grow in knowledge and understanding of the nature of God and the person of his Son, Jesus.  Those first disciples lived their lives in the presence of Jesus.  They travelled with him, ate with him, talked and laughed with him and then grieved with him.  Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we get to do the same – looking for God’s hand in every aspect of our lives and taking every day (not just Sundays!) as an opportunity to grow in our faith and live it out practically through prayer, worship and our relationship with others.

 

“Spirituality” and “discipleship” merely describe the journey each of us are embarking on to follow the path Jesus has set and become transformed into his likeness through the time we spend learning from him.  Moses was physically transformed by the time he spent in God’s presence.  Paul had his whole outlook on life turned upside down.  Encountering God fully, whatever label we put on it, should be our greatest goal.

So, that’s all clear then…?  Well, not quite…

 

In the second instalment of this blog, we will be exploring the concept of “passion” in relation to our Christian faith and considering how a combination of commitment to following Jesus and conviction to do it whole-heartedly can lead us on our way to being the followers he has called us to be.

 

Until next time…

Refreshing Waters

“Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river.  Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” 

– Ezekiel 47:12

 

What a welcome blessing the rain on Saturday 28th July turned out to be.  Farmers and gardeners rejoiced at the refreshing downpour, the reservoirs were topped up after weeks of hot dry weather and the ducks on the canal in Sydenham relocated to the puddles in the carparks!

Meanwhile, over in Budbrooke, the Serving Christ Team were holding a retreat day for lay leaders from across the Diocese, designed to offer time and space for refreshing and replenishing aside from busy lives and ministries within churches.  The idea had first come about after Jen and I had both been meeting with churches who were blessed with enthusiastic leaders who were giving their time and energy to faithfully serve the churches but who were reaching exhaustion and in need of time and space to just “be” with God themselves.

 

Further conversation led us both to reflect on Ezekiel 47 as a relevant passage, with imagery of a river from the temple and fruit trees growing on the banks to convey the depth and expanse of God’s blessing for us.  Very quickly it was felt that God was calling us to step out and hold an event where people in ministry could be ministered to.  The vision was for a day where they could be supported, invested in and blessed with time to be with God away from their busy lives.

We welcomed 28 people from 21 churches to St Michael’s Centre in Budbrooke, supported by our colleague Gareth and Lay Reader Gemma Took, and were hugely encouraged by the day.  As people arrived, there was a buzz of conversation and it was incredibly special to see people greeting old friends from across the churches and taking the opportunity to begin conversations with new people.  We then began the first session of the day with a time of prayer and sung worship, which led into some teaching on the passage, along with a time for reflection and discussion, before breaking for lunch.  The key themes we wanted to bring out from Ezekiel were focused on the refreshing power of the river in his vision, the depths of God’s blessing and power, if we allow ourselves to go deeper, and the rich fruits that He can grow in a leader who is nourished, filled with the Spirit and empowered to pause, rest and invest in their own discipleship.

 Over the lunch break, we had the opportunity to chat with a number of people from across these churches and hear their stories.  Stories of blessing and new opportunities in churches, stories of personal encounters with God, and stories from countless years of faithful and sacrificial service to their churches and communities.  What a wonderful, spirit-filled group of people we met that day – and how they deserved to rest and enjoy being with God!

 

 

The afternoon session was given over to personal time with God, using a selection of creative prayer stations, quiet spaces for individual prayer or just the beautiful natural surroundings that Budbrooke provides.  The idea was for people to be as active or as still as they liked, and to just allow them to find space with God.  The feedback we have received, both on the day and since then, has drawn out how significant this time was.  

It is such a rare treat for most of us to get off the treadmill of daily life and just be with God – and how special and powerful those times are.  Building in regular time with God is a lifeline to those in ministry and that afternoon became an oasis for those present.  Finishing with another time of worship and a short Eucharist, led by Rev David Brown, we drew the day to a close with words of refreshing, blessing and commission.

 

So, having spent the day thinking about how vital God’s living water is, flowing from his throne out into the temple and then out again into the lives of his people, we prayed that those who joined us would feel refreshed and well-watered… and as we walked out of the church at 3.30pm the heavens, quite literally, opened.

 

If you would be interested in coming on future retreats, or would like support to host one of your own, please get in touch with Lisa (lisa.holt@covcofe.org) or Jen (jen.thornton@covcofe.org) at the Serving Christ Team to discuss – they would be delighted to help you.

Risky Business

I recently headed off to Colchester, to take part in a discipleship conference organised by New Wine.  “Walking on Water” was a full day event, led by Paul and Becky Harcourt and hosted by St John’s, Colchester, looking at the challenges of being a risk-taking disciple.

Paul and Becky both shared their personal experiences of coming to faith in Jesus and learning to step out of their comfort zone (one entrenched in logic and reason, the other working through the hurts of a broken heart and spirit).  Both acknowledged the impact that head or heart can have on us when we’re exploring our relationship with Jesus and looking to put our trust in him, and explored ways to embrace our natural inclinations in a way that allow us to step out confidently in our faith.

Much of the challenge for us, as for the Disciples who witnessed that dramatic event with Jesus walking across the lake to greet them, is balancing what we are told God can do with what we expect God to do.  The Disciples knew Jesus could perform miracles – just that day they had witnessed him feeding 5000 people from one boy’s packed lunch – yet somehow they still saw them as remote.  Something that Jesus did for other people.

How often do we find ourselves viewing the world through these same discipleship eyes?  We’re witnesses to amazing things that other, holier people do, yet somehow don’t see ourselves having a part to play in them ourselves.  It’s exciting to hear the stories, see the transformations, share in the celebrations but, ultimately, God uses others to do these things.  He doesn’t use us…

Years ago, John Ortberg published a book which, by its title alone, jumped off the shelf and shouted at me: “If you want to walk on water, then you have to get out of the boat”.  It spoke volumes to me.  I struggled at that time in my life to think of dramatic things God had done through me… but then I’d never tried to do anything dramatic for him!  The Minister at my church is fond of telling us that “there’s nothing that will make you feel more miserable than being a half-hearted Christian”, and I can understand what he’s saying.  God has given us gifts, skills, opportunities and circumstances, all of which can be used to reflect something of him in our everyday lives.  If we don’t take these chances, how much are we missing out on?

That night in the boat, 12 grown men were afraid.  They didn’t understand what they were seeing and couldn’t make any rational sense out of it.  Perhaps it’s surprising that these men who had shared in every amazing moment of Jesus’ ministry so far, saw a figure walking on water and, rather than thinking look – it’s Jesus, thought Help!  It’s a ghost!  They were underestimating his power, and possibly his desire to be with them (physically and metaphorically!).

Peter’s challenge to Jesus – “Lord, if it is really you… tell me to come to you on the water” (Matt 14:28) could be seen as the height of arrogance.  Jesus is the Messiah, God incarnate on earth and Peter is asking to perform the same miraculous wonders as him.  Jesus could have pointed out this fact to him, reminding Peter of his complete humanity (and the laws of gravity!).  However, Jesus rewards Peter’s enthusiasm by calling him out onto the water… and Peter walks!  It’s easy to look at that story and focus on the fact that he also sinks, but before that PETER WALKS ON WATER.  Not very far, or for very long, but he walks.  He has the courage to take the risk and he glimpses the enormity of God’s power.  What must that do for his faith?

Fast forward to a point after Jesus death and resurrection and we see Peter, along with John, being stopped by a lame beggar.  When asked for some spare change, Peter instead offers a prayer of healing and the man gets up and walks.  I wonder how formative that moment out on the lake was in this?  Despite the moment of doubt and failure out on the water, Peter takes a step closer to the courage that believes God can and will use him, if he has faith and keeps his focus on Jesus.  He learns that failure is not the final outcome – only a starting point for the next risk.

Now, I’m not advocating you all go out and try walking on your local pond – unless the mission context somehow requires it!  Perhaps we can all start by taking some smaller risks though.  Asking God to give us a word or picture for someone.  Perhaps walking through town on our lunch break and asking God to show you something new that you can do to serve him.  Striking up a conversation with a stranger because that feeling in the pit of your stomach says the Holy Spirit is nudging at you.  Asking the person who’s having a bad day if you can pray with them.  It’s scary, it’s unpredictable and you might end up feeling a bit out of your comfort zone, but God might just choose to use you there…  After all – it’s no harder than walking on water!

What risk will you take today?

The Importance of Story

Being able to tell our story and identify the things God is doing in and through us is one of the most powerful witnesses we have.  One of the areas of passionate spirituality that we seem to struggle most with is articulating to others what God has done in our lives and how we can see his transformative power at work in our everyday.

A few weeks ago, as part of my “fact finding mission” to see what was already happening in the Diocese from the point of view of spirituality and discipleship, I visited Red Hill Christian Centre in rural Warwickshire.  A place of retreat and somewhere to enjoy time-out in the peace and beauty of God’s creation, they themselves have an amazing story of vision and providence, well worth finding out about.  However, on this particular day, the story that impacted me most was a quite unexpected one, shared in the freezing cold and, amazingly, at the foot of a cross on the hillside.

Martha* was staying at the centre, whilst on a visit from overseas, having emigrated a few years earlier.  She had returned to England upon hearing the news that her son, who still lived over here, was missing, after developing an addiction, finding himself homeless and later disappearing from the shelter he had been staying at.

She explained how the police had been notified but, faced with the prospect of finding a young homeless addict in London, they had not been optimistic of success.  “A needle in a haystack” was how they described her situation.  Undeterred, Martha had embarked on a frantic search around the familiar areas of the city, praying as she went.  Some people told her that it was a near impossible task but, supported by relatives, she continued.  Eventually finding a possible sighting in a shop, she left her number with the shopkeeper and asked that he call her if he should see him, then went back to her persistent search for a lost and broken son.

One Friday evening, sitting with her family, the phone call came.  The shopkeeper had just seen her son and he was standing outside the shop.  A 25 minute journey to get there, Martha and her family prayed that God would intervene and keep him there.  Her phone rang again, to say that he had walked off and the shopkeeper didn’t know where to.  Still Martha prayed.  The phone rang again.  He was back outside.  In desperation, Martha and her family prayed – “God, if it’s him, hold him there.  Stick his feet to the floor”.

When the car pulled up, the family spread in different directions, ready to comb the area.  They didn’t need to look hard.  They found him, sat on a bench opposite the shop, “as still as a statue”.  Martha ran to embrace him and found him unresponsive and “lost to the world”.  As she gently took him in her arms and reassured him that it was all okay – that she was there – he broke down.  “He said he was afraid to touch me, in case I turned out to just be a dream”.

Taking him home for a hot bath, clean clothes and a good square meal, the search began for a rehab centre who could care for him.  They prayed it would be somewhere run by Christians who could love him, as well as heal him.  One was found.  They prayed that finances wouldn’t be a barrier, and he was offered a subsidised place, based on someone else’s generosity.

Having settled him in and reassured him, Martha had a few days spare, before flying home.  She felt God nudging her to take some rest after her frantic few weeks and allow him to minister to her pain in return.  This was how we came to be stood on a hillside together, on a freezing day in spring, under the shadow of a cross.

With each reference to an answered prayer, she demonstrated the power we have to encourage one another with our stories.  What have we prayed about recently?  How has God helped us in the situations we have found ourselves in?  Each one of us has opportunity and ability to offer simple words that reflect the presence of God in our lives.  As she shared her story, I was overwhelmed by the parallel between her desperate search for a hurting son, and God’s desire to find each one of us and bring us home to him.  No judgement, no condemnation, just overwhelming love for His children that desires nothing but to see them safe.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

that saved a wretch like me

I once was lost,

but now I’m found,

was blind but now I see

(J. Newton, 1779)

 

 

*Names changed to protect privacy, story shared with permission.