Sunday, 27 September 2015

Meditation for dummies

I've been meditating. 

Despite having been brought up on Richard Foster's seminal book Celebration of Discipline (1978) I'd never quite got the difference between prayer and meditation, but the exponential rise in interest in mindfulness has put meditation back on the map for me (though now I'm not entirely sure what the difference between mindfulness and meditation is...)

I came to meditation after a sudden spell of poor health - nothing serious, but scary at the time - and what I realised was that I could, with a few small changes, be a lot more aware than I was of what was happening in my body and mind on a daily basis. The enemy of this mindful state is, of course, busyness; rushing through life without noticing that you haven't slept that well for a few nights, haven't been exercising or drinking enough liquid, say; are upset about something you haven't voiced, or simply that you haven't had enough rest, for example.

The challenge in taking up meditation, though, is to find more time. Because if you're going to practise it on a daily basis you have to find a time of day to do it, and stick to it, and to ring fence that time (and even only 15 minutes can seem long when you're a beginner). You also ideally need a quiet place to sit, which is surprisingly difficult in normal life. Sitting still and 'doing nothing' is counter intuitive since all our cultural training in the West is against 'being' (character, spirituality) and in favour of 'doing' (usefulness, productivity). So not only do you have the practical challenge of carving out time and space, and sticking to it, you also have the intellectual challenge of feeling that it's a waste of time anyway.

I was fortunate that a friend enthused about the benefits of meditation to such a degree that I felt I needed to at least try it. It sounds simple, but sitting quietly and still is really difficult, and the first and biggest obstacle is distraction. The first few minutes of sitting and consciously relaxing, feet on the floor, in a comfy chair (not falling asleep) is all about the thoughts of the day crowding in (what's for supper? why was that driver so aggressive? I haven't read the electricity metre yet...) but the knack is to be aware (mindful) that your thoughts are doing their own thing and to bring your mind constantly back to attention. 

Ideally you need a mantra (repeated word or phrase) to bring you back. For me, this is normally an aspect or name of God (but anything could be substituted). I might say 'thank you God for today', or simply, 'Lord Jesus Christ' or perhaps 'give me your peace'. Every time you become aware your mind is drifting, the 'mantra' brings you back to refocus. Basically (and I'm very much a beginner) the whole 15 minutes is spent bringing your mind back from distraction to focus. Sometimes being aware of your breathing helps, as does conscious physical relaxation, from head to toes.

I've been tempted to give up because I'm so easily distracted and at first it's difficult to see any benefit, but recently I've found that things which were initially distractions (the late afternoon sun on the apple trees) can become aids to meditation. So, the train of thought goes: that view is beautiful, the sun is a free gift, God's a good giver, thank you God, etc. That leads you to gratitude as the focus of meditation. 

What's the point of meditation? Research has shown that meditating can lower stress levels and help mental and even physical health. The reason I'm persevering (despite feeling I could be spending the time better, and the clamour of homework assistance, the unwashed dishes and ebay) is that I feel calmer and more able to deal with the stresses and strains of life; somehow more centered, with the feeling that it does not all depend on me. There's also the massive advantage that faith gives, in that any time and space made for God (which is where meditation kind of seeps into prayer) takes the focus off worry and onto the everlasting arms underneath everything. 

So I'll persevere. I'll share my efforts with other meditating friends. I'll keep being grateful. I'll see what surfaces and what I learn about myself, and others, and situations I've been thinking about. Maybe I'll get guidance on the more tricky situations. And I'll see what effect meditation has on my otherwise rather wordy, frequently shallow and unfocussed, prayer life. 

Four-thirty, cup of tea, chair by the window. Using an egg timer if I really have to (is it still only 4.36pm?). Frankly, if it works for Ruby Wax, there's hope for us all.

Friday, 18 September 2015

About a child

Mark 9: 37a. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.

This Sunday's passage from Mark takes an important direction from high and mighty (The Mount of Transfiguration) to lowly and domestic (a house, a chair, a child). We'll bear that downward direction in mind as we look at these seven short but devastating verses from Mark 9.

The passage begins 'Having gone forth from there...' and reading back slightly, we can see that 'there' refers to the mount of Transfiguration where Jesus has been spectacularly revealed to Peter, James and John as a dazzling figure of white, the exalted Son of God, or to use the language of the Harry Potter books, 'The Chosen One'. Scholars are not agreed, but this may have been Mount Tabor, 1843 feet of glorious elevated mountain, 17 km west of Lake Galilee. 

'Having gone forth from there...' 

So they're leaving the mountain behind...How many times have we had splendid ideas for our church, a dream that God will move in power, that God will be on that mountain top experience of healing, blessing or new vision. And then we 'go forth from there', and find that life is seemingly still mundane, ordinary, troublesome.

As we saw, the disciples are 'moving on' from the mountain top experience, and continuing with Jesus along the way, they discover that instead of talking about Elijah and Moses and the great coming of God at the end of all things, Jesus is talking about suffering. 'The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him and three days later, he will rise again'. Not only do they not understand what he's talking about, they are afraid to ask.    

If only following Jesus' teaching was as simple as following his footsteps through the Galilean countryside. At least the disciples are good at walking. Picture them trudging the dusty pathways in the heat of the day, Jesus always up ahead, forging onwards, but occasionally turning round to catch what it is they're discussing at the back of the group there. As the sun heats up the dry earth from its zenith in the blue sky, arguments are simmering...

They come to a house. A domestic setting, so different from the mountain top. A house with four walls, a family, arguments. A house where you eat, sleep, live alongside each other. Or feel the loneliness of empty rooms. Jesus is at home both on the mountain and in the house. In a house you can be intimate, sit and eat with friends and be honest about your nearest and dearest, as long as you're ready for them to be honest about you.

Here, in this house, Jesus brings out all the dirty linen. 'What were you arguing about on the way?' It's not that he doesn't know, even though they are silent. They are silent because they are ashamed. Family silences can be oppressive - better to get things out in the open - most of the time anyway.

From the mountain to the house. And now Jesus sits down on a chair. Not exactly sitting at God's right hand in glory, more sitting after a long journey, sitting to summon patience with your fellow travellers, sitting to be smaller. Perhaps the disciples continued standing, while Jesus was content to physically shrink in front of them. Did he sit because at that moment a child ran in from an adjoining room? Perhaps Jesus suddenly wanted to leave behind the adult world of bickering, one-upmanship and cover up. The child running in just then must have been a blessed relief, a breath of fresh air. Or perhaps Jesus was just tired. We all need to sit down once in a while. Even a servant sits at the end of a long day sweeping floors, cleaning cupboards and cooking meals for the whole family.

'Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And then he took a little child and put it among them.' 

Jesus is good at visual aids. The disciples (and we) need them. The little child was perhaps 4 foot, 7 years old? Thrust into the middle of a group of adults who were busy trying to pretend they were not arguing over who was the top disciple. At that moment, looking down at the child in their midst, they must have felt pretty stupid. The child (let's call her Miriam) may have felt a touch frightened. Good job then that Miriam found herself in Jesus' arms moments later, the warm reassurance of strength, being special, being noticed, being the centre of Jesus' attention.

The Jesus of the mountain top is in a house, sitting on a chair, cuddling a child. Which parent, uncle, auntie, Godparent or grandparent has not felt this timeless moment of utter communion, this moment when we think we're offering comfort, when in fact the child comforts us, and the world feels right, this cuddle in a comfy chair, this one-on-one conversation with divine wisdom.

Here, at last, is the heart of discipleship. From the mountain, to the house, to the chair, to the child. If we cannot sit with Jesus and know his tender love for us, how can we ever enter the kingdom of God? As we welcome the child in his name, we will find we're welcoming Jesus himself. And as we welcome Jesus, we will find we're welcoming the one who sent him - even God. 

'Are children welcome in all your services?' was a question asked recently of us as a church....In this question, as we ponder the downward direction from a mountain, to a house, to a chair, to a child; we surely (like the first disciples) have a great deal to learn.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Luther vs. James

A disgruntled looking Martin Luther. Maybe he was reading the Epistle of James at the time.
James 2: 14-17 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Down the years the Christian faith has tended to battle with the tension between faith and action.
Things came to a head during the Protestant Reformation, when a priest and theologian called Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.
These were essentially objections to the status quo in the Church and they sparked intense debate around the authority of the Church and how believers received salvation.
The great cry of the Protestant Reformation which flowed out of this was for a rediscovery of the grace of Christ – that we cannot save ourselves, but that salvation is a free gift.
‘Justification’ is a technical word for salvation, and the Reformation tag line was simple and profound: that justification was ‘by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone’.
Martin Luther (above) favoured the book of Romans, where justification is by faith in Christ alone, so you can imagine why the book of James was not one of his favourites.
As we heard last week, he called it the Epistle of Straw because it seemed to contradict the teaching of Paul and suggest that faith alone was not enough, going as far as to say that faith without action is dead (verse 17).
This is biblically where the tension between action and faith is most acute.
As James writes, if you know someone in need and you say a blessing for them whilst ignoring their physical condition, what good is that?
It makes sense – words are not going to help that person in need – only action will.
I think it’s still a topic today: every time you hear someone say, “I don’t believe in God but I try and lead a good life”, you’re hearing an unresolved tension between faith and action, often based on a misunderstanding of what faith actually is.
We tend to privatise the idea of faith, but in the bible, faith is understood as acting on your beliefs, not just talking about them.
The bible talks of ‘works’ and faith, but they don’w have to be in tension if we remember that good works do not have a role in leading to our salvation, but in demonstrating it.
Someone has wisely said that faith is invisible – you cannot see faith.
So no one know whether faith resides in you until you show it by your actions.
To the outside world then, we Christians need to show that we love God by acting on our faith as well as talking about it.
Actions, as we all know, speak louder than words, and that is what people will notice.

Let’s for a moment look at the twin challenges of separating faith and actions, in order that we might be better at keeping them together. These challenges are typified by two types of people: the good unbeliever and the (forgive me) clueless Christian.

1. The ‘good unbeliever’.

We’ve all met this person – the friend or neighbour, or family member, who appears to be a good person but doesn’t (apparently) believe in God.
So they have the actions but apparently not the faith.
Has this ever puzzled you?
Perhaps it makes you think it’s not really worth believing if you can be good without God?
There are a couple of responses: when we say that somebody is good, we often have quite a low benchmark for goodness, compared with, say, the expectation and example of Jesus.
Someone called Jesus ‘Good Teacher’ once and he came back with the comment ‘No one is good except God alone’.
I think this is helpful to near in mind philosophically.
If anyone exhibits goodness, it is either coming from within themselves, or er believe it originated in God, even if that person says they don’t believe in God.
Not believing in someone’s existence does not cause them to cease to exist.
Another point is that it’s not so difficult to love and care for your immediate friends and family - Jesus said ‘even the pagans do that’.
Instead Jesus raised the bar considerably when he encouraged his followers to love their enemies.
Of course we love our friends and family – who wouldn’t - but Jesus calls us to love the stranger, the outcast and the person who persecutes us.
It seems to me that that kind of standard is pretty much impossible without recourse to a higher Being.
In addition, people who say you can be good without God, are often unaware of the illogicality of disconnecting morality from religion.
Someone who doesn’t ‘do God’, yet holds to the fundamental equality of all human beings, believes in compassion and forgiveness and self-sacrificial love is actually holding to fundamentals of Christianity whilst perhaps ignoring the first part of the word – Christ.
In a way this separates good deeds from faith.
The entire Law, says Jesus, is summed up by ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself’, so self, others and God are inextricably linked.
Often when we see someone who appears to be good without believing in God, it is likely that they are simply unaware of God’s activity in their lives.
It may even be that their desire for charitable works is a displacement activity for a former faith in God that has become disconnected.
Have you noticed how popular charity events are amongst some people who don’t go to church?
Posters and fliers constantly remind us of the walk or run, or cycle, or swim, or sail or climb, that’s taking place for a good cause, that people have raised hundreds of pounds for?
People fill their spare time up with charity events and it’s all good stuff.
(And of course many Christians and other religious people are involved with this too).
But in all this action we need to be aware also of our inner lives.
Outer and inner harmony of faith and action is the goal.
We often see the outside of someone’s life, we say they’re good; but God sees the inside too, the life of the imagination, the life of the spirit, what we fantasize about; our fears, our day dreams – all these reveal our nature before God and sometimes we need inner healing and forgiveness, or a complete change of direction.
God is as interested in our faith as he is in our action.

2. The ‘clueless Christian’.

By this I mean someone who’s faith doesn’t actually make any difference to the way they live.
They have faith, but no actions.
This is the person who looks into a mirror and goes away and forgets what they look like (see James Chapter 1).
‘Be doers of the word’, not just hearers, says James.
So, trying to do just that, I wonder what you think of when you hear James’s portrayal of ‘the rich’?
He hasn’t really got a good word for them.
They oppress others, take people to court, are given all the best places in dinner parties and are themselves spiritually poor.
Who are these people?
We tend to use the word ‘rich’ relative to those we live amongst, and we compare ourselves with those who are a little bit better off than we are.
But in global terms, most of us are rich beyond the wildest dreams of thousands of human beings with whom we share the earth.
There’s a website (see link) that can calculate how rich you are globally – you put your annual income in and it’ll tell you what % of the population is richer than you and what % is poorer.

I don’t have an income, but I’m lucky enough to be married to an experienced teacher.
I put an experienced teacher’s salary into the calculator and I came out in the top 1% of the global rich.
I halved it and still came out in the top 2%.
Okay, it doesn’t account for the relative value of outgoings, but it makes you think.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Refugee Crisis in Europe.
If you think about countries and relative wealth, it’s surely no coincidence that thousands of refugees are now making dangerous, often life threatening journeys from the Middle East and Africa, to Europe.
This is a complex issue possibly involving economics as well as war and violence - but surely anyone who takes their family across the Mediterranean in a rickety over crowded boat searching for a new life must believe that the sea is safer than the land they’re leaving behind.
And that is a terrifying thought.
What this unfolding human displacement shows us is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots, globally, is bad for everyone.
Why should it surprise to us that the poor and desperate what to share our lifestyle?
The refugee crisis is a crisis of conscience for us all.
When the poor are 1000s of miles away, in countries I am unlikely to visit, only on my TV screen when there are no other stories to take the limelight, it’s easy to forget I am rich.
When the poor are travelling across Europe, arriving at a station in Hungary where my daughter recently went Inter-railing; when the poor are dying on train tracks the other side of the Channel right where I recently came back from a French holiday, then being one of ‘the rich’ becomes much, much more uncomfortable.

The Archbishop has put it well; you can look up his thoughts on the subject here:

It's a fair balance of belief and action of which I hope even Martin Luther would be proud.