Author: Ann Milton

God and the end of lockdown

Does this seem an odd place to talk about something so pragmatic as how we deal with the end of lockdown? On the contrary, if a desert bush could burn with God’s fire for Moses, so we may find this time of (partial) deconfinement filled with God’s holiness. It is up to us.

We can react as circumstances change. That is probably what most of us have been doing, unable to predict or to prepare for the next stage. Or we can pray and reflect so that we are ready to respond as God’s people to each change that comes our way.

So here are some questions and issues to pray about and to reflect on so as to help our thoughts:

  • What will I miss from lockdown? It is very normal to feel it as a difficult time, but if we turn it round and consider what advantages it has brought (quiet, family, time to pray, relaxation etc) we might be more prepared for the loss of those things.
  • Do I want to keep any of those things going? Do I have a confinement gift or skill (listening to others, writing a diary) that I desire to build into my next stage of life?
  • How has lockdown left me (and those around me)  feeling? I may be full of energy and enthusiasm after a time of gathering my energy, more likely I have experienced fear, grief, exhaustion and a (temporary) difficulty with finding the right words. Can I be gentle with myself and others as we return to what we consider normal?
  • How have I changed this year and how will I help others to be aware of it? We all change all the time anyway and it can be difficult to make other people aware that we feel differently on some issues, or respond differently from how we did a year ago. Even more after this unusual time. (And the reverse, will I be on the lookout for changes in others?)
  • Do I want to return to everything as it was or do I want somethings to be different (in church, office, education etc)? What effort am I willing to make either way and how will I interact with people who feel differently?
  • Do I want to use this opportunity for a new start, to explore a new path? Does it coincide with a time in my life when I want to turn over a new page? I might want to find someone (clergy, spiritual companion/director, friend) who can help me start again. (The image I have been pondering recently is from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Trees’; the trees grow older yet each year they grow fresh leaves).
  • What if another lockdown comes? Are my expectations realistic? Do I know what I want to do before that happens? Would I handle it the same way?
  • Do I need to build bridges – is there a friend I’ve lost touch with, someone I’ve disagreed with or grown away from?
  • What changes will this make in the rhythm of my spiritual life – regular prayer, pleasing solitude, working out my own salvation without reference to others?
  • How will I look for God in the new patterns of life? Will I notice if I am inclined to spot God’s presence less? Will the change to my pattern of life make me more or less open to awareness of God?

teasing out the blockages

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What wonderful words Sonja wrote last month! So encouraging and so true! Yet I wonder how many of us read them with hesitation: ‘this can’t apply to me’ ‘I just need to sort my life out and then God will love me’?

So I want to explore the things that come between us and God. I’m not an expert, there are plenty of good books. If you need help in this area please don’t keep it to yourself but reach out, to a minister, a spiritual companion/director, a friend.

Often we feel there is a burden but we don’t know what words to apply to it so as to sort it out, so here are some questions (and the vocabulary) I find helpful for ‘teasing apart’ my blockages:

  1. ‘against you only have I sinned’ ps51:4  We might find David’s approach to murder and rape shocking, but can we differentiate the wrong we do to humans for which we need to say sorry and perhaps make reparation, and the sin against God (which is so often our failure to recognise the image of God in people)?
  2. Shame and guilt: you might use different words but I think you will understand this distinction. Every society (including church!) needs rules to help people get on with each other and a system of punishing or at least shaming those who don’t fit in. We feel shame for many things; our sexuality, failure to control our children, holding a different view from the norm. Guilt (in my vocabulary) is about the things we do that are wrong in an ultimate sense, that offend against the interior voice of conscience, the voice of God. Often we confuse them; we feel guilt before God because we are ashamed before people. We fail to obey God because we are worried how others will judge us.
  3. Sin and failing, or to put it more simply, being naughty and being imperfect. We all have character traits, inborn or learnt as a child, that may hinder our ability to love and serve God but that cannot/should not be regarded as sin. How do we ask God to help us grow in love, courage, vulnerability or whatever we lack, without implying that it is a sin to be less than perfect?
  4. There are many ideas of sin in the Bible; One clear distinction is between the breaking of a law as outlined in the books of Law (the first five books), and turning away from God, as is persistently referred to by the prophets who called for God’s people to return to Him, a teaching Jesus seemed to address in the parable of the prodigal son. The cures for different kinds of sin are also varied, from paying for a sacrifice to making our way back.
  5. Do you fear that God has only one really good plan for you, that once plan A has failed (because of your own fault!) plan B will not be as good? Consider Gen 50:20, when Joseph is speaking of the way his brothers had hurt him: ‘ You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ Even situations which seem to be marred by sin can work to his glory if we work with Him.

Finally, it can be very difficult to own up to things that are wrong, that we would rather sweep under the carpet. I am encouraged by a friend’s saying: if you look a sin in the eye it can’t stab you in the back!

Poetry resources

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Spiritual poetry for Godspace

Why?

Does poetry belong on a website dedicated to helping us find God? Yes, I believe it does. Not all poetry of course, but much of it, whether specifically Christian or not, can act as a text to help us meet with God, give us a vocabulary when we do not know what to say, help a group to share an understanding. (You may like to use hymn and song lyrics in the same way). A poet can be a fine companion with whom to journey, a mentor who can draw us on to help us express something wordless in ourselves, to see something new.

Background to list:

The following are some of the poets I’ve come across from the last 200 years (roughly speaking) whose words I and others have found helpful. Of course not all their poetry is ‘overtly religious’ and what speaks to one person may not speak to another. But these names may give you a starting point to put in your search engine or to leaf through the shelves of a bookshop. Sometimes I’ll mention a particular poem I believe worth considering. Finally I’ve mentioned some specific works from poets whose work I do not generally know, but which I think could be helpful.  There is plenty more and I hope you will send me your ‘finds’ so that I can share them here.

In no particular order:

Malcolm Guite

Denise Levertov, her religious poems are gathered in the collection ‘The Stream and The Sapphire’, charting her journey to faith.

Michael Symonds Robert eg Mancunian Miserere

T S Eliot: His ‘Journey of the Magi’ is a fascinating and fantastic example of imaginative contemplation, telling the back story to an episode in the Gospels

Rowan Williams: He likes to be described as ‘not a religious poet but a poet to whom religious things matter enormously’. ‘Advent calendar’ is specifically Christian and good for pondering in season.

U A Fanthorpe: Her ‘BC:AD’ is a tremendous meditation on the meaning of the incarnation.

Leonard Cohen: His modern psalms in his ‘Book of Mercy are fascinating, true cries from the heart of a modern Jew to God.

Chris Southgate: who catches in his writings ‘intimations of the sacred’.

R S Thomas (1913-2000)try ‘Folktale’ (about prayer), ‘Raptor’ for when your God is too small, ‘The Bright Field’ at all times!

Mary Oliver She is described as ‘a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church’. Her way of describing nature can help us learn to look carefully. Try ‘The Journey’, ‘Wild Geese’ ‘If I wanted a boat’.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, complex, often difficult to understand, he forces us to slow down.

Wendell Berry, like Mary Oliver, a mystic of the natural world, try ‘The peace of wild things’.

Some random poems:

Ted Hughes ‘March morning unlike others’ a meditation on the beauty and frailty of the earth.

Christina Rossetti ‘Remember’ a reflection on death and on how it separates friends

Zbigniew Herbert ‘Pebble’ how to meditate on one seemingly dull object!

Louise Gluck ‘Vespers’ one way of speaking to God.

e e cummings ‘I thank you god for most this amazing day’ ;a lovely expression of joy.

Lent 2021

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white and yellow flower in tilt shift lens

Lent 2021

Dates for this year: Lent for the year 2021 starts on Wednesday, February 17th and ends on Thursday, April 1 with evening prayer on Holy Thursday, which is then followed by the three days of Easter..

Role of Lent : The season of Lent lasts for forty days (not including Sundays). It is a time when Christians reflect and prepare for the celebrations of Easter. Some people fast, eat frugally or give up treats following the example of Jesus, who fasted for forty days in the wilderness. We recommit to Christian practices such as prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and reconciliation to prepare to enter the mystery of Easter. Through these practices, we deepen our commitment to the Christian life and prepare to renew our baptismal promises. 

Suggestions for observing Lent consider your motive, once we realise why we are intending to do something for Lent we are more likely to find the right thing. For instance does one of these describe your aim: to prepare for Easter and the renewal of Baptismal promises; to follow the example of Jesus in the wilderness; to use this time to train yourself in discipline (perhaps regardless of the particular discipline); to grow in your faith?

You may then like to consider:

  1. giving things up, (particularly but not necessarily things that are bad for you, chocolate, wine, facebook). But what will you do with the money and time liberated? Matthew 4 does not tell us overtly what Jesus did with his time in the wilderness but it seems safe to assume he prayed, particularly about his baptism and his vocation.
  2. taking things up, There has been in trend in recent years to look for something more positive to do in Lent. Commit to daily prayer; create a way of trying some of the suggestions for prayer on this website under ‘how to’, social action, exercise (God cares for your body as well as your soul!).
  3. practising a practical and/or spiritual discipline, There is plenty in the New Testament about our need for discipline eg Hebrews 12. Richard Foster’s ‘Celebration of Discipline’ is the modern classic in this area.
  4. Growing in discipleship. Meet with others of the past (through books) and of the present to explore your faith and that of others.

Resources

Daily prayer: increase or redefine your commitment; join with others (many churches and religious communities are offering some form of morning and evening prayers).

Your own church: find out what they are offering

Books: It is getting late for ordering in English from the UK, but you might find other resources, or be happy to start late. There are many, some with daily readings, some with weekly readings. A sample

may be seen at https://www.eden.co.uk/easter/lent-resources/books/ A particular suggestion is from the Lutheran Gayl Ramshaw  ’40 days and 40 nights’. Or you may want to commit to reading a spiritual classic.

SSJE (society of St John the Evangelist, Anglican monastic order in USA) : offers a weekly email including a  video on prayer at  https://www.ssje.org/2021/01/06/come-pray-lent-2021/ They invite you to join the brothers in online prayer, but since they are in an American time zone that is not generally practical!

glasgow ignatians, https://www.iscglasgow.co.uk/lent2021.html this is an on-line/on an app offering of readings reflections, music and art, plus a weekly meeting with others following the course for support. N B I am interested in hosting a group on a monday lunchtime so it is suitable for those still working as well as others. Please let me know by friday 12 feb if you would like to join by leaving a comment.

the abbey of the arts has https://abbeyofthearts.com/programs/online-classes/lent2021/ Journey with the Desert Mothers and Fathers (Lent 2021) an online mixture of live sessions, reflections, videos

https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/livelent-2021-church-resources-gods-story-our-story involves book, and app. The theme is evangelism and witness.

A Season for Everything

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green round fruit on tree during daytime

Through the year, our mood changes. As the days get longer we spend more time outside. The snow may create an especially playful expression.

Our walk with God also changes with the season, whether that is the Church’s seasons from Advent to Easter, or the calendar season from sowing to harvest.

Our prayer life may also reflects those seasons.

Here we offer you some resources that may help you, beginning with Lent. Bear in mind that we cannot read/view everything before posting it, we do not necessarily know the quality of the teaching or the theology behind it. What you use is your responsibility.

We do not have the resources for reviews, but if you send us details of any books or links to other material we may consider including it in the future.

Approaching Scripture

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Love scrabble tiles on book page

There are many ways of approaching Scripture. We may have to free ourselves from the ideas we were brought up with, to allow God to meet us in Scripture in a different way.

The other key word here is “imaginative”. We are often happy to bring God our mind and our sight, but imagination seems to be about ‘making things up’. Just like every other aspect of ourselves, our imagination can be offered to God and He can work though it.

Imaginative Scripture reading is about entering into a story to allow God to meet us there. The best way to explain it is to give an example.

The calling of Nathanael John ch1 vv43-51 For the purpose of this story you are going to put yourself in the place of Nathanael. Begin by reading the passage through a couple of times, so you have the picture in your mind, then go through the passage in detail, slowly, with yourself in the place of Nathanael:

43 Take time to enter the story, the location is vague, where would you have Jesus be? In your home country, in countryside or town, field or road?

44-45 Philip is someone who has met Jesus and now comes to share Jesus with Nathanael. Who might play/have played the role of Philip in your life?

46 Is your reaction to the news of Jesus to doubt? Healthy scepticism or a cynicism you need to overcome?

47 Yet you go to Jesus and He sees you coming. Where are you? Imagine it for yourself. In a country lane, in a busy street or a quiet, deserted place? Is it indoors or outdoors? Choose a place, and imagine it, with Jesus there, waiting for you. What can you see? What can you hear? What does the place smell like? Imagine the feel of the ground under your feet as you walk towards Jesus.  Hold on to this moment, how does He look at you? What is in His eyes? Then He speaks; how would Jesus describe you? Listen carefully to Him rather than yourself, it might surprise you!

48 Dialogue between you and Jesus, what questions would you like to ask Him – this is a safe place to do it. What answer does He give?

49 From what Jesus has said, Nathanael recognises who Jesus is. What are you learning about Jesus from this encounter?

50-51 Jesus does not leave things there, He goes on to talk of ‘greater things’ and promises them to Nathanael. What greater things might Jesus be leading you towards, promising to you?

For an example from Mark (the woman with the haemorrhage) and more teaching about this see https://blog.bible/bible-engagers-blog/entry/ignatian-contemplation-how-to-read-the-bible-with-your-imagination

For an example on utube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTyoBg6aO9I

The Garden

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purple flowers near brown wooden house

For the New Year I’ve been musing on an ancient image, a garden as analogy for my soul. You might also find it a helpful way to explore your soul/spirit/sub-concious/secret identity.

Gardens are not common in the Bible but they certainly existed, from God planting the first one in Gen 2:8. The garden as an analogy of the soul comes with the Prophets: for example Isaiah takes the garden as an illustration of a bad life in ch1:30, Jeremiah uses it for a good life in ch 31:12.

So if you accept the value of the analogy, what might we find in a garden that helps us to explore our soul?

  • Fence, boundary, markers. If we know the limits, we can see what we are working with. Beware the old english ‘haha’, which allows it to look as though your land runs for miles, yet will trick you into falling into a ditch.
  • Structure. Do I use brick walls to shelter and warm my fruit trees? Do I have a strong trellis for my roses? I can think that plants are what matters in the garden, but they require an infrastructure and it will be to my benefit if the wood and stonework is strong, stable and attractive.
  • A plan, what do I want to grow, what does God (the ‘head gardener’) want or encourage me to grow? Beautiful flowers, rich fruit, ugly but nutritious turnips?
  • Outside my garden: I love to think of this as my private space, but it will only flourish if I share it. Who do I trust to give me good gardening advice? Where do I find seeds? Are the fences low enough so that my neighbours can look in and enjoy my plants?
  • Weather: my garden is not entirely within my control. So have I planted it with consideration for the seasons, climate change, day and night? Will I feel comfortable in my garden in the winter, the rain, the dark?
  • Water is essential to a garden and we have plenty of stories about it in the Old and New Testaments. Do I have a river, fountain or well? Is there a damp patch that never dries up in one corner and another that is always too dry?
  • Inevitably there are stones, and areas of poor soil (perhaps reflecting the things that have gone wrong in my life so far). Are some of them be redeemed (the best vines grow on rocky soil) or are there some things I need to clear from my garden?
  • How much work am I planning to do in my garden? If I am busy with other interests and responsibilities, perhaps this is a good time to keep things simple. Yet even if I have a lot of time to give to it, sometimes plants need to be left to grow, the right season needs to be waited for, the warmth of God’s sun can achieve more than the labours of my spade.

There are many other parallels between the garden and the soul, these are just a few for starters. These images can be explored in words or pictures. Do let me know your thoughts.

non-verbal prayer

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woman praying under tree during daytime

There is always a danger with prayer that it becomes too cerebral, word-based, even academic, so this page is a chance to think of other ways of praying, ways of using other parts of ourselves. We do not often get to know friends by talking non-stop: how do you grow in friendship? Adapt the same methods to communicate with God, to pass time with Him, even to waste time with Him!

Walking: why not take a walk with God? Go through the woods and praise Him for the beauty, go through the town and intercede for the people you pass.

Gazing: The first way of contemplating is to look at God, gazing in awe, wonder. It may be considered in terms of those who contemplated the Christchild at the nativity (shepherds, magi, the Holy Family, animals). It is opening the being to God whilst maintaining inner silence, taking time to be alone with Christ.

Painting/drawing: both looking at painting and doing it for yourself, either to encourage yourself to look at something fully, or to paint free style and to see what comes up. An example of looking at a painting: https://www.pathwaystogod.org/feast-all-saints?mc_cid=a9145f1b9e&mc_eid=a6924bfe19

Dance: westerners are often particularly bad at using their bodies in worship and prayer, but it can be very liberating, our bodies can express things our tongues cannot say. Find a quiet place, with no one watching, use music if you want, reach out to God.

Writing see elsewhere for journalling, but consider also poetry, free expression, writing a letter to God.

Music. The human voice is a wonderful instrument for prayer, but think also of percussion and other instruments, of non-Christian music. Could learning to play the clarinet be for you a spiritual discipline?

Audio – a simple option, but we take in Bible stories differently if we hear them. Many of the older parts of the Old Testament originate from an oral tradition rather than from the written word. So why not try listening? There are many audio Bibles (David Suchet’s NIV is I think the best known and very good), Bible Gateway https://www.biblegateway.com/  has some audio versions. You might like to sit back in peace, take your audio gear for a beautiful walk, knit, iron or carve wood whilst you listen! Keeping the hands/body busy can help the mind concentrate.

Christian massage – Letting a (trained!) fellow Christian touch you in a way that ‘restores, reconciles, reassures, forgives, heals” (Henri Nouwen).

Spiritual Direction

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Sonia and Ann are both qualified Spiritual Directors

Ann writes:

Would you like someone to walk with you as you grow as a Christian, share your journey, help you to listen to God? However new or experienced you are as a Christian, if your answer is yes then spiritual direction could offer you the accompaniment you need.

In practical terms I have training from Southwark diocese and the diocese of Europe; I have satisfied Diocese of Europe safeguarding regulations. I have a supervisor and follow a regular pattern of training and retreats. I do not charge, but there are expenses for me with the above so my church will receive donations on my behalf. All sessions are totally confidential unless something of a criminal or dangerous nature is revealed. Now for the more interesting question, what do I offer? I do not follow a particular school of spiritual direction, but seek to be God-lead, intuitive and relationship based. It is entirely non-judgemental, you may come with any level or form of belief. Examples from the Bible that inspire me are Eli helping Samuel to hear and respond to God 1 samuel ch 3; Philip and the Ethiopian Acts ch 8 vv26-39. One of the most common modern analogies of spiritual direction that I like is to midwifery. In spiritual direction I am  not a doctor, taking charge of your soul, but more akin to a midwife, helping the growth of the God within you.

Sonja writes

What is Spiritual Direction? 

Spiritual direction, or accompaniment, provides you with a space to become aware, reflect, discern and discover God more fully. I work with whatever is happening in your life. This often includes exploring your daily life, work, prayer and/or relationships.

A spiritual director is a companion who can help a person see God’s presence in all of life: in the various questions, crises, careers, relationships, fears, insecurities, joys and grief through the different stages of life.

Is spiritual direction/companionship/accompaniment for me?

  • Are you at a major crossroads or milestone in your life? Are you trying to make an important decision? 
  • Do you want to explore deeper meaning in everyday life events? 
  • Do you have a desire to explore your faith, beliefs and/or different prayer practices?
  • Are you seeking greater spiritual awareness?
  • Would you like to explore life’s challenges, losses and disappointments in your life?
  • Do you want to identify and consciously design your own spiritual path?
  • Are you seeking balance, purpose and deeper intimacy with God, yourself and others?

If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, spiritual direction/companionship could be for you.

Ann Milton

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Ann is a member of Holy Trinity Anglican church in Brussels, but has been involved with Roman Catholic,  Baptist and Pentecostal churches, so is relaxed in many ecumenical settings. A spiritual director (see elsewhere on the site for more details), she has helped to organise many women’s retreats, church services and homegroups. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology from Bristol and a Master’s degree from KULeuven. She is also a poet, wife and mother.