Thursday, 25 May 2017

On why we pray

 I originally wrote this as a report for the elders of the church where we live, but decided it might be worth sharing with a wider audience, so here it is! 

Last time we reported to elders, we spoke about some of the different projects we were involved in through our volunteering: projects which bring us into contact with many different people and situations in the city. This time, then, it feels appropriate to share something about the prayer which makes all the other aspects possible and sustainable. The rhythm of community prayer is the backbone of our life together. Its benefits aren’t as immediately tangible or easily explicable as some of the other things we do: but this is not an optional extra on the side but the very core of the existence of our community, so while it isn’t easy to explain its purpose or its value, it feels important to try.

For those who have never, or rarely, attended prayer: perhaps a concrete explanation is a good place to begin. We pray together every weekday morning at 7.30 and Monday to Thursday evenings at 7pm. Each prayer lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and includes an extended period of 8-10 minutes in silence. Morning prayer follows a set format with psalms and readings, a song, silence and prayers of intercession. Evening prayer is more varied, but always with that same commitment to reflective, contemplative silence.

The silence is an essential element of our prayer and the only thing which is written in to the community agreement. Silence is alien to a world where we are constantly bombarded by noise; and even in many church settings it is something to which we have ceased to be accustomed. In the midst of the busyness of life, it is perhaps more important than ever to recapture the space to simply be with God. In a world where value is so often determined by purpose, usefulness or achievement, it is important to recall that God is not someone we should only approach when we want something.

One “purpose” fulfilled by the routine of prayer is to provide space to “simply be”. Prayer is not something we achieve, prayer just is. We take time to enter, consciously, into what we already are: beings created and loved by God and called into relationship with him. The prayer is also a space to “simply be” together: over time there have been many who, regularly or occasionally, have found in the prayer here what they needed at a certain moment in time. Some have become friends, others we have seen only once or twice: it feels like an important thing to offer to our city.

The core values of society, I would suggest, are not entirely in keeping with the core values of the gospel. The message that your worth is in what you have, or do, or acquire is proclaimed from every advertising slogan, every shop whose doors we walk through. The message that we should fear one another is proclaimed from every newspaper report, and from many of the policies and procedures which dictate every aspect of our lives. Whatever our rational and intelligent selves tell us, it is very hard, even impossible, not to be influenced by those insidious voices. It is only by consciously placing ourselves where we can hear an alternative message that we find the support to stand for different values. I never leave prayer saying ‘today God has told me I must do this’ but I do believe that the regular routine of prayer supports me as I attempt to live by gospel values rather than society’s ones, that provides the whispered voice of guidance which leads me down, or at least towards, the road I am called to travel. I know some of our decisions are irrational by society’s standards: I think it is inherent in the gospel for that to be the case.

Above all, for me, prayer is about love: it is about consciously exposing ourselves to the unconditional love with which God surrounds us. Praying never means that God loves us more: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, just as there is nothing we can do to make God love us less, because God is love. But while the completeness of God’s love for each one is not in question, love is fulfilled when it exists in relationship: and it is this experience of love, I believe, which enables us to overcome fear, to live life to the full, to live adventurously, to be the people God wants us to be.

I have no doubt that without the prayer, much of what we do, many of the decisions we make would not be possible: I am very happy to have found a place which has enabled us to have a regular routine of prayer. It is this which sustains our community and I remain grateful for the opportunity to have this at the heart of the life I lead.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Finding Hidden Treasure

It's been over two months since I last wrote a blog post ... the longest gap between posts for quite some time, maybe even since I started this blog: but it's certainly not as if nothing worth writing about has happened in the meantime ... 

The most significant recent event in the life of our little community was the Taize Birmingham Hidden Treasure weekend. The culmination of over a year of planning and preparation, this May bank holiday it brought together over 500 young adults from across Europe to discover and share the hidden treasures of our faith and the acts of solidarity towards which it inspired us.

I aspire for this blog to be a place where I am honestly reflective, so I'm not going to lie ... there were times along the way which were both stressful and exhausting. Helping organise an international gathering involving the churches in 9 different neighbourhoods across the city as well as the city centre churches of all denominations while still maintaining all my other responsibilities was, perhaps at times, a step too far.

But that cannot take away from what was a truly beautiful celebration and an amazing opportunity to discover, explore, celebrate and share in some of the hidden treasures which surround us. Highlights, both during the preparation, and during the weekend itself, abounded.

One of the great gifts I received was the opportunity to discover so many different churches across the city and to have the opportunity to be made welcome by so many different communities. As I met with diverse churches working together to prepare to welcome the participants, daring to open their doors to welcome the stranger: my exhortation that their role was not a convenient added extra but was at the very heart of the meeting and its purpose, was both genuine and heartfelt. 

During the weekend itself, as life was shared across denominations, generations, languages and cultural experiences, the atmosphere was one of friendship, love and possibility. In the current context and climate, this was the vision of the Europe I want to be a part of: a Europe in which we are able to see that each of us each of us has something to offer but that none of us are complete on our own; a Europe which dares to come together in order to make the world a better place for those around us; a Europe which is guided by hope and not by fear. 

And then there, in the middle of a bustling city, in the midst of all the laughter and conversation; there at the centre of it all: we prayed together. I don’t have, and maybe don’t need, the words to explain that this too, was a highlight of the whole experience. 

Most readers of this blog already know that the Taize community has been a hugely significant influence on my faith journey: the centrality of both prayer and community which I discovered there has led me on the path that has shaped how I am living my life. There is no doubt in my mind that the rich and fulfilling life I now lead wouldn't have existed without it and I am very grateful. 

It is no secret that Birmingham too, a place about which I perhaps had some initial reservations when we moved here, but a place that I have adopted, or that has adopted me and which I am happy to call home, is a place I have come to deeply love. I love it in its diversity and complexity: I love it for the beauty and possibility it offers to those willing to seek them out. 

My life here for the last three and a half years has, in many ways brought the two together. During the Hidden Treasure weekend I was pleased to be able to share that coming together with so many others.

The weekend was not, for me at least, just an end in itself. Life, now, goes on: with more free evenings and a few less emails, no doubt, but with the same vision: that as churches we can pray, work and live together and that in so doing we stand as witnesses to the possibility of a life lived in all its fullness, a life in which there are a multitude of treasures which we can uncover or help to create, a life guided by hope. 

Other adventures in the life of this city now await and I hope the relationships built by these four beautiful days will be a spring board from which we will journey onwards, together.

*Photo Credit: both by David Ash