There is so much I want to say in this letter that I’ve negotiated with the Link magazine editor for not twice my normal space but three times as much!
Sponsored walk in Galilee and related thoughts
The first thing is to thank everyone who sponsored me for the walk in Galilee way back in January. I haven’t yet got quite all the money in, but the total raised is already well over £1000, which is a really wonderful result. The total collected by the walk so far is £55,000 but I suspect there are more people like me and it will be well over that in the end.
The walk itself was a great experience although the route had to be changed because it had been raining for 7 days (!) and the path from the Mount of Beatitudes to the lakeside was already deep in mud, so by the time ninety eager walkers had tramped down it…. well, you can imagine, so we followed a tarmac path instead. En route we visited a Greek Orthodox Church with wonderful frescoes covering every inch of its interior, and a particularly friendly cat which wasn’t at all fazed by the resident peacocks, and walked for the last mile or so between reed beds and woodland which is home to the largest cormorant colony in the Middle East. I always associate cormorants with water but there were hundreds here perching in the trees. This last section of the walk, including the cormorants and the River Jordan, is now a part of the pilgrimage programme from May – it was so beautiful I thought it should be shared.
After the walk we left Galilee and travelled to Bethlehem where we spent 4 nights. While we were there we had the opportunity to see, and talk to people about, the impact of the Separation Wall on the community. I had gone prepared to be shocked, but the way the physical concrete barrier, with its checkpoints, watchtowers and barbed wire, cuts across roads, through communities and olive groves, within feet of houses and shops, brought home both the horror and the sheer difficulty of life in the Middle East as nothing else has.
I went to Israel this time hoping to learn more and understand better about the tensions within that land. I did learn more but don’t really feel I understand the Jewish perspective very much better, even after a day at the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Veshem. Much was made there of the early years of the Third Reich, before the development of the Final Solution, when the Jews of Eastern Europe were confined to ghettos, behind walls, with checkpoints, cut off from their livelihoods… And at the Tower of David museum which gave a brilliantly clear and helpful account of the whole history of Jerusalem from the very beginning, there was an exhibit dealing with the partition of Jerusalem between 1948 and the Six-Day War, which spoke movingly of the joy that everyone felt when the concrete walls and barbed wire fences dividing Jerusalem were removed. It’s hard to understand how, in the light of these experiences, the Separation Wall and all it represents can be seen as a way to peace and security.
Of course, we will never be able to understand fully the history and experience that has formed the people of Israel – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – and so I’m conscious that my own conclusions will be partial. One thing we can do is try to learn more about the circumstances of others’ lives, and so with the agreement of all those coming, and with the enthusiastic help of McCabe Pilgrimages, we’ve changed the May programme to include 2 nights in Bethlehem, with an opportunity to visit one of the Palestinian refugee camps established in 1948 and, improbably you may think, have a lesson in Palestinian cookery from some of the women living there. I’m sure we will learn much more from them than cookery as we chop and chat, and I hope someone will write an account for Haslemere Link of that particular aspect of our pilgrimage as well as all the other more traditional things we are going to do. I had a great time in Jerusalem in January and was able to spend time at many of the sites will be visiting, as well as making sure I could get around without getting lost: I’m really looking forward to sharing these experiences and having new ones as we walk in the steps of Jesus and explore the land he knew.
Praying through Lent
So that was January, and I’d no sooner got back than Lent was upon us, with the annual excitement of burning palm crosses to make the ash for Ash Wednesday – fortunately, despite one slightly scary moment, I managed not to burn down the new Rectory. (The trick, if you are interested, is to roast the crosses at about 250° C for 15 minutes or so before taking them outside – yes, taking them outside is very important – and setting fire to them).
Our evening Lent Group this year, Praying through Lent, is a new departure, which builds on the experience of last autumn’s Season of Reflection by inviting people to share their experiences of faith: in this case their experience of prayer. And it also meets one of my long-standing worries, which is that we don’t as a parish have a developed corporate prayer life. Yes, of course, we are led in intercession on Sunday mornings, and a few of us pray together at our daily Morning Prayer, and some of our house groups make a point of sharing prayer, but regular focused opportunities to bring before God particular concerns in the parish or the world have not really been part of our parish life. So each Wednesday evening in Lent, two members of the parish have given a short talk about the place of prayer in their life, how and when they do it, times when it has been hard or easy, and how it helps them to draw close to God. And in between the talks there have been sessions of open prayer, in groups of three or four, when we have prayed for the parish and community, and for the Middle East. To help people who aren’t used to praying aloud without a script there have been prompts – sentences, briefing notes, maps etc – and it’s been really good to hear the buzz that rises in the room as people really begin to engage with God and pray about their hopes and fears.
These evenings have been wonderful, and I want to share some examples of what, in the world of primary schools, would be called golden nuggets: really useful, inspiring or touching things we’ve heard from the eight people who have been brave enough to talk about their prayer lives in the first four of the sessions. Every Christian I’ve ever known would feel challenged by the invitation to talk about this: no one believes, however much others reassure them, that they do it well enough or spend enough time doing it, and everyone believes that others have more mature, committed, generally wonderful prayer lives than they do….. But I really hope that the openness, honesty and sheer variety of what we heard this Lent will help us all to recognise that this isn’t true, and that what really matters is quite simply that we do actually pray, wherever we can, in whatever way feels right to us. I’m absolutely certain this is what God wants us to do, and that it doesn’t matter how we go about it…. But here are some suggestions.
Dorothea told us that prayer for her is centred round daily Bible reading using the notes and suggestions from the Bible Reading Fellowship or Scripture Union, which give her a focus for praise and prayer. She said “It’s such a temptation to start off on the list of people and circumstances that need prayer, but I’m learning to spend time first in praise or thankfulness, resting in the presence of God. A pilgrim friend gave me a description of prayer as “lifting heart and soul to God”. It’s a privilege and comfort to be able to pray, especially to entrust loved ones to the Lord in difficult times. … I am learning to avoid telling God what to do, although that’s not always easy, but rather to lift people up into his presence”.
Like a number of others in the parish, during Lent Dorothea is using Laurence Freeman’s book “Sensing God” to help her learn to meditate. I think she’s not alone in finding this quite challenging, and we are going to look into finding someone to lead a group to help us learn more about meditation together. Dorothea also mentioned how helpful she finds it to pray with others, in a pair or a small group – this is something else I hope we can go on to explore in the parish.
Justin described one of the ways he prays, imagining Jesus in a beautiful garden down by a stream, where the sun on the trees dapples the grass below. There’s a garden party happening and Jesus is host. “I bring into that garden all those that I think are in need of prayer and invite them to take all their thoughts, needs, cares and worries to Jesus. No introductions are necessary, Jesus knows who they are and knows all about them, so I leave them to talk as I find the next person”.
He went on to introduce us to Ignatian prayer, imagining ourselves into a gospel story. There was a moving account of praying with the story of Jairus and his daughter, which had led Justin into a very profound experience of God’s love, as he sat on his sofa. He said “For a moment and at the margin, I had just experienced the love that Jesus has for us, a love so great that I couldn’t contain it, a love way beyond my comprehension way too intense and powerful for a human body to withstand. It’s no wonder, no wonder at all, given the intensity and power of His love, that the woman who touched Jesus’s cloak was healed. If I’ve ever doubted any of Jesus’s healing miracles, I really don’t now.”
Robert told us about how his very traditional upbringing, with prayers before bed and on Sunday morning, had evolved into something very much more integrated with his day-to-day life. Youth groups, house groups, reading, the 24/7 prayer rooms over the years and many other influences had all played their part in this. Recognising that finding time to spend with God without interruption is desirable but not always easy, Robert talked about using arrow prayers at any time during the day – before difficult meetings, when his children had particular issues, at any time when he needed to reconnect quickly with God. As most of us know, Robert is a runner, and he told us how he uses his time out running for conversations with God – the rhythm helps him to focus and being outside in nature helps too. He was very clear that it’s important to pray in a way that is comfortable for you and to keep going with it so that you grow in the practice.
I came next and offered one really practical hint: if you have, say, 10 minutes to set aside to pray, why not set an alarm on your phone as you begin? We are so often clock watching, thinking about the next thing we need to be doing, that it can be hard to concentrate properly as we worry about being late or getting behind. Deciding to commit a certain amount of time and then bracketing it with an alarm (I use a gentle chime) means that you can be really present in the moment of your prayer, and not worrying if it’s time to scrape the frost off the car, or get to Tesco, or load the washing machine. One way of praying I’m exploring at the moment is to use the Jesus prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Simply repeating this and being conscious of each word, which will take on different meanings at different times, can be a meditation in itself and can draw you close to God.
Clive and Sandy both told moving and extraordinary stories of prayer answered – in both cases prayers about very prosaic things: Clive’s lost boyhood canary, and Sandy’s very recent and urgent need for a new car. Both of these deserve more space than I can give them here, but both speakers saw the way in which God had answered these particular prayers, sending the canary back into its aviary and providing Sandy with the precise model, transmission and even colour of car she really wanted, not as guarantees that all prayers would be granted but as encouragement to pray – because God does hear our prayers and knows our needs and desires.
Clive talked about the ongoing conversation with God through which we learn more about his purposes over the years and can see, looking back, how prayer is for guidance have been answered although at the time we may feel as if all doors have closed against us. And Sandy led us in a meditation using the Anglican Rosary – I will ask her to put details of this in the next issue of the magazine.
Peter showed us how he prays using pictures – family pictures, inspirational artworks like Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection at Cookham, and press photographs of current events. Some of these last provoked a lively debate which led to a reminder that whilst it’s good to let God know what we want (as Clive and Sandy had shown us) it’s better not to try to tell him what to do. Peter talked about the way that pictures can be reminders of who God is and all that he does in our lives and in the world, and can draw us in to conversation and meditation before God.
Ruth’s prayer life is rooted in meditation and she led us in a beautiful guided meditation using the image of a fire burning, with difficult, intractable problems as large logs reluctant to catch, and the small concerns of everyday life as the kindling. She blended words and silence in a way that gave the meditation shape and rhythm, and also spoke about her routine of prayer, beginning first thing in the morning and continuing throughout the day.
Chuks and Tessa are still to come as I write, and I’m certain that there is a lot more we could share as we build our corporate ability to talk about our faith and how we live it. After all, how will anyone know what it means to us if we don’t talk about it?
Finally, and far more prosaic but very important, this year’s Annual Parochial Church Meeting will take place on Sunday 24 April. As in recent years, there will be a joint service at St Bart’s at 930 and I will deliver the Rector’s annual address as the sermon. The service will be followed by the business meeting when we will need to elect a number of new members to the PCC, hear about our finances and consider one or 2 important issues for the future. Please do come: it’s really important that we all take part in the practical and working life of the parish as well as in worship and prayer. And if you are a regular member of the congregation and not yet on the parish electoral roll please get in touch with Vic in the office and fill in a membership form.
With my love and prayers for a joyful Easter,