Saturday, 28 February 2015

TALKING ABOUT PRAYING.....


Today I am thinking about the subject of 'prayer'.the subject suggested itself when I read about a worldwide internet prayer system . People around the world can ask for prayer, and if they wish, see the prayers repeated and passed on to millions. One recent one (apparently) asked for success of a relative at an interview in Australia, and another asked that troublesome nosebleeds would cease (which they did).The system is being used in 95 countries and has attracted more than 33 million users. 

My reaction is somewhere between being uneasy and indifferent. It certainly is not what I understand by praying. Do we oversimplify what we mean by praying, failing to look into its meaning and implications (and complications). But what is prayer and what is involved in the act of  'praying' ? First let me attempt a definition: praying is the act of, or belief in, a request made to God  by a person for the wellbeing of another, or others. That is how we understood prayer from our earliest days and largely remains the same whether praying for simple things in childhood or the people dying in a far off country from war or homelessness.

But, to use a common phrase these days, let us 'drill down' into what it could mean. Leave aside for a moment the request to God, and think of it at a human level. I wonder- and this is a speculative thought- whether thinking intensely on another can affect that person? I know this is a deep place but it would not surprise me if one day we discovered this to be a possibility.(Carl Jung wrote much of the 'Collective Unconscious' as an underground of thought affecting people other than those immediate to us).

We may be happy to leave that aside, but a second consideration must be this. Saying a prayer for someone changes the one who offers that prayer, whether it is a wider understanding (or easier forgiveness) of another, or creating in us a space where good things can happen. And I would want to add another aspect which I know is true, having experienced it many times. For a person to know that another has said prayers for them can create a real warmth and benefit. At our church a group of people meet each week with the simple, but profound, purpose of remembering others in their need. Often people are told that they have been the subject of these prayers and it makes a huge benefit.

Do I persuade you that there is much  more to what we call prayer than first thought? Perhaps we need to coin new language because words become so well polished that they lose the reality they should have.But clearly God- or a power and resource other than ourselves -must come into the picture. This is the hardest part. It comes down to a central question; does God interfere? Well, he might well do much  via those very things I have described above. But the question cannot be evaded. Here we enter into mystery . We do not know, but the experience over the centuries is that things happen when people say their prayers.So no-one should be discouraged in saying their prayers because this is part of what we believe.

So what about unanswered prayers? This is a question that is asked again and again, indeed one of the most intransigent .But we must not give up. For now- I will return to this later- I want to suggest that in trust we pray into the mystery . How can we do anything else? We are left free agents in this world, for better for worse, as every parent knows about their children. We cannot interfere with their essential freedom, but there are ways in which influence can be exercised for good. So also  with God and it is on that we base our prayers.

All the above tells me one other thing: we do not only need to pray in our churches but we need to study prayer itself with all its implications.The current movement with which I started today might increase the need to discuss and explore exactly what it is about.And because we do not understand electricity it does not stop us turning the light on. So we must press on with our prayers because we simply do not know what its mystery might deliver for us. Of course 'request' prayers are not the only kind.

Last evening 17 of us dined well, and as our little thank you, sent Derek's purse round. He tells me that £50 was donated to the Barnabas Fund for persecuted Christians across the world..Their magazine gave us one frightening statistic, among many. A  well known human rights organisation- secular in nature- informed that of all the persecutions in the world, over 80% were directed at Christians. They asked readers to pray for these poor people.And there is the challenge. How do we respond to that opportunity and how should  those prayers be formed.

Friday, 27 February 2015

QUESTIONS WITHOUT AN ANSWER

On Wednesday evening 17 of us met to talk about the things we cannot, and should not seek to, understand. These are particularly relevant at this Lenten time of the year when huge questions come into view. What sort of Love is evident in those stirring days? Can we get a model of Divine love from the love we know as limited human beings? What about all the Evil  that was displayed in the story.? Blind hatred, without cause or reason. And to Christians who believe in a life after this how do we know what heaven is like? And to Christians who believe that in the cross people find salvation from their human ness,  how is it made possible by a man dying on a cross?


We took the path of deciding that the questions do not have any easy answers and it is better to be embraced by the experience than lost in the arguments.To resist evil as best we can. To fight for goodness. To shape our belief in God around the depth of love. To allow ourselves to be embraced, gripped, held by the love we see in the story.

Tonight the same group enjoy a meal out together. It will be good for us all, but perhaps more meaningful for people who live alone and have no-one to go out with for a friendly meal.It is easy to get so familiar with our own situation that we overlook others who are not so fortunate.When I first became a grandfather I wanted to talk about him (And later them) wherever I went.. But through some quiet realisations I became more cautious , remembering all those who did not have such delights, or had grandchildren but could not see them due to geography or family separation.

It all comes down to living outside the narrow shell we call 'self'.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

INCREDIBLE AND MIRACULOUS

I have been reading about a quite remarkable Jewish woman who died in 1998. She was a member of a German Jewish family living in Berlin, where the nazis cleared 50,000 Jews, often to death camps. Nevertheless 1700 evaded capture and survived the war badly scarred but intact. Her name was Maria, a bold and beautiful 21 year old. Her family were killed before the deportation and the Nazis did catch up with her in 1942. But ever quick witted she asked to go down stairs for a moment and escaped into the street half dressed.

Thereafter she moved around the the city escaping arrest, enduring starvation, several rapes and at least one necessary abortion. Many devices were necessary including being sold to a deranged Nazi and living as a 'wife' with a Dutchman who alternately cared for her and fought with her. She was engaged to a Russian and even attributed her many sufferings to absolute survival necessity.

So she survived and in the years that followed Marie became a distinguished classics professor.She only told her story to her son as she was dying in 1998,. He was amazed how huge a story it was, taking up 77 hours of taping. He has now written it down into a currently best selling book in Germany. I find things to learn in this fascinating story, as her son clearly did.

In the first place, her survival was put down to a constant positive attitude, always looking forward but not looking back.Secondly, why take 50 years to write down her story, memories that clearly haunted her all her years. How much baggage did her unconscious mind keep locked up that needed liberating into the full life of consciousness(where it could be dealt with).Evidence of this haunting emerged in the last days of her life when she thought her nurse injecting her was a Nazi seeking to kill her.It can be harmful to keep things locked up, and the longer it is done the greater the hiddenness and inaccessibility. But maybe she had to lock up the past to build a new future?

But she did not feel guilty  that she had survived when so many contemporaries did not.. Perhaps here is another lesson- to let things go from the past we cannot change.

Marie summed up her philosophy in her later years:

" The survival of every one of those who went on the run from the Nazis rests on a chain of chance incidents that can often be called incredible and miraculous"

Wise words. There are so many things that happen to us that may indeed be down to pure luck or chance. But we must hold on to the possibility that the incredible can indeed be miraculous even though we might not be able to explain it. And it is,perhaps, only the fool who thinks they can explain everything.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

'GOOD IMAGE RETENTION'

Apparently 6 out of 10 of us are reluctant to answer the telephone for fear that they may be 'nuisance' calls. We have our answer to this through what we know as 'caller display' showing us the type of call we are receiving. So if the little dial says 'Private' or 'Out of area' or 'International' we simply ignore it. Nevertheless it remains a nuisance, albeit in lesser form. One more example of how easily our peace is disturbed.but at last more serious action is to be taken against the perpetrators. If it doesn't solve the problem altogether (the callers can be very elusive ) it must go some way to helping the situation for thousands, if not millions.

I regard dreams- yes sleep time dreams- as unwelcome callers, albeit in a different way. Last night- you wont mind me giving you an example, although I wish I had enjoyed one of my humorous dreams to report of recent incidence. A young minister called me aside and asked if the lady in the distance was my younger daughter. Yes, it was, I confirmed. 'I have to warn you that she is planning to burn down a building and is already collecting the necessary firewood.' He also told me that her friends were a bad influence on her and had drawn her into voodo activities. Perhaps I should speak to her? I will- I am quite sure that she will be very worried!!!

All this leads me to my main point. Our other beloved daughter- the primary school teacher- is already well into a course on counselling, a job she would be very astute and insightful at, as well as kind. A rare combination. I could never be a counsellor, but value a grassroots philosophy which allows me to gather insights wherever I find them especially from self observation. Of course we do not really know ourselves- just think of the immense, hidden power of our unconscious minds- but we know ourselves better than we can know anyone else.(Carl Jung, the great swiss student of the mind) admitted that every time he met a new patient it was an exploration that began with a blank page.Anyway, a piece of self observation tells me something helpful about me.

This I will call 'good image retention'. An example will help. Weeks ago I read of a world famous sailor of 76 years old sailing solo from France to Guadeloupe. That image stayed with me and gave me enormous inspiration. I kept it for as long as I could. This week it is still about the sea, but a walk Janet and I had by it in our beloved Fleetwood. The sky was blue, the air fresh - very bracing!. The waves were dashing and crashing on the sand and it was simply beautiful. Three days ago but still on my mind.

Yes, 'Good Image Retention'. Sometimes difficult and elusive but always worth the attempt.




Tuesday, 24 February 2015

HOW THINGS SHOULD BE

We all hear talk of the church's failure to live up to the ideals people expect. Perhaps the expectation is too high, a failure to realise that people in churches are  there to improve not to boast of their achievements or perfection. It is the sick who seek the doctor remember. But we always need to place alongside these comments the times- and there are many- when the church succeeds in its loving kindness.

This comes to mind because I had cause yesterday to reflect on the harrowing times when death was at our door and the family were going to lose their Mum, and me - my wife of ten years. I had just started out on the ministry journey having left my home town and a prestigious job in a Bolton college. At the church I have in mind- and where I shared a part in the work, enormous kindness was directed to us. After a Sunday Service a man would always approach for a handshake and in his grip a five pound note (40 years ago considerably more value than today). A man who owned a local garage instructed me to fill up the petrol tank whenever we needed to journey to hospital in Manchester. A lady in the church who had three young children as we had, would take over our children for the dentist, hairdressers and other appointments we could not fulfil.

It was a glowing example of how the church can be and I have seen this happen again over the intervening years. We should set these incidents against the snub, the chance unfortunate remark or the unintended oversight, even actual hypocrisy.

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Hopefully the church is also the place where wisdom is practised, even old wisdom, the teachings of Jesus at the heart of it all. Last week I saw advertised an interesting book offering dozens of ancient wisdoms.We must not despise them. Bananas(with their tryptophan) to help 'nerves' and mental attitudes. Banana skins for human skin and polishing shoes.A method for getting rid of shirt collar grime.Hairspray to renew the look of lino.Making the toilet bowl  sparkle with coke!

All from Grannie's wisdom!  And did not the man from Stratford leave us with immortal lines which must count as real wisdom. What about our doubts being traitors? What about the need to minister to ourselves? And then in recent reading coming across the bard's comments on grief and emotional emptiness identifying a condition called Anhedonia * (The absence of any emotional pleasure) 30 years before it was first written about in studies of the human mind?

If we rubbish what is old we are in danger of throwing out 'the baby with the bathwater' another wise observation of timeless human frailty.

*This important matter is something I will return to soon. I hope that this does not sound too much of a threat!


Monday, 23 February 2015

FEAR.....

Fear is never far away from the human experience. I was reading about an 87 year old show business personality, famous for hosting television's most famous dance show. He was speaking about fear that haunts his later years, and in particular the fear of dementia. Fears often grow out  of particular experiences and in the current case the loss of a wife at 83 to the same horrible disease.He added " Everyone who gets old worries about these terrible things that we didn't know about years ago. Back then you would keep going and going, and then you are gone".

And a little more wisdom: " It is always at the back of one's mind but you mustn't drive yourself mad by worrying about it. When that kind of thing happens, then that is the time to worry about it". The star even admitted that in the dance show he was quite lonely, given the announcer's role kept him separate from the activity involved. That made me think that behind cheerful faces there is often a hidden loneliness.

But what caught my attention was the reference to worrying about things today that years ago we would not do, simply because we did not know of them. And there it is- the widening threshold of fear. And is the current load of hospitals partly due to this modern phenomenon; good in the sense of looking for early signs and early treatment, but not good in filling everyone with fearfulness.

There are ways we might deal with this.It comes by statistics, I'm afraid. In my fear of flying and air safety I consulted the accident statistics. They told me there was more chance of being killed by a rabid dog as being killed in an aircraft. The same can be said of disease. Think of a football match with 30,000 attending. Then ask how many would the statistics say were in danger from the 30,000? Remarkably few. It should still make us careful but allay the fear realising that out of that crowd so few would be in danger.

And as for the 87 year old- he's celebrating his years with a new West End show in May, adding  that he " felt lucky to be alive,"adding :"So many of my dear friends have departed this earth".

Then there is anxiety, defined as an unease about everything, compared to fear anchored to special occurrences and having the ability to evaporate if the feared event did not transpire.

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You might have seen the interview with the first wife of our most famous living scientist,  explaining the difficulties  she of Christian belief had living with her atheist husband.By and large, she said, they lived happily with their different views of life's most important question. I would not have found it so straightforward. I find myself having little respect for the atheist, but a great deal for the agnostic. The former says 'I know' the latter says 'I do not know'.I almost laugh at the atheist that they think, even begin to think that our tiny brains can understand, explain, comprehend the secrets of this complex and vast universe. It is back to teaching Rosie, our dog, to sing or understand everything we say. Her mind is not made for it.So do not let the atheist disturb you;allow them to carry on in their  ignorance.

Someone once asked me an interesting question: "Suppose there is no life after this, and I have spent all my years believing that there was?" My reply was always the same; how much better to live with a dream(any dream) that might turn out to be untrue than live with the grim reality of its absence.



Sunday, 22 February 2015

THE DIGNITY WE ALL DESERVE

I heard a lovely story, told by the person it had happened to, about a man trained as a gynaecologist in a poor African country. A time came when persecution forced him to leave and seek refuge in the United Kingdom, but without status, job possibilities, even dignity. He reached a point of despair but fortunately found a wonderful and caring church in Central London. He was enveloped by their friendship and ready acceptance of him as a human being, deserving of proper dignity.

One day- still in despair- he was walking in the countryside and came across a farmer struggling with a bleeding sheep. They were anxiously waiting for the vet. The young doctor quickly realised that it was likely to be a breach birth, rolled up his sleeves, turned the lamb round and delivered it safely. As he wiped the blood from his hands, a crowd had gathered and someone asked 'Are you a vet?'. 'No' he replied 'I'm a doctor'. Then the crowning remark- like so many such- turned his life around...'We need more people like you'.

'We need people like you'.The young man returned from his walk with a new resolve and now he is completing a course in Manchester that will allow him to practise again.It was a moment of healing. 

For each of us there is the opportunity of healing. In most instances these will be tiny acts, loving gestures, sacrificial deeds.And in most cases we will not know that we have been part of the mystery of healing.
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Did you see the film about the remarkable young Russian pianist who was composing music at the age of five, before he could play the piano. He is now 21 and amazing musicians all over the world with his unique ability. He declares that it is his purpose to create something beautiful, and he clearly does this with distinction. The thing I noticed was the way he described the effect of music on him and how he became totally involved in it that everything else was obliterated. His girl friend- also a piano student- said that he had no sense of his own importance or thoughts of his reputation. The music simply took him over. 'The more I play, the more I need to' he added.

I think there is a lesson for us all here. To be involved, submerged, taken over, even for an interval, carry much promise for our states of mind. Things are temporarily forgotten, rested from giving us moments of calm, delight, peace, whatever the activity might be.

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At church these days- no longer the centre of the activity- I have opportunity to observe. This morning I had an example of the unconditional friendship and care that is ready and available in a Christian community. First of all it is unique in that it is a real 'dolly mixture' of people. Yes, there is the bowling club, two hiking groups, the line dancing, all for people with particular interests.But the church as a community, as a family is for all sort, all ages, every disposition.
 So this morning I sat behind an elderly German born man called Willy, who served in the non combatant Luftwaffe in the Second World War, came here as a POW, met his English wife, learned to language eventually becoming head of languages at a University. His wife died last year and he has found himself in our church. And how rich a welcome he has been given, and I teased him about ladies coming to give him an affectionate embrace. I think the welcomes- including those through the coffee shop- have changed his life.

When people asked me what the church was, or how I would define what it should be I had a standard reply: it strives to be a community of Christian love, kind, unconditional and caring.
I think Willy has discovered that in full measure.