An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part One

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Starting my Ordination Training has once again made me examine my pattern of prayer.  Over the years I have used lots of different patterns and sources in my attempt to take my focus off myself and onto God and others.  I have had times when it has worked, when I have tapped into a rich seem of inspirational liturgy but such times have ebbed and flowed with an unhelpful inconsistency.  This inconsistency has meant that the focusing and calming effect of prayer became vulnerable to be lost, drowned out or shut out by the distractions and pace of everyday life.

At the Sarum College’s Summer School it was noticeable how the framework of prayer on which each day was built gave a focus and protective sheen to the day.  We embraced a structure of Morning, Midday and Evening Prayer, something often referred to as the Daily Office.  Each session of prayer took precedence over anything else at that time of the day: so we prayed before we had breakfast and began lectures; we prayed after the morning’s activities ended and before lunch; and we sealed the day with prayer before we ate dinner and relaxed.  Maybe prayer before a meal was out of a sense of humour, as much as thanking for the time past and the time to come, because the prayers were often said to an accompanying soundtrack of rumbling stomachs!

My pattern of prayer away from theological college has not normally been so regular.  There have been times in my life when I have embraced a pattern and source of liturgically structured prayer, but it has often not been strong enough to withstand the demands of everyday life and its use withered.  The consequence has been that at times I have often relied upon listening to a short piece of contemplative prayer on my commute into work or as I settled down to sleep after a busy day.  Sadly even those briefest moments of focused prayers have sometimes been absent, their return would remind me just how bereft and detached from God I had felt without them.

The time and space given to prayer at college meant that although we did not end the day with a corporate session of Night Prayer (often also known as Compline or Examen) I still found that  I was more focused and conscious of God’s presence throughout the day, from rising to going to bed.  That we did not do them together was in itself not a bad thing, there is something particularly intimate about Night Prayer that benefits from being done alone and immediately before sleep.

I tried to continue using the Church of England’s pattern, structure and liturgy of Daily Prayer (Common Worship: Daily Prayer) after returning home from the Summer School, but it was a very different experience doing it alone. At college I had enjoyed its rhythm, length and phrasing; the schedule of the day also allowed time to give it its proper attention and time. There were no competing priorities or distractions, the liturgy, prayers and Bible readings were the undiluted focus – life outside of the theological college bubble is rarely like this.

At home, instead of dwelling on the words and letting them take me deeper into God’s presence, the looming demand of the school run and commute to work caused me to skim read the the liturgy.  Whilst the length of Common Worship’s Daily Prayer was blessing at home there were more words than could be fitted into the time available, no matter how early I rose or how late I stayed up.  And whilst saying the Daily Office with others at college was enriching, saying it on my own was dry and hard to absorb.  The prayer became another task to do, not a focusing or structuring of the day around a relationship with God. Prayers were short, rushed and inwardly focused, driven by whatever was in my life at that moment.

When I finally admitted to myself that Common Worship: Daily Prayer was simply not going to work with my life away from college I knew I needed to find something that would. To continue with it with my work and family life as it currently is would be to repeat the past: my enthusiasm would weaken, the liturgy would be resented as a task rather than appreciated as a way into God’s presence, and my prayer would be ineffective.

I am also conscious, having started training for the ordained priesthood, that if I am going to be able to encourage those I serve to have a healthy prayer life I need to be able to practice now what I will be preaching later.  I need to find patterns and sources of prayer that fit in with the busyness of my life now.

Reflecting on my patterns of prayer has led me to experiment with a deliberate trial of different prayer books, websites and mobile-Apps (computer programs in old-school language).  By deliberately and systematically trying out various sources I hope that I will find one or a combination that will help sustain a healthy prayer life, one which will withstand the pressures of work, family and study.

Over the next few weeks I will be trialling different ‘Daily Offices’ which, to varying extents, have been gathering dust on my physical or virtual shelves:

I am deliberately using sources that I have used in the past, albeit inconsistently, because I know they have the real potential to become established and effective in my daily routine. That said I will be looking out for other sources that I might be able to take advantage of in the future (such as the Discovering Prayer website and the Scottish Episcopal Church). I will also be looking at how other I can make better use of technology to improve my prayer life, such as reminders, appointments and apps like PrayerMate that help prayer become more organised and focused (the JustPray website has links to a few of these apps).

My focus will be on finding sources that are distinctively different to, yet complimentary with, the Church of England’s full Daily Office.  Variety is important: being too used to a single source of style can become stale, keeping prayer as an opportunity to tune into God rather than letting it become just another take to do.  My hope is that I can not only find a pattern and style compatible with life as a parent, employee and student but also to find ones that will ensure my enthusiasm for prayer endures for the long-term.

I will be reporting back in a second post on my Experiment with Daily Prayer but am interested to hear how you keep your prayer life healthy and what you use.  Please let me know by commenting below (and let me know if you do not want your comments published).

Tears for Fears

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

I am now, officially and undeniably (even to myself) an Ordinand.  This week I have begin my training at Sarum College in Salisbury, a place which echoes from my past and which will be embedded in my future, for the next 3 years at least.  Although it is largely a non-residential course it has started with a weeklong Summer School: a chance to build community and get used to the fact that I really am an Ordinand.

Part of the week’s programme has included a mini-silent retreat: from Midday Prayer to Evening Prayer we have been silent.  Having been on a silent retreat before my BAP I was looking forward to this part of the week with eager anticipation.  And as I did during my pre-BAP retreat I gave control of my fingers to God and let Him reveal to me what might be on His heart and to help me articulate what was on mine.

What you will read is the result of the writing.  Normally I type away on an computer with a large screen but this time I used a phone, with interesting results: I could only see a limited amount of what I had typed and only saw the full picture when I read it on my iPad later.  It isn’t polished but it is, with a few spelling corrections, what was the silence revealed to me as I sat in Salisbury Cathedral on the afternoon of 23rd August 2017. Continue reading

Nothing to lose

 

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Preparing to worship at New Wine

 

The New Wine festival is taking place in Somerset this week and next. I can’t be there but reading tweets from those who are, and listening into some of the sessions being streamed live on the internet, has reminded me what a key moment my last trip to the festival turned out to be on my journey towards ordination training. Continue reading

Silent Running

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This blog has brought amazing companions on my journey of discernment.

The time has come. No it is not time to leave for my second Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) but it is time to take a step back from social media and concentrate on what this whole journey has been about. It is time to focus on God and His calling for me, and it is time to do that in private. It is, perhaps, a more difficult decision to have made than it might appear.

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The Lord’s Prayer at the School Gate

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Waiting at the school gate in Wellow, Somerset

Each school day morning I arrive in a village with my children before any other family. We park, we chat, we pass around the tic-tacs (another story), then walk down to the school gate where we watch the traffic pass by and the rest of the families arrive.  It is a time I cherish, a time to share and a time to pray, and so I do.

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Counting to 10 in prayer

 

Crying with Belgium

Life never stops, even when it does.

In the midst of my commute on Tuesday 22nd March 2016 a terrorist attack ended the commute of others in Brussels. As I began another normal working day others were beginning a nightmare. Terrorism was once more brought from the war zones of foreign fields to the pavements of Europe.

At times such as this it can be hard to know how to respond. All I could do was to pray.

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A Prayer for the Uncertain

If like me you seem on an endless quest to discern where God wants you to go, or what He wants you to do, you may find this prayer by Thomas Merton helpful.  As others have probably said: the purpose is in the journey, not the destination.
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Thomas Merton

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following Your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please You.
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
although I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust You always,
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and will never leave me
to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton 

Find out more about Thomas Merton here.

The Prayer of Jabez Extending God’s Kingdom

Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain”.  Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain”.  And God granted his request. 1 Chronicles 4:9-10

These 2 verses come in the midst of a geneaology.  Breaking up a list of names broken by a historical note wasn’t an uncommon thing to find in Middle-eastern biblical and non-biblical genealogies in the Middle East when this was written.

Because of their placement in the text though these two verses stand out and almost demand some attention.

Some have suggested that the place called Jabez, mentioned a few chapters back in 1 Chronicles 2:55, is named after the man we hear about in tonights passage.  Jabez the place is near Bethlehem, in the Valley of Elah, and was known as a place where clans of scribes lived reading and copying literature.

What we know about Jabez the man is contained solely within these 2 verses.  So what do we know, and what can God have for us in it tonight?

2 verses, 1 about his birth, another about his life that followed.

His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”

When we hear in the Bible about the meaning and reasoning behind a given name we get an insight into the situation that they were born into.

It strikes me that the pain of which Jabez’s mother names him after may not be childbirth.  Now being a man I’m obviously no expert on child-birth but I do appreciate that it is rather painful: my hand hurt for ages after my wife had stopped squeezing it once our children had been born…  Apparently it’s painful for ladies too!

There was no gas and air or epidural available when ladies gave birth in Biblical times, so the pain they went through was particularly immense and dangerous, as unfortunately it still is for too many women around the world even today.  That such a painful thing would have happened very often during the vast time period the Bible covers made me wonder why a name that means “I gave birth to him in pain” is only found once within it.

Perhaps the pain of which Jabez’s mother refers to is something less common than the pain of childbirth.  Perhaps, and this is conjecture on my part, perhaps there were complications during the pregnancy or labour that resulted in Jabez having a painful disability?  Perhaps Jabez was born into a troubled and difficult situation that his family found themselves in at that time?  There are many such children being born in Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria and Iraq right now.

You may wonder why I’m dwelling on the pain within these 2 verses and not going straight to the famous bit, the section of verse 10 on which a multi-million-selling book was based and which adorns pens and picture frames, coasters and posters, fridge magnets and key fobs?  I speak, of course, of Bruce Wilkinson’s book titled The Prayer of Jabez, but for me this passage is no prosperity gospel.

I will come on to the prayer itself in a moment but as I read, prayed and contemplated this passage the love that is found amidst the pain stood out.  And it is this love and pain that informs Jabez’s character and prayer.  If we jump straight to the prayer we miss the point of the prayer itself, which isn’t a prayer of prosperity but a prayer for love.

Even the order within verse 9 tells us quite a lot.  The order of verse 9, just like throughout the Bible, isn’t accidental but deliberate.  It tells us something.  Verse 9 starts not with his birth but with the nature of his character: Jabez was more honourable than his brothers”

Notice that we don’t hear that Jabez’s brothers we dishonourable but that Jabez was more honourable.  What made him more honourable?  Could it be that his character was born out of his gratitude for being shown love despite the painful life he was born into or led since birth?  He wasn’t abandoned and left to fend for himself but grew up being loved and with his brothers.  He didn’t take that love for granted, nor did he take God’s love for granted either.

Life wasn’t easy for Jabez.  We can tell that in part because he didn’t simply pray to God, he cried out in prayer to God.  He asks God to bless him and enlarge his territory.  Now given that Jabez is an honourable man this isn’t a request born out of greed.  He isn’t asking for a greater property portfolio from which to become rich; by asking for his territory to be enlarged Jabez is asking to be given more responsibilities.  This is the mark of a person who wants to give back not to have a cushy life.

By asking God to enlarge his territory he is asking for more blessings from God.  But he is wise as well as honourable, and doesn’t end with this simple request for more opportunities.

Life had taught him that if he is going to make the most of the opportunities God grants him he won’t be able to do so alone and in his own strength.  And he knows that in order to use those opportunities effectively he is going to need three things:

  1. to be in tune with God (God with Him);
  2. to be protected by God from harm;
  3. to be freed from pain.

We don’t know how old Jabez is or just what is painful for him.  Nor do we know how many times he has asked God for protection and to be freed from the pain but we do know that God grants him his request.

It is safe to assume that with his honourable characteristics that Jabez showed his gratitude to God for answering his prayer.  But how?  And how does Jabez’s life relate to us today?

Jabez prayed that God would enlarge his territories.  At first glance that sounds like Jabez wants more land, and certainly that would have been seen as a direct blessing from God.  It may sound somewhat materialistic but, given Jabez’s nature, it could well have been so that he could grow more crops and raise more animals in order to provide for his family.  There would have been nothing wrong in that.  Nor would there have been anything wrong in wanting to be free from pain as he did that.

But it strikes me that in the nature of both Jabez and God there is more to it than a simple re-drawing of a geographical boundary.

Borders are a human creation but they aren’t just geographical. We use them to create order and comfort.  We organise friends and relations into groups, our hobbies and interests too.  Sometimes those borders overlap like a venn diagram but so often our life and faith becomes compartmentalised.

Whilst we spend much of our time crossing geographical borders our relationship borders are often closed.  Yet just as when we go on holiday to foreign lands we learn and see new things so it is with relationships.

God is interested in souls not square metres so extending His Kingdom needs much more than an expanding land portfolio on which His adopted children could live in safety whilst they wait for the eternal kingdom.  Just as God works indiscriminately across both geographical and relationship borders, He wants us to do so too.

God knows the nature of love because He is love.  He gives to us because He loves us and like true love He gives unconditionally, demanding nothing in return.  God knows though that if we appreciate the love something we will want to share it with others, and He is counting on us sharing our love and knowledge of Him with others.

Instead of watching from the sidelines as the Fantastic Trio of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit collect souls one by one, God invites us in to join Team Trinity and be part of the fun.

We could sit on our sofas at home and reach for another cup of tea, safe in the comfort of our salvation but we would be so much poorer for it!  God won’t love us any less if we did but He knows we will have so much fun playing an active part. But in one sense we don’t have any choice as to whether we want to get involved or not.

In 2 Corinthians 5:16 to 6:2 Paul called us to be Christ’s ambassadors.  Ambassadors are the embodiment of a land, of a kingdom, and they cross borders to represent their home country and government.

As a result of the blessings he received Jabez would have been seen by those around him to be an ambassador of God.  We too are seen to represent God by those with whom we meet.  We are in effect seen as a living embodiment of God’s Kingdom.

Jabez prayed for more territory, for more opportunities, and not to be confined by pain.  Being an honourable man he would have given back even more so when those prayers were answered.  He would not have received God’s grace in vain, just as Paul urges us not to as well.

God doesn’t want us to confine who we share our faith with to those in our comforting compartments.  God wants us to open up those compartments and cross over their borders.  As we extend our personal borders we can put love into action as Christ’s ambassadors.  As we do so God strengthens and extends His Kingdom bit by bit, soul by soul.

God wants to use us in extending His kingdom, in bringing more people to the eternal party.  He needs us to break out of our comfortably ordered lives and try something different.  Think of it as a holiday, you don’t have to stay but you might want to!

So what borders limit you from sharing your love and appreciation for all that God has done for you?  How many borders do you need to open and cross?  What new territories and people do you need to visit to pass on God’s love to?

Remember one thing as you contemplate that: just as He promised to be with Jabez, God goes with us too.

The Land of Confusion

Stuck in a cul-de-sac with no reverse gear

Stuck in a cul-de-sac with no reverse gear

I could tell by her tone of voice that it wasn’t good news.

The call from my DDO came earlier than expected.  The Advisers at my BAP had not recommended me for ordination training.  I felt numb.

I couldn’t find many words to keep the conversation going for long.  There didn’t seem much point either when I was told that we wouldn’t find out why for almost a week.

The future that I had been preparing for had fell apart in an instant.  I had been preparing for rejection too but experiencing it is very different.  My emotions took the expected hit.  It felt like a light had gone out, like a door slammed in my face.  I knew that I would find it tough to hear such news, that I would be in a state of grief, but I hadn’t planned for my mind to be hit hard as well. Continue reading

T minus 3 weeks

Will my application be accepted?

Will my application be accepted?

The date is getting closer.  So much to do, such little time. Or is there?

As I continue my preparations for attending a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) there I the list of things I want and need to do beforehand at times feels impossible to achieve.  Yet I also feel a the sense of peace and excitement I feel as I pass through each day is palpable.

There isn’t just the BAP to prepare for, there is life away from it which continues regardless and needs time and attention.  I have my day-job, my role as a school governor, a house to sell and of course my children and wife to attend to and spend time with.  Such things keep me grounded and from becoming tunnel visioned and obsessed by all things ordination.
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