An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part Two 

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In my previous post I wrote about my determination to find a pattern of daily prayer that suited being a working parent.  The combination of the school run, a days work, family life and church had made if difficult to find enough space and time to connect with God through dwelling on liturgy and scripture.

I decided to take 3 different sources of the Daily Office available in multiple formats and focus on each for a week: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the Northumbria Community’s Daily Office and the Church of England’s Time to Pray. which together combine a mixture of books, the internet, smart-phones and music.

This post is part reflection and part review of these and the impact focusing on applying them to an inconsistent and complicated schedule had on me.  As I found out when trying to do Morning, Midday and Night Prayer, not each format is necessarily suited to each part of the day.

Praying Through the Day

Sitting at my desk in the quiet of the early morning, before my children awoke and the day began in earnest, the tactile process of opening a book and turning the pages drew me deeper into God’s presence than the tapping and swiping of pixels on a screen.  The books engaged more senses than my sight: the texture and smell of the covers and the pages within; my fingers slowly but deliberately finding the pages to read; and the light that fell upon the words before me.  The softness of a book and the light in which it is read is inviting, the harshness of the light from computer screen is not.  And though I found Time to Pray helpful in various ways not having it in book form meant that I found it more attractive later in the day than in the morning (it is available in book form so in time I may find myself buying a copy to use).

With time limited (and my inability to get up early enough) the reduced length of the Morning Prayer in all 3 sources was helpful.  With the reminders of historic moments and calls to action within Common Prayer I found my prayers being more purposeful and less tokenistic than before.  With the Northumbria Community’s Daily Celtic Prayer I found my prayers more emotionally driven and intimate, perhaps driven by the more poetic language.  The repeated refrains scattered throughout Time to Pray helped them to cut through my tired state and bed in, but the lack of a ‘thought for the day’ meant that the effectiveness of the session depended on my reaction to the Bible readings.  All were short enough not to be rushed, enabling a decent amount of time to contemplate the liturgy and readings.

Maybe I am alone in this but I often find the Psalms dry and challenging to engage with, especially when presented with a large number of verses.  Although Time to Pray is a shortened version of Common Worship: Daily Prayer there is still a fair bit from the Psalms which, along with the other Bible readings, are drawn from the Church’s lectionary.  My understanding with and use of the lectionary is such that I have yet to fathom or discern any order or continuing theme.  Common Prayer is quite the opposite, the Bible readings follow on from the day before.  By gradually expanding a reading over several days the overall story and message was consolidated and embedded much better than having unrelated scripture each day.  The Northumbria Community’s’s Bible readings are often single verses which penetrate deeper into my soul and provide more to contemplate than a long reading.

Whatever peace the prayer provided I found that the stress of the school run could easily replace it.  Even if the peace remained I found myself drawn to and appreciative of the Jesuits’ Pray-as-you-go to listen to as I continued into work.  Having engaged in prayer with my hands and eyes before breakfast, engaging in my prayers with my ears as I prepared for the rest of the day was a moment to savour and one which brought the peace back.  Knowing that I would be using Pray-as-you-go meant that on occasions I used it as my sole source of Morning Prayer, choosing to use the single session of set prayer from my digital copy of Time to Pray at lunchtime.

Whatever the source, Midday Prayer was always a varied affair.  The environment in which we pray can have a big impact on the prayers and there are few places in my office in which I can comfortably remove myself.  A good set of headphones and some gentle instrumental music were essential if I was to have any hope of finding some distance from the distractions. Both Common Prayer’s and the Northumbria Community’s were short enough to be used well within a short lunch break whilst still leaving enough time to eat.

The timing of Evening Prayer was a challenge.  Like many parents the time after work was concerned with collecting and feeding my children before the all-important bedtime routines began.  By the time quietness had descended upon my house, and the essential chores had been done, the onset of tiredness did not particularly make reading liturgy an enticing prospect. At times like these, just as when driving, having audio sources of prayer was invaluable.

Throughout the 3 weeks I drew upon not only the audio of Pray-as-you-go but an audio version of Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer which is both sung and spoken.  Although different both the sung and spoken liturgy were particularly helpful but they did have challenging side-effects: the lack of feeling that often comes when words are spoken in unison can be off-putting; and when reading the liturgy I would hear the tune in my head, a distraction that could turn the contemplative prayer and worship into a nice sing-along session.  Common Prayer includes songs within its sessions but only the App includes audio-tracks of the suggested songs, both the book and website include sheet music that resolutely remained either silent or out of tune in my head.

Just as a contemplative audio provided a good start to my working day, praying along with the voices of others or listening to an audio Compline or Examine ended the day well, particularly when heard immediately before sleep (the Jesuits’ Pray-as-you-go app and website has audio versions of Examen Prayer and the Northumbria Community’s Daily prayer album has a Compline for each day of the week).

So what?

As I experimented with different patterns and sources of daily prayer I quickly realised, somewhat unsurprisingly, that spending a week at a time with a sources wasn’t going to be long enough to perfect my practice. The variations in life that make one day easy and another hard mean that there will never a single solution that will endure, instead whatever we do needs to adapt to an ever changing environment.

Focusing on spending time in prayer and anchoring my day in God’s presence did have benefits beyond finding liturgy and readings that inspired me.  It brought a sense of God’s presence throughout the day: when stressful situations occurred it did not take much to return to a peaceful perspective.  The gap between my conscious and subconscious awareness of God’s presence narrowed.  Before I began my experiment God could be hidden under layer upon layer of thoughts and tasks.  Praying more regularly found space for God alongside them.

With our busy lives it is a challenge to make time to simply be with God and it is all too easy for the world to drown out His voice.  This experiment has shown me that having a variety of formats and sources of a Daily Office is essential if the inspiration is to remain fresh and flexible enough to fight through the ‘things-that-must-be-done’.  It has reminded me that more important than a Daily Office is the desire to pray and spend time with God.  The practice of regularly dwelling on liturgy and scripture provided a foundation for the moments when they were unreachable: on the days when a session of set prayer was not possible my mind turned to God more quickly than before.

So although I set out looking for a single source of guidance to aid my prayers during each day I found I used several.  I found a relaxation with prayer and a realisation that the motivation to pray and connect with God is the most important factor.  That motivation can become the prayer because, as I found when I read or spoke no words, our souls don’t always need words to communicate with God.

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. Continue reading

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