Resources for desert prayer

sandwriterSince I started to follow the Holy Spirit’s prompts to think about desert spirituality, I have been looking around for what others have written.

It is an interesting search, in that spirituality from the desert is both an ancient stream of prayer experience and wisdom, and also a way of approaching prayer from the heart. There are writings spanning 1700 years of church history, from when the early Desert Fathers began their pilgrimages into the Egyptian wilderness, through to modern reflections on their lives and sayings. In between one can find the influence of the Fathers on numerous writings of contemplative men and women, in many of the monastic traditions. This is because the commitment to prayer, solitude, simplicity and the transformation of the heart – so exemplified by St Anthony and his fellow pilgrims – became either foundational principles or impetuses for the future great monastic movements.

So there is a collection of writings about those early inspirational desert-praying saints, mainly biographies and collected sayings. There is also a wider resource, across church traditions, of how to approach a prayerful, contemplative life. There is so much to sift through, in printed and virtual formats, that one almost needs a guide to find what is most helpful. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions, have some very good devotional writings over the centuries. The Christian mystics of medieval times, such as St Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St John of the Cross, are well-known sources of wisdom. Modern monastic figures, like Thomas Merton, have likewise attracted a large following. As an evangelical Protestant, this is a deep well of spiritual reflection which is new and foreign to me.

My personal journey in the last few months has led me to a modest selection of books, but some that have helped to orientate me to desert prayer and the wider monastic tradition. I share these for any help or use it may be for others.

  1. There are some sources of the lives and writings of the Desert Fathers which have been inspirational

st anthonyThe Life of St Anthony – St Athanasius.

Written by a friend and disciple, this story of St Anthony is beautiful and inspiring. It may well be an idealised account of the saint’s life, but the vivid impression of his heart, his discipline and the context of his life is great to read. Athanasius gives great attention to Anthony’s asceticism, his feats of spiritual discipline, his spiritual battles, and later in life, his leadership of this monastic way of life and his ministry in words and healing to many who came to him. The author concludes his reasons for writing thus: ‘that they may learn what the life of monks ought to be; and may believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify him….even though they hide themselves and are desirous of withdrawing from the world.’

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Sayings of the Desert Fathers – Penguin Classics.

The collection of wise sayings of the early desert Fathers is here in one place, along with a very helpful introductory chapter about this monastic tradition, its strengths and challenges. These sayings have been a spiritual source of nourishment to many traditions of the Christian faith, and universally popular, maybe because these where ordinary people who ‘had an air of eternity’ in what they said and how they lived. As the compiler of the sayings writes in the introduction: ‘the picture that emerges from these primitive sources is of entirely, indeed ruthlessly, committed but sensible men and women, learning to live with nature and with others in a harmony that grew out out of a prayed life’.

2.  I found some modern testimonies, of people trying out a monastic way of life, helpful to read.

genesee diaryThe Genesee Diary: report from a Trappist monastery – Henri Nouwen.

This well known Catholic scholar took a seven month retreat from his writing and lecturing to become a temporary member of a North American monastic community. His daily diary of his experience of prayer, study, manual work and living in community is full of helpful insights. It reveals the honest wrestling of a mature Christian who is exploring the fruit and challenge of living a contemplative life. Returning to his busy life, Henri thinks about the value of that prayer experience: ‘ I can say that I have a most precious memory which keeps unfolding itself in all that I do or plan to do. I no longer can live without being reminded of the glimpse of God’s graciousness that I saw in my solitude, of the ray of light that broke through my darkness, of the gentle voice that spoke in my silence, and of the soft breeze that touched me in my stillest hour.’

abbots shoesThe Abbot’s Shoes: seeking a contemplative life – Peter Robinson.

This is a complementary account of a young man giving two years of his life in the 1960’s to join a Trappist monastery in Australia – the Lady of the Southern Star. Now, after a lifetime of ministry as a pastor, broadcaster and revival preacher, Peter returns to this stream of desert prayer as a sustaining rhythm for his current life. He reflects on all he learned within that holy, enclosed community and acknowledges the call of the Spirit into the desert: “My singing of the Psalms morning, noon and night is my occupation. I am dreaming of many tiny monasteries, ‘invisible’ in urban and rural wildernesses. In holy obscurity such will shape the sinews of history.”

 3.   There are some considered reflections on desert spirituality by today’s theologians, which draw out that wisdom to modern life.

These have been really useful to measure my own journey through lenses of my experience of God, compared to desert spirituality, because, though from a different time in history,  the theological and practical insights are timeless.

way-of-the-heart.jpgThe Way of the Heart: desert spirituality and contemporary ministry – Henri Nouwen.

Written a decade after his visit to Genesee monastery, this wise book examines the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers to see how it is helpful to Christian ministry in our modern world. Nouwen gives profound psychological insights into the need for three desert values. One is solitude, where we find out true self in Christ through furnace like struggle and encounter, leading to a compassionate ministry. Another is silence, which is the mystery of the future world, helping us to be true pilgrims and to guard the fire of the Spirit, which in turn allows God’s creative word to be heard and spoken. The third is prayer itself, more of the heart than of the mind. As Nouwen writes about this central theme: ‘prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where three are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one. There God’s Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place.’

silence and honey cakesSilence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert – Rowan Williams.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes about what the lives and writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have to say into the modern search for spirituality. He touches on issues of truly loving ourselves and our neighbour, of what ‘fleeing’ and ‘staying’ mean in the desert. Fleeing for people today may not be from our ordinary lifestyle and community, but from ‘illusory landscapes in which life appears easier, to as to inhabit the landscape of truth as more than an occasional visitor’, where non-wasted words which are transfiguring come from a depth, from quiet and expectancy. Staying, as Williams explores, means learning to stay where you are, and giving yourself to your real, embodied journey of holiness. The well known saying, ‘stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’, involves pledging yourself to your life now, not what is fantasised about,  your personal walk lived uniquely before God.

The last book I have been reading – Belden Lane’s ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ – has been the most profound for me, and I will devote another blog to that for reasons to be made clear.

If you have read this far, I hope you have found some tantalising insights or quotes that could help you in your spiritual journey. Because there is ancient wisdom echoing down from saints of long ago, some of the cloud of witnesses encouraging us on our race of faith.

May God bless you on your journey.

William

 

 

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Adjusting to a desert journey

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‘Compass’ by Denis Vrublevski

I was wondering to myself, as I trimmed my beard earlier in the week, just how long a desert prayer journey might take.

For those who read any recent blogs of mine, I have been following a spiritual nudge from God to take time aside in my life to let him lead me through a desert experience. I felt I had to embody a prophetic picture of myself stripped bare in a desert terrain with little more than a beard, cloak and staff with strong winds whipping around me. For the last nine months I have tried to be silent more before God, to be attentive and journal the things he has shown me about my life, to read what saints ancient and modern have written about wilderness and prayer, and to find a deeper relationship with Jesus through it all.

I haven’t blogged as much as I might like partly because this prayer experience is personal and also because I am taking a while to orientate myself – what  element of the desert exploration is a prayer posture, what part is the exposing of interior of my heart, what portion is a prophetic treasure trail listening to the call of God? It is all good and fruitful, but not much is easily communicable.

The only disconcerting thing is that God didn’t put a time limit on this journey, just a starting point. As it is for many that find themselves in a desert place in their faith. Some of our wilderness places are forced upon us, circumstances that strip us back. Some are ones we feel led to explore, as treks of exploring spirituality. Whichever it is, God’s only biblical promise is that He likes to encounter His people in desert places. Prophetic destinies are shaped there, the voice of God is heard there, miracles of provision and life are given there – the wilderness is abundant in spiritual potential, even as it is stark in its apparent barrenness.

My praying and reflecting on wilderness and spiritual journeys can at times seem a luxury, a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of extra if I find the time in my days and weeks. And yet I realise it is an essential part of my life right now, a gracious trail God is leading me on to bring me greater wholeness and closeness to Him.

I am finding it a fulfilling place to be, because I am meeting with Him and He is speaking into my life and the world I inhabit. Yet, at the start of the year, the Lord is reminding me that the longer I stay here, I am also finding things in the desert of my life that are not pleasant. There are attitudes, compulsions, emotions, fears, caverns deep in my soul – things that could discourage me in life. Yet I trust that Jesus is allowing these things to surface so He can bring healing, transformation, life and faith to these un-sanctified parts of me.

A friend of mine recently gave me a piece of prayer-art she had made for my 50th birthday. She beautifully portrays the life that God brings in a desert place, as Isaiah chapter 35 amply suggests: ‘water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert’. I must stay here 0n this journey until more of my wilderness is transformed, and more of the glory of the Lord is displayed around me.

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‘Streams in the desert’ by Shelley Gregory

‘Come Holy Spirit, transform the desert of my experience. Let it become a holy place, a space of meeting and encounter with You’.

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Turning 50 and thankful!

On the cusp of my 50th birthday, feeling quite content and expectant…

I think over my different decades and see times of growth and change, spiritual milestones, failures or obstacles I overcame, stages of family life, the clear hand of the Lord on my life and, if I look to see it, some good fruit at every stage. That is much more due to God’s grace and favour than my ability or planning. 

The last ten years have been the most settled, in one place, one area of ministry, growing through the seasons with my family and group of friends. There has been some personal weakness, pain and a more hidden pruning, alongside happier, beautiful times, but all resulting in a richer life and long term fruit. My personal healing has led to a better focus, the sorting out of priorities helping in a more balanced life, the gradual spiritual journey of the Beacon becoming a more lasting community and ministry.

So I look back at 50 with much thanks and little regret, especially when I can see the golden thread of God’s purpose and grace through all the happenings of my years and of those I love. I will give thanks and look forward expectantly for where the Lord will lead us.

As the Message bible says:

Roms 8v15-17 This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

God’s blessing. 

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Learning from the Desert Fathers

icon-stanthony-1I was in prayer at the Beacon, at the start of the busy after Easter season of activity. I was preoccupied and trying to quiet my heart to listen to God. Suddenly in my mind’s eye I could see myself amongst a whole group on a conveyer belt, the kind of travelator you find in an airport. I was looking for the ‘off switch’, feeling uneasy at the speed and direction the moving escalator was taking us. I then noticed  a track just next to it, leading off into the wilderness. The path I took seemed to be a choice I could make. I knew again it was about my desert prayer journey.

Back in the fourth century church, there were a lot of people trying to get off the conveyor belt and take the less trodden path into the wilderness. They were called the desert fathers.

I am continuing in my exploration of desert and wilderness as a spiritual journey. As I have  thought about this in recent months, the stories and sayings of the desert fathers (and mothers) have deeply impressed me. Centred around Egypt and the north African Meditaraneum rim, a whole group of Christians began to move away from their busy lives and contemporary society to dedicate their lives to prayer and extreme devotion to God. These were not famous Christians or the intellectual elite of their day, just ordinary people who felt a call to the desert. They became well known for their asceticism and wisdom, people like St Anthony, Marcarius, Arsenius, Moses and others. Beyond sheer extremism, what were the motives behind this desert spirituality?

A few things become clear as one reads their stories. One is that they turned aside from the world in order to encounter God. They were seeking to ensure their own salvation, choosing to live not in the company of others but alone before God. These people would build basic shelters or live in caves, and live in great simplicity apart from civilisation. Arsenius, a wealthy Roman educator once asked God to show him the way of salvation. A voice came to him saying, ‘Arsenius, flee from the world, and you will be saved.’ That was the start of his desert journey. Their lifestyle is a great challenge to our materialistic culture today. How do we flee the incessant pull of materialism around us?

Secondly, the desert fathers felt that their harsh, ascetic lifestyle was necessary to identify with Jesus. in the fourth century, persecution of the church had ceased and martyrdom (the greatest demonstration of one’s faith) was not possible. So Christians sought an alternative martyrdom, to lose their lives in giving everything up to follow Christ.

A Christian brother once asked a hermit, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ He took off his clothes, and put a girdle about his loins and stretched out his hands and said, ‘Thus ought the monk to be: stripped naked of everything, and crucified by temptation and combat with the world.’ Where our modern world promotes self fulfilment and how to become someone unique, their thinking was, ‘how can I become nothing and how much can I give up for Christ?’

Thirdly, these saints sought solitude, prayer and silence, not as a retreat, but a place of transformation. A desert hermit said, ‘let fear and humility, fasting, and weeping, take root in you’. They saw themselves as sinners in need of mercy. They explored their own motives and thought lives so that what was sinful or disordered could be brought into the light of God’s forgiveness. In our culture we often seek time out, more for the sake of rest and recuperation, not for the more uncomfortable process of exposing our inner life to the transforming presence of God. Where are my quality times of prayer and solitude to let God touch my inner life?

Fourthly, these desert pilgrims distanced themselves from people to as to better serve them later on. They discovered that, withdrawing from the need for people’s demands or praise so as to focus on God, gave them greater capacity to love people and bring counsel to a needy world. St Anthony spent twenty years praying in almost total isolation in the Egyptian desert. When he emerged he wasn’t eccentric but amazingly balanced. His solitude has somehow become a space into which people could be invited to be ministered to. Through fighting demons and finding his heart transformed, Anthony gained a compassion and insight into people’s hearts that brought comfort and direction.

That is a challenge to our very social world, in which  our physical and virtual presence in sought daily, and immediate interaction and response is expected. Where is my holy space away from the social crowd, so that I can minister better to others? Not surprisingly, these saints became highly regarded as holy men and women, mediators between heaven and earth, people living at the limits of human need and therefore able to pray and serve the rest of the world.

Fifthly, the desert fathers saw their calling as a preparing for Christ’s coming. Their other-worldly focus was part of the early church expectation for the return of their Lord. Detachment from worldly affairs was part of their cry, ‘Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!’ They tried to live the life of the cross, in eager expectation that they were preparing themselves to enter into the full life of the Spirit. The very harsh lifestyle they maintained was to enhance spiritual longing in the light of the glory to come. It is said of Arsenius that on a Saturday evening, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the setting sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards heaven until the morning sun shone on his face. As Christians in our culture, we have generally lost that eager expectation for Jesus to come. We long for a better world, we work for the kingdom, but does our lifestyle reflect the Maranatha cry?

I read a quote from Henri Nouwen about the desert fathers (in his book ‘The Way of the Heart’ p24) that sums up the relevance of this alternative spirituality for our own faith journey as Christians today:

‘It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard is is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape that the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.’

So I find a challenging paradox in these saints of old. We want to engage well with our culture and transform our world. Yet an authentic spiritual life may also mean withdrawing in prayer and finding the less trodden path, the track into the wilderness, so that from that deep presence of the Lord there, we may offer something of heaven’s resources into our needy world.

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The desert place (desert musings 2)

desert-placeI confess that I have never been to a real desert. I have an idea of what they are like, from biblical stories and from natural history documentaries on TV. However I suspect I greatly underestimate the rawness of such climates. Even desert excursions promoted in travel magazines are controlled experiences of a wilderness.

In a way that is perfectly understandable. We shy away from hostile locations; humans are not suited to the conditions a desert confronts us with. That is why we try our hardest to tame our wildernesses, to build civilisations which eradicate such dangerous habitats.

So it is interesting how God often allows deserts to be the setting where he deals with the human heart. Could it be that is because the desert landscape is an analogy of the soul? There is beauty and barrenness, freedom and ferocity in both. The desert is a spiritual opportunity, one which many saints from the past felt drawn to, to meet with God.

These last few months I have sensed the need to withdraw from some things to turn my focus deliberately towards God, on what he would want to show me and say to me.

What am I discovering about the desert as a context for spiritual development?

A desert is a place away from the world, a setting of solitude. Being alone can be a luxury in a busy life, but I tend to enjoy space for leisure and time out. That is different from moving away from people and things so that God can have my full attention.

A desert is a harsher environment, where external comforts are taken away. I surround myself with things that cushion me in my daily life. Remove food, home comforts, entertainment – in short my lifestyle crutches – for just a few hours, and I can quickly feel disoriented and wary.

A desert is a place of silence.  I like quietness, but quickly realise that I become uncomfortable with prolonged silence, for what it exposes in me. There is interior noise, subtle temptations, profound restlessness that I am forced to deal with in the presence of God.

A desert is an arena where weaknesses are exposed, tested and overcome. Deep spiritual realities such as fear, anger, fantasy, impure motives, judgment and despair – all these I encounter when I journey through wilderness terrain in the gentle companionship of the Spirit. I need to encounter them in order to let my heart be transformed.

A desert is a space for prayer and reorientation. I increasingly find myself trying to carve out time to seek the Lord away from everything that cries out for my attention. Like characters from the bible, I long for thin places where I connect easily with God and let him define my identity and priorities.

A desert is a setting where prophets are formed and voices are found. I trained for the ordained ministry in a seminary in which ‘spiritual formation’ was the stated aim. These days I think that desert might be a more authentic place where God can call, encounter and send his people. I am not sure how much I have to say of spiritual weight. Yet, if I stay in the desert, I might find a clearer voice and have words of greater value to share in my world.

It was said of Jesus that he ‘often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ (Luke 5v16). So maybe we should not try to tame our wilderness quite so much. Perhaps there is value in journeying into desert places, physically and spiritually, to be with God and to find our hearts being transformed.

More on desert musings again soon….God bless.

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Musings about the desert

man in desertSix months ago I started on a prayer journey, one that is leading me into the desert, one that is helping me to encounter God in fresh ways.

It was unfinished business that led me to this. I went through a time of depression in 2010 which took a long time to journey through to a place of healing. Near the start of that trough, I was given a prophetic picture that felt quite profound at the time. In this picture I was standing in a desert with strong, warm winds around me. I had a beard and yet no clothing except a cloak, with a staff in my hand. At the time the meaning seemed simple – that I was being stripped back and yet God hadn’t finished with me.

I have revisited that picture in my mind’s eye a number of times. Although I did find emotional healing for my wounds, even in the midst of busy church leadership, I think I have wondered if there was a deeper ‘call to the desert’ in that prophetic vision.

Well, this March I felt the nudge of the Spirit more strongly to turn aside and journey with the Lord into the wilderness. I grew a beard (a first for me!), I went off all social media, I carved out time to read about desert spirituality and I prayed more – asking God to take me on a wilderness journey.

I am enjoying the experience so far. I have not yet actually gone into a desert, just found solitude and some lonely spaces. I am learning from some of the wilderness saints of old, for their desert was both one of their own hearts and also a prophetic journey.

For me, I know that I need to let Him help me deal with the poverty of my heart, and find the treasure of His presence there.

I choose to stand in the strong winds of the Spirit and cross currents of life circumstances, and be strengthened in the midst. I have a beard to identify with the Nazarite sense of setting oneself apart for God more than previously. I unclench my fists from my wants and desires to receive the gift of a cloak which He wraps around me – His righteousness, holiness and anointing. I stop trying to lean on external props and unhelpful crutches, that I may become secure in God alone and take hold of His staff of authority.

It was said of John the Baptist that ‘he grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the wilderness…’ (Luke 1v80).

This desert prayer journey for me is quite profound, even though it seems at odds with some of the prophetic sense of God’s work in the nation, expectancy of spiritual awakening, and shaking in the nation. Yet I trust it will reap dividends for me and maybe for others too. I am on parallel journeys of, on one hand pressing in in prayer for God’s glory to be revealed in our nation, and on the other turning aside personally, to wait for the Lord in the wilderness.

As Catholic devotional writer Alessandro Pronzato says,

“The crowded bus, the long queue, the railway platform, the traffic jam, the niehgbours’ television sets, the heavy-footed people on the floor above you, the person who still keeps getting the wrong number on your phone. These are the real conditions of your desert. Do not allow yourself to be irritated. Do not try to escape. Do not postpone your prayer. Kneel down. Enter that disturbed solitude. Let your silence be spoilt by those sounds. It is the beginning of your desert.”

So this aspect of my blog is journalling a few things I am learning on this desert prayer journey. I will write about other things too, but will mark similar writings with a ‘desert and pilgrimage’ tag. You are welcome to read my musings as ever; personal though they may be, they may resonate with something of your journey.

God bless.

 

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Brief pilgrimage to Iona

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Copyright Janet Schofield “Fionnphort Mull 2004”

It’s been two years since I finished a sabbatical. And two years later I now find myself visiting Iona on pilgrimage, an idea which was seeded in me those months ago.

With our children on Christian camp and my wife taking a creative weekend craft workshop, I decided to clear the diary at the end of July for three days. I sped up the motorway to catch the Oban to Mull ferry. Once across, I tried to unwind as I took in the beautiful scenery along the country roads the length of Mull, parked the car and took the Fionnphort passenger ferry across the sound to Iona – the last one of the day.

I need to reflect on spiritual benefits the short retreat gave to me, but five things made an immediate impression:

IMG_1997Firstly, the sense that I was a pilgrim. A day’s journey, where I prayed on and off, helped me quickly move into a place of slowing down and stillness. I was coming to an island, completely off the beaten path of modern civilisation, but on a well trod path of other seekers and prayer-ers. Amongst families and organised tourist groups, I mingled with many others who, like me, were making their own spiritual journeys. We rubbed shoulders in the guest houses, on the ferry and in the prayer chapels, giving each other respect and space to be with God.

P1010132Secondly, the feeling that Iona was a holy place. Christian places of prayer, both ruined and current, engendered a spiritual atmosphere. I walked past many celtic crosses and read many stories of the early Celtic monks. Iona is iconic, one of a handful of ancient monastic centres in Britain, which was set apart for prayer, for reading and copying of scripture, and for a simple, serving lifestyle that brought glory to God for centuries.

 

P1010112Thirdly, the evidence of a missionary spirit. St Columba and his companions made a monastic base on the island, so the stories tell, but the vibrant afterglow of the Christian missionary endeavour even 1,500 years later is hard to miss. Walking in the graveyard next to the abbey, I was moved by the evidence of holy lives laid down for Christ, of kings who were so influenced by these monks that they were brought in pomp to their final resting place, and of this being the serendipitous launching pad for the gospel to spread through Scotland and into England.

P1010129Fourthly, the realisation that it was an easy place to pray. I joined 150 other pilgrims for evening communion in the abbey, from all walks of life and faith. We sang by the mix of setting sun and candlelight and broke bread together simply and profoundly. On Iona, whether in a chapel, on a meandering path, or sat upon a beach, I found it a very conducive place to speak to and listen to God. The anticipation of a spiritually ‘fruitful’ time can sometimes lead to an anticlimax in the moment itself, but here encountering the Holy Spirit happened quite naturally and wonderfully.

P1010149-EditFifthly, the experience of a gentle wilderness. Crossing two islands, taking nothing more than hand luggage, and with no mobile signal anywhere, I felt as though I was leaving normal civilisation behind and coming to a different world. Even the isolation and simple ruggedness of the island carried with it the call of wild and an uncanny sense of God. Despite a small resident community living a fairly modern lifestyle, you can walk a short distance across grassland and sit ‘on the edge of the world’ gazing out on the vast Atlantic ocean.

All of this has been very helpful for me as I am on a spiritual ‘desert prayer journey’ this year. I hope there will be more to write on this in the coming months. What a privilege to be able to travel so freely on pilgrimage, something readily available yet something I rarely take the time to do.P1010155

 

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Reflecting on summer sabbatical time

reflection-learning-300x199Most of us measure time in segments – seasons, years, holidays, birthdays. Often individual months can drift by without sensing their importance for us or being aware of how we have used the time.

The summer of 2014 will be memorable for me, as I was privileged to take a three month time out of usual responsibilities as a church leader. The time of June to August was a change of pace. I didn’t stop working totally, but wrote, dedicated time to hobbies, sought God about this season of my life and spent quality time with my family. It was time very well spent. When I reflect back on it there are many lessons I felt God was teaching me. The three most timely ones I think also may apply to you:

God has His hand upon your life

During the summer I was hoping to find some spiritual renewal in my faith. I was a bit weary; a four year battle to overcome  depression was a still carrying lingering effects; I knew my heart had a habit of closing down to God and others when I was stressed. I didn’t know what conference or counselling opportunity could help bring fresh healing and personal vision. Well God had a surprise in store! The fortnight before my sabbatical myself and three friends attended a house of prayer networking conference in Europe. I went with a ‘work head’ on, but God chose there to minister deeply into my heart. Four three days I couldn’t stop crying during worship or in the prayer room. Past regrets, disappointments, tiredness was so profoundly washed away in the sense of the Lord’s presence and healing. A new experience of the Father’s love for me opened up my heart in a very beautiful way and the veil of sadness from past depression was lifted from my emotions. It was truly a spiritual encounter…and I hadn’t even started my sabbatical! The experience has changed my and meant my next few months were full of purpose rather than seeking for a watering hole.

What this says to me is that God has his hand so clearly on my life. He knows my needs and how and when He needs to work with me. Most times I am not so aware of that fact, and that might be true for you too. Yet there are these wonderful times and seasons where He underlines the truth that he is ordering our steps and profoundly involved in our days and destiny. The Psalmist’s realisation about God in Psalm 139 was that ‘You have laid Your hand upon me’ and ‘that knowledge is too wonderful for me’! 

God is interested in your dreams

I had planned two special things during this sabbatical time. The first was to take time to develop my photography hobby. I was able to take a day a week to wander and travel a bit to take landscape pictures and get a bit better at it. It has been an interest of mine for a while and it felt so good to give quality time to my hobby. Being in the midst of nature and trying to capture it on camera was fun! I lost track of time as I was in the ‘zone’ so often and enjoyed seeing some improved progress. The other dream was to take an extended family vacation in America. We had talked about it for a few years, to go to the west coast when the children were old enough to appreciate and remember it well. It all came together in August for 16 days. We did a fly drive and toured from LA up the west coast all the way to Seattle. So many memories and experiences, from the them parks to national parks, from cities to rural small towns, from interstate highways to hairy mountain roads. It was a family trip of a lifetime so far! 

What all this underlined for me is that God is really invested in your dreams. The longings and desires that are deep in our hearts are known by the Lord. Not everything I have longed for has come to pass, yet these two interests and desires of mine have been fulfilled. If God has made us, that also includes placing good dreams and desires in us, with the view that He can help us achieve them. There was a struggle to find time and finance to do these things for me; dreams don’t often come to us on a plate! What is interesting for me is that neither photography or the holiday were ‘spiritual’ dreams, but He seemed pleased with them and blessed them beyond words. As Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 3v19: ‘God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine’! Let’s keep our dreams alive.

God has an unswervable purpose for our world.

My other focus in June and July was writing about the future, about End Times, Jesus’ return and some spiritual themes around those topics. God has prompted me again and again to dig into these things in order to understand them better and communicate them to others. So a short book has come together over the last few weeks. What has come through to me in this studying and writing is that God has a clear and sovereign purpose for humanity and for the earth as a whole. I was discovering afresh that this plan is revealed throughout the bible and seen most clearly in the coming of Jesus. The logic of His first coming – life, death, resurrection and ascension – brought in a kingdom life that has been at work in our world ever since. My fresh reading about the future shows that the Christian gospel includes an amazing finale – Jesus coming again to finish what He started and sort out the messes of our world and reign in power and love.  

This truth is always relevant and gives Christians hope even in the face of evil and struggle. It might be very helpful in the light of current world crises and conflicts. When we are not sure how good can triumph over some of the evils we see, we can remind ourselves that God will finish the work of salvation He has started. I read in my bible readings yesterday the famous passage in Isaiah 9 about ‘to us a child is born’. Verse seven at the end of the reading struck me most: ‘Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this’. God is serious about His kingdom and zealous about bringing about His plan of salvation.

Of course, this is the bigger picture we find ourselves in. God helps us to know that His hand is on our lives for our good. He takes our dreams and desires and helps us find fulfilment in many of them. And all this is within the greater context of a world in which God is working out His good and greater plans. 

So reflecting on this summer, I find that the months have been full and significant. As I return to normal routines, I wish I could be as aware of every month is such a vivid way. I find myself praying with the Psalmist again, here in Psalm 90v12: ‘teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom’.

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Fascinating Revelation!

revelation_churchesSecond week into my sabbatical and I am still dipping in and out of Beacon things that I need to around for and people I want to be with. Still I am carving out a couple of days for study & reflection. Writing on my forerunner book starts in earnest next week. Right now I am preparing for Thursday evening’s Forerunner school of ministry at the Beacon (no 5 out of 6). This is the raw material from which I will be writing.

This week we are looking at the book of Revelation. I have been a bit more anxious about this one, because people are coming on the course to learn and I am usually just one step ahead each time, enough to teach & help people orientate themselves through End Times Christian thinking. I am encouraged that I have moved forward quite a bit in understanding the themes and structure of this last book in the bible recently, the one that often daunts people. Some folk have said to me that they just don’t understand Revelation, or are afraid or put off by the imagery from delving into it more.

I have to say that, from being like that in the past, I am beginning to love this book. Two years ago I tried, on advice, to read Revelation through every week for about four months. That gave me a familiarity with the text and narrative. These last few weeks I have again read and re-read the book, examining the breakdown of the chapters, reading other commentaries, making sense of the imagery, gaining some confidence in understanding the sequence of events before and around Jesus’ return. I am balancing out this study with my regular bible readings and am looking forward to reading Revelation with the group this Thursday, as wisdom is best discerned in community.

Yet the one thing I keep finding is that my heart burns within! I find myself inwardly excited about these still-shadowy realities. I feel close to John the Divine as he watches and sees and experiences these overwhelming visions. I burn to know, not just the End Time timeline, but the God who is sovereign over it all. And I long to be a clearer voice concerning these things, even when they are not particularly popular in the UK church to chat about.

For any who are trying to get into this book, don’t hold back, but pray your way into a deeper encounter with the Jesus of Revelation and understanding His ways. I am certainly finding it fun and awesome too!

Blessings, William

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A change of pace

20140602-202428-73468599.jpgA change of pace for me for the next few months!

After 16 years as a Methodist minister I am just now taking a three month sabbatical.
The time never seemed right before but, after various prompts, it feels a good opportunity now. Apart from feeling a bit anxious about stepping back from things at the house of prayer, I am relishing the possibility of space and different focus for a bit.

I am going to use some of the time to write up the Beacon Forerunner End Times course as a draft book for publishing. I am also going to use my camera to explore some landscape photography. Hopefully Karen and I can get some more time together and be renewed spiritually, and we look forward to having August clear for some special family holidays.

I will try to blog how these coming weeks progress, especially as I put pen to paper about this forerunner call to help prepare people for Jesus’ 2nd coming. I am praying that God will lead me and shape me and bless my family and friends too, in this season.

Blessings
William

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