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Lenten reflections – Falling Upwards – the journey of life

We’ve just been through a hard time, where a loved one was told she would have to have surgery for what looked like a life threatening illness.  The whole family was turned upside down. Living on different continents did not help; feeling inadequate at a distance. Flights, accommodation, tests and surgery would not come cheap.  Getting time off work to be there, worrying about how she would cope with surgery, the long term prognosis and how we were going to support her and fund her treatment was exhausting.  The emotional and financial stress took its toll. As Christian’s we put the situation in God’s hands, got the pray warriors praying but despite a deep trust in God the underlying question as to “why” rose its ugly head.

I’m sure all of you have been in a similar situation, you may even be in it now, where a loved one is suffering. So why does God allow it? I’m certainly not one of those people who believe suffering is a punishment for sin, after all Jesus died to wash away our sin.  Perhaps we can talk about the fall of mankind and that sickness is now just part of life in our mortal bodies. We can talk of the laws of the natural universe and suffering being the result of the decisions of mankind. But why does a loving God allow His children to go through such physical and emotional trauma when he could step in?

Sukri, Purulia Snehalaya (3)

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest, his book “Falling Upwards” got me thinking about the meaning of life and the part that suffering plays in it.

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Rohr says life can be viewed in two stages, the length of these stages vary between people and some, even followers of faith, never reach the second stage.  The first stage of life is largely about striving for success.  We all try to do what seems like the task that has been given us. We establish our identity, home, relationships, friends, career and build our platform for life.  Part of this involves building our ego, our self-esteem and putting on a façade for the outside world that shows us as being the things that society, colleagues, family and friends expect of us. We respond to the expectations of the world, or perhaps as Christians to what is expected by the church or other Christians. We may strive to follow the Bible to do what is right.

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But life is not rosy, we often feel inadequate, unable to live up to the expectations of others. As we strive for success or even trying to live a good life we realise that there are barriers in our way, we are not perfect and problems and suffering are integral to life, often removing the joy of living.

So we are back to the “why” question. Why does God let His children experience tragedy, sorrow and pain? Look back over your life and think about the times when you have been closest to God, when you have grown the most, spiritually.  Is it during the times of joy or time times of sorrow?  My experience has certainly been that when things are going well I feel like I can cope on my own, God is in the joy, but it’s not necessarily the time when I put my greatest trust in Him. But when problems arise or I have done something wrong, that’s the time I go into prayer overdrive and rely on God for help. And it’s definitely during the hard times that I have seen the most spiritual growth.

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Yet the human ego prefers anything but falling, changing and dying.  It likes the status quo.  We don’t like it when our plans for life are spoiled, when things go wrong; when problems arise that turn our life upside down.

However, perhaps we are looking at things from the wrong viewpoint, with a worldview instead of God’s view. Perhaps it’s not the problem that is the problem, it’s how we view the situation and respond to it.  How about turning it on its head and thinking about our “when things go wrong” moments being God’s way to enable us to grow, giving us an opportunity to move from the first stage of life to the second, a life where we are able to experience our true self (and not just the container) and to be in union with Him.

During the recent family health issues, realisation dawned that the ‘problems’ that upset our plans of a pleasant life may actually be God’s plan for us.  I’m not saying that God necessarily sends us suffering, more that he can use the suffering we experience for our benefit and His glory.  “God turns all things together for good for those who love Him.” Romans 8:28. If we respond to the trials of life by learning from them, by being open to how God wants to work in a situation and by trusting him we can ‘fall upwards’ and begin our journey into the second part of life.

Thomas Merton, an American monk, said “We may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that the ladder was against the wrong wall.”

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In Falling Upwards, Rohr says that the first part of life involves building the container the second part of life is finding the content that is to fill it. The container is not the end in itself but exists for the sake of a deeper and fuller life.  Many people spend their time repairing their container, trying to be a better person, but they never dip their nets into the deep and bring in the huge catch that awaits them (John 21:6).

However, to bring in what God has in store for us, to be filled with the ‘new wine’, we need to learn to get out of the driving seat and give up control to the real guide. We need to be willing to fall, to lose what is precious to us, in order to gain the amazing life that God has planned for us.  In the spiritual world we do not find something until we first lose it.  Take the parables of the lost coin, sheep and son (Luke 15). We do not truly appreciate something until it has been lost and then found. It’s when things have been taken away, when the problems and challenges arise that we realise who we are in God and who God is in us.

The second part of the journey of life happens only when we are led to the limits of our present game plan and find it insufficient. It’s not until we fall that we realise that what we have built is not in fact what life is truly about.  Only then do we search out the real source, the deep well, the constantly flowing stream, the living water.

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When we realise, not just in the head and the heart but in the soul, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand everything, when we are willing to lose our life as we know it, we will in fact gain it.  Through the problems and trials, if we are open to Him, God will show Himself and fill us with his love, showing us our true selves and the way to be in total union with Him.

Matthew 16:26 says “Anyone who wants to save his life must lose it. Anyone who loses her life will find it. What gain is there to win the whole world if you lose your very self? What can you offer in exchange for your life?”

Only by losing our false self, the image of success and perfection that we show to the world, can we find our true self.  It is through the times of suffering that God helps us along that journey.  Eternal life does not begin at death; we reach our spiritual home when we are our true self in God. We don’t have to be dead to live!  But it is a long journey and until we choose to take it we will be homesick, experiencing restlessness, loneliness, sadness and longing. The good news is we don’t have to do it alone, the Holy Spirit is our guide and will help us to reach our destination. But we have to choose to step out into the second journey of life.

The journey, I am told, is a lot different to the first. Priorities are different; we gaze at life through a different lens. We experience the gift of wisdom, can share it with others and fulfill what God has planned for us – a special union with Him where we are able to be our true selves as God has created us and He can use us to his glory.

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So how does this fit with the health issues of my loved one?  Well after further tests it was found that it was not cancer, that surgery would not be needed. It was a miracle of healing but through the “problem” God showed us that He can do more that we can even comprehend. We prayed for timely surgery, he removed the need for it altogether. He used the situation to move us closer towards our second journey. He needed to help us to put more trust in Him, to realise our dependence on Him, to strengthen our relationship and love for Him. And through the healing, He enabled us to experience together the most overwhelming sense of joy as we recognised the blessings of family and health and most importantly of a God who loves us and wants what is best for us.

Falling is not easy, it hurts, but falling upwards, into God’s loving arms is the place where we can feel the greatest ever comfort, joy and peace.

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Experiencing Reality – Communion with God

As a Christian, it is one thing to promise to obey God, it’s yet another to understand clearly what He is saying so that you can be obedient. Evelyn Underhill’s book ‘Practical Mysticism’ has helped me to understand how to start to become more open to what God has to say and live my life accordingly.

To fulfill our purpose in the world we need to be open to God’s voice and guidance, and to live in communion with Him. Only then will we get a glimpse of the awe inspiring wonders of His reality, His will and His wisdom.

So how do we do this?

James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

Firstly we need to have a willingness to learn more about God, to be one with Him and ask Him to reveal His wisdom.

The next step towards experiencing Reality, which could also be described as have true communion with God, is Meditationwiping away our turmoil of thoughts and focusing on experiences of the senses, giving space for God to reveal his will to us. For example, focusing on an idea such as joy or an object such as a flower and being in awe of its beauty created by the hand of the Almighty….

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or meditating on a symbol of faith and letting God speak to us through it

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or a verse of scripture, spending at least a quarter of an hour, without distraction or invasion of other thoughts.

Thinkers and analysts may find this immensely difficult, whereas those with greater sensory appreciation such as artists may find it a little easier.  However, to begin on the road to communion with God we need to regularly practice mediation, i.e. holding concentration on a single idea or object without distraction. As our meditation becomes deeper it will help us defend against the assaults of the outside world.

The next stage is using times of quiet for Recollection, contemplating ourselves face to face, revealing our true motives – stripped and measured against eternal values, our unacknowledged indulgences and irrational loves and hates.  When we see who we really are in comparison to the model of Christ we will be compelled to remodel our existence.  The light dawns….

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We have been accustomed to the idea that we want or ought to want certain valueless things, status and power.  Our treasures have become material things and we are chained to longing for things of this world. But as we recollect we gain a glimpse of something other, something special, the land of peace, the heart of God and as we spend brief moments in communion we are enticed with every fibre of our being to be part of it. Yet to reach it we need to prise ourselves away from the old comfortable life of the material world, like a limpet being detached, we must sever old habits, old prejudices and self-interest. “Selfhood must be killed before Reality can be attained.”

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Meditating on scripture, God can use His Word to highlight what it wrong in our life, correcting our values and behaviour; He can work in us to break the bonds of sin and draw us to Himself. This remodelling of character is known as Purgation or Detachment, it’s a slow process that does not happen overnight, so we need persistence and patience. The chief ingredients of this new life are love, courage, singleness of heart and self-control.

So through meditation the mind is quietened from the buzz of the outside world and through recollection and purgation the heart is re-orientated. It can be a painful process, but as we gain brief visions of ‘beauty’ and ‘the land of peace’ we long for Communion with God, so our will becomes to do the will of God and we begin to develop a more intensively loving heart.

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This process changes two things in our attitude towards life. The first is that we become more observant, we perceive a truer universe and then, released from obsessions that have governed our heart, will and mind, we are able, in union with the spirit, to pour forth love.

Take the example of a homeless man on the street. Whereas before we may have made judgmental assumptions and walked on by, now we are struck with humble compassion. We are now observant and touched by the person in need, a person created by God in His image. We cannot walk passed without at least praying for this person through which we can then be open to what God has to say about how we respond.  Is it to give a friendly smile and pop some money in his pot? To stop and talk? To buy him a coffee or food? Or some other action of kindness?  Whichever way, whereas before we may not even have noticed the man or just given him a brief glance, now God has instilled in us His love for this person and a realisation that to be one with Him and to do His will means doing acts of compassion and being a blessing to others.

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James 2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Because ultimately, following the will of God is walking with Him and showing His love in the world.

These are just the first few steps towards communion with God and understanding the ultimate Reality; but they are steps that will change our life and will bless others.

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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in Church, Reflections

 

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Taking time to listen

What is prayer all about? Until a few weeks ago I think I would have said “talking to God”, because that is what I had always done during my prayer time…. jabber, jabber, jabber.  So much talking that God could not get a word in edgeways.  I was a bit like the bumble bee, buzzing here and there and never giving God any peace.

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Do you pray like a buzzing bee, noisily trying to annoy God into action to address your desires?

I would reel off my shopping list of things that I wanted God’s help with, thank Him for a few things (if I remembered) and then mentally tick off that I had had my prayer time. Then it was time to flutter onto the next thing in my busy schedule.

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Are you like a butterfly, unable to keep still long enough to focus on God?

Over the last few weeks I’ve come to realise that my prayer life has been more about ME than about God. I have been so busy talking I’ve never given time for God to speak. How can I expect God to guide my life if I am not taking time to listen to what he says?  You can’t have much of a relationship if one person never listens to the other.

But the light has now dawned….

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,,,,and I have come to realise the importance of being still and listening.

Now my prayer time is not so much God’s todo list, rather its asking Him to reveal his message to me through the scriptures. I ask God to speak to me and as I open the Bible He takes me to a passage and I reflect on it.  It’s an exciting spiritual journey that I am just at the start of and amazing things are happening which I am entering in a journal.  For example, many of the passages I read last week were the focus of the sermon on Sunday – God-incidence!!!

However, I find being still at home difficult, there are too many distractions, my mind often wanders.  Yet spending time outside, looking and listening to the beauty of God’s creation is just what I need to still my mind and focus on the Almighty.

Staring at the grace and beauty of a butterfly……

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,,,,,,or appreciating the colours, agility and song of a bird….

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Looking up at the cloud formations in the heavens….

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…. or listening to the wind blowing through the fields….

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…..the lapping of the water as the moorhen swims through the reeds….

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…..feeling the dew on my feet and the warmth of the morning sun on my skin….

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These things enable me to be still and rest in God; and oh what peace it brings!

Oswald Chamber states that “the point of prayer is not to get answers from God but to have oneness with Him”.

So if you feel distanced from God, ask yourself whether it is because you are not giving Him space to come into your life. Prayer is about a relationship with God, a special time of coming together.  It does not have to be full of talk and noise, it can just be resting in each others company and listening to what He has to say.

Even Jesus took time out to go to a quiet place to be with God and to listen to him (Luke 4:42).  So if it is good for Jesus then it must surely be good for us.

Find a peaceful place, be still and take time to listen, so he can refill you with His strength and reveal his plans for you.

“Be still, and know that I am God” Psalm 46:10

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered the heart of man, the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

Great promises, so be still, listen and give God the time to share them with you….

 
 

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