Doing the Actions.

Prior to my first visit to St Leonard’s for a ‘normal’ parish Eucharist I asked how formal the service was. “Is there a lot of processing about?” I asked. “No, hardly any at all,” was the answer. I can only conclude the question had been mis-heard… my first impression being ‘if that’s hardly any ceremony, I’d hate to be here for something really formal.’ My second thought was ‘there’s a lot of kissing of things’ and my third thought was unprintable. Once I’d really become more of a regular at the 8am and 6.30 services, the questions about why things are done faded into the background. Now I’m back to more 9.45 services, curiosity got the better of me.

Taking our ceremonial/ ritual aspects of a Parish Eucharist for granted is common. Surely everyone does it this way? (Ask me about my trip to Jubilee Church in Enfield). The variety of expressions of worship in the C of E is either one of its strengths or its biggest weakness, depending on who you talk to. The more I paid attention the more I noticed the details – and the more I wondered why those details were important – why do we do what we do? Some of them are easier to see and understand than others. I didn’t need to have an explanation of why the Gospel reading is done from the centre of the congregation, with its ceremony (although it was reassuring to later be told that my reasoning – that it’s all about the importance – was correct). I’ve never really just sat and watched a service. I’m paying attention to my own worship, thoughts and prayers, and trying not to be distracted.

So on Ash Wednesday, when I had been to church at lunchtime in London, I took the opportunity to sit and observe from the balcony. I think this did somewhat confuse some of the choir members.

I have been to a few different churches lately, and seeing people bow, or cross themselves and not knowing quite why or when was also interesting – at my lunchtime Ash Wednesday service I was the only one not, it seemed, and the order of service did not indicate where or why. What did they know that I didn’t?

So it seems the simple principles are: one bows to acknowledge the name of Jesus. (As was pointed out to me, is foretold in Philippians 2:10). Cross whenever you acknowledge the Trinity and before receiving communion (and absolution). At the Gospel, touch (cross with thumb usually) forehead, lips, chest and think to self “God be in my head, in what I say, and in my heart”. I’ve only ever noticed the priest doing this last one, though (but that might be because I wasn’t looking in any other direction).

We are reminded by our leaders at various intervals that prayer and worship involve the whole of our selves – mind and body, all our senses. Last spring Teresa preached on this – and subsequent conversation meant I had ‘kneeling in church’ as something to try as Lent discipline. Kneeling had seemed to me to be overkill, an affectation, and surely unnecessarily formal. So I was surprised when the change in posture helped me focus more on both the corporate and personal prayers, (after the first few times when I had stopped feeling awkward and entirely too self-conscious). Now, it’s habit.

And for many although other actions are habit too, they have the same effect of focusing the mind. At worst, then, crossing oneself is instinctive as something learned in childhood. But at best it helps people refocus on what they are saying when using familiar liturgy. One friend said that the childhood teaching she’d received about this was all hellfire and damnation, that it was sinful not to follow suit and cross herself. Another was taught as a child that the “I” of downstroke is crossed out so ‘I’ become part of God’s love as shown on cross. I think I prefer the latter explanation…

But these explanations are just reminders and – do vary. Teresa says she was taught that “the downstroke represented God’s love in the incarnation (heaven to earth) and the horizontal reminded us that Jesus came to take us out of darkness into light (L to R) and the final touch in the middle was ‘for me.’” Someone else said ‘I was raised RC, and it is hard to stop your hands and body moving, even in low church settings. I am infecting others,’ and others were honest about how they felt these movements were too ritualistic, too anglo-catholic, and don’t see the point. Which I guess, just goes to show that there’s no right or wrong way of ‘being’ in church – that everyone’s approach is personal and what works for one person might leave another person completely perplexed..

For me the jury is still out. Increased self-consciousness would be counter-productive – thinking about me when the point is to focus thoughts elsewhere. I note though that I was never quite happy in a church where ‘spontaneous’ raising of hands in worship was the done thing, so maybe one day I’ll be able to – literally – get over myself and try new ways of being a more focused, more attentive worshipper.

Oh – and thanks to Richard Gillin for reminding me of this…

On the art of unrunning

Regular readers will know I am not exactly keen on the idea that spirituality is associated with the need to sit still and concentrate for any length of time. Quite apart from the objection that I don’t have hours spare in the week, I also have sneaky suspicions that all the reported spiritual benefits are only the result of meditation-type techniques. Other religions seem claim spiritual intervention or experiences when still & relaxed so there’s nothing to convince me that an experience of the Christian God is actually anything more than the side effects of a particular physical state of being. Tricky. There’s also my general worry that by not being any good at this sitting lark, I’ll therefore never make the grade as a Proper Christian. Answers on a postcard as to what a Proper Christian might be.

Last week I had a very interesting conversation with a very calm and wise person who helped me see the inability to sit still in a new light. She asked me how far I ran the first time I went. She asked me how much of my running was habit and practice. At this point the penny dropped. I know this has been obvious to lots of people but I realise that what I am being asked to do is learn to unrun. So on one end of the scale I’m off and running a half marathon. On the other end of the scale I’m finding stillness and peace. But whilst I can get to the first end easily, because the steps are practised and they flow, it’s harder for me to move in the opposite direction. And it will never get easy if I don’t put time into practise. Suddenly the physical process makes sense even if my internal jury is out on the spiritual process.

The very next day I met with @rosamundi who carefully took me through the steps of praying the rosary. I’ve only just touched it again and said a tentative few Hail Marys but this could well work out as a useful method of unrunning training. As long as I get past the bit of my brain that’s quizzically looking at me with an unfamiliar thing in my hand.

Prayers on the stairs

Yesterday I was pondering the difficulty of fitting the much-recommended times of peace and stillness into a life where there isn’t any. This morning I remembered I’m not such a failure at it after all, even if I am only making small progress. Our offices span several floors with no direct lift link, so the easiest route is to use the fire stairs. On the way up I take it slowly, and each step up is a bit of a prayer. Sometimes it’s a about a particular person per step, sometimes each step is a line from the Lord’s prayer, sometimes every flight is a jumble of what and why and how. The fire escape staircase is quiet, and still. So now a trip downstairs is less of a pain and more of a gift of a time out…

Curing the grumpiness with a run

Today, for the third week in a row, I went to the lovely lunchtime service at St Margaret Lothbury. It’s designed for folk with limited time. It combines worship, prayer and teaching in a way that means one can stay for 45 minutes or one song and still feel like you’ve had moment in an oasis of calm. I started going in 2006 (gosh) but in the last year, enquiry desk shifts meant I rarely managed to escape in time. However, my new job offers a smidgen more flexibility.

Anyway. Great worship, except for one ridiculous song I refused to sing (“Nothing’s gonna hold me back?” Er, well, I can think of several things that do, in fact, hold me back). Very short talk – and some very non-Anglican prayer for City, country and financial stability. There is usually an opportunity for prayer. Today I was brave enough to take the walk up to the front of the church to ask for someone to pray with me. Jeremy’s talk had focused on asking ourselves what it is that is holding us back. I know what this is in my case. It’s the utter confusion, despair and abandonment I feel about my state of ‘blessed singleness.’ I’m not always ranting at God in terms of ‘find me a partner’ – most of the time I want to know why life is as it is; and if this is it, what’s the reason why? What is the point of me being here, exactly? (Suspect quite often it’s to be a terrible warning to others!)

So… I asked for prayer to help me get over this particular lump of loneliness. What I got was scripture quoted at me, and several solutions (‘don’t be so fussy,’ ‘pick a strong man,’ ‘wait and God will fulfill your heart’s desire.’) In fact, my pray-er talked so long my relative youth (I’m 38, compared to her late fifties) and how I shouldn’t be worrying, I had to leave to go back to the office. Before so much as an ‘Our Father.’

I felt really angry, and humiliated by this. I didn’t need or want advice about trusting God to show me the way. What I had wanted was powerful prayer to help me deal not with the actual issue per se but the consequences: the stumbling block it puts in the way of my lopsided, unsure, limp-a-long-a-God. I went back to the office feeling completely demoralised. Then I tweeted about it, and lovely people were lovely. That helped

When I got home, I went for a 5-and-a-bit mile run, including a long, horrid, boring hill. I hate that particular hill, but because I hate it, I can attack it when I am angry. It was a great run, during which I composed some of this blog post, and ran away the grumpiness. That helped more, and I am going to bed calmly.

Doing God in public

Recent(ish) tweets on the Bible Society’s Take your Bible to Work Day (October 25th) started me thinking about what I do and don’t do in public. In the past I’ve happily read a Bible on my train journey to work and then scribbled in a prayer journal. Now I’m using an iPhone, I don’t carry a Bible with me – no need, when it’s all there on the phone. I do generally have a copy of Cover to Cover notes with me, though, and I am a fan of PAYG to listen to.

So some days I use the commute time and some days I don’t. The thing that stops me more often than anything isn’t a general concern about being seen to Do God in public. Rather, it’s my attitude when I get on the train – if I’ve not been the most patient person waiting for a seat, or I’ve had to jostle for elbow space. Somehow I never quite feel I can then whip the notes out and read today’s passage or listen to the day’s PAYG – I’d feel way too hypocritical. One of the first days I walked to work listening to PAYG I started it just as I left the train. Walking towards the ticket barriers, I listened hard and felt very holy. Got to the barrier, was held up by someone faffing, made the kind of disapproving noise that sounds like Muttley swearing. Laughed out loud as I thought to myself that I probably ought to start that particular prayerful meditation again once I was out of the station…

Religious writers

I was given a set of Bible reading notes recently – New Daylight. I keep referring to it accidentally as Living Daylight, but that is another issue all together. They seem OK, but I have a couple of issues with some of the daily notes.

Firstly, some are a bit thin on theology/ instruction/ education. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m reading these on the 08:00 from Colchester I don’t always want a lesson in Greek or Hebrew. It would be nice, though, if the notes went a bit deeper into the text. Each day only has about 400 words, so this is a tall order, I know, but sometimes it feels as if we merely skim the surface with a nice story to illusrate the point. It’s like the start of a sermon, the joky bit at the beginning, but without the actual meat of the message.

Secondly, and this really does make me cross –  if the writer only has 400 words, should they waste space on stories about their life? I nearly threw the book out the window after a few days when the writer spent a paragraph telling me about their sunny vicarage, toddler and au pair. Is that really a good use of space? Is that really a God-inspired piece of writing?

Who is writing for the rest of us? Who is writing for people who don’t have ‘perfect’ lives? Who don’t feel particularly blessed in their circumstances, whose faith is sustained not by a joyful sense of wonderful God-given things but by a grim determination not to turn away from a God we don’t understand? Let’s call ourselves the Psalm 13ists. Let’s rise up against glib proclamations. Let’s band together and write about life from the bottom of the spiritual valley, not from the glorious mountain top. And in doing so, we might encourage the poorer, the transient, the doubters, the kind of people who sit at the back of a church and wonder what on earth these people are getting that they are not.

Prayer breakfasts

Up early this morning for the inaugural women’s fellowship breakfast at St Margaret’s. The cunning plan of staying in London on Sunday evening would have worked brilliantly had it not been for noisy Edmonton neighbours waking me up at 4.30am and 5.30am. However it did mean getting time to pray about what to do this morning. In the end we went for general chat and welcome followed by a cheesy icebreaker (answering random questions).

The women in the group are all more or less strangers – some of us know each other but others are just getting acquainted, so I didn’t think that anything too full-on would work. And at least one person may not have been happy with a heavy scripture-and-prayer-session.

So we wrote down a couple of things we’d like to pray, then shared them out. No compulsion to take a slip of paper – so no pressure to pray out loud (and that wasn’t in there just for me). We ended up with a mix of specific requests, general thanks and topics close to everyone’s heart.

So I think it worked. Now I just need to figure out if the same thing will work next Monday lunchtime…

A bit of God thrown in

To a certain extent I have self-censored in that I have not posted much about my frustrations lately. I have been very challenged by trying to understand why a close family member is burdened with a chronic illness when others get better – at the hands of physicians or God. I have felt very isolated as a single woman in a church focused on families. [As an aside: I am frequently told that of course the single people in church are valued and of course we understand your difficulties … if that’s the case why does the bi-monthly prayer request leaflet regularly feature family concerns but not concerns of the single folk? Just a thought.]

I have not understood why I find it so hard to trust God. I have, in several instances, decided that I know better than the Bible. In sum, I have seen faith as something other people are good at, and that God is a God of other people – and all those promises don’t seem to be holding true for me or my family.

In a fairly unconventional way, I had a gauntlet thrown down at me last week. Better to find out sooner rather than later if this is all a con, I was told. Go ahead, surrender, commit your whole life to God – and if nothing changes, you can walk away in the satisfaction you were right rather than suffering agonies about whether this faith is real, but from the sidelines.

That worked for me; much better than any vapid repeating of sticking plaster platitudes could have done (not that that would be the gauntlet chucker’s style).