Realising our Prayers

I forget who it was that said “Prayer is always hard work”, but I’ve met quite a few people who were worried that they found it difficult to pray. In some ways I don’t think it was ever meant to be easy, as say picking up a phone that’s ringing and being put straight through to God. Like many things in our lives, it’s worth as much as the effort we put into it. Casual prayers, though sometimes rushed in the busy-ness of the morning, or repeated rather robotically in our tiredness as we go to bed, undoubtedly have a value, because they at least recognise that we depend on a Power beyond us. But to be frank, they’re  mere shadows of what prayer is, and of what it could mean to us if only we took the time and trouble to go for it seriously.

But the main difficulty, I think, isn’t in the saying of prayers, but the realising of them. What do I mean by that? Well, what a difference it would make if , as we pray, we could get some real feeling that there was a listening Presence around us that made us know that we weren’t just talking to ourselves.

We shouldn’t  be too tired or lazy to pray, as we so often are. We shouldn’t start with a massive weary sigh as we struggle to collect and concentrate our thoughts. And we shouldn’t end our prayer sessions with the horrible misgiving that the whole thing is just a meaningless, lifeless repetition of old familiar words, that we just say  without really believing that they’ll be heard or achieve any good.

But, sadly we don’t often perhaps get that sense of getting through to the unseen. Earthbound, we don’t seem able to lift our thought above the level of everyday life, to convince ourselves that there are any other realities or that the universe contains any state of life beyond our own. So we knock and knock at a door that never opens. We ask and ask, with no hope that we shall ever receive. We search  and get tired of searching, since it seems that we’ll never be able to find.

Now what’s the reason for that? To be honest, it may be all our own fault. Prayer isn’t often a disappointment if we take it seriously. But if we can only spare a couple of minutes for it, are we being serious? Do we really expect that we can snap our fingers and instantly switch off our thoughts, from the busyness of the lives we are living, and in the twinkling of an eye – possibly a very sleepy eye too – be aware of the glories of the spiritual world about us – aren’t we expecting too much? It takes a fair time to get to have a quiet mind and tune in to try, in an attitude of patient stillness, to listen for that voice that we so desperately want to hear answering us.

Even so, we may never seem to get through, as it were, to the other side. We do get through, but we may not be able to realise it. In that case, obviously, it’s no fault of ours. It only means that we are among those who are asked to have that greater faith – those promised that greater blessedness for believing without seeing.

It depends, I think, partly on the make-up of our personality. We may find that prayer is fairly easy for us and the realisation of the unseen is never very difficult. If we are by nature something of a mystic, if we’re artistic or musical, love poetry or drama, we may have that kind of make-up. But we may be very different – essentially practical, as many of us like to think we are – someone  who wastes no time in sentimentality or dreams, but who gets things done. If so, we will likely be useful in the world as it is, but possibly find it hard to pray. Our prayers are just as good as anybody else’s, but we’ll find it difficult to realise them.

We should remember, however, that we can’t choose the times when the clouds break and the sun comes shining through, but we can be ready for them, and I’m quite sure that prayer time isn’t the only time when we can get through to the unseen, or the unseen can get through to us. We may not have felt God near us then, but haven’t we felt something thrill within us when we, say, were walking down a country lane or by the sea; laughing happily with a friend or playing with a child; reading a book or sitting quietly alone with our thoughts? I have – have you?

If we’ve had that experience we can never say that we have not realised the Presence of God. The pity is that we are so slow to recognise it for what it is, to be thankful for it, and to wait eagerly, hopefully and reverently for the time when our personal clouds break and we shall feel the light and warmth of God’s Presence again. I pray that this happens in God’s good time for you.

Max Young

Some of a ‘young’ man’s thoughts in Spring

I don’t know about you, but I feel this Spring started in December last year when I saw primroses in bloom before Christmas! A whole range of shrubs and flowers have appeared much earlier than normal – a very confused magnolia grandiflora in Coach Lane flowered three times last year. Before Spring’s all over, I thought I’d better write about this glorious season, because it makes me think that God’s will is the same for all creation.

What on earth do I mean by that? Well, I think God’s will is the same for, say, the primrose and the daffodil, as it is for us. That is, to somehow bring something beautiful out, to ready us through the dark days of our lives for a good that we can’t predict, and to produce in us, in spite of all the difficulties we have to meet and contend with, or maybe perhaps through those very difficulties, the best that could possibly be. That’s quite a thought isn’t it? Someone once said that Mother Nature was God’s oldest evangelist, and she can preach a cracking good sermon, a sermon that speaks to us of courage, determination, patience and hope.

Go outside your home and spend some time contemplating the lovely things of springtime. Maybe because we pass them every day we miss their beauty and their meaning. Familiarity often breeds indifference. In my walks with Jennifer round our town’s streets, I feel blessed by God, and those hard-working gardeners, who provide us with so many lovely sights – we do try to let the gardeners know we appreciate the gardens they share with us.

We shouldn’t drive our cars blindly along country roads with an eye only on the speedometer or satnav. Let’s drive a bit slower and take in a bit more of our surroundings. Maybe we should try to stop for a minute or two by that copse over there, where in a few weeks we’ll be able to see the sheen of blue and breathe in lungfuls of perfumed bluebell air.

Stop somewhere, anywhere, where something of all this beauty is, and when you’ve stopped, think. Think with a reverence for this surrounding natural beauty and that will quietly bring us closer to our Creator God.

Think! Think about the great magic and variety of nature that we see and experience in springtime. We might suppose that primroses are lovely little things when we find them just dotted about here and there at the bottom of a hedge. But if they were the only flower there, it would be rather boring, wouldn’t it? The daffodil is beautiful too, but in quite a different way. And what about violets, or my favourite, harebells? They have an almost unique delicacy and gracefulness that are all their own. The glory of each flower is in being itself, in becoming perfectly what God designed it to be, and then in blending with all the other flowers into that great harmony of beauty which somehow includes and transcends them all.

And what about us? Does something similar apply to humans too? Well, to put it bluntly, if you’re a primrose, don’t worry because you’re not a daffodil. If you’re a daffodil, don’t wag your head condescendingly over the violet. We, you and I, are meant to be unique, each of us a new individual creation. We do ourselves no good at all if we waste our energy trying to be the spitting image of ‘celebs’ or ‘stars’, or try to reshape our bodies so that we are the wrinkle-free, ‘right’ proportion of flesh to fat with a well-defined ‘six-pack’ or ‘hour-glass’ figure.

I think human life is meant to be a blend – a blend of colours, a blend of varieties, a blend of individualities. The value of each doesn’t diminish, but is enhanced by the value of the others. Each one is different, but each adds to each just that little touch of human excellence that was lacking. All blend together into that great harmony of many separate chords that I’m sure is the symphony that is God’s will for human life.

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies,

for the love which from our birth over and around us lies,

Lord of all, to thee we raise This our sacrifice of praise.  FS Pierpoint

The Good Life is for Living

It’s sometimes said that one of the greatest wishes you can have for someone is that they should meet at least one really good man or woman during their lives.

It’s one thing to have heard or read about goodness, and quite another to have seen it. This is one of those cases where seeing really is believing. You know nothing about it until you have actually seen it.

We Christians believe in the Gospel – the story of what God did when he put on our flesh and became a man. Everything before this, from thinkers and prophets, had just been hearsay. The world waited for the Word made flesh – living and working on this actual earth and in the sight of those around Him. That at last was convincing enough and has haunted the minds of every generation since.

Jesus  wrote no books, and only fragments remain of what must have been His very long sermons. His way of life was proved not by arguing, but by living. That’s what He did.

I think what we want in the Churches today is not more theology. Sometimes, reading theological articles I ask myself whether or not the magic of Christ has slipped between the words and escaped. And the same is true of sermons, as I know only too well. Can you imagine how humiliating it is for me to do my very best and yet feel, at the end of the sermon, that I’ve made the beauty of holiness dull? It’s not always the preacher’s fault. They may have seen the amazing light somewhere, but they can’t bring it home in a net to share.

I imagine that our idea of God is made up from glimpses that we have had of human lives. I don’t mean that those lives were anything like perfect, but we caught a glint of the gold in the mud. That was enough. We can never disbelieve in gold again. Somehow it is there. And somehow it shines.

I have known people who were dead straight. Their eyes were straight, and their lives were straight. I have known others who were merciful – they didn’t add to the burdens of life or spend their time in pointing out my faults, rather they were gentle, forgiving and kind. And there were those who were brave – in an agony they would smile, lighting up the room or ward in which they lay – these unconquered ones did me good, when I wanted so much to do them good. In all of these people I caught a glimpse of that lovely thing that we call goodness.

That’s how, in my life, I’ve learned what goodness is. It’s like one of those composite portraits in which I can still see the individual faces of those who’ve taught me goodness, not by what they said, but by what they were.

Deeds speak louder than words – “What you are speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.” That’s an old saying, but the salty touch in it has preserved it all down the years.

The best legacy that we can leave to our fellow-men, including those whom we love the most, lies not in what we have, but in what we are. By what we are, we make it easier for them to believe in God or harder – sometimes so hard that faith has no chance at all.

Well, we can only do our best and that may not be so bad. But a glimpse or two of unselfishness and sacrifice, of patience and fortitude, of justice and mercy and love will be worth more than we can ever tell to those who know us. May a few of them, as the years carry us all on, remember us for that.

Max Young

Autumn

As another birthday approaches, a song from “The Yeomen of the Guard” reminds me that if you think of a life as though it’s like a year with its seasons, then I have definitely reached Autumn.

In my eighth decade I know that I have far more time behind me than I do in front. I see beauty in everything I look at, from the face of a baby to the beauty of the night sky. My perspective has changed. I now take time to look at what is around me, and I am much less disturbed by the things that used to upset me.  I’m less aggressive in many things like my driving or the way I react to the stupidity of some political decisions or in bureaucratic procedures. My family are getting more used (bored?) with me saying, “Will the world stop? No? Then relax.”

And having reached Autumn I don’t feel dispirited, partly because I have always loved this season. The brightly coloured leaves, the crisp cool mornings, the signs and celebrations of harvest, all give my morale a boost.

Nature has a particular loveliness when spring and summer are gone. So it’s not unreasonable to expect that in human nature something of the same beauty will be there when the days are drawing in and life is less active. I’m not thinking about faces, but there’s often a quiet kind of radiance in an old face that is so similar to the bright and eager faces of childhood and youth. I just wish that people nowadays let nature do her work unhindered. But we know not to ‘judge a book by its cover’. Nature may look to us as though she’s dying gracefully, but actually she’s very busy getting ready for the Spring.

So in my Autumn I can look back over my life and, and as it were, reap the harvest of my investment in time and effort in such things as family and friendships, as I see my children now grown, and grandchildren growing, and can celebrate such things as 50th anniversaries of graduations and other achievements.

Autumn too, is a season in which we don’t have the pests of spring and summer, things such as flies, mosquitoes, and rapidly growing weeds. And also it’s free from some of the problems of Spring – adolescence, when spots and acne made one so self-conscious and when peer-pressure quite often determined the people one could be seen with!

Hopefully, for you who are enjoying this Autumn maturity, you’ll tend to eliminate the trite and petty from your lives. Those of us at this stage know that life is too short to let personal vanity or the fickleness of public opinion deflect us from some of our daily joys.

And of course we mustn’t forget the harvest celebrations, a special time with family and friends when we pause to consider how blessed we are. This year we include in our celebrations the harvest brought about by the work of Charles, Jane and the boys. We hope that our work with them will also, in due course, bring about a harvest of its own in their lives. This Autumn in our lives should be the season for remembering and reflecting, a time to take pleasure in past and present abundance.

Of course, there is a chill in the air in autumn, a reminder that winter is not far away. Similarly, at this season we begin to face the fact of our own mortality. People, like leaves, die and turn to dust.

Yet with winter comes Christmas, and Christmas pre-echoes Easter. Yes, the flower fades and falls to the ground, but its seed will bloom again. And so autumn is a hopeful time.

The fact that death is approaching, when I shall leave this world, doesn’t fill me with dread. The anxiety that I see in my friends who have no faith, doesn’t exist for me. I don’t know what is to come, but I have faith in the belief that our Good Lord has some pleasant surprises for us beyond the threshold of our earthly lives. I find I draw confidence from Paul’s words, written in the Autumn of his life, in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing”.(NIV)

The evidence for God’s existence and His active role in our lives can be seen in many ways. The beauty of autumn is just one of them. So, please, let’s not live our lives as those who believe in naturalism, chance, and survival of the fittest. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things [what you need in life] will be added to you.”

Max Young

Holidays – Time to “Still out”

Do you ever feel like Crocodile Dundee in New York, greeting people in the town and getting no response? People with their hand-held devices, headphones and that glazed expression, unseeing, inward-looking, on their faces? They ignore your cheerful “Good morning” and seemingly go through life with two of their senses switched off.

We complain so often, and rightly, that the pace of life nowadays is frantic and frenetic and everything is so noisy, isn’t it? But isn’t increased noise part of the price we pay for progress?

Take grass-cutting, I remember hearing the regular gentle swishing noise of ‘the Swinging Sisters’, as they wielded their bamboo poles cutting the grass in our camp in Malaysia. Cylinder mowers were next with their regular whirr-whirr, but then the modern petrol or electrically powered mowers with their own particular din, together with strimmers, hedge-trimmers, blowers and shredders that took the place of shears and rakes.

But then, don’t we like noise? Can we live without the radio on in the background, our I-pods and Musak and those car stereo systems that, when on full volume, seem to alter the car’s suspension? And don’t we like to appear busy – in constant contact by phone, e-mail and social media with our business colleagues or family members?

If there is a reduction in numbers of people attending Church services, I don’t think it’s because people have come to any reasoned conclusion against the Christian faith. Convinced sceptics, agnostics and atheists are a tiny minority. The real reason is that in the midst of all the hustle and bustle there’s no quiet space left for thinking out spiritual matters. God is just crowded out. We give ourselves no chance at all of knowing God, because we don’t, deliberately, allow time to be still.

Here we are, approaching the peak holiday time when we ought to be thinking of ways to recharge our batteries and relax – remember that phrase from Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God.”? It was originally aimed at Israel’s enemies, telling them to back off from attacking Israel and to realise that the God of Israel was the only true God to be worshipped by everybody. Nowadays we understand the phrase to be more of a command to us to emulate Elijah and go to a remote cave to find God, not in earthquake, wind and fire but in the still, small voice.

So, is your holiday going to be one at the end of which you’ll be looking forward to coming back to Faringdon’s normal life for a rest?

I do hope not! Jesus gave us all an example in making time to get away from the crowds to recharge his soul’s batteries in the presence of God. We too should do the same, whether it’s an hour at a service on a Sunday or a few minutes for prayer here and there in our normal day, set aside to spend solely with God, to give ourselves the chance to ‘hearken’ to that still small voice.

I used the word ‘hearken’ because my dictionary tells me it means, ‘to listen with compliance or sympathy,’ or, even better, ‘to listen as an eavesdropper.’ So please do give yourselves the chance to be really with-it in the holiday period, and thereafter, by ‘stilling-out’ and eavesdropping on God.

Max Young

Joy to the World

 This is one of the most popular Christmas carols, but when Isaac Watts wrote it in 1719 he was not describing the arrival of the infant Jesus, but the triumphant second coming of Christ the King:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King . . .

He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of his righteousness

And wonders of his love.

This picture of glorious victory is partly based on Psalm 98: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God’.” (v 3, NRSV). The psalm goes on to describe each part of creation praising the Lord’s coming:

“Let sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.” (vv 7 — 9)

Isaac Watts picked up these ideas and developed them in his own way:

Let every heart prepare him room,

And heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns!

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy.

 And then he wrote one more verse, which you have probably never sung, and which does not usually appear in our hymn books. In our Christmas versions this verse is missing. It goes like this:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make his blessings flow

Far as the curse is found.

For this verse Isaac Watts looked back to the story of the Fall in Genesis chapter 3, and focussed on a passage which would certainly bring a chill to the Christmas season:

 “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” (vv 17 – 18)

Perhaps Isaac Watts in the early 18th century was more aware than we are of the hard reality of labouring to produce enough to eat, but we can still see how human sin affects the land and livelihoods of people and wildlife all over the world. Famine follows so often in the wake of civil war. Refugees from persecution leave behind their livestock and fields to be plundered and destroyed.

Rain forests are exploited, depriving people and animals of food and shelter. Farmers ploughing their fields in France and Belgium still turn up deadly weapons from wars long past. The careless use of chemicals kills more than just pests: it undermines the balance of healthy ecosystems, and poisons our food.

 Yet Isaac Watts’ hymn is about victory and blessing – the curse of the ground, along with human sins and sorrows, is also removed by the redemption which Christ brings. Heaven and nature sing with humanity about the promised restoration of everything God made – JOY TO THE WORLD

Pam de Wit (for Earth & Faith)

Epiphany Thoughts

What does ‘The Epiphany’ mean? To a lot of Christian people, the Epiphany just means the coming of the three wise men. But there is a lot more to it than that. For a start, the word ‘Epiphany’ means a “manifestation, or an experience of sudden and striking realization.” It can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Think of Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment in his bath, or Isaac Newton’s realising that the apple that hit him on the head, and the moon orbiting the earth, were being pulled by the same force.

To Christians it means the time when Jesus was recognised by the Gentiles, represented by the wise men, as the Messiah – King of the Jews. The wise men’s research told them that the King of the Jews was to be born at that time, they followed the star, found the infant Jesus, and realised that this was indeed the King they sought. That therefore was their Epiphany.

Epiphany comes just twelve days after Christmas, on 6th January. It is sometimes said to be the feast day that celebrates the final unwrapping of the present we were given by God on Christmas Day. He now reveals God the Son, the human being of Jesus Christ, not just to the Jews but also to the Gentiles.

For hundreds of years the world had been told by God, through the prophets, that he was going to come, himself, in the form of a new-born child, and this child would become, as an adult, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, the Saviour of the world. God was true to his word.

Advent, Christmas and Epiphany should be changing us as it changed the wise men – they studied the scriptures and the skies in Advent, saw the Holy Child after Christmas, and experienced their own epiphanies.

I pray that we will all experience, or experience again, an epiphany in January. That we, like the wise men, will individually realise and understand that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that this knowledge will change us to be more like Jesus.

But, am I being over-optimistic? I sometimes wonder whether in the last two thousand years we’ve moved even an inch further towards bringing the kingdom here. What’s changed? Are we any less cruel than we used to be? Are we fairer, more caring, less vain, less greedy? As Alfred Noyes said, “God, build us that better world, but that’s not done with tongue or sword or pen – God make us better men!”

And in the words of Christopher Wordsworth, (nephew of William) and one-time Vicar of Stanford-in-the-Vale

 Grant us grace to see thee, Lord,

Mirrored in thy holy word;

May we imitate thee now,

And be pure, as pure as thou;

That we like to thee may be

At thy great Epiphany,

And may praise thee, ever blest,

God in man made manifest.

Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85)

May Advent, Christmas and Epiphany be joyful and revelatory experiences for us all.