Tag Archives: meditation

Lessons from a Coke can

You might associate meditation and mindfulness with Buddhism and modern psychology more than with Christianity, but there’s also a rich Judeo-Christian tradition of such practices, which are slowly being rediscovered by the western church.

(In fact, meditative and mindful practices are common to humanity. You could say they are traits of being human, before being spiritual or religious.)

Ancient Jewish prophets and teachers would take time out in the countryside, the mountains and deserts, to be still and listen, using all their 5+ senses to attune to the Divine. They’d observe all that was around them, in prayer and stillness, and maybe discover spiritual or prophetic metaphors in the sights and sounds of nature.

God, who they believed was the source and sustainer of everything, could surely be seen and heard through the things he’d created.

This becomes obvious when we read the Psalms of David, who spent days and nights on the hillsides minding sheep (see for example Psalm 23: The Lord is my Shepherd), or Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, where he offers invaluable and insightful advice on life from his reflections on the sparrows and lilies of the lush Judean countryside.

One example I’m particularly fond of, though, is the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. Right at the start of his contemplative prophetic accounts, he describes a moment when God asks him, ‘What do you see?’

When Jeremiah replies, ‘A branch of an almond tree’, God creates a word play, saying:

‘That’s right, and I’m watching [the Hebrew words for “watch” and “almond” sound very similar] to make sure my words are fulfilled.’ I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes puns.

‘What do you see (or hear/smell/feel/sense)?’ is a good question to ask ourselves in mindful prayer or contemplation.

I asked myself this question the other day.

At least, I think it was me who asked the question. It might have been God who asked me. There’s little difference, really. If we’re looking to live in tune with the Divine, whatever we call him/her/it, then the voice of I Am (as God revealed himself to Moses) is going to resound in the inner voice of the little I am, who is us.

I share this preamble with you on the traditions of faith so that what follows may not sound quite so wacky as it might do otherwise….

So the other day, as I sat in the comfortable heat of a gorgeous October day, resting from work for a few minutes’ contemplative prayer on a sunny, grassy spot, my eyes alighted on a half-crushed Coke can lying on the ground just a few yards ahead.

‘What do you see?’ I asked myself (or God asked me).

The following are the thoughts that came to me in response.

I see a Coke can.

I see a can that is bruised but not crushed. It reminds me of the traumatised people I work with, bent and bruised – but not crushed – by life. Who get up and keep going against all odds. But they, like you and me, sometimes need others to nurture in them that resilience. To ‘top up’ their courage levels. To inspire them to keep going. Getting alongside someone, showing support, not giving up on them, makes the world of difference.

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The can in question (phone pic)

I see a Coke can.

…that had contained a caffeinated drink. That played a part in energising someone, stimulating activity, productiveness, work perhaps.

Maybe it will be picked up and recycled, becoming useful again. But for now it lies dormant, in a restful state. We, too, need times of dormancy, of non-productiveness. Rhythms of work and rest. Times to bear fruit and times to soak in the soil.

There’s ‘a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones’, as another ancient prophet wrote. Times to be energised before we can energise others.

 

I see a Coke can

…even in its twisted condition, reflecting the sun.

And we humans – even in our damaged state, reflect the light and dignity of the Divine.

In fact, Judeo-Christian spirituality sees the poorest and most marginalised of society as representatives of God: how we treat them is the measure of how we treat God.

There is accumulating evidence that austerity measures (the effects of which are clearly far from over, whatever our Government might say) are directly killing the poor, and are therefore seen by many as expressly anti-Christian. Such Government actions are not neutral. In their blatant disregard of the poor, the Conservative Government demonstrate spiritual blindness of the worst kind. (Just a little political aside there…)

But those who have eyes to see (whether religious, spiritual or not) perceive the precious light, the holiness or divinity, you could say, of those who, bruised and battered, are trying to battle their way through the obstacle course of their lives.

 

I see a Coke can.

The thought that came to me most strongly – from the Spirit or my spirit, my mind or the mind of the Spirit – was this:

‘I want you to have a “CAN do” attitude’.

That’s right. A play on words, like the words heard by Jeremiah.

You CAN do it.

Around this time, I was facing a new challenge at work.

Because of not uncommon issues I grew up with at home and at school that demoralised and demotivated me, I’ve always tended to lack a certain confidence to try new things, to believe in my abilities and, like a lot of people, tend to fear not getting things just right.

But one of the greatest changes in my life over the years has been a growth in confidence and I actually felt quite prepared, if still daunted, to face this new challenge.

The Spirit says to me – and to you – ‘Yes, you CAN.’

You CAN do it.

Whatever daunting task or challenge you’re facing.

Whatever new creative or constructive project you’re considering.

You may not get it perfectly right, but it’ll be good, and most importantly it’ll be a beautiful expression of the unique individual you are.

So go for it!

A little self-belief goes a long way.

My colleagues at work, and my wife, are amazing at nurturing that confidence in me.

That willingness to step forward.

I hope and I try to do the same with them, as well as with the homeless and other vulnerable people we support.

I undertook that new challenge a few days later and was very happy with the way it went. I’d be prepared to do it again, learning from what worked well and what could be improved.

Yes, YOU can.

Let’s continue to encourage each other.

And one final question….

What do you see?

 


Coming Home for GoodAs well as this blog, I also have a book! Coming Home for Good is autobiographical, with themes of homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon.

Find out more here.

 

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Is Yoga a Slippery Slope to Satan?

“I think us Christians can learn a lot from Buddhism,” I suggested in conversation with the young man I’d just met after the service at church last week. He was OK with that. He got where I was coming from.

This was in stark contrast to an online article the same week, on the relationship between Christians and Eastern practices, with a headline that read:

‘It’s a slippery slope from yoga to Satan’ – Irish priest.

Father Roland Colhoun had warned (particularly to the Catholic world) that those partaking in yoga and Indian head massages may be led into the “Kingdom of Darkness.”

I’m no expert on yoga or Eastern religion, but I know that for a lot of people the meditative, physical and ethical principles of Buddhism or yoga are not “religious” or even spiritual, but simply a healthy way of living, promoting positive ways of thinking and being. Many principles of yoga or Eastern spirituality such as Buddhism seem to be generally good for physical, emotional and relational health.

This very morning, at church again, as I was discussing this blog post, another friend revealed that she practises and enjoys the physical benefits of yoga, putting it this way: “It’s as spiritual as you want to make it”.

For the Christian, meditation or relaxation techniques such as mindfully focussing on our breathing, can be used to help us to pray, to be still and know God, to quieten our minds and listen to his still, small voice. All these practices are neutral: until we choose how we use them.

How we use that quietening of our minds will differ between, say, Christians, atheists and Buddhists. The atheist may focus on her breath, achieving a calmer state of being. The Christian may do this too, but also focus on the God who gave her that breath, by faith ‘breathing in’ God’s Spirit and grace, and ‘breathing out’ praise to God (or confession of sins).

There is huge overlap between ancient Eastern meditative practices and ancient Christian contemplation. For the Christian this should come as no surprise, believing as we do that God has made every body (not just those who believe in him), and designed us in such a way that whatever our beliefs, taking time to be still and to quieten our minds is essentially good for our bodies and minds.

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with a beautiful, jolly, love-filled, Catholic man, about contemplative prayer. After we discovered that we had a mutual admiration for Thomas Merton, the popular 20th Century Catholic contemplative writer, the man informed me with a wicked, tongue-in-cheek smile that Merton had been responsible for converting more Catholics to Buddhism than anyone else!

It probably isn’t true – I don’t know.

The point is that, although Merton extolled the benefits of contemplation from a distinctly Christian viewpoint, the parallels with Eastern or Buddhist meditation can hardly be lost on his readers. Some Christians recoil at the very thought of anything that may bear any similarity with another religion, holding tight to their version of ‘Christianity’ in fear that they may be negatively affected by some unhealthy spiritual influence.

I am in some sympathy with those people. (In fact, here’s a link to a very balanced BBC article on the concerns about yoga shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.)

But when Christians live in that kind of fear, they betray how small their trust in Jesus is.

The wise, mature Christian has grown out of his childish clinging to the religion of Christianity and instead entrusts everything he knows to Jesus himself.

He closely examines the example of Jesus and prays for the ability to emulate him rather than church tradition.

He observes that Jesus, living in a society ruled by the Romans, never felt the need to denounce their pagan religion, only the hypocrisy within his own (Jewish) religion. What does that say to us?

And Jesus was drawn to, and commended, people of any faith background who had genuine, hungry hearts, rather than those who believed and did “the right things”.

Likewise St. Paul, in Athens*, surrounded by statues of Greek gods, chose not to warn the Athenians about the dangers of false gods, but to find common ground with their culture, with its gods and poets, to communicate the good news of his Jesus to them. In fact, there were already hints about the God of the Universe within their polytheistic literature, perhaps divinely planted there.

Christians, like me, may see things that we think are wrong in other religions, but Christianity in its various expressions can be equally wrong: for example, when its beliefs and practices are exclusivist or prejudiced.

People will often find what they’re looking for. If they’re just looking for relaxation, then they will probably find just that, whether through yoga or churchgoing. If they’re genuinely looking for truth or wholeness, then they will find those too – though it may take a while. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said “Seek [or keep seeking] and you will find.”

Years ago, I was searching for truth, above all else. My journey took me through Buddhism and other ideas, and led me eventually to Jesus.

Twenty-seven years later, I still believe in him; that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’. He not only satisfied my need for truth; he turned my life around, satisfied my need for love and is continuing to make this broken man whole.

And I’m enthralled and thrilled at being part of a church that’s not trying to prove its truth, or defend Christianity or the Bible, but is simply intent on blessing the people of Hastings with all that Jesus offers.

—–

“And how can you say that your truth is better than ours?

Shoulder to shoulder, now brother, we carry no arms.”

(Mumford & Sons – I Gave You All)

—–

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a spiritualist, was searching for more, and as he was meditating, he encountered a vision of Jesus that he said was more powerful than anything he’d ever experienced. He ‘became a Christian’ and was baptised. His conversion to Christianity was sadly short-lived, but I remain hopeful for him.

I’ve also heard countless stories of Muslims who, desperately seeking the reality of a relationship with God, have encountered life-transforming dreams and visions of Jesus, and consequently put their faith in him – often in face of serious death threats, such is the strength of their conviction.

Like them, I believe that truth and wholeness are ultimately found in Jesus. I could be wrong. Either way, I have enough confidence in him not to be worried about people exploring other faiths or practices.

In other words, it’s what’s in a person’s heart, their goal, rather than the validity or spirituality of their current faith or practice, that will determine where their search will lead them.

Is yoga a slippery slope to Satan? Or could it, like Buddhism or meditation, be a slippery slope to good health, and perhaps for some, even to Jesus? Who knows?

—–

*The Bible: Acts 17

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SPEED FREAK

Whereas Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life, it’s been observed that, going by the manic conflicts in the Middle East, religion today looks more like the amphetamine of the people. (Tobias Stanislas Haller)

At this point, I have to tell you my own little amphetamine (speed)-related anecdote… and I promise I’ll get back to the point of the above remark about religion and amphetamine in a bit.

It’s 1985 and I’m hitch-hiking across the southern United States, in the cab of the fanciest, fastest, flashiest truck I ever got a ride in. Compliments from other truck drivers on the road were coming over on the CB radio, on this guy’s truck and its speed.

(This is probably not a very accurate picture of the truck in question because this story took place nearly 30 years ago, but you get the idea).

(This is probably not a very accurate picture of the truck in question because this story took place nearly 30 years ago, but you get the idea).

We were just outside Albuquerque, going 80-100 mph on the 55mph freeway through night-time New Mexico, when the ‘bird-dog’ (radar detector) on the dash started bleeping, alerting us to a police speed trap. Unfortunately, the truck was too fast for the radar detector, and almost as soon as it started bleeping, we could see the police car up ahead.

We got pulled over; the driver was given an on-the-spot fine. The police also searched the cab for drugs and found nothing, but confiscated the guy’s marijuana paraphernalia. What they failed to spot, on the cab floor, was the amphetamine tablets stashed in a screwed-up cigarette packet – of which we’d both already partaken.

At the time, I thought it was hilarious that the police had done the driver for speeding but we’d got away with ‘speeding’ in the other sense!

Now, I’m not promoting drug use and it’s 25 years since I last took any illegal substances, but it still raises a chuckle in my head when I think back to some of my pre-Christian escapades.

And, although those days are long behind me, I admit that I do have an addiction to speed. Not amphetamine, but the speed of a fast-paced life.

In fact, I had a bit of a wake-up call to my overactive lifestyle recently on a speed awareness course.

Yes, this year I was caught speeding myself.

Not 30-40mph above the limit like that truck driver. I was doing 36mph on a 30mph road through a rural village on the A21.

Like many people, I opted for the speed awareness course rather than points on my licence. The course was actually very good. In fact, I’d even say I enjoyed it!

At one point, one of the driving instructors who delivered the course asked, “Why do people speed?”

Answers from the floor varied between a range of circumstances, poor time management, the pace of life and pure impatience.

My answer was “Personality. A tendency to live fast, always wanting to do everything as quickly as possible, to pack as much into the time as possible.”

As I spoke the words out loud about myself, I had a sudden realisation that I needed to change – that I could change.

My addiction isn’t just to being busy. It’s an addiction to productiveness. This sense that every moment I have to be doing something useful – springing perhaps from a kind of insecurity, of feeling that I need to prove myself (to me; to God; to others?), and maybe stems from that sense of pre-Christian-conversion shame that leaves its mark even after years of experiencing the deep, liberating grace of God.

At work, I’m mostly my own boss. I manage my time autonomously, with no one watching over me. But rather than slacking, I have a tendency to try to pack in as much productive activity into the day as possible.

I’ve been told that I’m obsessed with multitasking!

I don’t take a lunch break, as such; I eat while I work, so that I can take time later in the day to run or write my blog. Not a second wasted.

And when I run, I aim to be as fast as possible.

Although I tend to drive carefully in residential areas (despite being caught inadvertently speeding in a 30mph zone), when it comes to longer-distance motorway driving, I try to get from A to B as fast as possible with little regard for speed limits.

It’s not an altogether healthy way of being.

My self-disclosure on the speed awareness course woke me up to this deeper problem behind my fast driving habits.

Returning to the opening reference to religion and amphetamine….it’s easy to see a certain ‘evil’ hyperactive religion in the guise of ISIS, for example.

But there’s also a kind of overactive religious ‘do-good-ing’. It may initially spring from the joy of being born again and being thankful to God for being forgiven and redeemed, but can become a self-motivated over-busy-ness in our own strength, with mixed motives, unhealthy attitudes, and carries the risk of burning out.

Sometimes we mistakenly try to pay God back. Something he never asks us to do.

Around the same time as the speed awareness course, I started to explore Christian contemplation or meditation: a slightly different approach to my faith than the styles of prayer that I’ve been used to, and quite an ambitious aim for a hyperactive do-er like me…

Contemplative traditions speak of ‘centring prayer’ and ‘living out of the centre’. I’m not even entirely sure what that means yet, but for me now, it involves my prayer life re-focussing on my identity in Christ, re-discovering what it means to just ‘be’, so that my praying, my actions, my life, start to flow once more from belonging unconditionally to God.

I’m re-discovering what it means to rest in God, and to act from a place of deeper security as his child – loved and accepted without having to do anything.

The benefits of this practice seem to be (subtly) evident already, in such a short time. They’re pretty personal, but here are a few broad hints:

  • I’m feeling more confident to be me – less concerned with what others think of me;
  • Genuinely letting go and trusting God with a recent difficult situation has been such a beautiful reality, that spontaneous laughter of trust has sprung from my lungs;
  • “It is what it is” – that statement of contented acceptance of circumstances – resonates in my heart;
  • Temptations seem to have less of a pull;
  • Spontaneous words of genuine kindness have flowed more readily from these lips;
  • And well-worn scriptures like these are taking on a fresh reality for me:

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall rise up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah)

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms)

 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (Jesus, Gospel of John)

I’m not suggesting that Christian contemplative prayer is a panacea for every spiritual ill. It may not be for everyone – not even for every Christian.

Just that this is good for me – just now.

And that it’s another way of drawing on all those incredible resources available to us through the life and cross of Jesus.

And that many of us need to slow down and rest in God, for our own spiritual, mental and even physical health.

In fact, one of the most important changes for me is that I’m learning to slow down – just a bit:

to do less activity,

with more love,

as Mother Teresa so aptly said:

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I can’t compare my faith to amphetamine or opium or any other drug, because central to faith in Jesus is acceptance of perfect Love, which is always free, pure and unsullied, and has no potential for addiction, as I explained in ‘Addicted to Love?’.

But I’ve started on my road to recovery from my addiction to the speed of life.

And if you bump into me at a meeting, I might just introduce myself like this: “I’m Roger, and I’m a recovering speed freak.”

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