Tag Archives: mindfulness

Life is a beach

As I sat on Hastings beach this week, enjoying taking things at a slower pace while off sick from work due to stress and exhaustion, I took these photos of the view behind me, taking in the various elements of boat, beach, tractor, church, houses, hill and nets.

I wondered how many millions of photos have been taken over the years of picturesque Old Town beach with its fishing boats. There are always people milling around with cameras down here. So I wasn’t going to.

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But then I noticed something about the view I’d been enjoying. The combined subjects seemed to represent the balance I’m seeking to achieve in my life.

  • In the foreground, to the left: a tractor for pulling boats up the beach, important and useful, more functional than aesthetic. This piece of machinery, representing productivity, work, and all things “male” and task-driven, was getting a look in from the side, but the photographer (me) not allowing it to dominate the view.
  • To the right, the main attraction: a fishing boat. Although a working vessel, providing food for many, the boat also speaks to me of aesthetics, beauty and therefore creativity; femininity, love, and therefore my wife, my marriage, my family – all aspects of life to which I’m attaching greater importance (and appreciating as sources of strength and healing), just as the boat appeals to our aesthetic eye in the picture.
  • In the background: a church, representing stillness, wonder, faith and Jesus; reminding me that behind work, creativity and relationships needs to be the presence and love of God, mindfulness, and prayer. For me, faith and prayer undergird everything else.
  • Further back: tucked in behind the church is verdant West Hill with its trees and grassy slopes, representing nature and its close relationship to the Creator. Countless studies have shown us how beneficial spending time in green spaces is to our mental and physical health. Nature seems to be God’s healing agent, a message of love from the Creator, and we underestimate its power to our peril. I’ve never lost my enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors, whether through running, walking, prayer, birdwatching, or nature photography, but more recently I’ve also realised the importance of nature for my emotional health. Even as I step out of my house into the back garden with its fresh air and fragrant smells of trees and flowers, a wave of peace sweeps over me.

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As my attention was drawn by my Father to this pictorial allegory of the life balance I’m aiming for, I decided to take some photos after all and keep them as a pertinent reminder.

  • Oh, and finally, under it all, under me, is the beach itself, reminding me that in the end, life is of course a beach! Or should be….

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

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A brush with Vincent

If you know me or my blog, you’ll know that I have a little fascination with both van Gogh and Van Morrison. Must be something about vans. I haven’t blogged about white van drivers yet, though – maybe that’s to come…

But both Gogh and Morrison, unlike white van drivers, seem to help unlock a sense of awesome awareness of the Creator’s sweet pervasion of the world around me.

You may even know that one of the reasons for taking my family on a short break to Holland in the recent half-term was to visit the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Having been so enthralled by his life and mesmerised by his art, I wondered what a visit to the museum, which houses over 1000 of Vincent’s works, would be like. Would I be touched even more deeply by the man of myth and magic? Or would I be unmoved – would a museum’s inevitable sterility detract from the emotions normally evoked by this beautiful man?

The first van Gogh work I saw on entering the main gallery was a familiar, famous painting – The Sower.

Several things struck me all at once.

Firstly, I was blown away by the obvious fact that I was looking at an original! This was a painting actually painted by Vincent van Gogh himself!

Viewing the popular masterpiece, with its dense, swirling, brush strokes, felt like a mind-blowing encounter with greatness,

beauty,

history,

madness and sanity,

and the brilliant transcendence of the Creator in Vincent’s (and our) world.

Right from the outset, I was overcome with emotion, moved to tears once again, by this brush with Vincent. As it turned out, no cold museum sterility could dampen the reactions sparked by this intriguing character.

As well as being awestruck by the significance of being face to face with an actual van Gogh, I was startled to find it was 3D! It had never occurred to me that the flat, 2-D images we see in a book or on a computer screen could never do justice to the coarse, wild textures or contrasting shades of an oil painting’s brazen, 3-dimensional, brush strokes.

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A flat, 2D image of The Sower, a 3D painting

Such a stark realisation sparked an immediate thought about my prayer life. My recent (last couple of years) journey into a more mindful and contemplative approach to prayer, inspired by the likes of Shaun Lambert, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr, feels like a transition from 2D to 3D faith.

Diving into the omnipresence of God.

Being in his being.

Not that prayer, for me, has ever been simply a religious “shopping-list” or an approach to God as a dispensing machine, but this practising of stillness, stopping to soak in the reality of who God is and of who I am, has been a welcome learning curve and a growth into the fullness that Jesus promised.

Vincent never seemed to lose his faith in Christ, but recoiled from the strict religion of his pastor father. Did Vincent ever experience the fullness of life that Jesus offered? My strong suspicion is that, despite being tormented by mental ill health, a sense of alienation from society, and even “existential dread”, as described in the blurb for one painting at the museum, Vincent did indeed drink of that spiritual life.

He seemed to be so wonderfully attuned to his surroundings and, through those surroundings and his depiction of them, to be at one with the Creator he believed in. You could say that his painting really was a form of contemplation.

Even Christians, with our genuine claims of the “joy of the Lord” and “fullness of life”, are not immune to mental illness, depression and “dark nights of the soul”. I, too, have had my moments.

Part of my contemplative learning curve has been a growing embrace of “non-dual thinking”: accepting the “both/and” of life and faith in 3D fullness, instead of the “either/or” often associated with 2D religion.

I think Vincent understood this, through his ups and downs of faith and life. As I browsed the museum, I was intrigued by his Still Life with Open Bible, in which a large family Bible, open at Isaiah 53 that speaks prophetically of Jesus as the suffering servant and “a man of sorrows”, is juxtaposed with a copy of Emile Zola’s contemporary novel of the time, La Joie de Vivre.

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Still Life with Open Bible (sorrow and joy)

I don’t think Vincent ever really rejected the Bible or Jesus but resented his father’s “blind devotion to religion and faith, forever trapped in an antiquated mindset”, and like a lot of people, found that the religion of his time satisfied neither his mind nor his soul’s need for love.

In contrast, La Joie de Vivreand so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth,” as Vincent put it in a letter to his brother Theo.

His simultaneous representation of both sorrow and joy in this painting seems to sum up Vincent’s experience of life and faith. Both/and.

As I admired the lavish, almost randomised, multi-directional strokes in Vincent’s paintings, I was drawn to the paint patterns’ apparent disorder, that paradoxically composed such natural order in the finished works. Isn’t life like that?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the apparent disorder of my life – especially as a parent! – and of so many aspects of our world. How do we make sense of this? How do we come to terms with our lack of control over our disordered circumstances? Our flawed characters? Our loved ones? The random nature of death and suffering? And all the other things of this world that we care about?

Is it just me, with my OCD tendencies, that experiences this struggle?

Or do we all to some extent feel the need for neat answers – for order in our world? Current contemplative Richard Rohr, describing Franciscan spirituality in his book Eager to Love, expresses it like this:

“Paul says only ‘the folly of the cross’ can deal with what poet Wallace Stevens called “our blessed rage for order!’ The ‘mystery of the cross’ is Paul’s code-breaking and fundamental resolution for the confusing mystery of life! Without it, it seems most people become cynics, depressed, bitter, or negative by the middle of life, because there is no meaning in the death of all things and the imperfection of everything. For Paul, the deepest level of meaning is ironically the deep, grace-activated acceptance of a certain meaninglessness! We are able to leave room for God to fill in the gaps, and even trust that God will!”

Life is full of paradox and, for me, the cross of Jesus and his resurrection bring meaning to the perceived meaninglessness and disorder of this universe. This faith doesn’t answer all my questions. If it did, the God I believe in would be too small.

But through faith in Jesus, I trust that the almost randomised, multi-directional strokes of this world, that we see in the apparent chaos even at a subatomic level of the universe, make up a magnificent, somehow ordered, painting too big for the eyes of our hearts and minds to comprehend.

Order/disorder. Both/and. My contemplative faith is enabling me to live with the tension between the two.

Thank you once again, Vincent, for helping me accept the breadth and depth of God, and to the van Gogh Museum for its part in expressing the messages of his life and art.

And one day, maybe even the disordered driving of white van drivers will inspire in me a sense of awe at their Creator…

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Previous posts I’ve published, relating to van Gogh, include: A Sense of Wonder, Sunflowers, and specifically Take Me To Church.

 

(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

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Here comes the knight

So, Van the Man is now Van the Knight. Van Morrison was reported as being ‘exhilarated’ and ‘delighted’ at being made a ‘Sir’ at Buckingham Palace this week.

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“For 53 years I’ve been in the business – that’s not bad for a blue-eyed soul singer from east Belfast,” said Van to Prince Charles.

I’m delighted for him, too. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a bit of a fan of the Man: his particular mix of poetry, music and spirituality.

So, as a tribute to Sir Van, here again are my top 5 posts from the last couple of years that made reference to his songs:

5. In Mindfulness: more than fringe benefits I reflected on the blessings of mindfulness, especially when practised in relationship with the eternal One. Of course, a reference to the song When will I ever learn to live in God? had to creep into this post.

 

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4. Answering a tricky question looked at the difficulties I’d encountered in explaining to a friend what I believe about the death of Jesus. The song title And the healing has begun formed part of the answer in terms of what the cross means for me personally.
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3. I wrote And it stoned me about the exhilaration I sometimes feel in the presence of nature, sensing the pleasure of the creative One who crafted the wonders of nature, much like the experience that led Van Morrison to write the song And it stoned me:
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2. A sense of wonder is one of my favourite blog posts, again celebrating not only the wonder of nature, but the sense of divine in the faces of ragged people in our streets. The song A sense of wonder, one of my favourite Van tracks, has been known to reduce me to tears of wonder:
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1. Last but not least is this post, ‘Here comes the Knight’. This play on the words of one of his most famous songs, Here comes the night, performed way back in 1965 with the band Them, was irresistible, as I rejoice with Van and all his fans in his new honour.

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Rave on, Van Morrison, rave on.

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)

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And it stoned me

You know those smugly healthy, outdoor types? Well, he was one of those – a seasoned hiker with all the outdoor gear, that I’d got chatting with.

I was staying for a night in a travellers’ hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona, before hitch-hiking over to the Grand Canyon – one of the last things I did before leaving the USA in 1987 (see My Life’s Soundtrack for the whole story).

“Fresh air’s the only high I need,” retorted the hiker in the hostel, smugly, after I revealed that I liked getting stoned in picturesque, away-from-it-all places.

I’d become a Christian (just), but it would be another two years of on-off cannabis use and at least one seriously bad mushroom trip before I finally discovered that I no longer needed any illegal substances. That there was a higher high. A purer high.

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I sent this postcard to my Dad on Halloween 1987, after a night in the Canyon – probably my first ever written acknowledgement of God

I sent this postcard to my Dad on Halloween 1987, after a night in the Canyon – probably my first ever written acknowledgement of God

An experience of the Holy Spirit in 1989 replaced my need for THC with a fulfilment and joy in the love and forgiveness of my Father. For a time I was elated. The elation didn’t last forever, but the contentment and completeness in God did.

Now, stresses and disappointments creep in, and I struggle with the same day-to-day trials as everyone else. Prayer, reflection and expressions of creativity are some of the things that help to bring me back in touch with the Father’s love – which doesn’t change, but sometimes slips into the periphery of my vision.

‘Expressions of creativity’ include the art and poetry and music of others, the appreciation of which seems to link me back into the aesthetic heart of the Creator God, who makes all things beautiful in their time. They renew in me a sense of timeless wonder at the world, myself and God. And I’m centred back into Love’s envelopment.

Likewise, my own attempts at creativity, whether photography or writing, help to unlock those hidden expressions of my unique identity – who I essentially am – embraced within the tender acceptance of the one who is – Yahweh (‘I Am’) – and who made me in his image. They bring me back to me, to the joy of being my Father’s beloved child.

God speaks to us in many different kinds of ways,” writes Shaun Lambert, the “Benedictine Baptist”, in A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness (in a chapter titled A real relationship with our creativity). “He is the creative Creator and utilises our creativity in His dialogue with us.”

That’s certainly been my experience.

And nature, nature….that supreme expression of creativity…

This time of year….the aesthetic hand of the ageless Ancient of Days, still sloshing annual explosions of colour across our streets and woodlands; wondrous shades of autumn warming the cooler days, virtually ignited by the deep, low sun of our evenings and mornings.

Autumn leaves, 2015, Yorkshire, where I visited recently

Autumn leaves, 2015, Yorkshire, where I visited recently

 

No Spring, nor Summer Beauty hath such grace,

As I have seen in one Autumnall face

(John Donne)

And I…sometimes, when I stop…and stop….and stop, and absorb the golden sights and sounds (and silence) and smells of autumn…

…or of some other amazing time and place of nature, bathing in the Creator’s brushstrokes, my soul gets re-awakened to his presence, and a smirk sometimes spreads across my face… a smile even, and occasionally a laugh springs up from those wells of the Spirit deep within, and I feel a little high in the Love that created these wonders around me, and my spirit is refreshed once again.

And now perhaps I understand a bit of what Van Morrison meant when he wrote:

And it stoned me

And it stoned me to my soul

Oh, the water

Let it run all over me

Please have a listen…

I know, I’m always banging on about Van Morrison – in fact, this is my second blog post using one of his song titles. I’m sure you don’t mind.

The song And it stoned me describes a time in Van’s childhood when an everyday experience of drinking fresh water from a mountain stream near Ballystockart in Ireland took on an extraordinary, even mystical, quality, a bit like….being stoned.

How wonderful to experience that as a 12-year-old child! No wonder Van Morrison expresses in his songs a nostalgic yearning for the enchanting simplicity of the rural Irish life he remembers so fondly.

For many of us adults, that kind of experience develops when we willingly allow ourselves to be embraced by the Father’s love. Not striving to be religious or even spiritual, but being still, trusting, resting in Yahweh (I Am), who is Love.

Perhaps in childhood innocence, we experienced that without even realising it. Jesus certainly suggested (in fact, definitively asserted!) that we must become like little children to perceive the spiritual dimension of God.

Jesus also claimed to be the only way to this kind of relationship with God. Not religion or Christianity, but him – Jesus. That leaves all kinds of questions and quandaries because it means it’s no longer about following the right religion but about following all that Jesus embodies.

I digress a little, because I know (or hope) that not everyone reading this would call themselves a Christian, and yet may have enjoyed similar revelations of God through their encounters with nature or stillness – of course, it’s not up to me to either dismiss or explain these; I would simply affirm that God (Yahweh) is bigger than any religion or faith, infusing nature and our own souls with his life and breath.

For me, though, my faith in Jesus opened the way to elating encounters with nature. And then again, it was partly encounters with awe-inspiring nature that opened my heart to God in the first place.

In my present journey through faith and life, I’m beginning to find that a more contemplative, reflective approach opens my spirit to be more receptive to His Spirit in the context of creativity and creation.

So it’s now been 26 years since I last tried cannabis or any other illicit substance, and I’m enjoying getting a little high on the incredible gifts of nature and the outdoors that we’ve been given – or, rather, on the Holy Spirit, via nature.

Hope that may be true for you, too, and that I haven’t become one of those smugly healthy, outdoors types…

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)

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Transforming Encounters

Supposing you could transform mundane moments into spiritual experiences; ordinary events into meaningful encounters? If you practise mindfulness, meditation or prayer, then this may already be your norm. For most of us, it’s a learning, growing process.

From a Christian perspective, this can become our everyday reality, as we learn to “practise the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence put it.

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July 5th 2015: I came across this in the reading for 5th July in Reflections for Ragamuffins by Brennan Manning: “[Through Christ] we acquired the potential to participate in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ – to transform even our most mundane experiences into those of Christ. But we, too, must activate that contact through faith. Strong faith that Jesus can come streaming into our lives and empower us to function, and respond not from our ego-self, but from our Spirit-self”.

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IMG_3117The previous day: July 4th – American Independence Day 2015, and the area around Robertson Street, Hastings, celebrates the events of over 180 years ago when a ramshackle collection of 1000+ residents occupying the area in relative squalor raised the Stars & Stripes flag as a symbol of declared independence from the rest of Hastings. The area henceforth became known as America Ground.

These “‘beggars, gypsies or other undesirables’ that inhabited the city of shacks, huts and tents that many regarded as a blight on the western end of the town” (Hastings Borough Council website) were eventually turfed out by councillors to make way for the Victorian gentry who were beginning to turn Hastings into a popular seaside resort.

Has a familiar kind of ring to it.

That wonderful spirit of individualism, and defiance against being contained and controlled, still characterises elements of Hastings, giving the town a unique kind of beauty and creativity.

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One of the events of Hastings Independence Day on 4th July 2015 was the opening of an alley that’s been cleaned up and renovated as part of a massive refurbishment of the old Hastings Observer building in Claremont (just off Robertson Street) behind which it weaves.

The Alley has been transformed from a neglected, pigeon-poo-infested no-go area into an aesthetic array of art, architecture, caves, cliffs and community, with new market stalls lining the way. IMG_3121 When I saw this place, I was so inspired, so in awe, I had to go home for my camera and come back to take some shots. The photos interspersing this post are those shots.

It probably wasn’t hard for most people to enjoy the buzz of that official opening of the renovated Alley, but in some ways this Saturday afternoon encounter with a renovated piece of Hastings was, for me, transformed further still.

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IMG_3142Community: The event, with its market stalls in The Alley, brought local residents, consumers and traders together into person-to-person contact in a way that’s all too rare. Conversations about the area, shared excitement at the renovation work going on, people even getting to know each other’s names…British people, even!

Creating community.

Despite being the introvert that I am, despite loving time on my own better than anything else, I also love and recognise my need for community. IMG_3133It’s what we were designed for. In community, seeing shared joy between people, seeing links being forged and barriers coming down, I feel God’s heart beating in those connections.

And as I engaged in conversation with a few stall holders myself, my own spirit came alive.

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Creativity: I was awestruck by the stunning street art lining the Alley walls. For me, transformation of the Alley with art is a striking echo of God’s creative expression in nature and his redemptive work in human hearts like mine.

In recent years especially, my encounters with art, music and nature have been at times sublime, spiritual experiences, as was this one. Probably better if I don’t say any more on this but instead let some of the artworks speak for themselves in the photos below…

This piece in particular captured my attention

This piece in particular engaged my heart

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Hidden gems: I’d seen the Alley from Claremont, the street off which it runs, but had no idea it turned the corner behind the buildings, revealing a breath-taking view of man’s architecture melded into cliffs and caves, again symbolising something of the individual character and beauty of Hastings, with its history of smuggling. IMG_3128 Both man-made and God-made structures are home to pigeons roosting and breeding wherever they can. Man and nature brought together, sharing space.

It was a “Wow!” moment. Turning the corner and seeing The Alley for the first time, this hidden gem of Hastings, with a sense of wonder that God seems to be increasingly giving me as I enjoy his world, like a child with newborn eyes. IMG_3116

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(This might have been a good photo if I'd had my tripod with me!)

(This might have been a good photo if I’d had my tripod with me!)

Thank you to Allan’s Army and everyone else involved in the incredible work that’s gone into the transformation of The Alley.

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And thank you, Holy Spirit, for transforming my encounters with community, creative arts and hidden gems into encounters with the personal, creative, awe-inspiring Christ.

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Mindfulness: More Than Fringe Benefits

“I love your new haircut, by the way, Mum.”

”Oh really? I wasn’t too sure about the fringe.”

No, I think the fringe really suits you.”

The brief exchange between mother and daughter caught my nosy ear as I passed them by on the railway bridge the other day. On reflection, it was the genuine love, kindness, fondness, closeness between the two ladies (who were strangers to me) that ignited the eyes of my heart.

When we’re being mindful, absorbing the sights and sounds around us, and when we’re attuned to the people we meet (or pass by on railway bridges), listening attentively and empathically to their inner thoughts and emotions, we become aware of God in this world.

You might not call it God or see it as God. Maybe, though, you too perceive the love and beauty and dignity of people’s souls and their relationships / connections with others, even amidst the brokenness and destructiveness of their / our own lives and social environment.

In the same spirit of mindful optimism, Louis Armstrong, after describing the “ordinary” things around him, like friends shaking hands, concludes: “What a wonderful world!”

I wonder what you call this? Humanity? The Universe? Or just instinctive, biological, neurological impulses?

Me, I see reflections and expressions of God in the people around me. Where there is love, there is God.

After the progress of Jewish theology about the nature of God through the course of the Old Testament, Jesus arrives and shows us exactly what God is like, through his life, death and resurrection. So much so, that in one of the very last books of the New Testament, Jesus’ closest friend John boldly settles the issue once and for all with 3 magic words: “God is love”!

In fact, right from the start, God’s unveiling of himself is building up to this final word.

At the beginning of the second book of the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus), God discloses his ‘name’ to Moses: YHWH or Yahweh, often translated as I Am.

Whenever I think about that, I’m completely blown away. By revealing himself as I Am, God is unfolding his true nature as self-existent, without beginning or end, and the source of all life, of all things. That he is unchanging, transcendent, mysterious, beyond human labels, denominations and religions. I sometimes think that Christians miss the enormity of this name, the implications of such a thunderous whisper to his people through the prophet Moses. Perhaps the Jews understood – maybe that’s why they were so loath to speak the name YHWH, and instead used names like ‘The Lord’ or substituted his name for the word ‘heaven’.

I believe that Yahweh, I Am, is everywhere. He is love and the source of all love. The Universe, all its electrons and quarks, I believe, are held together by him, by Love.

So it’s not surprising that if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, we will find God shining through the cracks of a sometimes dark world – in both surprising and unsurprising places (as I described previously in The Source). Surprised?

Mindfulness, for some, is developing that awareness of the extraordinariness of God in the ordinariness of life – part of the longing expressed by Van Morrison in a song that many of us can relate to: “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God?”

[Here’s one of my favourite great kids’ worship songs, that’s about living in God….

…and contains the line “Waves of mercy, waves of grace, everywhere I look I see your face”…..]

But if we walk and live mindfully, doesn’t that mean that as well as being more observant of beauty and love, we’ll also become more aware of all the anguish, animosity and ugliness around us?

I don’t think so, because we’re already so conditioned to find fault. It’s second nature to notice negativity. I gave an interview recently to a broadcast media student. After I’d spoken for ages about my life story, from homeless traveller to nurse co-ordinating a homeless service, the student quizzed me about any more traumatic experiences I might have had before my life turned around. She wanted to highlight these because “people relate to misery”, as she put it. The news media understand this, bombarding us as they do with bad news 24/7 from around the globe.

And don’t get me started on the rather British penchant for moaning.….

We readily pick up on the negative stuff of our world, without any practice or effort.

But when we stop or slow down enough to observe the things we don’t otherwise perceive through the everyday lenses of busyness, it’s the positive things that catch our eyes, ears and hearts – and which inspire us towards hope and faith in the midst of obvious suffering, whether our own or of others.

No wonder, then, that mindfulness is at least as effective as medication for depression, according to one recent study reported in The Guardian.

Good news in a world where the over-prescribing of, and over-reliance on, anti-depressants is often criticised and their efficacy questioned.

Slowing down to take stock not only of our own thoughts and emotions, but also of the everyday silent wonders that surround us, will inevitably make us happier people.

Perhaps, just as Moses experienced when he was minding his own business on the mountain, a mindful approach might even start to reveal transcendence and love – even through simple conversations about such mundane things as haircuts.

Now that, to me, sounds like a whole lot more than just fringe benefits.

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