Faithlife Sermons

Part 2 | Being Present

Bruce Murray
Spiritual Formation  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  19:54
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Spiritual Formation Part 2 Paying attention to God We were looking last month at the importance of the practice of retreat in our daily lives in developing a transformative relationship with God, and the need to make it a protected priority in our schedules. Without that basic, practical first step, we are without a reliable and sustainable framework in which we can develop other practices, such as prayer and engagement with scripture. How to use retreat time So let’s now assume that we want to maintain a practice of protected time, each day if possible, to be attentive to God and to our own souls. What, then, is the best way to actually use that time? Difficult to answer, given… - the wide range of patterns and approaches to prayer, bible reading and other spiritual practices; - the many variables of individual preference, need and circumstance; - and the relation between this retreat time and the rest of our lives. Helpfulness of spiritual accompaniment. Common factors We each need to work out a healthily balanced practice in a personally appropriate way. Some factors are surprisingly practical and mundane. - Sitting still physically and focusing mentally, so that we can become truly centred in our souls and lovingly attentive to God. - Battling against fidgeting bodies and chattering minds, as well as noise, interruptions or other distractions in our environment. 1 - Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on reading scripture or praying in any meaningful way because we’re barely truly present. - We may need to take some very practical steps to become attentive enough to communicate with God. Environment and body Solitude and silence: removing ourselves for a while from the company of other people and the demands of other activities, from the noise of other voices and the white noise of other sounds, in order to attend to our own souls and to God’s Spirit with less distraction. Posture and breathing have also been regarded as physical contributors to spiritual practices. There is nothing magical or mystical about this. Stretching or use of a progressive muscle relaxation exercise (tensing and releasing each muscle group in turn from toes to head) in order to be both relaxed and alert for prayer and bible reading. By controlling our breathing we can reduce body tension and increase mental alertness; by focusing on our breathing we can also focus our attention. Some Christian traditions have found great benefit in praying with the rhythm of our breathing; for example, what is often called the Jesus Prayer – ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ – can be prayed several times over, saying the first part as we inhale and the second part as we exhale. Inevitably, when we first try these sorts of practical exercises they can seem unnatural or of doubtful benefit; we may also wonder what this has to do with our relationship with God, and whether it sounds more like the practices of Eastern meditation or secular self-help. Of course, any spiritual practices can become distorted, self-absorbed, superstitious, legalistic, or mixed with non-Christian elements. Discernment, common sense and balance are always needed. But ‘environmental’ disciplines of solitude and silence, and ‘physical’ disciplines of posture and breathing, simply reflect the mundane reality of embodied human existence. They are not about working up a state of consciousness; they are about reducing distraction and increasing attentiveness so that we can genuinely communicate with God. 2 As ‘disciplines’ they take intention, effort and practice until they became habits; as habits they feel natural and easy, so that we no longer focus on the practices themselves but are freed by the practices to focus on God. Time and place Many people find it helpful to have a regular time and place: - the time when they will be least tired, most quiet or undisturbed. - the place they will be least distracted and which will come to be associated by habit with prayerful listening to God. - For some people, it may be a particular chair, a room with a certain décor or view, an hour before others get up or after they have gone to bed, a park bench during lunchtime. - For some people, music or a pot of tea helps to be still; for others these are distractions. - For some people, it is easier to be present with God while walking outside rather than sitting inside, or under the headphones in a coffee shop rather than under the stars in the countryside. - For all of us, the important thing is to find the time and place which help us best to be fully present to God. What practical steps help you to be more attentive to God in retreat times? What practical things make it harder for you to be fully present to God in those times? Is there some specific change you could make involving… - your environment your body the time the place ? 3 Inner distraction Imagine we have carved out and ring-fenced regular daily or weekly times for our retreats, that we have arranged a time of day and place of prayer when we are most focused, and have begun to develop habit patterns of posture and breathing which minimise distractions. What most of us then discover, inside us, is: ̶ the noisy chatter of our own restless minds ̶ the constant intrusion of anxious thoughts and feelings about unfinished tasks and unhappy relationships ̶ the urgent impulse to make a note of something we fear we will otherwise forget We may also find all sorts of thoughts, feelings and fantasies emerging into consciousness: ̶ some trivial and meandering, some disturbing ̶ We may become aware of negative feelings towards someone who has hurt us, sexual desires or fantasies, worries about our future. What is going on here, and what can we do about it? This is common experience. ̶ The desert fathers and mothers (3rd-4th centuries AD) who, as solitaries or in communities, devoted their lives to prayerful Christian discipleship, had the same experiences as they tried to be attentive to God. They wrote about the inner struggles and distractions that arose within them in the silence of their prayer cells in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. What is happening for most of us is this: ̶ Much of the time our deepest thoughts and feelings are submerged beneath the immediate demands and duties of daily life, often out of our awareness. 4 ̶ And those we are aware of, we often find ways to distract ourselves from because they are too troubling to deal with. ̶ But when we stop outwardly, remove the distractions, stop fidgeting, relax our defences and pay attention, we tend to get in touch with what we have buried, or busied, out of sight. ̶ More often, it seems like these things come unbidden into our awareness. There are three main ways to respond to this experience. 1. Concentration Strengthening our ability to direct attention away from the inner commotion and onto God in focused prayer, scripture reading and meditation. ̶ Learning to concentrate longer and harder is an issue for most people in contemporary digitalised Western society. Numerous techniques, usually simple and practical, help maintain concentration in spiritual practices like prayer and scripture reading. ̶ Readers of a biblical text may be helped by focusing on what it says, what it means, and what response it calls for; or by asking what it says about God, about others or about ourselves; or whether there is a truth to understand, a promise to believe, an instruction to obey, an example to follow, etc. ̶ Similar patterns have helped people in their praying to focus on adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication; or they may make use of prayer guides and lists, or written prayers and hymns, to maintain active engagement and reduce mind wandering. 2. Mindfulness Learning not to engage with the inner commotion when trying to communicate with God, but letting whatever thoughts and feelings arise simply come…and go without ‘attaching’ to them. ̶ Whereas the first approach is about resisting and replacing the inner commotion, this approach is about letting it be and letting it pass without getting caught up in it. 5 ̶ There are echoes in both these approaches of the current interest in mindfulness, which Joanna Collicutt has shown has deep roots in Christian tradition and helpful applications to Christian practices. Again, various techniques can help with this. ̶ Some of these involve having something visual or verbal to keep returning to, gently and repeatedly, whenever concentration drifts away: for example a candle or some other object that symbolises the life, love and presence of God; or a word or phrase, perhaps from the bible, that expresses our desire for God, for example ‘Sovereign Lord’, ‘Gracious God’, ‘I seek your face’, ‘Have mercy, Lord’, ‘Your kingdom come’. ̶ Those associated with what has become known as the ‘centring prayer’ movement speak of maintaining our intention towards God through our fluctuating attention, and suggest that through gently returning our attention to God whenever it wanders we gradually cultivate a greater God-awareness in all of life, not just retreat times. 3. Engagement Welcoming the inner commotion when trying to communicate with God not as a distraction but as itself a focus for prayer and scripture reading. ̶ If the first response was about looking away from distractions, and the second was about looking beyond them, this approach is about looking at them. ̶ If thoughts and feelings arise within us, bringing to our awareness what we have not noticed or not wanted to deal with, we can bring these to God in prayer and ask God, like David in Psalm 139:23-24 to know our hearts, test our thoughts, sift out what needs changing and lead us into God’s way. ̶ We can read scripture alert to any specific ways it addresses the thoughts and feelings that are surfacing within us. What has your experience been of inner distraction when you try to pay attention to God in prayer or bible reading? Which of the three ways of responding to inner distractedness have you found most helpful? Might it be helpful sometimes to try another kind of response? 6 Other practices Finally, other spiritual practices may helpfully support us in developing the practice of retreats in daily life. ̶ Journalling is both a way to record whatever God seems to be saying to us through prayer and bible reading so that we remember it and can reflect on it further, and a means by which we can explore and clarify our own understanding and responses, and form prayers and intentions towards God (whether in words, images or symbols). ̶ Regular fasting can strengthen the habit of resisting, ignoring or addressing head-on the intrusive physical or mental demands for attention that we may experience when we feel hungry. Everybody is different, as is everybody’s context, and the best way to respond to what we’ve been thinking about is not as a list of obligations full of daunting challenge, but as a list of opportunities full of life-giving possibility. ̶ If the practice of something as ordinary as a daily or weekly mini-retreat is apparently so complex and difficult, we might feel tempted not to bother. ̶ But if the practice is one which we can develop at our own pace in our own way and which can enable us to know both God and our own hearts in a transformative way, we might feel encouraged to begin (or continue) right away. One of the desert fathers said ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’. What has your experience been of journaling or regular fasting as ways to strengthen your attentiveness to God in prayer and bible reading? Are there other practices you have found helpful for this purpose? Of all that we have explored here, what might you most helpfully begin, change or develop first? 7
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