Thursday, March 29, 2012

Time out

SolitudeYesterday afternoon I unashamedly drank an entire bottle of the finest quality solitude.

Obvious statement alert: living in community, life is full of people. People in your kitchen, people in your lounge, people in your garden, people in your hair. As a married man there’s even another person in my bed (and, if any of my children have a nightmare, there’s more than one other person in my bed).

Now I believe a life full of people is the life God calls us to. After all, his commandments can be summed up in the word ‘love’. Ever tried loving on your own? Even the solitary hermit has a community of beloved people in his heart – otherwise, I contend, he is no true Christian.

Yet for a life full of people to remain fresh – to remain, in fact, loving – there is a need for times of solitude. I’m not talking about solitude’s rather shallow cousin, sometimes called ‘me time’; I’m talking about deliberate times of aloneness and stillness in which a person comes back to themselves, to their centre – and therefore to God. It may involve prayer (all of life involves prayer), but not necessarily conscious prayer.

So yesterday afternoon I went to a village near the city in which I live. I sat on a bench, overlooking a pool. I read a bit of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. An old chap came and sat next to me and we said nothing to each other. The sun was warm. I wrote a poem and didn’t worry about the fact that it wasn’t very good. I wondered along a country pathway. I sat next to a field of cows, reading a commentary on Romans. Then I dozed off (it wasn’t the commentary, more the peace and the sun). And after that, I read some more of the commentary. Then I came home.

That night I spent about an hour listening to someone who’s been pretty troubled and needed to talk. I was able to listen. Not perfectly (listening doesn’t come naturally to me, as my wife tirelessly points out); but I was able to be there for that person. I don’t think I would have been able to be had I not taken a good long swig of solitude earlier.

That’s the difference between solitude and ‘me time’. Solitude, ultimately, is about community. It resources us for love.

To truly live in community, it is vital that we make space for solitude.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


SoilLoved this peom by my friend Wilf. He said: "This is not directly linked to Watchman Nee's book of the same name. I just stole the title and thought it had to have 'part 1' in it as you can never fully say everything about what a spiritual person is. Maybe other parts will follow. This seemed to express something of what God is saying at present."

The Spiritual Man (part 1)
The earth, the crumbling earth is in his fingers
Fingers that have carelessly let diamonds drop
Shattering to nothing but a quick play of light.
He remembers and laughs
As he climbs the hill of God,

He turns from laughter to tears
As quick as the movement of a thought
For the earth the crumbling earth is in his soul
The soul of a man who turned away
Looking for something else
And was captured for ever,

But still he sees, and he weeps
For the starving child,the lonely lover
The broken virgin, the harrassed mother
For the suicide case at the end of his rope
The soldier boy who has lost all hope
For the saint afraid to get up again
For the sinner afraid to begin.

There was a time
When he could meditate much better
And he was sure of his theology
But that was before he heard their stories
And found himself in them all,the hero of none
That was his story
It was the end of something that could be grasped
And the beginning of something that couldn't,
But grasped him in the guts of his spirit
Of that he is sure.

The earth the crumbling earth is in his fingers
He laughs and he cries
As he climbs the hill of God with dirty hands
And a crowd around him.

Read more of Wilf's poems here, here, and here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why community?

Christian communityThe email popped into my inbox about half an hour ago.

'Writing an article about growing interest in community living among evangelicals. Care to offer a few lines from your perspective about why people from an evangelical background are interested in either community life?'

It was from my old friend Simon Cross. Great chap, Simon, and I was at a lull in the working day, so I replied straightaway.

Here's what I wrote:
Evangelical Christians often emphasise the importance of individuals having an authentic relationship with God - 'knowing God personally'. This is indeed important, but it's not the whole story.

Christianity is essentially a communal faith (after all, the command to love one another is at its heart). I think many evangelicals have found an over-emphasis on individualism has left them hungry for more. For some this leads to exploring what it means to be 'church', to be 'the body of Christ' - in ways that go beyond just meeting together once or twice a week. Some read the early chapters of Acts, with its daily fellowship and sharing of possessions and find themselves thinking 'Why not now?'

Certainly it was this kind of exploration that led members of the Jesus Fellowship to start a residential community, forty years ago. Now about a quarter of our members (600 or so people) live in community. Of course, sharing homes and possessions is a fairly 'full on' and strenuous expression of community - it's not for everyone.

But it is also true that you get out of community what you put in. By definition, 'community' has to be more than just a fad or phase if you're going to experience it truly. To paraphrase Jesus - it's in losing your (independent, self-centred) life that you find real life.

Tonight, most of the sixteen who live in our house are having a meal together. Maybe I'll read out to them what I wrote to Simon.

After all, it's good to remember why we're doing what we're doing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pray 4 Muamba

Pray 4 Muabma'God is in control' tweeted Fabrice Muamba's fiancée, and The Sun took it up as their headline yesterday.

'God is in control'... it's the kind of headline we might put on the front page of our Jesus Army Streetpaper - but to have it on the front cover of The Sun...

Then there are the vests worn by various footballers - 'Pray 4 Muamba'.

It's a sudden upsurge, this call to prayer, this expression of faith in God.

Note to self: don't believe the secularist myth. Reaching out to God is part of UK national life.

And I do pray for Muamba.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The art of shutting up

Yesterday morning was our community's monthly ‘house family breakfast’. We meet, eat, talk about communal practicalities, I or someone else will usually share a thought or two on community life, we pray or worship...

SilenceBut yesterday was different. For the first half of our breakfast, by prior arrangement, we were in complete silence, not a word spoken.

The seed for this novel arrangement came from a conversation I’d had earlier in the week with Penelope Wilcock, author of a series of novels set in a Medieval monastery called ‘The Hawk and the Dove’. (Read her account of our meeting here.) I asked her what she felt we could learn from an ancient community rule such as the Rule of Benedict.

Her answer, perhaps surprisingly, was that the Rule of Benedict can teach us common sense. We might think of the founding document of Benedictine monasticism as a lofty, spiritual masterpiece – as indeed it is. Yet, as Penelope pointed out, many of its injunctions have a ring of good plain sense about them.

An example Penelope gave was ‘the great silence’ – the rule Benedict laid down that after evening prayers the whole community observes silence throughout the night until after the morning service the next day.

‘What a brilliant rule for fostering harmonious community,’ Penelope enthused. None of those too-late-at-night conversations when things can get fractious and irritable (and things can be said which are regretted the following morning). Likewise, no demand for communication while still waking up (one of my favourite biblical proverbs springs to mind: ‘If anyone loudly blesses their neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.’)

Common sense, yes, which fosters the health and harmony of a community. It got me thinking because as a leader in a residential Christian community, I give quite a lot of thought (not to mention what goes on in my subconscious) to the issue of how to foster healthy, fruitful community. And this issue – silence – is part of that. (I’ve mused about it before here and here.)

We’re a very active community. Activist, one might even say (and one recent blog called Power Activism has already featured us three times!) That’s good and it’s what God has called us to. And yet. Without silence our minds and spirits become noisy and overcrowded.

DeafeningThere is stillness and silence in our community life, but it mainly happens on our own, out on the fringes of community life – a personal prayer hour, a walk in the park... a bath! And sometimes we will have a pause for silence before a meal or during corporate worship.

I think we should integrate shared silence into our life more, for the sake of health and harmony.

It was silent in the temple’s holiest place. And the New Testament speaks of the ‘unfading beauty of a quiet spirit’ (our spirits, God’s dwelling like the temple, ought to be silent, still, poised). We want our community house to be a place people find the presence and peace of God. Silence must play its part.

So we passed the first half hour of our breakfast in silence. It wasn’t a 'religious silence' – we weren’t praying or meditating, just eating breakfast together. There was quite a bit of signalling (a wave meaning ‘pass me the honey?’ A thumbs up meaning ‘thanks!’), some winks and smiles. Most of us found it refreshing; some rather hard work.

I’m convinced it’s something we’ll explore. Ideas anyone? What can a busy, bustling community do to foster shared silence, shared stillness in the midst of it all?

Watch this space (space! ah!) – I’m sure this is a theme I’ll return to again in this blog.