New poem; made an image, since I seem to have managed to choose a blog format that can’t cope with the concept of stanzas:
Am I hopeful about climate change? Am I hopeful about making a difference?
These questions have come to me a lot recently, asked implicitly or explicitly by fellow activists, and recurring at the back of my own mind.
I think I am. And it’s really hard to pin down why, and exactly where this hope is pinned.
I have no faith in people, or the political process. I don’t see that we can fix this on our own, or without us all changing in fundamental ways. I believe what we do does have a significance, but I’m under no illusions that myself or any of us can really turn things around in a big way; we’re too small. My hope isn’t in our plans, efforts or campaigns. But neither is my hope in some vague idea that God will intervene, or that everything will be alright ‘once we get to heaven’. I am hopeful for this world, and I don’t believe that God (usually) intervenes with our mess.
That rules out pretty much everything! So why am I hopeful, and where?
There is an ultimate hope in the coming of God’s kingdom of restored relationships, when relationships between God and humans and all things will be set right, which I honestly believe is coming (see Romans 8, Colossians 1). But my hope now in how we get there from here is far beyond anything our plans could achieve.
I think my hope is in Jesus, at work in the world through the Church*; that as we are faithful to Him and work hard at serving Him and getting to know Him, gradually, collectively we will ‘get it’, and that some day the Church will come through and the world will be restored. So the answer in a way is ‘end times’ and ‘God’ – but not in a straightforward way, instead via a process, and through us, collectively. It depends on me, and all of us, but not as individuals. Not one of us individually can grasp it and get it right or have the answer, or even make all that much of a difference, but we are all part of the searching and the faithfulness that will lead us there.
We’re a long way off this today. It’s a long process, and I don’t think the early Church realised how long it could take for us to be changed as a body into what we were made to be. Whilst the process continues, there will be a lot more pain, brokenness and disasters, but I really believe God is working through the Church, leading us in the direction that will one day mean that God can set the world right through us.
So probably I am not too hopeful in the short term, nor in myself being able to directly make too much of a difference. But I am hopeful in a long term sense, and I believe it’s for me to stay faithful in actively following and seeking God in this, and doing all I can in response to what I see God doing, even when it means sacrifice. If I do, I will be part of the process that will eventually see us, collectively, make this and everything well.
*in its broadest sense
I found and walked this labyrinth on my last morning in Germany back in June before coming home, my birthday.
This past year in particular has been such an amazing year of exploration for me into the person I am, and could be. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about myself, been changed, challenged and stretched in all kinds of ways. Keeping this blog has been part of the process, learning to open up and try to become the same person in all circumstances. Work (and working for what matters, rather than for money) has been incredibly challenging and humbling as I find myself struggling with all sorts of questions around success, failure, pride, identity, vocation, ambition, apathy and money. I’ve been pushing myself creatively, letting God work through some of my failings and become a slightly calmer, hopefully nicer, person (but gaining some new character flaws in the process!), and making peace with myself, coming to accept all parts of my life, beliefs, eccentricities, and all my influences are a part of me, and that somewhere underneath I make sense.
It seemed really appropriate to have ended this year with a pilgrimage, and the pilgrimage with a labyrinth, the tiny journey of the labyrinth bringing into focus my thoughts on the physical and spiritual journey I’d been on over the last couple of weeks, and the wider journey of the year.
A labyrinth is not the same as what we usually think of as a maze. There is a single path, usually with one way in and one way out. A labyrinth does not have any dead ends, and you can’t get lost in it. It’s a tool for meditation, for stilling and/or focussing the mind and listening to God. The physical act of walking allows you to put aside distractions, as you concentrate on the labyrinth just enough to stay on the path but not so much that it occupies your mind. Sometimes I find it helpful to do something active but ‘mindless’ like this to stop my mind wandering when praying.
There is a long tradition of labyrinths being used in Christian worship, particularly in Celtic and medieval Christianity, and they were sometimes included in churches and cathedrals to be walked as part of a pilgrimage or prior to confirmation as a symbol of new life. Walking a labyrinth for a Christian can be a way of meditating on redemption, letting something go, the journey of life or faith, a particular story (from the Bible/ of a saint for example), an aspect of our own life or character, or can be simply a space to meet with God in the everyday, to take time out of the busyness and spend some quality time doing nothing in particular, to experience a ‘thin place’ where heaven feels very close to earth, or just as a focus for prayer.
I had a few quiet minutes to give to the labyrinth so I decided to prayer walk it properly. I stilled my mind a little at the start and opened myself up to have God speak to me as I walked and guide my thoughts. I decided to just listen to the thoughts that came as I walked. I’ve walked this design before, and there’s something about the way the path winds around it that really gets to me every time, but this time it really resonated with a lot that I’ve been wrestling with recently. I noticed how I kept on doubling back on myself, going round in circles, finding myself back where I started. It felt a bit like I was trying multiple dead ends to find the centre, only to find myself going back the way I’d come. But it’s a labyrinth, not a maze. All the time I kept walking, regardless of where the path took me, I was approaching the centre, and it was at the point the path seemed furthest away that it finally brought me in.
Is life like this? Are all my dead ends getting me somewhere? Is it when I’m furthest away that I can find the centre? I stopped in the middle for a moment to listen, and felt a sense of God’s affirmation, and with it an encouragement to keep on going. I sensed a little of who God made me to be. I want to put into practise what I’ve been learning of love and grace. Feeling energised, I made the return path at a run:
God, help me put all I have into giving You back what You’ve put in me!
This was written a couple of years ago for a follow-up blog to a workshop on prayer I ran for the SPEAK Network*, but it’s something I’ve continued to think about to the point at which this passage has become probably my favourite part of the Bible. Some conversations I’ve had with friends recently about this incredible passage have made me feel I need to share my take on it again here; I hope these thoughts on prayer are as helpful to you as they have been to me:
I’ve been struggling a lot with prayer recently. I’ve been finding it easy to get overwhelmed by the mess everything’s in, and the need for prayer, and not known where to start. A friend asked me how my prayer life is, and I told him that, honestly, it hadn’t been in great shape – I’ve been unable to pray and have just been feeling overwhelmed by it all and going ‘oh God!’ silently in God’s vague direction. And he said to me, ‘But isn’t that a form of prayer?’. And it made me think – actually, maybe somewhere in this, I’ve been meeting God. Somewhere, God’s been feeling the pain with me. And then I re-discovered Romans 8.
Romans 8 is a huge chapter full of all sorts of gold and big ideas, and I recommend giving it a good read through, but what jumped out at me on this occasion was that here is the reason that my ‘oh God!’s are a form of prayer, and an important one too. Here is a description of a process that begins in God’s intimate presence, moves us through a painful identification with the brokenness of the world, and then out into becoming part of the solution and salvation of it all.
It all starts when we open ourselves up to God, and becoming close to God. The more we do, the more the Holy Spirit is able to work in us as we become more open to becoming more like Jesus. We develop a closeness with Jesus as we spend time with Him, and we see just how inspiring He is, and He begins to work transformation in us. The Holy Spirit in us begins to help us share His experiences, and we develop a very real sense of how close God is to us.
The trouble is, opening ourselves up to seeing the world and ourselves through Christ’s eyes, and sharing His experiences leaves us open not only to the love and closeness of God, but also opens our eyes and hearts to the brokenness of all we are and are surrounded by. In Jesus we see our own potential and that of the world; but we also see things clearly as they are in their messed up state, and it is heart-breaking. I can look at my own life; I’ve been a Christian for over 15 years now, but I’m still struggling with a lot of the same things I was struggling with 15 years ago, like negativity, grudges, inertia and anger. When I’m close to Jesus I realise that I don’t look 15 years more like Him than I did when I began. And I see more clearly how far everything is from His plans; my family and friends are struggling with their work, health and relationships, and the whole world is failing to deal with poverty, hunger, loss of biodiversity, conflict, and supremely climate change. Even the little things that show that this is not the way things are meant to be stand out so clearly; I notice how much everyone seems to be in a rush, I notice the emptiness of our 9-5 lifestyles, I notice how many areas are run down and dirty, I notice rubbish. I begin to see entropy everywhere and it feels overwhelming. This is the ‘groan’ of the earth – and us tuning in to it. And when we do open ourselves up, tune in and allow the pain to affect us, prayer happens. All we can do in that moment is go ‘oh God..!’. And in that moment, the Holy Spirit in us joins with us in lifting that groan up to God.
But it doesn’t stop there. Romans 8 dives off into the depths of mystery at this point; somehow, through this process of sharing God’s closeness and Christ’s pain, the Spirit in us works our salvation, our transformation. And (this is the really incredible bit) somehow our salvation brings hope to the world, and not just the vague ‘I wish…’ kind of hope we often talk about, but the real, gritty hope that’s backed up by real evidence of change and firm promises. All of that entropy, all that groans, all the brokenness, is somehow being transformed through us! It’s mindblowing. A clue comes in verse 28 in the Good News translation. A lot of versions translate it something like ‘God makes all things work together for good for those who love Him’, but the Good News has it ‘in all things God works for good with those who love Him’. That makes a lot more sense to me in the context of the passage. This is prayer that opens us up to God’s plans for the world, and makes us vulnerable to God’s purposes. We become changed, and driven to bring change. And this is promised to eventually reverse this entropy in the whole of creation!
So, what can we do with this? I’ve been thinking a lot on the following questions to work out where I fit in, since re-reading Romans 8, and I hope they are helpful questions for you as you try to discover your place in it too:
- What helps you draw close to God? Where/when do you feel a close relationship with God?
- Where do you feel the groan the clearest? What places/circumstances/practices put you most in touch with the pain of the world?
- How do we then bring the pain to God? What helps?
Let’s try to open ourselves up more to God’s work in us, and know that ‘in all these things we have complete victory through Him who loved us!’
*Excepting a few minor edits and updates, this was originally published here in 2013