Re-learning to pray

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At the start of Lent I wrote a piece called Forty Days, one of the tasks I’ve set myself this year during this Lent season, alongside the fasting and casting off of bad habits, is to renew and re-learn parts of my prayer life.

I’ve often used art and creative writing as a method of prayer, and so it is to this place I’ve returned at this time. Again in that previous blog piece I talked about how the Psalms are for me a kind of go to part of scripture when I’m looking for a prayer focus, and how at the start of Lent I was particularly focussed on Psalm 51, and so it is that for the first fortnight of Lent, this psalm has remained a key focus for me. The photo above is of the prayerful artwork that has emerged from some of that reflection, but I wanted to share and record also some of the process and practice behind this art.

My first act of course was to read and re-read the psalm, in a kind lectio-divina manner, allow the words to lodge inside me, and waiting for particular words and sounds to stand out. The first phrase that stood out in this way was “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”*, and so the first thing I did was to use some of the remaining ash from  Ash Wednesday to finger draw a secret heart on the white card. This heart represents that deep inner self the part of us the we hide from others, and even ourselves; it’s the part of us where our insecurities, fears and prejudices sit – the part of us where we hurt in ways we don’t always understand even ourselves, maybe it’s got similarities to what Freud described as the Id, that most primitive and instinctive component of personality.

Next I created  a clean heart** made from clay super imposing it over the secret ash heart. But I wanted somehow to reflect the process by which I might imagine Gods work in the repentance – forgiveness – healing circle, and the whole Grace thing. That’s where I got the idea of the jigsaw pieces from, and the idea that through grace a new picture is created, the cleansed heart is not just clean, it is also re-newed, re-stored, re-created. Initially I took each piece of jigsaw and on the reverse side wrote more phrases from the psalm that had stood out as I read it yet again, things like: Have mercy, Steadfast Love, Abundant mercy, Wash me, Cleanse me, Purge me, You desire truth, Create in me a clean heart. These were then incorporated into the heart, but not neatly and perfectly, not in a joined up way that might suggest the full picture revealed and all issues resolved – but also not in a broken way, I felt a need to express a healing process. The pieces connect, some to each other, but all to the heart.

Finally I took inspiration from the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, a means by which pottery is repaired using a lacquer mixed with gold, silver or sometimes platinum. This practice embraces the flawed and incompleteness of things, and seeks to still see the beauty that is there. Verse 12 in the psalm says:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

For my the gold paint that I used to fill the gaps between the jigsaw pieces, to unify them with the clay heart, represented this plea from a place of repentance – Gods grace can restore us and sustain us, and even (as with the Kintsugi pieces) reflect the beauty of Gods gift in and through our own incompleteness.

 

 

*Verse 6
**Verse 10 (and Isaiah 64.8 Job 10.9)

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Worship

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Lord, Have Mercy – Hear My Prayer

Increasingly I find myself in times of prayer where I cannot find the words, recent news events such as:

  • Orlando Shootings
  • Nice Bastille Day Killings
  • Baton Rouge
  • Bombing of Syria and the Refugee Crisis
  • The post Brexit rise in racist attacks in UK

and yesterday the murder of 86-year-old priest, Father Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France.

The fact that we struggle often to find the right words, struggle to find words to share with God our outrage, our fear, our sadness, our guilt, our deepest hopes – perhaps finds one modern expression in the popular use of #hashtags at times of collective grievance and solidarity – somehow that shared phrase is meant to encapsulate ALL of our emotions, exactly because our words can’t sum it up. For me increasingly; painting, poetry and art, play that role too – helping me to find ways to express the deep down stuff that I cannot always find the words for, and so it is today.

Romans 8.26 reminds us that when we cannot find the words for our prayers “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes  with sighs too deep for words.” 

 

My “Grubby Jesus”

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img_2714This painting is by Chris Duffet, a fellow pioneer who I met at Breakout Conference last year, it is a piece of art work that he has now worked and reworked in his Pioneer Ministry a number of times. It is a piece of art that when I saw it spoke immediately to me and reminded me of one of my own encounters with Jesus.

I wouldn’t by any means call myself a Christian “mystic”, I’ve got far more reflective friends and colleagues who are nearer that mark, and who remind me, by their very different way of being, that my activism sometimes leaves me with little time to encounter God in this particular way (and maybe that is my loss), but there are, and have been times, when I have encountered what might be called the “mystical”.

The first of these was on my return to faith, after around 30 years of disbelief and atheism. The memory fades over time and seems slightly “less tangible” but it is important to remind myself from time to time. I remember going to bed arguing with a God I didn’t acknowledge (wrestling almost like Jacob: Genesis 32.24-32) saying that I didn’t really believe but IF there was God in the universe, I needed to know, I needed a sense of it. I remember sleeping on and off that night, I remember crying, I remember a brightness and a feeling of being wrapped in a kind of soft cotton wool feeling that I can’t describe, and I remember in the morning waking and knowing I was different, and knowing I had encountered God.

But Chris’ painting reminded me not of that but of a more recent encounter. At the beginning of 2015 I was afflicted with kidney stones (an experience I don’t want to repeat, but one that is commonly repeated once experienced). It finally led to me hospitalised with a severe kidney infection on Thursday evening of Easter Holy Week. For those reading this who want “another” explanation let me say: I know I was ill and had a severe infection, I know I was significant doses of prescribed drugs (including morphine), I know it was Easter and so my mind was set to that mode – but none of these things to me preclude an encounter with the mystical elements of my faith.

It was in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning, I was again dozing in and out of conciousness and remember hearing a doctors voice talking in the next set of beds to a very distressed old lady. His calmness, gentleness and compassion were balanced by his authority and command of the situation, he was going to bring healing to her, but first she needed to feel safe. I drifted off again and at some point I remember seeing stood before me my “Grubby Jesus”. I say grubby because he was, he appeared olive skinned but also with a grubbiness that comes from perhaps being on the streets for a long time without good access access to soap and a shower, and he wore a “coat” that again was not dirty as such but that had certainly seen its share of wear and tear.  It was a Jesus who had worked and laboured, who had sat by dirty roads, and in doorways with those living on the streets, a Jesus who was at home with the poor and vulnerable. His face was unknown to me and yet immediately I “knew” and recognised it as Jesus, at that point he held out his hands (as in Chris’ painting) and I heard him say the words “Do you trust me?”, yes I answered – he nodded and vanished. Once again I was left with a strange, unworldly, feeling of peace and happiness that overwhelmed me for some minutes.

I know there are folk who will explain this in completely  “scientific” and “earthly” terms, and put it down to my condition at the time, the drugs, the conversations I’d overheard, my own religious Easter baggage that my mind had brought; and I accept all these things. I also KNOW what I experienced. I know the feeling I experienced, beyond the vision and the words, I know my own reality of the encounter with my “Grubby Jesus”.

And what of my “Grubby Jesus” in the real world, as we call it? Well I suppose I still catch glimpses of him, amongst the people who come for help at the food bank, amongst my friends with learning disabilities and mental health problems, in the community garden and on the allotments, and on the streets of where I live and work. He doesn’t always look the same, but when he catches my eye I recognise him and remember.

Chris Duffets blog can be found at: https://chrisduffett.com/2016/06/16/hands-hands-and-more-hands/