Book Reviews, Prayer, Spirituality, Well-being in education

Book Review: Appreciating Church

Tim Slack and Fiona Thomas

Appreciating Church: A practical appreciative inquiry resource for church communities

ISBN: 978-0-9955594-1-7

Publisher: Fiona Shaw www.appreciating.church

Appreciating Church is a handbook style resource book based on an ecumenical project of the same name. The aim of the project is to create ‘communities of practice’ – groups that foster change in positive, hopeful, inclusive and encouraging ways. Behind the project, and behind the book, is the organizational practice of Appreciative Inquiry, a practice that is based on looking for the best in people and in organizations. Developed by David Cooperrider, appreciative inquiry and, by extension, Appreciating Church start NOT from the viewpoint that organizations are problems to be solved, but that they are miracles of human organizing and ingenuity – to be appreciated.

I heard Cooperrider speak once. He is both the son and the father of Christian ministers. His belief in the potential of human goodness to bring about positive change in the world was palpable and deeply inspiring. He was perhaps the most hope filled person I have ever met. Cooperrider’s key insight is that if you go looking for problems you will find them – and you are then likely to get bogged down in them. If you ask different questions – questions about when an organization is at its best, when its people are at their best, you don’t cover over the difficulties but you do help to generate the imagination, the creativity and the energy needed to move beyond them. In every system, every church, every person – something is working, something good is happening. Appreciative inquiry seeks to find that goodness and to grow it.

Appreciating Church is a practical resource for bringing some of that hope filled appreciation into churches and church projects. It does this by bringing together a bit of theory, a lot of stories and a lot of resources to help communities see themselves and the future a little bit differently. As a church leader, I particularly liked – and will be able to quickly and easily use – the practical suggestions for introducing an appreciative approach into meetings and also its use for the discipline of spiritual journaling.

Richard Rohr describes contemplation as a way of seeing that includes recognizing and appreciating. I have worked with appreciative inquiry in the past and recognize its overlap with the contemplative path. Appreciating Church seems to me to be one more way in which the essential spiritual path of contemplation is being reinvigorated for today’s church.

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique, What's On

Prayer and the Body: A Workshop

  • A workshop for people of any faith or none
  • Explore what an embodied spiritual practice might look and feel like
  • As part of the workshop we will make and share bread
  • Free workshop, donations to cost of church heating welcome

Facilitators: Jenny Fox Eades, Alexander teacher and Third Order Franciscan; Nick Eades, Qi Gong and Tai chi practitioner

Saturday 7 December 2019

St Peter’s Church, Windmill Street

Macclesfield, SK11 7HS

11am – 3pm

Wear comfortable clothes, bring a light lunch and a blanket or shawl

At the still point of the turning world, there the dance is’

Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique, Well-being in education

Learn from a master mover…..

An excellent talk on movement and why the fitness industry gets it badly wrong from a fitness expert and male model, Roger Frampton. He highlights the ridiculous practice of Western cultures of taking master movers – also known as children – who squat naturally and with ease and then teaching them to SIT for 7 or 8 hours a day.

AT toddler playing in a squat iStock_000012881728XSmall (2)

I suspect that this single practice, the practice of replacing the natural human positions of standing and squatting with sitting on that man made, modern and malign invention THE CHAIR probably contributes more to the epidemic of back pain in the Western world than anything else.

Sitting, slumped over, limits our breathing, contracts our spines, weakens our core muscles and probably much more. We used to squat – Frampton calls it the ‘pre-chair resting position’ – why were we made to stop???

photo of boy wearing headphone
Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

Frampton says we should watch children to understand how our bodies want to move and try to get back our full range of movement – the movement we once had. He criticizes the outcome focus of the fitness industry – constantly measuring time, distance, repetitions, weight – and says we should focus instead on HOW we move – and focus on movement, not looks, not muscles. Work with your body, not against it, he says and prioritize the spine. You are, as a Chinese saying has it, as old as your spine.

So, the Alexander Technique – not about posture but about movement – put movement first, understand how your body wants to move, used to move – find an Alexander teacher or, perhaps better still, watch a small child.

adult baby business child
Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

 

 

 

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Cynthia Bourgeault and Centering Prayer

Yesterday I attended a workshop at St Dunstan’s Church Liverpool on Centering Prayer, given by an Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault. The workshop was called ‘Centering Prayer – from Performance to Gift’. And, for me, the whole day felt like being given a very important gift.

I have been attempting to practice this form of contemplative prayer since reading Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, some years ago. Yesterday’s workshop was an inspiring encouragement to keep going, with some very practical pointers to help us to do precisely that. Cynthia said she has been practising centering prayer for 40 years and that it has transformed who and how she is in the world. She spoke simply and clearly but with great power and depth. A small, loving, vital, intelligent and erudite woman she is a good advert for the results of a life-long commitment to this ancient Christian wisdom tradition.

She spoke first about the tradition of meditation, of which centering prayer is a part. She called meditation ‘a universal human sacred activity’ and a ‘universal activity of the human spirit’ which can be found in every religion and every philosophical path in some form or other. Though meditation is widely known and practised in the East, many Christians are unaware that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation too and the teachings of centering prayer are part of a rediscovery of the riches of this tradition.

All forms of meditation aim to still what is sometimes called the ‘monkey mind’ – the endless inner chatter that humans engage in. Many forms of meditation seek to do this by training the mind to focus on a single point – the breath is perhaps the most common of these, and mindfulness meditation is a secularised form of this. Another form is the repetition of a mantra or repeated word or phrase. In the Christian tradition, the work of John Main and the World Community for Christian Meditation encourages this single point form of meditation.

Cynthia Bourgeault describes centering prayer as rather different. Though it is a form of meditation, it is called prayer, she said, rather than meditation in order to honour the intention of the practice, which is to enter a presence that is characterised by love. And rather than focusing on a single point or word, it is based on the principle of learning to let go of each thought, to release, to consent to just being in the presence of the divine in each moment. It is about intention not attention. God, she said, is IN the silence, in the noise of the inner chatter, in the consent to let it go. Centering prayer is a way into a different way of being, a different way of perceiving reality. Each thought that arises is an opportunity to practice that letting go, that release, that consent to be in the presence of God.

The aim of centering prayer is not a deep state of bliss, or profound quiet. The subjective experience of your prayer time doesn’t really matter. The noisiest and least settled prayer times may actually teach you the most. The aim is simply to practice letting go of thoughts when they arise, gently, with kindness. It is not hard to do, she said, but it is hard to value and it is of immense value. The value of each tiny act of letting go is that it mirrors the self-emptying of God that Christians see in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is nothing more or less than the way that we learn, thought by thought, day by day, prayer time by prayer time, to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ – which is the calling of every Christian, the key to walking the ‘Jesus path’ as best we can.

And unlike secular meditation methods, like mindfulness as it is widely taught in the West at present, centering prayer is not something you do for yourself. It is not about YOU at all. It is not done in order to ‘de-stress’ – it is not ‘me time’ or about reducing your anxiety levels. It is something you offer on behalf of a suffering world. It is not about acquisition but about generosity of heart. It is about creating a space for love to be a little more present in the world, a little more often, about opening up points of eternity in the every day. It is a gift YOU give to the world.

If you want to make a start, these are the four guidelines of centering prayer. It really is VERY simple.

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (At our workshop, Cynthia said this would ideally be quite a neutral word or short phrase, like ‘Wait’ or ‘Quiet’ or ‘Let be’ or ‘be still’. It doesn’t need to be a ‘holy’ word as such)
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When you notice yourself thinking, return ever so gently to the sacred word. (You don’t repeat it the whole time, just when you notice a thought)
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Four Guidelines

Character Strengths, Spirituality, The Calm Classroom, Well-being in education

Well-being and character strengths and virtues

A language for being well in education

Next week I will be speaking to 30 head teachers from Merton about the well-being work in schools on which my PhD was based and which I have written about in books and teachers’ resources.

An important strand of that work is a focus on character strengths and virtues. You can hear me talking about this strand of my work on  You Tube

What are character strengths?

Every religion and every philosophical tradition has a concept of virtue, a way of thinking, feeling and acting that is morally valued or good. And as far back as Aristotle, education has been concerned with character and with morality or goodness, teaching children to understand right and wrong, as well as with knowledge. Aristotle saw the virtues as necessary to a flourishing life or happiness.

More recently, psychologists have linked the use of character strengths and virtues with well-being, vitality and a sense of fulfillment. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) say that there are 6 universally valued virtues

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

They describe character strengths, like creativity, hope, gratitude, kindness, as the traits that allow us to display these virtues and say that

  • They are valued in almost every culture
  • They are valued for themselves, not as a means to other ends
  • They can be developed
  • They are influenced by our environment, some settings lend themselves to the development of strengths whereas others preclude them

Seligman and Peterson list 24 character strengths, under the headings of the six virtues. I have used this list for 15 years in my work in schools and in my PhD on well-being in education. I kept most of the names of the character strengths but changed the virtue headings to strengths of the head, action, heart, community, self-control and meaning.  I have added a single strength, patience, which is essential to teaching and learning. I have written a simple definition for each strength. I also dropped ‘social and emotional intelligence’ and replaced it with the Aristotelian virtue of friendship.

Some questions for educators to think about:

Is it better to focus on strengths or weaknesses? Always? Sometimes? Never? If sometimes, when?

Do you think there is anything missing from this list?

You can find out more about the classification of strengths that my work is based on  here:  VIA Character Strengths

Tool: A Strengths Prompt

Strengths of the Head

Creativity: thinking a little bit differently                                 

Curiosity: wanting to find out

Love of learning: enjoying, learning new things

Open-mindedness: enjoying difference, open to different people and ideas

Wisdom: understanding what is really important in life

Strengths of Action

Enthusiasm: eager and full of energy, raring to go

Persistence: Sticking at things, not giving up

Couragedoing the right thing even when we feel scared l

Honesty: telling the truth, being an open, straight forward person

Strengths of Community

Fairness: treating everyone equally

Teamwork: pulling together, working well with others

Leadership: Helping or guiding other people to do something good and to get on well

 Strengths of the Heart

Love: caring deeply and showing we care by thoughts, words and deeds

Kindness: Doing and saying things to make people happy

Friendship: being gentle with ourselves and loyal and kind to other people

Strengths of Meaning

Gratitude: being thankful for good things, saying thank you

Spirituality: thinking deeply about God, love or the meaning of life

Humour: Seeing the funny side of life and making others smile or laugh

Hope: trusting that good things will happen

Love of beauty: noticing and enjoying good or beautiful things

Strengths of Self-control

Forgiveness: letting go of hurt and anger and wishing other people well again 

Prudence: making good choices that effect our future

Self-control: controlling thoughts, emotions and actions so we live well and achieve our goals

Modesty: a true knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses

Patience: Letting things take the time that they take

 

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique

Be Still and wait: prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique – reflections on a workshop

What I LOVE about teaching the Alexander technique in groups and workshops are the WONDERFUL people who rock up to them! AND how much I learn. And last Saturday’s workshop, Be Still and Wait: Prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique, was no exception.

A few were people I knew already – including my husband who was an extraordinarily kind, unobtrusive, supportive gofer. Mostly, they were people I didn’t know – from Manchester, from Whaley Bridge, from Wildboarclough.

I was nervous. I hadn’t run a workshop on prayer and the AT before. But mostly I was thrilled that people had come to explore and to be open – and above all to PLAY – with these most important topics. And I opened by saying that I am not an expert on either the Alexander technique nor prayer. But I am a student of both and that I was grateful for fellow students to study with.

And my first question could have generated another workshop just on its own. What, I asked, does the Alexander Technique mean to you now, in one word or short phrase? And what does prayer mean to you now, in one word or phrase?

And they said, after time for thought and discussion, that the Alexander technique means……openness, friendship, skeletons (!), balance, rootedness, awareness, posture, environment, connection, self-awareness, embodiment, harmony, alignment, poise, possibility.

Honestly, I was in awe of those responses! From people with a very little, or in some cases no, previous experience of the technique. Those who are relatively new to a discipline sometimes see it with a freshness and clarity that those who have studied for longer can miss.

And they said that prayer means ……silence, stillness, deep silence, laughter, connection, alignment, comfort, openness, harmony, uncertainty, conversation with God, environment, spiritual awareness, spiritual connection, balance, and friendship.

And we looked at our lists with some amazement, all struck by the overlap, the similarities and connections between them. And I COULD have asked – are there any words or phrases from either list that could NOT go on the other? But we had sat and talked long enough and I wanted them up and moving 🙂

So I will save that question for another workshop.

So what did we do then? Well, we did some contemplative anatomy, something I have learned from one of MY teachers, Bruce Fertman, Peaceful Body School. We looked at the fact that we have, not two arms but one arm structure and at how wide and spacious that arm structure is. And then, in threes and in silence, we made bread, softly, creatively, with love and gentleness and awareness of that spacious arm structure. It baked while we ate lunch, filling the space with a wonderful aroma and waking up the sense of smell as our morning activities had woken up our senses of touch, sight, hearing, kinaesthesia and proprioception.

IMG_20181210_172944

And I read, after lunch, from a book by Kabir Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. And we engaged in patient, waiting, open listening and discussion. And we went for a walk, channeling our inner dinosaurs because the room was quite chilly by that time. And then we gave one another bread, the bread that we had made with love and attention and openness.

And we used our senses of touch and sight and kinaesthesia and proprioception to explore and choose and add a Christmas decoration to the Christmas tree in the church we were meeting in.

And then we said our goodbyes and said what we were taking away from our four hours together, four hours of playful exploration of the Alexander technique and prayer. And mostly what I take away is a memory of how beautiful humans are, how kind, how generous, how thoughtful, how funny. We are not all like that all the time. But we all CAN be like that, some of the time. And that, in this season of Advent, of waiting, gives me hope.

IMG_20181210_173235

My workshop plan – a playful plan for a playful workshop. And no, for students who know me well, we DIDN’T get through a fraction of it!

Character Strengths, Prayer, Spirituality, Storytelling

St Francis, a failure and a friendship

We think of Francis as a saint. But Francis didn’t think of himself that way, I suspect saints never do. Francis saw himself as a failure and this story is the story of one of those failures. It is a story set nearly 800 years ago, in fact it will be 800 years next year. It is the story of how Francis tried and failed to stop a war.

The war was the 5th Crusade. It is worth remembering that Christians have not always been people of peace. The 5th crusade was a crusade by Christians, against Jews, Muslims and heretics and it was breaking Francis’ heart. Francis had once been a soldier, he knew what violence was and he knew what it was to be a prisoner of war. But when Francis fell in love with the Risen Christ, he fell out of love with everything that puts barriers between people, the barriers of pride, power and wealth.

And in 1219 pride and power and wealth had already killed many people. To try and end the bloodshed, Francis went first to the Christians, begging Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused.

So then Francis, and his friend Brother Illuminatus, went to the enemy instead, to the Muslim army against whom the Christians were fighting. They went to stop the war and they went to try and change the hearts of the enemy so that they would follow the Risen Christ.

And they walked, the two of them, unarmed, through the camps of that enemy. They were captured and they were beaten. They were taken, finally, to the Muslim commander, the leader of their enemy, to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt, an enemy leader who had offered a gold piece for the head of every Christian. And when Francis was led into the Sultan’s tent he said ‘May the Lord give you peace’. It is said that the Sultan was startled to hear a greeting so close to the traditional Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum (as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum), Peace be upon you.

And in the meeting that followed, I am first going to tell you what Francis DIDN’T DO, because I think it’s important.  Francis did not try to deny the truths of the Muslim faith. He did not insult Islam. He did not argue or attempt to convince this enemy unbeliever that he was wrong.

What Francis respectfully did was to tell the Sultan the truth of why he was there – that he was there because of the gospel of love, that he was there because of his love for the Risen Christ, that he was there because he had been sent there by the God who IS love, And that he was there because of his love for his enemy – for Sultan Malik – al- Kamil. And the Sultan listened to this gentle, foolish, ridiculous man of God, sitting in his tent, speaking truth about love.

And then, in his turn, the Sultan told Francis, truthfully, about the faith and the prayers and the practices that HE loved.  And the gentle, foolish ridiculous man of God listened in his turn. Because that is what love does, that is what friendship does, it listens.

And then Francis left. And the war continued. And the Sultan continued to be a Muslim. Which meant that Francis had failed. He had failed to stop the war. He had failed to convert the Sultan.

But it is said that the Sultan was changed by his encounter with Francis, with the gentle, foolish follower of the Risen Christ. It is said that after meeting Francis he treated Christian prisoners with unusual and unexpected kindness and respect. And perhaps that is as much because of what Francis didn’t do, as what he said. As much because of what Francis WAS – a gentle, foolish, ridiculously loving man of God.

And it was not only the Sultan who was changed. Francis loved the fact that the Muslims prayed 5 times a day. So when he went home he asked his brothers and sisters to do the same. And though Francis refused the many rich gifts that the Sultan offered him, because Francis was not terribly interested in stuff, he did accept the gift of a horn used to call Muslims to prayer. And when he got home he used it to call Christians to prayer. Five times a day.

And perhaps he listened, too, to the beautiful Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God. Because when he got home he wrote a song, the song we are about to share, called the Praises of God. There are not 99 names in it. But then Francis was a humble man. But, if you count carefully, there are 33 names in it. 33 names of the God Francis loved, the God who sent him not to argue with his enemy but to listen and to speak truth about love and to be changed by his enemy, to become his enemy’s friend.

Francis saw himself as a failure. I think that the Sultan and the Risen Christ saw Francis as a friend.

Sources

www.darvish.wordpress.com

www.aleteia.org

 

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Prayer, social justice and children

A reflection inspired by the following passages….

 ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Julian of Norwich

‘The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity…we can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment’ (Dewey, 1922, p. 13)

‘People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’’ (Luke 18, 15-18)

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (John 12, 24-25)

The Third Order: Doing things in threes

I am a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, or TSSF, which means that I try to follow Jesus Christ, after the example of St Francis and of St Clare, who was Francis’ close friend and guide. At the heart of Francis’ life there was a tension which reflects a tension many of us experience, that of the balance between inner work or contemplation and prayer and outer work or activism. This lived out tension was one of the things that attracted me to the life and example of Francis and to the Third Order. And I draw on the example of St Francis as I try to live out a commitment to social justice in my home, in my work and in my church.

An underlying theme behind the work that I do, and behind my home life and my spiritual life has always been well-being and in particular the well-being of children and young people and those who care for them. In work, home and church I try to create an environment in which people, old and young, can be well – and can experience the Divine, the source and giver of Wellness.

In the Third Order, we do things in threes. We have three aims, three pathways to achieve those aims and three key notes. Our three aims are firstly, to share the love of God in Christ as we understand that; secondly, to spread a spirit of love and harmony– or to work for social justice – and the breaking down of barriers between people; and finally to live simply. The three pathways through which we try to achieve those aims are work, study and prayer. Our three keynotes are love and joy and humility, and without these three characteristics or graces, we believe we cannot achieve our aims.

We are not all required to pursue all the aims equally or to practice all of the pathways to the same extent. Each person finds their own balance in their own particular circumstances and across our community overall we hope that we will also achieve balance.

Social justice in education: our cultural view of children

My own particular interest and focus in thinking about social justice is in the area of adult/child relationships and how children are viewed in our society.  I have worked with children and young people throughout my life and I have been a parent for 27 years. And I think that, culturally, adults in Britain have a problematic relationship with children. Both in the way that we educate children and in how we parent children our attitudes often seem to me to be characterised by injustice and by a lack of love, joy and, indeed, humility. In Britain we tend to either idolize and worship our children or demonise them. On the one hand we can worry too much about our own children, paying them excessive amounts of attention and letting them dominate our lives and thought and hopes. On the other hand, encouraged by the media, we can see them as problems, as ‘feral’ or simply as ‘terrible twos’ or ‘terrible teens’ respectively. We focus on what children lack, on what they cannot do or cannot do properly.

I think that this view of children and young people as a ‘problem’ and somehow ‘lacking’ rather than as fellow travellers and full and unique human beings can lead to unhappiness for all of us and to a lack of mutual respect.

One of the quotes above is from the philosopher of education, John Dewey, an American professor writing in the 1920s. Dewey is an interestingly radical philosopher. His views of education are still regarded as dangerous and subversive by politicians of the right and the left and he is alternately demonized and idolized by politicians and by educators, almost none of whom know anything about what he actually said.

But what he said WAS radical and I think it was profoundly influenced by a deep commitment to social justice. Two of his ideas are particularly important to me and underlie how I see children and how I have tried to parent and to work with children. One is that we never educate directly, only indirectly – we create the environment in which learning takes place. The second is that true learning is mutual – I learn from YOU as you learn from ME and we are both changed by it. And what is particularly radical about Dewey is that he applied those principles equally to children and to adults – he didn’t think that children are, so to speak, a separate species to be educated and treated in a way that is radically different to how adults should be educated or treated. So he didn’t start, as I think our education system largely starts, from a sense of what children LACK or CAN’T do, but from a sense of what they already know and can do. He thought children could think for themselves and had views and experiences worth paying attention to.

When I first worked with 4 year olds at the start of my career, as a very young teacher, I hadn’t read John Dewey. But I did have an instinctive sense that children were worth taking seriously. I very much treated my class of 4 year olds the way I would have treated a class of adult learners – though we perhaps had more fun sometimes – and the children, for the most part, behaved accordingly. Yes, sometimes, everything went pear shaped but mostly they responded to being given responsibility, trusted, listened to, treated with respect by behaving responsibly, being trustworthy, listening to me and being respectful. In other words, usually they behaved with and showed an immense maturity that all too often they are seen as incapable of showing.

I tried to create a safe, respectful, stimulating environment and took what I now realise was a relatively humble view of my own ability to directly TEACH them anything and a correspondingly high view of their ability to learn and for me to learn from them. I studied the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with my 4 year olds when they were all watching it on TV, ignoring the horrified comments of my colleagues that ‘they wouldn’t understand it’. The comments I overheard in my play area/White Witch’s Palace showed me they understood it perfectly. And I quote, ‘If YOU don’t do as you’re told I’LL turn you into stone!’

That was one simple way I tried to put into practice what I would now see as a commitment to social justice. Later in my advisory work with schools I deliberately used democratic teaching methods with younger teachers, such as P4C, or community of enquiry. This is a dialogue based teaching method which involves respectful listening and requires the teacher to listen as much as the children. And I used oral stories and storytelling – another democratic teaching method. When we tell an oral story the meaning or interpretation of the story is not imposed on a listener, whatever their age. Rather the listener creates meaning for his or herself and interprets what they hear in the light of their own lived experiences. It is why all of our great faith teachers told stories and left us to work out what they mean – to us.

Social justice in the home: learning from our children

When I had children of my own I consciously tried to take these principles of equality and mutuality into my parenting. As a young parent I read a book by the contemplative Christian writer Henri Nouwen, who said that children were the most important guests we would ever have. And that phrase stayed with me. I was a far from perfect parent as my children would be the first to say. But I did always at least try to make the space to listen to my children, to treat them, fundamentally as equals, and to be willing to learn from them and to be changed by them. I always apologised when I got it wrong and aimed to create a hospitable, loving environment in which they could learn, in which they could be well. That willingness to be changed by my children is even more important to me now that I am aging. I find myself very deliberately asking my young adult children to challenge my thinking, particularly in the fast moving and changing arena of gender and sexuality. The temptation as we age is to cling to the past and to narrow in our thinking and it is listening to the prophetic voice of the young that can help us resist that temptation.

Children in church?

I attend an Anglican church. And it seems to me that the Church of England, by and large, tries to educate its children about the Christian faith the way that our state education system educates our young about history and chemistry. The traditional Sunday school model separates children from adults, older children from younger children and, I think, defines children by what they LACK, seeing them as potential Christians – not by what they already ARE, which is children of God with a knowledge and experience of God to share with us. There is a tendency, even in churches, to see children as a problem.

When the children go out the back and leave the main service, as they sometimes do in my own church, I feel that we are diminished as a community and I feel it as an injustice. And while the injustice is being done to both groups, since both groups suffer by it, children are not in a position to challenge or change the system and adults, at least some adults, are.

But what I propose as an alternative is NOT going to win me any friends! If the children stay IN the service, and even play a full part in that service, the children won’t necessarily thank me for it. They won’t thank me because they will have to learn to respect the adults’ needs for occasional order and quiet, to listen to stuff that may seem quite boring at times and NOT run around yelling, as they can now, or playing with the toys out the back. And that will require effort on their part. And some of the adults won’t thank me because the children will bring noise and disruption into our nice quiet ordered worship and they may perform their leadership roles, if they are given them, imperfectly. And accepting that will take effort on OUR part. The easy option is to carry on as we are.

But is the easy option, when it comes to the life of faith, the one to take? I question whether it is. I question it partly from a pragmatic view point. It is the case that a large number of children who go through that traditional ‘children out the back’ model of Sunday school give up on church when they reach their teens. And I am not surprised. While they were ‘out the back’ they were not being given responsibilities, listened to, engaged with as equals, as fully ‘children of God’ – so they were not really fully part of those churches and never learned to ‘be’ church for themselves. And if you are not a full part of a community why would you continue attending once you have the freedom to choose for yourself?

But mostly I question the wisdom of the easy path from a social justice view – we need children to be fully part of our communities of faith so that we can listen to them, learn from them, be changed by them and so that they can learn to listen to, learn from and be changed by us. And that may – it almost certainly will – be messy, disruptive and uncomfortable. As is perhaps appropriate in the life of faith. But we need our children to become, as Dewey says, links in the endless chain of humanity. Just like us. So that all of us may be well and all may be well and all manner of things may be well – for all of us. Our children may be small links, short links, but they are important links all the same.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Dewey, J., 1922. Human nature and conduct. 2012 ed. Online Publisher: Digireads.com Publishing.

This post is based on a talk given on April 7th 2018 at the ‘Responsible Stewardship for our Times’ Event organised by Rumi’s Circle

 

Prayer, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique

Prayer, the body, the Alexander Technique and bad backs

What’s your body got to do with prayer? Isn’t it the soul that prays, anyway??

Over the years – and in different traditions – the way we stand or sit or kneel to pray has changed and some would say it doesn’t much matter what our bodies are doing when we pray. But perhaps it does matter and perhaps thinking about how we stand or sit or kneel might even deepen and enrich our prayer lives. IMG_20140814_140412

The bible has a lot to say about bodies. In the Old Testament, when the people of God ignored God’s law it says, ‘They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their necks’ (Nehemiah 9. 29). The psalmist exhorts ‘Do not harden your hearts’ (Ps 95) and tells us to ‘Stand in awe’ (Psalm 4) and ‘Lift up your hands in the holy places and praise the Lord’ (Psalm 134).

The Alexander technique also has a lot to say about bodies. Many people, myself included, first encounter it because it can help to ease or prevent bad backs. And happily, after a few lessons, my bad back got a lot better, But what made me carry ON having lessons was noticing in myself psychological and emotional changes – I felt calmer, less likely to over-react to situations. I decided to train as a TEACHER of the Alexander technique – which is a 3 year full time training – at least partly because of the psychological – and spiritual – depths it seemed to offer. And also because it is undoubtedly a good way of helping other people with bad backs!

The Alexander technique, which has been around for over 100 years, was first seen as a voice or breathing technique and only later became associated with the relief of chronic back and neck pain. Really, it is about the WHOLE of you – body, mind, emotions, spirit – and how you do the things you do every day – how you ARE in the world. As you become more aware of how you do the things you do, you also become more able to keep calm and think and notice and choose how to respond to the things life throws at you.

Which brings me to the body and prayer. Prayer is sometimes called ‘paying attention’ (Simone Weil) – paying attention to God, to what is really there. In the Alexander technique you learn to pay attention to your usual patterns of thought, movement and behaviour – and gradually to notice what is really happening. And you can learn to press the pause button, to quieten down and choose not to move carelessly, not to react without thought, not to get drawn into endless rumination.

All of these are skills we can use in prayer. In prayer we are choosing to open our eyes rather than to close them, to open or soften our hearts rather than to harden them. We can choose to give ourselves permission to let go – of unwanted thoughts, of unnecessary tension. And we can choose to pay more attention to ourselves and our bodies, which God has created and which God delights in. When I teach the Alexander technique, either in 1:1 lessons or in groups, my underlying aim is always for people to enjoy their bodies – and their lives –their whole selves, a little bit more.

Learning the Alexander technique has certainly changed how I pray. I now tend to keep my eyes open, rather than to close them, as it helps me stay alert and tuned into the world and myself. St Francis prayed that way too so I am in good company!  I vary the position I pray in. When I notice tension creeping in I allow myself to let it go.

So, is there a right way to pray, physically speaking? In terms of position, no. We can pray in any position at all – lying, standing, sitting or kneeling. If you are tense or uncomfortable, however, then it matters because YOU matter.

Here are some ideas to play with to deepen your awareness of your body while you pray:

  • Consider whether your posture suits the kind of prayer you want to practice. If you are engaged in confession, a position with bowed head might be suitable. But is it as suitable for praise? Or for thanks giving?
  • Play with different positions for prayer and consider introducing more variety into how you pray.
  • Pray while moving, walking, bread making or dancing even! I have learned some prayers to say by heart so that I can say them while running in the hills in the morning.
  • Notice tension in your body as you pray and just give yourself permission to let it go.
  • Ask God for a soft, open heart. What might that actually feel like physically?
  • Smile when praying – it lifts the spirits and softens the heart
  • Try praying with your eyes open – like St Francis – so that you can enjoy God’s creation

Fundamentally, consider how you treat yourself, in body, mind and spirit. Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. So that means treating our neighbour – AND ourselves, ALL of ourselves – with consideration and respect.

As well as being an Alexander Technique teacher, Jenny is also a member of the  Third Order of St Francis and part of a lay leadership team in in the Church of England.