Songs in the Wasteland: Birdsong

We are following the Celtic tradition of Advent which begins this week and, much like Lent, tends to involve 40 days of fasting, prayer and reflection in preparation for the feast of Christmas.

This year our Advent blog series follows the theme of ‘Songs in the Wasteland.’

Those of you who took part in the 24-7 Prayer Gathering Online will remember that the theme was “Strange Lands”, taken from the lament of Psalm 137, “How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?”

What is the ‘song of the Lord?’ Perhaps a look at Scripture can help us to identify what the ‘song of the Lord’ might be. What is the continuous thread throughout the story of Scripture? The loving pursuit of humanity by the God who never gives up. It is a continuous thread of God’s forgiveness, mercy, redemption, healing, restoration… in other words, hope.

I think the song of the Lord is a song of hope.

Hope acknowledges the reality of the present yet does not stop there – it believes for better. Hope is what occupies that uncomfortable space between the “now and not yet.”

And what else is Advent but this?

The Message version of Psalm 137 says, ‘Alongside Babylon’s rivers, we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion. Alongside the quaking aspens we stacked our unplayed harps; That’s where our captors demanded songs, sarcastic and mocking: “Sing us a happy Zion song!” Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?

Maybe you can relate? We could possibly interchange “Babylon’s rivers” for the Clyde, the Forth, the River Dee, the Tay…

The months of waiting, hoping have stretched out much longer than expected and now we are also feeling stretched, thin, weary. The waiting has grown long. And our once hopeful outlook has potentially faded to match the bleakness of the coming winter season – a sort of wasteland.

It was into this wasteland that the Christ-child came – quietly, subversively yet those whose hearts were in a place of preparation heard, their eyes saw.

We often view the coming of Jesus through a soft warm glow. However, the promised Saviour came at a time not unlike where we currently find ourselves – a time of political unrest, deep divisions and racism, death and poverty, captivity and suppression, fear and anxiety. Even Jesus and His family had to live as refugees for a while. The lament of Psalm 137 would have been much repeated by the people of God.

There was an article on the BBC recently about birdsong during lockdown: “…scientists confirmed a change in the birds’ vocal repertoire when the city fell quiet. The birds upped the quality of their songs, as they called to defend their territory and entice a mate. And while it might have seemed to human ears that bird song got louder, the sparrows actually sang more quietly. These sweeter, softer songs carried further given the lack of background noise.”

Birds always sing before dawn comes…” is the hauntingly beautiful line sung by Cardboard Carousel in their latest single.

What might it look like for us as the people of God to sing before the dawn comes? To enter more fully into Advent this year, opening our hearts to His coming right into our pain and mess, and then allowing the song of the Lord to arise from deep within us and fill this land with hope?

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The 24-7 Prayer Gathering Online is only 2 days away from beginning! 4,000 from across 76 nations registered so far and the excitement is building! Yes, it will be different this year and we will all miss hugging those we rarely see, sitting across the lunch table from one another, talking late into the night with new, lifelong friends… those things that make the days of the Gatherings so special. And yet, there is an anticipation growing in our hearts. Because what has made the Gatherings most memorable, year after year, are those deeply significant things that God speaks to us as individuals, teams and communities as well as a global family.

Here are testimonies from friends across Scotland who have heard God in special ways at past Gatherings:

The final night of worship in Geneva was in St Peter’s Cathedral… I know that we cannot even come close to imagining what heaven will be like, but that night it felt like what I imagine it will be. The place was packed with people from all over the world, many different church backgrounds, all singing praise to the glory of God. It was amazing. At the end of our time there I was tired mentally from all the mind-shattering things God had been showing and teaching me, but spiritually so fired up for whatever God had for me.” Steph Rooney, Kirkmuirhill

A highlight for me was the space to worship God filled with a group of people who were passionate about His presence and hearing His voice! And one big take away was around my own leadership – learning to acknowledge areas where I project onto others, helping to identify my own shadow so that I don’t allow it to negatively impact how I lead those around me!” Zak Robb, Edinburgh

We went to The Gathering for the first time as a church leadership team, and one highlight for me was definitely the flow of prayer, prophecy and praise each time we gathered – so life giving and naturally supernatural. It seemed like God was doing something remarkable in every nation, and I was so encouraged at the sense of His Church on the move all over the earth! There were so many challenging messages and calls to action, but I was really impacted by Danielle Strickland’s message on ‘mountains and mustard seeds’. This explained the tension of life and ministry in the Kingdom so well, we all carry a huge vision but it must be worked out in our ‘mustard seed’ actions of faith every day. The Gathering also dropped so many gold nuggets in our laps as a leadership team, of vision and direction that we had already been sensing all year – being intentional in our discipleship with just a few people (like Jesus), gathering around tables, being vulnerable and accountable – so many Holy Spirit confirmations for us to take home was fantastic!” Simon Dennis, Aberdeen

My highlight of the Gathering was the resounding cry for unity – seeing the reconciliation I’ve always wanted to see in action and within that, seeing the glimmer of the Kingdom of God!” Healey Rosweir, Edinburgh

The Gathering was inspiring with a real sense of God’s presence and the Holy Spirit at work. The feel was very much that of family gathering, brothers and sisters coming together from all different nations. The one thing that inspired me most was the work of 24-7 Prayer Ibiza, having attended their workshop.” Bob Mallinson, Dundee

And then there is the auction. This is the point in the Gathering where the true culture within the 24-7 family is fully expressed – playful, sacrificial, wild generosity to support various needs within the family, whether they be personal, community or for missional/justice related projects. One example is from last year’s Gathering in Belfast, when all the Scots in the room pooled their money to bid on a silly vest so that a single mum who had just been evicted could provide her children with a new home.
Healey Rosweir of Edinburgh says this about last year’s Gathering and auction: “The auction was an absolute highlight! The hilarity that ensued as the group I was part of began pulling more and more people in to add to the pot, forming friendships with anyone and everyone. It created this atmosphere that was competitive yet so, so joyful – everyone united in wanting to gather as much money as possible to give away to others. I’ve never seen people so happy to part with money before!
*To find out more about this year’s auction click here.

What might be in store for us all this year?

Embodied Prayer

These recent days have been intense and many of us have found ourselves battling stress, anxiety, information overload, boredom and restlessness yet have little capacity. Emma Timms doesn’t just talk about, but walks us through, a helpful prayer practice for times like this.

So I get a maximum of 500 words to talk to you, a few moments of your time as your scroll through your screen. I’m going to use those words to lead you in a practice.

Let’s linger in the sweet presence of Jesus together. I invite you to inhabit this practice fully and give 5 whole minutes of your time and attention to embody this moment.

Close all other tabs.

Lay aside and silence all your other devices.

Place both your feet on the ground and and wiggle your toes.

Take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Welcome and recognise the presence of God in this very moment.

GOD IS HERE.

Take 3 more deep, slow breaths, see how long you can linger over them. Repeat the Breath PrayerGod is here” with every breath.

Let go and release everything that’s come before this moment and everything else you have to do after.

Be here now.

Linger in this truth; GOD IS HERE.

Take three more slow, deep breaths, lifting your shoulders towards your ears as you inhale and dropping them back down as you exhale.

Movement and breath awareness during prayer bring focus. Whilst our thoughts and feelings can easily be rushing into the past and the future, our bodies are rooted completely in the present.
Undivided attention is rare and it’s not easy to come by. Take a conversation for example: sometimes you get the gift of being truly listened to – you can tell by the body language and a person’s gaze when they are really giving you their attention – and it feels good. Compare that to when you’re trying to share something with someone and they are constantly looking at their phone and distracted. Well, prayer is in its simplest form is a conversation with God, and it’s a skill we can learn to give Him more and more of our undivided attention – but it doesn’t always come easy! Movement and breathing help us to focus. In the Lectio 365 app with which I’m sure many of you are familiar, we are invited to ‘re-centre our scattered senses upon the presence of God.’ The short practice I just led you in above is a practical way to re-centre.

As well as our focus, the movements of our body can reflect and deepen the movements of our heart. Palms turned upwards can mirror a feeling of surrender. Palms pressed down can help us feel grounded. Kneeling can evoke humility, and arms lifted, worship. I teach Pilates and Contemplative Prayer and we explore all different kinds of movement and prayer practices. The focus and discipline we learn on our mats makes its way into our everyday lives and the fruit begins to show up all over the place.

Here’s a link to a 10 minute seated practice with movement to the simple breath prayer we used above: God is here.
I hope it blesses you and if you have any questions feel free to get in touch!

Emma and her husband Jon lead Discovery Church in Dunbar where they live with their 4 children and Barney the dog. Emma teaches Pilates and has recently been leading others in Pilates combined with Contemplative prayer practices, such as Breath prayer and the Examen. You will often find Emma pursuing her other great passion – wild swimming.

For Such a Time As This

There are many reasons the annual 24-7 Prayer Gatherings are special and one of the main highlights of the year for many us. Those reasons largely have to do with relationship – the opportunity to reunite with friends from around the globe who feel like family even though we typically only see each another once a year at the most. And it is opportunity to make new life-long friends.

This aspect will be quite different at this year’s Gathering as we will be gathering online rather than shoulder to shoulder in a Spanish monastery, old theatre or breathtaking cathedral. And though we all lament this, there is something else about these yearly Gatherings that makes us not dare miss our online time together here in a few weeks. These Gatherings are always prophetic and more relevant to the times than we can fully grasp in that moment. And often without realising it, we come away equipped with tools and a word from God that take us into the coming year and all that it holds with a readiness that only the Spirit of God could orchestrate.

I have shared here below our blog post following last year’s Gathering in Belfast to demonstrate what I mean. I think you will agree that this message from Alain Emerson of 24-7 Prayer Ireland was a readying for what was to come in the new year and is still poignantly relevant.

And I would encourage you that if you haven’t already, register here for ‘For Such A Time As This’ – the Online Gathering the end of this month!

Sleep, Eat, Repeat – Last year’s blog post
24-7 Prayer Gatherings – they are always fun, always inspirational, encouraging, challenging and renewing. Always a special time of prayer, worship, learning and being together as a tribe. But every few years one comes along that feels significant to the life and direction of the movement.

This was most definitely the case for Belfast ’19 a couple weeks ago. There was and is now a sense that we are beginning a new chapter in this story God is writing. Yes, some of that will be related to the transition of leadership that happened – and what a deeply beautiful, joyful, celebratory transition it was!

But this sense of entering a new chapter is deeper and more far-reaching than just this transition of leadership. It is more akin to further out and deeper in.

Alain Emerson spoke the first night from 1 Kings 19 where Elijah, after a major victory, flees into the wilderness, exhausted, frightened and discouraged. This passage has been reverberating within me ever since and the sentence “Arise, eat, for the journey is too great for you” feels particularly significant for this moment in time.

God is speaking something to His people across the globe and it has to do with preparation and where He is to be found.
There are small but encouraging signs that the prayers we have been praying for many years for revival in the Church and in our own hearts, for spiritual awakening in our nations, have been heard. The signs may be small, like the “size of a man’s hand” to quote Elijah’s servant, but they are there.

But are we ready?

How many of us would admit to being exhausted right now, maybe discouraged, maybe even frightened? Are we truly in the best health, the best state of mind, the right posture of heart to receive and take part in a move of God in our world?

God told Elijah in the cave that He was about to pass by. But when He did come, it was in the quiet whisper.
Are we in such a place that we will be able to hear Him when He does come in that quiet whisper rather than the noise and hype we often associate with “revival” or “awakening”?

From this place of being renewed by God and meeting with Him in that quiet whisper, Elijah impacted the roles and positions of influencers and those in authority, he gathered those who were still devoted to God, he rewired an entire culture and history.

So what do we need to do to get ready?

Sleep, eat, repeat. Sleep, eat, repeat. “Arise and eat for the journey is too great for you.

We need to learn rest. We need to feed on God’s goodness and presence. We need to posture our hearts, minds and bodies towards Him in such a way that our ears are trained to hear and recognise the quiet whisper and every part of our being is ready to run long and hard in a sustainable way without burning out.

This sleeping and eating may in reality look like middle of the night prayer slots and fasting for some of us. It may look like a letting go and stepping back into a place of quiet and hiddenness for a while for some of us. It may look like a pruning of activity and more time given to waiting on God for others of us. And for some of us it may look quite literally like rest and feeding ourselves on the things that will renew and refresh us physically.

But for all of us, it is about preparation and posturing ourselves for when that quiet whisper comes and changes everything.