Being Present

Zak Robb continues our blog series on “Creating Space for Life in the Midst of Lockdown”, sharing some rhythms that have been helpful for him to not just survive this unfamiliar season we find ourselves in, but to cultivate and nurture the life within him.

One of the things I have perhaps been most aware of in this time of lockdown, is myself. Funny that isn’t it? With much of the normal busyness and distractions no longer available to me (with Zoom Fatigue potentially the only competitor right now), I have this quite raw awareness of myself. Without job description/holiday/social status (fill in the blank) to busy me and even to look forward to, I find I’m seeing myself more clearly than I have for a while, and I know I’m not alone in finding that much of the stuff that I’ve pushed under or avoided dealing with has started to come to the surface.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty ways to numb it, plenty of distractions as readily available online if you want them. In fact, they might even be more tempting to us – the evening Netflix binge, the less healthy screen time stats each day… I’ve definitely felt their pull. And so I’ve had to make a more conscious effort to put in place regular rhythms which help me learn how to be attentive to myself and to God in prayer, and through that have often in these last few months discovered that God is working and speaking to me in those raw places.

I’m a fan of Huw Richards, he’s a big name in the veg gardening world! (Unashamed gardening reference). I have his coffee table book and he has some brilliant tutorial videos. In one of his tutorials, he encourages his viewers to sit, set a timer for 5 mins, grab a pad and pen and to look around the garden, taking note of what you notice as you watch and wait, but to resist doing anything until the timer is finished. He says that it helps him to really see what’s around him where he might have missed a detail before, and to know how best to plan out his garden going forward.

I have essentially adapted this as a daily spiritual practice! I aim to get outside into the garden each day and will take a bit of time, sometimes just a few minutes and sometimes longer. I sit and reflect on where I am spiritually, emotionally, physically, as I also look around at the new growth in our garden. I will try not to do anything, except maybe pull out a weed here and there. As I sit, I begin to notice things, initially that there’s a new seedling growing where there was just soil before, and then, I notice that I’ve been carrying a bit of stress or frustration about something that’s happened earlier in the day. I note it, and give it to God, and ask what He might want to do with it. It’s a bit of a mid-day vegetable gardening Examen.

I have rarely experienced anything profound in each of these individual times, but looking back on the last 7 weeks of lockdown I know with more clarity the work that God is doing in me and I see it begin to shape the way I react and respond to situations throughout the day. These small moments are teaching me to be more attentive to God, to others and to myself, and I also get to enjoy a bit of gardening in the process!

We might not all have a garden to do this (or enjoy veg gardening), but we are all trying to work out how we can embrace some of the reality of where we are right now. Building in spiritual rhythms doesn’t need to be onerous, it can be as easy as choosing an activity which naturally lends itself to being present (like your daily exercise outdoors). Then, rather than filling that space with a podcast or music – which of course are good and helpful things but can just as easily distract us – instead choose to allow those natural pauses in our days to become moments where we learn to become more attentive to God and ourselves.

Zak resides in Edinburgh with his wife Lyndsey and their two cats Muesli and Cheetah. He is passionate about gardening and keeps us all entertained with his weekly “Veg Patch Monday” Instagram posts and dad jokes. Incidentally, he is looking forward to being a first time dad in July! He is also passionate about leading others into worship and is worship pastor at Central church, as well as part of the leadership team.

Creating Space for Life in the Midst of Lockdown

The events of the past several weeks blew in like a sudden snowstorm – blinding, unpredictable, disorienting and leaving the landscape undefined, blanketed by uncertainty.

But as things “calm” and we become even more aware of how not normal life is, aware of the lack of our usual coping mechanisms, mental and emotional props, with many of the things and people that bring us life far removed, how do we respond? Is there a way to not just survive this wilderness journey but actually thrive?

Some of the most common advice we are all hearing right now from TED talks, authors, famous CEO’s and the NHS is the importance of routine, of “fixed hour” schedules.

But this concept is ancient – modelled by Jesus, the apostles, the desert mothers and fathers and by the monastics down through the centuries. It has been referred to as a ‘Rule of Life’, ‘spiritual disciplines’, ‘spiritual practices’ or ‘rhythms’.

In his book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer refers to spiritual practices as a sort of trellis for our intimacy with and abiding in Jesus, our Source of life, peace and hope.
He says that spiritual practices are “how we follow Jesus. How we adopt His lifestyle. How we create space for emotional health and spiritual life.

This has been my experience of the various spiritual rhythms and practices I have put into place in my life and leaned into over the years.
Those of you who have walked through grief will know well the disorientation that comes with it, the loss of any sense of the familiar, the sense of the landscape around you losing its definition and certainty as every part of life is touched by your grief. Yes, life around you goes on as “normal” yet even the most familiar things do not feel normal anymore.

This was how I felt when my mum passed away after a long battle with cancer. I felt numb and even reading familiar Scripture passages that I had once loved and leaned on brought no comfort. All I saw were words on a page, lifeless to me.
But I had cultivated a daily spiritual rhythm long before this journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” and this rhythm remained a part of daily life and steadied me, anchored me, keeping my soul and spirit connected to the Source of my life, peace and hope.
I began every morning with the “Morning Office” found in The Celtic Daily Prayer book published by the Northumbria Community which consisted of written prayers, short Scripture readings and short reflections. Then I finished every day with praying that night’s Compline ( a written prayer for before bed ).

It was also during this time that I discovered the richness of the Psalms. I had read the Psalms many times. Yet in my grief they took on a new life and meaning for me, as the Psalmists gave me a language for the emotions I had previously been unable to express.
When I came out of the darkest part of that valley of grief, I came out having not just survived, but my spirit and soul feeling well fed and cared for.

So though I have also felt the disorientation of this life during Covid-19 and have had some definite “valley” days, I have been deeply grateful for the spiritual rhythms present in my daily life. At the very beginning of lockdown I also instinctively returned to a nightly Compline. These practices have truly been a Source life, peace and hope for me during these past weeks.

I pray that you also can identify some daily spiritual practices that work for you and become that “trellis” that connects you to the life, peace and hope found in Jesus.

Over the next few weeks, various friends will be sharing what practices and rhythms have been their anchor point during these weeks of lockdown, so be watching for a new post every Wednesday.

Into Our Locked Rooms He Comes

Moira Shanks shares with us something she wrote in response to a picture she had while reflecting on a recent passage in 24-7 Prayer’s Lectio 365 daily devotional app. In it, Jesus meets the disciples in a locked room.
We think you will be encouraged by Moira’s writing as much as we have been.

Where no one else can come,
Even our closest friends and family
Kept at a safe and isolating distance,
Where we are locked down, locked in by fear,
The fear of this virus,
The fear of living in uncertain, changing times.
Into our lockdown,
Lord, you come.

You come into our lockdown,
As you came to your disciples,
Locked in for fear of the authorities,
Living in uncertain, changing times.
You came to them,
Where they were,
Into their locked room,
Into the midst of their fears.

Lord, you stand with us in our lockdown,
And, in your unchanging mercy
You offer now, as you offered then,
Your presence, your peace
In the midst of fears,
Renewed hope,
Restored joy,
Recalibrated purpose.

Come, Lord Jesus,
Reveal yourself in locked down rooms,
To locked down hearts.
In every corner of your world,
Breathe
Your
Life.

Moira lives and works as an EAL teacher in North Ayrshire. She is married to Gordon, part of a pretty amazing family and passionate about worship, creative communication and good coffee!

Staring Fear in the Face Part Three : Fixing Your Feet

This is the third and final part of our series on ‘Staring Fear in the Face’ where Hannah shares some wisdom gleaned from her own journey through fear and anxiety.

Fix your feet

By which I just mean, find some solid ground. Sure, a lot of things have changed. The ground beneath our feet is in many ways shaking. Some days it feels like there will be a world pre-corona and post-corona. But there are things you can still do to ground your feet, to sustain your soul. Work out what those things are. Dealing with fear and anxiety is a marathon, not a sprint. Invest in some good training practices now and they will pay off. Here are mine, for what it’s worth.

Breathe. Breathing has become something of a spiritual discipline for me. I try and practice this everyday. I basically try and slow my breathing down. Physiologically it makes sense as you’re trying to increase the oxygen in your body to take you out of a state of adrenalin and panic. You can find this technique here. The game changer for me has been combining this breathing with prayer. Very simply, as I breath in, I say ‘Abba‘ (which means ‘Daddy/Father’ in Aramaic, the words Jesus would have used) and then on the breath out, I say ‘I belong to you‘. I find it helps me be aware of God’s presence with me in the panic, like I’m speaking it over my body and spirit. **

Talk. Find somebody you can trust who will listen to you. Talk to them, out loud. Sometimes we can only access our pain (that lies underneath our fear) when we have a witness to it. Ask them just to sit and listen, not to ‘fix’ whatever you share, or rationalise it immediately (you can do that together afterwards.) If you don’t feel comfortable doing that with a person, try talking out loud to a chair, or writing a letter.

Thank. I continue to be surprised by how much an attitude of gratitude can change my day. It’s such a basic spiritual lesson you’d think I would have it nailed by now! But again and again I find myself coming up short, empty of appreciation, thinking only of what I don’t have. The witness of scripture shows us that God is a good God. He is! Covid-19 has not changed that. So we can still thank Him, we can still worship Him, we can still thank him for the mercies in our lives. So today, how could you celebrate the life you do have? Could you list the things you love, or you’re grateful for today? Emotionally healthy spirituality means that we can embrace both being ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ at the same time (2 Cor 6.10). It is not just ok – it is right – that we do both.

Focus. Put your energy into the things you can be responsible for. All the helpful stuff you’ll already know about having a routine, doing exercise, finding time to do something that brings you life every day, putting clear boundaries around your consumption of the news and social media… This stuff can make a big difference. Take a look at your day and make a plan.

Try again. A while back, a lovely friend sent me a card. It said this: ‘Some days I amaze myself. Other days, I put my car keys in the fridge.’ After the eye roll and initial chuckle, I placed it on the shelf. I didn’t need the reassurance that day. But a week later when I, for various reasons, had a wobble, the card caught my eye again. ‘A fridge day,‘ I thought. That’s ok. Tomorrow is a new day.

Have a little grace for yourself. This is perhaps the most life-altering global circumstance you have seen in your lifetime. Some days you’ll amaze yourself. Other days, you’ll put your keys in the fridge. Fix your feet. I reckon that Peter, one of Jesus’ best friends, had a lot of fridge days. He went on to be a founding apostle for thousands of churches. He messed it up, he got stuff wrong, but God’s grace was sufficient for him – even in the middle of his fear. And so, I think, with you.

Feel your fear. Find your faith. Fix your feet.
And may God’s peace be with you.

Hannah Montgomery is wife to Tom, mother to Charlie and Grace, mentor, friend, leader… But most importantly, she is a woman who seeks to know personally the deep heart of God. Her pilgrimage into that deep heart of God has not always been easy, but along the way she has discovered some beautiful truths that provide nourishment to others on their journeys.

** If you would like to learn more about how to combine breathing and prayer, check out the ‘Toolshed’ at prayercourse.org and look for ‘Breath Prayer’.