Tag Archives: Prayer

MINDFULNESS: THE ULTIMATE SELFIE OF THE SOUL

This blog was first published in October 2015, but following yet another call, this time from Edward Timpson, for mindfulness training to become compulsory in schools, it seems timely to publish it again.

Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above – the great panacea for the human condition. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.

So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. Some psychologists suggest that it is a technique which should not be consumed blindly or even that it can exacerbate negative feelings, including panic and depression.

The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.

So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God.

The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.

The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).

While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).

In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.

POWERFUL CURRENTS: FAITH AND SECULARISM

David Cameron, it seems, is assuming the mantle of Mandela. Not with a long walk to freedom, but a long walk to a greater Britain. Nothing wrong with that, on the surface, but there’s a problem embedded in the narrative.

2015 saw an unprecedented centralisation of power from a government that once talked about autonomy and Big Society. It saw a relentless focus on growing a global economy at the expense of growing people. It saw a sustained, opportunist attack on freedom of speech under the guise of preventing terrorism and, for people of faith, it saw a constant, steady pressure to conform to a liberal, secular ideology. So it all depends on how you define a greater Britain.

Towards the end of 2015, I sent an email about the inspection of private faith schools, the proposed monitoring of out-of-school education settings and the possibility of the state grabbing church school lands and buildings. It amounted, I suggested, to a form of faith cleansing, with only home education remaining uncleansed. I wish I hadn’t written it, because a few days later, Nicky Morgan announced a crackdown on home schooling which was closely followed by Nick Gibb saying that British schools overseas must actively promote an LGBT/gender identity agenda, even if it lands head teachers in prison for doing so. David Cameron chillingly talked about the state being the parent of children in care – not acting in loco parentis, but usurping the parental role. He also now includes ‘loyalty’ as a British value, although, as with all British values, loyalty remains an ill-defined drift net which can be cast wide. A greater Britain, or a totalitarian state, with an imperialist attitude towards the laws of other countries?

Proof of secular creep in our society, should it be needed, came this week from William Nye, a former senior civil servant who now works for the Church of England. He talked frankly about the silencing of Christians and the steady secularisation of our government, shaped by the people who surround and advise the Prime Minister. It’s not the done thing to be a Christian in the civil service. Or in education. Or anywhere else in public life.

So why does the government appear to espouse the Christian faith? I would suggest that its reasons are two-fold. One is to maintain the warm, cosy glow engendered by nominal belief in a benign God and a Church of England which is perceived as being as much a British value as fish and chips, or cricket on the village green. The other is more cynical: the government needs Christians’ commitment, time and money in order to sustain social welfare programmes that it couldn’t possibly fund centrally. The government really needs Christians in order to create a greater Britain. It just doesn’t want the inconvenient faith that motivates our actions.

But there’s another picture of 2015. It’s one of the many, many Christians working in education; of parents and carers involved in a myriad of ways in their local schools; of burgeoning Prayer Spaces in Schools and of rapid increases in Open the Book assemblies. TLG has experienced similar growth as it meets the needs of students who struggle on the fringes of education and whose families struggle on the fringes of society. It’s a picture of churches who embrace the idea of loving their local school; of people who feed hungry children and of those at Pray for Schools who find endlessly creative ways to encourage us all to pray for education.

The Bible often uses river imagery to describe things that threaten to overwhelm us and also to describe our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit – there are, apparently, 4260 biblical references to rivers or streams. As we’ve seen yet again this winter, water is a mighty force that cannot be stopped. As Christians, we are rivers of living water (John 7:37-39), a mighty force which cannot be stopped by human endeavour. And so it is with the many rivers of living water that flow through education.

There are too many organisations to mention them all here, but one of the aims of Christians in Education this year is to profile as many of them as possible and create a database of those profiles. Another aim is to encourage more churches to love their local school and a third aim is to support Christian teachers to live boldly.

Looks like 2016 is going to be a busy year of challenge, inspiration and encouragement ….

PRAY DAY 2015

For those who are new to the idea of a Pray Day, it’s a day each year which is set aside for people across Europe and the world to pray for education. It includes everything from nursery to university; it encompasses everyone, from students, staff and governors to parents, youth and church workers. If you’re involved in education in any way, you will be prayed for during the day – this year, Pray Day is on Tuesday 17 November.

There are various ways of getting involved. You might pray alone for the people you know in your own context. You might organise a prayer group in your church, your school or your college. You might lead a school assembly or an RE lesson to explain what prayer means to Christians, or you might organise a prayer walk. The Pray for Schools Pray Day page has lots of resources and suggestions which are adaptable to your situation.

This year, the UK theme is a Prayer Marathon inspired by Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, in which he wrote: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith’ (Hebrews 12:1—2). The idea is that you choose a time during the day when you can pray for 30 minutes, before handing the prayer baton on to somebody else.

The resource provides hourly themes, derived from the concept of a marathon. They include Persevere; Stay Focused; Be Rooted in the Word; Be Aware; Encourage Others; Trust God, and Be Thankful. Each theme has a number of prayer points, many of which you can personalise to your own context.

Maybe you’re reading this and wondering why you should pray for education in particular. The answer is because there are so many issues that we need to pray about. Our children and young people are under great pressure to achieve academic success. They are growing up into a world which measures value and accords social status based on material success. Anxiety levels and mental illness are reaching epic proportions.

Education is a tough place for Christians to be at the moment, as the pressure of a secular culture attempts to silence the voice of faith. We should pray for Christian staff and students, that they are afforded a fair space to talk about how their faith informs the way they see the world.

Nurseries, schools, colleges and universities are communities which rely on positive relationships to be effective. We should pray for those relationships and for the building of communities which support and nurture whole people.

We hear every day of the hundreds of thousands of children and young people who suffer in silence; who cannot go to school because they are displaced, or because it is too dangerous. So we can pray for the global perspective, for peace, for stability and access to education for children around the world.

It’s an opportunity, too, to be thankful for the excellence of much of our education service and for the many thousands of people who work so hard in schools and colleges on behalf of their students.

When I profiled the work of Pray for Schools earlier this year, I wrote: ‘Just pause for a moment and visualise your local school or college cocooned in a prayer wrapper. Then visualise a bigger prayer wrapper encompassing our whole country.  Think what it might mean for the wellbeing of our children, our teenagers, our families and ultimately our society’. That’s why we pray.

However you decide get involved with Pray Day, pray in the strength of Christ’s promise: ‘Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’ (Mark 11:24). Be blessed as you pray.