We sat around nervously, eyeing one another up and trying to gauge what on earth we’d got ourselves into. Never before had I read so much in to a group of people’s body language, clothing, polite small talk.
And then the Archbishop cleared his throat, and room was silent.
It was the very beginning of our ‘year in God’s time’, our 10 months in fact as members of the Community of St Anselm. Now, we were hoping, our Abbot was about to tell us the plan. What we could expect from an experience described as a kind of ‘spiritual bootcamp’, an intense time of training in Christian life based at the epicentre of the Anglican Communion. I was ready to hear the best kept secrets of discipleship, the tricks and skills I’d learn so that by June, I’d be turned out as a fully fledged Jesus-superhero.
“If you gain nothing else from this year,” Justin said slowly, “my hope is that you will be anchored in Jesus Christ”.
If I’m honest, it sounded a little… well, bland to me. There’s no denying it’s a good, noble purpose. Just not very ambitious. Isn’t that basic stuff? Isn’t that beginner Christian material, more suited to the final weeks of an Alpha course than this crowd, presumably a seasoned group of experts in the field of following Jesus?
Except me, of course – I had imposter syndrome from the start, and was sure I’d somehow snuck in, perhaps due to bad signal on the line during my Skype interview or something. But even so, surely by virtue of time alone, I’d outgrown this first principle of Christian faith. I could probably handle intermediate level by now, at least.
Needless to say, the Archbishop was right. None of us there were spiritual superheroes (maybe not even Justin?) and none of us could ever outgrow the need to be rooted and established in Christ, anchored in him. And eight months on, that’s exactly how I’d describe the biggest impact of this experience so far.
I feel anchored, more and more firmly as the weeks go by. And it turns out that Jesus is a genuine heavy weight, not a burden on my shoulders to sink me, but a stability beneath the surface, anchoring me to the Rock.
Here’s three ways that I’m seeing the difference it makes:
1. I’m saying less words when I pray.
I’ve always slightly looked down on people who didn’t pray ‘properly’ for things, people who led intercessions in church by simply naming individuals or situations before God and not bothering to elaborate further. I sort of unconsciously assumed that the words were what showed you had a real relationship with God, that your prayers were like a conversation with a friend.
So when I prayed, I’d say: ‘Father I lift to you Jane, who as you know is unwell at the moment. I pray that you’d give her healing, we know that you heal, we know that you love to heal, I believe that you can heal, so please would you hear our prayer and do your work of healing here in this situation, Lord. And I pray that you’d give her comfort, give her people around her who will speak the words of love and support she most needs to hear at this difficult time, and I also pray for every medical professional who is involved with her care and…’ on and on and on it would go. Covering every possible request that I thought would do some good in the situation, instructing God on how he should intervene, reminding him of his own motivations to do so.
And I still think there’s a place for wordy prayers, perhaps for reminding myself of truths about God or encouraging others to join in. But there’s been something about spending silent time each day, focusing on God’s presence, quietly offering myself and my life to whatever he has in mind, trying to listen, trying to receive what happens as a gift, that has quietened my prayers. I find myself more and more often just naming people and situations before God and then waiting, trusting that he knows, that he doesn’t need my words, letting my silence and listening be my prayer.
2. My emotions have loosened their grip on my decision making.
The obvious reason a boat needs an anchor is to keep its position – otherwise something else would determine where it goes, namely the wind and the waves. I guess people are inclined to be influenced by all sorts of things: ambition, fear, duty, principles. For me, it’s always been my emotions that have been the strongest driver, the wind in my sails, and my emotions are easily impacted by other people and my relationships with them.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – I’d never want to lose empathy, compassion, love for others. I’d never want to care so little what others thought of me that I couldn’t hear my words through their ears. But emotion is a harsh master. It’s a relief to feel increasingly grounded by something stronger than the wind – to know that what I feel is usually valid, can be important, but doesn’t have to have the last word.
In practical terms that’s meant I’ve come home earlier and got more sleep when fear of missing out might have demanded that I stay at a party late in the past. It’s meant that I’ve felt calmer in disagreements because a still, small voice has quietened the burst of outrage. Being anchored in Christ means knowing with a weighty certainty that I am loved, held, led. It means freedom.
3. I’m discovering the creativity of God.
Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” seems entirely impractical when your understanding of prayer is wordy and active (see point 1). But the more that I’ve been quietened in my ‘prayer times’ at the beginning of each day, the more I’ve become aware of a constant, understated interaction with God that I hadn’t tuned into for quite some time.
And the more I’ve listened and waited, rather than offering God my own wise solutions to problems, the more I’ve been taken aback by God’s beautiful creativity. My imagination has come alive with what I can only assume are God’s ideas, because they coincide with a deliberate hushing of my own. I probably would have raised an eyebrow in the past at people who say “I felt God say…” but now it’s becoming a natural part of my vocabulary. I can’t help but feel God say, because his creativity is becoming recognisable among my own plans and solutions.
The Archbishop was right. If I’ve gained nothing else over the course of this year, to be increasingly anchored in Christ has been exactly what I needed.