Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lent 1: Prayer

If you really want to make a group of Christians uncomfortable there’s one question which is guaranteed to make everyone feel guilty:

How’s your prayer life?

No matter how regularly or devotedly or continually we pray – it’s not something we ever perfect.

Prayer also raises many questions:
How do we pray?
What happens when we pray? How does God answer prayer?

Our readings this morning don’t entirely lend themselves to our themes for Lent. Yet their focus on our sinfulness do stress our need for prayer.

The relationship between Adam and God seems so easy in some ways. Sometimes our prayer can be so simple and normal as Adam to God when God is telling about the trees in the garden. Other times it is more like later in the story. We hide from God, even though we know God knows exactly what is going on in our hearts and minds.
Yet our story does not end with Adam, as the old translation has it:
“For as in Adam all die even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Part of our natural human nature may be, like Adam, to rebel but following the example of Christ we are called to be truly alive as human beings and acknowledge that a relationship with God is something that is an essential part of our being and the meaning of our existence.

After forty days of fasting and praying, as the Gospel tells us, Jesus has the strength to resist the devil’s temptation. And for those times when we can’t resist the temptation - our prayer is there to put us right with God again.

What is prayer? What happens when we pray?

“Prayer is the act by which we place ourselves consciously and voluntarily in the presence of God. It is a time when human beings fully express their identity as believers. When we pray, we implicitly define ourselves as people who do not claim to find our source in ourselves; we come to God with open hands. God is, of course, always with us, and we may wish to live at every moment as if God were the beginning and end of our existence. But forgetfulness is part of the human condition, and our many activities and cares inevitably distract and scatter us. For this reason, those moments when we stop to center ourselves on "the one thing that matters" (see Lk 10:42) are essential.”

Wise words from Br John of Taizé.

I find it hard to define what happens when I pray. Prayer is that which connects us with God and for me is often achieved as much in conversation with a group as in quiet time on a hillside or in the crypt of an ancient church.

As a film lover I always think that it should somehow be more dramatic with special effects and an impressive soundtrack but as the story in the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us – God is not in the whirlwind but in the stillness (1 Kings 19). If prayer is our expression of our relationship with God it can be like those times in our human relationships when we talk and talk with someone and it’s wonderful to feel we’re really getting to know them and yet there are also those times when you can sit in silence with a friend and it can mean so much more that all those words.
And trying too hard can also inhibit our relationship with God. One of the desert fathers when asked by an earnest and fervent young disciple about the trouble he was having as he kept falling asleep during prayer. The desert father replied – sleep can also be prayer

So how do we pray?
There are many things that can lead us to that connection with God. There are things that some people will find incredibly useful and which will leave others cold.

All the things I can recommend are merely tools towards prayer – they are not themselves prayer

The words are not the prayer, the rosary is not the prayer, the icon is not the prayer, the music is not the prayer, the candle is not the prayer. The prayer is that moment of connection and of finding yourself held in the palm of God’s hand and not needing any of that which led you there.

So what are some of the things that can lead us there

Hands (from the Emmaus course)
Thumb – those closest to us
Forefinger those who lead – who point the way
Middle finger – the longest – those far away
Ring finger – those who are weak
Little finger – yourself

Focus on a single verse or image and find stillness and silence and when thoughts flood in to distract – refocus on that verse or image

Jesus prayer – based on the prayer of the sinful tax collector which Jesus commended over the grand proclamation of the self-righteous Pharisee (luke 18.13)

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God have mercy on me a sinner
Designed to be breathed in the first half and out in the second, breathing in God and breathing out sin

Of course there is another great model of prayer which Jesus gave us.

Rowan Williams, in a reflection that led to rather less controversy than that of recent days said: “If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord's Prayer...” Every single bit of the Lord's Prayer is radical because every single bit of it challenges our assumptions about who we are and who God is and what the world is like.”

That model tells us that our prayer starts with relationship with god Our father. In the greek FATHER (pater) is the first word and makes this relational element so much clearer.

“real Christian praying is standing with Jesus and saying to God the words that Jesus would say to God, Father. All prayer has to be like that for Christians. And all prayer has to be aware of our frailty, aware of the ways in which our lives are at risk. All prayer has to acknowledge our need of forgiveness and our need to forgive. So it's not so much that there would be other ways of saying it, we say those words simply because Jesus told us to. But from that prayer we can get a model, an inspiration for the nature of all the prayers we ever offer.”

When I was a teenager the curate working with us advised us, when we said the Lord’s prayer to think of one line of it rather than rattling it of; To focus on a single phrase throughout. Others advise focussing on each phrase at a time and considering what that single phrase says to us. (see my earlier reflection on the Lord's Prayer)

All these things are the path we walk on or the train that takes us there and for each of us in different times of our lives, different things will take us further on our journey. The mode of transport is not important as long as it moves you on towards the destination which is communion with God.

Finally that last question..
How does God answer prayer? Like a good parent God doesn’t always say yes.

The film Bruce almighty shows Bruce given the powers of God for one small part of the world and he decides to say YES to all prayers which leads to total chaos as several thousand win the lottery The alternative isn’t necessarily NO but “not yet” or “why do you ask for that when I have something so much better in mind?”

And how does that answer come. Is it written in the sky by a plane specially commissioned by God, emblazoned in neon lights in a shop when you walk down the street? No the answer comes as it did for Elijah

“a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.”
(1 Kings 19.11-12)

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