Sermon - 17th June 2018
Lord, teach us how to pray
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
For many years I struggled to pray as I thought I should pray.
During the formal prayers in worship, I read the words, and I spoke the words. I admired the beauty of the words, but I often felt rather untouched by their meaning. Sometimes, the words of formal prayers came close to saying what I was experiencing, but many times they just passed me by; they were other people’s words which connected hardly at all with me.
Then there were the times when I would try to follow a daily prayer guide of some kind. I bought books about making prayer part of daily life, I subscribed to ready-made daily collections of prayer and readings, and I usually started out with the best of intentions. But before long, I realised that I had lost interest and, I always seemed to discover that whatever prayer meant for me, it would not fit into a daily schedule or a rule of life. I accused myself of having no will power and of having only a shallow faith from which I was too easily distracted.
What I was failing to recognise is that formal prayer has its place, but it’s only one of many ways in which we draw close to God - and the experience which we call prayer is just that: it is simply drawing close to God.
When the disciples in today’s reading were asking Jesus to teach them to pray, they were expressing a need to draw closer to the God whom they experienced so powerfully in the life and teaching of their Master.
It was common in Jesus's time for disciples to ask their rabbis to teach them to pray. It was also common for the rabbis to give their followers a "skeleton" prayer that they would then use as a framework for personal reflection and openness to God’s response to those reflections. The words were not the complete prayer: they were a framework for how to pray.
This is probably what was happening when Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer. While it's not wrong to recite the prayer as we do in worship, there is a view that this is not how Jesus would have intended it to be used. Rather, he would have expected his disciples to create their own personal prayers around the basic statements in the skeleton of praise, thanksgiving, confession and intercession.
One of the messages that we share most frequently in this congregation is that we are all different and we have different tastes, interests, gifts and aptitudes. In many ordinary aspects of our lives, we know that! It would surprise us if we all liked exactly the same foods or preferred to eat at exactly the same times. Yet we are often surprised when we realise that we may not all like the same spiritual food, and we may not experience our need for spiritual nourishment at exactly the same time.
Prayer is part of our spiritual diet - our appetites for spiritual food, and our tastes for the flavour of that food are bound to be diverse. Perhaps our challenge is to discern our own particular appetites and to be willing to explore that diversity of ways in which we may draw close to God.
In his excellent little book, “How to Pray: a practical handbook” (SPCK, 2004), John Pritchard mentions some insights by a 19th century philosopher Friedrich von Hügel who wrote about various ‘schools of prayer’ represented by various characters from the bible and church history. Von Hügel believed that each person would find that one of these ‘schools’ would be their natural home, although there would be elements from all of them which resonate with us to some extent.
Think about St Peter. Consider the direct, robust, ‘get-on-with-it’ characteristics that we associate with Jesus’s red-blooded friend. If you belong to the School of St Peter, then set forms of prayer; regular worship; the rhythm of the church year; and a need for good uplifting worship, will probably all be important to you. And among the gospels, probably Mark speaks most directly to you because it is urgent, active, uncluttered and very direct.
If you feel more drawn to the intellectual values of prayer and worship; dedication to scripture and its wise interpretation; the call to explain and show Christ to the outside world; reading widely about the Christian faith; a gift for a deep and rather mystical engagement with God, but not given to emotional responses to faith issues, then you probably lean towards The School of St Paul, one of the church’s greatest thinkers. To you, the gospels of Matthew and John will probably have most to say because they root everything within the Jewish religious and social contexts of Jesus’s time.
Perhaps for you, prayer is an exploration, a reaching out; something which requires time and space because it enters into a mystery rather than seeking a result; the use of silence, symbols, imagination, music or poetry; quietness, and an attachment to profound simplicity without distraction, may all be indicators of your spiritual life.The School of St John sounds like the place for you because it builds on the notion that John had many years in which to reflect on the life of the teacher with whom he had a special bond, and the gospel which bears his name is also deeply reflective and profound. For you, the gospel of John speaks your spiritual language.
If your inspiration for prayer comes from from God’s creation; the joys and sufferings of God’s people; a powerful sense of thanksgiving, coupled with a strong identification with people in need; a vision of new life in the resurrected Christ. If idealism which puts faith into action, and getting involved, even at great cost to yourself, are the hallmarks of your journey of faith, The School of St Francis is probably where you most strongly identify, because it takes it characteristics from the saint who loved nature, loved ordinary people: a man of integrity and bold action. Of the gospels, Luke - where women, the poor and the sick are especially in evidence - will probably speak most clearly to you.
The purpose behind these various Schools is not to box people in and leave them there to stagnate. The purpose is to help today’s disciples to find their home base, to recognise their familiar territory, from which they are then challenged to set out on their particular journey of faith and explore the many pathways which lie ahead of them.
Martin Luther King said: “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means - keep moving.”
Perhaps the thing that moved me on from my sense that I could not pray as I thought I should pray, was the recognition that I already prayed in ways that I did not discern as prayer.
I knew how important it was for me to pray with you, during our worship services, when we come together as a faith community. But it was being with you, listening to you, thinking about you, worrying about you, and celebrating with you, which opened a pathway of prayer for me. Like the prayer which Jesus gave to his disciples, the formal prayers in our service book have become a skeleon - a framework - which I can step beyond and make my own because of the bonds which hold us together as a community.
I also recognised that on many occasions in my very ordinary day-to-day life, the thoughts which occupy my mind from minute to minute are sometimes prayerful thoughts, and they are one of the ways in which I draw close to God. I no longer ask God for particular outcomes, but I do share my joy and sadness in moments of quiet prayer, when I feel close to you and close to God, and I do it trusting in the love of God for all his creation.
If I had to place myself into one of the Schools of Prayer, my home base would probably be the School of St John because I find, at this point on my journey, I enter into the mystery of prayer rather than seeking a result.
In the final chapter of her book “Taste and See” (DLT, 1999), Margaret Silf tells a story about a birdwatcher who has a special shed in his garden, covered with leaves and branches so that it blends into the environment and does not disturb the birds, and from where he can observe and immerse himself in the sounds and activities of the birdlife around him.
At first, the birdwatcher needed to be inside his shed to focus on the birds and to suppress the noise of the outside world around him so that he could hear the birdsong clearly, But over time, the birdwatcher realised that he had learnt to listen to the birdsong all the time, not just when he went into his special place.
He became tuned in to the birdsong permanently and, even beyond the noise of his everyday life, he noticed all the patterns in the songs, the subtle changes, in fact the whole panorama of sound coming from the birdlife that surrounded him.
Our special times of prayer, here and in other gatherings, correspond to our time in our birdwatcher’s shed where we seek to experience the fullness of God’s voice without distraction - a voice that is always with us, but which can become overwhelmed by the noise of our lives.
There is a place for our special times of prayer; there is a purpose for coming together as a community of disciples to pray together and to pray for each other.
But there is also a challenge to make the whole of life an experience of prayer; life which is lived thankfully in the presence of God; a spiritual life in which we become constantly attuned to the birdsong - the music of the Holy Spirit - beyond the background noise of our world.
We need both, because God lives in our quiet times and our noisy times, in our busy times and in our restful times. And we often draw close to God when only God knows that we are doing so.