The riddle of prayer

A sermon looking at three different gospel accounts of Jesus teaching on prayer; Matthew 6:5-9Luke 11: 5-13, John 14:9-14.

Today is one of those days when a number of things have pointed me towards what I have to say. As I’ve explained earlier several coming events in our churches life (Peterloo pop-up, Day of prayer for Britain and our Science and the Language of Prayer seminar series) relate to prayer. We had our 4th Sunday two weeks ago when we don’t feel compelled to use the lectionary but if we have found Luke’s memory of Jesus’ teaching about the Lord’s prayer. Seeing as we missed out on it then I thought we might pick up that theme today and spend some time thinking about prayer in general and the Lord’s Prayer in particular.

Although prayer is central to a fully Christian life, many Christians find prayer difficult. I remember a couple of months ago Philip ran a series of sessions on prayer after church. In advertising these he emphasised that they were intended for people who found prayer difficult. Having marketed the sessions this way we found them to be better attended than any study group either of us can remember.

I don’t think the difficulty comes form one single issue, there are multiple reasons. Some people lack confidence that they are praying properly (whatever that is). Others may wonder how sensible it is to ask God to intervene in a world that we know functions according to well established scientific laws? Others may have felt that their prayers have gone unanswered in the past? Others may find that they get little out of prayer and it becomes a chore?

So what do we make of Jesus teaching on prayer? Well there is a riddle here, particularly in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. The riddle is that when we read Matthew and Luke’s different accounts of what Jesus taught when he introduced people to the Lord’s prayer we appear to get very different advice on how to pray.

Matthew places Jesus’ teaching of Lord’s prayer within the Sermon on the Mount and leads into it with the sentence:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:7-8

There is Certain sense in this. If we believe that God knows everything then what is the point of spending a long time explaining a situation to Him? Indeed what is the point of telling him about the situation at all? In the light of this autumn’s prayer events – what is the point of a group of Christian’s travelling to London to tell God about the problems that face Britain? Surely God already knows that Britain is going through a trying time?

Luke remember Jesus introducing the Lord’s Prayer at a private conversation amongst the disciples after they had watched him praying himself. Jesus continues afterwards with the parable that I retold to the children earlier and the message could hardly be more different to Matthew’s:

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Luke 11:8

He then goes onto the famous passage on which our hymn was based about “ask and it shall be given unto you”. This teaching is mirrored in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) which Luke relates a little later in his gospel. A widow comes and pesters a judge repeatedly until he finally gives in and grants her the judgement she is after.

But if you think about it, Matthew and Luke appear to be saying quite different things.  Matthew seems to be saying keep you prayers simple and short, because God already knows what you want, and Luke seems to be saying the opposite, keep on reminding God of your prayers and he will award your persistence. How do we make sense of this riddle?

I think the starting point is to look at the Lord’s prayer itself. So often when we talk about prayer, and particularly whether it works or not, we focus on those prayers when we ask God to do something for us. We pray for God to reconcile our country or to heal someone we know who is ill or to rectify a situation is some remote part of the world. These are our prayers of petition and intercession, petition if we are praying for something for ourselves and intercession if we are praying for other people.

Yet these types of prayer are entirely absent from the Lord’s prayer. The closest the Jesus comes in the Lord’s prayer to prayers of petition or intercession is “Give us this day our daily bread”, which is fairly basic request for minimal sustenance. Nowhere else is there any suggestion that we should be praying that God will do what we want him to do. There is absolutely no suggestion that when we pray to God we should offer him a long list of people or situations in the expectation that he should intervene and sort them out.

What we do have is a clear injunction to listen to what God wants

“The kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

Matthew 6:10

Prayer as presented in the Lord’s Prayer is not fundamentally about us telling God what we want – it is about us listening to what God wants. Perhaps we can personalise this a little further – it is about listening to what God wants us to do. Once we have understood his purpose then we also stand a possibility of understanding the part he wants us to play in bringing that purpose about.

With this understanding of prayer, the teaching of Matthew and Luke can make sense together. Matthew says do not use long prayers because God already knows what you want. Of course God knows what you want, what is important however is you finding out what God wants. You shouldn’t use lots of words because the main point of prayer is not you telling God what he should do, but you listening to God telling you what you should do.

Viewing prayer like this also alters how we view Luke’s call for persistence. If the aim of prayer is to understand what God wants rather than persuading him to do what we want then the result of persistence is not to persuade him to change his mind, but for us to eventually understand what it is that he wants. Think about that phrase, “seek and ye shall find”. Thinking about making a real effort to find something. If we persist in our search we don’t expect to change the thing we are looking for. If we are looking for an apple we don’t, by searching persistently, expect to find an orange. What we expect to do is to increase the probability of finding the apple. What will be given to us, if we ask persistently enough is a vision of what God requires of us. If we gather in London, physically or virtually, to pray for this country, our prayer is not to persuade God to implement our vision of what will bring healing to our nation, it is to discern God’s vision of what will bring that about and act accordingly.

In case we have any doubts about prayer as a time for us to discover God’s will and the persistence that is required to do this, we need to move forwards in time to Jesus prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus knew by this time that adhering to God’s vision of the future was to live continue to live a life of truth and love which would inevitably lead to his execution by crucifixion. Despite this his prayer was not to be rescued but to have the strength to persist.

“Yet not my will but thy will be done”.

Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42, Matthew 26:39&42

I want to add on a note about Jesus teaching on prayer as recorded in John’s gospel and specifically on the understanding that:

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

John 14:14

If we are lazy then we take this just as a form of magic words, we assume that if we end our prayer by saying “we ask this in the name of Jesus” then we are in some way guaranteeing that our prayer will be granted. If we’re honest, most of us will recognise that this doesn’t work. How often have each of us asked for something in prayer in Jesus name only to find that nothing changes.

Praying in Jesus name is not just a form of words we add onto a prayer to guarantee its success. Praying in Jesus name is a test of our prayer. Are we really praying for what Jesus wants or for what we want? It goes back to the Lord’s prayer, are we praying to do God’s will or for God to do our will? It is only if we are praying to align ourselves with God’s will, to pray in Jesus name that our prayers have any chance of success.

So what does this mean practically?

Prayer is a conversation and a two-way conversation. It’s not just about telling God what we want – it’s about listening to god telling us what he wants.

We need space to listen. If we are having a conversation with someone who is our equal then we should expect to spend at least as much time listening as speaking. If we are having a conversation with someone who is wiser or more knowledgeable than us, then it is only sensible to spend more time listening than talking. With God we should spend far more time listening than talking.

In listening we need to become aware of how God speaks to us. I’ve spoken to many people who experience prayer just like a conversation with a friend when they hear an almost audible voice. My experience of prayer is more like listening to a voice deep down within myself, a nagging of my own conscience. Listen for how God is speaking to you, and acknowledge his voice however you hear it.

But we also need persistence in that listening. It might be that the first time we listen we cannot hear God responding, or that we do hear but it doesn’t make sense, or that it does make sense but we are not comfortable in what it seems to be requiring of us. The chances are that the more difficult the situation we are praying about the more persistent we will have to be to discern God’ will. God will answer, if we invest enough time in listening.

Finally, if prayer is ultimately about listening to how we can do God’s will, then we should spend more time praying about those issues that we can do something about effectively than those that are remote form us. We should never forget people who are struggling and desperate on the other side of the world, or even this nation, but our prayers to bring about God’s Kingdom are far more likely to be effective if they are about situations in which we have some personal involvement and agency. If you only have a limited time for prayer, and everyone does, then it only makes sense to focus those prayers on people and situations that are close to you.

So let’s pray Biblically:

  • Let’s limit the words we use in order that we can listen to God.
  • Let’s pray persistently to ensure that we hear God’s will and act upon it.
  • Let’s test those prayers to ensure that they are offered and recieved in Jesus’ name and not our own.
  • Let’s focus our prayers on situations where we are likely to be most effective in working in order that God’s Kingdom comes, that His will is done, on earth as it is in Heaven

Praying with hope – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!

I was the third preacher ask to addressed the issue of prayer and given the title Praying with hope and the text, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”  (Mark 9:24). You can read this in context at Bible Gateway.

This is a sermon in a short series on prayer. Philip has asked me to preach this morning on how we can pray with hope. Given the gospel story and specific text he has suggested he would appear to be expecting the emphasis to be on situations where it is difficult to have hope. The issue is particularly important because many of us will go through times when it feels difficult to maintain hope.

The story I shared with the children earlier (Sally’s place) is principally the story of two parents coming to terms with the death of an adult child to disease. Put yourself in their position, where is the hope in that situation? What about people who are facing death themselves or the death of a spouse? Moving away from death many people in our contemporary world are struggling so hard to find employment that pays sufficiently well to support their families, where is the hope in that situation? What about the people sleeping rough on our streets, people who may once have held down a secure job and lived in the heart of a loving family but have fallen off the rails for some reason, where is the hope in that situation? All of us, yes all of us, know directly or indirectly of someone who is living in a situation which appears desperate, where hope is difficult if not impossible. I’m just going to stop for a few seconds to allow you to focus on someone who you know, or know of, who’s situation appears desperate and beyond hope.

It is not just at a personal level that we have a problem. There are so many aspects of our society that seem desperate. A glance at the papers, or a short time listening to the news on television or radio is all that we need to be reminded of this. Our planet is being degraded at an alarming rate and we are already in a period of mass extinction that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died out. There is an epidemic of obesity across the world which is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources of even the most advanced economies. Floods and hurricanes devastate parts of the planet in one way whilst forest fires and drought destroy others. A madman opens fire on people enjoying a music concert for no apparent reason.

In considering a Christian response to such situations we have to start off with an acknowledgement that they are real. Many individuals are living through truly bleak experiences. Our physical world is really threatened. Our society, from many different perspectives, is progressing in the wrong direction. Glib prayers that pretend that God is good and that all will be well if we only trust in him sufficiently are not appropriate. How does it help a parent who has just lost a child to be told to focus on how loving God is? Despair, in many cases, is not a failure to see how wonderful God is, it is a rationale response to the desperate situations that we find ourselves in.

This is a sermon about prayer, how should we respond?

I think it can help to ask where God is in such situations. We can be helped here by a modern understanding of the world. So often in the modern world we see science as an enemy of religion but I think it is more appropriate to see it as an ally. We can use what we now know of how the world is through science to inform how we think about God.

For most of human existence people have simply now known what causes disease or earthquakes or drought and it was assumed that these were, in a very literal sense, acts of God. We now know better. Cancer is not caused by God, it is caused by defects in the DNA within the nucleus of cells within our body. Earthquakes are not caused by God, they are caused by stresses that build up in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. At a societal level, global warming is not caused by God, it is caused by humanity generating too much carbon dioxide and methane. The obesity epidemic is not caused by God, it is caused by people eating too much inappropriate food as they become more affluent. Even mental illness, the focus of our gospel story, is not caused by God, or evil spirits either, but by a dysfunction in the biochemistry of the brain.

Modern science let’s God off the hook. We do not need to see God as the cause of the ills of the world, as the source of our despair, we now have alternative and much more convincing explanations. I am with Isaiah, God is not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.

But, of course, if God isn’t causing these things in the first place then it is illogical for us to pray for him to stop them. If cancer is caused by defects in DNA or earthquakes by seismic forces (literally) then it doesn’t make sense to pray to God and expect these things to stop or even to change.

So what can we pray for? If God, isn’t in the cause of the ills of the world, where is he?

I believe that God is not in the cause of those things that challenge us but in our response to them. God is not in the cancer, he is in the loving response of those affected by cancer. Nothing will ever convince me in the story that I told earlier that Sally’s cancer was in any way ordained by God for any reason that we couldn’t understand then and still don’t understand now. But I know that God was in the way Ray and Barbara and the rest of that family responded and in the building of that creche in Africa.

Nothing will ever convince me that the hurricanes that have recently ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and parts of the United States were summoned by God. But I know that God is in the way that governmental and no-governmental age agencies have responded to the crisis, are providing emergency relief and are re-building communities.

Nothing will ever convince me that God had anything to do with that madman who sat in an upper room at a hotel shooting indiscriminately at peaceful people attending a music concert. But I know that across Las Vegas and beyond, God is in the way that families and churches and communities are comforting the families of those that died and allowing them to come to terms with their loss, and eventually to overcome this and be re-born into new life.

So, if God is in our response, both individually and collectively, to the events that assail us and others in life, how should we pray. We should pray, of course, to allow God into our lives so that we can be agents of that response.

There is a tendency, in many parts of Christianity, which is mistaken in my belief, to see prayer as a passive activity. We can see prayer as a way of handing problems over to God and assuming that this is enough, that, in handing over the problem to God, we have been absolved for taking any responsibility ourselves. In my view prayer is much more an opportunity for God to hand responsibility to us.

Another way of looking at this is of the absolute arrogance of the Christian who expects prayer to be a time when God should listen to them. Maybe we should be more humble and see prayer as a time when we should listen to God. When we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” we are not making a demand of God, we are accepting a purpose and discipline for ourselves.

And this should give us hope, even in the most desperate situations, because however bad any situation becomes, however, bleak the future looks, there is always something we can do to make it better. In the face of personal tragedy there will always be a word of comfort we can offer or a loving embrace or a time simply to sit in silence with a person who cannot face the future. We cannot remove the cause of the tragedy but we can be part of the response.

Societal problems can be more challenging but are still fundamentally something we can respond to through the way we live and the way we give. We may feel that as an individual our actions are worthless but we need a vision of ourselves as part of the people of God. There are two billion Christians on this planet and a further four billion followers of other religions who are all, fundamentally, seeking a better world. Imagine how much could be achieved if, rather, than using prayers as a time to tell God what to do, we all used them as a time to listen to what he is telling us to do.

Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

This was followed by my hymn “God of Love, where are you?

Experiencing God through good and bad

Sermon preached on 17th August 2014. There was one Bible reading (Genesis 1:1-9 and 26-31) and another reading from the Guardian newspaper about recent events in Gaza.

I’ve had a fabulous holiday this year and the two parts of my sermon are going to reflect on different aspects of my experience of God during that time.

For the last week my wife, daughter and I stayed in a self-catering cottage in Pembrokeshire. We are into “wild swimming” particularly in lakes and rivers and had found some wonderful places to do this. On the way back we drove over to the Irfon valley in central Wales to a place called Wolf’s Leap which was highly recommended in our guidebook.

It was absolutely incredible. The valley itself is remote and beautiful but the river in its base runs through an extremely narrow gorge down to about shoulder width at times and several metres high. The gorge links a number of broader pools and includes several small waterfalls. It’s possible to swim up sections of the gorge linking these pools and scramble over those waterfalls. It felt like swimming through a sequence of caves. If you are into that sort of think it was absolute heaven – and it was all ours, there was no-one else there.

The first swim was the best because it was all so new. The three of us swam up one part of the gorge, had a natural jacuzzi sitting under one particularly exhilarating waterfall and then came back down to where our bags were. The three of us got out bubbling with delight and shivering with the cold and just couldn’t stop giggling as we huddled together to get warm and eat our lunch. It felt as if that particular moment in that particular place had been created by God just for us.

Except, of course, there are other explanations. The rock of the gorge, so the geologists tell us, was laid down in the Silurian period between 440 and 420 million years ago when the part of the earth’s crust that we now call Europe was south of the equator and beneath the sea. Over time the sediments in that sea settled on the bottom in layers of silt so deep that the lower level got compressed under the immense pressure to form rock. Great convection currents in the molten rock in the earth’s mantle carried the whole tectonic plate to its current position and lifted it out of the ocean. The immense stresses acted on small imperfections within the rock and caused it to crack. Sheets of ice formed on several occasions and scoured the valley we know today and, over an unimaginably long time, the river that formed in the bottom found one of those cracks and scoured it out to form the gorge we can swim in to today. It is quite possible to tell the whole story as a consequence of random and chaotic processes within a framework of physical laws which govern everything in the Universe. There’s no need to mention God at all.

Modern Christians have to balance these two different stories – one written by priests and poets in the Middle East perhaps 4,000 years ago and the other by scientists over the last 100 years or so. There is no consensus within the church as to how these stories should be balanced. Some of you will regard the biblical version as sacrosanct, others will be convinced by the scientists. Many will fall somewhere in between exclusive belief in either. Some perhaps will find it all too much and not think about it at all.

I’m not going to add in my view this morning. This is partly because it is just one opinion where there are too many already but more importantly because I think it is a colossal distraction. Every minute we spend haggling over how we should interpret our experiences theologically is a minute lost to us to simply immerse ourselves in that experience God and to respond to it.

It simply isn’t important to worry about how I came to experience God so clearly at that particular time and that particular place. What is important is to acknowledge that experience and to celebrate and respond to it.

I emphasize the response because I think this is at least as important as the experience. The response to that day in mid-Wales, and many more throughout our lives, is gratitude – simple thanks. We need moments like this to remind us that all we have needed our god has provided. It’s important for us but it is also important for the whole world. Our world is in a mess now largely because we don’t give thanks for the gifts with which we have already been blessed. We are always striving for more –for new clothes, a better holiday a new i-phone. We are striving for these things so hard that we have little time to care for our neighbours. We produce plenty of food to feed the whole planet but don’t because those of us in the rich world demand more than we need.

If only everyone in the world could recognise the presence of God within their lives and be immersed in thankfulness for that experience and satisfaction with the gifts with which they have already been blessed. It is this, surely, for which we pray when we say “thy Kingdom come”.

We’re going to sing our prayers of thanks. I’ve chosen one of those hymn that has particular resonance to me through memory of previous occasions when I’ve sung it. We chose this hymn for our wedding, we sung it at my grandfather’s funeral and, I hope, others will sing some day at my own funeral. All I have needed thy hand has provided – great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

 Break to sing Great is thy faithfulness

The other experience of God I want to talk about is quite different. I’ve had one of these little boxes (smartphone) for the last two years. I now effectively carry around several national newspapers wherever I go and can read them whenever I want. The day before our trip to the Irfon valley I sat on a Pembrokeshire beach and read the article we’ve just heard.  We’ve heard a lot of reports from the Middle East over the last decade and particularly from Gaza. I’m not sure why this one affected me so much but it left a really empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps it was that the acts it reports were so unnecessary whatever the military objectives of Israeli incursions into Gaza. I felt sick and powerless –but this too, I believe, is an experience of God in my life.

Gaza is just as much a part of creation as that valley in mid-Wales. How on earth can we explain that?

Again there are two stories. One is that God is all-knowing and all powerful and that he is in control of the destiny of the world. It may be difficult to see what his or her purposes are in the events we hear reported in the News but that is because we as humans can never see the mind of God. Now we see darkly as in a mirror, then we shall know face to face. I suspect many of us struggle with this much more than the question of how God is present in the experiences of our life but these are really too sides of the same coin.

There is, of course, an alternative explanation which doesn’t involve God at all. We can pick it up with the Jews winning the Palestinian civil war in 1948 and establishing Israel as an independent state. Many Arabs who had been living in the region felt they had to flee to surrounding areas and some have been living as refuges for over 60 years. There are now estimated to be over 4 million of them. Many fled to the Gaza strip a small enclave of Egyptian territory between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. In the six days war in 1967 Israel invaded Gaza but Egypt closed the border to the south and the refugees have been trapped there ever since. The poverty and desperation led the people of Gaza to rebel politically and militarily. Israel and Egypt have both felt threatened and applied economic sanctions to suppress that threat. This has set up a vicious cycle of growing repression and growing  resentment. The Isreali’s have been so threatened by this that they have felt it necessary to invade three times within the last six years each time bringing even greater devastation to an already desperately poor region of the world.

So again there are two stories. One developed by priests and poets over 4,000 years ago and seeing God as the central player. The other told by historians and sociologists without any reference to God. Again we, as individual, Christians have to balance these two stories because there is no consensus within the wider church as to how they should be balanced.

But again I am not sure that the theological niceties are all that important. Every minute we spend arguing about God’s role in all this is a minute when we are distracted from what is important – our experience of God and our response to it.

I suspect our experience of God is clear and common to us all. It involves experiences of grief, sorrow, anger, desperation and powerlessness, but what about response? What can we do?

I don’t often cite conservative peers in my sermons but Baroness Warsi responded. It’s clear to me that, despite being a Muslim, her experience of God through these terrible stories was the same as ours. As a member of the government she clearly argued passionately that something must be done and when the rest of the government decided otherwise she resigned. If we remonstrate too strongly with our friends in Israel we will lose what influence we have, they argued. If that influence is too weak to prevent the massacre of 1,500 innocent people then can it be worth having?, she replied.

But of course most of us have no place in the government and can’t respond in this way. What can we do? Zoe was asked to read this morning because she did something. She wrote an e-mail to the stewards last Monday expressing her horror in what was going on in Gaza and Iraq and suggesting a retiring collection for the people of that region after the service today. Many of you may already have responded to the news stories through giving through a variety of channels already and we give thanks for that.

I also feel that we can respond by praying for the poor and oppressed and broadcasting those prayers to the whole of society. So often the political authorities focus on the agenda of the rich and powerful. They can look after themselves, what we really need is an agenda focussing on the needs of the poor and impotent. Every morning as I climb the stairs at work I am confronted by a poster with the words of an Auschwitz survivor:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. (Elie Weissel).

It is through prayer that Christians can break that silence.