Praying when Praying seems hard

Below is a link to the sermon this morning at St Peter and St John. I was speaking about how to keep on praying when we are tempted to give up.  My thoughts in this sermon go hand in hand with the next Blog post (not quite published yet) called ‘Don’t Fall Out of the Box – what to pray for when you don’t know what to pray for’

The book I refer to in this sermon is Birthing the Miraculous by Heidi Baker

Heidi baker book

Prayer: a ‘far away land’ or a place near to hand?

Yesterday I spent 45 mins trying to teach myself how to upload video clips from my PC onto my ipad. Not an idle waste of time but something I needed to master for Messy church next week. After much frustration and very little progress, I sat back and said (out loud),

“Oh Lord if I don’t get anywhere soon with this, I’ll have to move on to a different task”

computer-frustration

It wasn’t really a prayer, I was merely venting my exasperation.

But the very next click on the mouse produced a breakthrough – a video suddenly appeared in the necessary place.

You can make what you like of that coincidence but it was a reminder to me that I am never alone.

I laughed out-loud, “I didn’t think you were listening Lord! I hadn’t really meant to bother you”.

If I really believe that the divine presence and divine power is always right along side me, why do I so often forget to pray?

Then, this morning I was reading Eugene Peterson on prayer – he was commenting on Ephesians 3:14 ‘I bow my knees before the Father’. What he said was so good I’ll quote it at length

The physical act of bowing is an act of reverence. It is also an act of voluntary defencelessness. While on my knees I cannot run away. I cannot assert myself. I place myself in a position of willed submission, vulnerable to the will of the person to whom I’m bowing. It  is an act of retreating from the action so that I can perceive what the action is without me in it, without me taking up space, without me speaking my piece. On my knees I am not longer in a position to flex my muscles, to strut or to cower, hide in the shadows or show off on stage. I become less to that I can become aware of more – I assume a posture that lets me see what reality looks like without the distorting lens of my timid avoidance or my aggressive domination. I set my agenda aside for a time and become still, present to God. 

This posture is not in vogue in a world in which the media, our parents, our employers, our teachers and, perhaps most demanding of all our egos are telling us to make the most of ourselves.

(From Practise Resurrection)

I left my reading time challenged to get out the way in my conversations with God. but my next task was to walk the dog, I wasn’t expecting any more revelations about prayer. I was wrong. Hitting the shuffle button on my music playlist the song that came on was called Faraway Land. I’ve heard it many times before but never realised it was about prayer – going to that quiet place inside and listening for the Father’s voice. It struck me so forcefully I listened to it three times straight over and over. I’ll post a link if you want to hear it online:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPn-qpXbW_0

 (it’s performed by Alison Krauss  and Union Street)

When years seem like days to me
No time on my hands
I run away to a place in me to a faraway land

When home seems so far from me
Heaven’s lights grow dim
It’s just as far as my deepest heart
Where my heart’s father lives

His quiet voice speaking in silence every day
If I will only listen to the words he has to say
I’ll walk in his spirit and see him in my face
I will live, ’cause he will live in my place

When life seem so hard to bear
When shadows look real
The circumstance is your father’s care
Don’t find faith by what you feel

If you have been running too
Stop now in your tracks
Turn again to the one in you
And put your burdens on his back

His quiet voice speaking in silence every day
If I will only listen to the words he has to say
I’ll walk in his spirit and see him in your face
I will live, ’cause he will live in my place

When years seem like days to me
No time on my hands
I run away to a place in me to a faraway land

Songwriters
RON BLOCK

I’ve heard people speak about holy places or special moments as ‘thin places’. Times when the division between our natural reality and spiritual reality seem very thin. I’m sure there are such moments and places but it would also be good to remember that the ‘faraway land’ is never as far as I think.

 

Listening in on Heaven

Last Sunday I was preaching about why the Bible contains ‘horrible histories’ (or are they ‘helpful stories’? Maybe they are both). Almost as an aside I mentioned the idea of living with music of heaven humming in our heads.  When we know ourselves to be in the middle of a difficult story with many twists, turns and uncertainties, it’s really helpful to remind ourselves that a story is defined by the way the it ends.

In Revelation chapter 4-5 we sneak a peek into Heaven, all the imagery is symbolic, some of it is difficult to understand but the some things are easy to grasp:  there is singing, there is hope and there is joy.

As usual Tom Wright puts it better than me: ‘our lives are to be lived in the light of the praise of Heaven… Biblical faith is not a matter of looking away from ourself and trying our best. It is a matter of…seeing the world as God sees it, as it really is’

and again

 ‘Faith is not the mysterious ability to sail through life with a secret key that unlocks all the doors. Faith is the willingness to think and act on the basis of what we know of God (which may be very little) and to trust him that he will not let us down’  ( from Small Faith, Great God, SPCK)

Today I wandered into a tiny country church on my day off.  If I’m honest I was hoping it would be one of those ‘thin places’ where the curtain between earth and heaven seems almost translucent. It looked hopeful. As I opened the door, the lights went on which was a very welcoming touch even though the place was deserted. However my solitude was quickly gate-crashed by the arrival of two noisy, friendly, chatty (but mostly just noisy), cleaning ladies who set about sweeping, polishing and chattering with gusto.

Oh well, perhaps there wouldn’t be a ‘holy moment’ here after all… and then I had a look around anyway and found a file of random prayers and photos left out on a table.  And there it was. This brilliant prayer. It begins from the viewpoint of a bystander watching the scene in Revelation. It  reminds me to look up, to listen in, to remember the end of the story, to keep going, to have faith…

(George Appleton 1902 -1993)

‘Sit!’ ‘Pray!’ commanding my dog to pray…

This morning I confused my dog.

For about a week now I have been listening to the New Testament on my ipod while I’ve taken Bobs for his half hour walk in the mornings. This morning we reached the story of the persistent widow, a story Jesus told to teach us to pray and not to give up praying.

We reached this story just as we reached a road to cross. But I need to  back-track and explain that Bobby is not allowed to cross roads without first sitting on command.  And all those dog training classes taught me to deliver the  command ‘SIT’  with confidence and sufficient volume to cause every dog within 10 yards to put their bottom on the floor!

Here is a picture of the desired effect: it’s an instruction Bobby knows well. 

So picture the two of us walking along, approaching a road to cross, me engrossed in the podcast.

I can offer no explanation for what happened next, other than a crossed wire in my brain: we reached the road and, with my usual volume and sense of authority…

I commanded Bobby to … ‘PRAY!’

He looked at me quizzically.

I shouldn’t put words in his head but there could have been a speech bubble with the words ‘You want me to do what?‘ or maybe ‘You’re getting awfully bossy for a nearly vicar’.

Having looked around sheepishly to see if anyone might have observed me on a street corner instructing my dog to pray (phew, no-one had), I then collapsed into a fit of giggles over the idea that I had made myself appear too terrified to cross roads, unless my dog prayed first!  Bobby on the other hand had sat anyway, hopeful that this might be an acceptable response to my peculiar command. He gave me a superior look. 

The really funny thing about this little incident was the timing. Over my early morning ‘pre-Bobby’ coffee I had been reading Luke 11 and came to verse 9, ‘Ask and it will be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you’. 

 ‘At last!’ I wrote in my journal ‘finally  a clear statement from Jesus that isn’t cryptic, obscure or downright confusing. I’ve been reading through the gospels and making a little list of things which what after all these years, I still don’t understand* and then I thought a bit longer and realised even this really clear statement raises a question for me: so why doesn’t God answers my prayers?  I could probably come offer up with some answers that question, I am at theology college after all (‘ he answers them more often than I realise’,’ ‘no’ is also a legitimate answer’,’ the answers I’m given don’t always look like the answers I’d like’) but this morning the quiet voice I recognise as the Spirit, said ‘It’s because you don’t pray’

‘Yes, I do’

‘No, you don’t’

”Yes I do!’

Tiring of this panto exchange, God sighed and I shut up.

‘You don’t spend as much time praying as you spend worrying , whining, complaining,  mentally trying to wiggle your way out of praying or rationalising why I might not answer your prayer anyway’

‘Okay, I conceded. That’s probably true’.

I picked up my little notebook, the one in which I write all the names of the people I pray for regularly (Heaven help you if you are in there, I’m doing my best but am still not very good at it! Mind you it is heaven’s help that you require, its actually very little to do with me).  On the front I have stuck a quotation written out for me by a friend ‘Do not think that God’s delays are God’s denials. Hold on; hold fast; hold out. Patience is genius’ (Comte de Buffon). I gave a wry smile and headed downstairs for the dog walk and my daily podcast. When the reader began at Luke 18, the story of the persistent widow, I gave another wry smile. I think someone might be trying to tell me something here: as far as prayer is concerned don’t analyse it, don’t ponder on it, don’t question it, JUST DO IT (as Nike would say).

With Bobby looking quizzically up me, I realised I had something to learn from my dog: rare is the moment when I drop to my knees on the command ‘PRAY’.  If only I did so as promptly as Bobby’s bottom hits the floor on the command SIT!  Then maybe Luke 11 verse 9 wouldn’t give me any problems.

ps. the excellent New Testament podcasts can be downloaded for free from http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/support-us/ygtt-2010/ there are 40, each 28 minutes long. The text is performed by the Riding Lights Theatre Company which means there is a variety of voices which helps keep your interest as I tune out to one voice going on and on. (Mind you, a ‘Jamaican’ John the Baptist is a little odd!) In 40 sittings you can hear the whole of the New Testament.

*Here are a few other cryptic comments from Jesus that I’m currently baffled by: comments, clarification or pearls of wisdom most welcome: Luke 13:24, Luke 16:9, Mark 4:15

When God’s not answering your prayers

Last week I preached on Signs and Wonders in the Early Church. But I have to be honest with you when I saw the reading for the day,  the story of Peter raising Dorcas from the dead, my heart sank. It’s a scary passage to preach on: as far as extreme discipleship goes raising the dead is right up there with treading on serpents and walking on water and it might not surprise you to know that I haven’t done either of those things either.

It would have been tough call even if I’d been in a ‘good place’ but I wasn’t.  I was feeling battered, weak, inadequate and ineffective. God hadn’t seemed to be answering my prayers either for myself or for anyone else I prayed for. Disheartened wouldn’t be too strong a word for how I felt.  However three days before the sermon, I went on a retreat day. I was still ranting on about what on earth I could say and generally moaning about a heap of  other stuff God didn’t seem to care about. My spiritual director listened carefully, made several wise observations but most importantly sent me out to spend three hours in a beautiful garden. I was given an orange blanket and a copy of  Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. Wrapped in the blanket and looking for all the world like the victim of some natural disaster, I soaked up the spring sunshine and read the book (wonderful, wonderful book). Better though than the book, the blanket or the garden was Jesus himself who came to sit with me.

Well, I did go on to write the sermon, although I don’t for a moment think that God turned up just so I’d have something to say. He came because I needed to be reminded that he was on my side. And he didn’t just say it once: the following day, I ‘chanced’ to pick up a true story I myself had written 16 years ago,  I’d forgotten all about this incident but reading it again was like an echo of my conversation with Jesus the day before.

It’s all about how we feel when God seems not to come through for us:

Matthew my son started nursery age 3. He  is now 19 and yes, he has given permisson for me to tell this story. Matthew didn’t want to go to nursery. He found the idea of being left in a strange place with lots of noisy children quite unpalatable. It didn’t do him any good to tell him about the sand-pit, or the train set, the Lego or the playdough: as far as he was concerned the only good thing about nursery was coming home at the end. As it seemed unrealistic to expect him to enjoy it, I turned my attention to reassuring him that he would survive it.  I found out that the session always ended with a group story time, so I promised him that ‘Mummy would come back after the story’. This reassured him on two counts. It told him I would come back and when I would come back, 11.45 being a bit meaningless to a three year old.  So leading up to his first day, we repeated this promise like a mantra, ‘So you’ll come back after the story?’ ‘Yes, I’ll come back after the story’.

On his first day I left him making a noble attempt to be very brave, mouthing the words of the well-worn promise through the window at him as I left. He nodded solemnly.  What happened next was recounted to me by the nursery leader when I duly returned at the appointed time.

Matthew had made the best of the situation for about half an hour and had then decided he’d had enough and ‘could he please go home now?’ Faithful to the formula I’d given him he’d trotted over to the book corner, selected a story and put himself on the knee of an unsuspecting helper. Quite naturally, she read him the story. When they reached the end he looked round expectantly and then burst into tears. ‘Mummy said she’d come back after the story’ he managed to blurt out between heart-rending sobs. He had not been able to make Mummy magically reappear and it had taken the helpers a good twenty minutes to calm him down.*

It can often feel that God lets us down in the same way that I let Matthew down that day. He fails to come through for us in the way we’d like and our distress is made all the greater when we shake our fist and say ‘You promised…’  God has indeed given us many wonderful promises about his love and his power but we cannot control God by quoting these at him.  When God isn’t answering our prayers we have to conceed we may not know the full story. We trust in people who know more than us. That’s why phrases like ‘Trust me I’m a doctor’ or ‘Trust me I’m your mother’ work. On that afternoon in the garden, it was as if Jesus was saying ‘Trust me, I’m your friend’. If you’re not given the miracle you  want, can you trust me enough to receive the miracle of my transforming presence in the midst of pain and confusion?

If you want to hear the sermon, here’s the link. If it doesn’t work just go to m20 on my website list. It’s called ‘Signs and Wonders in the Early Church’ but ‘When God’s not answering your prayers’ would have been a more accurate title.

http://www.stmatthews.org.uk/Media/Player.aspx?media_id=43235&file_id=46368

*First published in The Art of Imperfect Parenting by Sheila Bridge Hodder and Stoughton 1995

  My ‘brave’ boy!

The Knots Prayer

 
 
 
 

Somethings look like they shouldn't be possible, but they are!

Dear God,

 Please untie the knots

that are in my mind,

my heart and my life.

Remove the have nots,

the can nots and the do nots

that I have in my mind.

Erase the will nots,

may nots, and

might nots that find

a home in my heart.

Release me from the could nots,

would nots and should nots

that obstruct my life.

And most of all, dear God,

I ask that you remove from my mind

my heart and my life all of the am nots

that I have allowed to hold me back,

especially the thought

that I am not good enough.

Amen.

I love that final line! ‘The thought that I’m not good enough’ Because that is the WHOLE point – I’m NOT good enough, nobody is. But since when was that problem to God?  

‘The great thing about grace is that it makes life unfair’

That quote and this brilliant little prayer (forwarded by someone called Jo Bowman) was sent to me by www.mikeysFunnies.com 

This one says so much about all the ways in which  we hold ourselves back from being all that God intends us to be.