St Mary’s 28/7/19, 10.45am
Colossians 2.6-15 Luke 11.1-13
About 10 years ago I had an argument with the Walt Disney Company about a damaged wind-up rotating musical Princess Aurora. I tried repeatedly to get satisfaction from the place of purchase, and the next level up, but without joy. Now the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Disney was one Robert Allen Iger. He still is CEO actually, on a salary of $65m p.a. So I had a guess at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and wrote to tell the whole tale. Soon after I received an apology from one of their quality managers and a replacement princess. And everyone lived happily ever after.
We’re all familiar with the frustration of trying to get to speak to the right person about a problem. And then you may have to be careful how you put your case. You want to be persuasive but reasonable. You negotiate carefully, trying to show that it’s in their interest to listen and act.
That’s the way of the world. And when it comes to prayer, all too often we can imagine it’s similar hard work. What’s the chance that God will pay attention to me? How can I impress God or earn his favour? Should I try multiple routes, for example, by dropping a pebble in the pool and lighting a candle?
Today we have the great privilege of eavesdropping as the disciples of Jesus ask him a straightforward question, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. And he gives an equally straightforward reply.
When you pray, say, Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, and so on. It’s the Lord’s Prayer, as we now call it. And the beginning of it is most instructive. ‘Our Father’. When we say the Lord’s Prayer together, make sure you say those words. Don’t join in after that. That’s where prayer begins and ends. We are called to address God in just the same way Jesus did, as Father. Through Jesus we are brought into the same relationship with God that Jesus knew. We are children, part of the family of God.
And more, it is because we know God as Father, and Jesus Christ as the Son, and that we pray in the strength of the Holy Spirit, that prayer is not about me, an individual, trying to communicate with another individual. It’s not about making contact with a being who is distant in terms of status or geography. Yes, we pray to God as to another person, in a sense, but we also stand united with God in Jesus Christ, and our prayer is God’s own prayer in us through the Holy Spirit. Prayer is about God’s life happening in and through us.
That’s both easy and difficult. It’s easy because it’s not about us or anything we achieve. Jesus didn’t answer the disciples by saying, ‘Well if you want to learn how to pray you’ll have to sign up for my six month programme. And that’s just for level one prayer.’
In just 20 seconds he had taught them to pray. An often quoted comparison is that the Lord’s Prayer contains 69 words, the Ten Commandments 297 words, the Declaration of Independence 310 words, and the EU directive on duck egg exports 28,911 words. Actually it’s a myth about the duck eggs. There is no such directive, but an alternative would be the papers for last Thursday’s St Mary’s Nantwich PCC meeting, which contained over 20,000 words.
Prayer is not about effort or expertise or training or complex texts. The essence of prayer is for you to stop and let God’s life come through. That’s why it’s easy, because there’s nothing for us to do but to be there in God’s presence, using words as simple as the Lord’s Prayer to hold us there, or maybe using no words at all. Just yourself, being honest, your heart open, stopping all your plans and calculations.
And that’s why it’s hard, because we want to be in control. We’d like prayer to be a task like all the others, something we achieve, something we get to be good at. But no-one is an expert in prayer. If we get better at anything it is simply in being present, in being ourselves, trusting that whatever state we’re in, prayer is happening.
Jesus illustrated prayer by telling a story of a man who persistently nags his friend in the middle of the night. It’s not told to give us a picture of God as someone who needs to be roused into action. It’s told to encourage us not to be polite in prayer. Just ask, and keep on asking. Don’t worry about God’s feelings. Tell it how it is.
There’s a line in the Lord’s Prayer which worries some people: lead us not into temptation. It was in the news last month because the Catholic Church has changed its Italian version to say ‘Do not let us enter into temptation’. That’s trying to be more polite to God. It’s letting God off the hook.
I think Jesus taught us to ask God not to lead us into temptation. Because it sometimes feels like he does. The Gospels say that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. And when we pray we need to tell it how it is.
Prayer is not about being theologically correct, or good mannered. It’s about the cry of the human heart. The deepest longing and need laid bare. All the fracture and disorder of our lives and of the world put at God’s door. God can take it. He doesn’t need us to defend him or his reputation. On the contrary, he has made our voice his own.
Here at 6pm this evening there will be a service of Choral Evensong when the choir will sing the most bleak and miserable verses of the whole of the Psalter. Psalm 88. You may think that’s not much of an encouragement to attend, but thank God this prayer is in Scripture.
O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee… my life draweth nigh unto hell… I am so fast in prison… even from my youth up thy terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind.
And so it goes on. Many Psalms include verses of lament and protest but then end up with praise and hope. Not this one. There’s not a chink of light. It ends in utter loneliness: ‘My lovers and my friends hast thou put away from me: and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight’.
And yet these words take their place in Holy Scripture. It’s the voice of someone who has suffered a life of deep depression. The pain is articulated and nothing else. No pious sentiments. It’s as real and raw as prayer gets.
And the truth of the Gospel is that these are not just words hurled at God. They are God’s words. In Jesus Christ, God has made our voice his own. Jesus knew the psalter and prayed these words, and cried out in abandonment on the cross.
Many Bible versions translate the last phrase of this Psalm as ‘The darkness is my only friend’. That may remind you of a song. The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel. Hello darkness my old friend… People writing songs that voices never share… Silence like a cancer grows… my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence.
You say, isn’t silence a good thing when it comes to prayer? Not this silence. Because this is about voices which aren’t allowed to be heard – whether grief or protest or searing pain. And that won’t do.
It’s a great pity that the Psalms are so little used in the Church. They are a far more honest hymn book than Ancient & Modern. They give us a voice – if not always for ourselves, then on behalf of others, representing the truth of the human condition.
And that’s the good news. What God wants from you in prayer is simply you, telling honestly what it’s like to be you, and what it’s like to be the Church of England, and what it’s like to be Nantwich, and what it’s like to be the United Kingdom.
Lord, teach us to pray. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.