July 28 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6:19; Luke 11:1-13*
[This Sunday is designated Social Services Sunday: the readings suggested for that celebration are Micah 6:8-12; James 2:14-17; Matthew 25:31-45.]
Theme: Prayer is the obvious topic this week. "Let Us Pray", or "Lord, Teach us to Pray" come immediately to my mind. But I rather like "Heartfelt Prayer", for reasons that I hope will become clear shortly.
Introduction. We open with what I have always thought is one of the more bizarre passages of Scripture, and certainly one of the more unorthodox passages on how to pray! In my less reverential moments I think of it as "the Dutch Auction Approach to Praying" (for very obvious reasons). Our second reading does not directly relate to prayer, although prayer is one of the fundamental ways in which we may "continue to live our lives in Christ...abounding in thanksgiving". Our gospel passage gives the kernel of our Lord's teaching on prayer, the first third at least of which we regularly follow, albeit sometimes a little too automatically. (An elderly priest friend once warned me early in my priesthood that reciting the Lord's Prayer is rather like walking – easy enough until you think what you're doing when you may well trip yourself up!)
Introduction. For the last two or three weeks I have had a little story buzzing around in my head. It comes right at the beginning of a book called Field of Compassion by Judy Cannato. A brief version of the story goes like this. A man was walking along a beach one day, on his way to inspect a pier, when he heard a strange noise. Looking around he found it was coming from a young whale that was stuck on a sandbar a few yards out into the water. There was nobody else in sight so the man decided he had to do something. He waded out to the whale and when he got to the agitated creature he was uncertain what to do. He reached out his hands and placed them on the whale's body. Immediately the animal stopped thrashing about and became calm and still. Then the man decided the best thing he could do was to try to turn the whale around until it was facing the deeper water. Very slowly and gently he managed to do this; and when he felt that the time was right he started to push the whale in the right direction. To his great relief and delight the whale freed itself and headed out to sea.
Whale strandings are, of course, common around our shores so this story probably does have much of an impact on us at first reading. But think about it for a moment. Why did the man get involved? What evolutionary, much less economic, advantage did he gain by getting himself soaking wet, using up time he needed to complete his inspection of the pier, and risking injury from the thrashing animal? None. What did he know about whale recuing? Nothing? So why did he do what he did? The clue is in the title to the book. Another clue is this: I meant to use this story in the Notes two weeks ago, as part of my comments on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Think about that for a moment: who is my neighbour, asked the lawyer, and in response Jesus told him the Parable. The real question is not, who is my neighbour, but to whom am I called to be a neighbour? Two thousand years ago the answer was any human being in need. And today? Jesus could use Judy Cannato's story to teach the lawyers (and the rest of us) that we are called to be neighbours to all creatures in need.
And to lead us into this week's topic on prayer. When is our prayer most real, less likely to be pro forma? When we care. When (in the case of intercessory prayer) we are motivated by compassion (as the Samaritan was [Luke 10:33], and as the whale-rescuer was). Yes, it would be marvellous if we cared as deeply for each and every sick person in the entire world as we do for one of our own family members stricken by illness, but that's not always the case, is it? We all have fields of compassion, we might say, and our prayer is at its most heartfelt when someone within that field is in need. Notice how often the Scriptures (especially the Psalms) refer to someone "crying out to the Lord". That's code for praying heartfelt prayers. If we're not crying out to the Lord, when we're interceding for someone, then perhaps we should be quiet until we care enough to start crying out. [We could use that prayer time more profitably to ask the Lord for an increase in our compassion – remembering that compassion means to enter into that other person's suffering, to suffer with them. Heartfelt prayer is not for the fainthearted! ]
And here's another thing about prayer that we can learn from the Good Samaritan and the whale-rescuer; compassion needs to lead us into service. We are called to heal the sick, and not just feel really, really sorry for them. Which reminds me of another helpful little story, this one from my own experience. Many years ago I belonged to a small church where we were encouraged to offer our own prayers during "the open spot" in The Prayers of the People". One member regularly prayed for an elderly neighbour who was very lonely. Eventually the Vicar asked this intercessor to tell our prayer group a bit more about this neighbour of hers. She told us that the woman had come to New Zealand as a refugee many years ago, she had no family in New Zealand, she hardly went out, she never seemed to have visitors, etc, etc. So the Vicar asked the intercessor if she might go and visit the neighbour. "Oh, no!" she said. "I wouldn't want to intrude on her! That wouldn't be right."
A final helpful word of wisdom – sadly I have forgotten the author, but I have pondered it often over the years since I first came upon it. Anon said, "Prayer is not a means by which we attempt to change God's mind about something; rather it is a means by which we give God an opportunity to change our minds about something."
Genesis. Which, of course, is flatly contradicted by our first reading this morning! Abraham is trying everything he can to get God to change his mind about the threatened punishment of Sodom. Subtlety is not his middle name – and you won't find a prayer like this in an Anglican Prayer Book! But it surely deserves inclusion in any manual on prayer, Anglican or otherwise. First, this passage a wonderful illustration of the idea that prayer should be a dialogue, not a monologue. How often do we "say" our prayers, and then leave without giving God an opportunity to have his say? In fact, here the Lord starts the dialogue: either directly or indirectly he lets Abraham know what he has in mind for Sodom. Secondly, Abraham "cries out" in protest against this: he is bold (honest) almost to a fault. Heartfelt prayers are always more truthful than polite. Abraham cares, but notice what he cares about. He cares about God's "reputation", his honour, his Name, we might say. And he cares so much that a short pro forma prayer is out of the question. He keeps on praying, earnestly and passionately, seemingly bargaining with God. [No doubt the theologically correct thing to say is that God is testing Abraham, appearing reluctant to act justly to enable Abraham to recognise his own strong feelings for what is right and proper to God's own nature. But that's not really what it sounds like, is it? And finally, there is the interesting question of whether or not Abraham's prayer is "granted". Read on through chapter 19 and decide for yourself – but note that some scenes may offend some readers.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you agree or disagree that intercessory prayer must be motivated by compassion?
· What strikes you most about Abraham's prayer in this passage? How would you describe his attitude towards God? Is he really concerned for God's "holy name", or is he worried about the inhabitants of Sodom?
· Can you recall an occasion when you have taken a similar approach in prayer – perhaps in a case where "it just isn't fair" (code for God isn't acting fairly here)?
· When you pray do you usually give God "equal speaking time", or are your prayers inclined to be monologues?
· Read verse 33 (omitted from today's passage for some inexplicable reason). Think about it. Who makes the first move away – God or Abraham? So God both initiates and ends the dialogue. What lesson is there for you in that?
Colossians. We continue from last week with the breathtaking vision of St Paul of the all-embracing "reach" of Christ. He makes explicit what is implicit in the realisation that Christ is God incarnate: everything we understand about, for example, the omnipresence of God must equally be said about Christ. Thus, if it is true that we live and move and have our being in God, then it is equally true that we live and move and have our being "in Christ". But this week's passage also has an extraordinarily modern tone to it. It screams "Dawkins!" at us. Verse 8 (see also verse 4) shows that there is nothing new in the "philosophy" of Messrs Dawkins, Geering and Harris under the sun. And I suspect that the modern Church, at least in its Anglican manifestation, has much to learn from verses 16-19 (perhaps the reason why these verses are reduced to optional status in the Lectionary – they are too near our ecclesiastical bone). How often we get obsessed with relatively unimportant, or at best peripheral, issues and obscure the fundamental truths as set out in verses 8-15.
Taking it Personally.
· Read through verses 6 -14 slowly and prayerfully. Remind yourself that the "you" addressed in these verses includes you! When you are sure you have fully absorbed the message (and taken it very personally) give thanks.
· Focus on verses 6-7, 10 and 12. Notice the tense: these are not things promised to you for the future – they are things that have already occurred – they are part of your present reality. Give thanks again.
· Make your own list, using verses 16-19 as a guide, of the side issues, trivia, and other irritations that have distracted you along the path of faith. Pray for the gift of discernment. And abound in thanksgiving!
Luke. This passage is not quite as strange as the one from Genesis, but each of its three parts has an element of strangeness all its own. Notice first that the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. Isn't that strange? These are adult Jewish men and they don't know how to pray? Notice, too, that the question arises after they have watched him praying – a reminder that prayer is essentially something practical, something we do (or don't do). They are not asking for a master-class on the theoretical under-pinning of prayer – they want to know how to do it. They refer to the example of John the Baptist who taught his disciples how to pray. (It would be great to know what he taught them!) Perhaps this underlines the corporate nature of this teaching: Team John prays that way, and Team Jesus prays this way. It is our prayer, not my prayer. Even when I pray it alone, I pray it with the whole Body of Christ. Verses 5-8 use one of the stranger images of God we will find in Scripture, but the point is clear enough: persistence is a key element of heartfelt prayer. And verses 9-13 reminds us that the real basis of prayer is God's love and goodness – even if its apparent assurance of 100% success is a little strange.
Taking It Personally.
· Start with the Lord's Prayer. Recite it slowly, carefully, "tasting" each phrase. Notice how it starts and ends with praise. Do you usually start and end your prayers with praise?
· Personalise the first petition along the lines: your kingdom come ever more fully in my life, your will be done in my life. Is that really what you want? If not, should you abstain from reciting the Lord's Prayer?
· Are you persistent in prayer, or more likely to "do a oncer"?"
· Focus on verses 9-10. Do they accurately reflect your actual experience?
· In respect of prayer, do you suffer from performance anxiety? Have you ever asked anyone to teach you how to pray? Does your local church offer teaching on prayer? If not, shouldn't it?