What is Prayer? (II)


WHAT IS PRAYER?

for the Pastoral Care Group at  St George’s, Dunsborough

 23 April, 2015

On February 13 in 2008, I was on my way to a meeting south of Melbourne. I remember because I caught a taxi at 9 a.m. and heard on the taxi radio the Prime Minister’s apology to Australia’s indigenous people, and I was very moved.

Our meeting was at the Community of the Holy Name, a community of Anglican nuns, and lasted three days. Mother offered me a lift to the airport coach to save the cost of a taxi on the way back. Sister Jenny, who I hadn’t met, jumped at the chance to volunteer to drive me to the coach stop. She talked non-stop. She wanted to know about my back, why my mobility was limited, and why I was putting up with pain.

Surely I should be able to fix it by prayer. I told Sister I had prayed, and as far I was concerned, I had been completely healed. I could walk – which was in doubt before my operation in 1969, and I had had 30 years of rich living as a husband and father, a school chaplain, a parish priest, head of an inter-church organisation (YouthCARE). In fact, I rather resented what Sister was saying, and in my mind, I christened her Sister Grinch.

She insisted that I should go to a healing service with Margaret Court when I got home. We parted, not very happily, because everything she said to me about prayer was rubbing me up the wrong way.

I know the theory: we are God’s children. God wants the best for us. There is nothing good that we cannot ask from God, and God will give it. Simply have faith. The implication of Sister Grinch’s sermonising was that I didn’t have enough faith. That may be true, but it was certainly not for her to judge me. If God doesn’t give what we ask, then there must be a reason: God must be teaching us something. Again, that may be true, but I experience life as more random than that. I believe God is in control of the big picture, but I don’t expect to work out the reason for everything. I’d go mad as a pastor trying that approach on the kids I buried who had committed suicide; or the boy in Special Ed. whose body simply gave up living on his 14th birthday.

God is not like Santa Claus, granting our wishes simply because we ask. Rae and I prayed hard that our son would be OK, that he wouldn’t have a problem, but he’s still struggling with mental and physical illness at 33 years old.

So our personal experience has coloured our ideas of prayer. In a nutshell, prayer for me is not about curing people from problems, prayer is a way of drawing closer to God and to the people prayed for. Of course, I’ve seen some extraordinary healings, and I celebrate those. But they don’t seem to be God’s usual way of working with people.

So I see prayer a bit differently:

Firstly, it is not primarily about asking God for things. We pray because Jesus prayed. We pray because, as we follow Jesus, prayer keeps us close to Father, Son and Spirit. Prayer keeps us, as St Paul says, in Christ.

 Secondly, prayer is recognising that we live in a broken world, as Jesus did. Jesus had the courage both to face the crowds of the sick and lame in Capernaum, and to move on to other villages and towns, leaving behind many not healed. He forgave those who betrayed him, and those who nailed him to the cross. He gazed on the world with love. That gaze can be our prayer too.

Thirdly, prayer is offering ourselves in love and service to that broken world, as Jesus did. Prayer is often only holding out our heart – but our heart is powerful. The gift of our solidarity with the suffering can be transformative. There is nothing I can say to someone dying of liver cancer. It is painful and quick, often only a few weeks from diagnosis to death. But I can gaze with love on the person – not look away – and stand with the person in prayer, and that can be the gift that truly heals, that opens up for that person a new wholeness in their last pilgrimage on earth.

Sometimes the prayer of solidarity turns into something practical that only I can do. Instead of telling God to do something, the prayer empowers me to act. A word, a card, a recommendation, an insight, a hug. But these practical prayers are only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible heart of prayer, the 90% that is mystery, is the solidarity, the standing with the suffering person.

Of course, there’s much more to prayer than that. When teaching kids or adults new to the faith, I use a mnemonic:

A.C.T.S.

A for Adoration. All prayer starts in praise and worship.

C for Confession. We can only pray when we acknowledge the distance between us and God.

T for Thanksgiving. Our whole life should be Eucharistic, one big Thank You to God; and

S – and note it’s last – for Supplication. We ask God to help those who suffer. This is the portion of prayer we’ve been discussing today, and only really scratching the surface of intercessory prayer or Supplication.

We can’t help praying as Christians, because we can’t help loving. Prayer is a way of loving a person or people in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that!

* * * *

Handout : Click here:  What is prayer

What is Prayer (I)?


Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent 2015 St George’s, Dunsborough Gospel: John 12:20-33 Some weeks ago, a friend emailed to say that his dear friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I could tell this story dishonestly and say that I prayed for his friend and the tumour turned out to be benign, and we gave thanks to God. Those facts happen to be true; but actually what he asked me was not to pray from him and his friend, but, “What is prayer?” That’s a much harder question. Especially as we know that many times, most times, we pray for someone to be healed, and it doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We don’t need much experience in prayer to learn that God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus granting our wishes just because we ask. In fact, it would be a little scary if our prayers caused anything to happen. If there was any cause behind the fact that our friend’s tumour was not life-threatening, apart from random cell growth, that cause is God, not our prayers. God heals, not our prayers. We don’t begin to know what to ask. We do learn that sometimes we batter on heaven’s door for a healing and God does not seem to answer. We also learn that sometimes God surprises with a healing that is unexpected and even un-prayed for. Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche communities where the mentally disabled live in community with the able. He tells the story of the parents of Vincent, a mentally disabled boy in Bangladesh. The parents felt great pain because of their son’s disability. They prayed and prayed that God would heal him. They were surprised when God answered their prayer – but not in the way they expected. They changed, not Vincent. They discovered they were more compassionate. They discovered that God had given them more strength to care for Vincent. They saw Vincent in a new light, as a loving son. They had buried his delightful personality by thinking of him as a problem, as a disability, and not a person. But we do want prayer to fix things. People with too much time on their hands have set up scientific experiments trying to show whether prayer works. In one experiment, they prayed anonymously for some patients recovering from heart surgery and not others to see whether their healing was fast-tracked. The results were inconclusive. Other scenarios have been tried, but prayer remains stubbornly inaccessible to science. You can’t prove one way or the other. The data is too vague. We Christians persist in praying. And this morning’s Gospel reading gives five indications why we pray and what prayer is.

  • In prayer we follow Jesus.
  • In prayer we recognise with Jesus that we live in a broken world.
  • In prayer we offer ourselves in solidarity and love, as Jesus did.
  • With Jesus we lose ourselves in the situations of others, hoping that our self-giving will bring transformation and life.
  • Prayer is an intention to serve the need of others.

Jesus does not see the world with rose-coloured glasses. He invites us, like him, to see the world as it is, a broken place. He gives us the strength to look steadily at its reality: not to look away from the friend with cancer, or the child with a mental disability, or the world at war, or the greed of corporations making the homeless hungry and Africans in the Congo desperate. We do live in a world where our children leave us for the Eastern States or overseas, and where the friends who we thought loved us the most betray us – like Judas. We can look at it all. Not to be overwhelmed by it, but to see it as Christ does, and still love it. The key word for me is solidarity. We give away our selves. In other words, we stop worrying about our needs. We stop putting ourselves at the top of the list of people to be served. We offer our own time and energy and strength in solidarity with the one in need. Often we cannot do more than hold out our heart in solidarity. Because of distance, or other practicality, there may be nothing more we can do. But our heart is powerful. When we when we hold out our heart to the one in need, when that is our prayer, we find Christ also standing there in solidarity with the one in need. That mutual solidarity can transform even the most hopeless of situations, even though, like Vincent’s parents, we cannot tell in advance what form that transformation will take.

Ghislaine Howard (1953 – ) The Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art No. 40

There will be times when, in the strength of Christ, we offer not only our heart, but our practical help. So when I pray, I should be looking not to get God to do something, but looking for something I, and often only I, can do. My prayers often turn into cards and words. Sometimes they become phone calls, conversations in which I may have some particular knowledge or insight, or just share the load over a cup of tea. Sometimes they turn into Betadine on a scratched knee, or a letter to a politician, or a referral to a physiotherapist who has soothed the pain in my back and might do the same for the one in need. But in reality, those practical things are a small part of prayer. They are the tip of an iceberg. The main part of prayer – the nine-tenths that is mystery, that is hard to see – is the offer of solidarity, the sharing of love. We pray because, as Christ’s people, we can’t help expressing love. Real love involves letting go of our ego – losing our life for Christ’s sake, and standing in solidarity with Christ and the one in need. The end result of dying and rising with Christ is service, a life of service, and prayer means letting our selfish needs go so we can be transformed to serve. Prayer is a way of loving the one in need, and meaning it, and discovering the living Christ in that space also loving you and the one in need. What transformation can come from that! Books have been filled trying to answer the question my friends asked, ‘What is Prayer?’ I would encourage you: keep praying. Keep gazing on this broken world. Keep looking for ways to love it. Keep sharing your heart. You will continue to be surprised by Christ loving the world alongside you, and turning your tiny seed of love into a flowering of sharing and solidarity.

Confession Worth Reading


William Peak, The Oblate’s Confession, Secant Publishing 2014.
416 pages.

$US18.54 (pre-order on-line)

«««««

A novel set in a monastery in 7th Century Northumbria? Certainly the promise of the historical religious setting drew me to it. I was pre-disposed to enjoy the tale of Winwæd, given to the monastery at Redestone as a boy – the oblate of the title – and living through changes brought to that enclosed world by disease and by impinging politics.

William Peak’s first novel is beautifully told. Winwæd luxuriates in language, in seeing things aright. His tale is both textured and layered. The details, both of daily life in 7th Century England and in the shifting power of kings and warriors – all lovingly researched and presented – create Winwæd’s world convincingly. The guilt Winwæd carries, and which he expresses in his confession, creates the tension in the story as his understanding of his actions grows, and ours with it.

We experience the changes as he grows in the different friendships Winwæd establishes, from Prior Dagan, who takes him on as a very young boy, to the friendship with the hermit living in the mountain, and to the Brother who runs the furnace, are well drawn.

As Winwæd learns to pray from the hermit, so we too learn mystical prayer from him. The hermit’s story of the young child lost in the forest who runs here, there and everywhere, looking to find his way, is pertinent. The child eventually exhausts himself just at the moment of spying a light coming from a cleared field. He collapses before a thick hedge, unable to find a way or to move forward. At the bottom of the hedge is a small space, just big enough to wriggle through, and thus he finds his way home: such is prayer.

Redestone monastery stands for a Christianity not quite settled in its environment, just as Roman Christianity was returning to Britain, but still remembering its Celtic roots. It may be this sense of being at odds with its society that makes this work of fiction speak so clearly to the reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed Winwæd’s confession. He kept me wondering until the end.

Psalm 108 for Noongar country


My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed:
I will sing and make melody.

Awake, my soul, and awake, sticks and didj:
for I will awake the morning.

I will play the didj, O Lord, among the peoples:
its circle buzzing breathes our gratitude.

I will chip your clapping sticks among the nations:
its clicking claims your eternal praise.

For the dawn in the east rises in gold and scarlet:
robes of Easter and Pentecost overwhelm the sky.

Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds:
and the land is a body painted with white and ochre dreamings.

Be exalted, O God, above the southern skies:
and let your glory shine over Noongar country;

That all whom you love may be delivered:
Noongars and wedulahs, O save us by your right hand, and answer us.

***

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 108 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

 The ‘didj’ (didgeridoo) was technically not a part of Noongar culture before the arrival of Europeans, but they have adopted it since contact with ‘wedulahs’ (white fellas) has brought them into contact with other Indigenous groups.  

My country of origin is Koreng country. I now live in Wardandi country.

Noongar country (Western Australia)

 

 

 

Orationes matutinae – rusty Latin


Morning in the Great Sandy Desert

I have been scraping the rust off my Latin this morning, translating parts of APBA Morning Prayer. My efforts are in bold. If you can suggest any improvements or corrections, I would be grateful.

OPENING PRAYER

The night has passed and the day lies open before us.
Let us pray with one heart and mind.

Silence may be kept.

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence
set our hearts on fire with love for you
now and for ever.

ORATIO ORDIENS

Nox fugata est diesque patet pro nobis.
Oremus unitate cordis mentisque.

Silentium potuit sequi

Cum jubilo nostro in dono huius dieis novi,
lux praesentiae tuae amore corda nostra incendat
Et nunc et semper.

***

AFTER THE READING(S)

 

May Your Word live in us
And bear much fruit to your glory.

 

 SECUNDUS LECTIONES

Verbum Tuum vivet in nobis.
Ferat multum fructum ad gloriam Tuam.

 

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

The Hearth of God


My new translation of an old prayer:

Fill this house with your presence, Loving Lord, and keep far from us all the poison of the enemy. With your holy angels around us, protect us within the circle of your peace, and bless us always with your love. Through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[The Original:

Visita, quaesumus, Domine, habitionem istam, et omnes insidias inimici ab ea longe repelle: angeli tui sancti habitent in ea, qui nos in pace custodiant, et benediction tua sit super nos semper. Per Christum Iesus Nostrum Dominum. Amen.]