Sunday, 20 October 2019

Why Should We Pray?

Philippians 4:4-7 - "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be afraid about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

St Ignatius of Loyola once said "You should pray for half an hour every day, except for when you are very busy, when you are very busy you should pray for a whole hour every day." But why should we do that? Why should we Pray?

We all know that Prayer is an important part of the Christian life, but it's a subject that we all struggle with at times. It's a huge subject too. Let me tell you another short story. There was once an Egyptian monk, who had dedicated his whole adult life to living out in the desert, alone with God, to have nothing to distract him from his prayers. And as he came to the end of a long life, he lay dying, surrounded by his brothers, and he said, 'how can I go to my Lord yet, when I have only just begun to understand?' At times I think I have had that feeling.

But prayer is also the simplest of things. A little child can pray, and with more honesty and directness than most accomplished of priests or theologians. We can study prayer, but only really to clear away the confusions we have created for ourselves. For really there is nothing more simple than prayer. Prayer is something we can all do. It is a shared right of all mankind, an inheritance for all peoples, of every age, race and sex. Prayer is a journey that always has more steps to take. It is a library that never runs out of books, and we learn something new on every page. 

But why should we pray?

To answer that question, I think we have to remember Who we are and Who God is. Then we can understand the relationship between ourselves and God, and understand, why we should pray.

Who are we? We are the children of God. God created every particle in our bodies from nothing, as he did the entire Universe, from his sheer generosity and joy in creating. But we are unlike the other particles of creation. We are aware, we bear in our hearts and minds and souls the very image of God, we are stamped with the imprint of God, and so we are all his special children.

But even more than that, God has blessed our humanity and made it Holy, because God the Son was born as a human child, and grew, lived, breathed, taught, knew fear and pain, loved and died in our flesh. And now he is ascended once more into Heaven still in human flesh, to sit at the right hand of the Father, until he returns, or calls us home.  But we are even more than that, for God the Holy Spirit came down and dwells in our hearts if only we accept him, making us the Body of Christ himself. So God is in us, and God is One of Us, and God is the Father of all of us.

We cannot think of ourselves as separate from God, not if we are Christians. Some people might wonder, why would God want to hear from me?  Or me from God? But for Christians even here on earth we are carried up into God, because the Spirit is within us, and the Son is alongside us, and the Father cares for us.

Fundamentally, prayer is communication, the communication of a unique relationship. Not the relationship between one person and another, but the relationship between a creature and our Creator, between the God who holds the whole Universe in the palm of his hand, and myself. And yourself, and all of us. And that may seem like a daunting, near impossible thing, But this relationship, this communication, is not something we must do on our own.   

God was before the creation of the whole Universe, and he will be forever more. Before Time existed, there was the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and there was already the most profound and intimate of relationships between them. Love we can barely imagine, an extravagant, overflowing love shining between all three, in constant diversity and unity.

From this constantly overflowing Love the creation of the Universe came, and the creation of mankind, and we are not separate from it. When we open our hearts to God, and let down our defenses, we can step into this river of God's Love, and see the love of God for God, and for the world, and we can be washed over by that river which flows for eternity, holds the whole of mankind and creation within it.

The Lord Jesus commanded us to Love God with all our heart, and to Love our neighbour as ourselves. And this may seem like a difficult command. How can we make ourselves love? Well, fortunately, there is no need for such a thing. It is not that we must love God, by our own power, or Love the World, by our own power, but rather that we must let down our barriers, and join in the Love that God has for the World, and the love the Father has for the Son, and the Son for the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father.

God is within us, and beside us, and beyond us. Just by being alive, we are a creature of God, and we are in a relationship with God, whatever we think. The question is will it be a good relationship or a bad one. And as Christians we are in a closer, more profound relationship still. If we do not pray, we are not getting out of that relationship with God, we are sitting in a room with God, and just never saying anything. And I don't think that is ever a good relationship.

When I think of my most close and important relationships then, of course, I do not talk all the time. Of course, there are times that we can just sit in silence in peace and security, but still in constant awareness and appreciation of each other. But still, these are also the relationships where do I have the greatest flow of communication. I talk about the big things, and the little things, and nothing, because it seems important just to communicate. How much more then is this true of our relationship with God?

So how can we join in with God's love, and align ourselves with God's purposes? How can we do that? By opening our hearts and our minds in prayer and worship. And not just here in church, but everywhere, and whatever our state may be. Prayer and worship are two sides of the same coin, the awareness that God is with us, and around us, and loves us at every time.

The world wants us to be constantly looking down, anxious and terrified, weighed down with a thousand worries, and fighting always for success and status. But prayer allows us to lift up our eyes. If you love nature then go out into nature, and realise God is there loving and appreciating his Creation, from the tiniest bug, the every view and sunset with you, before you got there, and while you're there, and after you leave, and open your heart and speak out to God and you will be praying. If you love trains, or music, or knitting, or playing football, then do those things, and open your heart to God, and know that God's love is shining down. Because he sees the Good in every good thing and loves it for all its worth, and speak out to God and you will be praying.

But prayer is not just for Good times and rejoicing. God is with us always, so there is no time or state of mind that is bad for prayer. We can open our hearts to God when we are heartbroken, and when we are raging, when we are frustrated and when we are tired. When we speak to God our words are always enough. The language does not matter, nor do the particular words. It is the honesty that matters. If we open up our hearts in honesty to God then we will offer a true and worthwhile prayer.

In St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians he famously tells us to "pray without ceasing". How could we do such a thing? If that meant speaking out loud all the time that would make it very hard to concentrate on anything else. No, but it does mean becoming increasingly aware of God's presence at all times, though if we manage that we will naturally end up speaking to God more and more. If we are to "pray without ceasing", that means we will be praying when we're grieving, and angry, and confused, and happy and joyful, because we are human, and we will experience all those emotions from time to time, and we shouldn't cease our prayers until those times are over. 

So in prayer we have a chance to be completely honest with ourselves, in our joy and our pain, because God already sees us to the marrow of our bones, and the depths of our heart. And that is a precious gift, and it is just as precious because it is open to all of us. In the economic world for something to be precious it has to be rare, if there's lots of it then it's not worth much. But God's gifts are nothing like that. Everyone can see a sunset, but it's just as beautiful. Love, indeed, is the gift that just grows in value with the sharing of it. Like light into a mirror it shines and reflects and shines back again.   

We can't hurt God by saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong words, or being too awkward. I think we can only hurt God by not speaking to him at all.

To pray is to take time out of the constant flow of tiny problems and annoyances, and chores and distractions the World throws at us. It can help keep our eyes raised on what is truly important, and what is eternal, and that can be a source of great peace and focus, making us better able to do the little things we must do in the world, but without being consumed by them.

You hear a lot these days about mindfulness, and meditation, and directing our thoughts. Let me put it this way, prayer is a form of Christian meditation and mindfulness, and directing our thoughts. Now, I know some types of prayer can be more meditative and calmer than others. And that's good, like I said, sometimes we need to rage at God. To express our frustration and pain. And don't be afraid, God can take it. But other times prayer can be a great time of meditation and peace, either for extended periods, or in moments of the busy day.

My wife and I have struggled these last months to get into the habit of saying Grace at our evening meals. I've never done it before recently, and if you don't do it I'd really recommend it. I appreciate it every time we do manage it, after a busy day at work, and then cooking dinner, and often with more chores later in the evening. It's a brief moment to be thankful, to remember those people we need to remember, to pause in our hearts. And, you know what? Because I pause every day, or most days, to say that grace, I remember things I should be thankful for, or people that I should remember, that I would otherwise forget. And I'm that little bit more joyful.

I really believe that the more we pray the more we will discover the riches of God, not in the wealth and power of this world, but that treasure in Heaven, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding", which can endure through this world and its troubles. When St Paul speaks of this he knew that gift, he had been beaten, he was imprisoned, and still he spoke with the total confidence that comes from personal experience, of the reassurance that comes from prayer to our God. His wounds stil hurt, his chains were still heavy, but his heart and soul were strengthened by having his sight beyond all those things, at what truly lasts forever.

Before I finish I want to address a couple more of questions, that I think people often have about prayer.

Firstly, doesn't God already know? Why should we speak to God, he already knows everything about us, he already knows what we want and need? Of course he does! God doesn't need to hear from us because he needs information from us, he wants to hear from us because he loves us. He wants us to be fellow-workers and allies alongside him in building the Kingdom of God, for the good of all mankind. If you have someone you love you want to spend time with them, you want to hear from them, to rejoice with them in their achievements and cry with them in their losses. God wants this with us, and I hope we want this with God. Pray then.

Yes, we should ask God for what we need. "Give us today our daily bread", our Lord taught us to pray. We should ask for ourselves, for our families, our friends, and the whole world. "In every situation", St Paul said, "by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God". We should always be happy to ask, knowing God is always happy to listen. Never worry you are asking too much, maybe just try ti ensure that the more you ask, the more you also give thanks, praise and the more you find some beautiful place, wherever that is for you, and just spend time being with God.

I talk about God wanting to hear from us, and I profoundly believe that is true. We should not start thinking, though, that God needs anything from us. We have nothing God needs, though in his love he loves to hear from us. But God has everything we need. He is the Creator, we are such small creatures. The things God encourages us to do, whether it is to pray or worship, are not for his benefit, but for our own. In prayer and worship we align ourselves with God's purposes, which are the foundations of everything that exists. We align ourselves with our own true and complete nature, where our hope and meaning, our shelter, our mental, emotional and spiritual fuel was always meant come from.

The second and final question I want to address is this: When you talk about prayer, when you talk about praying in response to a situation, then people say, Why pray, why not just act, just do something? Isn't action better than prayers and well-wishes? And, it is right that prayer should never be an alternative to action. In the Bible it never is. Prayer is not the alternative to action, prayer is the fuel and source and inspiration of action. How can you act without reflection? How can you act without hope, without a source of personal strength and conviction, how can you act without support? All these things can come through prayer.

Martin Luther King jr prayed constantly, and led the Black American community to victory over instutionalised discrimination in the South. William Wilberforce prayed and led the campaign that abolished the Atlantic Slave Trade, and went on to end legal slavery around the world. Isaac Newton prayed and discovered the fundamental laws of motion that govern our Universe, everything from kicking a football to the orbits of planets.

The Nobel Peace Prize was announced recently, and in the end it was not won by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has campaigned so much about Global Warming. It was won by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, who is a Pentecostal Christian. In a year since becoming Prime Minister he has concluded a historic peace agreement with Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbour, to hopefully end a conflict that has been going on for 20 years. He has also healed a schism in Ethiopia's Orthodox Church, released thousands of political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return home, and many other things. I'm sure he prays an awful lot.   

St Paul prayed and travelled, it has been calculated, 10,000 miles by dirty roads and leaking ships, to spread the message of Christian Hope, around the whole Mediterranean.  And I could give a thousand other examples. In our own time and country Christians prayed and acted to found Christians Against Poverty, which helps thousands of people around the country in debt and fear. Christians prayed and founded the Trussel Trust, which supports and co-ordinates Food Banks all around the country. When I look at our parish and all the groups, and ministries, and volunteers, we have, for the old and the young, for the sick and the whole, I see prayer leading to action.

Our God is The Living God, his Will, his Work,and his Spirit are constantly in Action. Our prayer should never be an alternative to action, but an inspiration to action. Though also, I don't forget the importance of prayer when there is nothing you can do. There will be times in life when there's nothing you can do, for a certain situation. Then, I humbly suggest, when there's nothing you can do, you can always still pray. And I know, certainly in my life, there are times when that has been a source of enormous comfort.

Why should we pray? There are so many reasons, and I hope you manage to find yours.

Amen.