A Spirituality Project for a Sedentary Age

4_walking_prayer_exercisesIn 2017, 64% of Canadians were overweight or obese. This has major health implications.

I used to be part of that statistic, and for years I tried and failed to do anything about it. Somehow, three years ago, I managed to take off a huge chunk of weight, but it’s still a struggle for me to keep it off.

I’ve spent most of my working life in a sedentary occupation. I’m a priest, so I sit at a desk, or sit in people’s homes, drinking coffee and eating cookies and talking. And praying. I’m encouraged to spend 45 minutes to an hour each day in prayer, using a Daily Office developed by Christians in much more active times, when just staying alive meant people had to use their bodies way more than they do now, so the need to add more physical activity wasn’t so urgent.

But times have changed.

A few years ago David Hansen wrote a book called Long, Wandering Prayer. Dave is a long time advocate of combining prayer with walking. I wonder if he might be on to something? Given that we are physical as well as spiritual creatures, and that health of body and spirit is intertwined, maybe we should be looking at redefining the Daily Office to include walking?

Older forms of the Office (like the traditional Book of Common Prayer) had relatively few variables. The Office was easily memorized, and once committed to memory, those prayers were yours for good. Even today, I can pretty well pray BCP Morning Prayer from memory (without the psalms and readings of course).

More recent Office books have vastly increased the amount of variable material. But maybe we’re going in the wrong direction. Maybe we should be exploring simple forms of prayer that could be easily memorized and then used as a framework for extemporare prayer—the aim being to encourage people to take their prayer times out on the walking trail with them every day. These days audio Bibles are common too, so listening to the Bible could easily be combined with walking.

Imagine the health benefits if those 45 minutes of daily praying were spent moving my body on a walking trail? Also, personally, I find it easier to connect with God walking through trees and fields than indoors, so it’s a double win.

I think this could be a vital spirituality project for our sedentary age. What do you think?

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When Jesus Saw Their Faith

‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.”‘ (Luke 5.17-30 REB)

For a long time now I’ve believed that the ‘their’ in ‘when Jesus saw their faith’ refers to the four friends, not the paralyzed man. The subject in the previous sentence is clearly the four friends, and it makes grammatical sense for this to be carried over. Also, we know that people who struggle with chronic illnesses often find it difficult to muster up faith that their situation can change.

But the faith of these four friends was strong and active, and Jesus ‘saw’ it—that is, he saw the actions it produced. Faith leads to action!

So God may call on me to exercise faith on behalf of others who find it difficult, and to pray faithfully for them. And he may also call me to ask for the prayers of my friends at times when I find faith difficult.

Lord Jesus, I believe: help my unbelief. When my faith is weak, please strengthen it. Help me take steps to grow in faith, stepping out in obedience to you. Help me be faithful in prayer for my friends. And thank you for the friends who are faithful in prayer for me.

A Remote Place

‘But the talk about Jesus spread ever wider, so that great crowds kept gathering to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.’ (Luke 5.15-16 REB)

There have been many times in my life when I’ve been guilty of being far too impressed with the first sentence above, and completely neglectful of the second.

I imagine Jesus going out to the remote place. No Bible, no liturgy, no retreat centre, no one else with him—just the presence of God and whatever scriptures he had memorized (including probably a lot of psalms). This was such a vital feature of his ministry, a refreshment for his spirit, a deepening of his sense of fellowship with God.

Lord, thanks for the opportunities we have to love our neighbours, and give us strength to grasp them with both hands. But also, help us not to neglect the call of the ‘remote place’. Without you we can do nothing, so help us make the time we need to draw closer to you. Amen.

Trust in Him

‘For God alone I wait silently;
my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock of deliverance,
my strong tower, so that I am unshaken.
On God my safety and my honour depend,
God who is my rock of refuge and my shelter.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts before him;
God is our shelter.’ (Psalm 62.5-8 REB)

I love the balance between silence and speaking in these verses. ‘For God alone my soul waits silently; my hope comes from him’ (v.5). ‘Trust in him at all times, you people’ pour out your hearts before him; God is our shelter’ (v.8). Pouring out our hearts to God—a torrent of words describing to God exactly how we feel—seems to be the exact opposite of waiting in silence for him. But in reality, both are essential features of a healthy prayer life.

What unites them is trust. ‘Trust in him at all times, you people.’ The psalmist has experienced God as a refuge and a rock of deliverance. Past experience leads him too continue to trust that God—‘God alone’—is his shelter.

God our refuge, help us to trust in you, to wait on you in silence, and to pour out our hearts to you. Thank you that you are our rock of refuge and our shelter. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 28:16-29:40, Luke 3:23-38, Psalm 62, and Proverbs 11:18-19)

Morning, Noon and Night

‘But I appeal to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noonday
I make my complaint and groan.’
(Psalm 55.16-17 REB)

The Book of Acts talks about Peter and John going to the Temple to pray ‘at the hour of prayer’. We know that set times for corporate prayer were a feature of Jewish faith, and of course this carried over into Christianity. In monasticism the Daily Offices evolved, and in Anglicanism this expressed itself in daily Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong); other hours like Compline and Noon Prayer are also often observed.

So its tempting to make the jump from this psalm to the custom of ‘hours of prayer’, and make the case that they are a good and biblical thing. I don’t want to deny that, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In Psalm 55 the psalmist has been expressing his sense of betrayal at the trouble he’s in, much of it caused by someone he thought was a friend. In verses 16-17 he’s using a poetic form to express the idea that he never stops praying – ‘morning, noon, and night’, as we might say today. He may well join in the regular hours of prayer, but his prayers spill over into the rest of the day as well.

I’m good at observing set times of prayer. I’ve been keeping a morning ‘quiet time’ for decades and it has been a real means of grace for me. But I’m not so good at remembering to pray at other times. This psalm reminds us that whether it’s complaining about our troubles or expressing our thanks and praise, our prayers are always welcome to God. We don’t have to wait for a set time or a holy place. Morning and noon and night we can raise our voices to God in prayer.

God, thank you for this privilege you’ve given us. Help us not to be shy about taking advantage of it. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 16:41 – 18:32, Mark 16:1-20, Psalm 55, and Proverbs 11:7)

When Jesus saw their faith

‘After some days (Jesus) returned to Capernaum, and news went round that he was at home; and such a crowd collected that there was no room for them even in the space outside the door. While he was proclaiming the message to them, a man was brought who was paralysed. Four men were carrying him, but because of the crowd they could not get him near. So they made an opening in the roof over the place where Jesus was, and when they had broken through they lowered the bed on which the paralysed man was lying. When he saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”’ (Mark 2.1-5 Revised English Bible)

‘When he saw their faith’. Who are ‘they’? In the previous two sentences, ‘they’ refers to the friends who brought the man to Jesus. The man himself is not included in the ‘they’. We aren’t told whether he had faith or not. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. But the important thing was that his friends had faith, and their faith was enough.

There are times I can pray with faith, and other times when it’s very hard for me. At times like that, I’m comforted that I have friends who can pray for me and carry me to Jesus. I can lean on their faith. At other times, I’m the one others lean on. That’s part of what it means to be the Body of Christ. No one’s faith is alone. We lean on each other and we lift each other up (or let each other down through a hole in the roof, as the case may be!).

Finally, what exactly did Jesus see? You can’t see faith, but you can see the actions faith causes. ‘Faith without action is dead’ says the Letter of James, and in this passage that saying really makes sense. All the faith in the world would not have helped the paralyzed man if it had not been embodied in the arms and legs of the friends who carried, climbed, dug, and lowered. Faith is not really faith until it has been acted on.

Loving God, thank you for the faith of my friends who many times have carried me to you when I could not carry myself. When it’s my turn to do the carrying, help me step up to the plate. Amen.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Leviticus 1:1 – 3:17, Mark 1:29 – 2:12, Psalm 35:17-28, and Proverbs 9:13-18)

If You Answer Me With Silence

‘To you, Lord, I call;
my Rock, do not be deaf to my cry,
lest, if you answer me with silence,
I become like those who go down to the abyss.’
(Psalm 28.1 REB)

‘If you answer me with silence’ is obviously a possibility the psalmist has experienced, or this psalm doesn’t make sense. He hasn’t experienced every prayer being answered in a tangible way. I would guess that very few believers have. Actually, I would guess that no believers have, but I wouldn’t like to be categorical about that!

This is one of the difficulties honest Christians face as we pray. On the one hand, Jesus seems to make extravagant promises (“Ask, and you will receive” etc.). On the other, these promises don’t seem to ring true in our actual experience. I have not received everything I have asked for. I don’t know anyone who has.

I don’t know any way of making this work in a literalistic way, and perhaps the answer lies in recognizing that these scriptures are not intended to be interpreted literalistically. Jesus is encouraging us to bring all our requests to God, just as good parents encourage their children to ask for what they think they need without being shy about it. But good parents don’t give their children everything they ask (to do so would in some instances be dangerous and irresponsible) and at times this will not make sense to the children.

Yes, there are times when it will seem as if we are being answered with silence. If this happens, it doesn’t mean we’re spiritually defective or abnormally sinful. And the thing to do with this experience is exactly what this psalmist is doing: pray it.

‘To you, Lord, I call;
my Rock, do not be deaf to my cry,
lest, if you answer me with silence,
I become like those who go down to the abyss.
Hear my voice as I plead for mercy,
as I call to you for help
with hands uplifted towards your holy shrine.’ (Psalm 28.1-2 REB)

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Exodus 19:16 – 21:21, Matthew 23:13-39, Psalm 28:1-9, and Proverbs 7:1-5 )