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 )

One Thing I Ask

‘One thing I ask of the Lord,
it is the one thing I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.’ (Psalm 27:4 REB)

I used to be somewhat troubled by this  prayer, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the request seems a selfish one to me. ‘Please, Lord, let me spend my whole life in your house looking at you.’ What about all the suffering going on outside? What about serving others and loving my neighbour?

Secondly, I can’t honestly pray this prayer. There are many things I ask of the Lord, not just one thing. I pray for my children and my grandchildren, that God would keep them in his loving care. I pray for my wife, and for my Mum who turned 80 not long ago. As I get older myself, I pray for good health. I pray for the people in my parish, especially those going through struggles. I pray for many things, and in fact Jesus has invited me to do so.

But this prayer doesn’t bother me any more, because as I get older I’m reading a lot more poetry. I think we have to give the psalmist credit for being a good poet. Poems don’t work the same way as devotional books or works of theology. They use metaphor and imagery, exaggeration and hyperbole. I think the ‘one’ thing the psalmist prayed for is the most important thing: that he would know God’s presence close to him, and that when he was in trouble (see the rest of the psalm for details) he would experience God’s presence as a refuge. I don’t think he literally means he prays for nothing else. I think he means this is the most important thing he prays for.

I can get behind that prayer. ‘What do you seek?’ asks St. Benedict in his Rule. That’s a good question for all of us to ponder! This psalm encourages us to seek the presence of God, to rest in the love of God, to ‘abide’ there, to live there. When we know that sense of God’s presence with us, we can turn to our other prayers and our daily works of love, and offer them to God from a place of rest and peace.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Exodus 15:19-17:7, Matthew 22:1-33, Psalm 27:1-6, and Proverbs 6:20-26)

‘May the Lord make an end of such smooth words’

This Old Testament prayer doesn’t seem to need any comment from me today!

‘Save us, Lord, for no one who is loyal remains;
good faith between people has vanished.
One lies to another:
both talk with smooth words, but with duplicity in their hearts.
May the Lord make an end of such smooth words
and the tongue that talks so boastfully!
They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail.
With words as our ally, who can master us?’
‘Now I will arise,’ says the Lord,
‘for the poor are plundered, the needy groan;
I shall place them in the safety for which they long.’
The words of the Lord are unalloyed:
silver refined in a crucible,
gold purified seven times over.
Lord, you are our protector
and will for ever guard us from such people.
The wicked parade about,
and what is of little worth wins general esteem.’ (Psalm 12 Revised English Bible)

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 30:1 – 31:16, Matthew 10:1-23, Psalm 12:1-8, and Proverbs 3:13-15)

 

 

2018 RLT #31: Praying Together

As I mentioned a few days ago, I think you can make a strong argument that prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. The prayer that Jesus gave us is a community prayer: ‘Our Father…’ Of course we should pray alone, but even when we pray alone, we still pray as members of a community.

Throughout Christian history monastic orders have born witness to the importance, and the power, of daily community prayer. Most of the daily offices we use today originally evolved in monastic settings. And perhaps most of them find their natural home there still. For those of us who aren’t called to celibate community life, they often need a bit of adaptation to fir naturally in our situation.

For most of my Christian life my natural community has been my family. But is it possible that the obligation to pray prayers originally developed for monastic communities might make it harder for us to develop prayer forms that work well for families (especially families with small children)?

I know I usually failed in this way. When my kids were little, we were on-again, off-again in our family prayers – more often off than on. During Advent we were good – everyone loved the Advent wreath and the ‘same old’ Advent book (woe betide us if we tried to change it!). But through the rest of the year – not so much.

Now that Marci and I have the house to ourselves, its easier for us. And for the past few years, we’ve started every day with prayer together. I get up in the morning, make a pot of tea, bring her a cup, and then we sit up in bed with our tea and pray our own ‘poor man’s Morning Prayer’ together, using the bare outline in our Canadian ‘Book of Alternative Services’. It’s very simple; it goes like this:

Opening sentences and either Psalm 95 or Psalm 100
One or two other psalms (depending how long they are) (see below)
A Bible reading, with a commentary (see below)
Each of us prays in our own words
We finish with the Lord’s Prayer

We don’t use the daily lectionary; we find it works better for us if we take one book of the Bible and work our way through it. At the moment we’re going through ‘Mark’ and we’re supplementing it with the daily explanations and comments from Tom Wright’s little book ‘Mark for Everyone’. Tom Wright (‘New Testament for Everyone’ series), William Barclay (‘Daily Study Bible’ series), John Goldingay (‘Old Testament for Everyone’ series) and the Bible Reading Fellowship ‘People’s Bible Commentary’ series (now available as PDF downloads at https://www.brfonline.org.uk/commentary-downloads/) are all very good and helpful.

For psalms, we start at the beginning of the book and work our way through it, usually doing two psalms a day. If they’re especially long, we might just do one. If they’re very short, we sometimes do three.

In the prayers after the reading, we both have little lists that we use. I’m hopeless at remembering all the people who’ve asked me to pray for them, so I keep a list and revise it every week. We pray for our own concerns, family and friends, wider concerns and world issues (of which there are rather a lot right now!), and try to remember to add thanksgivings too.

We’ve tried adding Evening Prayer to our routine as well, but it rarely seems to work for our schedules.  But we rarely miss Morning Prayer; I’d say we average six days out of seven each week. I like this because it keeps me steady, draws us closer together, and gives me a Bible reading partner who thinks differently from me.

I don’t know what your pattern of daily prayer is – or if you have a prayer partner you can pray with regularly. If you would like to start daily common prayer with someone, I commend this as a model that might work for you.

 

2018 RLT #28: ‘Hallowed’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

2018 RLT #27: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV).

The Anglican liturgical tradition in which I was raised has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. But Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of pretention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

2018 Random Lent Thought #23: Jesus and Prayer

I once heard Eugene Peterson talk about how Jesus transformed the prayer lives of his followers.

As far as we can tell, most people who came to Jesus in the Gospels did so because they wanted something from him – usually healing. There is no evidence that Jesus discouraged this; in fact, several times he asks people ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ If we can describe these requests for help as prayers, then almost all praying people in the gospels prayed out of a deep sense of personal need. And Jesus was happy to answer those prayers.

However, some of those people went on to become disciples of Jesus – as members of ‘the Twelve’, or of the larger group of those who followed him. These were obviously people who were beginning to move beyond self-interest and learn from Jesus to ‘seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33 NIV). And as we saw yesterday, these people were attracted by the quality of Jesus’ prayer life, and so at a certain point some of them came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 NIV). In response, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, and two things about that prayer stand out.

First, it’s a prayer that starts with God’s concerns: ‘Hallowed be your name…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In this prayer we learn to delay our own felt needs and focus first on God’s vision – the glory of God, the love of God, the healing reign of God. ‘Not my will, but yours’.

Second, it’s a prayer that replaces the word ‘me’ with the word ‘us’. “Our Father…Give us each day our daily bread…Forgive us our sins, as we forgive…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. Christian prayer may take place from time to time in a solitary place, but even when we pray alone, we don’t really pray alone; we pray as part of a community. And the fundamental prayer in the New Testament seems to be community prayer, just as it was for the Old Testament people. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV).

Still today, Jesus is happy to teach us to pray. When we start out in our journey with him, we tend to come out of need – forgiveness, healing, comfort, strength, loneliness, fear etc. And Jesus is happy for us to start there; he has not one word of reproach for us.

But he’s not happy for us to get stuck there. Growth for us is going to mean  growth in learning to seek God’s will ahead of our own, and learning to see ourselves as part of a praying community, not just as isolated individuals. So when we ask him to ‘teach us to pray’ (and I hope we all continue to do that), here is his guidance: first, pray, about God’s will ahead of your own, and second, find someone else to pray with.

Lord, help us put these things into practice today.

2018 Random Lent Thought #22: Teach Us to Pray

‘One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,just as John taught his disciples”‘ (Luke 11:1-2).

There was no such thing as privacy in the time of Jesus, and there wasn’t much silent praying either. People prayed in public and they prayed aloud. Jesus’ private prayer life was often not private, except when he withdrew to lonely places to pray.

I’ve learned a lot about prayer through books, but I’ve learned more from people who’ve been open about their prayer life and have been willing to invite me into it. I’ve learned the most from good friends who have ended significant conversations by offering to pray with me, and modelling for me what genuine, unpretentious prayer really is.

Jesus’ prayer life was attractive to his disciples; they wanted to learn to pray like that. And if the prayer that follows is any indication of the way Jesus habitually prayed, we can describe it as short, simple and unpretentious, focussing on God’s concerns first, not greedy for things we don’t need, but focussing on our real needs (daily bread, forgiveness, strength in times of testing).

Lord, teach me to pray as your prayed. And Lord, help me to teach others too. Amen.

2018 Random Lent Thought #9: More About Prayer

Yesterday we explored a simple framework for a daily prayer time. This is a good starting place for people who have never done anything like that before.

But of course there’s always more that could be said, and I’m a preacher, so I always have more to say! Today I’d like to explore the words we use in prayer. It seems to me that there are three options, or three elements if you like.

First, we can pray using our own words. This is sometimes called ‘extemporary prayer’. I think of what the psalmist says in Psalm 62:8: ‘Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge’ (NIV). When we ‘pour out our hearts’ to someone we don’t tend to use special words or a polished presentation; we just speak words of heartfelt honesty. The ACTS outline I gave yesterday (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) can easily be filled in with this sort of prayer. This style of prayer is also very easy when we’re in desperate need or overflowing with thanksgiving!

But sometimes we find it hard to find words. Conversational prayer can be a bit weird when the other party seems reluctant to join in the conversation! And this is where the second option can help: we can pray using other people’s words.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this. After all, a whole book of the Bible (the book of Psalms) appears to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to give us words to use in prayer when we can’t find words ourselves (and some of them are very gritty and honest words). Jesus also gave us the Lord’s Prayer, which we can legitimately use either as a prayer in its own right, or as a framework for our own prayers. In the catholic traditions, the daily offices have made heavy use of the psalms and other biblical prayers to give depth and structure to our prayer lives.

But sometimes we need to stop talking. So, thirdly, we can pray without words (which C.S. Lewis thought was the highest form of prayer, although he admitted that he was often not on ‘good enough form’ to manage it). In silent prayer we simply sit or kneel in the presence of God. We listen, but we don’t worry if we don’t hear anything (with our ears or our hearts). That’s not the point. The point is simply to be with God, in that deep intimacy where words are not necessary. It’s what the psalmist was talking about: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’ (Psalm 62:1 NRSV).

I suspect that most mature Christians use a combination of these three elements: our own words, other people’s words, no words. I suspect that we all have one we like best and one we like least. And I suspect that Lent is a good time to challenge ourselves to explore the one we like the least.