Tuesday, February 10, 2015

5th Sunday after Epiphany, On Prayer

And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.  

We all know that we need food to live. If you ever gone without, you quickly realize just how fragile and weak human existence really is. When you're fasting, you feel tired and inert. The body lives by food, and this is fact we all know. In a similar way, the soul lives by prayer. Now that statement seems less obvious, but we should take a cue from our Lord, who in the Gospel lesson, goes apart from the crowds and even from the disciples for a time of prayer. He has both divine and human natures, and when we look at him, we see the perfection of our nature. We might suppose that he did not need prayer—after all, isn't he God? Yes, but he is also truly human in every sense of that word. So, in him, we see that to be human is not only to need food but also to need prayer, and this is part of the symbolism of Holy Communion. We have these young people this morning making their first Communion. Communion is a kind of visual assertion that when we gather together to praise God, to hear his word, and to say our prayers, this feeds the soul. This morning I want to say something about what prayer is and secondly why it is important.

When we think of prayer, we usually think of petitionary prayers. Someone is sick and needs to be healed. There is an unpaid bill or sudden unemployment, and God's help is needed. It is good that we take these requests to God. We do so in obedience to the mandate of Scripture: let your requests be made known unto God and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds (Philippians 4:6-7). But prayer does not solely consist of petitions. Prayer, whether corporate or individual, is a turning of the mind and affections to God. Essentially it is an internal act. This is why, paradoxically, you can come to church and not pray at all. Imagine a scenario—it is not hard to do; we have all done it—in which you let your mind wonder during the entire service and don't ever think about God. Similarly, if prayer is about turning the mind and affections to God, then it is possible that an act like reading the Bible can be prayer and also can be totally devoid of that spirit of prayer. On the one hand, one can read the Bible as of interest for literary or historical reasons. You can read it like any other ancient text, a Gilgamesh or The Odyssey. You might even feel after reading it that you had connected with the human spirit in some way, but it would certainly not be a communion with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, one can approach the Bible as God's word, and when you read it ask God to speak personally to you and to your particular situation. Reading the Bible in this kind of way is like prayer because you are trying to have a kind of conversation with God.

Again, if prayer is turning the mind and affections toward God, prayer can obviously consist of words either extemporaneous or according to a written form, as long as your extemporaneous prayer isn't simply a sermon to the others who are present and as long as the form does not simply become empty rote. At the same time, prayer can be without words, and this is what the mystics speak of as contemplation. Contemplation is, in part, the conscious awareness of God's presence wherever you are and whatever you are doing. A few years back, I knew an older man who had done some awful things while warden of his church. One day he heard a message about God's presence, and it all of a sudden struck him that, as he put, he had taken Jesus on some bad trips. God's presence is always present: do we acknowledge it?

So this broadly speaking what prayer is, but you might ask why should I pray? The reason why you should pray has everything to do who God is and who we are. Article 1 of the 39 Articles, the classic statement of Anglican belief and doctrine, states that “THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” This means many things, but one of the most important things that it means is that God does not change. God is everlasting, eternal, the same yesterday, today and forever. He does not have passions. In contemporary idiom we would say that God is not driven by emotions, in the way that you or I could be driven by anger or sadness or even euphoria. All of these are fleeting states of mind, that can and do cloud our judgement. That God does not change is a prominent teaching of the Bible: Isaiah tells us, The Lord is the everlasting God (40). Moses writes that God is not a man that he should change his mind (Numbers 23:19), and St. James in his Epistle speaks of the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning (1:18).

All of this is in sharp contrast to what we see in ourselves and in the world. Even for relatively healthy people, emotional states and attitudes can change rapidly. A sudden death can put us in mind of the uncertainty of life. A sudden sickness reminds us of how fragile life is. Material things decay and break down. Anybody who has ever owned a house or a car knows this. You never get to the point where you say, the work is done in maintaining this property. It never stops. In the midst of death, decay, and destruction, we need to be reminded that there is something, or rather someone who does not change or decay. The way our gradual hymn puts all this is with these words, we blossom and flourish, like leaves on a tree, then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee. I believe that we have a natural desire for God, in that we have a hunger for things not to change. Think of the awful feeling when a precious heirloom breaks, or an institution self-destructs through feuding, or a loved one passes away. In each case we did not want to see an end, and, if we're honest, did not think there would be an end. In such a state, we have to be able to raise our eyes above these changing things and to look at God who does not change. The fact is, if you do not have prayer, your life will move from one loss to the next, from one heartbreak to the next. I heard someone say recently that Morning and Evening Prayer will save your life. It might at first sound like an exaggeration, but the truth is that prayer, this turning of the mind and affections to God, is the one thing that will sustain you through the tempest of life. This food that is prayer is offered to us at all times, but it is given in an acute and special way, when we gather together for corporate worship. Maybe this morning is the time to turn the God who does not change and who loves you with an abiding and unfailing love?

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