These are reflections I offered at a 9.30 service of Communion in St Peter and St Paul’s in Dry Drayton for Sunday 28 May 2017, the Sunday that fell in the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost and during the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ call to pray. The day’s Bible passage was Acts 1:6-14.
They were all there, Peter, and John, and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the zealot and Judas son of James, and Mary the mother of Jesus, various other unnamed men and women, and they constantly devoted themselves to prayer. We look back to these early days recorded in the book of Acts, as they worked out how to be the people of Jesus Christ. A little later in Acts – ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ Prayer we read was central, one of the foundations of being the people of Jesus Christ.
So this is a good moment to remind ourselves – also the people of Jesus Christ – why we must pray. Here are some thoughts –
Ruth Etchells, who used to be principal of St John’s College Durham is quoted in David Wilkinson’s book, When I pray what does God do? She writes ‘prayer has always been the bridge between the mundane and the holy’. It was one of her books of daily prayers that helped me to find a new approach to prayer when, as a new mother, my previous practice of prayer proved inadequate to the challenges of new baby chaos and lack of sleep. With no coherent words of my own, by reading the words of her carefully crafted daily prayers that started from the place of everyday life, I was daily carried into a few life-giving moments of stillness with God. (Wilkinson, When I pray what does God do? p207)
Perhaps I should make sure I am making myself clear here. I am talking about an ongoing practice of prayer. Not just occasional prayers, or emergency prayers, the kind that are triggered by something wonderful or something awful. There is time and a place for those kinds of prayers, and I suspect that there were many of those prayers triggered by the events in Manchester this week. But I am talking more about a regular and on going practice of prayer.
Richard Foster, a well respected writer about the contemporary expression of spiritual disciplines, says this. If we have a regular practice of prayer, then: ‘prayer catapults us on to the frontiers of the spiritual life…. It ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father… it brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit. Real prayer is life creating and life changing.’ (Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p42). He goes on to explain how prayer is the primary ongoing means by which God transforms us. Through an ongoing practice of prayer we are changed and we come closer to learning the heart of God.
By now it should also be clear that I am also not talking about the kind of prayer that is primarily a list of things we want from God. The trap that I admit I fall into far too often is of trying to manipulate God by telling God what to do for me and my life. In prayer, we should be asking God to tell us what to do.
But that is not to say that we should not articulate to God what is important to us. By expressing what is in our heart or on our minds – our sadness, our joy, our felt needs, we are exposing ourselves to God with an openness to which God can respond. And then we are changed. Sometimes all at once, for a particular situation, sometimes gradually over time. We become more in tune with God and what is in his heart for us.
You, already know about the international and multi-denominational call to pray initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. As part of it, there is a daily video post about an aspect of prayer. I want to play you this one from Friday. This is the catholic Archbishop of Vienna praying and then talking about prayers of praise. There is something very attractive about this, I think.
Click here to watch the video post. (At the time of posting this link was still working but if it is not working now, it may have been taken down).
So how do we pray. Many of us here will have an ongoing practice of prayer. Something that has sustained us for many years. To you I would say, is it still sustaining you or do you need to consider changing your approach? I only say this because I have learned that in different stages of life I have needed to approach prayer differently. Bishop David also has recognised this need to adapt and refresh as life changes. In Ways to Pray he writes: ‘when our younger daughter, Caitlin, was small, she used to come into bed with me in the early morning and I would make up stories for her. Then, when Jean had surfaced and taken over the routine, I would stay propped up in bed and say morning prayer. Once Caitlin was older and we were getting up early for school, I’d wait until the coast was clear and sink into the armchair in my study, where I had a cross and a candle on the shelf, a few helpful books, and a stereo set up with meditative music. Years later I find I am living a stone’s throw from a cathedral, and after some prayer for my family and the parishes in my care over a morning cuppa, I crawl out of bed and across for Matins in my cassock.’ (Ways to Pray, David Thomson p4).
Some of us will be struggling with the practice of prayer. It so easily gets squeezed out. If that is you, then can I encourage you to go back to it, experimenting with something new if that is what is going to help. “Pray as you can, not as you can’t”, Bishop David would say. Perhaps working out what is possible and letting go of what you think you ought to be doing would be helpful.
For some, an ongoing practice of prayer might be a new step to take.
The basics then are identifying a time and a place. Find an approach or a form of words to use to give yourself some structure. Reading Scripture is usually helpful.
But beyond that there are many ways to provide yourself with the framework and resources for an ongoing practice of prayer. Some of us will have been brought up with discipline of the daily quiet time, usually first thing in the morning, often with Bible reading notes of some kind. For some of us the daily office is helpful – the Anglican form of morning and evening prayer and the newer and shorter ‘prayer during the day’. These given words can help carry us into prayer when we struggle with our own words. And can be used with Bible reading notes, there are even ones based on the lectionary, the cycle of readings common to many churches. Many people find forms of centering prayer or meditation helpful, where very few words are used but stillness creates an openness to God. I can point you in the right direction. And of course, you can pray with others or on your own; prayer can be led by someone or openly spoken by all.
Here, people gather to pray on Friday mornings and of course on Sundays and we have a prayer calendar for use at home to encourage us to hold particular places and people before God in prayer. More widely, linking the Lordsbridge Christian communities together, we have amongst other things the meditation group, the Sacred Space gatherings and this week the Lordsbridge Prayer Pilgrimage, timed to link with ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ and what is going on nationally.
Traditionally this week is used by Christians for prayer as we prepare for to celebrate of the gift of God’s Spirit to the people of Jesus Christ at Pentecost. So it is fitting that in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ the Archbishop speaks about a life of prayer and asks us to consider a particular focus for some of our prayers. Click here to watch video of Archbishop speaking about prayer and praying.
They were all there, Martin, Hugette, Rachel, Carole, Steve and many other men and women, and they devoted themselves to prayer.