Sermon - the Language of Prayer

Prayer
Deepening Spirituality
Image of a woman praying
Author
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.

 

The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4. 6-7

 

To be told ‘do not worry about anything’ is startling. And difficult.

On what basis does Paul offer this apparently simplistic advice?

On the basis that the Lord is near.

On the basis that we will let our requests be made known to God.

On the basis that we will find ourselves wrapped in the peace of God.

 

In inviting us to remember that the Lord is near, Paul is taking us to the heart of his message. We forget it at our peril. It is a statement that has many layers of meaning.

The Lord is near because God is our creator: ‘all things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you’.

The Lord is near because God looks out at us from the words of scripture, from the sacramental bread and wine which we share, and in which God shares Godself with us. Looks out; says come to me and I will come to you.

The Lord is near because we never know when God will stand in the road in front of us in a shape, a form, a guise, we may not want to recognise.

The Lord is near because Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again.

The Lord is near because we can pray: ‘through [Christ we] have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

 

And when you pray, how do you talk to God?

Is your prayer all formal politeness? Is it moulded by the pieties (and quiet, passive pietism) of the centuries, pieties that can make God seem far away rather than the One who is near?

For our prayer should be just that: our prayer.

It should be rich, earthy, colourful, heartfelt, confident, abandoned.

 

Have you ever noticed that there is a startling similarity between much of the language with which the Bible and the hymn writers address God and the way poets address the person who arouses their passion?

I’ve often harboured a suspicion that one of the reasons for an anti-material, anti-sexual drive in Christianity is because people were – are still for all I know – afraid that in discovering the ecstasy of human love we might stop there, and not see it as a reflection, a guide, an insight into what it is to be in love with God.

 

Listen to this:

My life was tinted purple by so much love,

and I veered helter-skelter like a blinded bird

till I reached your window, my friend:

you heard the murmur of a broken heart.

 

There from the shadows I rose to your breast:

without being or knowing, I flew up the towers of wheat,

I surged to life in your hands,

I rose from the sea to your joy.

No one can reckon what I owe you, Love.

 

And this:

There He gave me His breasts,

There He taught me the science full of sweetness.

And there I gave to Him

Myself without reserve;

There I promised to be His bride.

 

My soul is occupied,

And all my substance in His service;

Now I guard no flock,

Nor have I any other employment:

My sole occupation is love.

 

Given the amazing the richness and sensuality of the language in both of them, it may be difficult to decide who is talking to whom, and what is each one about.

And though the first is from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets to his beloved Matilde, and the other from St John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, could not both have been addressed equally to God as to a lover, to a lover as to God?

One of the reasons I was drawn as a teenager to a much more Catholic way of worship and expression of spirituality than I had grown up in was because I found in it an affective, an emotional, way of praying I hadn’t known existed. I may have moved some distance from much of what that represents now. Yet I know that deep down it has moulded me, shaped me, allowed me to express things to God that are both intimate and eternal. Bianco of Siena encapsulates this from the fourteenth century right into ours:

 

Come down, O love divine,

seek Thou this soul of mine,

And visit it with Thine own ardour glowing.

O Comforter, draw near,

within my heart appear,

And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,

till earthly passions turn

To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;

And let Thy glorious light

shine ever on my sight,

And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

 

Do not be afraid to use this language in your prayer.

But it’s not just passion and ecstasy that politeness removes from prayer. It’s rage and fury and protest as well:

O Lord, you have enticed me,

   and I was enticed;

you have overpowered me,

   and you have prevailed.

I have become a laughing-stock all day long;

   everyone mocks me.

 ...within me there is something like a burning fire

   shut up in my bones;

I am weary with holding it in,

   and I cannot.

 

We can feel the pain and the rage of Jeremiah even now. And the Psalms are shot through with similar feelings, sometimes to our horror so that we recoil from saying:

Happy shall they be who pay you back

   what you have done to us!

9Happy shall they be who take your little ones

   and dash them against the rock!

 

But these are true human emotions. And if we don’t express them to God, how real are we being?

I remember Gonville ffrench-Betagh, one time hobo who later became Dean of Johannesburg, and who was imprisoned by the South African authorities for his refusal to toe the apartheid line, saying that when he was finally allowed his prayer book in prison, he found the psalm for evening prayer that day was one that we nearly always omit because of the violence of its imprecations against our opponents; and commenting on how much he understood where the psalmist was coming from.

And I have sworn at God in my prayers; have you?

Though I do also have to say that I find that the greatest enemy is not the one outside, as the Psalmist so often finds, but the one inside. Me. And I have to offer that to God as well.

Passion. Protest.

But there’s Praise as well:

O Lord, you are my God;

   I will exalt you, I will praise your name;

for you have done wonderful things,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

   a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,

   of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,

   and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

   for the Lord has spoken.

This is the Lord for whom we have waited;

   let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

              

Remarkable that these words were written in times which were far worse than those we are stuttering our way through at the moment. This is Jerusalem, threatened by the might of Assyria who has already swept away the much larger kingdom of Israel to the north. And yet there is this outburst of praise. Not whistling in the wind; but genuine praise of the God who brings salvation, and with it, peace.

Passion. Protest. Praise. Let these form the framework of your prayer. Then the requests will come from within a real you talking the real language of prayer to a real God. And you will find real peace that passes understanding.

'The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.'

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