Monday, 29 February 2016

Obedience in faith

God gives everyone freedom to learn and grow in the way that is best for them in life, including the life of prayer. St Augustine said 'Love God, and then do what you will'. The more genuine our love for God, the more we want to act according to his will, and find pleasure and joy in this. Yet, there are times when it is in our own best interests to surrender our freedom willingly and submit to the guidance of others. 

This is the case when we need training in skills which are difficult to learn unaided. A person who has to recover mobility after an accident, a stroke, or after an operation, needs to accept the guidance of a physiotherapist willingly, in order to re-learn what has been lost. So too, in learning how prayer can be a blessing, it may be necessary to seek direction to find the right path. Discerning who will be the right person to be our guide, finding the community where we feel most at home in prayer may be not easy, perhaps even a struggle to learn things about ourselves before needed opportunities come to meet us. The story of Namaan the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-15) illustrates.

From a slave girl in his household, Namaan a successful warrior, learns about the possibility of a cure for his leprosy from the prophet Elisha, and arranges to visit him. He is told to bathe seven times in the river Jordan to be cured. Namaan is angry, having expected the prophet to come to him in person to work this wonder, and questions the need to bathe in Jordan water, rather than in rivers flowing through Damascus, which in his mind have greater status. 

His servants have to persuade him simply to do what he's been told. Once he submits to the prophet's command, he is cured. Elijah's word is effective. The prophet speaks on behalf of One who saves and heals. Namaan acknowledges the sovereignty of Israel's God, but only after he has learned humility, the commander following the advice of servants who have his welfare in mind, and appeal to him to heed good news. 

Nobody need be left without guidance, to their own devices. St Paul writes;

'Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.' (2 Cor 5:11)

' “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? How can they hear without someone preaching to them? How can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all ... accepted the good news. Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.' (Romans 10:13-17)

The word 'hear' and the word 'obey' in the original Greek come from the same root word.

'Oh that today you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts ...' (Psalm 95:7b)

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Coming to terms with misfortune

Today's Ministry of the Word reminds us that God freely provides food, drink and protection to satisfy need. If that provision seems to break down, it seems unfair, yet it's a result of an all too human failure to live in full accordance with God's will and purpose. '..unless you repent, you will all perish as they did' (Luke 13:3 & 5). It's not intended as a threat, but to remind us that each tragedy we hear of challenges us to review and revalue our lives in relation to God. 

'So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.' (1 Cor 10:12)

Nobody deserves a cruel or an arbitrary accidental end. Anyone can have the misfortune of being the victim of random fate, in the wrong place at the wrong time, or making choices unaware of hidden consequences. There can sometimes be no answer to the question 'Why has this happened to me?' But trust in God's providence finds reassurance in Paul's words

'No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.' (1 Cor 10:13)


'For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Rom 8:38-39)

Living as we do, in the face of uncertainty and insecurity in turbulent times, praying and not losing heart calls for resolute struggle to rely on God's providence and protection despite all that is happening to cause us anxiety about the future. 

 'I will say to the Lord, “My refuge, my fortress,  My God, in whom I trust!”. (Psalm 91:2)

Whatever is happening now, in the end the future belongs to God, who is all in all

'Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, those who have God lack nothing. God alone is enough.' (Sta Teresa of Avila') 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Imaginative identification

Jesus attracted the disapproval of religious leaders and teachers because he kept company with people who were regarded as marginal if not outcasts from decent society. The parable he tells in response to his critics is about the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32) When the destitute young man comes to his senses, he realises how vulnerable he has made himself by his dissolute living. He is filled with shame and remorse at having turned his back on the family in pursuit of selfish pleasure. He has nowhere else to turn for refuge, so he rehearses to himself, then later repeats aloud to his father:

"I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son."

The father asks nothing of him. He goes out to meet him, delighted to know he is still alive. He is so relieved, he just wants to celebrate his son's return even though this causes resentment to the stay-at-home son who has never found a reason to call upon his father's generosity. 

Jesus is suggesting through this parable that God is this generous with all his children. Those who are successful in living respectable lives and meet all their religious obligations with ease, may never know what it is to be desperately needy, like those whose lives are full of adversity, under pressure from bad influences, weak willed and prone to failure. "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." says Jesus in another passage (Matt 9:13), in which he is subject to criticism for keeping bad company.

The prodigal's heartfelt exclamation has long found a place in Christian penitential prayer, notably in the scriptural sentences which may be recited before the invitation to confession which opens the Anglican Book of Common Prayer daily services of Matins and Evensong.

'I will arise and go to my father and say "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.".' 

Worshippers are invited to identify themselves with the prodigal son in seeking God's compassion and forgiveness. No way of reading and interpreting scripture is exclusively authorised by the church, and many different approaches are freely adopted, yielding a rich variety of insights into God's Word. 

This is an example of how scripture can be used as pathway into prayer. Imaginative identification with a character in a story from the Gospels or a parable of Jesus is a sound starting point for thinking about what its meaning for you. Asking yourself when listen to a reading a passage 'Who / where am I in this story?'  The answer from within can surprise us, for the Holy Spirit can prompt the working of the imagination matters concerning prayer.

'In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.' (Rom 8:26)

Friday, 26 February 2016

Remembering providence

The saga of Joseph son of Jacob/Israel (Genesis 37-46) appears in the scripture readings for Lent. It is a 'prequel' setting the scene for the story of Moses and the Exodus, which features so prominently at Passover and in the celebration of Easter. It accounts for how the children of Israel came to be living in Egypt in the first place, but the story does more than this. 

It is a story about the hidden hand of divine providence reversing misfortune, of all things working together for good, not because those whom the story portrays are pious or morally upright, but despite themselves. Their responses to circumstances drive the story along and ensure survival for themselves and their descendants in a foreign land.

Joseph is first portrayed as naive, and full of a youthful sense of his own self-importance, which leads to his elder brothers hating him and wanting to kill him. Reuben, one of the brothers has a bad conscience about this and persuades them to abandon him in a way that will lead to his eventual death without leaving them with blood on their hands. This he intends as a way to rescue Joseph later, but the plan misfires. Joseph is sold into slavery. 

After further set-backs, Joseph rises to power and is able to rescue his family from death by famine. They settle in Egypt, dependent upon Joseph's forgiveness and good-will. After the death of Joseph, things change, dependency upon good-will mutates into enslavement, as they are strangers in a strange land. God is revealed in the story as the author of their bid for freedom. They are unable to liberate themselves. Some don't see the need for freedom and must be persuaded to escape and make the journey that ensues. But God chooses them and their story to make his name and his nature known, despite themselves.

Thereafter, the Israelites are exhorted to remember these stories as the foundation of their existence and to be thankful to God as provider and rescuer of his children in spite of their shortcomings and wayward tendencies. Equally as important as prayer of penitence and self-surrender is prayer that remembers and thanks God for everything in life, recognising everything is a gift and not a right, or something deserved. 

Cultivating the art of remembering to appreciate and not take anything for granted is essential lifelong learning. We start learning it in childhood. It comes before we begin to pray, it is central to the nature of prayer, and flows out from prayer back into our lives.

'Give thanks to the Lord for he is gracious; for his mercy endures forever.' (1 Chron 16:34, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 107:1, Psalm 118:1)

'I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.' (Psalm 34:1)

In a Psalm that recalls God's saving works this is the refrain. It is addressed to us. How do we respond?

'Oh that they would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!' (Psalm 107:8, 15, 21, 31)

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Trusting the unknown

Teaching on prayer or disciplines which support it, by training mind and body, such as yoga, Tai Chi or deep meditation, are ultimately no more than forms of preparation to approach the threshold of engagement in opening the self totally to God. The prophet Jeremiah issues a stern warning about over-reliance on anything of human origin. 

'The Lord says this: "Woe to the man who puts his trust in man, who relies on things of flesh, whose heart turns from the Lord".' (Jeremiah 17:5)

Trust is described as 'firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of something or someone'. Ultimately, God alone is worthy of such firm belief.

'Happy is the one who has placed his trust in the Lord, with the Lord for his hope.'

says Jeremiah in 17:7, and this is echoed in Psalm 1, which is an extended reflection on the happiness of the person who relies on God alone. In both passages, the image of a deep rooted and resilient riverside tree is used to describe the stability enjoyed by such a virtuous person. Commendation of trust in God is a persistent feature of the Psalms.

'Rest in God alone, my soul, for my hope comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will not be shaken. My salvation and glory depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God. Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before Him.' (Psalm 62:5-8)

Again the image of stability and constancy is evoked in support of trusting in God. Yet God is unknown, unknowable to finite human minds. Human beings must rely on God revealing himself in some recognisable way, since the infinite is beyond conception. The mind can reach above and beyond knowledge of the created order by exercising the imagination, but this is still finite and limited. 

Opening the heart, the whole being to God means taking the risk of reaching out into the unknown, trusting that God is, and that God reaches out in response to the loving desire expressed in the fallible human act of trust, tinged, as it is, by mixed motives, plagued by ignorance and confusion. We take our strength and hope from the unknown.

'For God alone, my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress, I shall never be shaken.' (Psalm 62:1)
The threshold of encounter with God in prayer is where each of us, from wherever our journey begins, pause in awe of the mystery, of which so little can be spoken without diminishment. Like the quantum effect in sub-atomic matter, where the position and momentum of a particle cannot be measured together at any time, for the very act of observation itself displaces the subject.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The poetry of anguish

However good we may think we are at deflecting distractions when focusing on God, nothing is so hard to deal with as isolation and distress from being wrongfully accused or persecuted without cause. It can rob us of inner peace and leave us preoccupied with self-defence.

The composers of the Psalms realised that in the absence of peace and security, it is still possible to open the heart and cry out to God from the depths of fear and indignation. It is a remedy against the loneliness of enduring isolation and betrayal.

'All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me ... Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.' (Psalm 41:7 & 9)

Words which will take on a particular resonance after the final meal shared by Jesus with his disciples

' .... people trample upon me; all day long my foes oppress me; my enemies trample upon me all day long, for many fight against me. All day long they seek to injure my cause, all their thoughts against me are evil. They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps' (Psalm 56:1-2, 5-6)

'Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, for no fault of mine, they run and make ready.' (Psalm 59:3-4)

The Psalms are full of appeals to God from those who are under pressure from the contempt and false accusations of others.

'We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those about us.' (Psalm 79:6)

The sense of being overwhelmed by fear in hostile circumstances is described as being like drowning in a swamp.

'Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.' (Psalm 69:1-2)

Courage comes, not by suppressing such deep feelings or numbing oneself against them with alcohol or medication, but from voicing the fear, identifying what it is that destroys the self, then appealing to God for strength to cope, and overcome the inner terror. There is no need to conceal any anguish from him. Lingering guilt and shame can lead us to feel that affliction endured is a punishment from God, his expression of righteous anger at our sins, disproportionate to what we think is wrong with us. In the Psalms, cries of anguish are invariably related to remembering God's compassion and mercy.

Jesus sees such tribulation as inevitable in life, regardless of our sense of self worth. He encourages nobody to look for trouble or trials, rather the opposite. In the Lord's Prayer, he teaches us to pray 'Lead us not into temptation' or 'Do not put us to the test' or 'Save us from the time of trial', depending upon how the original Greek word peirasmos is translated. For his own part, he chose to embrace trial and suffering, to sacrifice his life to reveal the infinite depths of God's mercy and healing grace.

When Jesus was crucified he honestly expressed how betrayal, persecution, torture and isolation felt in his anguished cry of dereliction; "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." (Psalm 22:1). However, this Psalm, developing with such a graphic account of physical and spiritual pain, doesn't end there, but continues begging God for help, and ends in exhortation to praise his sovereignty.

'You who revere the Lord praise him! All you offspring of Jacob glorify him, stand in awe of him all you offspring of Israel! For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. From you comes my praise in the great congregation ...' (Psalm 22:23-25)

Psalms of lament are not easy to engage with, although what they express may well express experiences close to our hearts. Sometimes emotions switch confusingly between anguish and exultation, with a chaos that is natural when anyone is distressed. In prayer, it may seem like continued distraction, when it is really what we're bringing of ourselves into God's presence.

'Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly ... Eli observed her mouth. she was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk ... but Hannah answered him "No my Lord, I am a woman deeply troubled ... I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord .... for I have been speaking out my great anxiety and vexation all this time".' (1 Samuel 1:10ff)    

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Beware of over scrupulosity and pretence

Freedom of spirit to open one's heart to God in prayer relies not only on keeping his commandments with integrity and honesty, but also active concern for others in need of justice, freedom, safety, food, healing, compassion. The good life that prophets exhort the children of Israel to pursue is about more than ceasing to do evil. It is about taking up the cause of others who have been wronged, defending the oppressed, and protecting those who are most vulnerable and alone in life, the example given being orphans and widows, rejected by families too poor to look after them. Today we can compile our own list of vulnerable and isolated people for whom even a high principled welfare state fails to care adequately. 

'Cease to do evil, learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.' (Isaiah 1:17)

To avoid deceiving ourselves about our motivations and intentions, we ask God to probe our consciences and make us aware of our inconsistencies and failures of perception. 

'Prove me O Lord and try me; test my mind and my heart' (Psalm 26:2)

Jesus, however, is critical of the tendency in religious piety to become over scrupulous and preoccupied with relatively trivial failings and losing sight of the bigger picture of who we are and what we do with our lives, so self examination must always bear this in mind.

'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former.' (Matt 23:23) 

This accords with the prophetic call to 'do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with .. God' (Micah 6:8), as the Mosaic law intends, above and beyond all its detailed prescriptions for living well. We are challenged to be realistic in self assessment.

'For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.' (Romans 12:31)

Jesus reminds us that 'Anyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted' (Matt 23:12), and this is re-iterated in the letters of James 'Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.' (James 4:10) and Peter 'Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.'  

This is always about honest realism, not faked self-abasement. In the Lord's Prayer, as part of daily prayer we say; 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us', there is no need to sin against ourselves by self-deceit. 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Confession and healing

In the story of the Fall, the primal couple disregard God's warnings. They are persuaded take and enjoy forbidden fruit. They act freely, naturally without thought for the consequences. Only afterwards does it dawn on them for the first time, that they are exposed and vulnerable. They experience shame, cover their bodies, hide from sight. When found, they make excuses to mask their disobedience. It's a pattern of behaviour that replicates itself in ways more sophisticated than this tale suggests. We can recognise it in ourselves once we become aware things are not right in our lives and no longer feel comfortable with ourselves and our actions.

Awakening to awareness of self, learning how to integrate this into the way we think and act, is part of development from child to adult. It happens in different ways for each person. The original free will act is portrayed in the story as being made in ignorance and with disregard for the consequence. Thinking things through goes no further for them than the prospect of a little pleasure and the excitement of eating forbidden fruit.

When shame and guilt is awakened in us, the first impulse is denial, concealing what we feel. With this comes a sense of isolation and vulnerability, which can also be denied. This state is an obstacle to heartfelt prayer. Formal worship ritual continue routinely, but satisfaction from them wanes. Only when it becomes possible to admit what we feel and honestly expose it to God's compassion, can a genuine sense of release from the burden be experienced.

'My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.' (Psalm 32:5)

'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.' (1 John 1:9)

The scriptures contain strong examples of penitential prayers voicing the feelings associated with guilt and shame. Remarkable about some of them is the way the contain reflection on the past, explorations of how and what went wrong in life, to lead to the present intolerable condition. Analysis of causes and effects makes learning possible, and opens the way to restoration and healing. Restoring a person to a right and healthy relationship with themselves, God and others requires this therapeutic analysis. 

Understanding the failures and weaknesses of past generations, does not provide an excuse for present misbehaviour, only a way of identifying and understanding inherited tendencies, in an effort to learn how to avoid repeating old errors. It is important to acknowledge both personal responsibility for sin and one's part in 'social sin', in seeking to make a new start, in the light of a different self-understanding. Hence - 

'We acknowledge our wickedness Lord, and the guilt of our ancestors; we have indeed sinned against you.' (Jeremiah 14:20)

'But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors--their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me ... I will remember my covenant with Jacob, my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.' (Lev 26:40 & 42)

Over centuries the church has offered the sacrament of Absolution, involving confession and spiritual direction to the world. Essentially, it is conversation as a healing art. Modern psychological medicine has taken and systematised this, separating it from relationship to God. The fruitfulness of scientific method in healing people is the criterion by which it may be judged. The church believes that reconciliation with God is an essential dimension of true health and fullness of life.

'Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you.' (Psalm 41:4)

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Where your treasure is

When word reached Jesus of the fears some people had of the hostility of Herod towards him, Jesus refused to go into hiding, but continued as he intended, to Jerusalem to bring his prophetic ministry to a climax, which he knew inevitably meant laying down his life. Herod's power base was in a mountain fortress south of Roman occupied Jerusalem. After Jesus was arrested, he was taken to Herod to be interrogated, as a perverse gesture of good will on the part of the governor Pilate towards the warlord who accepted Roman domination and exercise power under it. 

When Herod met Jesus he was driven more by curiosity than hostility, even perhaps willing to be impressed if he could see a display of miraculous power. Earlier Herod feared Jesus was in fact John the Baptist, whose murder Herod ordered, returned to haunt him. Once he'd put this thought to rest, he lost interest and dismissed Jesus with an arbitrary punitive flogging. Jesus remained silent throughout. There was nothing he could do about this tyrant. His heart was already set on achieving his destiny, back in Jerusalem.

'Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.' (Luke 12:34)

'My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise.' (Psalm 57:7)

'I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.' (Psalm 40:8)

Psalm 40 is quoted in accounts of early apostolic teaching, regarding Jesus' fulfilment of his mission. The opposite of a heart surrendered to God is a hardened heart, and whenever the people of Israel become rebellious and resentful against God, they are thus accused.

'The house of Israel will not hearken unto you; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hard-hearted.' (Ezekeil 3:7)

Yet God always appeals to his children to change their attitude, to repent and return to him.

'O that today you would listen to His voice, harden not your hearts' (Psalm 95:8)

It can sometimes seem impossible not to react negatively in the face of painful, difficult and trying circumstances, ending up harbouring resentment, 'the poisonous root of bitterness' as it is called in Hebrews 12:15, which does us no good whatsoever. The reluctance or inability to let go of experiences which have thus caused us to suffer, leads to the hardening of heart scripture refers to, and estrangement from God. 

Prayer enables us to re-orient our lives, so they are again fixed on God. Thanksgiving and praise are a sure remedy for healing the hurts life inflicts.

'Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.' (Psalm 42:11)

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Prayer and the heart

In the Torah, God promises that the people of Israel will be 'his very own people', if they will in turn show allegiance to their Maker by keeping and observing his laws and commandments with all their heart and soul. And that means trusting entirely in what God teaches and provides for a blessed life. The law of God safeguards some freedoms while requiring duties and responsibilities of his people. This covenant with God asks that people not only live by the law, but love what it offers as well.

The longest Psalm 119, is an extended poetic meditation on the value of God's law and its observance. It begins thus:

'Happy are those whose life is blameless, who follow God's law!
 Happy are those who do his will, seeking him with all their hearts.'

Once again the idea of seeking God appears, in the setting of engagement in a way of life governed and stabilised by higher social and spiritual values. Blind obedience, unthinking adherence is not asked for, but rather conscious understanding, motivated by love.

'LORD, what love have I unto thy law : all the day long is my study in it.' (Psalm 119:97)

The heights and depths of communion with God in prayer may indeed take us beyond understanding, but this is not where the journey begins. Heartfelt prayer is rooted in the effort to seek God with as much understanding as each person is capable of, given their level of education and experience.

Understanding is attained by the exercise of reason, emotion, memory and will. The degree to which each is active in prayer at any time will vary, but none can ever be excluded, for prayer involves the whole person, mentally, physically and spiritually.

'Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--this is your true and proper worship.' (Romans 12:1) 

In the context of Hebrew language 'offering your bodies' here refers to the whole self, in the same way as it does in the words of Jesus at the Last Supper 'This is my body given for you'.

In Christian tradition 'prayer of the heart' carries a similar meaning, where the heart, as the central organ of the body, stands for the whole person in relation to God and others. Only God, who sees the whole picture of our lives in all its complexity, is able to perceive the real motives and intentions of the whole person

'For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.' (Hebrews 4:12)

'Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.' (Psalm 139:23)

Our acts of worship acknowledge this when they commence with this prayer:

'Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit .... '

Friday, 19 February 2016

Waiting and longing

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." (Matt 5:24-5)

Christian faith was born within the heart of Judaism, and as faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Saviour and Lord of all humankind developed and spread far afield, it separated and acquired its own identity, and sought to distinguish itself from its Jewish mother by disputing about the nature of salvation, God's grace salvation and whether or not Jesus is the promised Messiah, and Son of God. 

The emphasis on differences has far too often masked the commonalities between them, and this has resulted in mutual prejudice, distrust, anti-semitism and persecution of Jewish minorities by Christians, who have inexplicably failed to grasp the meaning of faith they claim to profess. Christians are indebted to Judaism for much of what they need to understand in the life of prayer. Being reconciled with our spiritual kith and kin is a vital aspect of Christian pilgrimage in search of the truth of God for our time.

Jesus was a Jew and owed his spiritual formation at home to a devout pharisaic tradition of belief and practise nourished by the prophecy of Isaiah. This didn't stop Jesus challenging Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots alike to consider their motives and be honest about their moral failures and spiritual shortcomings. His aim was to expose the truth as a means towards reconciliation with God and others. Drawing upon the strengths and depths of his religious inheritance, Jesus advocated the kind of piety in which compassionate action, and worship in spirit and in truth are inseparable.

'Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn' (Isaiah 51:1)

Psalms were of great importance in everyday devotion as well as in Temple and synagogue worship. Sometimes they are called 'Jesus's prayer book'. Use of the Psalms in prayer is one of the greatest legacies Christians have inherited from Judaism. They can also be a key teacher about prayer itself. In learning to use the Psalms it is worth being mindful of the way our mindset may have been influenced by an attitude to Judaism ruled more by a sense of difference than commonality. What we share brings us much closer to the 'mind of Christ'.

Psalm 130 gives an example of a prayer long in use in Christian worship as an expression of sorrow and penitence in funeral rites. It is often used in regular Jewish synagogue daily prayers, as well as on high holy days, expressing penitence and longing for God.

'From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice. 
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?
But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered. 

I trust in the Lord; My soul trusts in his word. 
My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the dawn. 
More than watchmen wait for the dawn, let Israel hope in the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.'

Matthew's Gospel introduces the idea of the church as being a 'new Israel of God', as being a people called to journey to the freedom of the children of God, 'from every tribe and tongue, and people and nation' (Revelation 7:9) This presupposes that people thus called will learn what the Exodus people of God's first Covenant have to share.

Longing, waiting for God, seeking God are responses for those who begin to sense the reality of who we truly are as mortal human beings. There is a natural hunger for what will do us good, give us life. The more we come fully to our senses, the more we realise that natural hunger is inseparable from hunger for the spiritual.

'Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.' (Is 55:6)

'O God, you are my God; early will I seek you: my soul thirsts for you, my flesh longs for you in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is' (Psalm 63:1)

'Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.' (Amos 5:14-15)

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Learning how to wait

Jesus speaks about persistence in prayer through the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-7), and the importance of 'not losing heart' i.e. being discouraged, when it seems as if there is no result, no change for the effort made. Awareness, concentration and persistence don't come naturally, they develop over the passage of time.

The scriptures provide powerful examples of of prayers eloquently expressing praise and penitence, sometimes at great length. These are often conceived by people in times of trial or great joy, when making time to pray is less of an effort, since it is a response driven by exceptional experiences. As desire grows to get to know and trust God, and work on the relationship in earnest however, it can be harder to make more time for prayer routinely, given the pressure everyday life exerts to divert us. This can be discouraging, and leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.

It is better to remember that God is always ready to welcome us, however much or little time we manage to set aside. God knows better than we do the conflicting forces at work in us, consciously and unconsciously, and awaits our response.

'Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.' (Matt 6:8b) 

'Lord you have searched me and known me, you know my resting and my rising, you perceive my thoughts from afar, all my ways lie open to you.' (Ps 139:1-2)

God is patient with us. From him we too can learn patience, with others and with ourselves. The word 'patience' has its root in the Latin 'patio', to suffer. Its meaning is given as 'the capacity to wait, to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.' In relating to God in prayer, learning how to wait, is part of learning persistence 

'Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find.' (Luke 11:9) Words of Jesus which reassure us that there is purpose to persistence. Even so, what we find may not be what we thought we wanted, but it will be what God gives us, and we will learn to recognise this, as we persist in prayer, and realise that we can be thankful in all circumstances.

'Wait for the LORD; be strong, let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!' (Ps 27:14)


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Prayer without ceasing

St Paul, writing in his first letter to the Thessalonians exhorts and encourages his readers to

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (1 Thess 5:15-16)

If relationship to God in prayer is based on being totally open to God, this places the need for awareness of God at the core of our being, and helps us understand what prayer without ceasing means. How is it possible to cultivate such an awareness? 

'Mindfulness' is a popular word in contemporary discourse, drawn from Buddhist teaching and practise. This involves complete self observation - physical, mental and spiritual - also being aware of one motives and intentions, and the moral consequences of ones actions in striving to follow the right path through life. 

Nothing about the Buddhist Eightfold Path is foreign to the content Christian moral and spiritual teaching. It is simply ordered and presented differently. The Christian path of faith is different in placing relationship with God, infinite unknown, uncreated Author of all, not as an optional belief, but essential, central to human existence, its goal. As St Augustine said

"Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

It's not easy at any time to stay focused on God, for good or for ill, for distractions abound for the restless heart and mind. How many conversations, let alone quiet moments in the life of Jesus, were interrupted by needy people? He was subject to the invasion of fear and anxiety like other human being, even if he wasn't troubled for long. The heart hungry for God resembles a compass needle. It can be deflected off course, yet it returns to its natural orientation after a while.

Once we realise there is no better alternative in life, making the conscious effort to keep turning back to God - repentance - the choice of habit eventually becomes as unconscious as the act of breathing. The few words we may use in redirecting ourselves to God, are anything but 'vain repetition'. Rather they serve as an anchor to the act of willing self surrender.

"God have mercy on me a sinner"  (Luke 18:13b)

This prayer doesn't require remorse or regret or even sorrow, although there may be times when this is appropriate. We are, after all, forgiven. We are sinned against and sin against others, always in need of some measure of healing. Recognising that I am a sinner, that we are all sinners, is a way to remind ourselves of our imperfection and need for healing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Before you start

Jesus' teaching on prayer in Matthew's Gospel, is set alongside teaching on discretion in charitable giving and the practice of fasting. He insists that personal prayer, like generosity and abstinence, aren't meant to be a public demonstration of piety. Personal prayer is to be offered, hidden away from others, where it is safe to be utterly open and vulnerable as anyone can be, before God alone. Each of us needs those 'desert moments' in solitude, to face up to who we are, in God's presence.

The story of Jesus tested in the wilderness, shows how he relies on words from scripture recalled as he considers his calling, and what he is capable of doing with it. Although angels ministering to him are mentioned, God is not mentioned, neither is prayer. The evangelist presumes readers already know and understand from their recollection of the story of Elijah, a fugitive in the desert like Moses before him, encountering God in the silence and stillness of the 'empty quarter' 

'... but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice.' (1 Kg 19:11-13)

'Be still and know that I am God' (Ps 46:10) 

Jesus commends brevity and simplicity in reaching out to God with words and thoughts.  Neither the content of the words, nor the comforting sound they may make (if often repeated) is what opens the heart to God, but rather desire and longing.
The meaning of what must be said is derived from the encounter with silence.

'In your prayer, do not babble as pagans do .... your Father knows what you need before you ask.' (Matt 6:7) 

There is no need to argue with God or try to persuade him - even though forgetfully, we may often think that by our efforts we can. This is not intended to discourage the use of repetitive prayer, but to consider thoughtfully what we do and how we do it.

The purpose of personal prayer is to attune us with God's will and purpose, manifested, if any evidence is required, in every purposeful detail of the cycle of nature. And it will change who we are and what we are able to do with our lives.

       'For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
       and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
       making it bring forth and sprout,

       giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
      so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 
      it shall not return to me empty,
      but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, 

      and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.'        (Isaiah 55:10-11)