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Monday, July 17, 2017

Basics of Faith 4 - Prayer


Basics of Faith 4 – July 16, 2017
 A Sermon by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald

Lessons read on July 16:   Gospel:  Mark 6:34-46; 
                                           Responsive Reading:  Paraphrase of Psalm 122

Paraphrase of Psalm 122
(Kindle Locations 3157-3172).
Wood Lake Publishing. Kindle Edition.
One:  God calls people everywhere to a pilgrimage. 
All:   From all over the world,
        many feet beat a path to God’s holy places. 
One: They struggle over high mountain passes;
       they shuffle across dusty deserts;
       they crawl along the walls of river canyons. 
All: Straggling lines of searchers converge in a fertile
       valley; a great shout of joy goes up to the heavens. 
One: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus—in common cause    
       the great religions rise above doctrinal differences.
                  Pray for their unity; pray for their commitment. 
All: May they not threaten each other;
       may they generate peace among their peoples. 
One: God, watching over them, says,
       “They do not all call themselves my followers.
       Yet because they are brothers and sisters,
       meeting in harmony, I will treat them as my own.” 
All: Because they do God’s will, God welcomes them.

One of the things that surprised me as I did my research on the statements of faith of the United Church of Canada and Prayer is how little our statements of faith have to say on prayer.  The last time prayer was mentioned as a specific topic in our Statements was in 1925, in the basis of Union. 
          As I read the Basis of Union’s Article XIII[1] – On Prayer – I am kind of glad it got dropped – not only because of the language which is un-redeemably dated, but because the perception of prayer is somewhat limiting in its context – i.e., asking for things – forgiveness, strength, what we need for this life – and an underlying assumption of the grace of God to provide.  While there is nothing wrong with praying for these things and in this way, this ‘article’ on prayer is, as I said, limited and leaves to many questions about prayer unanswered.  Questions like: 
·        What happens when it seems my prayers aren’t being answered? 
·        Or is it right to pray for material things? 
·        And how do I pray when I am not sure what is the right thing? 

          While I am glad that prayer (which is common to all major religions) is, subsequent to 1925, left out of the doctrinal and faith statements of the United Church; I would still like to see prayer receive a more prominent place in the education and faith formation of all of us. 

          Prayer is one of the tools we have in our faith tool box.  Prayer, the Bible, the Church or gathered community:  these are the things we use to help us and support us and challenge us in our journey towards God.  Prayer is the oldest and most tested tool.  Prayer predates the formation of churches and the canonizing of the Bible of sacred scripture.  As long as there have been people of faith, there have been people praying.

          On three different occasions, I have held a six-week group reflection on ways of praying.  Our first session was on spiritual types.  This session consisted of a questionnaire based on the Myers-Briggs personality type, but adapted for spiritual or faith expression.  We began there, because who you are helps determine what kind of worship appeals to you and what kind of prayer you find most effective.  The next sessions were an exploration in ways of praying and included such things as praying with scripture or lectio divina, bodily prayer (i.e,. engaging the whole body in prayer), prayer journaling, and praying with colour.
           Bodily prayer – using the body in prayer, includes things like prayer walking (walking the labyrinth is one example of prayer walking) or perhaps liturgical dance.  How does or might the movement of our body assist our prayer, or, alternately, be used to portray the feeling of words of the prayer?  The body at prayer is not something new; we engage our bodies in prayer all the time – when we kneel or when we put our hands together or bow our heads, we are engaging our body in prayer. 

          Lectio Divina or praying the scriptures is a very old form or prayer that begins with reading and re-reading a passage of scripture contemplatively, imaginatively, prayerfully – engaging both the mind and the heart in the reading. 

          Prayer journaling is simply creating a journal of prayers you can use or refer to.  Your journal can include written conversations with God, or lists of people for whom we pray, or prayers we have written, our doubts, our gratitude, our questions, and reflections. 

          Praying with colour is simply what it says – using colour and our eyes and hands and imaginations as we reflect and pray.  There are a myriad of ways to use colour when praying – whether creating a mandala, or prayer trees (with a prayer for each leaf), or simply drawing and colouring what we feel. 
          The act of creation – whether art or music or writing – can be prayer.  Some people tell me that when they are knitting prayer shawls they are praying, thinking of the person who might receive it (even if they don’t know who the person is), and putting their love, their prayers into it.  There is a very old saying that says when the crafts-person is practicing their craft, they are praying.  There is a lot of truth in this.  Those who lead a contemplative life would tell you that the more you do what you do with intention, and the more that intention is in the direction of God, then the more of what you do becomes prayer – until life is lived as a prayer.

          There are as many ways of praying as there are people.  The life of prayer is a journey and it requires commitment and trust – trust in God and that God is good.  There will be many trials and many times when life and prayer are confusing, and so we trust that what we don’t understand is in good hands; and then make a commitment to choose good and live prayerfully in all circumstances.  I like to think of the attitude for prayer as the three “h’s” – humility, honesty and hope. 

1.      Humility - we are humble in prayer, knowing that we do not always know or understand and with a humble heart we are ready and willing to be open to what we receive;
2.    Honesty – we hide nothing in prayer about our life and about ourselves.  If we are angry, we say we are angry and humbly ask for help; if we don’t understand, we say we don’t understand.  We are open and honest about who we are, about our doubts, about what we are feeling.

3.    And hope.  Even when the situation seems hopeless, we place our trust and hope in God.  We come hoping for what it is we or those we pray for need; or we come hoping for the means and strength to cope with what is; hoping for some direction.  Hoping also means remaining open to what we don’t understand and possibilities we haven’t yet imagined.

          Prayer, like life, can seem arduous at times; but it can also be joyous with many surprises; and it can lead to a place of deep inner peace.

          My MDiv thesis was on prayer; in particular, prayer as presented in The Interior Castle which is the name of a book by Saint Theresa of Avila on prayer.  Theresa describes prayer as an interior place, a castle which one begins exploring from the outside and then goes ever deeper to the centre and, in so doing, is drawing every closer to God. 
          Theresa is also very practical, making allowance for people getting lost, falling back, moving between the inner and outer rooms of the castle.  She pragmatically suggests that visions be treated with proper rest and a proper diet before considering them to be inspired by God.  To me, this practicality, more than anything, speaks of her experience with prayer, for she herself had visions and was suspicious of them.  In 1970, Theresa of Avila was made the first female Doctor of the Roman Church, mainly for her work on prayer.
          The main thing to remember about prayer is that it is our heart’s language, our heart’s way of communicating with God.  Our prayers, often, in the beginning have words, but prayer doesn’t need words.  Prayer can simply be to place oneself in God’s presence and do nothing, but let God be.  There are many types of guided meditation and prayer suggestions to help one do just that – to relax in the presence of God and let God nourish and heal the soul.  It is a different way of asking, asking without words.
          Of course, the prayer we are most used to is the prayer of asking or supplication.  But how often in our living and the longer we live, the truer this is – how often have we come to a place where we don’t know what to pray.  Often, prayer of this sort has to do with people who are terminally ill.  We don’t want them to die, but we don’t want them to suffer – and none of us lives forever – so what is the right thing to pray?  Or perhaps we may be praying for a person who is a crossroads and we don’t know what the right thing for them is.  On occasions when knowing what to pray or how to pray is difficult, there are two simple prayers which I find particularly helpful: 
·        One is “God, or Jesus, or Holy Spirit, use a name for the Holy One with which you are truly comfortable for this is a conversation: “Holy One, hold Johnny in your arms today” or hold ‘Mary’ in your arms today.
·        Another, I find particularly helpful when I want to prayer but don’t know what my prayer should say is “God, I join you in Your prayer for Johnny today” or God, help me to join you in your prayer for Johnny today.   This can be a prayer for any person or situation which seems unclear.   “God, I join you in your prayer for the refugees from Syria today.”  “I join you in your prayer for those affected by the wildfires in British Colulmbia Today."  "God, I join you in your prayer for the World today.”  And then don’t rush away, but rest with that for a few minutes and, in the silence, let God in.  Or you may wish to extend the prayer:  For instance take this short prayer: “God, I join you in your prayer for Kingston Pastoral Charge today”.  And extend it to something like this but also short.  “God, I join you in your prayer for Kingston Pastoral Charge today.  Help me to see and be what is needed for your prayer to become our reality.”

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Supplication can come together if we think about celebration and imagination.  We celebrate what strengths have gotten us to this place; but now it is time to imagine, with all that is within our reach, in the midst of our reality and equipped with all our strengths and talents – known and unknown – it is time to imagine what we could be; and better yet, what God is calling us to be in this time and in this place for the sake of the world.  Take time each day to put turn off your cell phones and your computers and your TV’s and pray; but also imagine, day dream. 
          I was listening to CBC radio program a few years ago.  The program was presenting yet another research piece of the effect of technology on our brains.  With technology, people, esp. young people are spending very little time day-dreaming.  It turns out that day-dreaming is necessary for the development of our brains and our thinking.  By day-dreaming we accomplish 4 tasks:  the organization of memory; using our imaginations, planning for the future, and the development of empathy. 

          Since one of our tasks this year is to look to our future, over the next few months I am going to invite you to day-dream – to remember your best experiences of church; and your best experiences of yourself engaged in church.  From that we will come to know our strengths as people of faith.  Then as you daydream, let you mind go and imagine the church as living out its ministry within this place – a church that is a joy to behold and a good place to be.  With the two tools of remembering our strengths and imagining what we can be, we will have the tools to prayerfully plan our future. 

          But this is the start for all of us for the next little while, daydreaming – remembering our best selves and imagining what can yet be.  This Pastoral Charge has three buildings on three properties.  These buildings and lands and the people who frequent them are assets - not in monetary terms, but in terms of being useful for the ministry to which God calls us. 

          And you people who are come to these buildings, who worship together, who work for your church - so many gifted, good-hearted, committed people – are you finding joy in your service?  What is the Joy to which God calls you, calls us?  What is it you love to do?  What is your deepest desire for the people of God in this place, for you in this place?  Because, one of the things deep prayer teaches us is that our deepest desire is quite often God’s deepest desire for us.  We but need dare to imagine and believe, and trust in the reality of what is already ours.
Let us our desire and compassion for the work of God decide our ministry, make use of our assets and create the will to acquire what we need to become the best version of Church, of God's people we can be.
          The longest prayer in the Bible is Jesus’ prayer for his disciples which is found in John, chapters 14 to 17.  His prayer is also a kind of spiritual-will;  a last will in testament for the spiritual life,  for in it he gives his closest friends his final teachings, his hopes for them, his advice for living into the future and his dreams.  Jesus desire for his disciples was that they should know joy:
John 15:  11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
And his most enduring advice was as simple as this: 
12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 
“That my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  This is, I believe, God’s desire for us - God’s desire for Kingston Pastoral Charge as a whole and the people in each of its 3 congregations as together we discern the future:   that God’s joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete.  And that we love one another.     Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
Compassionate God, we remember with thanks all we have received in this place:  the friendships, the faith, the comfort and support; as well as the ability to live with hope into the future.
          Holy Spirit, blow among us. Clear out the cob webs of fear and doubt and anxiety that we may discern with You the possibilities You wish to live among us. Teach us the joy of living gratefully in the present, the grace of accepting humbly our reality, and the faith to trust Your leading as we imagine our tomorrows. Amen.
United Church of Canada Statements and Creeds on Prayer
1925 – Basis of Union
Article XIII. Of Prayer. We believe that we are encouraged to draw near to God, our Heavenly Father, in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and on our own behalf and that of others to pour out our hearts humbly yet freely before Him, as becomes His beloved children, giving Him the honour and praise due His holy name, asking Him to glorify Himself on earth as in Heaven, confessing unto Him our sins, and seeking of Him every gift needful for this life and for our everlasting salvation. We believe also that, inasmuch as all true prayer is prompted by His Spirit, He will in response thereto grant us every blessing according to His unsearchable wisdom and the riches of His grace in Jesus Christ

1940 – Statement of Faith - no article on prayer

1968 (Rev. 1980, 1995) - A New Creed – no mention of prayer

2006 – A Song of Faith
We sing of the Spirit,
who speaks our prayers of deepest longing
and enfolds our concerns and confessions,
transforming us and the world.

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