How would you teach me to pray?

Popping into a church today I was reminded of a question someone asked me a few weeks ago.

The church was somewhere that I happened to be passing. Somewhere a little off the beaten track in the middle of the bustle of a city. Not a particularly well known church but a known place to me. A place I’ve dropped into in passing quite a few times in the past.

It is a busy church – there always seems to be people popping in and bowing their heads. As they do so they find themselves sharing the space with a number of folk who obviously have nowhere else to go. Some seem to have carried in all they own with them. Some fall asleep. It is a place where devotion and need seem all jumbled up and you can’t always tell who is actively trying to pray and who just needs shelter. And you can’t always tell the difference anyway I’ve found.

It is a place where prayer has often just seemed to happen in an easy, matter of fact way.

I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that there are “thin” places where God is easy to meet. People often describe Iona like that and speak of thin places as though that’s an old Celtic idea. In fact, the old Celts themselves seem to have been rather more robust than modern pilgrims – praying the psalms whilst up to their oxters in chilly Atlantic waters of a morning. And in any case, the whole ethos of the Iona Community seems to me to suggest that God is to be just as knowable in Govan as on a rocky crag on the edge of the world.

But still, the sense of place this afternoon stilled me somehow. I was in a place that had been well prayed in, there were some beautiful things in an otherwise ordinary space and it was possible to just rest in the presence of God and to love being loved.

And it made me think of that question that someone asked me recently – “if I were to ask you to help me learn how to pray, what would you say?”

My response at the time was that I’d probably ask a few questions and listen a lot before saying very much. The truth is, there isn’t just one forumula for praying that works. God lurks in the world, as Bishop Gregor has often said to me. And that lurking God longs to be known in ways that won’t be tied down to a method or a protocol.

If I was trying to help you to pray, I’d be asking some of the following questions…

What rhythms do you already have in life?

Do words or pictures move you most?

Does stillness come easily or do you need a routine in order to relax?

What ways of prayer have you already tried?

Have you any experience of meditation?

What gives you joy?

What gives you peace?

What are you thankful for and do you have ways of expressing that thankfulness?

I’d be trying to find out whether you found it easy to think about stories, or characters or concepts.

All these questions would be helpful in trying to find a few ways of praying that would be worth building into habits. Things that we can just do without thinking too much about them.

I don’t always find prayer that easy. And when I’m not finding it easy I’ve learned that it isn’t worth beating yourself up about it.

The world is no less enflamed with the presence of God just because I feel fidgety.

At times like that, doing something I’ve done a thousand times might be all I can do. Breathing and being concious of my breath. Using well worn words and wearing them a bit more. Reminding myself that wanting to pray is the first honest prayer many of us manage.

And then the times come, like this afternoon in a church I rarely see when different things come together and love is all there is.

I don’t know how long I was there. Twenty minutes or so. Maybe half an hour. In that time, there’s things I remember.

  • Being thankful for the gifts and skills and maturity and loveliness of someone I’ve seen this week for the first time in years.
  • Seeing an image of a biblical character and being taken straight in my head to a passage of scripture that came up at morning prayer recently. As I thought about the passage, it seemed to link with my own current experience.
  • Hearing the snores and murmurs of those scattered around the place and knowing that the prayers and actions of those who act and pray are still needed as we work to help the whole world live the magnificat.
  • And the light. And the stillness. And the peace.

I think that the question – “How would you teach me to pray?” is a wonderful one. Like all good questions, it begs more questions and there’s no one answer anyway.

It is a question that most priests I know would like to be asked more often. It is a question that many lay people would give a better answer to than many clergy.

I’d be a bit wary of anyone who said that prayer was either always easy. Or always impossible.

I’d love to hear it asked and would love to hear it answered more often than I do.

Sermon preached for Epiphany 3

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sometimes you have to actually turn up and see things with your own eyes in order to understand what you think you’ve always known.

I’ve read this section of the gospel plenty of times and it always seemed straightforward to me. Jesus reads to the congregation from the book of Isaiah by way of inaugurating his ministry. And something captivated them. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were upon him.

I’ve preached on that phrase a few times when this gospel has come around. But not today. Today, I want to stick with the scroll.

For I remember a couple of years ago getting an invitation to visit a synagogue for a Saturday morning service.

Now, as it happens, I grew up worshipping in a building that had formerly been used as a synagogue in Leeds. It had been a community in which men worshipped downstairs and the women in an upstairs gallery designed so that the two sexes couldn’t see one another. That had the consequence in later years when it was used as a Christian place of worship that people sitting in the gallery couldn’t see much of what was going on at all.

But, before anyone starts getting more progressive than thou, don’t forget in passing that there are congregations in Christianity where men and women still sit separately and will worship like that today.

Any anyway the synagogue I got to visit in Glasgow wasn’t like that. Men and women worshipped together as one congregation, just like we do here.

The thing that I remembered from my childhood was the shape of an arch that outlined where the ark would have been – the receptacle of the scrolls that are read in worship. It was somewhat grand.

And when I went to be present at a Jewish morning service, I saw the reverence accorded to the religious text.

For the opening of the ark was a big deal. It was a big moment. It was dramatic. It was clear that it mattered a huge amount.

It took three people to get the largest of the scrolls from the ark and lay it out so that the reading for the day could be read.

It was clearly an awkward thing to do and as they did so, one of the three stumbled and the scroll rocked from side to side.

And you could feel the tension. Everyone leaned forward. There was a palpable sense of relief when the scroll was steadied. It didn’t fall to the floor but was cradled with great care and devotion.

I later was told that had the scroll fallen then the whole community would have kept a 40 day period of fasting.

Imagine that – if we were to have Lent every time anyone dropped a bible in church.

It was clear that in that place there was much devotion and care. The Torah was treated with respect, love and kindness.

And I particularly remember on this holocaust memorial day hearing stories there of scrolls and pieces of Torah scrolls that had survived Nazi persecution – when the physical artefacts of the Jewish people were trashed.

And those fragments of scrolls were spoken of as survivors – using the same language as the language used to describe human beings who survived.

The words of God had survived to be spoken anew.

Such was the reverence of those texts in that place.

And you had to be there to see it. You had to turn up in order to understand a scene that you’ve always thought you knew.

I guess it was in such a scene as that, that Jesus found his place in the scroll and read the passage of Isaiah for the day.

I remember 6 years ago on the first night of my sabbatical. I had arrived in Vancouver after a very long day. I was jetlagged and weary and desperately wanted to go to bed. And my hosts met me with the words – “Oh, there’s the installation of a priest this evening – we thought you should come too. Here’s a stole and an alb. You’re coming with us.

It was one of those times when the joy of the Lord was difficult to find.

And of course, when I got there I was introduced to the bishop conducting the ceremony as the honoured guest visiting from the Old Country. And so I was ushered to the very front row and sat there with the other bigwigs. On my mouth was a forced smile. In my head it was 5 am in the morning and I had not slept for 22 hours. And my eyes were closing with every verse of the opening hymn.

And then something happened which made me wake up and realise I was in another country and that the trip was worth making.

The gradual hymn was announced and we stood up to sing. And as we did so, one of the servers lifted the gospel book up with one hand. A young man with no guile – he made his way in the procession, with great dignity and yet with no inhibitions, dancing the gospel to the centre of the church. It was done with such sincerity and such joy. And the eyes of everyone in the assembly were upon him.

It was as though all the uninhibited and simple joy of the new world was being expressed in one gesture. We don’t behave like that in this old country. And you know, I loved it.

It made me realise that I was someplace new. And I was going to have my eyes opened and my ears unstopped every day. And as he danced the gospel into place, my heart began to dance. And I started to wake up in every way possible.

And I had to have turned up and seen it with my own eyes in order to understand it.

On some day, in some place, the people gather for morning worship.

And a young teacher from the local country is  assigned to read the text for the day.

And we think of his reading of that text as the public inauguration of his ministry.

What does he start with?

Does he teach them theology? Does he teach them spirituality? Does he teach them prayer? Does he teach them ethics?

No – those will all come later in his own little stories and parables and table talk.

No. He begins with Isaiah. And every word is about social justice and about building a society that is altogether new.

Good news to the poor.

Release to the captives

Sight to those who don’t see.

Freedom for all who are oppressed.

And he rolls up the scroll and goes back to his place, and every eye is upon him.

“Today,” he says,

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

On this day, can we still see him in our hearts and minds?

Can we imagine him sitting amongst us?

Can we work out from the clues that he gives us what the day of the Lord’s favour will look like today?

Sometimes you have to actually turn up and see things with your own eyes in order to understand what you think you’ve always known.

What was it you came here today to see?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.