So these two guys are walking through a field one day when they spot a bull, head down charging at them. Instantly they start to sprint towards the nearest fence, the storming bull following in hot pursuit. And it is soon apparent they wouldn’t make it. Terrified, one shouts to the other, “Send up a prayer, John. We’re in for it!”
John answered, “I can’t. I’ve never prayed aloud in my life.”
“But you must!” pleads his companion. “The bull is going to get us.”
“All right,” panted John, “I’ll say the only prayer I know, the one my father used to repeat at the table: ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.’”
I wonder how many prayers you know by heart? I’m not a great fan of other people’s prayers, as you may have guessed by the way I leave quite a few out of our traditional services. I tend to think that prayer should be a conversation between me and God, and frankly I want to use my own words. However, I recognise that there are times when a prayer that we all know helps us to join together.
Sometimes a prayer that somebody else has written just puts it better than we can. Take a prayer like the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer: Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That expresses a truth beautifully succinctly.
It is also probably true that a prayer that somebody else has written might help us to reach a higher point of surrender than our own faltering attempts to yield ourselves to God. Take the prayer of self abandonment of Charles de Foucault:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
Now that prayer is way beyond what i could express myself, and quite often it is way beyond what I feel I want to express, but I aspire to be able to say that prayer and to mean it. Prayer should stretch us out beyond where we have got to. Prayers which are only “Lord, please help so and so” are fine, but they don’t really change us.
Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. Now, why do you think he told us to do that? To change them? To make them behave better? Maybe. But I suspect that praying for your enemies is most potent, because it changes us. It’s a little like the counselling technique where you place an empty chair opposite somebody who is in a bad relationship, and get them to talk to their enemy as if they were in the empty chair (the enemy is usually a family member or their boss – enemies usually are). Then after a while, you get them to swap seats, and try to talk back from their enemy’s perspective.
After doing this, many people come to see their enemy differently, and almost miraculously their arguments often dissolve too. So prayer changes us: it changes our perspective; it draws us into greater dependence on God; it actually makes God more real to us. This is a fact of the way that our brains work: the more you speak to somebody you cannot see, the more your brain accepts that they are real. So if you are having doubts about God, just praying can help you. Some of the best prayers begin: Lord, I’m not sure if I believe in you, but…..
There is one prayer that we all know. The prayer that Jesus taught us. And you may feel that we are over familiar with this prayer, and sometimes it has just become a set of words that we mumble our way through, like when I say this prayer at funerals, and I wonder if anybody else there actually has a clue what we are asking God for, and if they did, whether they would agree with it.
So what does this prayer mean? Why is it perhaps the greatest prayer ever written?
To begin with it addresses God as Our Father. Do you realise how radical that form of address is: That we dare to call God, the immortal Creator and Judge, our Father? In the ancient world, people were used to the idea that the gods were the fathers of kings and heroes. But this prayer is not for kings and heroes, it is for ordinary Joes like you and me. Jesus models for us that we are the children of God: loved, cherished, forgiven, disciplined- we are family.
Those 2 words – Our Father – make possible the prayer of abandonment of Charles de Foucault that i mentioned earlier. We can abandon ourselves to God, because he is The Good Father of us all. And he inhabits heaven, which is not somewhere above the clouds, but everywhere, all around us. It is everywhere except where evil reigns, so heaven can be inside you or outside of you, depending on whether God or evil reigns in you.
Yes, God is an eternal, living, relentless force/ spirit that is pure love and holiness. He yearns to fill us and all creation, but in his love he gives us freedom to choose whether we will allow his life to fill us. And so we pray for his Kingdom to come and his will to be done – where? First of all, in us.
We are saying to God: I want to do your will, my Father. “Not my will, but yours be done”, prayed Jesus in the garden the night before he died, and we pray the same, knowing that the result may be the same: death and new life. But that request for God’s will to be done is the last of 3 requests: Hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done.
Why does it come last? Because frankly, we need some help before we can do the will of God – or at least I do. I think i’d like to do the will of God, but most of the time I’m too wrapped up in my kingdom, my dreams, my family, my career. I can’t break out of my small minded, self obsessed world without the in-breaking of God – his holy character, his life changing kingdom. Yes, in the end it comes down to me expressing the will of God, but it has to start with God. I can’t do it without him first acting.
For a start I need to feel love; my heart is dry much of the time, but if i’m to do the will of God, I need his love. I need wisdom, because God’s will is not always obvious. I need courage, O Lord, I need courage, because the will of God is not a picnic. So I pray: Hallowed be your Name, Your Kingdom come – I need to know and see you, God, so that I can know and do your will.
And then I need resources and help to deliver. I need daily bread; I need forgiveness; I need protection. Daily bread is not just bread, of course; it is all the practical stuff that i need to stay alive and have enough to share. As St Paul writes to the Corinthians: 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (2 Corinthians 9).
I need practical stuff, but I also need a peaceful heart, a heart free of guilt and bitterness. I need to forgive and be forgiven. I need both, and frankly I need to be free of bitterness more than i need to be free of guilt. That is why Jesus makes God’s forgiveness of us dependent on us forgiving others. How can I do the will of God, if I am angry and bitter? I might be able to do it with a little bit of guilt, but not with anger or bitterness. So we forgive; we forgive because we need to forgive; we don’t do it for the sake of the person we are forgiving; we don’t do it because they deserve it; we do it because bitterness is like a cancer that eats you up; we forgive for our sake, so we are free to love God and others again.
And i need protection: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Life is dangerous. Evil is all around, just ask the people of Nice, Baghdad, or Istanbul. But evil is closer than that too. Evil is anything that is opposed to the goodness, love and justice of God. Evil sits in my heart; it sits in our TV sets; it sits on our supermarket shelves; it stalks our schools, parks and businesses.
Half the time I don’t even spot it: that the clothes I am buying have been made by a child in appalling conditions; that my pension comes from the rape of the whole countries or the fracking of the earth’s fragile crust; that my TV programmes are paid for by the over priced products that they want me to buy; that my football team is just one big money making machine….
I need God to protect me from getting sucked into evil: supporting things that shouldn’t be supported; buying things that shouldn’t be bought; watching things that shouldn’t be watched; profiting from things that should never have been started, let alone turned into a business.
I am weaker and more vulnerable than I think. I need God’s protection if I am to do something better than simply fit in with this world system. If I am going to stand up for justice for migrants, feed homeless people, or do some good work with youth, then I need help. Everybody who wants to do good in this world will have to cope with a lot of stuff.
But don’t despair, because God has the kingdom, the power and the Glory for ever and ever. Good will win. Love will triumph. Love wins. Love wins because God is God, and He is love, and he outlives, outlasts and out-gives the opposition. He has the resources that they lack. He has the wisdom that they lack. His is the Kingdom, the power and the Glory.
And you and I, we are His children. We have His spirit inside us. We are ready to do his will, or at least to try to do His will, or at least to want to try to do his will and so we pray: Our Father in heaven….