Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prayer and Praying

"I am learning the difference between saying prayers, which is an activity, and praying, which is a soul attitude, a ‘lifting up of the mind to God’. Praying in that sense can transform every task, from washing up to defragmenting a computer’s hard disk.

"'Pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.'

"I used to read such passages in a fog of guilt ... I read them differently now, not as a perpetual guilt-trip but as a call to a Godward orientation. Prayer means keeping company with God who is already present.From Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make any Difference (page 306)"

That rang a bell for me – what a helpful thought!

Prayer as an attitude … but ‘prayers’ can nonetheless be very useful.

Thank you to Becky for leading us through our course on prayer and through our 24 hours of prayer as well. Prayer goes on … as we ‘keep company with God who is already present’ but it is helpful to say prayers, and sometimes to ask someone else to say a prayer for you. There’s going to be the opportunity to do just that after the morning service – if you would like someone to say a prayer with you then simply come and sit at the front of the church and someone will join you to share in prayer. Just as we use the Morton Brown room before the service as our Prayer Parlour, so after the service it will be open as a quiet place to go to as well.

Sometimes it can be helpful to use prayers other people have used down through the centuries.There is a collection of prayers in the Bible that can be most useful.Becky invited us at the end of the course to choose 4 psalms and use them as prayers.I want to share with you the four psalms I have chosen.

My first psalm came to mind in the unlikeliest of places. Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.70 years ago, as the depression of the thirties was unfolding, fascism was taking its grip on Europe and war was approaching, Gloucestershire was introduced to the weird and wonderful and disturbing world of Surrealism in modern art.

To mark the seventieth anniversary of that exhibition the art gallery are mounting a special exhibition that brings together work by the artists who exhibited in that exhibition a long time ago. Surrealism returns.

I had thought surrealism was something wacky and detached from the real world. Visiting that exhibition it comes as something of a shock to see that these artists were responding to the horrors of their world in ways designed to provoke a response in the one looking at the art that would make a difference in that world.

Most iconic of all the paintings in that exhibition was one by Picasso.I had seen another version of it before – in the Tate gallery in Liverpool, and in the town of Guernica in the Basque country of Northern Spain.

It is a remarkable and disturbing picture called Weeping Woman. It was a response Picasso made to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War – it was the first time a whole town had been blanket bombed, resulting in a firestorms and devastation for the town’s population on their market day.

As his much bigger picture ‘Guernica’ toured the world, so versions of the Weeping Woman were exhibited all over the world, not least here in Gloucester in that remarkable exhibition 70 years ago.A year earlier another version of the same image had already been exhibited in Cheltenham. It is that pen and ink version that is on display in the Art Gallery now.

To stand in front of it is profoundly moving … not least because Women and for that matter Men are still weeping at a world that goes dreadfully wrong. Iraq. Afghanistan. Darfur. Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel, Gaza. The impact of the economic situation, tragedy closer to home.

The weeping woman is as symbolic of our time and of our lives as it was symbolic of Picasso’s time..

Jesus shares in that weeping.

At the death of his friend Lazarus Jesus wept.

And as he saw Jerusalem he wept, would that you had known the things that make for peace.

And still he weeps.

That anguish, that pain, those tears have to find expression in our praying as we in utter honesty rail at God.

The first Psalm that comes to my mind is Psalm 22. It begins with words of anguish, with words of weeping.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

At his moment of dereliction, of deepest agony, on the cross, it was to this prayer, to this psalm that Jesus turned.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

At moments of deepest agony, it is good too know that it is not only to art that we can turn, we can turn also to prayer.My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The great thing about an art exhibition is that alongside the pictures of agony and despair, are pictures of hope and promise.

So too as we pray, using the prayers of the Psalms.It’s no coincidence that the psalm that follows Psalm 22 is Psalm 23. The 23rd Psalm.It is not in Cheltenham’s art exhibition. But I would bring to mind another piece of art … it is one of the very first sculptures of Christ – one of the very first images of Christ. It is The Good Shepherd, a 3rd or 4th Century Roman sculpture from the catacombs in Rome: the shepherd carrying the sheep. That’s an image. That’s a prayer to bring to mind next.

From the weeping woman to the Good shepherd …

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside the still waters,
He restoreth my soul
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

That’s it. Not that we can escape the valley of deep darkness. Rather, Christ in all his gentleness, in all his love is there walking with us through the valley to restore, and to comfort, to strengthen and renew.

Say the prayer and hold on to the truth …

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

That brings us to Psalm 24.

A wonderful prayer of confidence.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2I love that kind of picture. The earth held in the hands of God. The loving hands. That sense in this prayer that we are held in God’s safe keeping.

How can we hold on to that? Where can we find such hope and such strengthening?

That brings me to my fourth psalm. Psalm 121

Going up to Cleeve Hill – I’ll never forget going up to the top of Cleeve Hill at dawn on the day the Millennium arrived – and on cue the reds of dawn spread across the sky and the sun rose.

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.

That’s the conviction to hold on to.

Say your prayers … and use the psalms.

When that question haunts us. My God, why? We must be honest in our praying and echo the words of Psalm 22.

But then we must go on to Psalm 23 and use those wonderful words, Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

In our praying of Psalm 24 we can then rejoice: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it!

And then in our mind’s eye as we say the words of Psalm 121 we can go up into the hills and find an answer for our question:I life my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

How good it is to say our prayers. How much more important to recognise the difference between prayers and prayer and recognise that prayer means keeping company with God who is already present.

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