Easter 7B, 2012
John 17: 6-19
A Liturgy is also available
PRAYER ON THE EDGE OF TIME
During the first year of my theological training in Victoria,
I spent 12 months as a Student Home Missioner in Pascoe Vale North (Vic).
Before I set out on this new and rather daunting experience,
I gathered together some resources to help me.
One of those resources - a book - I have kept all these years.
It was a book of prayers written by A. Powell Davies,
who served as minister of All Souls Church in Washington, USA,
during the late 1940s and early 50s.
And the reason I have kept this book for so long
is not so much for the prayers contained within its covers
- indeed many of them are written in the ‘old-worldly’ language
and thought patterns of their times which I now find difficult to own -
but because of what he says about prayer.
Let me quote just a few lines which express his thoughts on prayer:
“Prayer... is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt” (Davies 1956:6).
In all my thinking about and struggling with, prayer,
those words of Powell Davies from his book The Language of the Heart,
have always struck a chord with me.
Under the strain of difficult conditions,
or in severe loss or bereavement,
or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty,
there is something within us that cries out for expression.
This is natural to us. This is the beginning of prayer.
God, or the sacred, found in the midst of ordinary life
and in the natural world.
And understood as
“something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… [and] which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).
Today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, is a very small part of the tradition
which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life.
The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal.
He addresses God as someone whom he knows
very intimately indeed, and as someone
whom he trusts implicitly.
It is classically ‘theism’.
And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together
and the future
into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all.
This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer'.
Which I guess, shows there are many different types of prayer
and many different approaches to prayer.
So in spite of some advice to the contrary
there is no one way which is either right or wrong.
Prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group
on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer.
On the other hand, prayer may be just a couple of words,
or a waiting in silence.
Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer,
there does need to be some time for silence...
The deeper you get into prayer the more it tends
to be listening prayer rather than speaking prayer.
That silence may be when you're outside gardening,
or enjoying a bush or beach view,
or looking at a picture,
or out for a brisk morning walk in Canberra’s winter.
It may also be while
or painting the shed,
or washing the car.
Or it may be in deliberate meditation.
Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, has become
an inspirational figure for many around the world.
He died (was killed) around 15 years ago, but his work of solidarity
on behalf of the poor and exploited will long be remembered.
He once wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese,
at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering.
And how does he say it: he talks of “putting our ear to the ground”
in order to hear the Divine voice...
to recognise that God always is by our side,
even when in our agony we are silenced
and unable to think at all.
“Put your ear to the ground
hurried, worried footsteps,
“Hope hasn’t yet begun.
Put out your feelers.
The Lord is there (Camara 1984).
Peter Millar from the Iona Community
offers this perspective on Camara’s prayer:
“Is this not the essence of prayer - to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37).
Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from
Christine Robinson. She suggests that prayer ‘works’:
“on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we can not change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).
Prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural being
who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders.
It ‘works’ because our lives and our world are porous
to new and creative re-imagined possibilities.
As my theology mentor says:
prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays (Wieman 1946).
Now, all this has been words on prayer.
But words on prayer should also share in a prayer.
Powell Davies has just such a prayer: a short prayer on prayer,
indeed a short, soft-theistic prayer which addresses
the ‘sacred, or the ‘divine’ in personalistic ways:
'Help us, O God, lest we make our prayers a substitute
for what we should do with our lives;
what our prayers begin,
may our lives continue'.
When we were packing up, prior to our move from Canberra,
I came across a rare copy of a former sermon of mine,
on prayer, preached in my first parish.
I concluded that sermon with these words, both influenced by
and borrowed from, my theology mentor, Henry Nelson Wieman:
‘Religion, with wisdom born of centuries of experience, tells us that qualities of mind and heart, rather than physical blessings, should be a major concern in our prayer life. That we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. These are some of the things which are truly worth praying for, and they are all within the range of possibility for everyone of us’ (Wieman 1946).
Davies, A. P. 1956. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church.
Millar, P. 2000. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press.
Peters, K. E. 2008. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Wieman, H. N. 1946. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.