Prayer and (Dis)comfort - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Prayer and (Dis)comfort

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

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1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

For by it the elders obtained a good report.

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:

10 For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

11 Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.

12 Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.

15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.

16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

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Last week I attended a service at St Paul's Cathedral.  The Dean, David Ison, was preaching, and in his sermon he made reference to a phenomenon that I instantly recognised - which concerned some of the written prayers that are left by the Cathedral's visitors.

We too have a board at the back of church where visitors are invited to leave prayers, which we offer on their behalf at Morning Prayer.  And I am always fascinated by how much is revealed by each one of those slips of paper, despite the fact that most of them are anonymous, and generally they contain only a very few words.  Because each little paper slip gives you a tiny glimpse into an individual's life situation; indeed, you can often tell a great deal about the person who has left that prayer from the words that they use. 

Sometimes those prayer slips reveal stories of unimaginable tragedy and sadness: there is a person who writes a prayer slip here a couple of times a year - which simply names a young man and the age he was at his death.  That's all.  That young man's name is very distinctive, and by chance I stumbled across his story in a newspaper report from a few years ago.  It turns out that he was murdered in unimaginably awful circumstances.  I find myself very moved by the thought that a person who knew him well and loved him deeply (I have a hunch that it may be his mother) brings their continuing pain and grief here to St Bride's, and very quietly invites us to share it, as we remember that young man before God.  And we receive many other prayer requests of that kind, for friends and family members who are seriously ill, or in a desperate life situation.

The prayers are not always sad, of course.  Sometimes people leave prayers of thanksgiving: rejoicing in the safe arrival of a new grandchild; giving thanks for a relative's continued good health after major illness.  Some people leave mega global prayers: for world peace, and an end to war, famine and disaster.  Occasionally we receive prayers that are incomprehensible - either because they are simply illegible, or because they are written in Japanese or Serbo-Croat, or some other impenetrable language - I lay those prayers reverently on the altar downstairs during our service, on the grounds that Almighty God's linguistic skills are doubtless far better than my own. 

And then there are those prayers that pose us a real problem, which are the kinds of prayers to which the Dean of St Paul's was referring in his sermon last week.  These are the 'wish list' prayers.  The 'I want - so give me' prayers.  The kinds of prayers that assume that God is a kind of celestial Father Christmas, an ethereal cash dispenser: tell him your requirements and expect him to deliver: 'Pray that I can get a promotion and lots more money.'  'Pray that I can have wealth and happiness'.  I am occasionally taken aback by how picky people can be in their demands: 'Please give me a better place to live: the following postcodes would be acceptable.  It has to have at least two bedrooms, and preferably an en-suite.'  And, no, I am not exaggerating.   And of course, people who regard prayer in that way are always the first to conclude that there isn't a God when their demands are not met. 

It is so difficult to know what to do with that kind of prayer, as the Dean of St Paul's was saying last week - because these prayers are generally for things that will not bring that individual any lasting happiness in any case - because they are about things; and any pleasure we get from things can and will only ever be fleeting.  Prayer is not like that - nor is God like that.  So what is prayer all about then? 

Prayer is first and foremost about relationship.  It is about building our relationship with God; it is about building our relationships with one another; and it is about building our relationship with our world.  It is in relationship that we are formed as human beings; the right kinds of life-giving relationships enable us to flourish; it is in relationship that we discover who we truly are.  Relationship requires us to listen as well as to speak; to learn to take account of the needs of others, as well as our own desires; it requires us to strive to understand those whom we struggle to love.  And all of those things are also true about the life of prayer.

Imagine for a moment that you are the parent of a child who only ever relates to you by coming to you with a string of demands: 'Give me one of those.'  'Tell the school I am not going to sit any of their horrible exams.'  'Make Jason want to be my best friend.'  I wonder how you would respond?  I suspect that the first thing you would realise is that, even if all those demands were possible, it would emphatically not be in the child's best interest to be given what they are asking. 

Because an essential part of growing up; an essential part of becoming a normal, well-adjusted adult comes through learning to work at things; through dealing with difficulty; by going through experiences that we would sooner avoid; by confronting the things that make us feel most afraid or inadequate.  Because that is how we grow.  And sometimes the things that we crave are not actually going to be good for us in the longer term; just as sometimes the things we most want to avoid, or most fear, turn out to be the very things that can be most life-giving for us.

The very best kind of friend is not the sort of person who runs round doing things for you all the time, and dealing with all the things you don't like doing, or can't be bothered to do.  Rather it is the person who will be courageous enough to say to you: 'Actually you need to do this difficult and demanding thing for yourself - but you can be assured that I will be right by your side, supporting you while you do it.'

The thing about prayer - real prayer - the prayer of faith, is that it is not a kind of divine insurance policy preventing bad things from happening to you, any more than it is a summons to a fairy godmother who will step in at our request to sort out life's problems for us.  If anything it is exactly the opposite. 

Because far from keeping difficulty and tragedy at arms' length from us, prayer draws us ever more into the heart of suffering: so that we share the pain of that person who still grieves the tragic death of a young 21 year old; so that our eyes are open to the appalling sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Yemen, and in Syria; so that we turn and face the catastrophic reality of climate change, and recognise our own complicity in bringing it about, and our need to make changes in our own patterns of behaviour to prevent that situation getting any worse.

You see, prayer undoubtedly works - but not because we can present God with our wish lists, and expect him to give us what we demand - even when our wishes are well-intentioned;  prayer works because it brings about change and transformation in ways that will probably be contrary to our expectations and beyond our imaginings.  Because prayer changes who we are; prayer changes the way in which we relate to one another; prayer changes the way in which we relate to the world, and to everyone in it.

And one inevitable consequence of that kind of prayer of faith is that it will always take us out of our comfort zone.  Because that is what the life of faith is all about.  It does not give us access to a holy comfort blanket, it is much more likely to issue us with a string of holy challenges.

Our reading from Hebrews this morning, reminds us of the story of Abram, who in extreme old age was asked by God to leave his home and his family and step out into the unknown.  At the human level it was an act of pure madness in every single respect - but Abram suspended his disbelief and did as he was bidden, walking out in faith; and a whole nation came into being, a whole new story unfolded for his people.  That is what it means to have faith.

And our Gospel reading this morning reminds us of our need to be courageous, and not to be afraid.  To turn our attention away from our desire for material gain and well-being to the things of God, because the things of this world are neither lasting, nor do they bring us happiness or fulfilment.  And it reminds us to be alert: each new day will bring its own opportunities for us to share God's love through our words and our actions and to discover his grace at work through us and around us.  And if we do that, life will never be easy, but goodness me will it be rich beyond our imaginings.

Because what God offers to us truly is life in all its fullness.  A quality of life that far exceeds anything else we could possibly desire. It is a life that will not be shielded from suffering and difficulty, because it will draw us through those very things, into the heart of the God whose love and compassion far exceeds anything we can possibly comprehend. 

And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

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