Sermon: St Peter’s, Vauxhall

(repeated St Anselm’s, Kennington, 17 March 2013)
Making a good space

My daughters can create chaos on the living room carpet, with dressing-up clothes strewn, books and magazines they have finished reading, drawings and pencils, and various animal soft-toys they have been making up stories about and role-playing with, sweet-wrappers and bits of cut up paper. Then one of them will perhaps say, “Can we do some painting?” And I will say, “Yes, but we’ve got to make a good space first. Clear up these things you have been playing with so that there is a good space in which to spread yourselves out to do some painting.” There used to be protests about this, but they have got used to it now and are happy to do it so long as I give them a hand.

If we are going to pray, it is helpful, and sometimes necessary, to clear some things out of the way and make a good space. Of course, if we want to pray it is helpful to set aside a patch of uncluttered time, just like you would if you wanted to have a good chat with an old and much-loved friend. But right now, I’d like to have a bash at doing some clearing up and making a space in the way we think and feel about God and about prayer.

Prayer is simple but not easy.

Prayer is simple but not easy.

Prayer is simple because God is simple: God is as close to us as the chair we are sitting on, as near to us as the person sitting next to us, as intimate as our own breath. The first thing cluttering the carpet that I want to put away is the belief that we are separate from God. The truth is that we are not separate from God.

So, if we want to pray:

  • there is nowhere we need to go to find God: God is right here, right now;
  • we don’t need to do to make ourselves good, or better, to be acceptable to God;
  • and there is nothing special that needs to happen.

I could talk about the very simple delights of, say, the sunlight in the air, or the children playing, or the music of one of the hymns, the colour of the brickwork, the stained-glass, sharing a handshake at the Peace. I could talk about how any of these experiences can be turned, by a small movement of the heart, into prayer and connection with God. And this is true.

But I’d rather say that just to sit here and relax and do nothing is to pray. Because to sit here and relax and do nothing is to have the inkling of the realisation that God is here and there’s nothing I need to do to be with Him.

I wonder if we could do that for just a moment: sit, relax, do nothing, and realise that God is here… (pause)

But prayer is not easy

So prayer is simple because God is simple.

But prayer is not easy, because we are not simple.

People will often say to me that they are no good at prayer. There are two common complaints that people make:

  • they will say that they are no good at prayer because their heads are full of thoughts and they cannot still their minds;
  • and they will say that they are not disciplined enough.

Discipline

I have to say that I react a bit to the word discipline. The other day I heard someone say, “A life without discipline is a life without joy.” It is a great line and I am sure it is true. But too often discipline means making ourselves do things that we would rather not do, and prayer mustn’t be like this. This is the second thing messing the carpet that I want to chuck in the bin.

The only point in disciplining ourselves to prayer is because we want to pray. God is not interested in us turning up simply out of duty. If we never pray, God will still love us and delight in us.

If we were never to pray we would, perhaps, be like a child who grows up and leaves home, moves away, and never gets in touch with her parents again. Do the parents stop talking about her? Do they stop loving her? Do they take the photographs down and love someone else instead? Well, I guess there are some parents who do, but I suggest most would be sad and miss their daughter, and would hope for a day when she would get back in touch. It is like this with God. If we never get in touch Him, still we remain God’s daughters and sons in whom He delights, and He never gives up the hope that we will drop by from time to time.

The thing about being a dad is that I do get cross with my daughters if there is a lot of mess, and I do want them to be good and clever and to succeed in their studies and to work hard. I want them to be good at school and to tidy their bedroom. I want them to do some of the chores around the house. But, at the end of the day, I love them whatever, and I cannot imagine any circumstance that would cause me to stop loving them and delighting in them. This, I suggest, is what God is like. God cannot help Herself: She simply does love us and delight in us, no matter what.

Prayer is uncomfortable

I have a theory about why we are not disciplined in prayer, and it is this: prayer is often uncomfortable. If prayer is the time when we stop whatever else we are doing and just for a few minutes sit still and quiet, then it is also the time when we notice what is going on in the background of our life or what we have been avoiding. Prayer is uncomfortable in all sorts of ways. Here’s some examples of discomfort I notice in myself:

  • I would like a bit of peace and quiet but my head is full of thoughts that I am powerless to stop;
  • I would like to relax but I experience physical pain – aches and tensions – and while, of course, it is sensible to take a pain-killer if that can help, pain is simply a fact of life and taking a pain-killer is not always an option;
  • And then I experience emotional pain: the ache of loss, sadness at people and situations that are no longer with me; regrets of things I have done in the past, people I have hurt, guilt and shame; anxieties and worries about money, about my children, and so on; or perhaps I am just bored;
  • And then there are my existential anxieties of illness, death and what will happen at the end of my little life;
  • and finally, given all the above, I find it difficult to believe that God really does delight in me and love me.

There is nothing wrong!

We tend to think that there is something wrong if we are uncomfortable. We would like to be free from discomfort and to have some peace. Much of modern life, from painkillers to a National Health Service, is based on the belief that one day all ills can be resolved. And if I am bored or lonely or unhappy, there is an unending supply of distraction and amusement on the TV and the radio and the Internet. So, this is the third thing I want to get out of the way to make a clearer space for God and for prayer.

When prayer is uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong.

I think this is a simple idea but it is not easy. We want pain to stop, and if there is a way to ease pain, then fine and good. But I think this is what it is like to be a human being. Our heads are full of thinking. Our bodies ache at times. We hurt and get hurt by people and events. We grow old. We get anxious about the future. We find it difficult to believe that we are loveable. If this is what it is like to be human then this is the very place from which to pray and this is the stuff to pray about.

A problem here is that we tend to think that we have to save ourselves. This is the fourth idea creating a mess on the carpet. We tend to think that if there is something wrong, we have to work at making it better. If we are bad, we have to work at being good. If we are hurt, we have to work at forgiveness. If we dislike someone, we have to work at being more loving. But prayer, properly speaking, is not primarily a self-improvement programme or a self-help technique or petition or a way of getting healed.

Prayer is first and foremost a relationship with that which is as close as our breathing. To pray is to breathe and to open ourselves to God and to God’s love; and it is God’s love that heals and saves.

It is Lent. We have an icons of profound discomfort in the story of our faith – both the discomfort of the temptations in the desert, and the Crucifixion. God in Jesus knows profoundly about our discomfort. Maybe we can bring our discomfort to Jesus in discomfort. This is to bring ourselves to the foot of the cross, not to dump our hurts and run, but to sit there in pain gazing at Jesus in pain gazing at us. It is a gaze of mutual understanding and tenderness.

One of my favourite authors is Gerald May. His first book was called Simply Sane and it ends like this:

Let me suggest something very, very simple. You know what tenderness is. We all have experiences of gentleness and kindness. Think of something that makes you feel that way: perhaps being with a loved one who is suffering, or seeing a small child asleep – whatever calls forth from you a feeling of warmth and tenderness or just simple caring. Feel that feeling. You can do that almost without trying. It is a very familiar feeling, well known to you. Can you now, just for a moment, feel that way towards yourself?

And I would add: can you just for a moment let God feel that way towards you?

Amen

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