Let us pray –
[Pearl, Florrie, and the Bull is a great little true story you can find on You Tube]
Pearl Florrie, and the Bull is a great little video about a true story. For me the punch line is when Florrie and Pearl were fighting the bull, and Florrie says, “do you know what we haven’t done?”, and Pearl is puzzled. But Florrie says “we haven’t prayed.” And amidst their wrestling they pray.
Note there’s no magical answer that delivers them from their dilemma.. there is no lightning bolt that strikes the bull dead. Instead Pearl decides she really must go for help and as she does she continues to the most earnest prayer she has ever prayed to keep her sister safe. A cynic may say what use was that and what a waste of time. Prayer didn’t magically make the bull placid and peaceful and take away the threat the women were facing….. but something did happen. Florrie received a flash of inspiration to lie across the bulls face. Where did that arise from? How was God involved in that flash of inspiration? Did prayer somehow open a door to receive a message from God? Prayer didn’t magically fix things but brought another dimension into the scene. Prayer opens our eyes to see things we didn’t see before. Prayer gives us courage to face things with renewed hope. Prayer helps us see what is really important amidst the chaos of life.
Praying as I have said many times is a mysterious business, but it is a business that lies at the heart of our faith journey. Prayer is a vital part of our lives as Christians. Jesus used to rise early each morning to pray, and prayer is a vital part of every great person of faith. In our own time it has become a neglected spiritual practice and I speak as someone who knows this truth personally. Busyness, lack of encouragement from others, and the trivialisation of prayer into a shopping list and ‘what can God do for me” practice, a lack of personal discipline has meant prayer drifts down the priority list in our lives. We often fail to take spiritual formation seriously in our lives.
An old saint of the church, Clement of Alexandra, said prayer is simply “keeping company with God”. It is a little like plugging in an electric jug and making a connection with God which allows a flow of electricity that can warm the interior contents. With God there is a power called love which flows, an illumination of the mind which occurs, and a mysterious inner transformation that somehow changes how we see things. It’s like opening a door to another dimension of life. In essence it’s not hard, there are no magic formulas, we just need to find the way that works for us. I’m interested that even hardened atheists can find a way to pray. During the heady days of communism in Russia, party stalwarts used to keep pictures of Lenin in places where traditionally Russians might have kept an Orthodox Christian icon. Pravda the national newspaper had this advice to readers in the 1950’s:
“If you meet with difficulties in your work, or sudden doubt in your abilities, think of him – Stalin – look at his picture and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired, think of him, and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision think of him – Stalin – and you will find that correct decision.” It sounds very much like prayer to me!
Sadly in our consumer driven world prayer has often been reduced to asking God for things. God is often asked to bend normality to give us a special favour. It’s the capitalist consumerist take on prayer. I learned a lesson early in my life about prayer. I tried to enlist God’s help to ensure the All Blacks beat their dreaded foe the Springboks in South Africa. As a young boy I set about some very earnest praying in the Roslyn Presbyterian church, all through a service of worship. I was devastated afterwards when I learned the Springboks had defeated my team. Didn’t God listen to me and yet I had prayed so earnestly. I learned that God was simply quite happy to let the best team win on the day. I’m sure God did care about my sense of loss and my passion for my team, God also desired that I might grow up and see a bigger picture of life! Just focusing on my wants and the desires of my ego wasn’t going to really benefit me nor the kingdom of God. It’s a pretty silly example but it does reflect the modern state of prayer. If only we can twist God’s arm we can get God to do things for me. I still find it interesting that people can ask me to pray to pray for things believing that as a minister I may have more pulling power to influence God’s mind. Some may suggest thats what our little gospel story we read this morning is all about. Piling the pressure on God so God will give in and give us what we ask for. Simple answer: NO. Go back and read the introduction and the point of the story is persistence of prayer.
When you hear the word widow in our scriptures think downtrodden, neglected, isolated. Women weren’t expected to seek out judges (that’s men’s role), and clearly she has no means to bribe the court officials like everyone else did to get their case heard. Her only weapon is her voice and her passion for justice. And note it’s not some individual want she is after but justice and justice is dear to God’s heart. She doesn’t give up, she persists, and she believes she will be heard even by a corrupt uncaring judge! How much more will the source of love and life listen. We may pray in a half-hearted way when we need or want something, but most of the time we are content and manage life by ourselves. Jesus is saying prayer is something that should persistently be part of our lives, anchoring our lives, guiding our lives, connecting with what God wants in our lives. Constant, persistent, part of our everyday pattern.
What is needed in our consumer world is a new understanding of prayer as paying attention to what God wants. In our time I believe the purpose of prayer that God wants to emphasise is transformation – transformation of our very beings. I believe we need to see prayer as a spiritual practice or discipline which helps transforms our lives, to make them truer, more authentic, more centred in God. Prayer is like opening a door to a friend. It’s not rocket science, but we need to bear in mind we have two ears and only one mouth. When we open the door and engage with a friend there may be words, but we may simply share silence. Instead of sending words off out there somewhere to get God to do things, we need to recapture prayer as a time God connects with us deep to deep. I go for a morning walk, and sometimes I talk to God on the walk, but mostly I just walk in stillness. I hear the birds singing greeting the new dawn, and something within is transformed. As you are aware I have started a mediation group that meets weekly but encourages a daily practice of mediation. I’m still working into that daily practice, but I can report I find it encouraging and helpful to meet with others to meditate and pray. You are welcome to join us, but I know it’s not for everyone. In the quietness of mediation which happens as I focus on a word as a mantra I believe I connect with God deep to deep. It’s not a matter of words, but of a deep connection in the silence and in the moments where my chaotic ego driven mind stills. I am transformed. It’s not dramatic and it required ongoing discipline and effort. There are other activities that may encourage this deep connection.
I think this is why Jesus so often stressed the need to find a quiet place to pray. He talked of going into the inner room which I see as the deeper place of my being. In the stillness I am aware of being opened to a bigger presence, being embraced by a deep love, an enlightening power. Prayer is about changing and transforming me, so that I am no longer blown this way and that by the hungers and desires of my ego but instead find a deeper moral foundation that allows me to stand against the tide.
Of course that doesn’t mean we give up on words. Like the widow we should cry out to God and voice our deepest longings. Recently I was wrestling with an issue in my life and I prayed that God might give me insight. About two hours later someone phoned me and talked for a while about some issue in their life. In concluding they happened to just mention something out of the blue which just seemed like an answer to the question I had been wrestling with. I guess someone might say it was all coincidence and wishful thinking but I choose to believe otherwise. When we share our deepest desires and longings with God expect an answer.
Prayer, like all spiritual practices, is about becoming more centred in God. It is about learning what matters to God in our lives. Centring in God changes us and transforms us. If you know me you’ll know there is plenty of transformation still needed! Paul said prayer should bear fruit…. These fruits are many but the most important are compassion, authenticity, courage, and gratitude.
I don’t know if you caught the last line of this morning’s parable. I suspect the gospel writer saw a community around him that neglected prayer and so adds a little note. When Jesus returns will he find people who are faithful in prayer. I with Luke want to say that without constant practice of prayer together and as individuals we will wither as communities of faith. We all know the institutional church is dying. My response is to say look at our prayer life. I often hear messages like we need to do more in our community, or we need to change the way we do things to be more relevant as a church. I think if there one thing we need it is a more persistent and active practice of prayer. My deep hope for us as the St Martins church family is that as a community of faith we might all know the importance of prayer and we might like Florrie say “let us pray” more often.
Dugald Wilson 20 Oct 2019
If you want to watch the movie
Google Pearl, Florrie and the Bull and you should be directed to the You Tube clip of the movie.