Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Theological Reflection" and Prayer

As part of my ongoing training I have to complete a portfolio of evidence which demonstrates that I have met a set of ministerial competencies – I guess this is a task which lots of people have encountered in their work, particularly in the early days of a new career. It is probably a little different for ministers as so many of the ‘competencies’ are intangible and, therefore, difficult to provide evidence for. So far it has mainly been letters of thanks, a service plan, a sermon. The usual sort of thing. However, we have been told that we need to include more ‘theological reflection’ in our portfolios. After receiving this advice I began to realise two things. First, I did no formal theological reflection in my training course (unlike many of my peers). I don’t know whether to feel privileged or disappointed by this. Privileged, I think. The second thing is that almost all ‘theological reflections’ I have read have been very reflective, but not at all theological (I am willing to be corrected on this if people have examples to share with me). Anyway, this got me thinking about whether I already do theological reflection, but in a less formal way than Anglican Theological Colleges teach. I was also thinking this at the same time as writing a sermon on Praying with the Bible. It made me wonder whether formal ‘theological reflection’ is straining towards (though not quite arriving at) the life of prayer which we see in the Psalms. If anyone reads this, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

The Bible Roots our praying
Throughout his life, Jesus carried with him, admittedly not in book form, the words God had spoken to his people. He also carried with him a desire to respond to those words. It seems to me that for a Christian, this is the first and most basic definition of prayer: answering the God who speaks to us. So prayer and the Bible must be intimately related. Prayer isn’t our quest for an unknown God; prayer is our answer to a God who has made himself known, through his people, Israel, trough the Bible, and most significantly in Jesus Christ. This understanding of prayer strains against a lot of what we hear about prayer today – for many people, prayer is the way we journey into the secret mysteries of the universe, the way we conduct our search for the meaning of life. If you go and look on the spirituality shelves of Waterstones, the message you get is that when it comes to matters of the soul, the initiative rests firmly with us. But the Bible paints a different picture. God’s word precedes our word. We don’t seek God; God seeks us. He is the the Father who looks for and runs to the prodigal son. He is the shepherd who searches for one lost sheep which probably doesn’t know that it is lost. All of life, including the spiritual life, starts with God, with his seeking us, with his speaking to us. 

Praying with the Bible means first and foremost that we have to root our praying in God’s word to us. In prayer we answer the God who addresses us, and so prayer always starts with listening carefully to God. To be a Biblical prayer, we have to allow our praying to be deeply rooted in what God has said to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Our prayers, in other words, shouldn’t be cut flowers, but rooted plants. Cut flowers are beautiful to look at. They have brilliant and rich colour and texture, for a little while,  but they have no life in them. They aren’t nourished in the way flowers ought to be nourished, by drawing goodness from the soil. And the same is true of our prayers, without being rooted in God’s word to us, they might be beautiful for a little while, but eventually our praying will wither for lack of nutrition.

The Bible Forms our Praying
We are often surprised by the God who has come looking for us. He doesn’t look much like the supreme being you read about in the pages of the spirituality best sellers. How on earth are we supposed to respond to the God of the Bible? The Bible helps us here also, because in it is a collection prayers which practice this rootedness in God’s word to us, the Psalms. The psalms listen for God’s word. The Psalms start by extolling the virtues of the person who delights in God’s law, and meditates on it day and night, comparing such a person to a ‘tree planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither’ (Ps. 1.3). The psalms are the prayers of people who rooted themselves in God’s word, who meditated on God’s covenant, and from that foundation, they answer back to God. By praying the Psalms, by allowing them to sink into our hearts, we too can learn to pray.

However, the Psalms don’t teach a method, or a formula of prayer. Some of the time, we might wish prayer was like that – follow these instructions and you will be a real prayer. But praying isn’t like that. It isn’t like learning to ride a bike. The Psalms aren’t much interested in methods of prayer. They are more interested in prayer being the expression of a deep relationship of love and trust. The Psalms are real. They answer God from the realities of life as it is, not as we think it should be. They were prayed by real people with real joys and real problems; real faith and real sins, and they reflect real life in all its complexity. In them you find all joys of life going perfectly according to plan, and all despair of life in the doldrums. 

In the Psalms we find people praying to God in an amasingly frank way. Israel can cry from the depths of despair, “ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22.1–2), and Israel can sing for joy “Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens” (Psalm 8.1). Israel can invoke God to flex his muscles, “Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long. Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries, the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually” (Psalm 74.22–23).

The Psalms aren’t abstract, they speak from the messiness of life, its joy and its pain. Its hallelujahs and its hatreds. True prayer happens when you hit your thumb with a hammer as much as it does when you gaze on a sunset. True prayer sets all of life’s experiences in the context of God and what he has said to us. And because of this, real prayer is risky. It means making yourself vulnerable before God, confessing weakness and sin, pouring our troubles and concerns out to him, allowing the feelings we would rather burry and forget about to be expressed to God. But it also means making God vulnerable before us, because it means holding God to his promises to us. It means asking him to be the kind of God he has proclaimed himself to be. The Psalms allow God to break out of the religious box we keep him in, domesticated, for Sundays and other special occasions, and allows an honest relationship to develop. In praying with the psalms, we are invited and assisted into this relationship. To paraphrase one author, if you are looking for a spiritual soporific, don’t look to the psalms! (Eugene Peterson, Answering God, p. 96)

Finally two practical thoughts about praying with the Psalms:

– The ‘daily office’ is a good place to start, because you get a regular diet of psalms, might not be such a good place to finish. Allowing the Psalms to form our prayer means we have to slow down, something which is not easy to do at Evensong! Sometimes the routine never lets the psalms sink in and do their work. How can we move ourselves from simply prattling the psalms to praying with and through them? When I was training I had the great privilege of studying for a few months in Rome. The first week I was in Italy we went on retreat. I remember sitting in a dining hall and seeing inscribed above the door an interesting motto: Mangiare Largo. Masticare Bene. Eat slowly. Chew well. We will need to find ways in which we can eat the Psalms slowly and chew them well, and my guess is that for most of us, it is probably not going to be in context of a church service.

– Don’t feel afraid of the negative stuff in the Psalms. Remember that they are real, and real life is full of negatives as well as positives. The Psalms pray about enemies, and sometimes, there are enemies we have to fight too. The Psalm writers often pray their disappointment and hatred, because these were things they genuinely were feeling. They weren’t squeamish. Mature praying places our actual lives in Gods presence, and calls upon his promise to transform and save.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Answering God

We are about to have a short preaching series on prayer at St Nic's. "Christian Meditation" (though I can't quite work out what is christian about it, apart from reading a short gospel passage and mentally reciting Maranatha) is quite predominant at St Nic's. I must confess, I don't really find the practice all that appealing. Most times I have tried I have nodded off and woken with a start, wondering whether I have started to sleep talk. But seriously, I do wonder what makes mantra reciting meditation actually christian, apart from self identification and a few accouterments which don't actually form the practice. I might write some more about this as I 'meditate' on it further. Incidentally, anyone reading this (and I don't suppose there will be many) who has any thoughts or feelings on this matter, I would really welcome comments about your experience. I like to think I give things a fair hearing.

Anyway, I have been preparing a sermon on "Praying with the Bible" which has fast become "Praying with the Psalms", and I have found Eugene Peterson's book Answering God particularly useful. Here are a few choice bits from the first chapter:

  • "There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in our praying, and praying to a known God, revealed through Israel and in Jesus Christ, who speaks our language. In the first we indulge in our appetite for religious fulfillment, in the second we practice obedient faith. The first is a lot more fun, the second is a lot more important. What is essential is that prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God. The Psalms show us how to answer." (p. 6)

  • "The Psalms were not prayed by people who were trying to understand themselves. They are not the record of people searching for the meaning of life.  They were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the centre. God, not their souls, was the issue. God, not the meaning of life, was critical. Feelings, souls and meanings were not excluded – they are very much in evidence – but they are not the reason for the prayers. Human experience might provoke the prayers, but they do not condition them as prayers... if we come to the Psalms looking for a way to develop our inner life, we have come to the wrong place." (p. 14)

  • "The Psalms are personal answers to the personal revelation [of God], prayers conditioned by God's word, not by the soul's mood." (p. 16)

On the place of the Psalms within the canon of Scripture:

  • "A millennium's experience of grace and judgement, creation and chaos, guilt and salvation, rebellion and obedience shapes the prayers that are the Psalms. When we pray the Psalms, and are trained in prayer by them, we enter into a centuries-long experience of being a people of God.  We didn't bargain on this. We wanted a little book of prayers that we could keep on our bedside table, not the genealogies of Chronicles, for heaven's sake. But it can't be helped. If we want to associate with these people who pray and submit out lives to this training in prayer, we are going to have to associate with their large, somewhat noisy and often troublesome family." (pp. 17-18)

More to come...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Colossians 1.15–20

A Sermon heavily reliant on Tom Wright, Scot McKnight (and a bit of St. Athanasius). I am in your debt.

This morning I want us to think about image, or eikon, a Greek word you might be familiar with. We live in a society where image is incredibly important. Businesses spend huge amounts of time and money on making sure the image they put forward is the right one. People do the same. You want to make the right impression on people so you need to have the right image – smart and business like if you are expected to be efficient and financially productive; grungy, bohemian and a bit disheveled if you are expected to be creative and artistic. We pick up on these messages: that’s a nice suit (I bet they have a large bank balance), what an interesting kaftan (They must produce some… interesting paintings). Image really counts. But whether it is part of a business strategy or part of a lifestyle, the image we choose communicates something about us to those around us. It projects something of how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us.

The Eikon of God
Image is important in the Bible too. It is there in the second reading we had this morning, ‘He Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God.’ What on earth can Paul mean here? If something is invisible, how can it have an image? As is often the case with Paul we can get a clue by looking to the Old Testament, in this case, by looking to the earliest chapters of the Bible, to the book of Genesis. In the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth and all that fill them, plants, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects. Everything that was brought into being came from him. And then God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ (Gen. 1.26). God places his image in his creation, and as a sign that God is the true ruler of all things, they are graciously and lovingly to rule what God has made. Human beings were made to be images of God to the whole world; we represent his goodness, kindness, justice and love. we were made to live in loving communion with God, with each other and with the the rest of creation.

A World of Cracked Eikons
It is not long before the story of God’s Eikons takes a downward turn. The people who were to rule according to the wisdom they received from God, decide to reject that wisdom in favour of finding their own. A snake, an apple and the rest, as they say, is history. A fracture develops in the loving relationship between God and humanity, a fracture develops in the loving relationship between human beings each other, and a fracture develops  in the relationship of human beings to the rest of the world. Human beings are still Eikons, you can still see the goodness of the creator in us, but we have become cracked Eikons. I think we all know that within us there is the potential to do great good, but there is also a less pleasant side. A side which fails to live up to the good which we believe human beings to be capable of. Paul knew this tension well. In another of his letters he says ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Romans 7.15). 

The Image Restorer
But into the world of cracked images comes someone extraordinary, Jesus Christ. He had eternally been the perfect image of God, perfectly reflecting the truth and love and character and life of God the Father. It was through him, according to Paul, that all things were made. It was through him that the order and beauty came out of chaos. He was the word which God spoke which created plants and animals and humans and angels. And because he is the eternal image of God it was completely appropriate for him to become ‘the image of God’ as a man. In a sense we can say that at Christmas, Christ became what he already was. The pre-existent image of God became the human image of God. The pre-existent ruler of the universe became the human ruler of the universe. Jesus comes into a world of broken images as the perfect image of the invisible God. And so it is in Jesus Christ that we find out not only what God is truly like, but what human beings should truly be like.

But Jesus doesn’t just come as the perfect image of God to show us how far from perfection we are. If that were the case Christianity wouldn’t be good news at all. Paul goes on to say that ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ Jesus didn’t come just to expose the cracks, but to repair them, to make the broken beautiful and whole again. So when Jesus heals someone, he isn’t just showing us that he has great power, he is at work, restoring brokenness. When he forgives he is healing wounds. When he hangs around with the sinful and society’s outcasts and calls them to be his followers he is raising people up to be everything God intended them to be. And according to Paul, this healing work happens most clearly on the cross. On the cross Jesus bears our brokenness in his own body. He bears our wounds in himself, so that in him, human beings can be healed, we can be reconciled to God, to each other and to the whole of creation.

But I still feel like a cracked Eikon
Now I know this has been a very dense sermon and really we should finish with something of more practical use. What difference does all this stuff make? I think it makes a big difference because it causes to ask the question, ‘is the image of God being seen in our community?’ when people look at us and the way we behave towards each other and towards the rest of the world, do they see the reflection of the creator of the universe ever more clearly? I think that is a very important question for us to ask ourselves regularly, though it is one that could be quite depressing. But when we look at ourselves carefully and ask a question like this, and when we still see the cracks and wonder what is going on and whether God has ever been at work in our lives transforming us, it is at this point that we also need to remember that it is in the cracks that God makes flowers grow. We come to God as we are, not as we wish we were, or as we think he wants us to be, and we allow God to work with what we are. We allow him to repair the image which we still bear. We can allow God to take our brokenness and make it fruitful.