Homily for Advent 2, December 10, 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
St. John the Apostle
“Praying with our Minds”
May only truth be spoken here, and only truth be heard, in the name of the one, true, and living God. Amen.
There is a tradition that John the Baptist spent years in prayer and study at the desert community of Qumran before he begins his public proclamation. His idea that the time has come for people to repent of their sins and embrace a new life of righteousness in preparation for the Messiah doesn’t just spring out of nowhere. A wealth of Jewish thought and theology lie behind his words. When he preaches and teaches, he draws a multitude of people to the river Jordan. There, they are led to understand afresh the faith of their forebears. Many confess and are baptized. But he tells them, “Wait. There’s more to come.”
John urges them to continue in their journey of faith. To live righteously: yes. But also to keep their minds and hearts open to the revelation before them in the person of Jesus. His finger points to the Messiah and leaves individuals to make their own decision. He releases his own disciples to go and follow Jesus- to find for themselves what he has been prepared to understand and what he has prepared them to receive. In the words of a recruitment poster for a theological college that I kept above my desk: “God gave you a mind and He expects you to use it!”
So when some of John’s followers transfer their loyalty to a new Master, they look to Jesus to continue the teaching. In Luke chapter 11, verses 1-2, we read that “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to prayer, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name…’” You know the rest. We came to know this teaching as the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps it was one that you first learned as a child. Certainly is a prayer that all Christians come to know by heart. The Lord’s Prayer has a place at the centre of our faith. But just knowing the words isn’t enough. It is a lifelong journey to live out what we pray in it. And sometimes, it helps to have other words to explain it and comment on it.
It is a very Anglican understanding that our faith is informed by Scripture, tradition and reason. Together, these three help our minds grasp what God is calling us to do and be. And each of these are pathways we can use to help us pray with our minds. Our Holy Scriptures give us a treasure trove of words to adapt to our personal lives. Our heritage gives us both oral and written prayers. And our own intelligence allows us to create and put into words the yearnings that lie within us. We pray with our minds because God gave them to us as a means to learn and practice how to live humbly, gratefully, and peacefully.
First and foremost, we have the Holy Scriptures. The word of God is available to each one of us, in the language of our own culture and time, as well as in the original Hebrew and Greek in which it is written. These writings contain the story of our salvation and the record of the people of faith who have sought to understand and describe God at work in the world. The prayerful study of scripture reveals new truths and insights. And there are so many prayers within the pages that we can find new material every time we turn a page. The practice called Lectio Divina involves praying a portion of the Bible, slowly reading and meditating on God’s word. The psalms give us honest prayers of thanksgiving, lament, confession, cries for help and outbursts of anger: something for everyone! When we do not know what else to pray, we can read an appropriate section of Scripture. Indeed, many of the prayers we use in gathered worship are drawn directly from the pages of the Bible.
Secondly, we have a rich heritage of prayer through the Church. Christians from the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus have created and collected prayers that speak to the intimate relationship we can have with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. In the Anglican tradition, some have been brought together in successive editions of “The Book of Common Prayer”, which is exactly what it says. The prayer book of the common people, in the common language, to be held in common when we worship. In it are found different kinds of prayers you can use. There are collects: prayers which gather up the community around theme or image for the time of year. There are litanies, used to prayer for different needs in and beyond the congregation. There are canticles- drawn from the songs of scripture and often used in musical settings in worship, such as the Magnificat, or Song of Mary. Each of these can be used personally as well as communally. Then there are the “big picture” prayers, such as our Eucharistic prayers, which each recount the story of salvation in the words and images that are lifted up to God. Through our liturgy, we don’t just pray; we re-tell and re-teach who we are as God’s people.
More recently, we have the green Book of Alternative Services here in Canada to draw on, as well as many other resources from all corners of the Anglican communion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and other denominational and Christian communities. The flexibility of our worship allows us to use many of these within the framework of the Anglican experience to help us to pray better with fresh expressions.
But prayers are not just found in prayer books in the pews. We have through our heritage many theologians, songwriters, poets, and mystics to inspire us in our prayer lives. The very first book written in the English language is believed to be the “Revelations of Divine Love” written by Julien of Norwich, an account of her interior prayer life during a time of painful visions. From Thomas Cramner to Thomas Traherne to Thomas Merton, our tradition is infused with the writings of those who sought to share their faith and experience. And many of our hymns are a great resource for prayer. Try singing or meditating on a favourite or one that is completely new to you! There are also online resources to explore, from daily prayer apps for your phone to supplementary materials for the Revised Common Lectionary at Vanderbilt Library. All around us are works that can enrich and expand our prayer lives.
Lastly, there has to be a process for making prayer our own. It doesn’t matter how many wonderful resources are available, if we don’t make some time to incorporate prayer into our daily lives. The discipline of praying daily is the only way that you can keep communications open with God. In practical terms it doesn’t matter so much whether you say Morning or Evening Prayer, have set times to turn to God, or a method that reminds you in key moments to lift up your heart. What truly matters is that prayer is a priority in your life, even for the times when you don’t feel like it.
We all have periods when we feel we are going through the motions or mouthing the words. But the very fact that we are willing to train our minds and bodies to attend to our relationship with God is what is important. There will be wilderness times when we feel lost and without energy, when we are not sure if anyone is listening. But by continuing to pray, we use our minds to focus our hope on what is to come. Advent is a season which combines our knowledge of the darkness of the world with an anticipation of what might be. Prayer is the engine that keeps us moving through the darkness, even when we cannot see the way. And as we pray, our minds, which are so disturbed and frightened by what goes on around us, find a peace that passes our understanding.
I want to leave you with a poem by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, which I offer up as a prayer:
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens to mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like a child.