Sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 2nd October 2016

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 2nd October 2016


  •  Psalm 8
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
  • Luke 11:1-13

Great is thy faithfulness O God: teach us to pray

As I began to pray and think over  this sermon I found myself  wondering a few apparently disconnected things about prayer…

Firstly  I wondered why, when Jesus’ followers were synagogue attending Jews, they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. What was it about him that led to such a question?

Then  I wondered why we all think we are not very good at praying. Why do we all make that judgement about ourselves?

My third wondering was about prayer and fun. One of the great resources of my life is in laughter. There is always something to smile about if you look hard enough. But my prayers don’t seem to  involve laughing so I wondered why not?

And finally I wondered about Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians to  ‘pray without ceasing’? that’s a tough one.

When I started to explore these questions they began to show themselves as connected things, elements of a picture, strands which add up to a sort of whole.

Firstly a comment on my own tradition. I learnt very early to say my prayers at bed time. My prayer, said after a bible story, began Thank you god for my cosy bed……Later I learned that we pray by something called ACTS, adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication or more colloquially wow,  oops thanks and please. That’s  what you do when you say your prayers. And that’s a fantastic model, to sit with God daily and hear about Jesus and pray.

Of course we know as well that we can pray at any time – arrow prayers, I was taught to call them, prayers of urgency at a tough time.

But I have – oh so slowly !- come to recognise that  prayer is not a once a day, or a tough time event, it’s not so much saying your prayers as ‘praying’. It’s not how do we pray but how are we engaged all the time  in praying. It’s continuous. Now and forever.

Luke reading of the Lord’s Prayer and Thessalonians 5 on pray without ceasing

Let’s start with the question about  why did the disciples ask Jesus to teach them about prayer. They went to the synagogue, why did they need more?  Heston illuminated me on this one. Jesus was a new teacher with  a chosen group of followers and it was customary for such followers to ask their gurus for a way of praying and living. They saw Jesus praying, all the time,  and realized that it was important to him and they wanted it too. So Jesus did. He shared  his own totally new way of relating to God and to others, to God as loving caring parent who happens also to be Lord of the Universe – or vice versa! – and to others as people who need forgiving  by us as much as we need forgiving by them and by God. This is a prayer of relationship. It’s not a prayer of asking to be helped to observe rules.

So relating is the first strand I want to offer about prayer. Prayer is about being every day and all the time in relationship with God who loves us, and wants us. Whether we are angry or sad or laughing or eating or watching a film or even making love we are relating to God. ( In the same way we are always witnessing to God in our lives but that’s another story.) Prayer is our response to God’s activity in us, his always-approaching ness, his constant desire to be in touch with us and to live our lives with us. Prayer is the language of love, how we relate to God  all day, every day. Prayer is about God acting in us.

Jesus starts with ‘our Father’, our precious parent, the one who gave us life, who loves us all the time. God always loves and is always present. This isn’t a new thought in the Bible: for example Isaiah writes ‘ I the eternal your God, I hold you by the hand, whispering fear not I will help you’ . We have a relationship with Abba. We call him dad and we fall at his feet in worship and amazement. Julian of Norwich calls it ‘ a sovereign homeliness’. We are welcome 24/7, we are never hated or unloved, but we remember the awesomeness of the one who welcomes us . Jesus is always here. (Finding Jesus book) We are always and at all times with God. God does not need us but he wants us.

When someone comes towards us we can either greet them or step out of the way. God is always coming towards us and how often do we step out of the way? God cannot change, God is always loving and waiting, like the father in the prodigal son story,  wanting to change us into the person he can see we can be,  to shape us as Jesus shaped people. He doesn’t hate us, he doesn’t give us marks out of ten for our prayers. It’s a conversation. We don’t give conversations with our loved friends marks out of ten for impressiveness. Be praying  without ceasing because you are always in a relationship and one side of the relationship can only love you! Also, unlike our friends,  God is always free! When we say  ‘see you on Sunday’ God replies with a smile ‘ok but I’m free now…fancy a chat?’, not next week or tomorrow or when you have time to compose your face into a suitable holiness. We need to attune our ears to God, to walk in daily comversation.

But at the same time our relationship is a one to one which needs to be developed. One of my questions was Why do we judge ourselves as being ‘not very good’ at prayer? Do we see God as ticking and crossing our prayers as to whether they are good enough, or timing us as to how long we take?

If we were to say of ourselves I’m not very good at being married’ or being a partner or a friend how would we respond? If we said’ I don’t really spend enough time with them…then we might ask what do you think of that person? Do you really have a relationship with them? If the relationship is to grow you might need to rethink the way you respond to them. You might like, in St Francis’ phrase, to think about offering  God courtesy – the courtesy of your time and attention, not only in passing but in a specific time which is for you to grow.

One way to brighten up a friendship is consciously to spend more time together, to say we value each other enough to make an effort.  The idea of ‘saying prayers’ is a bit like that.  it’s like ‘dating time’ – let’s spend every Friday night together. Let’s spend a bit of set-aside time with God to listen, to hear what God wants to say to us. That I think is what lies behind the idea of ‘daily prayer’ either personal or together as a community. Relating has to recognise the specialness of the person we relate to. God knows us – so our prayers are open and trusting.

Richard Leonard in Why bother praying writes:

It does not matter if we have developed bad habits in limiting prayer to only asking for things, but prayer is much ,much richer than that. By all means let’s keep asking God to keep changing us but let’s also give praise and thanksgiving, cry out in lamentation, affirm our trust and faith, express our anger, sing of our salvation and simply wait on God. There is a way to pray for all seasons under the sun

Which leads me to say that many forms of prayer are really tough because somehow they are introverted. Quiet, candles, inner thinking- it’s been described as the revenge of the Introverts. We need to affirm  extrovert ways of praying, singing, dancing, walking, laughing, alongside God and each other. Rejoicing in ways above a whisper!

Now to strand two.

Prayer is about remembering.  In the daily office we say the Benedictus, the prayer which Simeon prayed over the baby Jesus in the temple,  and the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise when she learned she was pregnant. Golly what a woman! Both of them and so many others look back to the blessing of the covenant of God with is people, which Jewish prayers did all the time – like Solomon’s great prayer of dedication for the new Temple. We always and in all things give thanks for our remembrances of God’s mercy and faithfulness, his everlasting love both in the past and now. We need to remember that this is always true.

When I was a psychology  teacher I found that relationships which did best focused on the positive. Remember and mention to each other the good bits, celebrate them and forgive the bad bits in yourself and others. In the same way we need to remember the good God has done us, in the past, today and to give thanks as well as sometimes being angry or sad.

And thirdly prayer is about noticing. On October 4 it is  Francistide and yesterday Heston and I renewed our vows as Franciscan Tertiaries.  Francis noticed the things which were around him. He had eyes and ears and all the senses finely attuned to notice God.

HESTON – the Canticle of the Sun

I love the sister bits of the Canticle of the Creatures –listen to the words –  sister moon and the stars, sister water, sister our mother earth. Everything is praising and serving God with us and we can learn from them because they never do anything else but be God’s creatures. We can choose to ignore our relationship with God – but it’s there, minute by minute, as the sun and water and fire praise God. .

And when the doors of Heaven seem firmly shut and God seems to be about anything but loving us,  we remember and notice. We remember God’s infinite mercy in Jesus. We notice the world around us in which the silent things are there doing God’s will, being themselves. We notice that we have breath. Like Job we count what God has done and simply wait. That’s praying, just waiting in faithfulness. And we all have to do it, however privileged our lives might look.

Finally to go back to relating – our relationship with God, especially our noticing leads to our responding.  I long ago learned not to pray for things which I could do something about. I can forgive, Jesus’ great central radical injunction but I can act in other ways to be God to my neighbour and when a need hits us we can pray – and then we can respond.  We can be God for our neighbours. We can protect through the prayer of action and we can comfort through prayer of action  and we can do so much more in response to our prayerful noticing.

Healing prayer is part of this. Do we really believe that we can make a difference? I don’t know how it works – I am a psychologist and I do think that much happens through our own histories, through the permissions which we give ourselves in desperation or longing. But one example from last Sunday- my ear feels better after being prayed over.

My last wondering was  about laughter with God. Do we not save up funny jokes to share with those we love? Well God is always with us and since we are made in the image of God, God laughs as well. Francis said that joy is one of our keynotes, along with humility and simplicity. I was very heartened to read this from Richard Rohr recently quoting Meister Eckhart, the wonderful fourteenth-century German Dominican mystic:

Do you want to know
what goes on in the core of the Trinity?
I will tell you.
In the core of the Trinity
the Father laughs
and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs
and gives birth to us.

We are born in laughter and in joy. I think laughter is almost the sanest form of prayer, because when we lose the gift of laughter there is something very wrong in us. So when something funny happens that’s a moment of explosive joy with the God of all joy and laughter. We can share our funny moments with God as well as our tragedies and worries.

Prayer is relating, remembering, noticing, responding. Continuous actions, not static ones. Breathing to God’s rhythm.

And last of all, but not least,  I wonder what would praying, AS A CHURCH look like,  relating, remembering, noticing and responding in and to the life of God at All Hallows? If we had  prayer date times together what would they  look like? Would they be together or would some kind of rule help us? PCC prays for all church members regularly. The very last thing we need to do is find another thing to feel guilty about, but how can we encourage each other to enjoy our relationship with God together?

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