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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Religion & Spirituality: Part Two

This morning is part two of the sermon I began last week on the topic of ‘Religion and Spirituality’. And I want to start by quickly recapping on several key points I raised last Sunday.

First, I suggested that church doctrine (that is, church teaching) is perhaps a reason why people who are “unchurched” find it difficult to see the relevance of the Church in their daily living. I defined unchurched as “people who have grown up with no involvement in (or knowledge of) the Church”, and I proposed that the unchurched have come to see church doctrine as synonymous with religion. And because they don’t understand church doctrine, and don’t see its relevance to them, they therefore don’t think of religion as being relevant to them. 

I then argued that when we talk of religion, we are talking about much more than just a set of doctrines; we are talking about the personal relationship that exists between an individual and God, and the series of relationships that exist between people in a community of faith. And I defined these as the ‘spiritual’ aspects of religion.

I also expressed my belief that each of us has been called into a relationship with God, and having answered His call, we are on a journey to God, what we might define as our spiritual journey. It is also my belief,that our spiritual journey is all about becoming the person God intended us to be. And as we come closer to being that person, we also come closer to God. Answering God’s call to become the people He intends us to be requires discernment. 

I quoted Henri Nouwen (Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian) who said that, “Discernment is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life that is acquired through disciplined spiritual practice. Discernment is faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so that we can fulfil our individual calling and shared mission.” And I ended last week’s sermon by saying that one form of the “disciplined spiritual practice” that Nouwen mentions is prayer, and that when we pray, we find ourselves in a dialogue with God. Prayer brings us into a closer relationship with God.

So I would like to focus this second part of my sermon on prayer. I know quite a few people who find it difficult to pray. I’ve struggled myself at different times with my own prayer life. Earlier this year I went through a period where the way I was praying just didn’t feel right, and it took me several months to find a new way to pray, that now feels right for me.

One of the reasons for that difficulty is that sometimes people don’t feel worthy enough to come before God in prayer. They feel guilty about past thoughts and actions, and feel too ashamed to ask God for anything. But that’s precisely why we should pray. Saint Augustine famously said, “Because I am human, therefore I am weak. Because I am weak, therefore I pray.” 

When we acknowledge our weakness, in the same way that Saint Augustine did, we allow ourselves to be dependent on God’s grace. We should never be concerned about whether we think we are worthy enough to ask God for something in prayer. Jesus reminds us of God’s complete and unconditional love for us in the Gospels. “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5: 45). “God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Lk. 6: 35). In prayer, we can present ourselves to God with confidence just as we are, knowing that we are fully acceptable in God’s sight.

It is important therefore, that when we come before God in prayer, we should be authentic. And to be authentic in prayer means to be authentic in life. Often in life we might feel that we have to conform to the standards and expectations of others, and this can even include the way we pray. I alluded to this several weeks ago when I talked about the Sunday intercessions, and how some people feel that when they pray in private they have to use a similar format or similar words to those used in the intercessions. So people may pray in that manner, but when they do, they are probably praying without any feeling, or without any real interest in what it is they are praying for. 

Sometimes, it takes a crisis, or some personal difficulty in our life, before we can be completely honest in our prayer. When the life we know is torn apart by tragedy or trouble, it can be easier for us to see beyond the restrictions we place on ourselves that constrain us in different aspects of our lives. We may also find that in those moments of trouble, when we feel lost, anxious, confused, or rejected, we are actually being called to find Jesus, which we can do through prayer. This may not be easy to do for some people. Because in the world today we are often expected to be self-reliant; to be in total control of our lives. It can then be hard to let go of everything and reveal all of our fears and weaknesses in prayer. 

Michael Casey describes this as “self-acceptance that teaches us to stand naked before the all-seeing eye of God, before whom everything is open and nothing is concealed, who sees what is hidden from mortal gaze”. He says, “We are to throw away the fig leaves gathered by Adam and Eve and learn to be fearless and unashamed”. Casey argues that, “In the presence of our all-loving and all-accepting Father, our proper self-love and our self-acceptance are strengthened and confirmed. This leads us to accept ourselves with all our liabilities, our inconsistencies, our failures—the mess that may well constitute the nonpublic side of our lives”.

Our prayer must reflect the reality of our life. If when we attempt to pray our prayer feels rough and disjointed, it may well be that our life is rough and disjointed. There is nothing wrong with feeling distracted during times of prayer, or experiencing feelings of anger, resentment, or bitterness. Feeling that way is merely expressing the reality of our lives, and it’s a perfectly appropriate starting point for our prayer. As Michael Casey notes, “Our current situation is meant to be something to which we draw our attention to, before passing it over to God, not something that dominates the whole scheme of our prayer.” 

As I’ve said on a number of previous occasions, there is no right or wrong way to pray. There is no particular right place in which to pray. If you remember what I said earlier about prayer being a dialogue with God, then that dialogue can take place anywhere. It could be in the church, or in a particular room in your house, or in your garden, or walking around the streets or through a park. From my own personal perspective, I have a particular room at home with a small table and chair in it that I use for my morning and evening prayer. Because I only use that room for prayer, whenever I go into it to pray, its like I’m leaving everything else behind and entering into this special place where I meet God.

A good way to start to pray regularly is by using what we call the Daily Offices, which are found in ‘A Prayer Book for Australia’. It contains an easy to follow, structured service of morning and evening prayer for every day of the week. All you need is a copy of the Prayer Book and the suggested Scripture readings for the day, which I can show you how to access. And as I said a few weeks ago, if all else fails, you can always just say the Lord’s Prayer.

When we are finding it difficult to pray, it is important to still try, even if we don’t know what to say. God knows what is in our hearts and minds. Jesus told us in chapter six of Matthew’s Gospel, “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:8b NRSV) Just by making time for God, and being in the presence of God, can be enough. We are changed by the dialogue we have with God. As we pray for a particular need, sometimes the unseen side of the situation we are praying for appears to us; we see things differently, and perhaps there is a shift in the content of our petition. Prayer works mainly by changing us.

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