January 28, 2007
When Paul gave me the title for today’s sermon – Passionate Prayer – my first thought was “Oh, no! How am I going to cope with that? We’re British. We do moderation and stiff upper lip. We don’t do passion!”
Daniel of course came from the Middle East, and they do go in for passion – or emotionalism, as we might call it if we disapprove.
Daniel’s prayer ( Daniel 9, 1-23) is full of passion, both outwardly and inwardly. Daniel prays earnestly, fasting, and dressed in sackcloth and ashes. It’s a little showy for modern Northern European tastes, perhaps. But it shows how his whole being is involved with his prayer. We don’t tend to give a great deal of attention to our bodily posture when we pray these days. But we are embodied creatures, and our bodies affect the way we feel and what we do. When we raise our heads and our arms, we feel more thankful; when we kneel or prostrate ourselves, we feel more humble and penitent. When we dance, we feel joyful. Daniel’s prayer reminds us that our prayers can be fuelled and reinforced by what we do with our bodies. And when we pray in private, as Jesus taught us to do, and there’s no chance of disturbing others ( as Paul warned us against) perhaps we can think about how what we do with our bodies can help our prayer.
Daniel’s passion is not just demonstrated by his outward behaviour. It infuses all that he says.
His prayer is passionate in PRAISE. He reviews God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history, and recounts his faithfulness to the covenant. He praises God’s power and constancy, mercy, love and forgiveness. His prayer begins , continues and ends with worship. Does ours?
Daniel’s prayer is also passionate in PENITENCE. He reviews in great detail the ways in which his people have failed in their commitment to the covenant and rebelled against and ignored God and the prophets. There are some people who are passionate about penitence in the wrong way, constantly talking themselves down, and in the process, convincing themselves that they are so weak and so evil that they absolve themselves of any responsibility to make any difference to the situation. Daniel shows proper, realistic, responsible penitence; he doesn’t do what we so often do – blame everyone else, but absolve ourselves. Daniel ( who is a good man we are told) accepts and confesses his own part in the sins of his people, and asks forgiveness and mercy for himself, as well as for all the previous and present members of the exiled Jewish community. Do we do this when we pray? Or is our passion reserved for blaming others, especially others in the church, for what we perceive to have gone wrong?
Lastly, Daniel is passionate in PLEADING. He intercedes for his people, and asks God to release them from their enslavement to an alien culture. This was the situation both in the time in which the Book of Daniel was written, when the Jews were ruled by the mad Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes; and of the time described in the book, when the many of the leading Jews were in exile in Babylon. Daniel knows what he believes God ought to do, and he pleads for it with every fibre in his body.
I suspect that if we are ever passionate in prayer, it is in intercession. Which of us has not at some time prayed passionately to God for ourselves or others – for someone gravely ill, or recovering from a disaster, for good news of a loved one, for someone facing a situation they don’t think they can cope with.
I know that there has been a fair amount of ‘passionate prayer’ being offered up on my behalf over the past six months. When I found a lump, there was prayer that it wouldn’t turn out to be invasive cancer – it was. When the lump had been removed, there was prayer that it wouldn’t have spread – it had. When some lymph nodes were removed, there was prayer that the cancer hadn’t spread into the lymph system – and it hadn’t, so I didn’t have to have chemotherapy. I know that there were people interceding for me, and for my family, and for the medical staff involved in my treatment all the way through the operations and the radiotherapy. It was an amzing and humbling experience to know so much prayer was being offered on our behalf.
Were those passionate prayers answered? In terms of the outcomes I and others hoped for, the answer was mixed. Some things I didn’t want to happen did happen, and others which I didn’t want to happen didn’t. But in terms of my ability to cope with investigations, operations and radiotherapy with inner calmness, trust, and optimism – yes, the prayers were answered.
Our response to God’s answer to our prayers can often be a place in which we show passion – whether that passion is is thankfulness or anger or disappointment. One of the most striking accounts I have ever read of a response to God comes from a book about the writings of Julian of Norwich. It is in the chapter about her saying: “ In God’s sight we do not fall; in our sight we do not stand. As I see it, both of these are true. But the deeper insight belongs to God”.
The author, Robert Llewellyn, writes
‘There is a story of a father whose small daughter had been very ill in hospital. At one time it is thought that she will not recover, but then the news is better, and on the way to visit her, he buys a splendid chocolate cake, hoping she may soon be well enough to enjoy it. On reaching the hospital he goes first to the chapel, where he kneels in silent thanksgiving before the crucifix. When, however, he arrives at the hospital ward, a nurse meets him to say his child has had a relapse and died. He makes his way back to the chapel, and, standing before the crucifix, he flings the cake bitterly at the figure on the cross. Of course it is an outrageous thing to do, yet may we not say that he who bore the nails found it not all that difficult to absorb a chocolate cake? But what a humiliation, what a lot of explaining and apologies the next day! And yet it could be that in that chapel, there was poured out all the poison and resentment harboured secretly for so many years, and that God, who knows us so much better than we know ourselves, welcomed the outburst as breaking up hard and fallow ground, making it possible for the waters of healing to flow.’
I don’t know how you feel about this story. Disapproving? Shocked? I found it liberating. I have never literally flung a chocolate cake at a crucifix, but, since I first read it, there have been times when I have done so metaphorically – gone into a church and inwardly shouted at God, “What do you think you are doing? Are you trying to destroy everyone’s faith in you? Why them,agin?” especially when yet another disaster has hit a good person I know.
I don’t think this is wrong. In fact, I think the ability to express such passion is a sign that our relationship with God has moved to a deeper level, beyond the stage when we only show God our good and obedient side, to the stage where we trust God enough to be open and honest with him. At that point our relationship has become like a good marriage, where we share openly not just our pleasures and joys and appreciation, but also our anger, misery and disappointment. And, lest you think that this is a product of living in the modern, ‘me’ generation, just look at the Psalms. There’s lots of passionate ‘shouting at God’ in those prayers, for they cover the whole range of human emotions. It is only if we are open and honest with God that he can use our passions, or heal them if that is what is needed.
But does the passion with which we pray make any difference to God’s response? Does prayer operate like Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green’s quiz show of the 60s and 70s, where the audience had to send the clapometer wild in order for a contestant to stand a chance of winning and thus achieving their heart’s desire?
The story of Daniel indicates that this is not the case with God, who responds in a way that is consistent with his character, with mercy and justice, no matter how people pray. God doesn’t give in to Daniel’s passionate pleas – but he does explain to him what is to come for his people, and why.
So is there any point in passionate prayer? Yes, because the depth of passion we put into our prayers – whether it is passion in its meaning of suffering, or emotion, or love – is a measure of how deeply we are committed to aligning our will to God’s will, and conforming our nature to God’s will. The more that happens, the more God can use our prayers to achieve his purposes for this world.
January 7, 2007
“A cold coming we had of it; just the worst time of the year for a journey”.
The opening lines of perhaps the best-known poem about the Epiphany, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’.
It is not a comfortable poem. It ends with a question: “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” which is a strange question for a poem about a nativity. The narrator is sure that there was a birth – he says they had evidence and no doubt; but there is no description in the poem of the child or the birth. All the poem gives are references in the second verse to the signs of new life we find in springtime – running water, vegetation and vines. But that verse also contains references to death – to Christ’s crucifixion which came in the spring of the year: three trees on a low sky, six hands at an open door, dicing for pieces of silver, feet kicking empty wineskins. And the verse ends in an ambiguous way: “It was ( you may say) satisfactory”. Is it talking about finding the new born child – a satisfactory end to the journey, a fulfilment of prophecy; or does it refer to Christ’s death, which was described in the Communion Service which Eliot knew as “the full perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world”?
We might wonder why the experience of finding the child Jesus was such a devastating experience for the wise men that it felt like their death. Perhaps because what they found was so different from what they had expected. They were led to find ‘The King of the Jews’ but they found him not in the palaces of Jerusalem, surrounded by courtiers and soldiers, but in an inn in Bethlehem, the child of a craftsman and a teenage mother. It challenged all their ideas of earthly power – how could this child, with no wealth and no influence, be the one who would restore the fortunes of Israel?
But the child was also a challenge to their religious ideas. All the gods at that time were seen as external to the world, capricious and powerful, like mighty rulers, ensuring obedience by the exercise of power over the forces of nature. Yet this child, as they seemed to know, was a special representative of God. And he came from within the human race, he was very much of the earth, he was small and helpless. What a challenge to the religious ideas of the Magi. What a challenge to ours.
In talking of both birth and death in his account of the Epiphany, Eliot is reflecting accurately Matthew’s infancy narrative. Both weave elements from the Bible into a narrative which alludes to the end as well as the beginning of Christ’s life, and to the Second Coming.
Matthew builds on a prophecy of Second Isaiah in his picture of Gentile kings coming from afar to the ‘light’ of the Messiah, paying him homage, and bringing him gifts of gold and incense. But Matthew adds a gift of myrrh to those mentioned in the Old Testament – a reference forward to the spices which will be bought to anoint Jesus’ body after his death.
Matthew’s Epiphany story, like Eliot’s poem, is not a comfortable one. There is a birth, and homage from the magi, but the birth brings death to the innocent – and the story of the slaughter of the innocents refers backwards to two great tragedies in Jewish history – the murder of the baby boys on the orders of the Pharaoh in Egypt, and the exile in Babylon, which is the incident that the prophecy of ‘Rachel weeping for her children’ refers to.
But it also has a forward reference to the death of Jesus, in which another King Herod is an accomplice. So, when Matthew brings the magi to the child Jesus they are faced with both birth and death – as they are in Eliot’s poem.
T S Eliot wrote ‘The Journey of the Magi’ just after his own Confirmation in the Anglican Church in 1927. It was the culmination of a long and painful journey for him. It was especially painful because many of his contemporaries were making the journey in the opposite direction – from the strong faith of the late 19th century into unbelief. Like the magi, Eliot was leaving behind the easy and hedonistic world, in his case that of the intellectual of the twenties. Like the magi, he has “voices ringing in his ears saying that this was all folly”. His colleagues Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway mocked his new-found faith, saying he had ‘gone over to the ignorant’. His conversion placed an added strain on his marriage, which broke up a few years later.
Everything in his life had been upset by his new-found faith, his intellectual life, his social life, his family life. He was no longer at ease in the old life – the old dispensation – but he was too new a convert to be at ease in the new one. Like St. Paul, who says he would sometimes rather die, so he could be with Christ, Eliot’s Magi would welcome another death – because only then, perhaps, would they be certain that the painful journey of faith had been worthwhile.
Matthew’s community would have appreciated the unease of the Magi. They had come to Christ, from a Jewish or a Gentile background. They would have accepted new life in Christ in baptism ( symbolised by the running stream in Eliot’s poem) and drunk the ‘new wine’ in Communion. But their acceptance of the new faith would have distanced them from their families and their former social contacts. It was a time when Jewish Christians were beginning to be unwelcome in the synagogues – and Gentile Christians were beginning to face persecution from Rome. For many of them, acceptance of Christ would have been ‘hard and bitter agony’ and their new birth into Christ would have meant they risked death – as is the case for some Christian converts from other major religions today.
But the journey of the Magi is also a symbol of everyone’s journey of faith. Many of us have the experience of having to find Christ anew many times during our lives. Perhaps something we have
read, or a conversation we had, or an illness, or a new relationship, or growing up or becoming old, means the relationship we had with God is no longer satisfactory. We have to travel in our minds and in our hearts, away from the safety of our previous religious life until we find something that makes sense to us again, and our faith is reborn. Often this is difficult; we have to leave behind things we have treasured, perhaps the certainties of faith we were brought up with, perhaps people we have worshipped with, or ways of worship that we are comfortable with. We may find our journey brings us to a new, life-giving understanding of God – but also to losses which sometimes feel like death.
Were we led all that way for birth or death? If we genuinely seek to meet with God in Christ, our spiritual journey will always face us with both death and birth. Like the Magi we travel in faith, trusting in the promise that our journey’s end will be (you may say) satisfactory.