—Ainsley Swift, 16 October 2016 (Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity)
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
Luke 18. 1.
Prayer is a difficult topic to preach about for a number of reasons. Prayer is different for everybody, one size doesn’t fit all. Our different personalities and life experience means we all have to find our own way with prayer. Perhaps that’s why Jesus taught about prayer in a parable, he tells them a story.
I’m going to try and reflect on my own current spiritual life and experience to share some things that might hold some lessons about prayer.
It can be a bit risky to share your own spiritual life as the priest or leader. You make yourself vulnerable (which is not always a bad thing for the leader but may disturb the listener), you could give the impression that this is the only way (which I certainly don’t want to do!) or you could be accused of self indulgence (which might be true!). But my aim is to draw you into what the spiritual life holds for all of us if we’re willing to give it attention.
So here we go...
I’ve been very blessed in my spiritual life with the ability to find it easy to have a sense of the presence of God. I have rarely found it difficult to not turn to God and be aware of the Presence. I also know that isn’t everyone’s experience; very good, faithful Christians, don’t find the presence of God always there for them. There are lots of examples; if you read the letters that were published after Mother Theresa died, you will know that she found the absence of God to be the norm for her over a number of years of her ministry.
Over the last few months that easiness of God’s presence I felt blessed with has not completely gone, but it’s not been the same. I have found it harder to have that sense of the presence and I’ve wondered why? I don’t think I’ve been more wicked than I usually am, I don’t think I have prayed less or worshipped less, I wonder why it’s changed? We all have times when the stresses of life peak and we find lots of things, even having faith, a challenge but this felt like a permanent change.
Faith and love have some things in common and I have been thinking that, with love, sometimes we need to choose to love, we have to make a conscious decision to make the other person’s good our endeavour. When friendship is tested or passion ebbs in a relationship we can still choose to love, so to with faith; sometimes we need to make the decision to choose to have faith, when spiritual experience, the presence of God becomes distant or absent, we can still choose to have faith.
As some of you may know, I’ve recently been on a trip to Florence (principally to mark 30 years of marriage to Jane). I had an experience there (actually I had a few experiences there!), but the one I want to share today took place in a strange and wonderful church called Santo Spirito (Church of the Holy Spirit).
In the sacristy there, there is a crucifix; it’s not life size, it about 4 feet tall I guess. It was carved by Michelangelo when he was just 17 years old.
I was surprised by my own reaction at seeing it... as I stood there in front of that crucifix I felt I was being confronted with something of huge significance and I was moved emotionally, to tears in fact. The Christ is naked on the cross, I had an overwhelming sense of his vulnerability, he is completely surrendered, either by choice or by force, he is being offered for the life of the world.
You were not allowed to take photographs of the crucifix but I found one on the internet, it doesn’t capture the significance as I felt it but it might give you an idea (I’ll leave it at the back).
An encounter with the cross of Christ has always been the most significant thing for Christians; I can attempt to explain the theology of the cross, God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. But that experience in Florence renewed the power of the cross for me and gave me a hard nudge towards God’s presence.
So when we pray, are we trying to change God’s mind? Even manipulate God? No, it’s about opening ourselves to let God change us. It’s not about fulfilling my will but about gently coming into line with God’s will. Perhaps not asking for anything but simply gazing upon God.
I said earlier that I thought faith and love are closely related. I believe that faith leads to love and love to faith; where love is, there is God.
We sometimes have to choose faith, be open to faith, even when we don’t feel anything. The feelings may sometimes follow but if they don’t, it’s OK, choose love, choose faith and let them change you.