s032be00 Somerton Park Pentecost 11/6/2000
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought". Romans 8:26.
One of the most frequently misused phrases in Christian speak is "extempore prayer". After 20 or more years in the ministry, I reckon I've become pretty good at extempore prayer - of course through all that time I've had to practice - which really means that it has long ago ceased to be truly extempore :-)
There are a number of ways that it is true that "we do not know how to pray as we ought" and a number of ways in which it isn't true.
One of the things it doesn't mean is that we haven't been given the right formula. There is no right formula, in the sense that God hears particular prayers above the clamour of the rest of the prayers of humanity because of their particular sincerity, fine phraseology, appropriate humility, suitably extemporaneous, brevity, verbosity, in the tongues of men or in the tongues of angels. No one is given the magic formula that guarantees God will do as someone asks.
God has an agenda in our prayers as well as ourselves, for each and every one of us.
The prayer of the pharisee and the prayer of the publican demonstrate that God hears whom God hears. God hears the short prayer for mercy, when the petitioner can expect nothing more. But God doesn't hear the long recitation of personal achievements, even if expressed in thanksgiving, seemingly to God.
But often I do not know how to pray, because I simply don't know what I want or how the situation about which I'm praying might best be resolved. So in many instances I can only leave a particular situation in God's hands. It might be nice to pray for healing, but are we entirely certain the person for whom we are praying actually wants this?
Indeed, because so much of our own healing is in our own hands, are we or others actually prepared to do some things for ourselves, and make some changes in our own lives, which will facilitate healing? This assumes that we have the power to make such changes even if we had the will - and this may be true in some cases but not in others. And our environment determines much of what we can or can't do. If we live on the streets, "healing" means much more than not being addicted to drugs and not having to burgle houses to pay for them. Healing means employment, housing and love.
One of the ways we express our respect for someone else is to wait until we are asked for prayer. If our ability to make changes in our own lives is questionable, our ability to make changes in other people's lives, especially if that prayer as not been requested by the person concerned, is very dubious.
God actually knows our medical diagnosis as well as the prognosis - without being told. Indeed, of course God knows the real problem and not just the manifestation of symptoms about which we so often pray.
Recently I was given a Mothers Union magazine "Home and Family" and in there Pat Harris wrote: "Computers, email, the Internet - all largely a mystery to me! But I am doing my best to 'get up to speed'. Why? Because if I don't, I shall find myself 'frozen out' of conversations taking place within my home when my children and grandchildren are visiting." (Spring 2000 p34). So when we learn the language our children are speaking - which is usually, these days, related to the world of the Internet and email - I believe that it is actually the Holy Spirit who is motivating and empowering us.
For the Spirit is given to cross the boundaries. So the outpouring of the Spirit at the first Pentecost was to enable the disciples to speak the language of the hearers; not for the hearers to understand the language of the Church members. So the Holy Spirit is given to us to understand the language of our children and others with whom we come in contact. The Holy Spirit is not given to those outside the Church to understand the language of "saints".
And the Holy Spirit is therefore given axiomatically to reach out in acceptance, understanding and compassion - not to force feed orthodox or scriptural doctrines on people - which they are required to accept or be damned.
So the Holy Spirit is given, not as a divine method of subtle or not so subtle "arm-twisting" on others, but as we go, not knowing the answers for other people's lives or problems.
The Holy Spirit is given that we might become companions with others along their way. These others will be people for whom some help with bridging will be needed - like with people of other faiths and people with no faith. If they were the same as us, if they shared the same language and culture as ourselves, we would not need the Holy Spirit to help us bridge the gaps, because there would be no gaps to bridge.
And we are given the Holy Spirit to be companions along other people's way, not to force others to join our path. Jesus is indeed "the way", but it always has been and always will be a path towards the understanding of others.
And is it not good news that we don't have to know all the answers for our lives and the lives of everyone else? Is it not good news that we are called simply to be companions and friends? Is it not good news that healing comes by our personal companionship, not by the answers we supposedly bring? Is it not good news that it is we who are important, not just our 'expertise'? Is it not good news that the gift of the Holy Spirit will enable us to begin to understand other people? Is it not exciting that the Holy Spirit is given for us to appreciate the culture and experience of others?
One of the sayings my own father was given to repeating often through my childhood - when you stop learning - you're dead.
I noticed in the latest issue of the St Barnabas Theological College news (p3) the Rev'd Alan Cadwallader related the story "of an abbot observed once by a junior monk. The abbot was kneeling before an old dishevelled man who was known to live among prostitutes. The monk was of course scandalised, and the shopkeepers guffawed at the sight of piety being blessed by impiety. The monk confronted the abbot afterwards. "But", came the reply, "he is my master. He knows more of God's love than I could ever hope to emulate." (This is in the page devoted to "Liturgy with a heartbeat: Thursday Night Live" to which all are welcome to attend.)
And the essence of the communication revolution, of which the Internet is but a part, is (I believe) that it facilitates us becoming the communion that particularly we as Anglicans aspire to be. I mean that's what we call ourselves - part of the Anglican Communion. When one turns on the TV one cannot but find some program or other informing us of the intricacies of some other culture.
The Internet has been criticised for being impersonal, and indeed it can be so. I suspect the anonymity - which I see people appreciate about the Internet, is something that the Church could well take notice of. Not all people are looking for deep and meaningful, "huggy" "kissy" relationships at Church. Most people want their privacy to be respected, and the Internet is a way of making sure that happens. The desire for impersonal conversations via the Internet, is most often for good reasons, most often stemming from past inappropriate experiences. People demand their privacy, both on the Internet and in the congregation here, for good reasons, and it is up to us to respect the reasons and the privacy.
But the Internet can also be intensely personal in a good way, through the trust which enables this is, just like "face to face" relationships, built up over time.
Relationships on the Internet cross all the boundaries, of denomination, culture, gender. Indeed it will probably bring English to become the universal language - through sheer weight of numbers with the technology available. This may indeed bring unforeseen blessings, but one of those blessings will not be that English will become standardised. English will be supplemented and enriched, more and more, as more people from a variety of cultures increasingly use it.
Only recently I have received lots of email saying that it's now correct to begin a sentence with "and" - something that was considered quite wrong in primary schools "in my day".
We seem to have travelled a long way from the feast of Pentecost, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first apostles, to talking about the communications revolution, which is happening all around us, with seemingly little or no reference to God, yet the actions of the Holy Spirit were hardly confined to that one age.
That other defining revolution in the history of the Church, the Reformation, essentially was predicated on another technological revolution, the invention of printing. This brought the printed word to so many more people, who could, for the first time, evaluate the truth for themselves. Who would dare suggest that the Reformation was not a movement of the Spirit? I certainly wouldn't want to deny this, especially in the company of my Lutheran friends :-)
The promises of Joel, reiterated by Peter in our first reading for today, assure us:
"I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy." (Acts 2:17-18). I note that the words are "all flesh" not "all Christians". We will need to be listening to our sons and our daughters, even to the slaves, to know where the Spirit of God is leading us.
The actions of the Holy Spirit are still with us today, as we continue to listen to others - in acceptance and appreciation - not criticism. As we listen in this way to all others, we will be blessed as we realise the grace of God in the lives of so many other people, well beyond our own experience.
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