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God’s Passion: Praying with Mark

08 October, 2011

This book is one of the series Praying with the Gospels that follows the lectionary cycle.The author Terry Hinks is a minister in the United Reform Church serving in Hampshire.

markhinks
THE BOOK: This book is one of the series Praying with the Gospels that follows the lectionary cycle. It encourages people to hear the distinctive voice of each gospel, to explore what it teaches about prayer and to be led into praying with the story of Jesus.

THE AUTHOR: Terry Hinks is a minister in the United Reform Church serving in Hampshire. He has a deep interest in writing prayers and reflections and has contributed to a number of collections.

CONTENTS

I Introduction to the Series: Prayer in the Four Gospels

Ways to pray with the gospels

II A Pattern for Prayer

Introducing a pattern for prayer
A pattern for prayer

III Introduction to Mark’s Gospel

Praying to God
The One whom Jesus called `Father’
Prayer, the cross and the resurrection
Grounding prayer in reality
Prayer and the Spirit
Prayer and the conflict with evil
Prayer and action
Prayer and the temple

IV Forty Reflections

1 Are we ready?
2 Call
3 A deserted place
4 Healing and forgiveness
5 From money table to meal table
6 Stretching hands and hearts
7 Sent out
8 Our brother Jesus
9 Seed of grace
10 The growing mustard seed
11 The storm and the questions
12 Hem and hand
13 Rejection and mission
14 Death interrupts
15 Green grass
16 Passing glory
17 Lip service
18 Crumbs
19 Be opened
20 Sign and no sign
21 Partial Vision
22 Glimpse of glory
23 I believe, help my unbelief
24 The greatest
25 The welcoming one
26 How shall I respond
27 Servant
28 Blessed is the One
29 House of prayer
30 Tenants
31 Death and taxes
32 The good scribe
33 Alert and awake
34 Remember her
35 New in the kingdom of God
36 The cup
A footnote to the young disciple’s desertion of Jesus
37 Tears
38 Handed over
39 The body broken and curtain torn
40 He is not here, he is going ahead

Notes

134 pp. Darton Longman & Todd Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks

INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES: PRAYER IN THE FOUR GOSPELS

With the immense changes that society has undergone in recent decades, prayer has become immensely challenging for Christians in the West. The great civil rights activist and Christian preacher Martin Luther King, who died from an assassin’s bullet on 4 April 1968, said: ‘To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing’ (1). Yet many of us, as twenty-first-century Western Christians, are in a sense asthmatic in our praying, struggling to breathe the life of God in our daily lives. The pressures of the surrounding consumer culture deaden our sense of dependence on God. The scandals of political sleaze and spin and the constant drip of media negativity make us feel unable to trust words. The weaknesses and divisions in the Church undermine our sense of a community of prayer. The reality of many different faiths and world-views, together with the vitriolic debates over the very existence of God, sap our confidence in the One who can repair our hearts. Jesus’ parable of God’s Word being sown in the soil of human lives speaks to our situation today, with its picture of the difficulties that life-giving seed has to take root: the hardened path and hungry birds, the rocks and scorching sun, the choking thorns and withering roots.

Where can we turn in response to all these manifold challenges? To whom can we call out? The very riches of our Christian tradition can at times add to our confusion rather than leading us through it. We can turn to any number of writers or spiritual guides for advice on prayer and spirituality, from this or any century.

Yet we seek one who speaks with greater clarity, greater authority, greater reality, and for Christians that sends them back to the one they claim to follow: Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, the man of Galilee, the Christ, the Son of God. Each of the four gospels found in the New Testament make these great claims and invites us to meet and hear and be touched by this figure from first-century Palestine who still calls people in our century to follow. The earliest gospel reports that the people ‘were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (Mark 1:22). The last of the four canonical reflections on the life of Jesus — John’s gospel — speaks of Jesus asking the disciples if they to want to turn back from following him, to which Simon Peter replies: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).

But can this word of authority speak across the centuries to our own time, a time when ‘authority’ is often seen in terms of oppression, false certainty and delusion? Can it overcome the huge walls of distrust that have developed within our Western hearts?

Jesus’ authority was not derived from educational, religious, social or political status. He had no political power and stood outside the religious hierarchy, at the edge of the institution, steeped in his own Jewish tradition and faith but at the same time critical of it. He had the freedom to speak new words and act in surprising ways.

His authority was not an imposed or oppressive one, but one generated by the integrity of his life, the insight of his words and the gift of the Spirit. It was especially recognised by the ordinary people of Palestine — people who had no claims on authority for themselves and so do not feel threatened by Jesus’ authority.

In our twenty-first-century Western society we are all our own authorities and so resistant to outside authorities. We want to control ‘what is true for us’ and ignore uncomfortable challenges to our own self-determination. It is often those moments of vulnerability, when our defences are down and our self-importance threatened, that we are at our most receptive to this authoritative word that comes from beyond us.

I believe that Word which astounded Jesus’ listeners can still speak to us — not to oppress us but to liberate us. But we need to be opened (the great ephphatha of Mark’s gospel). The Spirit, which so filled Jesus and which he promised to his followers, needs to dig over the ground, cutting down the weeds, clearing some of the stones, nourishing the soil of our hearts to receive the Living Word and to bear fruit in our daily lives. Praying with the gospels will be above all about that process of being opened again and again.

Sister Wendy Beckett writes in the introduction to her book of meditations on art, The Gaze of Love:

Books on prayer are dangerous … At some level that we do not recognise, we may well be reading books on prayer as a way to allay our guilt about not actually praying. The overweight, it is said, are devoted readers of diet books, the sedentary devour travel books. Reading about prayer, talking about prayer, even writing about prayer: these are not useless activities but they are dangerous (2).

All too easily, reading books about prayer can become an alternative to praying, and reading books about the gospels an alternative to reading the gospels themselves.

Since the four gospels were written and then later accepted within the canon of Scripture, Christians have tended to conflate them into one general story about Jesus, losing sight of the distinctive voice of each gospel. There is real value in giving each gospel sufficient attention to hear the writer’s distinct voice as they bear witness to the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and relate that story to their own time and situation.

The early Church Fathers delighted in this fourfold witness and came to link the four gospel-writers to the four living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision of heaven (Ezekiel 1:4-10) and described again in the Revelation to John: ‘Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, arc four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle’ (Revelation 4:6, 7). Matthew, who began his gospel with the human ancestry of Jesus, came to be signified by the human face. The lion signifies Mark, the voice of the lion roaring in the desert — ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ Luke, who began his gospel with Zechariah, the priest at the altar, is signified by the sacrificial animal, the ox. John, the messenger of the Word, is represented by the soaring eagle.

There is good reason for there to be four gospels within the Christian canon of Scripture rather than simply one. As Stephen Barton points out in his book The Spirituality of the Gospels, the four gospels can be ‘mutually reinforcing’ and `mutually correcting’ (3). Ultimately there is only one Gospel — the good news of Jesus Christ, announcer of the kingdom, teacher and healer, crucified Saviour and risen Lord. Yet there are four witnesses showing the glorious multifaceted nature of that Gospel, which can speak to Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female. As we pray with the gospels we give thanks for that variety and distinctiveness alongside the underlying oneness.

God of all time,
we rejoice in the company of all your gospel people.
We give thanks for those first eyewitnesses
who told the story of Jesus
for the young and growing Christian community
re-telling the news that had set it alight
and for those who gathered and wrote down
the stories of Jesus
for their own times and communities.

We praise you
for Matthew the human messenger, who assures us that Jesus is with us always and will be met in the naked, the imprisoned and the hungry;
for Mark, the roaring lion, who roars out to us to turn round and believe the good news, leads us to the cross and shows us the Strong One who defeats evil and death itself;
for Luke, the great ox who speaks of searching and sacrifice, songs and surprising joy and the new dawn that Jesus brings;
and for John, the soaring eagle, who takes us to the heights of Christ’s glory and opens to us life in Christ’s name — life in abundance.

We give thanks
for those who brought the gospels to our own land and those who translated them into our own tongue;
for scholars wrestling with their message and preachers retelling the Word of life;
and for those in every generation whose lives have been changed and challenged by the truth and grace that flows through these words.

                                            *                    *                    *

Praying with the gospels is about letting Jesus teach us how to pray, rather than imposing our ideas about prayer on him. The gospels show us how to pray by Jesus’ teaching, the way he prayed, his impact on people around him and their response to him. The pinnacle of that teaching is the Lord’s Prayer. Michael Mayne described it as ‘a kind of signature tune’ for all Christians: ‘it contains all we will ever need to express our trusting relationship with God and our dependence on him. To say it slowly, in a thankful spirit, is sufficient, even though unwrapping the layers of meaning in the words “our” and “Father” might take a lifetime.”
The Lord’s Prayer is given in the liturgical version Christians are familiar with today in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6:9-13) and in a simpler and perhaps earlier form in Luke’s gospel (Luke 11:2-4).

Matthew
(Book of Common Prayer)
Matthew (NRSV) Luke (NRVS)
Our Father
which art in heaven hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil:
for thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Our Father
in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

(doxology not included in the oldest manuscripts)

Father,hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive
everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Mark has no record of the Lord’s Prayer within his gospel, but the key elements of that prayer are to be found there too, in Jesus’ praying ‘Father’ (the Aramaic `Abba’) in the garden of Gethsemane (14:36); his message about God’s kingdom (1:14; 4:11, 26 etc.); his prayer ‘not what I want, but what you want’ (14:36); his thanksgiving for bread (in the meals of 6:41; 8:6; 14:22), his words about forgiveness – ‘whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses’ (11:25) – and words of warning to his disciples – ‘Keep awake and pray that you may not come to the time of trial’ (14:38). Whether this was because Mark was familiar with the Lord’s Prayer or simply with Jesus’ teaching which is summed up within it we do not know. It does show, however, the importance given to these key gospel themes of God as caring, compassionate Father, seeking the kingdom, doing God’s will, daily dependence on God’s provision, forgiveness and forgiving, struggle with challenge and evil. Summed up in the Lord’s Prayer, these gospel themes flow through Jesus’ teaching on prayer.

Like Mark, John does not record the Lord’s Prayer, as he gives more focus to who Jesus is than what he teaches. This christological focus means that the teaching contained within the Prayer is given instead in reflections on the person of Christ. John reflects repeatedly on the closeness – in fact oneness – of the Son and the Father and speaks in his prologue of this relationship being opened up to those who receive ‘the Word made flesh’: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh but of God’ (John 1:13). There are few references to the kingdom of God in John’s gospel, the focus having shifted from the kingdom to the King – Jesus Christ. However, as he stands before Pilate, Jesus speaks of the kingdom as being his: ‘my kingdom is not from this world’ (John 18:36). For John, doing the will of God is about believing in Jesus. The bread is not so much daily provision as the heavenly sacramental food of Jesus: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35). Forgiveness remains an important theme (‘God did not send his Son to condemn the world …’, John 3:17), and the disciples are sent out to carry that forgiveness to the world: ‘if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven’ (John 20:23). The theme is developed in the gospel’s reflections on dwelling in the love of Christ: Jesus instructs his disciples, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). John, like the other writers, recognises the struggle with persecution and evil but expresses it in more cosmic terms of the battle between light and darkness. His tone is triumphant: ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

The disciples’ request ‘Lord teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1) arises from the way Jesus is praying (once again withdrawing with his followers to ‘a certain place’). This contrasts with the way Matthew includes the Lord’s Prayer within a section on prayer in the great `Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 6:5-13). Matthew emphasises Jesus as the teacher or the new lawgiver, sitting down on the mountain to teach his disciples (Matthew 5:1). Luke has placed Jesus’ teaching about prayer as following Jesus’ action of praying: the reader is encouraged not simply to follow the words of Jesus, but to follow his example: to pray not simply as he taught, but as he prayed.

The request is not simply ‘Lord, teach us to pray’, but to teach ‘as John the Baptist had taught his disciples’. There is a recognition here that the teaching of prayer follows a long tradition: Jesus is asked to teach his followers as John the Baptist had taught his disciples (and as other rabbis had done in the past). Jesus stands within this tradition – and Jesus and the gospel-writers recognise the value of that tradition – but at the same time Jesus brings a new depth and intensity to the reality of prayer.

Reflect and pray

When we do not know how to begin,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we are caught up in ourselves and closed to God,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we are overwhelmed with our own insignificance,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have prayed and spoken and failed to listen,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have reduced prayer to words and lists and books,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have failed to breathe in the Spirit,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have found prayer to be dull and un-nourishing,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have become comfortable with our way of praying,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we cease to sense the grace and wonder of God,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have narrowed prayer to ‘me and my God’ and forgotten our brothers and sisters,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we are tempted by pride or despair, complacency or cynicism,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we have prayed and not acted on our praying,
Lord, teach us to pray.
When we think we know exactly how to pray,
Lord, teach us to pray.

In each of the gospels, Gethsemane is the supreme point of prayer, the moment when Jesus wrestles with his own human hopes and fears and then crifolds his will within the greater divine will. This is true even injohns gospel where the event is not recorded but only hinted at.The different ways the four gospels handle this story show both their distinctiveness and the coninion themes in thein all.

In Mark it is where Jesus expresses his real hunian emotions and thcn goes on to pray ‘Abba, Father, a moment of intensity ands intimacy, yet also one where God seems absent and silent. Working froin Mark’s manuscript, Matthew omits theArainaic word ‘Abba’ (as does Luke) but p erson alises Jesus’ address to God as ‘My Father’, eniphasising the three timesJesus prays. He underlines the importance and development of Jesus’ praying by placing the prayer in two parts, beginning each with the words ‘My Father’ and ending thern with ‘your will be done’. The essence for Matthew is Jesus’ seeking after God’s will, despite the cost to himself.

For Luke the garden is the point of supreine struggle forJesus, the final temptation for which the devil has been biding his time (Luke 4:13). In Luke’s eyes Jesus’ victory and obedience in the garden enable hini to pray with confidence on the cross: ‘Father forgive thern …’ (Luke 23:34) and ‘Father into your hands I commend iny spirit’ (Luke 23:46). Luke has no cry of dereliction from the cross (‘My God iny God why have you forsaken me?’, Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34), perhaps because that cry was given in the garden: ‘in his anguish he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like great drops of blood’ (Luke 22:44), a verse not present in sonie of the oldest manuscripts but vividly describes Jesus’ inner struggle.

John in a sense denies that the struggle takes place at all. The garden is inentioncol as a place whercJesus and his disciples go after the supper and as the place where Jesus is arrested, but not as a place of prayer. Insteadjesus prays for his friends before they leave for the garden (John 17). The garden prayer is hl nted at in an earlier verse: ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say —”Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have conie to this hour. Father, glorifv your name’ (John 12:27). Here Jesus expresses sorrow, and hints at the struggle in the garden that the other gospels describe, but quickly inoves to self-offering and affirmation. It is not that the Jesus of John’s gospel cannot feel hurn an ci notions; indeed, John gives us a number of deeply moving pictures of Jesus’ compassion, such as his weeping at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35, 38). But at this point in his gospel, John passes over the struggle of Gcthsernane to affirm Jesus’ sense of mission froin God, oneness with the Father’s loving purpose and desire to glorify God’s nanic through his actions: ‘God so loved the world that lie sent his Son …’ (John 3:16).

Here in the prayer of Gethsemane is prayer at its most intense and real and also most trusting and self-giving. It will shed dazzling light on our praying and expose the ways in which we avoid that intense struggle (‘if it is possible, take this cup from me’), that deep intimacy (‘Abba, iny Father’) and that seeking to align with the saving will and purpose of God (‘not my will, but yours be done’), despite the personal cost. This is not determinism or stoic submission to some impersonal fate; this is a placing of self-will within a bigger purpose, the refusal to run away from the call of God.

Each gospel helps us to explore prayer in different ways and can stretch our own praying in new directions, but each ultimately brings us back to that picture of Jesus drawing courage to face the cross, to enter the heart of human suffering and to place himself into the hands of the God who is ‘Abba’ – the One who can be trusted and truly loved – and the God who can do impossible things – even raising the dead to new life.

Reflect and pray

Good News God,
we thank you for the gospel-writers
in all their uniqueness.
We thank you for your Spirit
at work in them and us.
Through their words
speak your Living Word,
point us to the Jesus of history,
the Christ of faith, the risen Lord
who calls us to follow today,
the One who promised to be with us
always to the end of time. We ask this in his name.

Ways to pray with the gospels
Praying with the gospels is essentially about giving their words and stories a deeper attention, within the context of God’s reality and presence. Without that time and attention – that space and silence – we will not be able to allow them to touch us. Christopher Burdon comments:

Accustomed to instant colour pictures our age needs to relearn the patience and imagination simply to listen to stories – not only the parables of Jesus, but the whole parable of Jesus himself, or rather the four parables of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that cannot be compressed into a single synopsis or doctrinal scheme (5).

As well as giving attention to the story, we need to make some conscious acknowledgement of the presence and involvement of God in our praying. Without this, prayer will not happen – we will only be talking to ourselves. In his exploration of prayer in the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann stresses the quality of dialogue in Israel’s prayer, ‘in which both parties are free and both parties are at risk’, and goes on to write:

Such prayer serves to counter the enormous temptation to monologue that causes a nullification of the human spirit. Monologue is everywhere among us – in absolute theology, absolute patriotism, absolute authority, absolute autonomy – any practice that assures we can live without being decisively impinged upon by ‘the other’. In Israel’s purview, the neighbour is one who impinges as ‘other.’ And behind the neighbour stands God, who impinges on life and will be impinged upon by Israel at prayer (6).

Setting our reading of the gospel stories within the context of prayer compels us to direct our response to the gospel story (be it questions or commitment, joy or doubt) towards God. It encourages us to seek the help of God’s Spirit to enlighten and connect the story with our own situation. A dialogue is set up, on the one level between ourselves and the gospel-writer and at a more basic level between our deepest selves and God – the Spirit of God at work within us.

Of course reaching that point of encounter is not without difficulty. Our natural human impatience tends to make us want to hear instant answers, rather than to struggle with words and stories that come from a very different culture and world-view to our own. Our own agendas and prejudices can get in the way of truly listening and responding. Within the gospels Jesus recognises how prayer can be distorted and misused, becoming at times a way of boosting personal ego rather than seeking God. He sees his task as redirecting people to ‘the Father who sees in secret’ and to true love for God and for neighbour.

Alongside impatience and self-centredness, distractions from outside and within our minds can become barriers to our being still before God, listening openly to the Gospel and speaking to God from the heart. A wise prayer guide reminds us: ‘There are two golden rules of prayer. One is that we have to pray as we can in the way best suited to us, not in the way we think we ought … And the other rule is: the less we pray, the harder it gets’ (7).

Christopher Burdon speaks of the need to relearn patience and imagination. These are two essential tools as we approach praying with the gospels. The renewed interest in lectio divina has in a sense been a rediscovery of the value of patient waiting and listening, as we absorb the text of Scripture, reading slowly and repeatedly and chewing over its words. Eugene Peterson draws the analogy of eating Scripture and comments:

Lectio divina is the deliberate and intentional practice of making the transition from the kind of reading that treats and handles, however reverently, Jesus dead, to a way of reading that frequents the company of friends who are listening to, accompanying and following Jesus alive (8).

Lectio divina involves a fourfold movement of lectio (reading the passage slowly and prayerfully), meditatio (reflecting on the words that strike one), oratio (responding in simple prayer) and contemplatio (entering stillness before God, seeing life in that light and absorbing God’s love). David Foster reminds us that ‘we need to begin lectio in the context of prayer’ (9). That starting point is essential to counteract the personal agendas and prejudices that we inevitably bring to our reading. So he goes on to say: ‘Put yourself in the presence of God. Let go of the immediate things on your mind, and turn your heart to the God who dwells within’ (10).

Gabriel O’Donnell rightly emphasises: ‘Lectio is a disciplined form of devotion and not a method of Bible study. It is done purely and simply to come to know God and be brought before his Word, to listen’ (11).

It is important that we do not reduce our reading of the gospel or our praying to a technique. All our reading and praying needs a humility and an honesty which is totally at odds with any sense of learning or mastering a method. The Living God is bigger than all our methods and the working of God’s Spirit is essential to breathe life into our forms of reading and praying.

If lectio reminds us of the need for patience, the Ignatian tradition reminds us of the place of imagination. As we work with the gospels we work with stories, metaphors and word pictures, rather than Mr Gradgrind’s ‘facts, facts, facts’ (12). In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged his followers to hear and enter the gospel stories. That act of imagination allowed the stories to speak in a fresh and powerful way, and the Ignatian spiritual exercises continue to do this to this day. As John Pritchard explains: ‘we watch the event from inside the story, not from reading pages of a book, and this in turn may bring us face to face with Jesus himself, and our conversation with him can be a most precious encounter and the most personal of prayers’ (13).

Imagination is not about making things up, but about enlarging our seeing. That strange but great eighteenth-century visionary William Blake famously said:

And I know that This World Is a World of IMAGINATION & Vision. I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the Way (14).

Imagination is a key tool in prayer. After all, we are relating to a Reality that is beyond our sight and our grasp. Imagination is also a key tool in our reading of the gospels, for if they do not touch our imagination they will remain dry and dusty ancient documents. It is as we relate to the gospel characters, as we become caught up in the story and captivated by its central figure, that Jesus meets and speaks to us in our own times and situations.

However, there is a danger that we impose on the Jesus of the gospels our own assumptions and attitudes. Our imagination can run loose and become detached from the reality of the gospel story or the world in which we live and breathe today. In this we need to recognise our human fallibility, but also our need to rely on the true and living Spirit of God. In our reading and praying of the gospels we are not alone and we do not rely simply on our own resources. We are part of the community of faith, stretching across centuries and continents. More than that, God is nearer than we can possibly imagine, in fact at work by the Spirit at the heart of our being.

Reflect and pray
Come Holy Spirit
enlarge my mind and heart
stretch me in all your ways
to make space for grace
room for the life of Christ
here today. Amen.

The four gospels provide us with the words of Christ and of his followers, words that are ‘bigger’ than our own. The reciting of set words — the liturgy, the work of the people — has immense value for our individual praying because it connects us with the wider community of faith and reinforces that common faith within our minds and hearts. The very familiarity of the words — as we use them repeatedly — can lead us into a place of greater stillness, where we can sense the Spirit of God moving within us and offer our own prayers from the heart. The interplay of words and silence, familiarity and freshness, communal and personal faith, speaking and listening, is part of the dance of prayer. Of course the recital of familiar words alone can never be sufficient for true prayer to take place: our relationship to God needs to be expressed in a variety of ways, through familiar words and phrases, gestures and actions, spontaneous speech and silent communion.

Reading the Gospel in a context of prayer requires of us to set aside a reasonable amount of time, ideally each day. In our activity-filled lives that setting aside of time may feel very difficult. That difficulty should perhaps alert us to consider how we use and fill our time, and where this ‘time filling’ has become destructive rather than creative. Finding time and space initially may be very challenging, but patience (in the face of one’s failures), persistence (in the face of one’s laziness and excuses), and prayer itself (for the Spirit’s guiding help) will bear fruit.

For some, early morning will be best, before the business of life takes hold. Martin Luther advised that we should get down to prayer straight away in a morning and ignore ‘the deceitful thoughts that keep whispering: wait awhile. In an hour or so I will pray when I finish this or that’ (15). However, clearly for others, work and family activity and demands make the morning a very difficult time to enter into more than a fleeting moment of prayer. Some other time will need to be found, but the essential thing is that we find this space when we can turn off the phone and TV and give God some serious attention. That attention will not be best given if we are either frantic or very sleepy.

The gospels also encourage us to weave prayer into our daily lives, such as by giving thanks for food and other blessings and praying for people we encounter. These prayers can be spoken silently — no more than ‘arrow’ prayers — but they can shift our perspective on the day and on life. After all the gospels speak of a God not confined to religious times and sacred spaces but involved in the whole of life.


NOTES
1 Martin Luther King Jr, source unknown.
2 Wendy Beckett, The Gaze of Love (London: Marshall Pickering, 1993), p. 9.
3 Stephen C. Barton, The Spirituality of the Gospels (London: SPCK, 1992), p. 146.
4 Michael Mayne, The Enduring Melody (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006), p. 10.
5 Christopher Burdon, Stumbling on God: Faith and Vision in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 8.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. xxviii.
7 Benignus O’Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010), p. 11.
8 Eugene Peterson, Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006), p. 85.
9 David Foster OSB, Reading with God (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 14.
10 Foster OSB, Reading with God, p. 14.
11 Robin Maas and Gabriel O’ Donnell OP, Spiritual Traditions-for the Contemporary Church (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 47.
12 Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854).
13 John Pritchard, How to Pray: A Practical Handbook (London: SPCK, 2002), p. 48.
14 William Blake, Letter 8-9, quoted in Peter Ackroyd, Blake (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995), p. 209.
15 Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray (1535).

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