I was asked last week what was the job of a minister. I gave a two-word answer: “To pray”. However prayer is not only the job of a minister, it is the vocation of anyone who calls him or herself Christian. And to pray is not primarily a bow-the-head, bend-the-knee, direct-requests-to-the-heavens exercise, but an opening of one’s heart and mind to the music of divinity within, around, and beyond us.
Most years I go on a journey around Lake Waikaremoana. There I listen for a different melody, without the ongoing cacophony of cell-phones, emails, and people. It feeds my soul. Yet souls are complex things, and in the midst of the city there are also many sustaining and inspiring ‘songs’. God is not restricted to quiet places off the beaten track.
The metaphor of journey is commonly used in relation to spirituality. We are often guided in our formative years by parents, peers, or Church, learning one travelling tradition, and then finding it unsatisfactory and leaving it, maybe never to journey again. But many people do travel the way of faith again. Some will travel with companions down a well-known road. Some will travel on a less-known path. Others will leave the known altogether and head out across the fields or over the seas. The paths of faith are many, and not restricted to the maps of the Church.
On the journey beliefs are like cairns: a mound of rocks, marking the path others have followed, bringing travellers to this point. We need to remember the beliefs, the cairns, of the past and learn from them. They are stories that often hold deep truths.
Some people camp around cairns, building churches or theological colleges or doctrines on the spot. After awhile however, especially when the discussions seem to be about who’s got the biggest cairn or how to make the camp more attractive, many move on. Beliefs are not an end point.
This is how I understand the text, “Seek ye first the realm of God” (Matthew 6:33). It is encouraging us to go on a journey and not be distracted by our physical and emotional needs, or the dogmas and decisions of the past. Don’t worry about what others will think of you, whether you believe the right things, or have the right friends, but seek after the music, that symphony of the spirit called God… come what may.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus. It was an embarrassing moment for the later gospel writers for its clear, despite editorial attempts to make it otherwise, that Jesus was submitting to the authority and leadership of John. Jesus was a disciple of John’s until he broke away and pursued a different path/journey. John’s vision was of an apocalyptic avenging God who would oust the Romans; and John was preparing his followers to join this uprising. Jesus’ vision was that God was already here: in the weak, the “weeds”, and in weakness subversively building an alternate egalitarian community to counter the pervasive socio-political culture of domination and fear.
I take heart from the story of Jesus’ baptism because it tells me he was on a journey. His ideas were changing, developing. How many of us had beliefs in our earlier years that we now remember with a little embarrassment?
Faith is not belief, or having beliefs. Faith is that urge to move on. Faith is about taking the risk of leaving the familiar to journey into the unfamiliar. Faith though is not irrational in the sense that it is unreasonable or folly, though to some it will seem so. Rather faith comes after carefully weighing up of the options, the known versus the unknown, and then taking a step. Those who never step out, never find out.
The journey of prayer has no end point. You don’t find God at the end; or heaven; or even self-fulfilment or contentment. Some say that you find these things along the way. I’m not so sure. They can be quite elusive. There are few guarantees in the spiritual life.
The person that is comfortably camped with a fixed set of beliefs, enjoying the security of certainty, is not to be pitied. When new events or knowledge shake their world they will try hard to incorporate those things within their camp. I envy them in some ways.
I know for myself, and a number of others, that we have no option but to take leave of the familiar camps and travel on. Not for any reward. Not for any peace of mind. Not for any higher calling. We travel simply because our soul is so drawn to the zephyrs of God that we have no other choice.
Prayer is therefore often characterised by hard and costly work. It is the work of listening, questioning, reading, and delving. It is the work and discipline of self-examination. It is the work of practising, refining, and adjusting - always offering the best you can. It is the work of being with people when you want to be alone, and being alone when you want to be with people. It’s an uncomfortable vocation.
Back in the days when I was a young assistant minister I was shocked to hear that the senior minister whom I was working with had refused to pray for a lady. She had come to him to ask for a prayer, and he’d said no. It felt like he’d breeched the bedrock of pastoral care. The lady certainly thought so.
Sometimes what people ask for is not what we should give them. That senior minister had prayed with this woman many times in the past. He became convinced that this prayer was actually a barrier to her spiritual growth, and he now refused to collude. It wasn’t an easy decision for him.
One of the primary tasks of a minister is to help people find their own way into the expanse of God. The minister is simply a fellow traveller, who, like others, is pointing out things of beauty, interest, and challenge along the way. The minister also has the job of encouraging people to get off their posteriors and keep moving.
As Christians we need to be the change we wish to see in the world (as Gandhi said). We need to acknowledge our privileges and potency, and then use both to guide and to lead. It takes courage to work for change. If we never offend people we’ve forgotten our exemplar, that man from Nazareth. We need to listen, to build trust, and to be open to change within ourselves. Change is a journey, and helping change come about is both an art and a prayer.
There is an episode in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn where Huck is deeply uncertain if he should tell Miss Watson where her runaway slave Jim is located. His uncertainty is magically overcome when he realizes that the ‘plain hand of God’ requires that he turn Jim in. Everything he has learned in Sunday School, everything his mother drummed into him, points in that direction. He writes the letter of betrayal to Miss Watson, feels all clean and pure, and is able to pray. But then he thinks some more, thinks of his love for Jim and the laughter they have had together. He finally tears up the letter, says “No” to God, and declares (in one of the great phrases of American literature), “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”[i]
Sometimes in life you come to a chasm. Behind you is all you have known, including God, ‘mother’, and morality. Ahead of you is the unknown: Godless, motherless, and immoral. Then breathing deeply, saying no to fear and yes to courage, you jump...
My favourite definition of faith is ‘the courage to jump’. The opposite of which is not unbelief but fear. Fear is a reaction to seemingly insurmountable challenges. We fear failure. We fear the cost of failure. We fear that too much is being asked of us. The chasm before us is too wide to jump.
Fear is also a natural reaction to circumstances beyond our control. Most of us spend considerable energy stabilizing our lives, rationing our time and resources, and keeping alert to impending crises. Fear can come when a crises looms larger than our ability to cope. We fear that we are not in control, and usually we are right. It is in the moment of crisis when we will decide to give in to fear or to give voice to faith.
Giving in to fear involves a closing down. The hatches are battened and the individual withdraws into what is safe, shutting out that which is threatening. The so-called ‘security wall’ that the Israeli Government has built to fence itself off from possible Palestinian attacks is a good case in point. The wall pretends to offer security. In fact it does no such thing. It serves merely as an affront, another obstacle on the difficult road to peace.
There is a time to feel fear, to feel its power. There is a time to feel what it is like, to wrestle with it, and understand a little of how it captivates and imprisons so many. But there is also a time to pray, move, and jump. Indeed fear will not be overcome unless someone jumps.
Fear is corrosive for Christians, both individually and institutionally. Rather, like St Paul who often wrote from prison cells, let us open our hearts and minds to the expanse of God, feel its freedom, and act on it.
[i] Adapted from Hamilton, W. A Quest For The Post-Historical Jesus London : SCM, 193, p.15.