Sunday, 27 October 2019

Inadequate Prayer, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 18:9-14; Ecc 35:12-19
Today I want to talk about prayer, and about how many of us feel that we’re not very good at praying.

Most of us have been praying for a very long time -since childhood.
We have memorised set prayers we say, like the Hail Mary & Our Father, and Rosary.
We have moments of brief spontaneous prayer, like when we ask God to help us be patient while we’re queuing in the Ferndown traffic.
Most of us, also, have times of longer prayer, what St Teresa of Avila calls ‘mental prayer’
-that simply being alone with the Lord, in a time and place we have set aside for Him;
-that speaking to Him as ‘heart speaks to heart’, to quote Cardinal Newman;
-that speaking TO Him and seeking to LISTEN to Him.

And yet, most of us also have many times when we think we’re not very good at praying.
In our discipleship film this week the speaker said, “We’re all beginners when it comes to prayer” -and there is a lot of truth to that.
In reading today’s Gospel, however, it struck me that something of this experience is actually of the very ESSENCE of authentic prayer.
Authentic prayer is humble.
Authentic prayer always feels LITTLE before God, inadequate before God, always feels like “we’re not very good at prayer”.

God is awesome.
God is infinite.
I, in contrast, am small.
Worse, as the publican in the parable reminded us today, I am “a sinner” (Lk 18:13).
If, in spite of this, I approach God and approach my prayer as if I am an ‘expert’,
then, I’m probably more a fool than an expert.
One of the lessons of today’s parable of the publican is that it’s OK to feel inadequate when we pray.
In fact, its RIGHT to feel inadequate when we pray.
A parent expects an infant to be an infant;
and God expects us to pray as we are, because He knows what we are.

That said, obviously, we want to try and be LESS inadequate.
Our discipleship film reminded us of the need to have PLAN in our prayer pattern:
A regular TIME each day when we pray;
A regular PLACE where we know we can be quiet and undisturbed and focussed.
We also need a BALANCE in the different forms of prayer we use
-each form of praying is different and serves us differently:
(a) we all need some formal memorised prayers -to use words that aren’t our own, to use words that take us outside of our narrow thinking;
(b) we all need some quiet mental prayer -for that intimacy with the Lord;
(c) we all need some communal prayer -which is one of the reasons we attend Mass every Sunday.

If I can close by offering you a prayer TOOL.
If you have access to email and the internet, then then look inside the newsletter today and sign up for the ‘daily devotional’ email at which will give you a daily text to help you pray.
A daily text helps put something good INTO our minds, so that our hearts and minds have something suitable to talk to God and listen to God about.

To close where I began: Most of us have times when we feel we’re not very good at prayer.
True prayer, the Lord Jesus tell us, must be humble.
So, don’t come to Him pretending to be an expert -just come to Him.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

The Bible, 29th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C

2 Tim 3:14-4:2; Ex 17:8-13; Lk 18:1-8
Today I want to talk to you about why and how the Bible is USEFUL, as we just head St. Paul say in our second reading, it’s so useful that it merits being called “PROFITABLE”(2 Tim 3:16).
Most of us, however, don’t find it useful -we find it strange.
We read bits of it and it puzzles us.
We read names like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and we think: that’s not my world, that’s strange, that’s difficult to understand.

The Bible, it’s true, is strange and unfamiliar to us.
But the point I want to make to you today is that one of the reasons it is useful to us is precisely connected with the fact that it is strange.
The Bible tells about something amazing, namely, God.
We should expect that to be beyond our usual experience.
Yes, I experience God daily, BUT He is BEYOND the limitations of my personal experience.

Let me rephrase the issue differently:
One of our dangers is that we reduce God to something that He is not.
One of our dangers is that we reduce God to our own individual experience.
In contrast, when I read the Bible I hear of God OUTSIDE my own personal experience -and this is a major part of why the Bible is so USEFUL to us.

We all need to be taken out of ourselves.
We need to know what God has said ABOUT HIMSELF, not what my personal experience says of Him.
The Bible tells us of a set of experiences that are not mine and are not yours, a set of experiences of what is called “Salvation History”, a set of experiences with a people He chose as His own.  
In that history God acted and revealed Himself.
He acted and revealed Himself so completely that He said EVERYTHING He has to say.
He spoke His “Word”(Jn 1:1), namely, His Son, and, to repeat, quoting the Catechism, He said everything He has to say, “In Him He has said everything” (Catechism n.65; 73).
So, if I want to know what He is like,
if I want to know the meaning of life, and how to live it,
Then I need to know what He has said.

Let’s have an example.
Prayer, intercession.  Most of have the experience of asking for things and not getting them.
Every week you ask God to win the lottery, and it doesn’t happen.
What does God’s Word in the Bible say about intercessory prayer?
What is revealed in the events of salvation history?
Our first reading gave the example of the Amalekites (Ex 17:8).
You might ask, Who were the Amalekites?
and immediately we are taken out of ourselves, into a strange world, the world of the Bible.
They lived in Canaan before the Jews, and, very briefly, they were bad people.
The Canaanites sacrificed their children to false gods, made them walk through fire, and more.  ("It is because of these detestable practices that the Lord is driving these nations out before you"(Deut 18:1-18).)
More directly, the Amalekites repeatedly attacked the Jews, the true God’s chosen people, who were coming with a different religion and a different a way -and authentic way of life.
The key point is this: when Moses prayed, God heard, and the Amalekites were defeated.
God heard THAT prayer.  Prayer changed things.
In this example, an example in the definitive history by which God has revealed Himself, prayer was heard. 
Then, add to that what Jesus taught: pray, He said.  Keep praying, He said.(Lk 18:1)
So, one example, if I want to learn, I need to be taken outside myself by entering the world of the Bible, and I learn something I wouldn’t know if I limited myself to my own experience.
I know God, and know life, more fully, more truly.

But what is the Bible useful FOR?  For what purpose?
St Paul gives a long of purposes it serves, but, most of these are not things “modern” people want.
It is useful for “correcting” -but we need to want to be corrected.
It is useful for “refuting error” - but we need to want to be refuted.
It is useful for “calling to obedience” - but we need to want to obey.
It “guides” us to be “holy” and “equips” us with what we need to be holy.
But all of this takes us out of our normal world.

That, to come back to where I began, that makes the Bible strange to us.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what price milk is at Tesco.
The Bible doesn’t tell you the weather forecast.
The Bible takes you to a world outside your normal experience.
That’s why it feels strange, that’s why it can be hard to understand.
But it’s also why it essential that we make the effort.  
It’s about what gives MEANING to everything else.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Trust Him, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 17:5-19; 2 Tim 1:6-14; Hab 1:2-3:4
As a priest, I often have people say to me that they’re not sure what they believe, they’re not sure if there is a God, they’re just not sure.
In that context, today’s Gospel gives us a very important line from the Apostles, namely, a reference to what we are to do when our faith is weak:
The apostles made a prayer, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Lk 17:5), which pretty obviously means that they felt their faith was weak.
This echoes a similar prayer we hear uttered in Mark’s Gospel: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”(Mk 9:24)

Obviously, faith is a great thing.
When our faith is strong, we are strong.
When our faith is strong, we can do things that otherwise are IMPOSSIBLE, like casting mulberry bushes into the sea (which, by the way, none of the 12 Apostles ever did -they never took that literally, c.f. St John Chrysostom in St Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea, vol3, p.581).
But, and this is my point to you today, sometimes our faith can feel weak.

In our second reading, we heard St Paul tell Timothy about “timidity”, because it seems Timothy was being weak, “timid” in the face of “hardships”.
In our first reading, we heard of hardships of a different kind: the suffering and “oppression” that the prophet Habakkuk witnessed -often people find that their faith is weakened in the face of such evils.
What are we to do when our faith is weak?

Prayer is one of the most vital things we need to do when our faith is weak.
Even if we’re not sure we believe.
Even if we’re not sure we trust.
These are the very times we need to gather up what little faith we have, and call out to Him:
“LORD, increase our faith!”(Lk 17:5)

There is a poem that I have on a plaque, that I have often recited when life seems dark:
“Trust Him when dark doubts assail thee.
Trust Him when thy strength seems small.
Trust Him, when to simply trust Him, 
Seems the hardest thing of all”.
We shouldn’t feel surprised at the fact that it’s sometimes hard to trust, hard to believe.
The 12 were with the Lord non-stop for 3 years, yet still their faith was weak.

St Paul reminded Timothy that when he was ordained, the laying on of hands (2 Tim 1:6) had imparted the Holy Spirit to him. 
He told him to “fan into a flame” that gift that already lay within him.
When we feel weak, we should do the same.
Even if the flame seems small and flickering, fan it into a flame.
Hold to what little we have 
–“keep” the “sound teaching” (2 Tim 1:13) rather than looking further at what weakens it.
Take that little faith, and lift it to Him.
Lift that little trust, up to Him.
and pray as they did, “Lord, increase our faith!”(Lk 17:5)