Prayer and the Cycle of Grace
Isaiah 43:1-5a, Mark: 1:9-15
So, thank you for inviting me Hugh - it's a joy to be here to share with you a bit about WAP.
First of all, just to briefly introduce myself, I've been involved with WAP since the year 2000, but have also been a Primary School teacher and Assistant Priest to my husband Stephen first down in Lydd, and then near Canterbury. We retired 18 months ago, which has allowed me more time to be involved with these wonderful weeks.
One interesting thing I've noticed, is that if ever I talk about prayer, you can bet your life there are people listening who immediately feel guilty.
There's a sense in which we all know how important prayer is, but most of us feel we don't do it very well. We look up to those people who have written inspiring books on prayer, and people who speak movingly about prayer, and maybe we think, one day I'll be like them.
One day, when my children are grown up, or the pressure of my job has eased, or all those circumstances which seem to conspire against my prayer life have gone, then I will be able to focus and improve my prayer life.
Anyone ever felt like that?
And then, it may not help that our main model for prayer is either intercessions in church, or open prayer at a prayer meeting, or set, liturgical prayers. Inevitably these kind of prayers are very wordy. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that. They are very good models of prayer, and very important in the life of a church, but not the only model, or even the most helpful, when it comes to personal prayer.
And personal prayer, our own relationship with God, is what a Week of Accompanied Prayer is all about.
And our relationship with God begins with the knowledge of his love for us.
Sometimes I think we find that so hard. I think one of the reasons we feel guilty about our prayer life, is because we feel we have to earn God’s love and approval.
We’ve heard today the account of Jesus being baptised. Did you hear what the Father says to Jesus? You are my Son Whom I love, with you I am well pleased.
So let’s think for a moment about what Jesus had done before his baptism. How many people had he healed? How many lives had he changed? How many sermons had he preached? How many people had he raised from the dead?
Up to this point he hadn’t done any of those great ministry things. He was just himself. And the father loves him and is well pleased with him. Just because he is his son.
We have a friend who is a vicar down in Wiltshire, and he has an adult son with multiple disabilities.His movement and speech are severely limited and he needs constant care. Andrew, our friend, told us once how one of the most precious moments with his son is at night when he puts him to bed. He makes sure he tells him every night that he loves him and is proud of him.
Sometimes his son asks why, because he can’t do anything for himself, and his dad always replies, because you are my son.
Those of us who are parents will know that feeling of pride and joy and love when we hold our newborn for the first time. They have done nothing to deserve our love, and yet the love we feel for them can be overwhelming.
Somehow we can find it difficult to accept that we are loved so deeply and unconditionally by our Father God. We can feel we have to earn and work for his acceptance and love.
If we look at Jesus, he lived in a cycle of grace. He started from this point of acceptance, that he was known and loved by the Father. His sustenance - the way his needs were met - came from his relationship with his father, which in turn led to his significance- his sense of identity, value and worth.
And it’s out of all this foundation of acceptance, sustenance and significance that he was able to do what God had called him to do. He was able to achieve.
The trouble is, it’s so easy to get caught up in going around the wrong way. It’s tempting to feel we need to start by achieving, doing lots of big and important things which give us a sense of significance.
So we need an important job, a big house, a fast car... our children need to be achieving amazingly.... and from all that achievement we get our sense of significance - our identity is in our job, our home, our car, our children.....
Which, in turn sustains us, and feeds us, so that finally, if we succeed through all our own efforts, then we might be accepted, we might at last belong.
The tragic thing is, it never really works this way. If our acceptance depends on our achievements, we never truly feel accepted. And what happens if our circumstances change? We lose our job or our car or whatever?
Then our sense of value and worth goes too.
I find this so interesting, because it seems to me that most of us are just longing for acceptance. Deep inside us we need to know we belong and are accepted and loved. Going round the cycle the wrong way is doomed to failure.
But isn’t it wonderful that God knows our deep need for acceptance, and he calls into his cycle of grace.
We start with that beautiful love and acceptance - God has called us and adopted us as his own. Jesus gave his life for us because he loves us.
We are loved, we are accepted.
And then we are sustained by God as the one who protects, provides and preserves us. We look to him to meet our needs. And our significance comes from who we are in Christ. Our identity, value and worth come from him. Knowing that we are loved deeply by God, knowing that our needs are met in him, knowing that he is our strength and is with us wherever we go,from that intimate relationship we want to give back to him, and so we achieve.
We love because he first loved us,
It’s out of our God given abundance that we want to give back to him.
So prayer isn’t about doing something to please God. We don’t need to tangle ourselves up with guilt or fear that we’re not doing it enough or doing it right. It’s about developing this intimacy with him as our father. And it’s developing this intimacy that these WAP are about.
So what happens in one of these weeks?
A team of prayer companions will come here to lead the week. And it begins with a special service in the Sunday evening, during which you will experience two types of prayer using the Bible. One of those will be a bit like the way we listened to the OT reading this morning. Allowing time and space for God to speak to our hearts through his word.
During that service time, there will be an opportunity to meet with the person who is allocated to be your prayer companion for the week. And you will be able to decide which of the two ways of prayer you want to focus on in your first prayer time. If you do decide to commit to this week, you will be committing to meeting daily with your prayer companion for half an hour.
You will also commit to putting aside half an hour each day for prayer.
Now don’t let that daunt you - it’s amazing how quickly the time can go.
And you’re also encouraged to put aside whatever your usual pattern of prayer is, to give yourself the time and space to try some new things.
When you meet with your prayer companion each day, you have the opportunity to reflect on what your prayer experience was like.
And that means whatever it was like.
If it was amazing, you share that. If it felt like nothing happened - share that. And together, you and your prayer companion will discern what it is God might be saying and doing in you.
This may feel terrifying - the thought of sharing your reflections with someone. It reminds me of when I went back to teaching, when my daughter was 4, and we were all eating supper together one evening, and Beth suddenly said, 'Mummy, why are you pretending to be a teacher?' And that really hit me, because I thought, that’s what it feels like. That I’m pretending, and one day, someone will find out that i can’t really do this job!
Maybe you are thinking just that, they will find out what rubbish I am at prayer! Well they won’t.
Prayer companions are not there to judge, with a big stick. We are there to support and encourage and affirm what we see God doing and saying in you.
And let me tell you, it is the most amazing and wonderful and humbling privilege to be part of that.
And what you share with them is held by them and never shared around with anyone.
This is really something that anyone can share in, wherever you happen to be in your journey of faith. Maybe you feel you’re only just dipping your toes in the water of faith, and aren’t even sure what you think about God, let alone prayer. That’s fine - you are most welcome. Maybe you are an experienced pray -er and just feel you’d like to explore and go a bit deeper. You are most welcome. Maybe you are a bit of sporadic pray-er - times when you pray a lot and times when you forget. That’s fine - you are most welcome.
During the week we see God at work in a wonderful way in peoples lives, and the week ends with a great celebration on the Saturday morning.
I’d like to finish by reading you Richard’s story - he has given it to me specially to share with you. Richard is a friend from our last parish who took part in the last WAP we held there.
"As a busy person (I am often away from my house from 12-14 hours each day), prayer can often be one of those rushed things that happen in a few snatched moments each day or, worse still, dare I say it not happen at all!
The week was an ideal time to provide a focus for this important activity, especially as we were encouraged to share it with a prayer companion during that week.
I shall forever remember my nightly conversations with Martin.
We discussed how we pray - I told him that I spent so much time in the car, and in motorway traffic jams, that I often wound up talking to God at this time and not always in a good way.
I remember his reassurance that I was at least talking to God and that He would understand and he told me not to stop doing this but encouraged me to try and find a different way in addition to this.
On my way back to East Kent from Tonbridge, I had often thought that I should stop and visit the church at Shipbourne, and Martin’s invitation seemed, as I nearly drove past it yet again, to be an ideal time to do so.
I parked the car and, successfully dodging the showers, went inside.
The church was empty. I went and sat in one of the pews at the front and read my bible verses.
Suddenly I began talking, out loud, about my life. The good things, the bad things. I thanked, I apologised, I cried, I smiled. I felt cleansed - it was like a confession except that here, there was no intermediary. Just me and my God.
I remember, in telling Martin about it later that evening, expressing the thought that God was not only around us, he was also within us and telling him just how exciting that was.
In summary, I remember a lovely week in which I certainly came closer, not just to God but the love of God. It was a wonderful week for which I remain forever grateful.”
That’s just one persons experience - yours will be different.
So the invitation is open. If you want to know more, please do ask. There are leaflets around and you can book in online.
Whatever you decide, I pray that you all will know that you are the beloved of God, and that your knowledge of him and his love continues to deepen and grow.