This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, given in the ” church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Psalm 32.
I want to think a little bit this morning about prayer. Lent’s a time when we traditionally focus on prayer; and as I said on Wednesday night, that’s a key part of the Christian life because it’s our connection to the love of God, how that love is made real and effective in our lives.
But it’s something many of us struggle with; we get all sorts of ideas in our heads about prayer, what is the “right” way to pray, what kind of prayer will actually get an answer, and so on. And I think today’s psalm is, in its way, trying to deal with one of the commonest problem ideas about prayer, so I want to see what it can say to us about that.
If we look at verse ten, we see that it says, “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” At first blush this seems to present us with a problem, because it could be read as if it were suggesting that people suffer because they are wicked.
And then that leads us down a nasty rabbit hole of thinking that when we suffer, it must be because we did something wrong, maybe even that we’re being punished, and that all just pushes us further away from God… you can see why it’s a problem!
But I think that actually that’s not the point that the author was making at all. I think he was trying to say something very different; I think he was trying to say that God hears our prayer.
Looked at from that point of view, the wicked suffer torments not because they are bad, or because they are being punished, but because they do not pray; they have cut themselves off from relationship with God, and whatever good might flow to them from that. (And that good might not be change in their external circumstances, but change in their own response to those circumstances!) On the other hand, those who trust in the Lord, says the psalm, are surrounded by steadfast love; not because they have earned or deserve it, but because they ground themselves in relationship with God, and receive the benefits which flow from that.
God hears our prayer; God responds to our prayer; praying makes a difference.
And I think we need to be reminded of that. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that God listens to us, especially when we’re going through a rough time. But the psalmist is trying to remind us that when we pray, God breaks through the chaos of our lives to set us firmly on the ground. When we pray, God reaches across the gulf of our broken relationship with God to mend that break, to put our hearts and lives and communities back together.
But part of the reason I think some people struggle with this matter of prayer, is that actually, not all of us naturally pray in the same way. For some of us, the stereotypical idea of prayer as sitting down, eyes closed, and silently speaking to God in our minds leaves us feeling dry and empty.
So part of what I’d encourage you to think about, this Lent, is whether your prayer life is actually working for you. And if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to experiment or try something new.
Walk the labyrinth. See what happens if you sit down to draw while you pray. Sit with one of the questions Jesus asked his disciples, and see what your own answer is. Gaze at an icon. Come to Taizé this evening. The possibilities are endless, and if you’re not sure where to start, maybe ask to borrow a book or two on different ways to pray – I’ve built quite a collection over time – and see whether any of those ideas grab you.
This is important for two reasons.
One is your spiritual life now; your connection with God, your ability to know God’s steadfast love, and to respond with a love of your own.
But the other reason is that our spirituality changes over time. What works for you at one point in your life may become dry and empty at another time; often when we’re grieving or depressed or anxious or otherwise going through a rough time, the things which sustained us when life was going well, give us no comfort or peace, and we can be left feeling abandoned or wondering just where God is in all of this.
But if, during the better times, we’ve given ourselves permission to experiment a bit – tried some things which are a bit different, even pushed the edges of our comfort zones – then when the old familiar patterns of prayer are leaving us unsatisfied, we have a bit of a tool kit, as it were, of different things which might help us reconnect in a new way.
I know that when Zoë was diagnosed with autism, I went through a period of real grief and I struggled with what that meant, for me, and for us as a family, but also with what it might mean for her relationship with God. How would I teach a child with a severe speech delay how to pray?
At that time I found a book called “Praying in Color,” which was all about drawing while praying and letting what was on the page be our communication with God. Not only was it useful for me in thinking about how my creative little girl might find her own way to relate to God, but I found it enormously helpful for myself to experiment; and since then I’ve been exploring and playing with drawing as a regular part of my prayer life, something I’ve found very enriching.
(And it’s not about talent, by the way; I am nobody’s idea of a naturally gifted artist, but when I’m only drawing for myself and God, that doesn’t matter!)
Really my point is this; prayer matters. It makes a difference. And so I encourage you, today and this Lent in particular, to take prayer seriously; to think about how to pray, not just doing more of the same old thing, but how you might enrich your relationship with God. So that the steadfast love and mercy of God might surround us in our life together.