Tag Archives: Prayer

21 December – Glory to God, Peace to Earth

When the angels turn up, heaven hits earth with a bang. God’s universe-wide, history-long plan to step into our world is announced to a few working people on a dark hillside. And that’s one of the key things about Christmas – we celebrate every year that God’s work in the world isn’t just ‘then’ (whenever ‘then’ is) but Now. And it’s not just ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) but here.

Looking around you, where can you see God at work today, perhaps even in your daily work? Will you be willing to step aside from the ordinary to pray and worship him? That’s a way to follow the shepherds today.


The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

Blogging the Bible 360 – Revelation 6:1-8:5 – Together at the end of time

Whether it’s looking at the events of John’s day, the decades that were to follow or the whole span of human history, it’s clear as the scene unfolds before John’s eyes that things are changing, and painfully. The four horsemen ride out – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re at the final end of things. war, death and famine haven’t exactly been strangers to the earth over the last 2000 years, after all. This could be a representation simply of the dark side of human history, with disasters happening time after time.

Then in John’s vision the sky is shaken and the stars fall. I don’t think this is meant to be taken literally, any more than is anything else that is to come. But it’s apparent that earthshaking events are indeed about to follow. But first God’s people must be safe.

And once again, we see the pattern I’ve seen afresh through this reading of the whole Bible. The numbering of the saints begins with the twelve tribes of Israel (ten long-gone before John’s day) and then explodes to the multitude of all nations, numbers beyond counting, who join with them before God’s throne. One last time, the nations are drawn through Jesus into the covenant of God and Israel which we have seen to be unfolding throughout history. Together they worship Israel’s God and his Messiah, joining their prayers to those of the angels.

In response to their praise, and to their lives of faith, the saints receive the beautiful promise,

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
   and worship him day and night within his temple,
   and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike them,
   nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
   and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Rev. 7:15-17)

And then…


In heaven.

For half an hour.

In a way I find that silence more awe-inspiring than all of the vivid imagery that surrounds it. Apart from anything, John is the evangelist of the ‘Word’, by whom God speaks all things into being and sustains creation. If there is silence, then the world is still as well. For half an hour, God does not speak.

What must that silence have been like?

The eternal song of praise is silenced. Then the prayers of the saints are heard. And the world changes.

Blogging the Bible 334 – 1 Thessalonians 4-5 – Pray without ceasing 

‘Pray without ceasing’ (5:17) sounds like a great idea, but how can we understand it in a way that makes it realistic? It would be easy to pass it over as part of the enthusiasm of this letter, with the confidence in these chapters normal life can be put on hold because Jesus will return soon anyway. That in turn fits the belief that this is the first of Paul’s surviving letters, before he realised that we need a faith which is sustainable for a lifetime.

So perhaps Paul did have in view the kind of intense, overt and conscious prayer we first think of with these words. But over the years people have found different ways to take them seriously if not literally.

The Western monastic tradition took one approach with the Daily Office, the regular pattern of psalms and prayer which we still observe in the church of England (though without the services which involve getting up in the middle of the night). I’ve found over the years that while this part of prayer isn’t enough for my spiritual life to feel healthy, it’s a great foundation to keeping prayer (and Bible reading) a key structural part of my day as a priest.

The Eastern tradition takes a different approach with the Jesus Prayer. The words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ are repeated quietly with the rhythm of the breath, and with part of the aim being so to link prayer and breathing that the prayer no longer requires conscious thought. To breathe should then become to pray. 

I know that when I’m disciplined in this kind of prayer or other forms of contemplative prayer, then I feel more at ease with the world, with myself and with God. I also know that keeping the Daily Office going gives me a safety net that catches me whenever other prayer gets forgotten or squeezed out of the day. So perhaps East and West go well together in prayer.

I think, though, that the closest I’m likely to get to praying without ceasing is to be ready to turn the ordinary bits of life into prayer. Today I’ve spent time just being at events where in both cases I had a few words to say but mostly was just there to be there – or perhaps to show that these events were important to God, important enough for his ‘official’ representative to be there. Both were recognising the good work of others. First a long – serving and much loved teacher retiring from our church school, then a group of young adults speaking publicly in church as the final challenge of a 3-month course run by the Prince’s Trust to help them into education, employment or training. See the picture at the top of the page…

I tried during both of these events to concentrate on what was happening with enough focus to turn attention into prayer. I think it worked, at least part of the time. Throughout, I felt more focused and present than I usually do in such circumstances – and enjoyed the experience much more than usual!

So maybe that’s part of the way for me to learn to pray without ceasing. To be present and focused on the presence of God in the moment. It won’t replace the other ways of praying, but it may add to them.

It’s not going to happen overnight but I think it’s worth a go. Because Jesus hasn’t come back yet, and I’m not planning to build my prayer life or any part of my discipleship on a pattern which can’t be kept up.

Blogging the Bible 328 – Ephesians 5-6 – Making the most of the time

A while ago I wrote a post which touches on the wonderful ‘Armour of God’ section in chapter 6, thinking about how that passage can help us to pray more deeply. If you’re interested, you can read that one here.

There are a few themes in this passage worth thinking about, starting with the idea of what it means to ‘make the most of the time.’ It’s linked to ‘finding out what is pleasing to the Lord’ (5:10) but not to adding ever more activity. It reads as though making the most of the time isn’t about getting more done, even more good drive, so much as it is about doing so we do with the right perspective. We’re to be ‘filled with the Spirit ‘ as we praise and thank God in all that we do.

Of course it may well be that we get more done if we’re conscious of doing it to God’s praise, but that’s a secondary effect of making the most of the time, not the main point.

Perhaps there’s more debate to be had about the ‘household rules’ section on relationships from 5:21-6:9. Paul doesn’t seem keen to challenge anything about the expectation of relationships in society, but to enrich them by setting them in the light of faith in Jesus. So the accepted relation of children and parents is reinforced by reference to the commandment to honour (with a slight balancing shift reminding parents not to provide their children!). Most of us wouldn’t want to see Paul’s words to slaves and masters as a final word on the subject. Rather, we can see that in the society of the day, where Christians aren’t yet in a position to change the whole economic structure, Paul is trying to humanise a fundamentally unjust relationship which was never going to be made right by that new approach.

So where does the passage about marriage fit? The only reason I ask myself this is because many Christians still try to apply its apparent subordination of women to men as a timeless absolute, while not defending slavery which is included in the same text. I don’t think we can say that this is somehow more authoritative and absolute because Paul argues theologically on marriage and not on slavery. If we start down that line then we start dividing up the Bible in the basis of what seems coherent to us, which doesn’t seem right. Either Paul’s writing is inspired of it isn’t. 

The only way I can make sense of it is to say that all three sections of the text are similarly related to life in a particular ancient situation, and all must be subject to the same approach to interpretation. That doesn’t mean that we can ignore the bits that are less comfortable. It means that we have to look seriously at what God is saying to us about our relationships in a world where we accept that slavery is fundamentally wrong, that parents should not always be obeyed and that marriages don’t always work with traditional views of gender roles.

So what remains? A call to put the ‘other’ first in all relationships is a good start, refined by the observation that how that works out will vary in different circumstances. Relationships don’t have to be symmetrical to be healthy and loving. But they do always involve a call to love and serve on both sides.

Blogging the Bible 294 – John 15-17 – One in God

Jesus doesn’t seem to mind repeating himself to make a point – if it’s important enough. In the space of a couple of chapters, within one speech as reported by John, he tells us for a second time to ‘love one another, as I have loved you,’ and paraphrases his earlier promise that, facing new challenges and situations, the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.

Then he continues from speaking to his friends to go on to speak to God about them in prayer, asking the Father to care for and protect them once he has left the earth. But as well as protection, he asks for one key thing – unity. ‘May they be one as you and I are one’. It’s a high standard – that the church should be as united as is God the Holy Trinity. Yet even by the time John wrote these words down, there were already differences between churches in different areas and cultures – not the thousands of often-competing denominations we see today, but differing interpretations of faith expressed in different ways of life. Of course, some were heading away from the faith of Jesus, and would end up heading down different paths; but there were even within authentic Christian faith several distinct patterns emerging.

So perhaps John didn’t mean us to see an ideal ‘one organisation’ church structure, but rather a diverse group of churches united by their core beliefs and above all by this ‘love’ business Jesus keeps going on about. After all, there is within the Godhead a distinction between persons, but a unity of being and of love. Perhaps our diversity across the churches is an asset, not a problem – provided that we come back, yet again, to the love for one another which Jesus expects to be the heart, sign and advertisement of the true church.

How well do we even know our fellow Christians of other churches, let alone understand them? Perhaps it’s through getting on together with the mission of Jesus, rather than in structural ecumenism, that we’ll find a God-shaped unity.

Blogging the Bible 275 – Luke 10:1-11:36 – This is how you should pray

er I love Martha and Mary, who with their brother Lazarus we meet more in John’s gospel. It feels that their home is a place where Jesus can rest and relax. They have a mention in the church’s calendar, as ‘companions of Jesus’.

The story of Martha and Mary, responding to Jesus in their own ways, has received a lot of attention. In the Middle Ages it led to a sharp distinction between those called to ‘active’ Christian life and the (often thought superior) few called to a ‘contemplative’ life – Mary rather than Martha. Of course the passage doesn’t say that Mary never helped with the cooking and cleaning, just that on that occasion she chose instead to make the most of Jesus’ presence, laying aside all else to sit as a disciple at his feet and learn from him.

It’s surely no accident that Luke moves the story straight from the house of Mary and Martha to Jesus’ teaching on prayer. For if we don’t learn to stop our busyness and to simply enjoy being in God’s presence, then prayer will always be a struggle. Even to say the Lord’s Prayer from the heart, we need to stop for a moment to be still in God’s presence. It doesn’t always have to be ten or twenty minutes, though when we can set aside that time and use it well it will certainly be a good thing. Even a minute of prayer means stopping. Not just as in practically not doing anything else but, even more importantly, letting go of the need to be active. To stop doing, and concentrate on being in God’s presence, placing our joys and concerns into his hands, is at the heart of prayer.

Prayer itself, then, doesn’t depend on elegant words. It does depend on some confidence in the God to whom we pray – otherwise it’s just wishful thinking with and ‘Amen’ at the end.

And prayer isn’t something we offer instead of action. We pause with Mary, to listen to Jesus, to simply be in his presence, to speak with him as the one alone who can really handle all of our thoughts and needs. But then we join with Martha, turning prayer into practical service.

The choice between Martha’s way and Mary’s isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime decision. It’s a series of choices, moment by moment as we live with Jesus. For a healthy, life-giving life of discipleship and prayer, we need to choose both ways at the right times.

Most of us find ourselves more easily at home with Martha than with Mary. But how can we best balance the two?

Blogging the Bible 273 – Luke 7:1-8:39 – Great faith or Great God?

‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Lk.7:10)
What sets that centurion’s faith apart from that of so many others? It seems to have something to do with his understanding of authority. He knows what it is to be able to give an order and know that others will make it happen. He also knows what it is to receive an order from above and make it happen for someone else. He sees Jesus as having ultimate authority, even over sickness, and needs nothing other than to know that Jesus says ‘let it be so’.
Perhaps that is the key – to know that Jesus is in authority as part of the basic structure of reality; like in the ‘let there be…’ of Genesis 1, his word makes things happen. He does not need to be there in person.
Behind this, though, lies another and less obvious point. The Jewish elders ask Jesus to go and heal the slave because the centurion deserves his help, having built the synagogue and loving the people. The centurion, on the other hand, asks for Jesus’ help confident not in who the centurion is, but in who Jesus is.
That shows the other side of his deep faith. For all of his achievements and good deeds, he places his trust in the absolute, unchanging goodness of God in Jesus.
Whatever I may be or do, Jesus is unchanging. However much or little anyone else may think I deserve his help, I can trust in his undeserved love. That’s faith.