Praying for a change

Address by Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley on 19 January 2020

Readings were Isaiah 49: 1–7 and Mark 9: 14–29

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This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer. (Mark 9: 1)

Address and Activity

Before we start: Invite all ages to double small bits of string. Make a knot or a few knots. How tight is up to you. Hold on to it, feel it, and we will come back to it.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It is a pleasure to be with you this morning and in the beginning of the new year. I am a morning person.  I love the possibilities and the starting fresh. The Christian traditions tell us the mercy of God is new every morning. And every New Year’s day we start fresh too.

But this year, January 1 2020, felt different.  I woke up and looked out the window seeing what seemed at first a golden haze. From a distance a beautiful sunrise, maybe. Then I looked for the sun. I couldn’t find it. This wasn’t the  sunrise.  Could it be the bushfire smoke? It was.

I am signalling you through the flames
I am signalling you through the flames
The North Pole is not where it used to be
Manifest destiny is no longer manifest…

…as we read the words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti this morning to begin our Call to Worship.

2020 has started with old conflict and new fires and floods,  trends toward continued warming and more frequent disasters, health emergencies made worse by broken systems, overlapping with war.  In case this all sounds very gloomy, I perhaps should tell you this is my day job. I work with legal frameworks that can help vulnerable people in humanitarian emergencies (refugee law, IHL, human rights).

So, and you may see where I am going with this… here is a knotty problem. How do we pray in terrible times?

Sense of fearfulness about the future seems to be in the air.  I would like to share with you a ‘Hot off the press’ report from the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (Survey Millennials and War):

A survey of more than 16,000 millennials in 16 countries and territories last year – roughly half in peace, half experiencing conflict – commissioned by the ICRC explored millennials’ views on conflict, the future of warfare and the values underpinning international humanitarian law, such as the use of torture against enemy combatants.

The results indicate that millennials are nervous about the future, and heightened tensions globally are likely to deepen these fears.

A plurality of respondents, 47 percent, think it’s more likely than not that there will be a third world war in their lifetime. And although 84 percent believe the use of nuclear weapons is never acceptable, 54 percent believe it is more likely than not that a nuclear attack will occur in the next decade.

So we ponder these knotty problems. Hold on to those.

We started with the question: how to pray in these times? I would like to talk a little now about the WHY and the HOW of prayer; WHY we should pray, and then talk about HOW we can pray.

Why to pray

From Mark’s Gospel, we heard a story about how Jesus heals a boy of an evil spirit after his disciples had failed. When the disciples ask what they had done wrong, Jesus says,

This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.

About twenty years ago, we came across this text while I was working on other huge issues on poverty and inequality. This text helped our understanding of prayer in the face of huge and overwhelming problems of the world. I just want to say a few things about this story.

  1. Firstly I know that historically Christians have blurred the line between mental illness and spiritual possession, and I am not sharing this story to keep that message alive. I don’t understand mental illness; modern science has found ways to try to understand some ways the body and brain function but Over time medicine, and law and our understanding has developed to separate out mental ill health from the persistence of evil, wrong choices, their evil consequences.
  2. Secondly, we might understand a bit about mental ill health but we still don’t understand the persistence of evil, wrong choices and evil consequences.
  3. Thirdly, sometimes, in fact, many times in life, we are not big enough to handle the scale of how wrong things can go. We are so small and the problems of the world are so big.
  4. Sometimes things are such a mess that prayer is the only thing for it.
  5. Some of the evils we face cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.
  6. Sometimes we think the opposite of prayer is action. I would like to propose to you that the opposite of prayer is not action. I have learned that the opposite of prayer is despair, thinking that we are all alone, that we can do nothing.

Involvement in the world leads disciples to prayer. We are not easily driven to our knees. We are not easily driven to our knees. May I say in passing, Presbyterians are never driven to our knees. I  sometimes go to Anglican and Catholic churches because they have kneelers.

But ‘nothing happens when we pray,’  you might say. I would challenge that idea. As we explored it, we found a few things that can happen during prayer.

  1. First, prayer reminds us that we are not alone. God is with us. We are part of many communities, not least the worldwide Christian Community. We are not alone.
  2. Second, in prayer, we can nourish a steady hope for renewal of this world God loves so much.
  3. Third, in prayer, with God with us, we confront head on the causes of evil.
  4. And finally, in prayer, we are drawn into God’s will for the world God loves so much. So, if involvement in the world leads us to prayer, prayer leads us the other way, back into the pressing issues of this messy chaotic world God loves so much.

Its not too complicated.  Here are some examples I find helpful.

You can find a verse in scripture. The Psalmist is often overwhelmed by wickedness and despaire and found poetry for the ages in it:  My prayer now for being overwhelmed comes from Psalms (119: v133)

Order my steps and do not let evil have dominion over me.

Sometimes when I am very low, I just pray this:

God, this is too much for me. I need to hand this over to you.

How to pray

I have promised you that this morning we are going to draw on the traditions and resources of our faith to consider how we pray in terrible times.

First, we remember what prayer is? Christians have often described it as a

Conversation with a purpose. The purpose is to offer ourselves to be changed.

Or if you prefer Richard Foster, in his book on Leadership:

God is always speaking, always doing something. Prayer is to enter into that activity.

Padraig O’ Tuama, who will be our visitor in March, says:

Prayer is rhythm. Prayer is comfort. Prayer is disappointment. Prayer is words and shape and art around desperation, and delight, and disappointment, and desire.

Prayer can be the art that helps you name your desire, and even if the desire can only be named, well, naming is a good thing, surely.   Naming is what God did, the Jesus tell us, and the world unfolded. Naming things is part of the creative impulse.

How do we pray? Well, as I said a few minutes ago, it is super-easy and will take your whole life to learn.

In terms of practices of prayer as Henri Nouwen wrote,

The only way to pray is to pray. The only way to try is to try.

We already have some clues in the service we have been worshipping in together.

Prayer traditions: Reflected in the order of service or in the short prayers we already talked about.

God or Jesus: Naming  who you are speaking to.

Then you might say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’  That’s ok. The Apostle Paul has been there before us and promised that the Holy Spirit will intervene for us and pray if we don’t have the words for what is on our hearts (Romans 8: 26- 27).

Then we might say: I am here. You are here: Pray to feel God’s presence with you. That’s invocation.

Then we might continue to Adoration: you are amazing.

Then to Thank you: Praise and thanksgiving. Try to wake up with praise and go to bed with thanksgiving. This is a way to reframe our thoughts to. To identify what we are thankful for can turn grumpiness to gratitude.

I am sorry: Confession: we are part of the brokenness and want to be part of the healing of this old world.

Then maybe, ‘Help me. Help us.’ That is Intercession: Naming the desires of our hearts for the places we are and for this world that God loves so much. Being bold. As Walter Wink wrote,

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.

Blessing. Blessing is about wishing well, and healing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about how blessing can heal a broken world and I would like to close with his words.

While he was running a clandestine seminar after the his confessing church had broken with the church over Nazi-ism. Then the new seminary was outlawed, the building shuttered and leaders arrested. So they met in a remote Farmhouse as war grew more and more likely.  Here is what he wrote as the storm clouds threatened in 1939:

‘The world lives and has its future by means of the blessing of God…. Blessing means laying one’s hands on something and saying: you belong to God in spite of it all.  This is the way we respond to the world. We do not forsake it or condemn it.

Instead, we recall it to God, we give it hope, we lay our hands on it and say

God’s blessing come upon you
May God renew you, you dear God created world
For you belong to your creator and redeemer.
[We can do this because we have been blessed ourselves.]
And whoever has been blessed must pass on a blessing.
The renewal of the world, which seems impossible, becomes possible in the blessing of God.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.


You are invited now to pray, and to untie the knots in your string. Start anywhere we have talked about, name who you are speaking to, Thanks, praise, confession, intercession, asking blessing on the world. Just start. Maybe Jesus, or God. I am here. You are here. I am sorry. I want to find a new way.

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