You can join this week’s worship service by visiting https://youtu.be/9wOd0pP-a50
Thank you to Art Robson for reading scripture this week and to the O’Neill Family for sharing the gift of music with us. Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and prayers for this week. In these exceptional times, please do stay in touch, with us and with each other. The peace of Christ be with you all.
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture: Psalm 119: 33-40
Music: Deep in Our Hearts; Like a Rock; Our Father
Have you ever noticed that it’s often not enough simply to enjoy something, we also feel compelled to say something about our enjoyment, to share it with someone? Whether it’s rounding a corner on a mountain road and seeing a spectacular view, or reading a good book, or hearing a great song, our enjoyment of these moments is somehow completed when we can tell someone else about them. It can be frustrating, even, not to be able to share what we’ve discovered and enjoyed.
I remember a few years ago, driving home from Fredericton by myself, and I thought of a hilarious joke. I told it a few different ways to myself and laughed each time. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to remember this when I get home so I can tell Jenny.” I forget what it was now, but I remember that she laughed, and that her laughter made me laugh all over again.
The author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.” He wrote this in a book called Reflections on the Psalms, in which he describes what moved the ancient Hebrew poet(s) to write their psalms of lament and joy. “To glorify God,” he says, “is to fully enjoy God.” Put another way, expressing thankfulness in our prayer and worship is an integral part of enjoying the gifts of this life.
This week, we heard part of the epic Psalm 119. This psalm stands out among the others not just because of its length, but because of the artistry and dedication that went into its writing. It’s form is what is called an acrostic poem: in the original Hebrew, each section of this lengthy psalm begins with each successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Beyond it’s form, this psalm also provides us with an excellent example of how to pray. I’ve heard many people tell me that they just don’t know how to pray, or what to pray for. For some, it’s because they can’t summon words easily; for others it’s because they weren’t raised in the habit of prayer; for still others, the barriers might be harder to name. There are, of course, many different kinds of prayer. In worship, we pray in order to gather as a community, to prepare to hear scripture, and to name our concerns and hopes for God’s world and people.
The psalms certainly contribute to these worship prayers, as well. However, I find that the psalms also offer a very simple format for helping us to pray as individuals. Like the psalms, there are two basic kinds of personal prayer. The first is to name something for which we’re thankful and ask God for guidance on how to share it with others. The second is to name something about which we’re concerned and ask God for what we need in this moment to carry that concern or to act to address it.
Now, Psalm 119 kind of reverses the order of naming and asking, but each stanza is concise and clear, and shows us that we don’t need a lot of words to pray. “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes.” Today, we might say, “Teach me, O God, how to walk in your way of love.” The psalm continues, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” Today, we might say, “When I am uncertain of what to do, help me to discern the way forward.”
Some of the most powerful prayers are even simpler than these, like: “Spirit of God, open my heart”; or, “God of Love, help me to do what is kind.”
You’ve probably noticed that prayerful requests, both in the psalms and in our own prayers, are not for specific things, as though we already know everything we need, but instead ask God for gifts of the Spirit: strength, courage, peace, wisdom, mercy, forgiveness, hope. How these will work in us, or what the result will be, doesn’t have to be clear to us in the moment of asking. Giving voice to our prayers – like sharing with others something funny or moving – is what completes that desire in us. Prayer focuses us, makes our needs clearer, and keeps what is important to us in front of us as something to which we aspire.
As we look more deeply at this psalm, we hear this desire for focus on what’s most important. “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise… in your righteousness give me life.” The struggle emerging here is one we all face: the struggle between what we want to do and what we are called to do. Our most familiar prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, petitions God to “lead us not into temptation.”
As we heard last week, even Jesus struggled with the greatest temptation, which is not desire per se, but being lured away from our calling, or from who we are, by something less than our created purpose. Paul would later put it even more simply, and starkly, in his letter to the Romans, writing, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Though I wouldn’t describe my missteps as evil, I understand Paul’s frustration with himself. I have my own filing cabinet of parenting fails, errors in judgment and garden paths.
But here, again, is where the psalmist – having named the thing that’s troubling him and asked for God’s help – guides us back to how to pray when we face these trials. Each stanza in our reading today use strong verbs to describe what the author seeks: teach me, lead me, heal me, guide me. And, crucially, the psalmist believes that God’s continued presence and action in his life will lead not to perfection, or freedom from error, but canlead to delight – to Joy. Joy, as we’ve considered before, which is not the absence of pain or challenge, but our capacity for love, and hope for change, even in the midst of trial.
At the heart of all prayer is our search for the freedom that this joy imparts: a freedom which only comes from naming our fear and grief and placing them in the context of our joy, so that what ails us neither defines us nor overwhelm us. The life of faith offers no protection from life’s valleys and losses. It does, however, remind us that we are much more than these.
As you venture into this new school year and as together we discern how we will continue to be a community of faith in a world forever changed, my prayer is that God will teach us and lead us, heal us and guide us to the joy of life. Amen.
Holy One, in Jesus you bring good news to your people. You remind us that, in every moment, you are with us, gathering your people around us to help us in our need. Your vision calls us to reach out to our neighbours – the work of your church, the work of our hands. God of Love, inspire us to live out your good news in our thoughts, words and actions.
Today, we hear the Psalmist pray for understanding and wisdom, for courage and for strength. These are not the prayers of one who already has everything she needs, but of one who knows that, with you and with others, she is strengthened to face the day’s challenges. And so we, your people, pray now: for what we need, for your people in their need, and for your love in all our living.
Loving God, in Jesus – who is our Good Teacher – you invite us to live and learn in your ways of Love. As our children return to a tremendously different school year, we pray that you would bless them and protect them and give them joy. For our children schooling at home, and for their families, we pray for patient and forgiving hearts.
We pray also for our older children, especially those navigating high school and university online. Give them wisdom and perseverance as they study and work at a distance from their peers and teachers. Help all our students to remember that their church family loves them and is praying for them.
We pray for all our parents and guardians, who are called to provide a safe haven for their children who leave home, each day or each semester. Help them find calm in the midst of anxiety and joy in the midst of uncertainty.
And we pray for all our teachers who face new challenges and uncertainty in their work this year. We thank you for their dedication and we pray for their safety and support, especially when things don’t go as planned or must change quickly.
As members of this family of faith, we pray for all those who are ill in body and in spirit; all those who worry this day, or who are afraid; all those who struggle with addiction and the lingering effects of trauma; all those who feel alone in their struggles… God of Healing and of Hope, breathe your Spirit into us again, that we might feel your presence and know that we are never alone.
We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us when we pray to say, Our Father…