Sunday 24 July 2016 – Trinity 9

Sunday 24 July 2016
Ninth Sunday of Trinity
Preacher: The Very Revd David Monteith 

Luke 11:1-13 – Hash Tag Prayer

Last Sunday I found myself at 8am speaking on the Radio Leicester Sunday about prayer.  This had come about in the light of the atrocity in Nice. We’re trying to be as responsive as possible in the Cathedral to the pain of the world and so we set up simple votive stations to enable the community to respond in prayer.  We worry a bit about this. Some weeks there are several incidents and it seems a small response at the best of times. Might the value of it become diminished if we are having to respond several times every week.  But we notice that when we provide it, people use it.

The particular question the radio were keen to explore was ‘what does this all mean in the light of social media’?  Increasingly we live life in the so called real world but also in the virtual world. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope both tweet! Very often there is a very speedy and at times unfocussed and even intemperate reaction to events on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere. However, we have noticed that the word prayer is frequently used in response to tragedy – hash tag pray for Munich, hash tag pray for Nice, hash tag pray for Orlando.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just social media but the power of social media to shape us cannot be underestimated even when it comes to key practices of our faith such as prayer.  I have a Daily Prayer App where I can easily pray Morning and Evening Prayer and Night Prayer with all the daily readings and psalms set out.  If you have access, I’d encourage you to use it. The Archdeacon of Leicester refuses to use books when he joins us and brings his ipad to Morning Prayer most days.  Integrating prayer into the life created by our phones and electronic devices is really helpful. It makes prayer more available to everyone. A similar technological revolution happened with the invention of printing, we are in the midst of the next major one 500 years later.

Many of you might know George Herbert’s poem prayer:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,

God’s breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,

The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,

The land of spices; something understood.

It is precisely all of this that I think hash tag prayer is trying to encompass it but since for many now it comes from a place which is spiritual and yet non-religious it is less well understood. I think surveys suggest that maybe 20-25% of people describe themselves in that way. So there is a bunch of people who have some instinct about needing to respond to the world in deeper ways but who probably couldn’t articulate or sign up to a full understanding of Christian prayer.  However, I would think that here is not one understanding of Christian prayer in this congregation or any congregation.

It is interesting that someone like the ex-nun and commentator Karen Armstrong repeatedly reminds us that for the majority of the history of Christianity we have not been too much concerned about what we believe about prayer – these kinds of questions: does God intervene, is prayer always answered, why are some prayers answered and others not.  Instead she notes that for the most part we have been more concerned about how we pray the different practice of prayers. The practice of prayer and what we believe about prayer are related and indeed within Anglican spirituality are summed up by the Latin phrase much beloved of Thomas Cranmer – lex orandi lex credendi (that which is prayed is believed, that which is believed is prayed).

And this is where I think those who are spiritual but not religious may have something to learn from Christianity but also to contribute to Christianity.  What is the experience of hash tag prayer and how is it shaping life? What from the Christian tradition might help to shape it further or differently? So this is partly why I want to keep engaging with folks on social media.

When the followers of Jesus ask him as to how should they pray, he does not give them a lecture on faith or doctrine but instead gives them a practice to help them pray. He tells them what to pray as a kind of formula of words which appear in two versions in the New Testament.  There would have been a time I would have worried a bit about a formula.  Would it somehow be authentic and fully meant?  What happens if the formula became formulaic?

On some days a pattern of prayer summed up neatly by Jesus in what we call the Lord’s Prayer is a very annoying intervention into a day full of tasks and meetings and events. Yet I’m called to stop from all that and to pause in prayer to be reminded of another kingdom and its dawning reality.  I am reminded about the provision of enough bread for today and tomorrow and invariably that makes me thankful. I am called back to the need for struggling on to make sense of relationships and to discover the life giving power of forgiveness. And finally I am invited to look towards the big vision of all things being made new in God.  On the good days when I’m naturally more open to some of these possibilities then through simplicity and clarity of phrase they take me to deep places of connection and relating where I for example leave behind my own hubris and sense that somehow I might be able to sort out the mess of Munich or Nice into the place of dependence on God and the recognition of a divine kingdom which is still far from fully realised in this world.

Perhaps most important of all the Lord’s Prayer begins with the words ‘Our Father’. I realise that this male language can be problematic but female language – ‘Our Mother’ could be just as problematic  if we are to believe Freud. I think that many people have some sense of the mothering quality of God with the associations we make with compassion and care.  Jesus uses this personal language to suggest that even the male idiom or archetype might carry such compassion and care. Perhaps this is a more demanding and even subversive thought? However, even before getting to that word, the prayer starts with the word ‘Our’. In our modern liturgies we always have a phrase to introduce the Lord’s Prayer because this way we all get to say ‘our’. Human sin, human division, the brutal life of our present world is remade as soon as we talk about ‘our’ instead of mine or his and hers or theirs. ‘Our’ puts us back in touch with everyone and not just ourselves.  It suggests connection where we hear more about disintegration.  It suggests a common identity, derived from a common God.

No doubt in the days ahead there will be more ‘hash tag pray for slogans’. Perhaps with renewed commitment we turn back to the Lord’s Prayer and point others there too as a wise, ancient and revolutionary practice of prayer which will change us and change the world.

© The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester