Over the last few weeks about fifteen of us have been meeting in our ‘Leading your Church into Growth’ or LyCiG Local groups.
The intention of these groups has not been to create a group of supercharged evangelists who will transform the lives of our parishes. Rather our conversations have been an opportunity for us, using the tried and trusted lens of the LyCiG programme, to think a little more deeply about what and who God is calling us to be in this place. And through this deepening understanding how we might grow in faith, grow in commitment to our communities, and through this bring more people into the lives of our Churches.
We are just a little over halfway through our LyCiG conversations and I don’t want to get peoples hopes up that in a few weeks’ time we will have created a blue-print for how we will change or transform our churches. Our LyCiG local groups are not creating a great to-do list to add to the other lists of things we do as parish communities.
Instead we are thinking about what are the deeper characteristics of our community which we want to develop and strengthen as we grow together into the likeness of Christ.
Well one of these deep characteristics which we keep on returning to in our conversations is prayer.
This should not be a surprise you might be thinking. After all prayer is what churches do and are for. But as our conversations have developed it has been interesting for us to think about what effect it would have on our life as a Church if we prayed more.
To think about this, we need to think not so much about how we pray, or even why we pray. Instead we need to think about how prayer can change us.
I recently read this definition of prayer which I find very helpful written by the English poet W.H. Auden.
“To pray,” Auden wrote:
is to pay attention or, shall we say, to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—be it on a landscape, or a poem or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires in listening to what the other has to say to him, he is praying.
This is not a perfect or even particularly orthodox definition of prayer. But it is helpful I think because it describes in practical terms how prayer can change us and through that change a community. If we pray, we turn away from ourselves. If we pray more, we turn away from our own concerns, our own desires, our own preoccupations, and we consider others more than ourselves.
This pattern of turning away from ourselves and our own desires is a theme that runs through all our readings today.
Our first reading, from the prophesy of Ezekiel, ends with this explicit charge.
Turn then, and live.
Written in the context of the exile, Ezekiel is reflecting on the tension between the life of the community and role of the individual within it. Jewish culture, which had traditionally been dominated by the corporate responsibility of the community, had been turned upside down by the cataclysm of the exile.
If Israel was punished, then how could it turn around, how could it repent of this divine judgement?
The common view was that it could not, and so the people of Israel had fallen into the stupor of fatalism. But, Ezekiel tells us, there is something we can do. Each one of us can take responsibility for this present circumstance. Each one of us can turn away from the self-wallowing of fatalism, and in that turning, live.
In our Gospel we again see this movement of turning away from ourselves as the defining movement in this transformation.
Jesus characteristically shows us this truth in a story, this time about two brothers. Both are asked by their father to labour in the vineyard. The first refuses to do this, the second agrees. But although he agrees the second son turns in on himself and rejects his father’s request. The first son, although he rejected his father’s call, changes his mind, and turns away from himself and his own wishes.
Which of these two did the will of the Father?
Jesus asks, knowing that we all know the right answer.
The task of prayer is to find ways and times and places so that we might turn away from ourselves.
Sometimes this will be to reflect and ask for God’s assistance and grace to fill a situation of darkness or danger near or far.
Sometimes it is turn away from ourselves, and give to God the burdens that we carry or the sorrow that binds us down.
Sometimes prayer is simply a chance to turn away from the noise and busyness and be released into God’s care.
To pray, to turn away from ourselves, is not just to rid ourselves of those things we don’t like about ourselves, or our world. To pray, to turn away from ourselves, is to enter into the life of God, it is to become Christ-like.
Our reading from Philippians contains in it one of the greatest articulations of this calling. Quoting an early Christian hymn, Paul reminds of the true nature of Christ is found in this turning-away.
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
At the centre of our faith is an act of turning away. In Christ, God turns away from himself, and empties himself, taking our form, being born in our likeness, so that we might know the true forms of God’s love.
In prayer, in these little moments of turning away from ourselves, we are not only comforted and strengthened, we are drawn little by little into this truth. And as a community that prayers more, we will be drawn more into the likeness of Christ, and grow into that likeness for all the world to see.
Over the coming months as we come to explore the deep characteristics we have identified in our LyCiG conversations we will explore prayer. Some of this will be through chances to try out different forms and opportunities for prayer. Some of us will jump at this chance, others of us will seek different form.
But by building on the foundation of prayer, but turning away from ourselves, by turning to God, we will grow into his likeness.
And in doing this we will turn, and live.