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Lord, Teach us to Pray

Ordinary Sunday 17: 28th July, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Once upon a time in a concentration camp there lived a prisoner who, even though he was under sentence of execution, was fearless and free. One day he was seen in the middle of the prison square playing his guitar. A large crowd gathered to listen for, under the spell of the music, they became as fearless as he. When the prison authorities saw this they forbade the man to play.

But the next day there he was again, singing and playing on his guitar with a larger crowd around him. The guards angrily dragged him away and smashed his fingers so he could not play.

The next day he was back, singing and making what music he could with his swollen broken fingers. This time the crowd was cheering. The guards dragged him away again, beat him again and smashed his guitar.

The following day he was in the square again, singing with all his heart. What a song! So pure and uplifting. The crowd joined in, and while the singing lasted their hearts became as pure as his and their spirits as invincible. So angry were the guards this time that they tore out his tongue.

A hush descended on the camp, a something that was deathless.

To the astonishment of everyone, he was back at his place the next day swaying and dancing to a silent music that no one but he could hear. And soon everyone was holding hands and dancing around his bleeding, broken figure in the centre of the square, while the guards stood rooted to the ground in wonder.
            Anthony de Mello, Prayer of the Frog, p.73-4

This is really the story of Jesus. His broken body sings to us from the cross, and the song becomes ours, a song that is pure and invincible. There is something of this irrepressible spirit of Christ in the saints and great spiritual leaders of the world. What is it that drives them to keep going, in the face of injustice, when most of us would give up? Mahatma Gandhi on hunger strike, Mother Teresa caring year after year for the destitute on the streets of Calcutta, even our own Fr Maynard faithful priest of the parish for so many years? I think the answer is actually quite simple: prayer. Gandhi wrote: "Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words, than words without a heart" (Young India, 23 Sept. 1926). Prayer changes us: true prayer, prayer of the heart. It is contagious. It draws us into relationship with the living God, draws us into meaningful relationship with others, and then drives us out to make a difference in the world.

We are talking a lot about "Catholic Evangelism" in the parish at the moment. In just over three weeks we will be hosting the Rev'd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell, theologian, author and lecturer from St Mark's National Theological College Canberra. Fr Scott will be our guest preacher at the Feast of the Assumption High Mass. In a recent article he wrote:

Is it just me, or are we witnessing a "new moment" with the appearance of Pope Francis in Rome and Archbishop Justin Welby in Canterbury? One is a Catholic of evangelical practices and expectations. The other is an Evangelical shaped by the catholic tradition in liturgy and spirituality. For both, the mission of God's transforming love is plainly paramount. Archbishop Welby's pilgrimage around the major centres of his province on the way to his enthronement demonstrated his sense of mission. Pope Francis' Maundy Thursday foot washing at a juvenile prison, with girls and Muslim boys among those who received this pastoral gesture—with a band and guitars clearly visible in the background—was a powerful sign that change is in the wind.[1}

This "new movement" is resonating with people who are sick and tired of holier-than-thou sour-faced religious people; who are sick and tired of hypocritical religious people abusing those in their care. The movement is not about "bums on pews" — although look at the hundreds of thousands of young people flocking to Rio de Janeiro for the World Youth Day this weekend — it is however about reigniting an integral and prayerful faith in God in a hurting world.

Bishop Stephen Cottrell, in his book From the Abundance of the Heart: Catholic Evangelism for all Christians, makes this point very clearly: "To put it bluntly: you can't give what you haven't got. How stupid of us to think that we could ever be effective in evangelism unless it arose from an authentic and lived spirituality .... if we actually experience the church as dull, life denying, tired, pointless; if the life we lead on Monday is completely disconnected from the faith we celebrate on Sunday — then it is little wonder that not much evangelism happens. There is no good news to share" (pp. 3-4). We probably all feel like this at times; I know I do. But the good news is that ultimately it is not up to us. The starting point for Catholic Evangelism is prayer. The mission is God's. As Bishop Cottrell writes: "this doesn't mean that we don't need specific evangelism strategies and programmes. But it does mean that none of them will be any help whatsoever unless we have first become a people of prayer. When the church becomes a house of prayer, says Brother Roger of Taizé, people will come running" (p. 6). This is the same hunger that the young people in Rio de Janeiro are demonstrating; it is the same hunger the early disciples had; perhaps you and I have it too: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk 11.1). Without this hunger none of can sustain the mission that Jesus has for us.

It has been said that evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. We are blessed. We know where bread is to be found. In a moment we will break bread together and share wine. This is the heart of our prayer as Catholic Christians. It is a gift freely given to us, to nurture us and build us up, and it is a gift (the greatest gift) to be shared with others. Amen.


Notes:

  1. The rise of evangelical catholicism.


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