There are always more urgent things to do than pray. In fact sometimes there are so many things to do that prayer only gets a fleeting moment in the business of the day. And when I remember that prayer is important it goes down on my list of things to do when I get a spare hour, but that hour is often a long time in coming.
If this morning I am in a very public confession box in saying that, then perhaps I am not there alone. It was alright when I was in College, training for ordination: there we were forced to pray together every day. And we were regularly quizzed in our interviews with the Principal to ensure that we were keeping up with our spiritual reading, and cultivating private devotions to God during the day. But outside of that semi-monastic living, finding time to pray has become an increasingly difficult endeavour!
The problem is that I am paid to pray, or to be more correct, I am given a stipend by the Church to ensure that I have time to pray because I do not need to seek other work to pay the bills. When I was ordained the Archbishop asked me the question which he asks of all those who are to be ordained in our Church, “will you be diligent in prayer?” to which I responded, “I will, by God’s grace.”
It would seem that I am not alone in my dilemma. A survey a few years ago of American Priests showed that the average time spent in prayer, by those who are especially called to pray, is less than four minutes every day. The reality is that those who are ordained, face all of the same pressures on our time as those who are not. We replace going to work with doing the administration, and attending endless meetings. And then of course we have families too – its hard to pray regularly in the mornings when there is a baby who needs attention and a little boys who want to celebrate the new day, and a dog that needs walking… and because I always seem to be running late for everything, it is the prayer time which seems to be the optional extra that can be delayed, and sometimes dispensed with, in order to make up some time. These excuses, are of course no excuses at all, but they are realities, for me and perhaps also for others of us here in this community, and its into that context that Bill Hybels coined the wonderful phrase, “too busy not to pray.” Which reminds us that it is at those points of our lives when we are most under pressure, when we are most busy and occupied with life, that prayer is absolutely important for us.
When I was at College, training for ordination, our lives were marked by the communal acts of prayer that took place with regular certainty. We were required to be in Chapel for prayer every morning and every night, we were required to gather around the altar in our Church every day for the celebration of the Eucharist. Whether we felt like doing it, or not, we were in big trouble if we did not do it. I was the Chapel Sacristan which meant that it was my job to ring the bell every morning to summon people to prayer, and so if I stayed in bed, my absence was always well-noted.
As I think a little deeper about my time in that community, we spent so much of our energy ringing bells and planning services, and being at services, and cleaning candles, and changing altar frontals that we really didn’t have much time to do anything else. The College was situated in the buildings of a former monastery, and it very much felt like a monastery much of the time. I can remember one of my tutors almost throwing himself from a window in despair after my third tutorial with him – having not presented a single piece of work. My defence was that I was too busy in the Chapel, to which he would reply, is that what you are going to say to your congregation when you haven’t prepared a sermon? You see, in College I felt that I was too busy in the business of prayer to get on with my work; and now in the Parish I sometimes feel like I am too busy in the business of the Church to get on with my prayer.
The Ministry Team which leads this Church – Marilyn, Kathlene, David, Helen, and I – are conscious of our need to pray together, we know that we are too busy not to pray. That is why we have been meeting on a weekly basis this month, and that will continue, as we not only do the work of leading, but the work of praying as well.
Of course prayer can take many different forms. The one which we are most used to, and the one which we usually think of when we use the word “prayer” is intercession. We will intercede together in a few moments time. Intercession is about asking, asking God to meet the needs of God’s world, and the needs of hearts. But that is not the only way we can pray, because prayer is also about listening. And that is what the story which we heard from the Gospel of Mark is all about.
Peter and James and John are led up a high mountain by Jesus. And as they watch on, on the top of that mountain, Jesus is transfigured – he shines, he glows. The writers of the Gospel tell us that “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” As he is shining, as he is transfigured, he is joined by two great heroes of the past – Elijah and Moses. Elijah the greatest of the prophets, and Moses the giver of the law. And these giants of the Jewish faith are talking to Jesus. The idea behind this story – what it meant for the Christians who heard it – is that Moses and Elijah are confirming to Jesus and to the onlookers, that he is who he says he is. He is both the fulfilment of the law, and the fulfilment of the prophets. Those who have come before him are acknowledging his Messiahship, that Jesus is the one who was anticipated for so long, that Jesus is someone to be listened to.
On Mount Tabor, in the Holy Land, where Christians have traditionally believed that this event took place, there is a beautiful church, the Church of the Transfiguration where Christians can go to pray and meditate on this story, you can go there today. The architect who designed it was the same man who designed the Church of the Rock in the Garden of Gethsemane. If any of you know the Church of the Rock it is a dark and depressing place, the architecture resonates with the grief and the anguish of Jesus praying alone before his arrest. But by contrast, if you go to the Mount of Tabor, the Church of the Transfiguration is filled with light, glorious warm light, representing the story which we heard this morning. This event is not only confirmation for the disciples that Jesus is the Chosen One of God, but it is a foretaste too of his resurrection – the glory of him conquering evil and death. The glory that will follow the cross.
So what do the disciples do as they watch all of this? Well, Peter – dear dear Peter, the one who always puts his foot in it, decides that it is time for a building programme. He just can’t bear the possibility that this moment is going to come to an end, so he decides that he is going to build some dwelling places for Jesus and Moses and Elijah to sit in. And a voice comes from heaven, “This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!” – Stop! – Listen!
This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the season of light. And we end it by reflecting on this last great confirming manifestation of God in Jesus – as he shines out, confirmed by the giver of the law, and by the prophets, and by a voice like that voice at his baptism which affirms him as the Son of God. The more that I have been thinking about this story this week, the more profound I think it is. There is a message in what is taking place – this event is shouting as loudly as it can that Jesus is the Son of God, and Peter’s response is to build. You can imagine the thoughts going through his mind – where will we get the materials from? What will be the dimensions? How quickly can it be completed? And a voice from heaven needs to tell him to stop, to stop and to listen to what is being said about Jesus. The events which are unfolding say to the disciples then, and to us as disciples now – you listen to the lawgivers, you to listen to the prophets, now they are listening to Jesus, so you need to listen as well.
But Peter’s response is not all that dissimilar from our response, or at least from my response. I find myself too busy to pray, and when I do pray I have so much to say that I’m too busy to listen. That is what this story is all about: “this is my son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
St Benedict reminds us that to work is to pray, or to pray is to work. That insight from one of the great Fathers of the Church reminds us that whatever we do can be turned into prayer if we consciously make it so. It reminds us that there need not be the separations between the sacred and secular which often impose on our lives as we seek to compartmentalise all that we do. Which will be a great encouragement, if you like me feel that you never really get around to doing all your praying. Because Benedict reminds us that prayer doesn’t need to happen separately from everything else that we do. We can consciously be attuned to listening to God in the busyness of our lives. And I think that I want to use that phrase which you have heard from me before, the phrase of Brother Andrew. We can “practise the presence of God” in all that we do, as we seek to be attentive to God’s voice in our lives.
It is not wrong to want to build things, this church was built out of the love and pain of this congregation. It isn’t wrong to do what Peter wants to do in the Gospel today. But we must hear for ourselves, deep within us, the voice which says to us, “stop and listen – listen to what God is saying to you, about you and about God’s world.” All of us who struggle to find time for God in our week, need to be reminded every now and again that the Kingdom of God is here amongst us, and that the Church doesn’t have a monopoly on it. So when we are called to listen to the voice of God in the life of Jesus, we need not respond, “yes, I will do that as soon as I have finished everything else.”
When we are called to listen to the voice of God in the life of Jesus, we can instead respond with confidence, saying, “yes Lord, I will listen to you, as I care for my family, as I’m busy in my job, as I work in the garden, in all of my life, yes Lord, I will seek to hear your voice. And in attuning myself to your will for me, my life will be a prayer, not always with words, not always with prayer books and Church-things, but in all the normal things that I do, as I seek to listen to you. I need not tidy everything else up first before I stop to hear you, because the transforming power of your love speaking into my life, will help me to tidy them whilst I am on the journey. And in the middle of everything else that goes on around me, I will seek out those things which are a part of the reign of God here on earth, those things which shine, transfigured, right in the midst of my daily living, and I will say to them “amen.”