Monday, 24 September 2018

Prayer as a revolutionary act

George Orwell wrote that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Those words ring truer today than when Orwell imagined a dystopian future as he wrote 1984 in the last months of the second world war. 

I think we could explore together what that might mean today but I want to consider a different idea. I wonder if we might say that ‘in a time of universal cynicism, prayer becomes a revolutionary act?’

Christians have at times been criticized for praying for a better world whilst doing little to bring about transformation. And sometimes we have despaired of knowing what to do other than pray in the face of complex systems that oppress the poor – systems of which know we are a part and which we find it impossible to extricate ourselves.

Pray seems like a last resort, all that is left to us, what else can we do? Like the disciples on the lake in a storm, we wait until the water is threatening to sink us before we turn to Christ in our fear and frustration.

Yet I want to argue that prayer is not such a small thing, it is not to be approached lightly and it should be the first port of call, not the last thing we try when all else has failed.

We might take inspiration from Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. She knew that prayer was not a trivial matter,

"Enable me, O God, to collect and compose my thoughts before an immediate approach to Thee in prayer. May I be careful to have my mind in order when I take upon myself the honour to speak to the sovereign Lord of the universe."

Prayer is, of course, not just intercession and even intercession should not be a list of demands from some sort of Father Christmas who will grant our wishes if we behave well enough. To pray is to be intentionally present to God, as God is always present to us. It is to be open to the prompting of God’s Spirit in our hearts and minds, to be at one with the divine love at the heart of all creation – if that’s not revolutionary, I don’t know what is! 

Being in this meeting house {Quaker} we also remember that prayer need not involve words – rather a stilling of oneself, a mutual communication between creator and created; between beloved and lover; between the human and the divine.

Prayer is a revolutionary act because it is a declaration that we believe change is possible. I remember all those years when we prayed for the end of apartheid, for peace in Northern Ireland and for Nelson Mandela’s release. Who can say how many opinions were changed because of public prayer, year after year, reminding worshippers of the bigger context in which we practice our faith? How much did prayer contribute to the success of those campaigns? It’s not easy to measure but our prayers were part of the picture, a statement of belief about the kind of world we want to live in and our faith that God can work through us to make it possible.

Prayer is a revolutionary act because it declares that we are not merely individuals with our own views and needs but that we join in with a world-wide body, connected to each other and connected through God. I remember being in Russia some years ago. On the Sunday I went to a Methodist Church and felt very at home – not just because the notices were longer than the sermon! As I walked in someone was playing the tune of ‘One more step along the world I go’ on an out of tune piano and the flowers were in a vase made from an old plastic soft drink bottle. In the midst of the mundane and largely uninspiring, I found myself praying with people who spoke no English, as I spoke no Russian; and in that space we were connected. God heard all our prayers regardless of the words used. The following day I visited an Orthodox church, entering the building just as the choir sang, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus – holy, holy, holy and suddenly I was in the temple with Isaiah and the glory of God’s train filled the place and tears poured down my non-conformist cheeks as I was transported into the divine presence. The liturgy in that place had remained unchanged for hundreds of years and somehow managed to speak to my modern heart and connected me not just with Christians of this century but also with the people of God all the way back to the day the prophet received his call in God’s temple.

Prayer is a revolutionary act because it is an act of empathy. When the assumption of many world leaders and most of the media is that the spirit of the age is ‘everyone for themselves and let the devil take the hindmost’ – empathy is the opposite. It recognises the other, values the other’s needs and recognises that God’s heart is not with those who exploit the poor and vulnerable but that it is with those spoken of by Jesus in Luke 4. God longs to draw to our attention the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed. To pray is the starting point of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour – prayer leads to jubilee. Prayer can be an act of solidarity, holding before God those who need support and in doing so reminding ourselves of our own need for prayer.

When we pray we really do need to listen more than we speak. As it says in the Epistle of James, be quick to listen and slow to speak – that is as meaningful in the context of prayer as it is in our human communications. When we listen to God, when we come close to God’s heart, we cannot fail to hear God’s longing for the wellbeing of the orphan, the widow, the refugee. If our hearts beat with the passion of God, then prayer can only lead to action.  When drawn into the heart of God we cannot fail to join in with God’s agenda of radical grace and transforming hope.

True prayer leads not to a sense of having done our bit but to a profound longing to transform the world, restoring it to the good creation which is God’s gift to the created.

Finally, I want to say that prayer is a revolutionary act because it is poetry. As a poet and a liturgist, I might be seen as a bit biased about this! Prayer is poetry in the face of a world where words are used as weapons or only have value if they help you pass exams in an education system of narrow curricula aimed at feeding more human material into a broken system. Poetry can be a decanting of human experience, capturing that which is too big or complex for us to understand or fully express, in a few words.

Prayer is a cry in the dark,
            a child’s longing for home,
            and a hollowed soul’s seeking of fulfilment.

Prayer is a two-fingered salute 
            to the hope-less cynicism of endless false promises
            and a bunting-waving celebration of love in action.

Prayer is a sacred space,
            found in the midst of the unholiest of battlegrounds
            and in the desolation of loss.

Prayer is a memory
            of long lost conversations with wise elders
            and an exuberance of youthful anticipation.

Prayer is a shared longing, 
a whispered dream
and an open conversation.

Prayer is a revolutionary act
            It is hope in despair
            And a grace-filled weaving of love’s intent.

May God bless us with the desire to pray, that we might better act, for the sake of all. Amen.


Michaela Youngson
September 2018 (Prayer Breakfast – Labour Party Conference)

9 comments:

  1. what makes you think you are a poet?

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    1. Lots of reasons but if you are looking for formal recognition, I am a published author.

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  2. Wow, wonderful enriching words of empowerment and hope for our existentialist world.

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  3. Prayer as a revolutionary act? Yes!! This is such an encouragement as well as a challenge, thank you! And I love the poem.

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  4. I truly need to prey not just when the darkness is on me and I see no hope.. But to thank God for all the little things I take for granted.. Thank you so much for your words And God Bless..

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  5. Thank you for your words. Very inspiring. As a Christian, a Socialist and a professional Artist, I often feel that I belong to 3 of the most marginalised groups in our society but your message is enpowering.

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  6. Hello, very sophisticated article. I very liked this paragraph. I would like to say it that way, it is the time any human being feels they are too low and powerless in this materialist world.
    Pray seems like a last resort, all that is left to us, what else can we do? Like the disciples on the lake in a storm, we wait until the water is threatening to sink us before we turn to Christ in our fear and frustration.
    God bless

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