Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
I must confess, I struggle with prayer, but at the same time I believe it is an indispensable element of the Christian life. I don’t think I’m alone in this. A key difficulty for many people, I think, is the notion of an interventionist God who apparently sometimes chooses to answer prayers – but sometimes doesn’t. It feels like reducing the divine to the status of a magician, and a capricious one at that. ‘Ask anything in my name and I will do it’ rings rather hollow when your specific and sincere prayer appears not to have been answered. One parishioner told me of just such a scenario only a few weeks ago: ‘Tragically, God did not see fit to intervene’, they said. ‘I fail utterly to see a God of love, hope or compassion at work here’. They are still in church and still praying, though….
On the other hand, a Richmond Street Pastor came to me on Friday to tell me they’d been called to the porch at the lending library on the Green, where a group of homeless people have been sleeping for some time. One of the group had died. Now, the Pastors normally provide practical support: their job isn’t to evangelise. But in these difficult circumstances, the homeless people wanted them to say a prayer for their deceased companion, and then one of the homeless men volunteered to pray for the pastors, basically thanking them that they’re not sitting on their sofas at home watching TV on a Friday night, but are out there supporting people who, for one reason or another, are vulnerable.
‘Lord, teach us to pray’, said one of Jesus’s disciples, and Jesus responds with a model for prayer.
Last Thursday, I went to see Ab Fab the Movie. (Apart from a few amusing moments, not highly recommended.) As we sat through the adverts beforehand, I was reminded of last autumn – do you remember? – when the Church of England found itself officially ‘bewildered’ by the refusal of the country’s leading cinemas to show a 60-second advert of The Lord’s Prayer. The Church’s response followed the launch of its new website to promote the renewal of prayer in a digital age. The website JustPray.uk creates a place for prayer, with advice on what prayer is and how to pray. Its banner headline is, ‘If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer’. The ad. featured Christians from all walks of life praying one line each of the Lord’s Prayer – weight lifters, a police officer, a commuter, refugees in a support centre, school children, a mourner at a graveside, a festival goer and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Odeon, Cineworld and Vue – who provide 80% of cinema screens around the country – refused to show the advert because, they said, it ‘carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences’. Cue indignation from the press, fury from the Archbishop (well, according to the Mail anyway), debates about free speech, a possible challenge in the courts and a storm on social media. Seeing some of the other ads. last Thursday night, it seemed to me there was no shortage of candidates offering upset or offence to someone or other.
But….just suppose the cinema chains got this decision right? From the point of view of global corporations and consumer culture, from the perspective of the gods and spirits of the age, there may be very good reasons to ban the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas – and from culture and public life more broadly. Why? Because the Lord’s Prayer is powerful: its words seek to re-shape lives, families, communities and entire societies – and, although they are very familiar to us – they are, nonetheless, fairly revolutionary in a consumer-driven context. Here are just a few reasons why.
First, this prayer gives to those who pray it an identity, a place in the world, and in a counter-cultural community. ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’ opposes the idea that we are random specks of matter floating through space and time. It opposes the notion that our lives are expendable. It opposes the myth of fragmented humanity. The prayer asserts that we matter to that universal force we routinely name God, who is not remote, but who, amazingly, has a familial care for us: Our Father. It makes it plain that the world doesn’t revolve around us. In total contrast, we are urged to build a community with our fellow human beings, who become our sisters and brothers in a universal family. Those who discover this new identity can stand up to an advertising culture which constantly seduces us to define who we are by what we want, when we want it, or what we look like, or wear, or spend.
Second, this prayer gives us the courage to live in an imperfect world. ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. The biblical stories make a point: the world is not what it could potentially become. We are given a vision of how it might be transformed to what Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to join the struggle to see justice and peace prevail, and to enable human flourishing in whatever ways we can.
Third, and perhaps most powerfully in a consumer culture, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to live with just enough. This is the most dangerous reason why it cannot be shown with the adverts at the cinema. It teaches us not to want more, but rather ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. While most other adverts in the cinema encourage us to spend money in pursuit of happiness, this prayer focuses on what we most essentially need, and restrains our tendency towards greed. And note the pronoun is us, and not just me, again reinforcing mutual human responsibility.
Fourth, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to live with our imperfections and the imperfections of others. There is a way to deal with the rubbish in our lives. ‘Forgive us our sins.’ Consumer culture holds before us the image of perfection. We cannot be happy until we look like this person, or live like that one. But the Lord’s Prayer acknowledges human imperfection, daily. It also offers a pathway to forgiveness, daily. The way of forgiveness cannot be bought. It is a gift which, in traditional Christian language, is called ‘grace’ – something given, not purchased. Grace subverts the whole culture of advertising.
Fifth, the Lord’s Prayer offers a way of reconciliation. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ It’s hard, but we are urged to forgive as we have been forgiven, to be reconciled to each other, not to live in hostility or rivalry – a poignant reminder as we commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and – particularly today – Basil Umney from this parish, killed in action, aged just 19, one hundred years ago yesterday. In contrast with the advertisers’ world, the greatest satisfaction comes from relationships, and the key to effective human relationships is reconciliation and forgiveness.
Sixth, the Lord’s Prayer builds resilience in the human spirit. ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ When we say this prayer, we remind ourselves that we are not living in a Disney fairy tale, where every story has a happy ending. We are living in the real world of disease, hunger, conflict and destruction, where we are tested, where we make bad decisions and do things we regret. But we live in that world confident that the love we call God supports us even in the most challenging moments of our lives. Faith is for the deep valleys every bit as much as it is for the green pastures. We may not have all the answers we seek, but these words assure us that change is possible.
And, finally, the Lord’s Prayer tells us how the story ends. ‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Amen.’ All those things Jesus stood for can, in the end, lead to that which is of everlasting value, if we open ourselves to their transformative nature. There are only sixty-something words in the Lord’s Prayer. It takes less than a minute to say them, but they are charged with such potency that it is not entirely surprising they have been banished from the boardrooms of consumer culture.
I still struggle with prayer, but believe we must pray, not to be seen to be pious – that really does come in for heavy criticism in the Gospels. Rather because opening ourselves to prayer has the potential to change us and the world by forming a Christian consciousness and a personal honesty, and encouraging an outward-looking humanity inspired by the example of Jesus. That banner headline, I think, gets it right: ‘If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer.’