Reflection Sunday 16th May, Revd Sue McCoan
‘A mouse took a stroll in the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.
“Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.”
“It’s terribly kind of you, Fox, but no –
I’m going to have lunch with a gruffalo.”
Many of you will recognise this as the opening words of The Gruffalo, the book by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler. I’m not going to read the whole book, because it’s not the story I want to focus on; it’s the writing. I read an interview with Julia Donaldson in which, amongst many things, she talked about the craft of her writing – and how much work goes into making something that looks so simple.
There’s the choice of exact word – took a stroll, not ‘had a walk’, or ‘wandered round’. Finding the last word in the line, to make an effortless rhyme. Getting the rhythm right, so you can read it without stumbling. She gets her husband to read her first draft aloud, so if he trips up, or misreads, she has to go back and change it to make the line scan. ‘You want the person instinctively to put the stress in the right place’, she said.
There is great economy of words here. You could tell the same story, ‘Once upon a time there was a little brown mouse. One day, the mouse went out… ‘ Here, the verse is really condensed, so every word earns is place.
I’m saying all this because today we are thinking, not about writing children’s books but about prayer. Written prayers, prayers intended for publication or posterity, have the same sort crafting, the same attention to detail. (Though maybe not the rhyming couplets.) The choosing of exactly the right word – Almighty and Eternal God? Or Loving heavenly Father? Or Dear Jesus? Choosing the length of each line, so you can say it in one breath – and again, a rhythm, not a steady beat but a natural rhythm within each line, so that the words fall into place as they are read, even by someone who has never seen them before.
One of the best examples of a crafted prayer, created to be handed down through generations, is the Lord’s prayer. In just a few short lines it covers the main aspects of the Christian faith. It carries immense richness.
We are blessed, now, with a great treasury of Christian prayers, ancient and modern, and with publications like the URC Prayer Handbook bringing us new prayers each year. It is a great resource. There is a danger, though, with written prayers. The danger is that, if those are the only prayers you know, you can think that’s how all prayer must be. I’ve known people who think they can’t think up nice words, or this structure, so they can’t pray. It’s not true.
Jesus, who gave us the Lord’s Prayer, also often prayed in silence. Sometimes he prayed aloud in the need of the moment. And sometimes, as we shall hear in our Bible reading, he just poured his heart out to God. There is room for many, many kinds of prayer.
Bible reading: John 17:6-19
Here is Jesus, pouring out his heart to God for his disciples.
This is the night before Good Friday. Jesus has met with his disciples for the Last Supper. It’s very clear to him now that he hasn’t got long left, and he is using the time together to prepare the disciples as best he can for what is to come. He has urged them to love one another; he’s given a practical example of self-giving love by washing their feet; and he has tried to explain that his death and separation from them is all part of God’s plan.
But we all know ourselves that if someone we love is dying, even if we know full well that it will happen, even if it will be a relief from pain or incapacity, it’s still a shock when it comes. Nothing Jesus says to his disciples will make this all right for them. So he prays.
I’m saying this is a spontaneous prayer because, even though it’s been remembered and written down, it’s unshaped; there’s lots of repetition of thought; it’s not particularly easy to read. It’s from the heart. And in this outpouring, there are things we can learn about our prayers.
Jesus prays to God, within the disciples’ hearing, so he is bringing them into the presence of God with him. He starts off by affirming how much they matter – they were given to Jesus, they have kept God’s word, and they believe. If someone comes to you and asks you to pray for them, they may well be anxious or afraid, looking to God for help; it’s really good to begin by thanking God for the person before you, and by affirming what they bring themselves, even if it’s only the faith to ask for prayer in the first place. This person matters to God, and your prayer reminds them of that.
Jesus then describes the situation that needs prayer. In written prayers, you can’t be that specific, but here there is a real focus: Jesus is leaving the world but the disciples are still in it – with all its dangers, without their leader. Jesus protected them physically and spiritually while he was with them; now he is calling on God to extend that protection. Protect them, protect them from the evil one, sanctify them in the truth, oh please oh please. Never be afraid to ask God for what you really want, even if – and this is important – even if you think that what you want is not possible.
The honest truth is that the disciples of Jesus were not safe after he’d gone. They were persecuted; they were beaten up, put in prison, some of them were later put to death. It doesn’t mean that the prayer of Jesus was not valid; it doesn’t mean it didn’t work. That prayer gave the disciples the strength to get through the next few weeks and that’s all it had to do. So pray for what you really want. Pray for miracles. This is you opening your heart to God. The miracle may not happen, or not in the way you want, but your heart will be changed.
And then, in the midst of this outpouring, there are the reasons for this prayer: ‘so that they may be one, as we are one’, ‘so that they also may be sanctified in truth’, and the one we can easily overlook in all this anguish, ‘so that they may have my joy complete in themselves’. Again, the disciples need to hear this. And in our own prayers, when we have poured out all we need to say, and having affirmed God’s love at the beginning, we might end by affirming our trust, our willingness to rest in God, to allow God to work in us in whatever way God sees fit.
So there’s much we can learn from this about praying. But there’s more. Jesus prayed for his disciples; he prays for us, too. Last Thursday was Ascension Day. We tend not to make too much of it in the Reformed tradition, but it’s the time when Jesus, having risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples, was taken from them into heaven. He had been taken away for a short time in death; now he is taken away in glory. And we are reminded that as his presence is removed from a specific place and time, he is available for all places, for all time. His prayer continues and we are part of it now.
Very often, the Christian Church, in its various forms, has wanted to look strong and vigorous, to claim moral authority, to be a beacon of goodness in a sinful world. All those things are good. It’s good for congregations to want to thrive and grow. But life is changing. Forms and structures of church that worked well 50 years ago are not so helpful now, and congregations have been shaken by the pandemic like everyone else. This is the time to remember that Jesus is praying for us. Jesus is relying on us. This is not a time to worry about looking strong; this is a time to keep faithful, like the disciples. This is a time to accept, in humility and faith, the prayer of Jesus, that we might be one, that we might hold to the truth; and that in him, our joy may be made complete.
So let us pray.
Loving Lord Jesus,
Thank you for each person here, in church or online. Thank you for their faith, their love, their trust in you.
We meet in worship and pour out our praise; we take time now to pour out, in the silence of our hearts, our own longings, our deepest needs.
Thank you for hearing our prayers. And if we need to return to those longings later, help us find time to do so.
Thank you above all, dear Jesus, for your prayers for each one of us, individually and as your people together. Give us the humility to know how much we need your prayers; and give us the grace and faith to accept your love and blessing.