Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lord's Prayer

Maybe it’s because I have grown up with these particular words and they are deep in my psyche. Maybe it is because I learned them from my mother and father when I was tiny. Maybe it’s because in a world of change there’s part of me that holds on to the things that don’t change.

I like what I suppose you would call the ‘traditional’ words of the Lord’s Prayer.

It is the version based on Matthew chapter 6 as translated into English by William Tyndale, polished by the translators of the Authorised Version, adapted into the Book of Common Prayer and tweaked a little since!

It is part of the genius of William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, the translators of the Authorised Version and the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer that they had an ear for the rhythms of the English language, and an eye for the vocabulary of English too. For those who are native English speakers there’s something about these words that is special.

Spoken English has a rhythm that matches the rhythm of the heart beat – the iambic de dum, de dum. These traditional words capture that rhythm …

Our Father,
Who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day
Our daily bread
And forgive us
Our trespasses
As we forgive
Those who
Trespass against us
And lead us not
Into temptation
But deliver us
From evil
For thine is the kingdom,
The power and the glory
Forever and ever

The very words themselves invite us, almost compel us to feel this prayer as very much part of us: it’s not just deep down inside our psyche, it’s deep in the very heart-beat and rhythm of our lives.

And that is as it should be. Let this prayer be the heart-beat not just of our prayer life, not just of our spiritual lives, but of the whole living of our lives.

There is a point, however, towards the middle of the prayer when the rhythm is more difficult. The difficulty arrives as you reach trespasses, temptation and evil. It is as if those very things disrupt the rhythm and are immensely unsettling.

The rhythm and the beat returns however and comes to its climax as it returns us to the source of the very life we lead – the modern translation keeps the words, but they lose their power – the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours

Yours is a very weak word to finish on.

Thine has so much power to it, and by putting it first it enables you to know from the very start who the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to … and it enables you to rise to a wonderful climax in such powerful words – thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever Amen.

Those translators and writers of English had an eye to the vocabulary of English, and in particular the weight of words.

One characteristic of English is its love of single syllable words, and its respect for words of more than one syllable. There was a wonderful illustration of that when a couple of weeks ago the Bodleian Library in Oxford exhibited for one day only one of its great treasures – the original manuscript for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Never mind the film … read the book! What was fascinating was that out of about 80,000 words in the novel, 5000 of them had been changed by Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy the poet. Mary Shelley had written words of single syllable that had a directness of speech that was simple and straightforward. Her husband, the poet, had replaced all those words with longer words, usually drawn from Latin or from French in what some would regard as a mistaken attempt to make her writing more literary!

The traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful illustration of the weighting of words.


There are 50 words of one syllable
There are 16 words of two syllables
There are 4 words of three syllables.

Think of the two syllable words as words of greater weight

Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not in to temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory
Forever and ever amen.

These are the great powers, that we draw into the very rhythm of our life:
Father, heaven, kingdom, power, glory

That rhythm of life sees to it that daily needs are met …
And fundamental to that rhythm is our willingness to forgive.

Creeping into that rhythm is trespass, evil. And that too carries weight.

The brutal reality of life is that the evil, the nastiness often seems to carry more weight.

That’s what happens when you weigh words by their syllable count.

There are only 4 3-syllable words. What’s the first?


Replacing that word with the English word ‘sin’ may be theologically accurate, it’s arguable whether it’s necessarily easier to understand. But it is a throwaway, lightweight word.

Whereas trespasses carries weight. Our trespasses, the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done, the words we have said we shouldn’t have said, the thoughts we have had in our minds that should never have been there, not to mention all those things we have left undone, unspoken, that have slipped our minds.

Forgiveness is so important!

The next three syllable word also carries immense weight and can often be such a burden that it weighs us down.

Lead us not into temptation.

How often the world of temptation gets the better of us and we sink under its weight.

These things that are so weighty they matter. And they need something equally weighty to counter them. As we draw on Our Father, in heaven, whose name is hallowed, as we draw on the kingdom, the power, and the glory … the God we believe is up to the task.

The next three letter word is the key …

But deliver us from evil.

Over against the weighty things that weigh us down is the deliverance that frees us.

But we must not get too hung up on the words.

You might have expected the words of the Lord’s Prayer to be standardised from the very beginning. Intriguingly they are not. The wording is very different in Matthew and in Luke – and yet it is recognisably the same prayer.

The most obvious explanation is that Jesus used different words on different occasions.

What is beyond all doubt is that different church communities from the very earliest times used different words – if you examine the different manuscripts you will find different words – most obviously in the finish.

If you go to a Roman Catholic church you will find they finish as it seems in mid air, without getting as far as ‘thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory …’ They are in good company, lots of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew 6 do not include those words either!

What do we make of that?

It is a reminder to us that however much we love these words, maybe they are not to become ‘idle repetition’, recited for their own sake.

More important is the pattern they offer us for our praying.

But as ever it is good to return to the text of the Gospels. For there is another difference you will notice when you go North of the Border to Scotland, or West of Offa’s Dyke to Wales.

Never mind ‘trespasses’ or ‘sins’ … in Scottish churches and in Welsh-speaking churches and in many reformed churches – forgiveness has to do with debts.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

That’s interesting!

Where does that come from?

Well, in fact, that’s the word in Matthew 6.

That’s intriguing – is it a metaphor for sin and trespasses?

Or does it have to do with debt and obligation to others. It puts a different cast on the prayer … and one that is very timely today.

Only yesterday on Radio 4 someone being interviewed about the impact of the global financial crisis on them as an individual spoke of the ‘slavery’ of debt.

The jubilee 2000 campaign to write off the debts of the poorest countries spoke of the slavery of debt and used the broken chains of slavery as the badge of its campaign.

Forgiveness of debts? Forgive us for getting into debt … as we forgive those who have got into debt to us. Maybe it is the mutuality of forgiveness that is to the fore. It was something that Jesus used in one of his wonderful parables – when he spoke of the man who owed a massive amount whose debt was written off who went out free of his own debt only to make a massive demand on someone who owed him only a very little amount.

Jesus was urging a mutuality of commitment that would make all the difference and bring freedom. This is very much in line with the thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures. Society has to be ordered – or in the words that are in vogue at the moment – some kind of ‘regulation’ is needed. A lot of the Books of the Law is to do with ordering society … and intriguingly it is about how to order society in such a way as to support the poorest, not least as they are in danger of sinking under the weight of debt. Hence the notion of ‘the jubilee’ year when the slate is wiped clean and people can begin again.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors – maybe food for thought and reflection – and reminder daily, within the rhythms of our praying of our commitment to those facing financial difficulty

Maybe the Lord’s Prayer goes right to the heart not only of the rhythms of our prayer life, our spiritual life, our personal lives … but also to the heart of the rhythms of society and the way it is structured.

Last week, in the course of a service celebrating Baptism with little Harry, the invitation was for us to pray the Lord’s prayer with an individual in mind – Harry himself, or maybe someone else we are thinking of.

Today comes the invitation to pray the Lord’s prayer with society and its needs in mind.

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come, your rule of justice, peace and integrity of creation

Thy will be done, for good not ill

On earth as it is in heaven – in war torn parts of your world, in people’s lives devastated by financial collapse, in the lives of those facing tragedy, illness, poverty and want

Give us this day our daily bread – give to each part of your world what it needs that there may be an equitable sharing of the world’s resources

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

May that mutuality of respect and forgiveness mark the relations between communities, between societies, between nations as well

And lead us not into temptation

May we build the kind of society where temptations are not put in people’s way all the time – the temptation to consume more than we ought, the temptation to spend more than we can, the temptation to hurt and damage others and ourselves,

But deliver us from evil – where evil has a hold over people’s lives in a world of so much evil – deliver people we prayer.

How easy it is to despair in a world of wrong, a world of temptation a world of evil – help us to hold on to that forgiveness, to be released from that temptation, and delivered from that evil – for the faith we share enables us to be sure in the face of all the world hurls at us that you will prevail:

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Baptism - a Celebration of God's Greatest Gifts!

At the heart of our Baptism service is the celebration of the most wonderful of all gifts, the gift of God’s love. It’s an unconditional gift, with no strings attached of his wonderful love – and that love reaches out to each of us by name, before ever we know anything about it, before ever we have learned anything about it – it’s there, simply given to us. The most wonderful gift of God’s free, forgiving love, of God’s grace.

That’s not the only gift we celebrate today. There’s the gift of life – the miracle of new life coming into being. And that new life comes into being as a wonderful gift of God – nowhere is that sense of life as a gift of God, the God who knows us, loves us and gives us life better expressed than in the poetry of Psalm 139 …

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end*—I am still with you.

It is one of the privileges of my position as Minister that when I hear a baby has been born I can go to visit in the maternity hospital – it was a joy to do that when Eleanor was born. We were excited in the church family when Harry was expected because he was not alone!

News came that Rob and Andrea Lacey’s little baby had arrived – a sister for Bethany. The day after it was lovely to visit just as Andrea and Rob were getting ready to take little Abigail home. Earlier that day Felicity had spotted Tom driving Nicky down Hewlett Rd – and there was only one place they could be going to.

Having had short time with little Abigail I went to the desk to enquire after Tom and Nicky to be told they were still on the delivery suite, but it would be all right to pop in and see them as. It was with some fear and trepidation that I made my way upstairs to the delivery suite for the first time in about 22 years!

Seeing a new born baby always takes the breath away – it is a miracle – the hair all in place, the fingers so carefully manicured – the Psalmist has it right …

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
But I always feel my visit has a very specific purpose. It’s not always the right moment, but for the most part I endeavour to fulfil that purpose. It says close family visits only. But when you belong to a church you have another close family – and I am there from that family – more than that I am there to say a prayer of blessing.

Among the first visits – a visit from the church family. Among the first words heard, words of prayer and of blessing.

The wonderful gift of prayer … is something then that we can give to our children as they grow older.

And there is one prayer in particular that is wonderful to pass on to them. I can remember now the little picture book I had as a tiny child to help me to learn the Lord’s prayer – it was from my parents that I learned it. How precious to pass on the gift of that prayer. It is a prayer that says it all.

Go through those words – of yourself, but go through those words and hold in mind little Harry, the little one you are concerned for, go through those words and hold in mind the elderly person you are concerned for – don’t just say the words for yourself – say those words and hold in mind the one your are so concerned for.

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth – in little Harry’s life –
As it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread – hold Harry in your prayer at this point that God will meet his every need
And Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
- sometimes, God forbid, we feel we let people down, none of us is a perfect parent – to surround little Harry in that forgiving kind of love

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil

It is a scary world Harry is born into – how great that prayer we pray for him today …

And in that scary world we can have confidence that God is with us – that he will prevail.

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
Forever and ever amen.

The gift of God’s love, God’s amazing grace
The gift of new life and the wonder of its miracle
The gift of prayer and God’s blessing
The gift of the greatest prayer of all

There’s only one way to respond to the gifts that we receive – it makes you want to give in return. And when children come into play giving can make a world of difference not only to the child but also to the giver.

Helen Roberts is one of our junior church leaders who as often as not is out with the children leading the Splash Group we have. Back in the summer she asked if she could share with us all what it has meant to her to give to a child in one very particular kind of way.

Helen shared with us her experience of sponsoring a child through Compassion, a Christian charity committed to releasing children from poverty, that works in partnership with local churches in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Thank you Richard, for giving me the opportunity to share the work of Compassion projects for children in poverty across the world.

According to their statistics, in the time it takes you to take a single breath, a child dies somewhere in the world as a result of poverty.

I find statistics like that quite overwhelming and find myself questioning what I can do about it, as I feel so helpless and inadequate.

1999, I knew I wanted to do something, sponsor something, as I had two beautiful children, a lovely home and food on the table – I wanted to share my blessings. I heard of Tearfund, whose sponsorship programme is now operated by Compassion, through whom I could sponsor an individual child. That sort of level of support really appealed to me.

I might not be able to change the world by myself – but maybe I could change the world for one child at a time!

I chose a child the same age as my youngest, who was 6 at the time. Her name is Galuh and she lives in Java in Indonesia with her parents and 4 siblings. The charity sent me a picture of this solemn-looking little girl and she wrote solemnly to me thanking me for paying her school fees and helping her family financially.

She called me ‘Mama’ Roberts then – and she still does now. She has just celebrated her 16th Birthday. My latest photograph of her shows a beautiful, smiling girl and I thank God that I have had some small part in her life over the years.

We write to each other a few times a year – everything has to be translated through Compassion’s translators – and she tells me of her life, her school results, her hopes for her future. She always mentions her church, praising God for her blessings. She has trained as a leader in her church and is still at school, which she says is entirely due to my continued sponsorship.

She goes to the Compassion project several times a week and wrote to me when she made a ‘commitment to obey and be faithful to God’ as she put it, in 2006. Her aim now is to go onto Theological College. The relationship we share has enriched my life in so many ways, much more than the financial gifts have cost me.

I write to her about my family and the church here at Highbury, giving her encouragement and telling her she is always in my prayers. I sent her photos of my daughter’s wedding and she thought everyone looked beautiful!

Two years ago, I decided to sponsor a second child and chose Aple, a little boy living in Bangladesh, who was born the same year I started to sponsor Galuh. Another photo of a solemn-looking child – do they tell the children to look sad so someone will sponsor them? Our relationship is still fledgling, but he chats on about the project and his family and community and I look forward to getting to know him more over the years to come.

Compassion ensures that at least 80% of their expenditure goes to benefit the children. The church-based projects that the children attend means that they get medical check-ups, food to eat, clothes to wear and an education, which all helps to lift them out of poverty. Every child gets to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and in the same way that He is concerned with our individual needs, Compassion tries to meet the individual needs of the children and encourages them to develop their own skills and talents.

This short film is about Christuraj, a boy from Chennai in India. Christuraj is just one of the 1.1 billion children in the world today who live in a desperately poor community. At the moment more than a million children attend Compassion projects across the world, but there are many more children who are waiting for someone to sponsor them. If you could spare 60p a day to transform the world of a child, come and see me after the service and I can give you more details.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prayer and Praying

"I am learning the difference between saying prayers, which is an activity, and praying, which is a soul attitude, a ‘lifting up of the mind to God’. Praying in that sense can transform every task, from washing up to defragmenting a computer’s hard disk.

"'Pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.'

"I used to read such passages in a fog of guilt ... I read them differently now, not as a perpetual guilt-trip but as a call to a Godward orientation. Prayer means keeping company with God who is already present.From Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make any Difference (page 306)"

That rang a bell for me – what a helpful thought!

Prayer as an attitude … but ‘prayers’ can nonetheless be very useful.

Thank you to Becky for leading us through our course on prayer and through our 24 hours of prayer as well. Prayer goes on … as we ‘keep company with God who is already present’ but it is helpful to say prayers, and sometimes to ask someone else to say a prayer for you. There’s going to be the opportunity to do just that after the morning service – if you would like someone to say a prayer with you then simply come and sit at the front of the church and someone will join you to share in prayer. Just as we use the Morton Brown room before the service as our Prayer Parlour, so after the service it will be open as a quiet place to go to as well.

Sometimes it can be helpful to use prayers other people have used down through the centuries.There is a collection of prayers in the Bible that can be most useful.Becky invited us at the end of the course to choose 4 psalms and use them as prayers.I want to share with you the four psalms I have chosen.

My first psalm came to mind in the unlikeliest of places. Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.70 years ago, as the depression of the thirties was unfolding, fascism was taking its grip on Europe and war was approaching, Gloucestershire was introduced to the weird and wonderful and disturbing world of Surrealism in modern art.

To mark the seventieth anniversary of that exhibition the art gallery are mounting a special exhibition that brings together work by the artists who exhibited in that exhibition a long time ago. Surrealism returns.

I had thought surrealism was something wacky and detached from the real world. Visiting that exhibition it comes as something of a shock to see that these artists were responding to the horrors of their world in ways designed to provoke a response in the one looking at the art that would make a difference in that world.

Most iconic of all the paintings in that exhibition was one by Picasso.I had seen another version of it before – in the Tate gallery in Liverpool, and in the town of Guernica in the Basque country of Northern Spain.

It is a remarkable and disturbing picture called Weeping Woman. It was a response Picasso made to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War – it was the first time a whole town had been blanket bombed, resulting in a firestorms and devastation for the town’s population on their market day.

As his much bigger picture ‘Guernica’ toured the world, so versions of the Weeping Woman were exhibited all over the world, not least here in Gloucester in that remarkable exhibition 70 years ago.A year earlier another version of the same image had already been exhibited in Cheltenham. It is that pen and ink version that is on display in the Art Gallery now.

To stand in front of it is profoundly moving … not least because Women and for that matter Men are still weeping at a world that goes dreadfully wrong. Iraq. Afghanistan. Darfur. Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel, Gaza. The impact of the economic situation, tragedy closer to home.

The weeping woman is as symbolic of our time and of our lives as it was symbolic of Picasso’s time..

Jesus shares in that weeping.

At the death of his friend Lazarus Jesus wept.

And as he saw Jerusalem he wept, would that you had known the things that make for peace.

And still he weeps.

That anguish, that pain, those tears have to find expression in our praying as we in utter honesty rail at God.

The first Psalm that comes to my mind is Psalm 22. It begins with words of anguish, with words of weeping.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

At his moment of dereliction, of deepest agony, on the cross, it was to this prayer, to this psalm that Jesus turned.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

At moments of deepest agony, it is good too know that it is not only to art that we can turn, we can turn also to prayer.My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The great thing about an art exhibition is that alongside the pictures of agony and despair, are pictures of hope and promise.

So too as we pray, using the prayers of the Psalms.It’s no coincidence that the psalm that follows Psalm 22 is Psalm 23. The 23rd Psalm.It is not in Cheltenham’s art exhibition. But I would bring to mind another piece of art … it is one of the very first sculptures of Christ – one of the very first images of Christ. It is The Good Shepherd, a 3rd or 4th Century Roman sculpture from the catacombs in Rome: the shepherd carrying the sheep. That’s an image. That’s a prayer to bring to mind next.

From the weeping woman to the Good shepherd …

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside the still waters,
He restoreth my soul
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

That’s it. Not that we can escape the valley of deep darkness. Rather, Christ in all his gentleness, in all his love is there walking with us through the valley to restore, and to comfort, to strengthen and renew.

Say the prayer and hold on to the truth …

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

That brings us to Psalm 24.

A wonderful prayer of confidence.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2I love that kind of picture. The earth held in the hands of God. The loving hands. That sense in this prayer that we are held in God’s safe keeping.

How can we hold on to that? Where can we find such hope and such strengthening?

That brings me to my fourth psalm. Psalm 121

Going up to Cleeve Hill – I’ll never forget going up to the top of Cleeve Hill at dawn on the day the Millennium arrived – and on cue the reds of dawn spread across the sky and the sun rose.

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.

That’s the conviction to hold on to.

Say your prayers … and use the psalms.

When that question haunts us. My God, why? We must be honest in our praying and echo the words of Psalm 22.

But then we must go on to Psalm 23 and use those wonderful words, Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

In our praying of Psalm 24 we can then rejoice: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it!

And then in our mind’s eye as we say the words of Psalm 121 we can go up into the hills and find an answer for our question:I life my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

How good it is to say our prayers. How much more important to recognise the difference between prayers and prayer and recognise that prayer means keeping company with God who is already present.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light