My Dear Friends
As you settle back into your attitude of defensive repose at the start of the homily, I am reminded of a couple of quotes I once saw. One said, "we, preachers don't talk in our sleep – we talk in other people's sleep." Another said, "If the congregation does go to sleep during the homily, it's the preacher who really needs waking up." And a final one said, "That it is the preacher's job to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."
The Scripture readings set down for each day of Lent often help you and me to focus on a particular aspect of our life with God.
Today, our Lenten Scripture is about prayer and this can help us keep the why at the centre of our work. As we continue to light the way and be bearers of Christ's love through our example, our integrity, our wisdom and mercy. The prayer of Queen Esther in today's First Reading was a plea to God when her life was in danger. Esther was about to intervene with King Xerxes to thwart a plot to destroy her fellow Jews, even though the law of Persia stated that anyone who approached the King in his inner court without being summoned would suffer the penalty of automatic death. Esther's prayer in her moment of supreme danger was prompted by her habitual practice of turning to God for help. She was not praying because there was nothing else she could think of. Her words show that she understood not only God's concern and power, but she also understood her complete dependence on God. Esther prayed, "You alone are God. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you." It was the prayer of a little child before God, her father.
The Gospel contains those well-known words of Jesus, "Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you." (Mt 7:7)
We, as clergy, you as teachers, we lead students in prayer, you who are RECs, and religion teachers teach children how to pray, you prepare liturgies of prayer and worship for staff and students alike, you teach about the sacred nature of a church building where the Word of God is proclaimed, the Sacrament of Christ's sacrifice is celebrated in the Mass, and where Jesus is reserved in the Blessed Sacrament, as a place to visit and pour out our hearts to our Eucharistic Lord – as parents, you pray and teach your children to communicate with God.
Praying a Morning Offering to God for the day ahead, acknowledges that each day of our life is a gift for which we should be ever grateful.
There's a well-known story to come out of the Second World War, it's about a Sergeant, who one evening in the Mess, was bragging and insisting that he was an uncompromising atheist, which means he had no invisible means of support, and he had no use whatsoever for any belief in God. The very next day, he and some of his men were caught in a bombing raid. There was nothing else to do but jump into a fox hole in the earth as bombs exploded all around them. While they waited in their shallow shelter, the Sergeant was busy praying and praying out loud.
A soldier with him, who had heard him bragging the night before, said, "Hey Sarge, I thought you were an atheist." "Look fella," said the Sergeant, "There are no atheists in fox holes." The simple fact is that when anyone is in trouble he or she quite naturally prays.
An agnostic – a person who is hedging his bets whether there is a God or not, this agnostic when the chips were down and he was in big trouble reluctantly prayed, "God, if there is a God – save my Soul, if I have a soul."
What I am saying is prayer can become a natural human reaction to a situation that is beyond us. How often have we seen on TV a survivor of a shark attack spontaneously thank God he or she is still alive!
That's why even someone who has no connection with any church will sometimes send for someone to say a prayer when a member of a family is dying or seriously injured. I do not think we need to prove that prayer is a fairly common reaction to any crisis and desperate situation – we know that from our own experience.
But that's probably our problem about prayer – we simply connect it with dire situations, the extraordinary, the abnormal, the time when life goes disastrously wrong and there's nothing that we or anyone else on earth can do about it. Of course, at such a time, prayer is an absolute essential – but we should remember God is not only the rescuer when things get beyond us, but God made flesh in his Son Jesus, God is our father and best friend with whom we live day by day. Our faith is our relationship with God in Jesus.
We must not assume that we can do without God when we don't specifically need God and then call God in when everything else has failed. Certainly God will help even then, but in time of crisis, it's so much easier to go to someone who has been cultivated as the familiar friend of our life and not a stranger. Remember God can hardly answer a prayer that has not been prayed!
I wonder if, at times, we think of prayer as a kind of hot line to God by which we apply for what we need but often it seems rather difficult to get through. People say, "I pray to God but he never answers me." If we really pray to God, we give ourselves to God, and this God always answers. But, if we feel our prayer is not answered unless God grants our request for a favour, then we've missed the meaning of prayer.
It's reported that during the American Civil War, one of Abraham Lincoln's men said to him, "I hope God is on our side." Abe replied, "On the contrary, we best hope we are on God's side." How often do we try to make God fit into our plans whereas we should rather try to make ourselves fit into God's plans? "Not my will, but thine, be done." is what Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
I think it is true to say that our lives change when our habits change. Is daily prayer a habit you and I have in our life? My life changed when I began to prioritise time for prayer – getting up earlier to do so. In those quiet moments of reflection given over to God we can stumble upon the big question: God, what do you think I should do?
Ignatius of Loyola asked that question. Francis of Assisi asked the same question. So did Benedict, so did Dominic and Joan of Arc. So did St Terese of Avila and, of course, did Mary MacKillop – God, what do you think I should do? These men and women began by asking a very simple question: God, what do you think I should do? And as a result of constantly asking this question, they became spiritual giants.
When was the last time you sat down with the Divine Architect and asked, God what do you think I should do in this situation - with my wife or husband or rebellious teenager, with the classroom bully? When was the last time we asked God what do you think I should do in this situation at work, in the staff room, in the classroom? When your kids come to talk to you about what they're thinking of doing with their lives, do you just ask them what they want to do? Or do you ask them what do you feel God is calling you to do?
The 19th Century US Essayist and Philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, said "Most people lead lives of quiet desperation." If you and I don't ask the big question, "God, what do you think I should do?" we won't discover our mission, and sooner or later we will be numbered among Thoreau's masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Nobody plans to live a life of quiet desperation. We'll just wake up one morning and realise we already are living one – and wonder how it happened.
But, if we are already living a life of quiet desperation, we don't have to stay there. Just start asking the big question, God, what do you think I should do? In the various moments of each day ask the question. In our daily prayer, ask the question. Make this one question "God, what do you think I should do?" a constant part of our inner dialogue, and watch our life start to change!
Of course, the journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness, deep within ourselves, because silence and solitude opens us to God. In the silence we will find God, and in the silence we will find ourselves. In the silence things start to make sense. To reach that place of stillness is to be home: to fail to reach it, is to be forever restless.
Too much noise inside of us and around us causes us to forget that. It's too dangerous to forget this, because our peace of mind and heart are at stake here. Our soul needs silence, just like our bodies need air to breathe and water to drink.
Jewish Philosopher, Martin Buber says, "God dwells wherever humans let God in." We need to cultivate the habit of putting time aside to be alone with God in worship, in praise, in petition and in thanksgiving, so as to be aware of the movement of the Holy Spirit within us. Amen.
Most Rev Peter W Ingham DD
BISHOP OF WOLLONGONG