The Mayor’s children: Praying for Ukraine

A sermon for St Peter’s Bramley, 20 March 2022

The Ukrainian flag flying over Bramley war memorial

Text:Micah 6:1-9     

Once upon a time…  there lived a man who was important in his community.  In fact he was the Mayor.  The man who could get things done.  And he had three children, Adam, Beth and Charles.  One day, the children found their neighbour’s daughter Sarah in tears.  They asked what was wrong and she told them that her dad had taken all her toys away and started hitting her.  They agreed that this was very wrong of Sarah’s dad, and decided to do something about it.

Adam was the eldest.  He was studying law at college.  So he read up about it and wrote a carefully worded letter to the Mayor, explaining why Sarah’s dad was breaking the law and asking the Mayor to report him to the police.

Beth, the middle child, was quiet and didn’t like making a fuss. But she sat down with Sarah to hear her story and ask how she was feeling.  They she knocked on her father’s door and told him what Sarah had said, and asked if she should give Sarah some of her own toys.

Charles was the youngest child and used to having to speak up to get noticed.  He marched into his father’s study without knocking and spoke loudly: “Dad, don’t you know Sarah’s being beaten?  You’re the Mayor! Aren’t you going to do something to stop it?”

So the Mayor, having heard from all his three children, did as they asked.  He reported Sarah’s dad to the police, and when they took him away, the Mayor took Sarah into his own family where she could play with any of his children’s toys.  And they all lived happily ever after.

Ukraine.  A country that many of us had perhaps heard little about until recently. Now engulfed in the tragedy of war, a tragedy that demands a response. Bombs are falling, churches being destroyed, people killed or driven from their country – many of them Catholic or Orthodox Christians.  Our European neighbours, sisters and brothers in Christ are being persecuted, and what are we to do?

We can of course give money to appeals if we have some to spare.  Some people may feel able to offer to host a refugee, when they reach Leeds.  What we can all do is pray.  But how, and what difference does it make?

In our Lent groups this year we’re looking at different expressions of Christianity from countries around the world.  This week it’s South America, where the Catholic church operates not only through priests and parishes but also in what they call ‘base communities’ led by lay people.  These communities, often in deprived areas, have at the heart of their faith God’s concern for the poor and oppressed people of the world.   To them, prayer is not just a daily habit but woven into all their life.  Prayer is not politely asking God if he would do something, but engaging with God in argument on behalf of the people they are called to serve. 

That’s why the Brazilian church chose this passage from Micah for this week’s study. We heard a musical setting of it before the service.  In it, we hear the voice of God, challenging his people to ‘rise and plead their case’. It’s the language of the law court.  God reminds them of all that he has done for them in the past: rescue from slavery, food when they were hungry, victory in war. Why, then, have they stopped praying to him, stopped believing in him?  God is constantly present, waiting for us to ask for his help. The passage ends with a challenge to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, or one priest puts it in this week’ study: “Our language about God and God’s revelation is marked by each step, as we walk along. We step with our feet, our head thinks and our heart loves and acts”.

What does prayer sound like in wartime?  There’s no one answer, because we’re all different in our culture and personality.  Some Christians are drawn to that activist style of prayer: praying and acting as we walk through life, responding to circumstances rather than setting aside special times.

Others prefer the model of prayer Jesus presented: go into a room by yourself, sit quietly and pray to the Father who hears you.  A more meditative style. Or you might follow the set prayers of the church, carefully structured, and church leaders around the world have offered us many such prayers to use for Ukraine. But in a crisis, when situations change by the day, and the danger of escalation even into nuclear war is real, perhaps it’s time to pray differently.  To do as Micah says: rise and plead our case, or rather the case of the Ukrainians, with God.  Loud and clear.

Some years ago I met a Christian from Korea, who challenged the mainly English people in our group to pray as they do in his country, not unlike the prayers of the South American communities.  They stand to pray, and each person prays out loud to God simultaneously in their own words.  It’s a far cry from our way of doing intercession where we listen to one person speaking and then say a polite Amen. I’m not suggesting we do that now, as most of us would probably feel uncomfortable. But here’s something you might try at home: praying alone, using set words and praying aloud.  This week, going into my room to pray, I found myself saying the set psalm for morning prayer out loud, and doing so on behalf of the people of Ukraine:

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.  [Ps. 43:1, 2, 5]

There are people round the world praying passionately for Ukraine right now.  And those prayers have effect, for as Jesus said, where even a few people gather to pray in his name, he is with them.  Here’s just one quote from a pastor in Lviv this week:

“Please tell your people, because of their prayers, God really fights our battles. The rockets disappear in the air without reaching our homes and no one knows where they did go. Enemy tanks run out of fuel, Russian troops get lost and ask our locals for food and direction – that is definitely God because we are dealing with the second strongest army in the world. And this morning Kyiv and other major cities are still free and so are we. In Lviv we do not have to run to our basements.”[1]

At the end of each week’s session in the Lent group we are given a few questions to think about. One of this week’s questions is this: “In this passage we hear of prayer as ‘pleading your case before the mountains and letting the hills hear your voice’. What are you passionate about that makes you turn to God in prayer?”

I will finish by teaching you two words in Ukrainian – they are the same in Russian, and of course we must remember the suffering of Russian soldiers who are only obeying orders, as well as those they are fighting. ‘Gaspodi Pamilui’ – Lord, have mercy. ‘Gaspodi Pamilui’ – Lord, have mercy.

[1] accessed 18/3/22

My eyes are dim with weeping (and other prayers)

Monument to Thomas Sainsbury – St Mary’s church, Market Lavington
© Mike Searle and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Yesterday I combined two short prayer responses in one comment.  We have three more for the rest of the week (numbers 207 to 209 in the Sing Praise book), equally short, so I’m combining them too.

207 (Tuesday) is a setting by John Harper of the response familiar to all Church of England regulars: ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer’. 209 (Thursday) is by Paul Inwood and is a cantor/response chant: ‘We ask you, Lord / Listen to our prayer’, repeated one tone lower.  Either of these would be used after each section of congregational prayers.

208 (Wednesday), with words by John Bell to a tune by Alison Adam, is also a cantor/response chant, but is slightly longer, and also quite different in tone. In fact it is achingly plaintive in its words and music.  The cantor wails ‘My eyes are dim with weeping and my pillow soaked with tears’, the response being ‘Faithful God, remember me’.  This is not so much intercession as lament.  

Previous generations are sometimes criticised for being over-sentimental in their use of imagery such as the one above. Church monuments like this one from the late 18th century often feature women weeping over a tomb or urn covered in drapes (similar to pillows, I suppose). But sometimes in grief or pain we do find ourselves literally weeping into the pillow, either for our own situation or that of a loved one, and there seem to be no adequate words with which to ask God to help.  These words will do, and
this chant could be used by the individual lamenting over some great crisis in their life. Asking God to ‘remember me’ is asking him not to ignore my plight or leave me helpless.

Alternatively, this could be used corporately, perhaps at a funeral, remembrance service or or if the theme of the service leads itself to intercession for people who might not be known to us by name but with whose suffering we want to empathise: flood or famine victims, survivors of a disaster, etc. But like strong medicines it should only be used sparingly. ‘Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer’ will suffice for most occasions.

The next blog in this series will therefore be on Friday as we look at the ‘O antiphons’ for the last week of Advent.

Sending our petitions to God

Praying together in church.
Image from Horizon Community Church
Original source unknown

I’m combining two days’ choices of songs from Sing Praise in one post, because both are very short, both are by the same composer (John Bell) and both are intended as ‘intercession responses’ to be used between each section of prayers in public or group worship.

The words are short enough to be reproduced in full: the first, which I chose for Sunday 12th December, is ‘Lord, hear our cry / Listen to our prayer’.  It could be used with everyone singing those words, but the suggestion is that the cantor (worship leader, or whoever is reading the prayers) sings the first part, with everyone else responding ‘Listen to our prayer’.  Or it could be used in open prayer, where anyone who has been praying from the heart (the best form of prayer!) using ‘Lord hear our cry’ as a signal for others to respond.

The second one, which I chose for the 13th but which our own church music leader happened to pick for Sunday worship today, is ‘Through our lives and by our prayer, your kingdom come’.  This one is in four part harmony so is more suited to being used by a rehearsed music group, although it could of course be sung in unison or by a single voice. Our vicar introduced the response to each section of the intercessions by saying ‘until your kingdom comes…’. 

The reason such chants exist (and we will be using others for each of the next few days) is that prayer in church should be that of the whole people. Where some traditions including many Church of England congregations have a small rota of people speaking the prayers, a said or sung response to each prayer means that everyone can add their voice.  It’s not surprising that the term ‘petition’ is sometimes used for these prayers that ask God to do something about a problem, as it is for when a large number of people sign a document asking a worldly authority to do the same.  The difference is that God has promised always to take notice of our petitions, although his action in response, with his infinite knowledge of past, present and future, might not always be what we ask or expect.

There is a longing in our hearts

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘There is a longing in our hearts’ by Anne Quigley.  It’s from the section headed ‘prayer’, but longing is one of the themes of Advent, and the chorus reflects this: ‘There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us. There is a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, our God’. 

The first three short verses cover various types and occasions of prayer, for others, ourselves and our relationship with God.  We pray for ‘justice, freedom, mercy, wisdom, courage, healing and wholeness, and new life’. We pray in ‘sorrow, grief, weakness, fear, sickness and death’.  Of course we can also pray in thankfulness and joy, but that isn’t the emphasis in this reflective season of the year. The last verse instead asks God to be light in our darkness. 

The last line of all the verses is ‘be near, hear our prayer, O God’.   Altogether, with its subdued melody, themes of longing and light in darkness, it’s a very suitable hymn for the season.

We cannot measure how you heal

Philip Ilott (1936-2010)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “We cannot measure how you heal” by John Bell and Graham Maule.

The whole area of spiritual healing is one in which attitudes vary among Christians, from those who dismiss the idea that God can intervene at all in natural processes to those who believe that any physical or mental illness can be healed with prayer if only we have enough faith. But most of us, I hope, would accept that God can and does heal, and that an apparent lack of healing in response to prayer is not the fault either of the sufferer or the one who prays for them. 

That seems to be the starting point of this hymn: we cannot understand the “how” or “why” of healing, yet “we believe your grace responds where faith and doubt unite to care”.  The second part of this first verse refers to Jesus’ blood on the cross, which is an essential part of a specifically Christian attitude to healing: Jesus, the “wounded healer”, suffered both physical and mental pain, to an extent that few humans are unlucky enough to share, and only the truly evil would wish on anyone else.

The second verse acknowledges what is increasingly understood by medical practitioners as well as faith healers, that good health and effective healing are heavily dependent on psychology and on a person’s past experience. Pain, guilt, fear and bad memories are indeed “present as if meant to last”, preventing us from achieving health in the roundest sense of that term.  The antidote to that is explained here as “love which tends the hurt we never hoped to find”.  The third verse also makes reference in the phrase “some have come to make amends” to the fact that lack of forgiveness, either for our own sins or for the ways that others have hurt us, can also lead to ill health and prevent healing.  

Many people have testified to the healing work of God’s Holy Spirit in uncovering past experiences that are at the root of later suffering.  I recently read “A smile on the face of God”, by Adrian Plass, a biography of the Revd Philip Ilott who experienced this as part of his own healing as well as being given the spiritual gift of bringing God’s healing to others.  The process was not a pleasant experience for him, and his story is certainly not one of ‘happy ever after’ (in fact he died of multiple sclerosis) but it does illustrate many of the points made above, and along the way he discovered the peace of God that can be present even though pain, which sometimes is in fact the healing that is needed.

Like the murmur of the dove’s song

Today’s hymn in our Pentecost series from Sing Praise is “Like the murmur of the dove’s song” by Carl P Daw Jr.  As with most other hymns about (or in this case, addressed to) the Holy Spirit, it tries to cover many aspects of the nature and gifts of the Spirit.

The words of the hymn are carefully structured: three verses, in each of which the first four lines begin with the same word, and then the fifth line of each verse is the same invocation, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”.

The common word of verse one is “Like”: Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight, like the vigour of the wind’s rush, like the new flame’s eager might”. Once again we see the contrast between the gentle murmuring bird, and the power of wind and flame. When we ask the Spirit to come, we don’t know which of these aspects will be present.

Verse two is about movement towards us: “To the members of Christ’s body, to the branches of the vine, to the Church in faith assembled, to her midst as gift and sign”. In other words, we ask the Spirit to come to us individually, to our congregations (branches) and to the whole Church. From the private room to the world stage, the Spirit is called to be present.

Verse three is about the Spirit’s particular gifts and fruits: “with the healing of division, with the ceaseless voice of prayer, with the power to love and witness, with the peace beyond compare”. The Spirit enables what would otherwise not be possible, whether seemingly intractable divisions in society or the peace that always seems beyond reach. Whenever we pray for some situation that seems hopeless, our refrain must be “come, Holy Spirit, come”.

Your will be done on earth, O Lord

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a harmonised chant from southern Africa of one line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth, O Lord”.

As it’s such a short text, it invites a reflection on the meaning of these familiar words. John used it in morning prayer as a response to the intercessions, which seems fitting: we ask the Lord for what we think seems appropriate (perhaps for the healing of someone in pain, the righting of an injustice somewhere in the world, or for some perceived need in our own lives).  Then we pause and say (or sing) “your will be done, O Lord”.  It’s a reminder that an answer to prayer is never guaranteed to be what we were hoping for, because we cannot fully understand another person, let alone God himself. 

Does that mean we shouldn’t pray for specific things?  The writer C S Lewis expressed many wise things about prayer, but here’s one of them: 

‘Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?” “On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.” “That’s quite different,” I protested. “I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.’ (C S Lewis, “God in the Dock”).

So do pray as you think right.  But then ask that God’s will, not yours, be done.  Even Jesus himself, on his last night in Gethsemane, prayed that.

Stay with me

The song I have picked for Maundy Thursday from Sing Praise is a chant from the Taizé community, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray”.  Those are the only words of the refrain sung by the congregation, and they are to be sung reflectively and repeatedly.  This simple chant can be used on its own to lead into intercession or a time of silent prayer.

Alternatively, it can be the base line or ‘ostinato’ while a cantor sings other words above it.  The texts given here are probably intended as examples rather than a fixed set, but what they have in common are that they are all words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels as being spoken on this last full day of his earthly life. The first is nearly the same as the refrain, but looking at the others:

Lines 2 and 3 form a pair: “Watch and pray not to give way to temptation / The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak”.  Even Jesus struggled with temptation, especially in this last trial when he knew an agonising death faced him.  He warns the disciples that they too would be tempted to abandon him for fear of persecution – and indeed many did.

Line 4, “My heart is nearly broken with sorrow, remain here with me, stay awake and pray” is another reminder that Jesus really was human, in the emotions he experienced.  He actually needed the friendship, support and prayer of his disciples, just as church leaders today need the friendship, support and prayer of their congregations.

Lines 5 and 6 form another pair: “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by / Father, if this cannot pass me by without me drinking it, your will be done”.  Jesus in his humanity really didn’t want to through with the crucifixion, and asked God, his own father, to find a way round it.  But it was not to be, and he finally abandoned himself to his fate, forsaking any divine powers and letting humanity do its worst.

Line 7, “Stay awake, be ready, the Lord is coming!” reminds us that the command to stay awake and alert is not only for this night but for the whole of our lives, as there will come a time either through death or the return of Christ when we will be judged by our response and attitude to him.

 “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray”.  This takes us into the night when Jesus was condemned.

O Lord, my heart is not proud

With apologies, I’m running a day late here.  The song I chose for Shrove Tuesday (16 February) was “O Lord, my heart is not proud” by Margaret Rizza.  This is a short setting of verses from Psalm 131, and I chose it because it is a psalm of turning back to God, which is very much the theme of this day in the Christian calendar.  It’s short enough to be quoted in full:

O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great, nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace;
at rest, as a child is in its mother’s arms,
so is my soul. 
(translation copyright 1963 The Grail)

There is no attempt here to force the words into a set rhythm or rhyming pattern, this is essentially a prayer to be reflected on, equally well spoken as sung.  It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:6, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It’s a reminder that in prayer we do not come to God boasting of our achievements, but rather aware of our limitations. Also that  the ideal attitude for prayer is to seek silence in God’s presence and to relax into conversation with him (hopefully not falling asleep, but I don’t believe God minds if we fall asleep in his presence, any more than a mother minds if her child sleeps in her arms).

The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 February.

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

20 February. Judith chapters 8-10

These chapters introduce the main protagonist in the story, and show us various different aspects of her complex character.  In chapter 8, Judith is shown as a widow who has been mourning her late husband for several years: a pitiable figure, though she had been left riches.  When the siege reaches crisis point, though, she comes out of her shell and takes part in the discussions.

In ‘democratic’ Britain it is only in the last few decades that we have had elected women leaders (though of course we have had a hereditary Queen for more than half of the last two hundred years). Before that, misogyny ruled. But the Bible, written so long ago, shows us that women can be born leaders.  Judith is not the only example – Miriam and Deborah (and as we shall see, also Jael) would have been her inspiration.  In the presence of the male elders, Judith comes across as a good orator and a courageous leader: the Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of her day, if you like (without comment on their policies).  Except that unlike them, she was also beautiful, which was an extra string to her bow in what she was planning.

In chapter 9, Judith is seen as a holy woman, willing to cast aside any privilege and pride and humble herself before God.  Her prayer is in the Hebrew tradition of praising God for his mighty acts of the past, before petitioning him for present needs, although she starts with reference to some recent incident when the enemy’s use of rape as a tactic of war resulted in God (through the men of her tribe, presumably) taking vengeance on them.  At the core of her prayer is a statement of dependence on God which has echoes of Mary’s Magnificat: “Your strength does not lie in numbers, nor your might in violent men: since you are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the  weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the saviour of the despairing” (9:11).

Then in chapter 10, she becomes the Mata Hari figure, the glamorous double-agent who charms her way into the enemy camp as a friend while actually being a spy.  So this complex woman – widow, orator, politician, intercessor, beauty and spy – takes her place ready to let God work through her.

Each of us will have been given a different mix of gifts by God, but not all of them may seem to be used all the time. There might only be one time in our lives when all that we are will come together to achieve something for him that no-one else could.  But as Judith acknowledges in her prayer, all we can do is make ourselves available to be used.