Travelling a dark and dangerous journey
A sermon on Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85, Luke 11:1-13, Col 2:6-15, by Jill Friebel 25 July 2004

I want to talk about prayer tonight. You wouldn’t expect a Spiritual Director to pass up an opportunity of talking about prayer would you? Some of you may not realise the connection, so let me explain it a little. The practice of Spiritual Direction is primarily concerned with helping a person directly with his or her relationship with God. I would like to try and demystify prayer a little and broaden your perceptions of what it can be and briefly explain how closely linked and connected it is to your relationship with God. The word prayer can conjure up thoughts and feelings that vary from just downright depressing and feeling guilty to warmth, intimacy and ecstasy and just about everything in between.

We know from our human experience that being in a relationship with another person involves experience, communion and dialogue. It is something that takes time and involves a deliberate and conscious choice to share your life with another and allow the friendship to develop in delight, enjoyment, closeness and intimacy. We also know that these same relationships, especially the ones we treasure and invest in the most go through times of challenge and frustration and disappointment. Now if there are challenges enough with these human relationships where we can see and touch and listen to each other it is not surprising that there are some added difficulties relating to Someone we can’t see, touch or feel. If you find it frustratingly illusive at times then you are in good company.

Anyone who seriously pursues the journey of spirituality and prayer can identify with Thomas Merton’s concern that his books expressed the spiritual life so confidently and surely when actually he was plagued by insecurities, doubts and even terrors. Is there room for a pilgrim – just that, a pilgrim and not an expert or a saint? A pilgrim is one who enters into a long-term committed loving relationship of communion, dialogue and experiencing God. He or she enters into a relationship with a self-communicating God, and this is what we call prayer. A Spiritual Director is just another pilgrim who walks beside you and listens, listens to the religious experiences of the fellow pilgrim and helps them pay attention to this self-communicating God. A religious experience is any experience of the mysterious Other whom we call God. But what do I mean by religious experience? It can be any human experience, but one that also has a religious significance to it. I will give you an example.

“Several years ago a young woman came to me for help with her prayer life. She was a committed pilgrim but she hadn’t prayed for 2 years. During a session she shared with me an image that had come to here many years previously. She was alone in a sailing boat on a lake and while the wind had blown her into the middle of the lake it had now dropped and the water was as smooth as glass. The sails hung quietly and all she had was one oar. She was now rowing frantically trying to get to the other side, but just went round in circles. She felt quite stupid. The image had been present with her on and off for 10 years. It was becoming more persistent and as her relationship with God became more strained, she herself was feeling rather vulnerable for many good reasons. Having an image of boats, water, oars is not particularly religious. We all see oars and boats and water etc but it was what was happening to her when it flashed back into her mind. It was triggering something she couldn’t quite explain but it held a lot of emotion. God was encountering her in this image and has been for a long time, but she needed to stop and listen, and help to hear what God was saying to her in it. Every religious experience is firstly an ordinary every day garden type human experience, good or bad. God encounters us in these everyday experiences, through his creation and through our interactions with each other. It is from these places you are invited to pray, just where you are, coming as you are. Your experience may be that you can’t pray, its too difficult or you never get around to it – this is your experience and the place to begin. Tell God what it feels like, Jesus said to knock and keep on knocking, ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking. Stay long enough in the silence to hear his reply. He’s promised not to leave you standing in the cold for too long, just long enough for you to notice the things within you that keep him out.

In Tolkien’s book – “The Fellowship of the Ring” – he writes of the ponies who were lost in Bree on the trip to the elf kingdom Rivendell. They were found by Bob and Tolkien comments that: “They had to work harder in Bree, but Bob treated them well; so on the whole they were lucky: they missed a dark and dangerous journey. But they never came to Rivendell.”

Yes, they were lucky: they missed a dark and dangerous journey. But they never came to Rivendell the place they had heard about and longed for.

Every Sunday night we invoke the name of the God who mysteriously draws us by name and leads us to a place we have never seen.

Blessed are you, God of all creation,
and blessed is the communion
into which you gather us.

You promised through your beloved Son
that when two or three gather together in his name,
you will be there in the midst of them.

Send your Holy Spirit
to call us by name
and lead us home.

We come defeated, we come dancing,
We come traumatised, we come trusting,
We come aggrieved, we come adoring;

We come because our hearts are made restless
by echoes of a song we have never heard
and memories of a place we have never seen.

God has made our hearts restless for him, the echoes and memories placed deep within us are the longings for connectedness and communion with him that draws us on to seek this place we have never seen. The restlessness and longing is a gift from God, and can take on a deep anguish which can turn into frustration and then become anger. We are in danger of being disillusioned unless we allow God to transform this into an energy force welling up into courage to leave the known and journey into the unknown -to leave the safe and head into the dangerous.

Nearly all of us responded in the recent church review that one thing we appreciated at South Yarra was the connectedness we experienced with God in our worship. It seemed to come as something of a surprise and delight. Now this is a good thing. In fact it is a very good thing for here you will be treated well and asked to work hard and so on the whole you are lucky: for if you settle for this you will miss a dark and dangerous journey. But you may never come to Rivendell.

Listening to God and responding in prayer is the call to a dark and dangerous journey. That’s why we need guides, to lead us through the darkness that we might know what lies concealed; that we may bring it towards the light. We are surrounded by guides: the stories recorded in the Scriptures of people struggling to listen and respond to the self-revealing God, there are a row of saints who have gone before us who incidentally would never have called themselves saints, you will find wonderful spiritual directors in books, and we your pastors and other spiritual directors all desire to be fellow pilgrims walking beside you helping you listen to God.

All of the readings tonight are stories about different human experiences that became religious experiences. How they learnt to pray and journey with God.

Firstly the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray and he gives them a powerful prayer to be used often. It is simple but incredibly rich with meaning, as we have begun to discover in these past few weeks in our study groups. To repeat it over and over will begin to affect you in different ways as you connect with the meaning and truth it contains. It belongs to a genre of liturgical prayer which we already benefit from so much in community. There are many beautiful prayers which can enrich your own personal prayer life immensely, set up a rhythm each morning and evening and allow God to touch you through the words of others.

The Psalm we heard tonight also belongs in this genre. Many of the psalms are the cry of a heart yearning for God often confused and angry.

The “Jesus Prayer” is another ancient prayer used by thousands of pilgrims before us which goes simply like this “Jesus Christ have mercy on me”. You can repeat it over and over during the day, try it and see what happens. It is a prayer I turn to often for it draws me back to focus on God’s presence in whatever situation I find myself in.

In the second passage Paul is writing to the Colossians imploring them to stay on track. When they first heard of Jesus Christ they began connecting with him in their daily life, everything changed for them and they were baptised into his life-giving power. They experienced forgiveness from their sins, it didn’t make them sinless, but they were no longer burdened by the guilt of their sin. Their everyday human experience became deeply religious. Each time they failed they could now confess and pray and share their inner hopes and dreams with Jesus knowing full well how much he loved them. Paul, their spiritual director is warning and exhorting them that they are getting lost. “Get back into relationship with Jesus, put down your roots and draw on Christ in everything you do. Don’t get sidetracked and caught up with other highfalutin theories and intellectual claptrap, and quasi feel good spiritualities, keep connecting with Jesus the nerve centre of the cosmos.”

Thirdly there is Hosea who was experienced in prayer, he listened so well to God that his whole life became a religious experience. He learned to trust in the ways of God and through his obedience discovered a Presence with him through the darkness, the brokenness and the unfaithfulness of the wife he loved and was so devoted to. He knew what it was to share in the suffering and pain of the Jilted Jealous Betrayed Lover of Israel – God. Through his sufferings others were reconnected with God.

T.S. Eliot writes about this journey saying:

But let me tell you, that to approach the stranger
Is to invite the unexpected, release a new force,
Or let the genie out of the bottle.
It is to start a train of events
Beyond your control….

If you have begun the journey to Rivendell or you have a longing to start, you may find it helpful and encouraging to receive a blessing and anointing for the way. You will need companions and guides, ones who will listen and hold you in the name of Jesus on this dark and dangerous journey.