Pray for all in authority…

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Pray for all in authority. Christ Church Highbury, September 18th 2016

A couple of months ago, I received an email from my Dad entitled: “Pray for Jeremy”. Before opening it, I pondered who Jeremy might be. Was it a family friend who had been taken ill? Was it a long-forgotten cousin? As it turned out, it was our constituency MP, Jeremy Corbyn. My Dad had known that earlier that day I’d been at a “Love Islington” rally on Highbury Fields, at which both Islington MPs had spoken, alongside religious leaders, council members and other key people who were speaking out against hate crime. He was also referring back to a service he and the rest of my family had attended at Christ Church – my first Eucharist – in which I had prayed for our MP during the intercessions. It had prompted an interesting chat amongst the family later on. Did I ever pray for the Prime Minister? Were there any objections to praying for an MP who is open about not having a faith? What are the boundaries we need to have between church and politics?

Love Islington

That might sound like a rather heavy conversation, but I come from a family that’s always been interested in politics. In fact, had you met me when I was an idealistic 17-year-old, studying politics A-level, I would have told you that my ambition was to become Britain’s second female prime minister! That ship has most definitely sailed…

On the one hand, for me personally, the Christian call to social action is inseparable from political action and awareness. But that doesn’t mean that I would ever dare to tell people how they should be voting from the pulpit. I’m a member of a political party, but I’ve decided that I can’t campaign because that would be a conflict of interest. I try to get along to the Christian network attached to that party when I can, and find that the most helpful way of engaging with politics and knowing what’s going on.

This congregation has a wide range of political views, and I’m not going to assume that I know what any of them are! That’s not the point of this sermon, or of Paul’s words to Timothy. But, what is important, is that we recognise the important role that we as Christians have to play in supporting those in political authority over us.   

Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (Verses 1-2)

These words, written two millennia ago, to Timothy as he led the fledgling church in Ephesus, should resonate strongly with us, in the Britain of 2016. What Paul is trying to emphasise to Timothy and the Ephesians is the role that prayer for the state should have within their Christian discipleship.

The call to pray for those in authority was not a new one. The Jews had been instructed to pray for those in authority over them, and Jesus taught to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). It’s also a theme that Paul repeats in his writing – like the famous passage in his letter to the Romans. 

Romans chapter 13 begins: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Verse 4 continues: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…”

Paul is clear that God establishes the political authorities under which they are living. It is part of God’s will for that nation and its society. In encouraging the church to submit, Paul is also helping the church to gain credibility – for example, in paying taxes and being something akin to model citizens.

So in part, Paul’s words to Timothy are to do with ensuring the protection of the church. But the call to prayer goes much deeper than that. What Paul is actually looking for are the best possible conditions in which the Kingdom of God can grow and thrive. That’s what the prayer is about.

Look again at verse 2. “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It’s actually the latter part that is most important. It’s not about peace and quiet, it’s about godliness and holiness.

How we pray:

Thinking about our current political climate, it’s easy to forget the role that God has in it all – especially in Britain. How many times have you yelled at the TV or radio when you’ve heard a politician say something with which you’ve strongly disagreed? How many times have you criticised a party’s policies over drinks with friends? How many times have you bemoaned the state of British politics in the last three months alone?? When was the last time you prayed before you voted?

Every week, our prayers of intercession feature specific prayers for those in political authority. We pray for the Queen; often we pray for Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry; usually the government gets a mention. In the liturgy we use for prayers at the 9am service, this section of the intercessions ends with these words:

“Bless and guide Elizabeth our Queen; give wisdom to all in authority;
and direct this and every nation in the ways of justice and of peace;
that we may honour one another, and seek the common good.”

Usually, and I can’t speak for every single one of you, there is a murmured “Hear our Prayer” or “Amen” from the congregation at the end of this prayer. But how often do any of us really think about what we’re praying for? Are we really only keen on praying for those politicians we support? Do we actually want to pray for a politician that we wouldn’t put a vote in the ballot box for?

We pray for those in authority over us regardless of their own faith or beliefs. We know that Jeremy Corbyn describes himself as an atheist; that Sadiq Khan is Muslim; and that our Prime Minister is the daughter of a priest – but we pray for them all the same, because we believe that it is important. And, most importantly, because God calls us to do so.

What Paul – and I – would encourage, based upon his words to Timothy, is that we cover all in authority with prayer. In doing so, we are asking God to equip them to the best job possible, which is important, given just how challenging governing a country is!

Look at it another way: isn’t it bad enough that the party you support lost, without leaving the government without the support of prayer?

Not always clear where God is politics:

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. When political situations are difficult, it can be hard to see exactly where God is at work, or whether our prayers are having any impact at all.

Sometimes it can be hard because more than one political side may be invoking the name of God in support of their policies and ideas. Historically, this was the case in WW1 – not only did both sides believe theirs was a divinely ordained cause, but Christian imagery was a significant component of the mourning of the lives lost during the conflict. In modern politics, this is something that comes across particularly in nations like the US, where capturing the votes of religious communities is particularly important. How does prayer for the authorities work when both sides use the name of God to achieve power?

There are also times when Paul’s words regarding authority in Romans have to be weighed up against the need for the church to be a prophetic voice in society, speaking out against injustice and abuses of power. In the 1930’s, as the Nazis took control of the German government, and turned the national church into a pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement, a group of Christians came together to work out how best to write a response to these developments. In what became known as the Barmen Declaration, written in 1934, theologians and church leaders rejected the false doctrine that they felt had infiltrated the church through the Nazis’ influence. It also underlined: “the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which “can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed”

This document emerged from prayer and conversation. Covering our political leaders doesn’t mean we have to accept their actions unquestioningly. Part of our role as Christians is to pray, listen for God’s response, and determine how best to act. Incidents where the church has stood up against governments acting unjustly – like Nazi Germany, or during the apartheid era in South Africa – are testament to the way in which God moves through the church’s prayers.

Conclusion:

Hopefully the take-home from this sermon is obvious: pray.

But this could be easier said than done! A great piece of advice on how to do this comes from one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration: the theologian Karl Barth.

He once wrote that Christians should: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” We can’t possibly pray adequately for our leaders if we don’t take the time to find out what’s going on.

Keep up to date with the news. Find out who has positions of responsibility in local and national government, so that you can pray for them by name. You could join a political and/or Christian mailing list that keeps you informed of specific issues that might need your prayers – Ekklesia is one organisation that does regular emails highlighting issues relating to faith and politics. Or, you could sign up to one of the politically affiliated groups like Christians on the Left or the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

Before I conclude with a time of prayer, I want to leave you with the words of Paul to Timothy again:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

When Church History & TfL geekery collide

Last week (I am horrendously behind in blogging at the moment, forgive me) I achieved something of a 2014 First – if I was still keeping lists of such things. For the very first time, I had my own byline in the Church Times.

In all the ways thou goest

It had been on the list of ‘hypothetical things to achieve at some point’, and was partly achieved last summer when I was part of the paper’s Greenbelt reporting team. But this was an actual commission, that came about through a random combination of Twitter and a college seminar while in France last autumn.

The article, ‘In all the ways thou goest’, was on the subject of prayer while travelling, in the context of the growth of apps and websites that facilitate praying on the move. It derived some inspiration from friends who regularly pray on their commute, tweeting invitations to share requests with the hashtag #trainprayer.

What actually prompted the commission from the Church Times was a tweet of mine from way back in January, when I’d just finished writing up a hypothetical retreat for London Diocese, based around the concept of retreating on the tube. I’d risen to a challenge from one of my tutors who had speculated as to whether it would even be possible to retreat while on the tube. Surely it’s too busy and too stressful to be a place to meet with God?

For a start, I knew that people did use it for just that purpose day in, day out. Back in my commuting days, I did and saw others clutching Bibles or similar on our morning journey. I also knew that the tube has a lot of religious connections, in terms of station names and the history behind them. Finally, I figured you could use the context as a means of shaping who, what and where you prayed for.

You see most of that in the article, but as I needed to make it whole-of-UK friendly, the tube specific factoids were left out – so I thought I’d share them here instead. That way, next time you feel inclined to pray on the tube, you may want to pray into the history of some of the places on the maps above your head. See, Church History and TfL knowledge comes in handy all over the place!!

[Incidentally, I’m indebted to Morven for going through my copy of What’s in a Name and marking every station that has a religious connection – not the funnest Sunday afternoon activity on a weekend in London, but she learnt lots too!]

Blackfriars – name taken from the colour of the habits worn by the Dominican Friars at a monastery on the site from the 13th Century to 1538 when it was abolished by Henry VIII.

Boston Manor – the ‘Manor’ originally belonged to the convent of St Helen’s Bishopsgate.

Bow Church – named after St Mary Bow Church, which has been a place of worship since the 14th Century.

Camden Town – this area of London was originally a manor belonging to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Canon’s Park – six acres of land were granted to the Prior of the St Augustinian canons of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield in 1331 & were recorded as ‘Canons’ during the 16th century.

Grange Hill – the Grange was originally one of the manors that belonged to Tilty Priory, until the dissolution of the monasteries.

Highbury & Islington – during the 13th Century, the Priory of St John of Jerusalem had a manor here, which was destroyed in 1381.

Highgate – at the ‘high gate’, tolls were collected from travellers wishing to use the Bishop of London’s road across Hornsey Park to Finchley.

Hornchurch – ancient records (1222) refer to a ‘horned church’ or monastery.

Hyde Park Corner – from 1066-1536, Hyde Park belonged to Westminster Abbey

King’s Cross St Pancras – St Pancras is named for Old St Pancras church. [Which I finally visited last week and is fascinating. It definitely deserves its title of ‘old’!]

Liverpool Street – a priory stood here from 1246-1676.

Mansion House – the station was built on what had been the site of Holy Trinity the Less.

Parson’s Green – named after the area surrounding Fulham’s parsonage.

Plaistow – is derived from the Old English for ‘playing place’ and was where mystery plays were staged.

Preston Road – derived from the Old English for ‘priest’ and ‘farm’. A priest is mentioned as owning land in the area in the Domesday Book.

Ruislip Manor – the area once held a priory dependent upon the Norman Abbey of Bec.

St Paul’s – named after the cathedral, which was first built in the 7th Century.

Upminster – means ‘the church on high land’.

Walthamstow Central – derived from the Old English for ‘welcome’ and ‘holy place’.

Whitechapel – named after the white stone chapel of St Mary Matfelon, which was first built in 1329.

Tube Angel

You see, sometimes, having a geeky interest in the tube comes in very useful!

Ashed

This morning, I did an exceptionally British and Anglican thing:
I was 3 minutes late for the Ash Wednesday service I’d planned to go to, so I didn’t go in – just in case I looked foolish.

(My flatmate got up an hour earlier than usual and was in the shower when I got up. Then a lost tourist asked me for directions…)

Utterly ridiculous, but in retrospect, a good thing.

For one week only, Wednesday was a study day, not a working day, and I’d decided to make the most of it by attending an Ash Wednesday service at a church I’d never been to before. [Also, my church doesn’t have one, but I’m rather fond of the tradition. This would be yet another example of my excellent, high church Methodist upbringing…]

Having missed the 8.30am eucharist with ash at St James’s Piccadilly, I decided to stick around in the area and get on with my work until the 1.05pm service. As a direct result of this decision, I had a very productive 3-4hours of studying (Amos and Hosea essay notes are very, very nearly done) in a lovely Starbucks and the giant Waterstones (always good to have a change of scenery in between books), knowing that I had a set end time. After all, I didn’t want to be late again.

It was a good decision. No, an excellent one. I was at a table studying far earlier than I would have been at home (8.40am); I didn’t get distracted by household chores; and most importantly, I didn’t give up on my plan to get ashed.

AshedBrilliantly, I’d taken this before I realised that #ashtagselfie had become a thing this year.

For the unfamiliar, as a way of marking the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, the previous year’s palm crosses are burnt, mixed with oil and used to make a cross on the foreheads of those at the service – known as the ‘imposition of the ashes’. As the ashes are imposed, the following words are spoken:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

No, it’s not the cheeriest bit of liturgy, but it’s important. As we all know, life isn’t all joy and laughter. We get things wrong; stuff goes badly; we don’t understand why – we are dust and to dust we shall return… Lent is a season of remembering this; of being penitent of our sins; and remembering the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection.

A lot of Christians get a little over excited about Lent. Social media becomes full of people declaring what they’re giving up (especially if they’re fasting social media itself, I’ve ranted about that one before); what books they’re going to be reading; or what good deeds they’re going to be taking on. I sometimes wonder if we make too much noise about it – after all, isn’t our fasting meant to be done in humbleness? Or perhaps it’s just many people’s way of being accountable and marking Lent in solidarity with others?

Lent has been a long time in coming this year (hello, Easter on almost the latest date it can be in the year…) so we’ve had plenty of time to work out our plan for it. So, as a means of staying accountable, here’s mine:

  • Read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book. Obviously, this decision was in no way influenced by the fact that the author of the book (Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College) gave me a signed copy back in December…
  • Give up chocolate. I’ve NEVER done this for Lent before (I gave up meat for years, chocolate always seemed too obvious) and I know it’s the archetypal Lenten fast, but I suddenly decided yesterday that it would be a good thing. Partly because it’s a go-to comfort when I probably ought to be praying; but also because I’m preaching on fasting in a few week’s time and I figured I ought to practice what I preach – literally.

As a season, it’s a pretty important time for me. Academic deadlines are looming (two big pieces before March is out); decisions need to be made regarding curacies (this may be the root of my current emotional connection to chocolate); and by the end of Lent there will only be a few short weeks left of Vicar School. I get the feeling that Lent 2014 is going to be a time of preparation in several, rather important, ways!

Lent, lent, lent, lent, lent

I think it starts around the same time that Cadbury Creme Eggs appear upon supermarket shelves. It’s occasional at first, but by the end of January, or early February, it’s a veritable avalanche.

I talk of course of the onset of lent – which we are celebrating/commemorating today. (Can you ‘celebrate’ Ash Wednesday? It’s categorically not a feast day.) My Twitter feed has talked of little else than lent books, giving ups, taking ons and social media absences for weeks. [You might be thinking I need to follow different people. You might be right.] People are going veggie, giving up booze, abstaining from tweeting, reading wholesome spiritual tomes, not buying things or eating out…as usual, it’s enormously varied.

Lent, Dave Walker styleLent, Dave Walker style.

Back in my youth, I used to be quite good at the lent thing. Several years of vegetarian lents have created an adult who rarely eats meat (I’m a flexitarian these days); once I gave up fizzy drinks (no idea how this was a big deal – we rarely had them in the house!); I’ve certainly never given up alcohol or chocolate. To be honest, I’m a bigger fan of taking something on for lent. After all, Jesus may have fasted in the wilderness, but he also took on the challenge to live in the desert in the first place…

However, I struggled to think of something. It’s a little like my antipathy towards new year’s resolutions. Why now? Why just for 6 weeks? But, over the weekend, a challenge fell into my lap and I’m seizing it with both hands. I’m retreating.

Well, not literally. At vicar school, there’s an annual retreat weekend (last year I went up north for ‘finger painting with God’ and created what everyone else decided was a golden boob). This year, I opted for a ‘retreat in daily  life’ instead of a weekend away, and this takes place over lent. Initially, at our induction on Saturday, I was hugely dubious; but yesterday I met my spiritual director for the period and she’s super lovely and encouraging. We’ve worked out what my pattern of prayer will be and I’ll meet with her regularly to see how it’s going.

The basis for my pattern – or what will form the morning bit of it at least – is Sacred Space, a website run by Jesuits. I discovered it a couple of months ago, courtesy of a seminar at a vicar weekend, and it’s been brilliant. One of it’s key elements is colloquy – conversation – with Jesus, as if he’s sat next to you on the sofa. [Amusingly, when I told my vicar about the conversation aspect, he asked “who with?”, I replied “Jesus!” and he looked relieved – I then asked if he’d imagined there was a phone number you could ring in order to speak to a Jesuit. Though I rather like that idea!] Obviously, there’s some Bible reading too as well as an evening reflection upon the day.

Given that I’m a trainee vicar, a routine of daily prayer might not seem like much of a challenge. After all (as one friend takes peculiar joy in reminding me frequently), once ordained we’re obliged to say the Daily Office daily. (The clue’s in the name.) However, it’s immensely challenging to find a pattern that works, stick to it, and stay accountable during the process. So personally, I think this is a pretty good lenten activity and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing how it goes – particularly as this year’s lent will be rather more interesting than other years.

But that, quite literally, is a story for tomorrow…

Perfection in an afternoon

I adore swimming at the best of times – throw in sun, warmth and naturally occurring water and I am like a fish in, well, water…

An idyllic spot discovered on Sunday.

The Texan hill country has all three of these, in abundance. Oh to live in a land where you can pull up by the side of a river and swim to your heart’s content! To be told that the programme for a Saturday afternoon was an afternoon by the river was delightful news – discovering that the precise location was a Christian conference centre was less delightful.

However, happy times, Presbyterian Mo Ranch turned out to be nothing like Swanick or High Leigh (destination for many a Christian conference I’ve attended in the UK). For a start, it was big; there was a river; a waterslide; canoes; and possibily the most idyllic place in which I’ve ever swum [excluding Pacific islands].

The afternoon began with the women swimming in the deep water – floating around in tubes and treading water. It was chilly, but not unbearable, which was perfect given the warmth of the sun. While we floated and swam, the men picked up canoes and headed upstream. Just as I was about to lose my dignity (and my swimsuit) attempting to climb upon a floating raft, one canoe returned and one of its occupants insisted that I jump in the boat to experience what they’d just found.

Three of us paddled upstream (with varying degrees of success and several bank-crashing incidents) and pulled the canoe up onto a smooth beach, beyond which we found streams of fast moving water, shallow pools heated by the sun and basically, a beautiful spot. Rapids carried me down a natural waterslide (well, once I gave up resisting the pull of the current having been shamed by several small children) and I then cautiously stepped over slippery rocks to get to a natural jacuzzi. There the three of us sat, watching buzzards fly overhead in a perfectly blue sky, hearing nothing but running water and occasional snatches of laughter.

We took it in turns to have a natural jet bath and ponder the world. I had a deep and meaningful with a new friend – putting the world to rights, praying and generally meeting with God in the midst of awesome surroundings. I think each of us experienced something profound in that place of peace and beauty. With regret and longing we headed back to the canoe and paddled back. The others must have wondered what on earth had happened to us – days later it was still being cited as a highlight.

The thing with open water, swimming and canoes is that it’s not particularly camera or iPhone friendly, so we have no photos with which to remember the afternoon. That’s one of the reasons why I had to write it down, so I couldn’t forget it. But I left with memories that I’ll treasure for a long time to come – oh, and some physical reminders…

…the thing with rocks is that they can be both smooth and rough. When you’re sliding down a stream you can’t always tell what you’re going to hit and at what speed. Thus, I left that beautiful place with rather beautiful grazes across my posterior (I guess I should be thankful that my swimsuit remained intact). For 36 hours afterwards, sitting down was something of a trauma, not to mention foolishly climbing onto some rocks while swimming the following afternoon.

And the thing with the internet is that sometimes you can find other people’s photos of special places. This is the view looking back down the river, at the top of the natural water slide.


Lower yourself into that pool by the rock and whoosh! 
Driving back to the ranch, there was only one possible soundtrack, or really song, that we could listen to –  O Brother Where Art Thou and As I Went Down to the River to Pray. Apt music at its best.