Deserts and What Happens to Prayer
As many of you will know, Lent starts with Ash Wednesday.
When I was the assistant curate in a previous parish I suggested we ran a small Ash Wednesday service at the school. It was a great time and I found it very moving, ashing over 200 young people. It really brought back so many memories of my own school experiences of Ash Wednesday - I remember I loved the physicality of it - all its signs and symbols - its deep spirituality - but in many ways I didn’t fully grasp what it all meant.
Reflecting on all of this I started to think about my journey and experiences since I was a young boy - and you know what - it’s fair to say things didn’t go as I expected. Whilst I’ve been blessed - the journey has often been difficult and challenging - I wouldn’t change anything - but I can’t say it has been easy.
And in thinking about all of this I remembered a sermon I heard a while back now by Father Stephen Huggins - which was all about deserts and lent.
You see at this time - at the beginning of Lent - we remember the 40 years the Jewish people spent in the desert after their escape from Egypt - and we also remember Jesus 40 days and 40 nights in the Judaean desert - where he goes after his baptism - and before he starts his ministry - where he goes to endure huge hardships as part of his preparation but also to directly take on the devil.
We don’t know much about deserts in Britain really do we – it’s all a bit too damp and wet and green. Does anyone know where our closest desert is? Well it's actually in my home country of Spain in the region of Murcia – we probably have to go a bit further to find the next closest desert - probably in North Africa and it wouldn’t take long before we would find our ways to the Holy Land.
Some of you may have been to the Judaean desert? I had the chance to go a few years ago - and I have to say nothing can prepare you for it - it’s staggering and it is terrifying - in its bleakness, its desolation and its daunting scale, - but it’s beauty as well - I really wasn’t expecting this - and had never seen anything like it before.
It’s difficult to imagine how Jesus survived in that environment for 40 days and 40 nights. It must have been horrific. It is something we will never know or experience ourselves.
Father Stephen was reflecting on this – and he made the point - you don’t have to go all the way to Judea to experience the desert - life brings that desert to you. Right to your door - all too easily and when you least expect it. And it can be terrifying.
Perhaps we are struggling with illness, pain, fear, guilt, depression, addiction, grief, loss, the threat of violence – perhaps you are struggling to pay bills or a relationship is falling apart – perhaps the ageing process is taking joy and freedom from you - perhaps you are struggling to forgive someone or perhaps you are suffering because you have not been forgiven.
Suddenly that desert - that terrifying desert is all around you - we are lost and we are scared and alone – we thirst for hope and we starved of peace - and we can’t find the way out and it is all too easy to give up hope.
This experience of the desert is a real thing - I know all about it and I’m sure you do to.
Now when Jesus is in the desert, he knew he could call on the help of Angels - if he needed the help - he didn’t - but he knew he could call on them.
I think one of the key messages for me during this period of Lent is not to forget we have had the resurrection and that Easter is on its way to remind us of this.
And the Good News of the resurrection is that we’ve got more than Angels to call on - we’ve got angels of course - but we’ve got more than angels - we’ve got Jesus - we’ve got the risen Christ - and he will be there with us in that desert. Helping us - guiding us and showing us the way out. We just have to listen ….and He is saying -
I will fight for you - I will defend our heart - and my kindness will be your shield
When you experience tragedy, I will grieve with you and never leave our side
If you let me - I will save you from your hearts of stone and heal your broken bones.
I am always on our side. On our side.
So for me one of the key messages of Lent is that no matter what sadness, pain and desolation we are experiencing – no matter how lost we are in that desert - that through Christ we are never alone - we are never lost - and we are always loved. We just have to remember and trust in God.
In really understanding and knowing this we find ourselves needing to think about our prayer lives. In other words our relationship with God.
As part of my journey through lent I am reading Sheila Upjohns book about Julian of Norwich - Julian, that great Norwich Mystic and Theologian of the middle ages. Julian’s visions have taught me much about God - extraordinary things - and one of these things is about prayer - especially in times of pain and need.
Julian says prayer is not one-sided. God is longing to hear from us. Julian writes that our prayer makes God glad and happy. He wants and waits for our prayers so that, by his grace, he can bring us close to him …Julian says…… God is avid for our prayers continually.
All of us have known times when we waited anxiously for a letter, or these days an email or digital app notification. I find it a wonderful thought that God feels the same, waiting to hear from us.
Julian is shown in her visions the importance of prayer when we find ourselves in the desert. She says that we should pray inwardly, even though we find no joy in it. Prayer does good, even though we may feel nothing, see nothing, yes, even though we think we cannot pray. When we are dry and empty, sick and weak, our prayers still please God even though there is little enough to please us. For God our reaching out to him is precious and God accepts the Goodwill and work of believers, no matter how we feel.
Julian also talks about the preciousness of prayer. She says God keeps our prayers in the Treasury where they will never be lost. They are there before God and all his holy ones, continually heard - continually helping our needs - and when we come to heaven - our prayers will be given to us as part of our delight, with endless joyful thanks from God.
It's a new thought isn't it that our prayers are stored in heaven and is challenging when we think perhaps of what we have at times prayed for or perhaps how few prayers there might be.
This Lent, if you find yourself in the desert or not - perhaps take the time to revisit your understanding of prayer. To take the time to talk to God - that he delights your prayer - no matter how difficult it is to pray.
If you are in the desert right now, beset by pain and evil, reach out to God right now - Jesus Christ is right there beside you. Pray and reach out to him. You are loved, you are not alone and you are protected by the Holy One of God.