The Gift of Life

Sunday 9th June 2013
Year C, The Second Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
1 Kings 17:17-24
Luke 7:11-17

In spite of the very bad habit of grumbling about the National Health Service - bad because, as a country, we expect an ever improving service without being willing to pay for it - we have never lived longer; and the prospects are for us to live longer yet, particularly if we control our own life style excesses. And so, conversely, because we are living longer, never has intercessory prayer so flourished, because the corollary of living longer is that we suffer from more illnesses. I say this with particular personal feeling in the week when I have undergone my first ever test for prostate cancer.

When I was a child, men came out of the mill at 65 and customarily, literally, popped their clogs around the age of 70; and Women came out of the mill at 60 and usually had 15 years before they, too, popped their clogs. Life was not exactly nasty, brutish and short, as living standards rose but death was usually sudden, swift and predictable and only very rarely took place in a hospital or hospice.

And so now, when we think about prayer, we tend to veer over to intercession rather than, say, adoration, thanksgiving or contrition; we all know somebody who is seriously ill from cancer or another 21st Century disease of ageing and we naturally want them to get better but I think we are in danger of getting ourselves out of balance.

In our First Reading, when Elijah is exhorted by the Shunamite woman to cure her son she is very definite about what she wants because she thinks she has been cheated. Elijah, after all, foretold that she would give birth to a child as a reward for her kindness to him and, after all, she says, there isn't much point in having this son if he's about to die before he can be of any use. So she reminds Elijah of the gift of her son from God and she feels that if he is not cured she will have drawn the shortest of short straws. And so she is, in an important sense, rather devaluing the concept of gift. Nonetheless, with that practical approach which characterises so many Old Testament passages, Elijah does the needful.

The New Testament Reading could hardly be more different. Jesus might have known the widow of Nain by sight or through mutual acquaintances but he shows no sign of knowing her personally. She asks nothing but Jesus' "Heart goes out to her" and, unbidden, he brings her son back to life.

There is something very bracing about the robust dialogue that the Chosen people and their leaders conducted with God but, after all, they did not have the benefit of Jesus as God's son through whom we address our prayers; so the question we need to ask ourselves is where do we stand? Do we plead and even bargain with God or are we prepared to let things be as they will be? We might, as we are properly brought up, pray for somebody to get better if it is God's will but how serious are we about the qualification? Don't we assume that it would be better for the person and us if he or she were to get better? Isn't it our will that God's will should be to bring about a cure?

What we are facing here is a transfer from secular to religious life of what we call the "culture of entitlement" whereby we think that we should enjoy certain goods and services by right but, interestingly, the people who can teach us most about a proper attitude to living are those who have nearly lost their lives. Many people who recover from near death experiences talk about their extra time of life as "pure gift" but, as we learn from the restoration to life of the son of the widow of Nain, all life is pure gift; there is no entitlement at all. Which puts a whole different slant on the way we pray.

Our first inclination in the context of gift is surely thanks. And if we are thankful for being created then our next impulse should be to adore our creator. And if we thank and adore our Creator but behave inappropriately, the natural consequence should be contrition. Only then, after we have acknowledged our gift, and our failure to honour it appropriately, should we come to intercession; it should be our last and not our first impulse. Having got ourselves into bad habits it will take a good deal of practice to turn ourselves around, to see everything that we have as gift and to be thankful as a proper reflex.

Prayer, on the whole, is a rather trying activity. As I've said before, it's rather like going to the gym; being spiritually fit depends upon praying whether we feel like it or not, just as if we want to stay physically fit we get up and go to the gym on that wet early Wednesday morning when we would prefer to stay in bed. There is, in essence, nothing glamorous about prayer, it is our duty and it will, with proper practice, be our pleasure, as familiarity and competence bring pleasure; such pleasure, as we can readily see, does not come easily.

But there may be another way in. Prayer does not always have to be so formal, although there is no substitute for good habits. We can add to our spiritual life and merge it with everything we do by understanding the great gift we have been given in small pieces; so when we see a smiling face or a pretty garden or a moving piece of art; or when we hear the nightingale or a piece of Mozart, or a friendly voice; absorb the concept of gift and then say a tiny prayer of thanks so that, over time, to be thankful for our daily gifts becomes part of the fabric of our Christian lives.