The Christian Day Job

Sunday 13th October 2013
Year C, The Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 32:22-31
2 Timothy 3:14-17; 4:1-5
Luke 18:1-8

Forgive me if I start by talking about the 'beautiful game' but, unlike some preachers who start this way to gain some spurious credibility, I really understand and love football, in spite of Liverpool's erratic form; so, sorry, to those people who are totally indifferent to or hostile to football; but what I'm going to say applies to some other sports, and, indeed, other spheres of life.

Whenever you hear a football manager after a game, win, draw, or even lose, he will usually say something like: "The lads were magnificent, you couldn't fault their commitment and work rate; they never lost heart; they gave 110%". Apart from the mathematical idiocy of the last statement, this is pretty mundane stuff; but these people have missed the point. It isn't the work rate that counts. What counts in football is the ability to pass the ball and shoot at goal accurately; football is, in the end, unlike, say, long distance running, a technical game, not a game of stamina. You never hear golfers telling how they put in the work rate; they are judged on how many strokes they take to get a ball into a hole. 

Indeed, one aspect of this work rate philosophy is that it tends to rank the commitment of the producer over the needs of the consumer. If you employ a builder and he gives you massive commitment, tremendous work rate and so on, you don't care if the result is a piece of work below standard. I used to have a work colleague who infuriated the chief executive, though not me as his boss, because he used to spend most of his time in the office smoking (it was allowed in those days) and apparently doing nothing. But he always exceeded his work targets and he was never any trouble. Productivity was being confused with activity. To earn his living he was supposed to be busy rather than effective. What most of us should care about is the end product, not the stamina or heroism, or otherwise, of the producer.

But those who are not skilled in divine matters and have to rely on sheer effort will be relieved to know that God isn't like your average consumer. Jacob wrestles with an angel and is re-named Israel, his mission to God's Chosen people confirmed. The author of the Second Letter to Timothy (whoever he is) exhorts endurance in preaching the Scriptures; and in a quite extraordinary story, Saint Luke describes a corrupt judge being goaded into settling a case because of the persistence of a woman. All these readings would, then, be perfectly comprehensible to any church-going football manager and I am sure we, too, understand.

Now this does not excuse us from trying to acquire some technical skill, particularly in the praying department. Bishop Stephen Cottrell, author of an excellent little book How to Pray remarks that our failure of Evangelism to the wider world results from a serious lack of Christian prayer; but often people say to me that they don't know how to pray. I suspect that one reason for this, as Cottrell puts it, is that: "It is almost as if there is a movement in the Church that rather wants prayer to be an activity of the elite. We have a glut of spiritual 'experts' and an endless fascination with all sorts of different spiritualties, but what we don't have is simple teaching about saying prayers". In other words, prayer is made to seem complicated, and even forbidding.

But Cottrell's main point is that we should stop talking about how difficult it all is and just get on with it. I mean, what do people really mean when they say that they find it difficult to pray? Does this mean that there is no numinous feedback that produces a warm glow? Or is the problem a lack of concentration? We know the sort of thing, we just get into praying and our heads want to assemble shopping lists or work flow plans.

The answer, as you will have gathered from today's Readings is that it doesn't much matter how we start, we just have to stick at it whether we like it or not. We were created to pray, it's our Christian day job. and if we stick at it, then Jesus will respond: "if we put Jesus at the centre of our lives, he will put us at the centre of his", says Cottrell.

So let us come down to simple things. Most of us acquire facility, technical or muscular, through repetition; and anybody who has adopted the contemporary habit of going to the gym or the pool for regular exercise will know that this works best when we attend regularly, whether we fancy it or not. As the result of Cottrell's book I've started trying to integrate prayer into the whole of my everyday life. This means, at the moment, that I have an elastic band round my alarm clock because I'm not yet in the habit of saying a prayer the moment I wake up. I have got into the habit of saying a short prayer between the house and the office which, as some of you know, is only a matter of a few yards, so the prayer is short; and I've got a short travelling prayer. And if I can pluck up the courage, I'm going to begin saying Grace before meals, sometimes. But this isn't a discussion about me, it's simply giving examples of how difficult it is to weave prayer into the whole of our lives, and how we can start simply.

As I said, prayer is our Christian day job. How do we tackle this Christian day job compared with our secular day job? What training have we undertaken? How committed are we?  How often do we ask questions when we're not sure or when we come across a problem we can't solve? Are we too embarrassed to pray? And are we too embarrassed to ask for help if we think we can't pray?

The answer to getting started in prayer, then, is the same as in football; we need to combine persistence with some idea of what the objective is; and, as with football, we're not supposed to work everything out for ourselves. We are, fundamentally, a praying community that spends some time praying alone. We owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to God to take steps to be better at our Christian day-job.