On Thursday our little group of internationals from China, Nigeria, Cyprus, Malaysia , Ireland, Latvia, Romania, Iran and Scotland shared a meal and sat round the fire to read and think about what Jesus said. We were studying the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We had come to the part where Jesus speaks about prayer and where he teaches the “how to” in the model for all prayer, which begins with these astonishing words “Our father in heaven…” Before that he gives two negatives – two “how not to”s: hypocritical praise seeking prayers and mechanical repeating prayers. There was so much to think about but the first one stung. It clearly pointed out that you can’t be praising God and seeking praise for yourself at the same time. It was one or the other.
This was particularly on my mind as I prepared to lead the pastoral prayer at our church on Sunday morning. I wanted it to be good, which was a worthy thought and I wanted people to think it was good, which wasn’t. I struggled with these two conflicting attitudes for some time and I thought I had it licked. But standing at the back of the church while the congregation were gathering, filling up with so many people, I began to panic and was almost overwhelmed with the dreadful thought of failure. The anxiety continued to grip me through the early part of the service and then something happened. We were singing our confession, a version of psalm 51 to the tune Ottawa, unaccompanied, with the tangible sense that we were in the presence of the almighty God- all powerful and all loving. It was as if the whole place was filled with a dazzling all-consuming light that penetrated every corner and crevice. Then it came to me with astonishing clarity “You are coming into the presence of the Holy God and you are worried about what these people think?!” “You are coming before the creator of the whole universe, the judge of all the earth, the King of kings, the Lord of lords and your are bothered about this lot ?!
When I reached the podium, the Holy Spirt took over and gave me the words so that I could give voice to the prayers of the people, to our Father in heaven, in Jesus name. It is something I hope I will never forget.