Archives For January 2006

The Hermit

January 8, 2006 — Leave a comment

Olivet-Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 1/8/2006

This Sunday is the Sunday after Epiphany. The actual date is January 6, which is twelve days after Christmas and ends the period referred to by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. While many churches use this Sunday to talk about the visit of the Three Magi, Epiphany has it’s roots, as you may know or may have surmised from the hymns and readings today, in the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. That effectively was the inauguration of his ministry that concluded with his ascension after his resurrection. Accordingly, I had prepared a sermon entitled “Something in the Water” that was going to talk about the significance water has in the Bible. But then something happened.

I went on a retreat last week. From Tuesday through Thursday I sat in a small, one room hermitage asking God to refresh and renew me for ministry. I had no idea what He had in store for me. Only a few hours after my arrival I was at a loss for things to do. I’d only brought food, clothes, and my Bible. I was getting bored and I still had most of three days to go. I feared I wouldn’t make it.

On a shelf above the small desk were some books and, hoping that it would give me a chance to calm down a little, I picked out the slimmest one and sat down in the rocking chair. God is good in his providence. Here’s what I mean.

There are few books that I would recommend as “must reads”. However, I now have a new book on my list, that small book I picked off the shelf: The Hermit by David Torkington. I know that you have a busy schedule and, even with the best of intentions, will probably not read that book so, I am going to spend this time sharing with you the revelations that I culled from that little treasure.

First, a brief summary of the story to set the context. The book is a work of fiction, but is designed to be instructional in prayer. The main character’s name is James and he is a young priest. He attends a workshop on prayer and finds it dry and uninformative. He, like most people, spends little time in prayer. While at the conference he meets a woman who shares his sentiment. But she shares with him that she has gotten great counsel from a man named Peter who is a hermit off the northern coast of Scotland. He corresponds by mail and doesn’t accept visitors.

As it turns out the hermit’s abode is just offshore from where the young priest used to spend his vacations. He arranges to fill in for the parish priest there while that priest goes on vacation. He writes the hermit to tell him he’ll be spending a week in his area and requests that they spend some time together. Much to his surprise, the hermit agrees. James is elated, he thinks he’s found a spiritual guru who will sort him out.

In their first meeting together, James mulls over the condition of the world and wonders aloud what the answer to the world’s problems might be. Peter, the hermit, replies “love”. James quickly agrees and tells him that he, too, thinks that if everyone would love each other more, the world would be a better place. But Peter corrects him. Peter wasn’t speaking one person’s love for another. He was referring to God’s love. The world would change, one person at a time, if people allowed themselves to be loved by God.

We all can agree with that statement. We know it to be true. The Bible says so. But for many of us, myself included, that is as far as the love of God goes. Intellectual assent based upon Scriptural assertion. I have knowledge of the love of God just as I have knowledge that California is on the left coast. I’ve never been to California, but I know that it is there.

But simply knowing that God loves us does very little to effect any change. When I met my wife, April, I was pretty skuzzy. Hard to imagine, but true! Among my bad habits, I was smoker. April did not smoke and did not like the fact that I smoked. However, she loved me anyway. As the months rolled by, it became more and more apparent to me that I should quit smoking because April didn’t like that I was a smoker. I’d tried to quit many times before, but it never stuck. Yet, one day I handed a just opened pack of cigarettes to April and told her I was quitting. I haven’t picked one up since. From a pack a day to zero, overnight. It was not easy, but April’s love for me changed me and made me want to stop smoking.

I know, intellectually, that April loves me, but it was experiencing her love that motivated the change. If that kind of change can come from a person, imagine what would happen if we were to consistently experience God’s love. To do that, we need to put ourselves in the way of God’s love. That shouldn’t be to hard since “God is love”. This seems so basic and fundamental, but it is, I think, often overlooked. All our actions as Christians must be rooted in the knowledge and experience of God’s love for us.

Now, at this point you may be thinking that this all sounds a bit too wishy-washy and mystical. Do we just sit back and do nothing? No, of course not. It is true that the love of God is like a seed, it grows though we don’t know how. But if you were to tell a farmer, “what is so hard about your job? seed grows by itself, right?” you’d have one mad farmer! Though the seed grows on it’s own, the farmer tills the ground and nourishes the plants as they grow.

So how do we put ourselves in the way of God’s love? The young priest asked the hermit that same question. His answer was, “prayer”. My reaction to reading that, your reaction to hearing it just now, and the priest’s reaction are probably all the same. A little bit of a let down. Prayer is spending time, dedicated time, with God. We all know we need to pray more and more often. But it seems like despite our best efforts, a regular pattern of prayer never emerges. That is because our expectations are wrong.

See, we expect that if we just muster up enough resolve, we’ll be able to be good and consistent pray-ers. For a little while that might actually work. But it seems inevitable that our busy schedules will encroach upon any time we set aside for prayer. We’ll put it off one day, and that makes it easier to put it off the next. Soon a week or more goes by and now our guilt that we dropped the ball and failed keeps us from getting started again. Does that cycle sound familiar? The reason that happens is because we are approaching dedicated prayer time all wrong.

I could muster up all the resolve in the world and I still won’t be able to play the piano like a concert pianist. In fact, the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, Artur Rubenstein was known to practice nine hours a day in his prime! Even a great like him had to carve out regular time for just he and his piano. I can play a little piano, because I had some lessons when I was a child. I loved the lessons, and I liked to learn to play new songs. What I hated to do was to practice. I hated doing finger exercises, scales, hitting wrong notes. I just wanted to play, but my progress was in direct correlation to the amount of time I practiced.

When I started out playing the piano, my teacher only expected me to practice 15 minutes a day. That was all! By the time I was in my second year of lessons, the expectation had grown to 45 minutes a day. When I started out, though, it seemed like those 15 minutes dragged on forever. I would do my scales and plunk my way through the piece I was supposed to be learning, look at the clock and see that only 5 minutes had elapsed. Many times I just sat at the keyboard, at a loss for what to do next.

The more I practiced, the easier it got for me to fill that time. I started playing things that actually sounded like music! I liked that and it made me look forward to practice and to lessons. I only regret that I let other things crowd it out of schedule after two years.

Our prayer lives operate in much the same way. We need to set aside a regular, dedicated, daily time of prayer. How long? Set your expectations realistically. Maybe just 20 or 30 minutes to start. Maybe less, maybe more. The most important thing is that you make it a regular part of your routine. You’ll find that as time goes on, you will naturally increase that amount of time. What a problem it would be to have to fit our other obligations into our lives around our times of prayer!

But, you say to me, I’m very busy. So, I just pray in the car on the way to work, or on the train on the way home. Surely that is enough, isn’t it? Would you apply that same standard to your other relationships? After all, that is what your prayer time is cultivating, a relationship with God. Would your spouse or best friend be content with only speaking to you when you called on your way to work? I know that April would have none of it! She expects us to have regular time together that is set aside for us.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t pray at other times during the day. Of course we should. But that is not adequate enough to grow God’s love within us. I do call April during the day, some days, and let her know what I’m up to. But that doesn’t replace our time together.

Your next question is, “but what do I do during that time?” Again, the same question was asked by the priest in the book. The hermit’s answer was to defer to Jesus’ response to the same question from His disciples. It is known as the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it every Sunday at our church. That is good, but I fear that it has caused us to be desensitized to the prayer itself. Many of us worry about whether we’re supposed to say “debts” or “trespasses” and often end up with some combination like “debtpasses”.

We don’t have the time to do it justice, but I want to share with you the analysis the hermit gave the Lord’s Prayer in the book. For more detail, consult the book itself. The first two words of the prayer sum up everything that comes after them. “Our Father”. Let’s just take a moment to look at the first word, “Our”. This puts is in the proper state for prayer. Have you ever wondered why the Lord’s Prayer was in the second person? When we pray, in solitude or in the company of others, our prayer transcends space and time and joins the millions of other prayers being offered up to God all over the world. It joins the countless prayers being offered to God by the saints and those who have gone before us. In Revelation John writes that,

“whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and by your will they were created and have their being.” Rev. 4:9-11

So when we pray, we are not alone. We are praying with and for the whole of the Christian community. But does this mean that we never pray for ourselves? Of course not. It does mean, however, that we look beyond ourselves and see that we are part of a greater whole.

If the first word, “Our”, puts us in the right state for prayer, the second word, “Father”, points us in the right direction. It gives us a focus for our prayer. In his prayers, Jesus used the Aramaic word “Abba”, which is the familiar term for Father that can also be translated “Daddy”. It implies a relationship of love. Through Jesus, no longer is God only our “Father” in the sense that He is the Father of all Creation. He is our “Daddy”, who loves us.

This is why Jesus said we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. I’ve always tried to figure that out. I have a little child, and at times it seems like our society would experience a great regression if we all acted like little children. She can be stubborn, selfish, and pouty. However, no matter what mood she’s in or how she acts, she is always aware of her limitations. When she can’t reach something, when she falls down, when she can’t get her shoes on, she does not hesitate to run to mommy or daddy for help. This is the type of relationship that our heavenly “Daddy” desires we have with him. A relationship in which we run to our Daddy and throw our arms around him and say “keep me safe”, just like my daughter does when her mommy turns on the vacuum cleaner. That is the God to which we pray.

“Our Father”. Two simple words that are so packed with meaning and intent. The rest of the prayer flows logically from that salutation. “Our Father”. So that is where we can start. By praying the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps slowly, letting each word roll off our tongue. Pondering the depth and breadth of the phrases that make up that prayer. And then, we listen.

Any relationship has at least two parties involved. When those two spend time together, they take turns talking and listening. So it is also with prayer. We must not forget to use some of that time to let God speak. How do we hear Him when He speaks? A good place to start is with the words He has already spoken: The Bible. Open to a passage where Jesus is speaking, perhaps in the Gospel of John where Jesus and the Disciples are in the Upper Room. Read those words slowly and allow the Holy Spirit to remind you of what Jesus has already said to you. Turn his words into a statement or resolution. This is God’s time to speak to you.

That, in a nutshell, is the thrust of that little book I read. I can’t overemphasize the impact it has had on me. I am convinced that if we desire change in our lives, whatever area, we must first start with prayer and letting ourselves be loved by God through spending time with Him. Jesus said that because he was in his Father and his Father was in him, the words he spoke were not his own, but the Father’s. The words I have spoken this morning have not been my own, but David Torkington’s. But now I am resolved to do as Jesus did, and abide in him, just like he abided in the Father so that my words and actions are not my own, but the Father’s.