Easter: "Let it Go"

The Revd Brutus Green

You will doubtless know the story about an ordinary man, stuck on his roof as some West Country flood gets higher and higher, praying to God for salvation. While he’s praying along comes an old woman in a rowing boat and offers to take him away. The man politely declines claiming boldly that the LORD will provide. A few hours later, a team of Navy Seals surface with a submarine inviting him to jump below - to which, again, he politely declines. Finally, as he’s tip-toeing on his chimney, Tom Cruise abseils from a helicopter wanting to pull him away to safety but again he angrily insists, “the LORD will provide”. So the man drowns and finds his way up to heaven where God is waiting, and, very upset, he asks why God so thoroughly let him down. The LORD exclaims - ‘what do you mean? I sent a boat, a submarine and a helicopter, what more do you want?!’

The truth is, of course, that the man was holding out for Anne Hathaway in the flying Batmobile, and one could forgive him, seeing what mighty steps God had already taken (and bearing in mind his omnipotence - yes, even Anne Hathaway is within his power).

Well this true story actually tells us quite a lot about what prayer is about. Prayer is about us lifting our desires before God. There’s no point in praying for something you don’t want, is there? That prayer of St Augustine’s “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet" never fooled anyone.

So the first rule of prayer is to actually pray for what you want - even if you don’t think God will give it to you. Tell God what you want, what you really, really want.

In the normal telling of the joke the man is praying to be rescued, but he’s so fixated on the idea of God or angels rescuing him, he doesn’t see that the opportunity is there and passing him by. Prayer, if we’re not just reciting a shopping list, gives us a chance to reflect on what we actually, really want. This man, for example, resisted rescue three times because he wanted the LORD himself to help. Well, in a sense he got what he wanted because in the end he certainly got to see God! And if he was holding out for Anne Hathaway, maybe God knew better in sending Tom Cruise and the Navy Seals. Being omniscient God has doubtless seen the film version of Les Mis.

So the second rule of prayer is:

Ask yourself if what you’re praying for is what you really want.

The converse side of this is the third rule of prayer:

Ask yourself if what you really want is what God really wants.

This is a tricky one. God is usually even more inscrutable to us than we are to ourselves. We have Scripture, tradition, reason and our own experience; we have the knowledge that God is love and that the greatest of all virtues is love. This gives us a good sounding board but we also have to be careful - often the idea we have of God is the one we’ve left unchallenged since childhood or the one someone else is trying to press on to us.

This is, I think, where prayer gets interesting though. We often think of God as being the solid one in the relationship of prayer. We flit about with our desires and interests but surely he remains rock solid. I am reminded of the old Jewish man who went everyday to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem praying for peace in the Middle East. A visitor heard that he has been doing this every day for forty years. He approached and asked if he had ever heard back from God and had his prayers answered. The old man replied, “Well, to be honest, most of the time it’s like talking to a brick wall”. But actually, of course, our understanding of God changes all the time; we cannot fully grasp God and so our understanding changes as the way we see the world changes, as our experience changes us. Sometimes we understand God less. This is usually when we’re heading in the right direction.

But prayer is a negotiation. If we’re honest about our desires we’ll discover more about ourselves. And if we’re honest about ourselves we’ll discover more and more how ourselves, our desires and God fit together. St Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Not all desires are good, but making peace between ourselves, our desires and God leads to life in its fullness. This only begins by first being honest and praying through our desires. This is how we discover who we really are, and who God is. Ultimately we pray not to change God, who, after all, knows better. We pray to change ourselves. To discover that ‘new heart’ and ‘new spirit’ Ezekiel talks about.

So: three rules of prayer:

    Pray for what you want.
    Ask yourself if what you’re praying for is what you really want.
    Ask yourself if what you really want is what God really wants.

And, finally, fourth: what are you going to do about it? Where has this prayer led you?

Now in today’s Gospel, Jesus is praying. This is the moment of victory in John’s Gospel. The preceding verse to this section is the exclamation: ‘I have conquered the world!’ and we heard in this reading that ‘the hour has come’; the Son is to be ‘glorified’ so that the world might know ‘the only true God’. This is not the moment on the cross, or a resurrection appearance. Here, we are still in the upper room, the quiet before the storm. Here, though, is the point of equanimity, of peace. What does Jesus want? To show God to the world. That is the utter expression of who he is and what he wants and it is exactly what God wants: to show the world the incredible power of love. And this is what he does on the cross.

This desire is to be tested because it will have to prove stronger than the desire to survive, to avoid pain, to have company, to be liked. As I’ve said, prayer is about being honest about what we want, confronting ourselves as to why we want it, and thinking about whether this is what God wants. And finally, acting upon it. Another way of looking at it is to think of it as testing our desires in the light of who we think we are and who we think God is.

Before I was ordained I spent some time studying a sixteenth century mystic called St John of the Cross. He is most famous for having coined the phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’, taken from one of his works of theology. He wrote it as a commentary to a poem he penned immediately after escaping from some wicked monks. There had been some infighting amongst two factions of monks and he’d got captured by the other set and was tortured for some time before escaping. The poem though was a love poem to God, about renunciation. The last verse reads:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

As I ploughed through his writing though, I found myself understanding a little of thefreedom of renunciation. I have always been a runner and take a lot of pleasure in running. I have always had a terrible fear then of losing my mobility, not being able to walk or run freely - and actually I stepped on broken glass this week and remembered that fear acutely. The dark night of the soul, despite the torture St John underwent is not about suffering; it’s about letting go. Deprived of everything, in terrible conditions, he found instead of clinging on, worrying over bodily disfigurement, deprivation, disease and death, he could let them go. This didn’t stop him jumping out the window and escaping! But it prevented him from becoming despondent through fear and anxiety. We all have those things that we feel we couldn’t live without - that age, bad luck and other people threaten. Renunciation comes when we are able to let things go and accept our vulnerability. I was able to let go of that fear of immobility. St John and Jesus demonstrate that perfect renunciation - when all our desires can be put to one side before the ultimate desire to serve God.

The song, of course, that captures the tension between expressing our desires and renunciation at the moment is the theme from Disney’s Frozen, adapted from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale ‘The Snow Queen’. The princess has been told by her family to constantly conceal and control her feelings to prevent a storm of permanent Winter taking hold of the land. In the end she can’t keep it up and we have the chorus:

Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don't care
what they're going to say
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway.

She is able to be herself, which is great. But only in an ice palace by herself. And the whole land is plunged into winter. Not so great. In the end it is only by a Disney act of true love and sacrifice by the princess that the land can go back to summer; only when she has come to accept herself and the world in which she lives, and to love both of them. To paraphrase, it is only when the free expression of our desires is brought under the virtue of love and self-renunciation that we get to the happy ending.

So my four rules of prayer:

    Pray for what you want.
    Ask yourself if what you’re praying for is what you really want.
    Ask yourself if what you really want is what God really wants.
    Ask yourself what or how you are going to change.

At the end of our Acts reading we heard that the disciples were ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’; not because they needed something but because they were working out who they were called to be and who is God, between Jesus leaving and coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Prayer is about discovering and changing yourself for the better. So, next time you’re in a flood, make sure you’re praying for the right thing. Faith can help us find the answers. Sometimes we need to let go, whether it’s a fear we’re holding on to, some false notion of God, or Anne Hathaway on the horizon. And sometimes the thing we need to let go of is our own ego. Amen.