I start by letting you all in on a little secret of mine and that is my discovery of one of my favourite places to go to and I think one of the most beautiful spots on all the earth, and it happens to be right here in British Columbia. Some of you may well know this spot and no doubt some of you have even been there, but I would like to briefly tell you of my story of discovery and what it meant and continues to mean to me.
A number of years ago while I was on summer vacation I traveled by ferry to Salt Spring Island. Salt Spring is a beautiful Island but particularly so in summer. The little town of Ganges is then full of local craft people and artisans and farmers markets. The natural landscape of the island itself is stunning and in summer the beaches are warm and inviting and the views of the ocean and other Gulf Islands are spectacular. On this particular trip I was traveling alone and I asked one of the locals if there was anything special I could do while on the Island. The person immediately asked me if I had ever been to the top of Mount Maxwell. I said I had not and so I thanked them and headed out to do just that.
Before I tell you about the top of the mountain I should give a gentle warning to those who have not been up there and whom I hope will make the effort. While Mount Maxwell is not far from Ganges as the crow flies, you cannot get to Mount Maxwell as the crow flies. It is a true mountain and by that I mean, even though on a Gulf Island, it is a mountain worthy of its British Columbia heritage in its height and ruggedness. You could hike up it as there is a road to the top, but it would be a full day’s adventure because it is a long and windy road. If you do plan to drive up there another warning - it is one of the rockiest and most pothole-afflicted roads I have ever been on. The road up the mountain starts off just fine, but as you get closer to the top you start to wonder if a jeep could make it up and as you reach the very end you wonder if a Sherman Tank could make it up.
By the time I made it to the top of the mountain on my first visit there I was in fact in quite a tense and edgy state. I was sure my car’s undercarriage had been ripped to smithereens by the rocks on the road and I was beginning to think the local who had recommended this excursion was in fact a mischievous Islander who chuckled each time some unsuspecting mainlander took his advice and ended up with a mangled car. Perhaps his brother was the Island’s mechanic I cynically thought to myself.
By the time I made it to the top I was not in a very good mood, but there I was and so I decided to make the last leg of the adventure and hike up the small path to the lookout spot. I took the last few steps and rounded a patch of evergreens and then I saw it for the first time; it was the view from the top of Mount Maxwell. It was a brilliantly sunny day and please believe me that words alone do not and cannot describe the exquisite magnificence of that view. From it you look westward and can see all the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island itself. The sea was calm and a deep blue and you could see all the boats traveling around the islands. There was a valley way below the mountain and the green pastoral beauty of it was a vision I don’t think even Hollywood itself could recreate on its best day. And if all that was not enough, down in the valley, right in the middle of it was a winding road, a road that traversed the green farmland and the only manmade structure you could see – and I am not making this up - was a small old brilliantly painted white clapboard church with a tiny spire and cross.
I stood there quite literally dumbstruck by the beauty before me. I was the only person there and I had discovered a part of heaven here on earth. I sat there for a couple of hours watching the boats and the islands and the countryside and those two hours passed quickly because I realized I wasn’t really alone up there; God was very much with me and I prayed and sat in elegant silence with the Holy Trinity. It was a mildly life altering event for me. I say ‘mildly’ because I didn’t make any monumental decisions nor did I alter my life’s course, but I did leave that mountain top a slightly different person. I felt perfectly refreshed and renewed. I also left that mountaintop with the knowledge and the feeling that God and I were closer that we ever had been before and that our relationship was as good relationships always are deep, complex, abiding and full of love.
As we enter into Lent I think it is important to underscore what Jesus does for his own spiritual development. In the Gospel today we hear of the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness. He fasts for forty days and is tempted by the devil. But it is what is not in the text that really interests me. The text never mentions that Jesus prays, though of course he surely must have. We know that Jesus does this many times in the story of the Gospels. He goes out alone in a time of quiet and finds a private and secluded place, often in the wilderness, and prays. Why is this so important? Why do the Gospels mention this numerous times? I understand it to be because that is what Jesus is teaching us to do from time to time as well. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus actually tells us how to pray by ourselves, he says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. As a side note here the Greek word ‘kruptos’ that is translated as ‘secret’ is best defined as the inward nature or character of things. Therefore Jesus is saying from time to time we need to pray by ourselves and when we do, find a quiet place where you can be alone with God. We need to do this from time to time I believe because it is important for our connection to God to be sure, but it is also important for our well being, for the peace and completeness it gives to our soul, and Lent is a great time to renew this practice.
Having said this I also think it is critically important to spend some time here talking about prayer itself; what is it that we should do when we pray to God. I know that I have related to you before my golden rule about prayer, but I think it is worth repeating here before I go any further. The rule is simply this: there is no wrong way to pray. Please let me say it again for clarity, emphasis and gravitas – there is no wrong way to pray. So many people worry about how they should talk to God that they get in a state and end up not talking to God at all. Again as I have mentioned here before my favourite prayer begins with these words, “Hi God, it’s me”. That is pretty informal and it doesn’t seem to bother God and it sure works for me. Don’t worry about how to pray, just be yourself. After all, God created you to be you, and you are the person God wants to hear.
Now that we have dealt with style, lets get into the stuff of content. What or who should we pray for? Well, that is up to you of course, but another great misconception I have heard over and over again, is that we should restrain from or at least limit praying for ourselves. Many when they pray to God feel that asking for help or guidance or just letting God know how things are in our life is perhaps slightly selfish. Shouldn’t we be praying for others less fortunate than ourselves and for those in need or trouble? Well of course we should and we do so in a corporate way every Sunday here in church. We can and should also do so in our private prayers, but please never forget that in our private prayers God wants to know how you are doing as well.
Here is one way of looking at this. The analogy is not perfect but I imagine God as a parent figure. Indeed we use that language don’t we, God the Father and Mother of us all. Now imagine yourself being a child and you have come home from school and your Mother asks you how your day has been, what did you do in school today. Imagine her surprise if you told her all the things your brother and sister were doing and how they were feeling and how they were getting along and never mentioning anything about yourself. If I were your parent in such a situation I think I would start to worry. When you pray to God in private God expects you to lay it all out. If you are mad or sad or confused let God know and trust and have faith that God will hear you and in time will give you peace and guidance. Never shy away from asking God for help, that is what your hand and arm and heart are there for, to reach out to God and that is what God is there for, to reach out to you and hold you in love.
I can across a wonderful poem on prayer by the modern poet Mary Oliver. It is entitled Praying.
It doesn't have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention,
a few words together and don't try to make them elaborate,
this isn't a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
What I love about the readings in the Gospel is the sense you get that the time Jesus spends alone in his quiet space praying to God was time well spent. Each time Jesus feels perfectly refreshed and renewed. He leaves that quiet space with the knowledge and the feeling that God and He are now closer than they had ever had been before and that their relationship is as good relationships always are deep, complex, abiding and full of love. Jesus takes the time to pray privately and then he is more than ready to proclaim the good news throughout all of Galilee.
You don’t have to go to the top of Mount Maxwell or find a deserted spot of wilderness in the Holy Land to pray privately and silently to God; an empty room will do. But let us literally take the Lord’s example and during our Lenten journey set aside some private time and prayer with God. It renews us and it refreshes us and gives us the perspective and the energy we need to in our own way spread the good news of life. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney