In our more reflective moments we sense the importance of prayer, yet we struggle to pray. Sustained, deep prayer doesn’t come easy for us. Why?

First of all, we struggle to make time for prayer. Prayer doesn’t accomplish anything practical for us, it’s a waste of time in terms of tending to the pressures and tasks of daily life, and so we hesitate to go there. Coupled with this, we find it hard to trust that prayer actually works and brings about something real in our lives. Beyond that, we struggle to concentrate when we try to pray. Once we do settle in to pray, we soon feel ourselves overwhelmed by daydreams, unfinished conversations, half-forgotten melodies, heartaches, agendas and the impending tasks that face us as soon as we get up from our place of prayer. Finally, we struggle to pray because we really don’t know how to pray. We might be familiar with various forms of prayer, from devotional prayers to different kinds of meditation, but we generally lack the confidence to believe that our own particular way of praying, with all its distractions and missteps, is prayer in the deep sense.

We struggle to complete the mission Jesus has for us

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Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) Dec. 11 (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Timely words of comfort and encouragement can work miracles, even more so when they are inspired by the Spirit of God. The prophet figure in Isaiah has clearly been anointed to bring healing words to the broken Israelite exiles. Good news: freedom, liberty, release and healing. But this is far more than a pep-talk — he will proclaim these Spirit-inspired words on behalf of God.

Seeing the unseeable for Christmas

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First Woman: “There’s one at Yonge and Finch. I’ve heard it’s good.”

(Me — overhearing in the fitness-centre change room — “A club? A restaurant?”)

First Woman: “I’m not sure if it’s Lutheran or Catholic.”

(Me – “I’m imagining she said that.”)

Second Woman: “I’ve been going to church for a while. I tried the Martyrs’ Shrine.”

Empathy for a world that is still maturing

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There’s a story told, more legend perhaps than fact, about a mayor of a large American city in the late 1960s. It wasn’t a good time for his city. It was facing financial bankruptcy, crime rates were spiralling, its public transportation system was no longer safe at night, the river supplying its drinking water was dangerously polluted, the air was rife with racial tension and there were strikes and street protests almost weekly.

As the story goes, the mayor was flying over the city in a helicopter at rush hour on a Friday afternoon. As the rush-hour bustle and traffic drowned out most everything else, he looked down at what seemed a teeming mess and said to one of his aides: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a plunger and we could flush this whole mess into the ocean!”

We can open the way to the Kingdom

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Second Sunday of Advent (Year B) Dec. 4 (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8)

Time whizzes by like an express train when we are enjoying ourselves. An enjoyable vacation has scarcely begun before it is time to go back to work. But when we are anticipating something or waiting for something to occur time absolutely creeps by.

Human time and God’s time are very different. We are an impatient people and want everything now or very soon. Human staying power is not the greatest. People become disillusioned or lose heart very quickly and easily. The Israelites had been in exile in Babylon for more than 50 years and it must have seemed like an eternity. Many had almost forgotten home while those born in captivity knew only Babylon. To many of the oldtimers it must have seemed that God had forgotten and abandoned them and that they were doomed to dwell forever in an alien land.

Love beyond naiveté and romance

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Several years ago, a Presbyterian minister I know challenged his congregation to open its doors and heart more fully to the poor. The congregation initially responded with enthusiasm and programs were introduced that actively invited people from the less-privileged economic areas of the city, including a number of street people, to come to their church.

But the romance soon died as coffee cups and other loose items began to disappear, some handbags were stolen and the church and meeting space were often left messy and soiled. A number of people began to complain and demand an end to the experiment: “This isn’t what we expected! Our church isn’t clean and safe any more! We wanted to reach out to these people and this is what we get!”  

Jesus is present in humble ways

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First Sunday of Advent (Year B) Nov. 27 (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:1, 3-8; Psalm 80; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37)

Children often play hide-and-seek with adults in a rather amusing way. They cover their face with their hands and then squeal “You can’t see me!” People play a similar game with God but with a twist: “I can’t see you so you either aren’t there or don’t exist!”

The author of Isaiah’s passage is almost sick with yearning as he calls to mind the times in Israel’s past when God seemed so close and the manifestations of divine power so overwhelming. Now it seems that God has disappeared. The author’s cry of the heart resonates with people in all ages: If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Come down and fix everything, come down and comfort us, come down and defeat our enemies. But God cannot be manipulated or summoned on demand.

Loneliness is the ultimate agony

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When I was 22 years old, a seminarian, I was privileged to have a unique kind of desert experience. I sat with my siblings in a palliative care room for several weeks, watching my father die.

My father was young still, 62, and in good health until being struck with pancreatic cancer. He was a man of faith and he brought that to his final struggle. He wasn’t afraid of God, whom he had served all his life, nor of the afterlife, which his faith assured him was to be joy-filled. Yet he couldn’t let go of life easily, struggling almost bitterly at times to surrender. There was a deep sadness inside him, ultimately more soft than bitter, during his last weeks of life. He didn’t want to die.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers...

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Christ the King (Year A) Nov. 20 (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46)

Why is the image of the shepherd used so often in the Bible as a metaphor for God? A shepherd never leaves the sheep — he or she is with them 24/7 — and their safety and well-being is the shepherd’s prime concern. That sounds a lot like God!

If we love each other, that’s enough

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It’s not easy to sustain love, at least not with constant emotional fervour. Misunderstandings, irritations, tiredness, jealousies, hurt, temperamental differences, the familiarity that breeds contempt and simple boredom invariably chip away at our emotional and affective edges and, soon enough, fervour gives way to routine, the groove becomes the rut and love seems to disappear.

But we can easily misread this.

The view from the hospital corridor

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Self-loathing.

Am I, underneath all I have and have done, worth anything at all? Or is my secret suspicion true, that I’m really nothing? Or nothing good, anyway.

When I was doing parish work, I found this question lurking hidden in the hearts of a surprising number of people — including people whom the rest of us might readily consider better, smarter or better-off than ourselves. Next time you walk down the street, imagine those you see having a huge rock on top of their head or great bulging sacks hanging from each hand and you may apprehend more than your eyes can see.