Last updated Monday, 23 March, 2020
(Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17)
You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are also within us,
May all see you in me also.
May I prepare the way for you,
May I thank you for all
that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.
A humble heart-that I may hear you,
A heart of love-that I may serve you,
A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.
- Dag Hammarskjøld
Do you long to have a one-to-one with God – maybe a real heart-to- heart? We know that God does do one to ones - he likes to talk and listen, because we have examples in two of our readings today. God speaks promises of blessing to Abram: (‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.’), and Jesus has a long and deep discussion with Nicodemus: ‘I tell you the truth...you must be born again’. In each case, Abram and Nicodemus have the Lord God all to themselves. That’s one way of describing prayer: time when each of us can spend time with God – have him all to ourselves, one to one. Let’s keep that thought in our minds as I share one of my favourite prayers with you. First a bit of background.
The date is 18 September 1961. The chartered DC6 aircraft is on a night flight to newly independent Congo when it crashes in the jungle in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), killing all 16 passengers and crew. One of these is Dag Hammarskjøld, Secretary General of the United Nations, who was leading a diplomatic mission to broker a ceasefire in Congo’s brutal civil war. Although the crash was officially put down to pilot error, mystery surrounds the case, with many theories and much speculation to this day.
The world was shocked to learn of Hammarskjøld’s death. He had proved to be an outstanding leader of the UN since his election in 1953, working tirelessly to defuse international tensions and conflicts Korea, Suez, Palestine and Congo. In his native country Sweden, where his father had been prime minister, Dag served in Finance and Foreign ministries there before joining the UN General assembly.
Shocked and saddened as people were by Hammarskjøld’s sudden death, they were equally surprised to find his journal, entitled ‘Markings’, which show he had a deep and personal Christian faith. He had grown up in a Lutheran family. In a covering letter with his journal he described it as “ a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.”
Hammarskjøld wrote poems and prayers, like this, one of his best loved. As we spend a few moments looking at it, I pray that you may find it helpful to use in your prayer time, and to make it your own. In a few simple and direct lines, (addressing God as ‘you’) Dag is moved to prayer by his close personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He doesn’t need to say that, or even use their names – it’s almost as if he’s picking up a conversation where it left off. We should acknowledge the greatness of God who is over us and all creation, as here, but there’s no need for a lot of extra words. Remember Jesus himself talking about this: ‘And when you pray, do not keep babbling…’ (Matthew 6:7) It’s a one to one, and when God isn’t speaking, he’s listening.
Dag goes on to pray that God will carry on making the changes in his heart and life, change that flows from knowing Jesus is in him – ‘you who are also within us’. There’s no distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it’s a joint venture in the Hammarskjøld heart! This should encourage us to be as bold as him – remember Jesus promising his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes upon them: ‘you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you’ (John 14:20). This makes prayer a bit like talking to yourself – that inner voice and listening ear. It means God is never not at home, busy with another caller, out to lunch or due ‘back in 10 minutes’!
In the rest of the prayer, Dag is saying he wants God to make him even more useful and faithful as his servant, so that people see God at work in him, and want Jesus in their lives too. ’May I prepare the way for you’, i.e. ‘Thy kingdom come’. He prays for a spirit of thankfulness for whatever God will bring his way in the future. When I’m fearful of what the future may hold, I find it hard to trust it to God, let alone say thank you in advance! But that’s just what we should do, as we trust God to see us through.
‘May I also not forget the needs of others’. This prayer asks for a heart of purity, humility, service, obedience and faithfulness – all hallmarks of Dag Hammarskjøld’s life in public service in the cause of peace, of fruitful international relations.
These last four lines are often quoted on their own, and if you’d like to adopt them into your own prayers, I hope it wouldn’t take long to memorise them. They remind us we are all ‘work in progress’ – more changes of heart needed, and Dag asks God to give him such a changed heart. Maybe he’s thinking of the transformational love promised to Israel by the Lord via prophet Ezekiel: ‘I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you’ (Ezekiel 18:31). Through the grace of Jesus Christ and the energy of the Holy Spirit, prayer is the gateway to God’s transforming love. Dag Hammarskjøld was open to change – are we as open in our prayers to God changing our heart?
‘Abide with me’ is a favourite hymn for many, but Jesus urges his disciples to abide in him (the other way round): ‘If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.’ (John15:7) And this is Dag’s final wish in this prayer – that he may abide in Christ, the true vine, the source of fruitfulness and fulfilment. Surely this is a prayer we can all take to heart.