When you pray…
When you hear the word ‘prayer’, what pops into your mind? A child kneeling by her bed at night; someone at sea in mortal danger, calling out to God for help; a group of people in a church, with candles and incense… Prayer is all these, and much more besides.
I was talking to an atheist acquaintance some months ago. He was about to go into hospital for surgery, and he earnestly asked me not to pray for him. I said I’d respect his wishes.
But you know, I broke my promise. I did pray for him. I tried to respect his wishes, but I found that whenever I thought of him in hospital, part of my mind was focussed on God. I couldn’t help it; there God was, and part of my attention was directed towards God. I was linking my friend and God together. I realised that I was in fact praying, and I just could not help but pray for him.
I’m convinced that people pray more than they realise. A sigh, a hope for better things, a desire for peace. Each one can be prayer. God doesn’t even have to be named. I believe that even people who profess not to believe in God let out an unnoticed prayer from time to time. Unnoticed by them, that is—God notices, God hears.
Many people believe that the universe is complete without God, they don’t need God. But still they let out those sighs, those hopes that things could be better, those…those prayers. They may say that the universe is a closed affair in which God can’t do anything, and they may speak about the findings of science to back up their claim. Yet their science is often out of date. Modern physics shows us how mysterious our universe is—for example, two subatomic particles that arise from the same process will always instantaneously influence one another. You could separate them by light years of distance, but when one particle is acted upon, the other particle is affected immediately, faster even than the speed of light. No matter how far apart they are, the effect is absolutely instantaneous.
In such a strange and marvellous universe, I find it quite easy to believe that things can be affected by prayer. In such an odd and strange universe, I find it quite easy to believe that we can link someone to God, no matter how much distance separates us.
I think of prayer as part of the very fabric of the universe. I think that if we could see aright, we would see that the creation is clothed in prayer, and animated by prayer.
So people call out to God, knowingly or unknowingly, when they are in trouble or when the hope for better things.
People also pray deliberately, as part of a spiritual practice. They go into their room and close the door, or into the garden or sit in the shade of a tree; they pray as they meet people, asking Jesus to be with them.
Remember last week, we said that spiritual practices are things we do intentionally to give us space to keep company with Jesus and learn to know him better? If we want God to speak to us in prayer, we need to be intentional about prayer.
Last March, K and I were at a conference on Islam, run by Muslim people. We were invited to attend as Christians. God spoke to me there about the attitude of Muslims to prayer. Of course, they pray five times a day.
During coffee breaks, they would chat with us and have a cuppa, but then one would remind the rest that it was time for prayers. And they would quietly and quickly excuse themselves and go.
I reflected on the regularity and intentionality of my own prayer life at the time, and I must say that I was put to shame.
Jesus says, ‘Whenever you pray…’ He presumes that we do pray. I want to say that regular, disciplined practices of prayer form us into Christians who are aware.
- Aware of the grace of God for us, unworthy as we are.
- Aware of God’s faithfulness towards us.
- Aware that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth.
- Aware that we are God’s children, and that God loves us as a mother loves her child.
- Aware that as God’s children, we are meant to grow into the family likeness.
I want to say a few things about prayer, some of which are found in Richard Foster’s chapter, some not.
Firstly, a wise piece of advice I came across some time ago, from the pen of Dom John Chapman, who was a Catholic priest: Pray as you can, not as you can’t. It’s not just a wise piece of advice, it’s the very best. Richard Foster says something similar, after he introduces us to the prayer life of Jesus and of spiritual giants like John Wesley and Martin Luther. He says,
God always meets us where we are and slowly moves us along into deeper things. Occasional joggers do not suddenly enter an Olympic marathon. They prepare and train themselves over a period of time, and so should we.
Foster also has sections called Learning to pray, and The foothills of prayer. And as he says, ‘We should never make prayer too complicated.’
A year or so ago, the Working Group on Worship produced an outline for daily prayer, which some of you have used. We got varied feedback—from the proverbial ‘best thing since sliced bread’ to ‘the language is too poetic for me’. That’s fine, and what we expected. One size doesn’t fit all in prayer. Pray as you can, not as you can’t. If you do that, God will grow you.
Secondly: Prepare yourself for prayer. Jesus says,
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…
It’s good to have a special place and time for prayer. I have my favourite seat, and I pray as I’m starting the day. Others may pray in the garden, in the bedroom, while they are on their daily walk, or even in the bus on the way to work.
It’s said that Susannah Wesley, John Wesley’s fiery mum, used to cover her face with her pinafore if she were praying. None of the kids dared to disturb their mother at these times.
Prayer is a habit. Not all habits are bad; prayer is a good habit. A special time and place gives us somewhere we can be relaxed as we join in with our good habit of prayer. A place in which our Father is already present, a place that we can claim for this holy rendezvous.
How long does it take for a habit to form? I’ve heard three weeks. Stick at it for three weeks, and you’ll start missing it if you don’t do it. Stick at it even in the spiritually dry times, when you’re feel your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Your faith will grow.
Now, if we ask ‘What is prayer?’, the Sunday School answer is, ‘Prayer is talking to God.’ But—and this is the third thing I want to say—prayer is listening to God as well as talking to God.
How may we have confidence that what we are asking is God’s will? We listen to God first. We listen to what the scriptures say, we are guided by the Church’s wrestlings with difficult areas, we listen for the Spirit’s voice to us. And yes, I’ve put them in the order I think they belong, the order in which we should listen to them. We listen to:
- what the scriptures say (which is not always what we think they say);
- the decisions the Church comes to as it grapples with the hard issues;
- an individual’s understanding of what the Holy Spirit says.
Then we talk. In practice, it’s important to read the Bible in our times of prayer. We read it in our prayers to listen to God. You may have a reading guide like Daily Bread or With Love to the World; you may read a chapter of a Gospel or a Psalm in your prayer.
We do that to listen to God, to orient our being toward God.
A fourth thing. Jesus says ‘Pray then in this way’—and gives us the Lord’s Prayer. It’s short, to the point, and each line is a theological hand grenade just packed with meaning. (That’s how we tried to write for Uniting in Worship 2!)
The Lord’s Prayer has two parts: the first lines acknowledge God. God is our Father—even if we’re praying it on our own. God is sovereign and wants the earth to reflect his will just as heaven does.
The second half is about us: give us just what we need; forgive us (but only as we forgive others…); and, God—please look after us, for we are weak.
That’s a way to pray! Our prayers should be first about God, adoring God for himself, thanking him for what he has done in making the world and bringing salvation to the world. They should then be about us and others: asking forgiveness, asking for our needs and the needs of others to be met.
Some people say we should pray the Lord’s Prayer every time we pray. I say it in my daily prayer times. Others say it’s a pattern, a guide. Who is right?
Who knows? I don’t think we can be dogmatic. Matthew says, ‘Pray in this way,’ which could mean ‘Pray using this pattern.’ Luke seems to say we should say the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke chapter 11, Jesus says ‘When you pray, say…’ and then he has the Lord’s Prayer. And in different words to Matthew!
There should be no legalistic rule about praying the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But let me just say one thing: if Jesus says, ‘Pray like this,’ we shouldn’t criticise anyone for having the Lord’s Prayer in a service of worship. In our Reformed and Evangelical style of worship, the usual criticism is that we pray the Lord’s Prayer too often. In my mind, that’s a wrong-headed criticism.
But whether we prayer the Lord’s Prayer or not, all public prayers should be like the Lord’s Prayer. They should acknowledge God first, then move to our needs and the needs of others.
We could talk about prayer all day. A fifth and final thing: prayer is meant to change us. Again, as Foster says,
To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.
Back in 1991 in the first Gulf War, my daughter was looking at the TV and Saddam Hussein was shown kneeling in prayer. She asked, ‘What’s that man doing, daddy?’ I told her, ‘He’s praying. That’s how they pray where he comes from.’ (And many Christians in that part of the world use the same posture in prayer.)
She said, ‘Does he want the war to end?’ I said, ‘No, he wants it to continue.’ Then came her reply, which still amazes me and dumbfounds me: ‘Why is he praying, then?’
Why is he praying, then? A five year old knew there was a problem there.
We should be aware that prayer changes us. Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ We can’t keep hating people we pray for. Such prayer changes the pray-er. True prayer turns hatred into love, despair into hope, grief into courage.
It’s good that we are talking about prayer on this day, when we would normally be reading the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. To pray is to be changed, it is to become like Jesus himself. To pray is to be transfigured into the image of Jesus Christ.
I want to really finish by quoting some words from the wonderfully-named Evagrius of Pontus (AD 345-399):
If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.
Prayer and theology—the true knowledge of God—go together. A true theologian—a true knower of God—prays truly. But someone who prays truly is a real theologian, even if they didn’t finish school.
Prayer makes us into theologians.