We all come to prayer from very different backgrounds, training, and experience. Many of you were taught the beautiful collects, prayers, and thanksgivings of the Book of Common Prayer. And you have loved the great old hymns which were full of praise and prayer steeped in Scripture, and rich theology. I was raised in a church where we had a prayer meeting every Tuesday night attended by 30-40 people and another smaller group before breakfast on Sunday morning. My mother prayed with us as children before going to bed. So from my earliest days prayer became an important part of my life.
WHAT IS PRAYER ?
I hope each of you have at least one special friend. It might be your wife or husband, schoolfriend, colleague, someone with whom you can share just about anything and everything : a person who is unshockable, someone with whom you can laugh and cry, someone who is genuinely interested in the things you do, the person you are. You don't have to mind your Ps and Qs. You don't fear your private information will be gossiped around. As we grow older we are more and more cagey about revealing our innermost selves to others. Too much openness feels like a spiritual striptease. But now and again we develop a friendship of that kind. We love to be with such a friend. Such friendships are rare and very precious.
To me, that is what prayer is, only much more so. It is a heart to heart friendship with the living God. He made us, loves us, understands us through and through, and longs to talk to us and have us talk to him. He understands all the ups and downs of my life. And he never gossips to break a confidence.
Any friendship needs communication. If a couple stop talking, their love dies. If our children or parents stop writing, or phoning, or e-mailing, we know there's something going wrong. My son Peter calls me from Vancouver on my birthday, Mothers' Day, Christmas, and other occasions in the year. I eagerly look forward to his calls. How much more must our heavenly Father long for us to talk to Him. .So in that most important relationship of all, our love relationship with God, we need to spend time with him, share with him, listen.
When I was in Sunday School we used to sing the chorus. "The perfect friend is one who knows the worst about you, and loves you just the same. There's only one who loves like that, and Jesus is his name." So prayer is developing a friendship with God, and knowing that our friendship will continue into eternity.
That's the simple answer of what prayer is. A more complicated answer is that prayer can be many things. It can be a desperate cry for help. That is a very common experience for most people when their life is in danger, or the lives of those they love. Hospital chapels are often used by frightened relatives. I think of times when our car has spun round on black ice, and I've cried out "Jesus." Last year I saw a young man's anguish when he heard that the epicenter of a terrible earthquake was in his home town in Taiwan. Such cries for help are genuine prayer, but once the danger is past it might not lead to a friendship with God.
Prayer may be a deep sense of our sin and failure, and a longing to be clean again. We all remember when we said or did somethinghorrible, and we felt defiled and cried out to God for forgiveness. That too is prayer. When King David had committed adultery and murder he prayed "Create in me a clean heart, O God" (Psalm 51:10). In his case that prayer for forgiveness was part of the continual relationship with God expressed in the Psalms.
Prayer may be an overwhelming sense of joy.. After months of waiting and the pain of labour, our baby is the most beautiful child we have ever seen, and we worship.
Sometimes as we sit beside a lake and watch the setting sun, the beauty takes our breath away. In a service when the music or the reading or preaching of God's Word touches our heart, we say "Wow," and we join in the praise.
Prayer may be an arguing back and forth with God when we don't understand what is happening to us. Abraham and Moses and Jonah all argued with God. And the book of Job is an account of a long heated discussion with his friends and with God. That too is prayer.
In fact prayer is the sharing of any emotion with God. And this is powerfully illustrated in the Book of Psalms. David cries out to the Lord when he is afraid, angry, sick, depressed, delighted, and sometimes just want to be silent and soak in God's presence.
Why should we pray ?
We have already seen one answer to this question. Any friendship involves sharing. At the last supper Jesus said to his disciples "From henceforth I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (John 15:15).
Another answer is that God invites us. "Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify me" (Psalm 50:15). "Those who love me, I will deliver. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble" (Psalm 91:15). Jesus told a parable about the need "to pray always, and not to lose heart" (Luke 18:1-8). And St. Paul wrote "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians5:16-17).
Then there is the example throughout the Bible of men and women who loved to pray, and who were friends of God. We often assume that it is women who pray. But Abraham pleaded for the life of his nephew Lot (Genesis 18:22-33), he is described as the friend of God (James 2:23). During the wilderness wanderings Moses used to pitch a tent of meeting (really a prayer tent) outside the camp, and we are told that "The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Exodus 33:7, 11). Daniel used to pray three times a day, even when he was threatened with death for doing so (Daniel 6:1-13). And of course Jesus not only taught his disciples how to pray, but himself felt the need to get up before day break to meet with his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane he struggled in prayer as he faced his trial and crucifixion the next day.
How to Pray
As we now turn to thinking about how to pray, I'd like to emphasize that there are no right and wrong ways to pray. The one essential is speak from our hearts with real honesty, expressing our deepest emotions and longings. And when we do that God will hear us with great delight. I love it when my own children come and chat with me.
There are no right and wrong postures for praying. In the Old Testament we read of people standing and lifting holy hands to God. Daniel got down on his knees to pray (Daniel 6:10). In the garden of Gethsemane our Lord fell on his face to the ground. Some congregations in India used to sit cross legged on the floor and they prayed out loud all together.
There are no right and wrong sequences or subjects for which we should pray. Some books recommend the ACTS sequence of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication for the needs of others. But I suggest you use whatever sequence or no sequence that works for you. The main thing that God longs for us is for us to talk to him. He has no interest in the techniques of praying. Imagine lovers thinking up a technique for enjoying each other's company !
I am always touched by the simplicity of what Jesus taught his disciples. The Lord's Prayer is a family prayer that begins with "Our Father" (Luke 11:1-4). He then goes on to stories of the relationship between parents and children, and finishes up with "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (Luke 11:13).
I always remember Bishop Read mentioning in a sermon that the greatest gift we can offer anyone is our time. It is wonderful when we can give someone our undivided attention for one hour. Lovers find that easy and very wonderful. And that is certainly true in our friendship relationship with God. He loves it when we serve him, but perhaps his greatest longing is that we take time to love him, listen to him, talk to him.
There is a touching verse in Mark's Gospel when Jesus is choosing his apostles. "He appointed twelve to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message. That expresses his longing for these twelve to be his close friends, to be with him, to listen, and enjoy sharing with him.
We all have different daily schedules. There are early morning people and night owls. Some are out of the house every day by 6 a.m. Others have to adapt to shift work. Some care for little children at all hours, others have a disabled child or parent to care for. God knows that, and he never lays rules on us telling us when we should appear in his presence. He is always ready to come to us any time we can find to meet him.
On the other hand most of us manage to fit into our lives the things which are really important to us. Whether it be swim and gym at the Y, a game of bridge with friends, a favourite TV program, or time to curl up with a book. As we catch a vision of being a friend of God, we will set aside the time to meet with him in a special way. For me that is before breakfast, but it may be a very different time for you. Bob or I make a cup of tea, I make my bed, set out my Bible, a notebook and pen, and my prayer request book. Then I shut the door and I am alone with God. It has become a wonderful routine in my life.
I read last week a lovely book called Soul Feast by Marjorie Thomson. She says "Developing the habit of regular prayer is like building any new habit into our lives. It takes commitment, creativity, and perseverance. None of this will happen unless we desire a deeper relationship with God. God deserves the best time of our day, not the dregs." I suggest you try 15 minutes to begin with, but I suspect you will soon want more.
What do I do when I pray? First of all I take time to be quiet, to rejoice in God's love for me and his blessings in my life. I just enjoy being with God. Then I open my Bible. This has been the main way God has spoken to me in my life. Some people use various devotional books, but I find the Bible the most helpful. I usually go straight through a book, and in each chapter I ask the Holy Spirit to show me how the passage can apply to me.
After meditating on my bible passage, I turn to prayer. I like the way Paul explains the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). That means I am not alone in my praying. The Holy Spirit is interpreting the mind of God to me, and helping me put it into words. Words are important. I have a room where I can pray out loud. That helps me to be specific. It also gives me more confidence to be able to pray with others.
I have various circles that are important to me, and I begin with my family and close friends. I don't just pray for their health and safety, but I express my concerns for them to enjoy all the good things that God has for them. Then I think of my church family, and that includes groups such as the Sanctuary Guild, the Parish Council, those involved in our music, Bible study groups, the Alpha course, etc.
There are hundreds of groups here in Kingston with which you are all connected - golf clubs, choirs, book clubs. God brings us into these contacts to enjoy and pray for our friends. Having been a missionary in India for eleven years, I pray for friends in Interserve, the mission group we served with and still support. And I am concerned for countries like Nepal where churches have mushroomed in the last forty years, and Afghanistan where women are terribly oppressed.
We cannot possibly pray for the vast variety of needs in the world. We each have different circles of interest that are important for us. And we can trust God to call millions of others to pray for other specific needs that he is concerned about.
Brother Lawrence prayed as he was doing the monastery dishes. I like to talk to the Lord as I am driving. I love to pray when someone shares a concern with me, and I have been known to pray at a distance over the telephone. I pray a lot when I am entertaining people in our home.
One method I have found helpful is to use a Prayer Request Book. For those who have done the Alpha Course you will remember Nicki Gumble uses this method. As you patiently wait and tick off one answer after another, there is a wonderful assurance that God does indeed answer prayer in quite astonishing ways.
I haven't dealt with the topic of how God speaks back to us. Little
children learn to pick up the language of their parents, and it takes time
to learn the language of God. But when prayer becomes as free as a conversation
with a close friend, we know that his love find a way to communicate with
us every day.