29 July 2007

Talking About Prayer

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings share the theme of Prayer. Particularly the theme of persisting in prayer.

Abraham argued and argued with God about Sodom. "What if there are fifty good people, Lord? Well, okay, what if there are only forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten?" Even Abraham baulked at going lower than that.... and, sadly, as we know, there weren't ten good people in Sodom, and the city was destroyed. But Lot and his family, who were more righteous than many, escaped in time.

And Jesus told the story, in the context of teaching about prayer, and I'm absolutely sure he was funny about it and made his hearers laugh, about how if your friend dropped in in the middle of the night and you needed to knock up a neighbour to borrow a loaf of bread, or whatever, your neighbour would probably get up to lend it to you in the end just to shut you up! Apparently the Greek word that’s translated “persistence” or “boldness” in our versions actually means shamelessness or effrontery, or even impudence! What the neighbour would then proceed to say to you next morning doesn't bear thinking about, but Jesus didn't go there, so nor will we! Talk about pester power! Jesus also reminded his hearers of the “model prayer”, although this isn't the version that we still use in services today. And he reminds us that we give our children good things – don't we expect God to give us the Holy Spirit when we ask?

So, prayer.

The trouble is, most of us reckon that we aren’t actually very good at it. And if and when we pray, we tend to pray because it’s what Christians do. It’s one of the “means of grace”, alongside the Sacrament, Scripture reading, and attendance at public worship. We pray, because we feel it is our duty towards God. But do we really expect God to answer our prayers? For all too many of us, and I include myself at times, prayer becomes something we do because we are expected to. We feel guilty because we don’t pray, and then our prayers become formal and we don’t really expect God to listen. We bore ourselves, and assume we bore God. Jesus’ hearers, too, may have had the same sort of problem, as the rule in the Old Testament seems to have been: if you want to contact God, get a priest. Personal prayer seems almost to have been discouraged, unless you were a prophet. But we are in the new Testament now; Jesus is changing things.

Of course, there are many different types and models of prayer. Most of us learnt a particular way of praying at one time or another in our lives, and we tend to stick to it. Often, it is in the format Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication, which we remember with the mnemonic “ACTS”. You probably notice that most preachers, myself included, tend to use that model in worship services. We started with a prayer of adoration after the first hymn, then we moved into confession and assurance of forgiveness. And when I've finished, we will have our prayers of thanksgiving and intercession. “Intercession”, by the way, is another word for supplication. I think that technically intercession is prayer for others, and supplication is prayer for ourselves, or is it the other way around? Anyway, the point is, our prayers should be for others as well as ourselves. Abraham was very definitely praying for others when he argued with God about whether or not to spare Sodom.

One rather wise old preacher I once heard said that “prayer is aligning oneself with God.”

Prayer is aligning oneself with God.

Now, that didn't make very much sense to me when I first heard him, so I thought about it a lot, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it actually made!

Prayer is aligning oneself with God.

We pray “Thy Will be done”, in the Lord's prayer, just as Jesus himself teaches us. Although, oddly, not in this version of the prayer – the version we tend to use is found in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 6, to be precise. But as we pray “Thy Will be done”, as we spend time with God, so we become more and more able to want what God wants rather than what we want. We become more aligned with God's vision and purpose for us, and for the world, and are truly able to pray and to see our prayers answered.

But this, of course, takes persistence and perseverance. We aren't going to be able to do this “cold”, as it were; we need to learn how. We need to spend time in God's presence, time reading and meditating on the Scriptures, time with God.

We usually say “Our Father” when we say the prayer, but the word Jesus used was much more intimate than that. He said “Abba”, which is almost the direct equivalent of “Dad” or “Daddy”. What does it imply if you address God as “Dad”? What does it feel like? Does it make you uncomfortable? I think it does me, a little. Some folk have never had a good relationship with their fathers; perhaps they have never known them, even. Would you get a better image of that sort of relationship Jesus had in mind if you addressed God as “Mother”? These aren't questions with any right or wrong answers, by the way! You need to learn to pray in your way, not in your neighbour's way – there are no right or wrong ways.

We all tend to beat ourselves up over not “praying properly”; I bet none of us is really satisfied with ourselves. But that's not what God's about. “Abba”, Daddy, doesn't want us to feel pressured over spending “quality time” with him; it's not about that. I think God has far more invested in our relationship with him than we do!

And the more we are able to pray, the more we become aligned with God and the more effective our prayers can be. But there is another way that persistence in prayer is important. Prayer opens a channel for God to act.

Prayer opens a channel for God to act.

You know as well as I do that some of the time when we pray, nothing much seems to happen. Our prayers appear to go unanswered. We don't get the job or the flat we wanted. Our friend is still ill. There is still war in Iraq and there are still enormous problems between Israel and Palestine.

Now, some of the time, we know, we just aren't asking for the right thing. Prayer isn’t a slot machine where you put the right form of words in and the answer comes out. You aren’t waving a magic wand, like Harry Potter. God isn’t Father Christmas. I do believe, though, that God always answers our prayers – just sometimes, the answer isn’t what you would have expected!

No matter how much we long and long for a friend to recover from illness, our bodies aren't designed to last forever. Sooner or later they are going to wear out or rust out, whatever we do. Sometimes we just can't see round corners, we don't know all the what ifs, and the whys and wherefores. If this particular prayer was answered in the way we wanted, it might change too many other things. We have no way of knowing.

But there are times when for reasons we probably don’t know, God simply can’t act. There are things blocking him – sometimes simple things like other people simply not doing what God wants them to. Other times it’s more complicated – battles being fought in heaven that we know nothing about, perhaps. And the more we spend time with God, the more the channel opens to enable God to do whatever it was that was being blocked before.

Prayer is aligning ourselves with God.

Prayer opens a channel for God to act.

There are, of course, many different types of prayer – probably as many as there are people. Some of us pray in words all the time, and that’s fine – for others, praying in words is only part of our prayer. Some like to pray in silence, taking time to become aware that they are in God’s presence. Others like to use written words, either as the prayer itself or as a doorway into prayer. Still others use a rosary. Or perhaps you pray in tongues. Some of us find it necessary to spell out exactly what the problem is, getting it straight in their own minds, perhaps. Others just mention a keyword, perhaps a someone’s name, trusting that God will know what they’re talking about.

But the important thing, of course, is that we pray. It doesn’t matter how strong or how feeble we are, it doesn’t matter whether we’re fluent or hesitant. It is, I think, the contact with God that is important. For when we are in contact with God, things change!

Ask and it will be given to you;” says Jesus. “Seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Prayer forms a channel for God to act. Prayer brings us in alignment with God. For how much more will our Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Return to sermon index

Return to home page