1 Kings 19:8b-15a; Luke 6:12-16
14th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 06.09.15
Have you ever tried to learn a new language?
I confess I’ve made a few attempts. My French lessons didn’t go particularly well. We had a teacher who would throw the blackboard wiper at anyone who got something wrong. I dropped French as soon as I could.
My attempts at German were a little more successful – I even scraped an “O” level in it, but it all rapidly disappeared despite having 20 German cousins. I blame them for speaking perfect English.
And in South Africa, I lived in a country with 11 official languages. By the time I had decided which one to try and learn, it was time to return to the UK.
I’m sure the language experts among you could put me right, but it seems to me when learning a second language, that a few things are worth taking on board.
Firstly, not to get discouraged if in the first week one is unable to have deep, fluent philosophical conversations of great wit and intelligence. Just being able to say “Bonjour” and “Ou est le patisserie?” is progress.
Secondly, learning a language only really happens by speaking it. I can read up all the books that have ever been written on French grammatical rules, but I won’t learn to speak the language unless I start speaking it.
And thirdly, perseverance is key. Don’t give up. The more you speak it, the more it will come.
Well, I think prayer is a bit like speaking a second language. Unless we have been fortunate to grow up in a bi-lingual home (a home where prayer was a natural part of the daily life and conversation of the home), prayer may not always come that naturally or easily to us.
So today, in our home groups this week, and in two weeks time, we are going to be thinking about prayer.
The first thing which is natural to ask when we are thinking about prayer is: “Why do we pray?” It is a really important question, because if we are unsure of an answer, we will understandably be less inclined to pray.
Well here are three answers that have helped me over the years:
The ancient writers of the church have said of prayer that it is “heart speaking to heart”. Prayer is the place where who I am, who I truly am at the level of my heart, encounters, is in relationship with, the heart of God. Prayer is the meeting place if you like between heaven and earth, the place where relationship with God becomes possible. We pray in response to God’s love for us.
Secondly, we pray because prayer can change things. Archbishop William Temple said that he noticed that when he prayed, “coincidences” happened; and when he stopped praying, the “coincidences” stopped happening. I know that it is certainly true for many of you here that when you pray coincidences seem to happen more often – whether that’s praying for someone, and then you meet them in the street; etc.
And thirdly, we pray because prayer changes us. I know that for some of you, facing health issues or concerns over the well-being of loved ones, these last few months have not been easy. But I also know, in talking with you, that you have drawn great strength from prayer, whether peace, or comfort, or hope. That in prayer, no matter how tentative, you have experienced the loving presence of God with you. And for others here, it may have been your experience that as you have prayed for others or for situations in other parts of the world, you have found yourself becoming more compassionate about people’s needs, more angry about injustice, more willing to do something.
There are good reasons to pray.
But if you are anything like me, prayer does not always come easily.
So here are a few practical tips gleaned from the wisdom and experience of Christians down the ages.
- Pray until you pray. The way to learn a language is not to read book upon book of theory. It is to start speaking it. Likewise, we learn to pray not by reading lots of theological books on prayer. We learn by doing it. I personally think this advice is even more helpful for people who are going through a dry patch, not praying as much as they used to. Don’t wait until everything is perfect before praying again. Just pray!
- Remember you are speaking to a God who loves you and delights to hear your voice, not to an examiner waiting for you to trip up or make a mistake. Jesus totally transformed the whole approach to prayer when he taught his disciples to pray “Our Father”. The translation is better put as “daddy”, the most intimate and loving relationship one can imagine between a dependent young child and a loving, doting parent, one who doesn’t care about the syntax and the grammar, but who just delights in the sound of their child’s voice. So pray as a young child would speak to their mum or dad – simply, expressing your needs and desires, your thanks or hopes. Relax and pray; don’t worry about “getting it right”.
- Notice those times when you feel drawn to prayer, when you may find yourself unexpectedly breathing out a prayer of thanks or a call for help. I know one person for whom its an early morning walk, another as they sit in bed with a cup of tea, another as they drive to work listening to music, for another as they work in the garden. There is no right or wrong place or time to pray, but if you notice that there are times and places where you just find yourself more drawn to prayer, then why not try to build more of those times into your life. Create the space for those times to occur more frequently.
- Keep a list of people and situations you want to pray for. There may be times when you don’t know what to pray for, so having a list of people to pray for can be really helpful. Why not start with family members or close friends, for people in the church, for people you know who need prayer at this time. The weekly leaflet always has suggestions of people to pray for. You may want to join the prayer chain. Have that list somewhere where you may pause for thought – at the sink, by the kettle – and just offer someone up to God as you are waiting. You may want to push the boat out on this in a couple of ways. Jesus called us to “Pray for those who persecute you”. Are there work colleagues, neighbours, family, people in the church, who you really struggle with. Pray for them regularly, and see what happens. Also, some people keep a notebook. On the left page they write down their prayers; on the other side they write down answers to their prayers. Sometimes such answers may be “No”, but often such notebooks can be an incredible encouragement to realise that God has indeed answered some of our prayers.
- At the end of the day, before you switch off the light and go to sleep, you may want to spend just two or three minutes reflecting on the events of the day, asking three simple questions: where have you seen the love and goodness of God today? (Give thanks) When have you forgotten God or not lived as he would have wished you to this day? (Ask and receive his forgiveness). When have their been times when you wished for God’s healing presence today? (Offer those situations and people to God). This is a tradition that has been followed by Christians for centuries, and not only concludes the day with prayer, but prepares you to see more of God’s presence in the day to come.
- Another tradition is that of “breath prayer” – saying a prayer that is short enough one can say it in one breath – and saying this prayer repeatedly during the day. This may seem strange at first, but it can be a very helpful way of focusing our thoughts and being more conscious of God’s presence. The most famous breath prayer is one based on the words of the tax collector praying in the temple: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” A prayer that I have prayed is “Jesus, help me to know your presence.” Other prayers that people use are: “Father, guide me by your Spirit”, or “Jesus, fill me with love for those I meet”. Every time we remember, we just say the prayer. The beauty of such a prayer is that it is so short, we can do it silently whilst in a conversation or at work or in the midst of something. It helps us to be conscious of God and to bring him into whatever situation we are in, rather than having to step outside of the situation to pray.
- Do try out other ways of praying – be brave! You may find a whole new way of expressing yourself and talking with God. I remember how 20 years ago I discovered that a dawn walk every morning on Port Meadow in Oxford, where I was living at the time, was the thing that released my soul to pray. A few years later, I discovered that silence and stillness was the very thing to help me pray. (There will be an opportunity for that at Soul Space this evening – come along and try it out!) Or you may find that it is in the written prayers of saints down the ages that speak the words you struggle to express that deepens your prayers. (There are many prayer books around to help with this).
Why not take one of these thoughts and try them out in your own life?
One of our most common reasons for not praying is that we are too busy, we don’t have time to pray.
Well, some of the ideas we have talked about take almost no time. We can all find time to pray more.
But, in closing, ponder these words of Martin Luther when asked what he was going to do the next day: “I have so much to do I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Prayer is the most important thing we can do in our lives. It is the source of our strength to bring about meaningful change, the source of our love to care with genuine compassion, the source of our understanding, to see the issues of life as they really are, the source of our relationship with God.
Life is too busy, life is too important, not to pray.