21 July 2015

Renewing Prayer

everydayprayerOn Sunday at Kilmallie Free Church we looked at prayer from both the Old and New Testaments. In the morning, we looked at the astonishing promises of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8:

Ask, and you will receive; Seek, and you will find; Knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and for the one who knocks, it will be opened.

Coupling this with what Jesus says in Matthew 6:5-8, we thought about Everyday Prayer based in the Generosity of God.

Adolf Schlatter once wrote about our lack of prayer, that ‘we carry around heavy bundles of wishings that never become askings’. That’s a bit like what we find in James 4:2: ‘you do not have because you do not ask’. Which echoes Isaiah 65:1, where the God of Israel says:

‘I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who do not seek me...’

The Generosity of God ought to invite us to Everyday Prayer. So why don’t we pray more? There might be many Reasons, but here are two that arise from Jesus’s words in Matthew 6.

Reason One is that we think we need ‘holy’ or ‘religious’ settings to pray. For the Jews in Jesus’ day that meant the temple or the synagogue, or for the Pharisees perhaps the street corner, surrounded by those they hoped to influence. In Matthew 6:6, Jesus says that you can pray even in the storeroom of your small-holding (that probably would be the only lockable room in the average Palestinian home). In the most unholy place, amongst the tools and animal feed, God will hear you. For us, our ‘holy’ setting can be our ‘devotional time’, the time that we have set aside in our minds to pray and read our Bibles every day. Or our special chair, where we sit to pray. Or our bed. These can be the places where prayer is confined. We can, perhaps unwittingly, have a view of prayer that is heavenly, rather than earthly, that is ‘sacred’ in the sense of being detached from the rest of our lives, or the rest of our busy day. Our prayers can become sectioned off from the nitty gritty of life. We then haven’t got ‘everyday prayer’, prayer that is rooted in our daily need and a cry to our Generous Father. We can pray anywhere, and at any time. And God will hear us.

Reason Two is that we think that prayer demands a ‘holy’ time (and often a significant chunk of time). We must set apart each day an hour, or half an hour, or twenty minutes, in order to have a proper ‘devotional time’. That’s great if it works, and if prayer also spills outside of these times (see above). But, for many people this ideal is difficult to sustain – and because we can’t make the model work, then prayer doesn’t really happen. This is what Frederick Bruner calls ‘The Tyranny of Much’. Some Christians, especially new disciples, struggle to pray at all because they find it difficult to find a chunk of time to do it ‘properly’, to follow the models for prayer that they’re often taught in church. We need time to execute these models of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. We’re told that if what we mainly do in prayer is ask, then that’s selfish. I wonder…is that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 7? Or in the Lord’s Prayer?

'We need to be reminded that asking is not (as some spiritual teachers tell us) more selfish than praise, which, we are told, is more God-centred; or that asking is more selfish than intercession, which is said to be more neighbor-centred; or that asking is more selfish than thanksgiving, which, we hear, is more humble. All six sentences of the Lord's Prayer are petitions, that is, they are askings. The right way for disciples to appear before God is not as givers to a divine Egoist, but as receivers from a generous Father. There can be more self-centeredness in the praise understanding of worship, which assumes that we are the important actors and God the passive recipient, than there is in the asking understanding of worship, which lets God be God and us be human beings.' Bruner, Matthew 1.344

The ‘Tyranny of Much’ can keep us from praying at all. Or from enjoying prayer, rather than feeling guilty about it all the time. Jesus said: ‘do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words’. Unlike the capricious gods that the Romans believed in, we don’t have to set out our case in prayer, to enter the Dragon’s Den with our pitch. We are children approaching a Generous Father who knows how to give good gifts (7:11), and who already knows what we need (6:8).

renewingprayerWhen we hear calls for a Renewal of Prayer (it’s what we finished with on Sunday morning), our response is often to think about how we can find more time in a quiet room to get away from the everyday for a devotional time. Again, that’s good – if it lasts. But so often we think about prayer as a way to lift ourselves out of our everyday experience, rather than a way to bring God’s Generosity into our everyday experience. Maybe our response ought to be to embrace Everyday Prayer. On Sunday I made a few suggestions if we’re struggling to pray, a few suggestions for Everyday Prayer:

  • Morning. We wake up often with lots on our minds. After grabbing a glass of juice (or whatever you do to wake up), why not take a moment as you stand in the kitchen, or sit at the table, to ask God to help you with the challenges of that day. Ask him for peace, a clear mind, and that things would work out. Ask Jesus that you might be a faithful disciple today, and make a difference in his name. It’s taken just two or three minutes.
  • Night. While you’re getting into bed, why not stop and sit for a few moments. Looking back over the day, you can see where God has helped you. So give thanks. You can also see where you fell short, you process the mistakes. Ask for forgiveness and for wisdom. Ask for peace as you sleep, for you and the family. We take that for granted so often. Again, it takes just a couple of minutes.
  • Meals. Some Christians seem to neglect ‘saying grace’, giving thanks for meals. But, it not only reminds us to thank God for our daily bread, but is a great opportunity to say a quick prayer for those in need. It might be your friend, waiting for the tests, or for your brother-in-law fighting his illness. Or for a situation in an overseas country you’ve read about. 
  • Going Out. Before you leave the house, why not quickly gather the family (as many as you can) for a quick prayer. Your daughter’s in the kitchen with some last-minute toast; your son’s tying his shoelaces. It’s all last minute. It doesn’t matter, it’s Everyday Prayer. Everyone can pause for a moment – you raise your voice a little so they can hear. Ask your Father to protect you all that day, to bring you safely home, and to help you to be faithful disciples, to help others, to live and speak the Gospel and to do what Jesus would do. It’s just a short prayer.
  • Parting. After you’ve had a great evening with friends, where you’ve shared stories and worries and laughter, and talked about church and about faith, why not pray as they leave. As you stand by the door, thank God for your friendship and pray about the worries and challenges – it’s just a minute or two.
  • Family Worship. This is an important and neglected opportunity for Everyday Prayer. Often it’s neglected because folk are idealising quite a formal time: a long Bible reading with an explanation, the singing of a psalm, and a long prayer. But, it can be short and flexible. If you have 10 minutes, take 10 minutes and everyone can say a short prayer, you and the children. If you only have 3 minutes because someone’s rushing out, then use that 3 minutes for a short reading and prayer. If despite our busyness we’re managing to eat dinner together as a family most days, then family worship is a great way to practice Everyday Prayer together.

Everyday Prayer, bringing our needs to our Generous Father. Of course, as we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, our prayers grow too. Our experience of Everyday Prayer becomes richer as we know more of the truth of our Generous Father and our Friend Jesus. On Sunday evening we looked at Psalms 42 and 43. In those psalms we see someone remembering in prayer, questioning in prayer, speaking to themselves before God – all in the face of a really trying time. The picture is of someone whose inner life is lived in God’s presence. Someone who processes their fears and anxieties before God in prayer, asking for his help, and being honest about their struggles. As we grow as Christians, this is the character that our Everyday Prayer will take on. We’ll find more time to pray and a closeness to God in prayer that we didn’t know before. But, we have to start somewhere.