I have been thinking lately about the subject of prayer. Thinking, but not so much praying. Theologian William Barclay once said: Christians are far more likely to talk about prayer than to do it." That strikes a chord in me!
For many Christians - - good, well-intentioned Christians - - there often seems to be some kind of inner resistance to actually getting down to the business of seriously praying. Those who suffer from that malady, and I am often one, are more than willing to read books about it; to analyze and plan how they might do more of it; to spend time figuring out the best possible time; the most edifying place; the right prayer guide; the right Bible passage.
Then, when we have all of that worked out, we remember that first we should probably go to get the mail, or the children are due home from school and we should prepare a snack for them, or maybe we ought to spend some time sorting out our sock drawer!! Before we know it, the time is gone and we feel - - guilty.
But we are in some rather good company actually. The well-known Christian writer Henri Nouwen confessed to being in that company. Nouwen died just a few years ago. He was a Dutch Roman Catholic who was one of the best writers on the subject of the inner life.
In his book "The Genesee Diary" he said that he was always surprised when people wrote to him and assumed that he actually lived up to the ideal programs of prayer that he described and encouraged in his books. He said that what he describes in his writings is the ideal that he strives for, but that he too often struggled with his prayer life. So those of us who admit that we have trouble being regular and faithful in our prayer life can take some solace that we are in some pretty good company.
This problem is common enough that lots of smart people throughout history have wrestled with it. Andrew Murray in his classic book "The Spiritual Life" says that prayer "is easy tomorrow but hard today... but alas, you will find it just as hard in the future as now."
When the disciples asked Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11.1), he didn't talk about prayer; he prayed. "When you pray, say this 'Our Father who art in heaven...'" He prayed with them. He taught them by praying with them.
Maybe we make it too hard on ourselves. Louis Evely says that "Prayer is not so much asking things of God, but receiving what God wants to give you... Not so much being heard by God as hearing God praying in you... Not so much asking God's forgiveness as opening yourself to God's forgiveness. Not so much offering yourself to God as welcoming God offering God's self to you." Our prayers, in other words, originate in God, and are an instrument with which God shapes us into his image.
Prayer, at its heart, needs a time of just being quiet; of listening and waiting for God to show his presence. That wouldn't require words or knowledge or any special time or place.
Mother Teresa famously captured this thought when she said that, "Prayer enlarges the heart, until it is large enough to contain God's gift of himself."
I think that what set me thinking about my prayer life recently was a time I spent in our church library while I waited for the service to begin. I found a lovely little book titled "Mocking Birds and Angel Songs and Other Prayers," by Jo Carr and Imogene Sorley. It is truly a gem, and I have been using it as my prayer starter in the mornings. Here is just one small sample that speaks to this topic:
Lord, here I go again,
focusing too sharply on myself.
I forget that other people also feel insecure,
struggle with doubts, wrestle with fears, labor over decisions.
Because I only see the things they do,
I don't know anything about the inner turmoil
they have to go through before they do them.
Strong Competent people.
Ah, Lord, we are all insecure.
We are all in need of thy grace,
Give us the strength to wrestle and to labor.
And give us the insight to recognize our common quandary.
Take heart. We all struggle with this quandary, and God is always ready to hear our thoughts, our struggles, our fears, our joys. Any prayer is a good prayer if it opens us to God's loving presence.
We can always begin with the prayer of the ancient church that is well-known to all who have attended a Great Banquet weekend: "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love."
Pastor Nancy Becker