Lent Series on Christian Disciplines #1: Prayer
Last week in my sermon I suggested that this season of Lent can be for us a significant moment, a moment that makes a difference for the future course of our lives. It doesn’t just have to be about little things like giving up sugar in our coffee, or about dressing up the church in purple and not saying ‘Alleluia’ until Easter. It can be a time for us to learn some new habits and take on some godly disciplines that will help to shape us as Christian disciples long past the end of Lent. Last week I suggested six areas of our lives that we need to think about: prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission. This week I want to zero in on the habit of daily prayer. How might we begin to be more intentional about building prayer into our daily lives?
When I was in college, one of our teachers mentioned a discussion amongst his fellow-clergy about finding time for prayer when the phone didn’t ring and other intrusions didn’t arise. He mentioned his own comment that “I’ve found the phone is pretty quiet at 6.00 a.m.!” I’ve always been a morning person myself, so I was probably receptive to this idea by nature. I’ve always been enormously attracted to the idea of starting off the day alone with God. And my Christian nurture took place in a tradition that really stressed this: you met God first thing in the morning and gave the day to him. As my Dad used to say, “You don’t tune up the orchestra after the concert is over!” In fact, for many years I saw this as an unbreakable rule, despite the fact that it isn’t laid down in the Bible as a rule at all! Regular prayer – yes; regular prayer at the crack of dawn – well, not necessarily! Although I do note at least one mention of Jesus doing this, in Mark 1:35: ‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’.
My suggestions about prayer today have of course been shaped by my own experience, and the experience of those who have gone before us. If you have a different way of praying, a way that works for you and helps you connect with God, then please don’t stop using it just to adopt mine! But on the other hand, if you’ve never been successful in building the habit of daily prayer into your life, here’s a way that has been helpful for many people over the years.
Let’s think first about preparing for our prayer time. There are two things you need to decide about – the right time, and the right place.
The right time will be a time of day when you’re at your best, a time that will be reasonably free of distraction for you, and a time at which you can clear at least fifteen minutes. For some people, that time will be first thing in the morning, right after they get up. For other people it will be better to go in early to work, shut their office door and spend time with God there. For some who stay at home as caregivers, the best time might be the time in the morning after everyone else has left the house and there’s relative calm after the storm. For others, taking time during the lunch hour might be a good option, especially if there’s a place handy where they can have privacy. For some, if will be the time immediately after they get home from work; for others, the night hawks among us, it will be last thing at night.
If you live with a family and have family responsibilities, you may need to discuss this with other people in your house. Others might need to cover duties such as childcare for you while you have your time of prayer. You can explain to them “I really want to develop a regular habit of prayer – can you help me out here? This is really important to me”.
Having found the right time, we then need to find the right place. Of course, you don’t absolutely have to pray in the same place every day, but our minds are helped by the association of one place with one activity. Can you find such a place for yourself – a place you will make into a holy place by regular prayer? A place where you can have privacy and a measure of quiet? Christians have prayed in some unlikely places over the years! English railway cars used to be divided into little compartments, and C.S. Lewis said he found them ideal for saying his prayers! People have prayed in bedrooms, in offices, and in family dens. People have taken their prayer times out for walks as a way of being alone; you can’t read your Bible when you’re doing it, but for some people the many advantages of a prayer walk outweigh this one disadvantage. Most of us can find a place, if we set our minds to it.
So – you’ve marked out fifteen minutes at some point of the day, and you’ve found a good place to pray. Now – what will you do with that time? Well, let’s begin by remembering that a good prayer time has two parts to it – listening and responding.
Listening comes first. As someone once said, ‘God gave us two ears and only one mouth, and maybe that was meant to teach us something!’ It’s important to remember this principle, not only in conversation with people, but also in prayer. Psalm 62:1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. So I don’t come rushing into the presence of God with my agenda for today’s meeting! My role is first to listen, then to respond. And for me, listening involves two things.
First, it means starting with silence. During this opening silence, we focus on God’s presence, thinking of who God is and why we are here meeting with him. Some people find it helpful to have a visual focus during this time of silence – perhaps a lighted candle, or a cross. Some use some sort of controlled breathing technique to help them relax and focus on God. If any of that is helpful for you, by all means do it. Whatever you do, start your time of prayer by waiting on God in silence.
The second part of listening, for me, is listening to God in Scripture. Take a short passage of scripture, perhaps from the Gospels, which are the best place to start if you’re just getting going on this for the first time. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you to understand what you read and to apply it to your life. Read the passage slowly and prayerfully, thinking about what you read. Perhaps read it through a couple of times. Then think about a few questions to help you get at the meaning of the passage. What’s the main theme of this passage? Is there a promise here for me to trust? Is there a good example for me to follow, or a bad one for me to avoid? Is there a command for me to put into practice? Is there a new way of looking at things for me to learn from? Do I identify with a character in this story, and if so, why? What is God saying to me? How should I respond to what God says? What would it mean for me to put God’s message into practice today? It might be helpful to have a notebook at hand so that we can jot down anything that particularly speaks to us in the passage of scripture for the day.
By the way, one way of choosing passages for each day is to use a devotional booklet like New Daylight, which some of us here at St. Margaret’s use and find helpful. For each day of the week it gives a short scripture passage and then a little devotional reflection to help us understand and apply the text to our own lives.
So, we’ve taken a minute in silence, and a few minutes to read scripture and listen for what God wants to say to us in it. Now we move on to the second main part of our prayer time, responding.
The first part of our responding grows naturally out of our meditation on scripture. What has God said to us in that time? It’s natural for us to talk to him about it, tell him how we feel about it - sometimes even to argue with him about it - and to ask his guidance and help in putting it into practice.
What else might we want to say to God? There are no rules in the Bible about this; however, as I said, there are some examples of prayers people have prayed. Over the centuries, too, Christians have developed some wisdom about what constitutes a balanced prayer life, and the different elements we can include. For the past few years, I’ve often used a four-part scheme to help people grow in prayer. I got it from my friend Harold Percy, and he calls it ‘Everything I needed to know about prayer I learned in kindergarten’. He encourages people to build their prayer around these four words or phrases:
First, thank you. Philippians 4:6 says ‘…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God’. It’s not hard for us to figure out things we can thank God for. We’re grateful for the daily necessities of life such as food, drink, clothing, and shelter; we thank God for the people we love and for the good experiences we have from day to day. We thank God for Jesus and his Gospel, and for the way he works in our lives. Cultivating the habit of thankfulness can transform us from complaining people into people who rejoice. Be sure to build thanksgiving into your daily prayer time.
The second word is sorry. 1 John 1:8-9 says ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’. We know that in a human relationship, if we’ve said or done something to hurt our friend, this is going to get in the way of our friendship until we apologise and ask forgiveness. It’s the same in our relationship with God. Personally, I find it helpful to be very specific here. I don’t just say “I’ve been selfish”, but “I was selfish when I did such and such, or didn’t do such and such”. It’s not that I’m giving God information he doesn’t know, of course! But I need to face the truth about myself without using generalizations of euphemisms. I need to bring this stuff to God, ask forgiveness, and then believe the promises of scripture telling me that I am indeed forgiven.
The first two words were ‘Thank you’ and ‘Sorry’. The third word is please. Back to Philippians 4:6 again where Paul says ‘…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God’. We can make requests to God for ourselves or for other people. Some of my requests are regular; there are people I pray for every day, others I pray for every week or once a month, whether they have a particular need or not. Other requests are related to specific circumstances: people who are sick or have particular needs at the time. I myself find it helpful to use a list to remind me of the people and needs I want to pray for. Some people find that a distraction, but for me it’s a real help to my dodgy memory!
So our prayer time includes ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’, and ‘Please’. The last phrase is not on the official kindergarten curriculum, but every kid in kindergarten learns it anyway: “You’re awesome!” Expressing this to God – ‘Our God is an awesome God’ – is what we call ‘praise’. The writers of the psalms are very good at this; listen to these words from Psalm 104:1-3:
Bless the LORD, O my soul.
O LORD my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind.
If you’re wondering how to express your words of praise to God, I would encourage you to make friends with the writers of the psalms; you’ll find their prayers in the middle of your Bible. Some of them are not appropriate for praise: they are laments, or hymns of penitence, or even prayers of anger against enemies! But there are some really good hymns of praise in there too! Alternatively, you might know the words of some songs or hymns we sing in worship that can help you express your praise to God.
So we have these four ‘words’ or phrases: ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’, ‘Please’ and ‘You’re awesome’. Together, they help us build a balanced time of prayer with God.
I’ve often heard it said that you learn to swim by swimming. In the same way, I’m quite sure that the only way to learn to pray is by praying. So let me conclude by encouraging you to start learning and not to put this off. Some of you here have been doing this for years, and this is old hat to you. But others of you have never quite found a way to build regular prayer into your lives. Well, now’s the time to try again. Find yourself a good time and a good place and make a start. It might not seem very profound to you, but if you start this week and do it every day during Lent, you can begin to build it into a daily habit, a habit that, in the long run, will transform your life. And the best day to start doing it is today.