Prayer is a funny thing. It means different things to different people. Richard Holloway who was the Bishop of Edinburgh was speaking at a conference. Eventually the time for questions arrived and an elderly lady posed a question, “Bishop, do you pray?” The bishop responded immediately with a single word, “No!” He left that ‘no’ to linger in silence. A bishop who did not pray seemed a contradiction in terms. Finally, breaking the silence he said,“Madam, if I had answered your question with a ‘yes,’ you would have assumed that I accepted your definition of what it means to pray and your definition of God. That would have been false and misleading, so I had to answer with a ‘no.’ Now, if we can discuss what we mean by the words “God” and “prayer” and get beyond the confusion between God and Santa Claus, which grow out of our childhood, then my answer might be very different.”
If we believe God is sitting up in heaven waiting for us send a shopping list of things we want doing then our prayers are going to be very different to someone who believes God is within us and around us. Often it is believed that God is an external being, possessing supernatural powers. It is assumed that God has the power to alter the forces of nature to bring about a desired result. Perhaps it is assumed that God might not do good things unless we ask God to do so. Some assume that the mind of God can be changed, and with it the course of history.
I wonder if we have that power over God. The bishop of Edinburgh had a different view of God. His answer did not mean that he had given up praying but his idea of prayer may be different to what was assumed.
I don’t know what prayer means for Richard Holloway or for anyone else for that matter. I can only tell you what prayer means for me. For me prayer is a means of thinking about God and what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world today. Some people would call it contemplation.
I can remember some time ago talking with a lady who was dying with cancer. This went on at intervals for several months. Three years to be exact. I always finished each visit with a prayer.
This usually consisted of a few religious clichés and platitudes. I think they were more for my benefit more than hers. I realised that the real times of prayer were the conversations I had with her which often came round to topics of faith.
When Jane and I were on holiday in Morocco we were taken on a guided tour by a driver who was a Muslim. The inevitable call to prayer was broadcast when all Muslims are expected to take time out to pray. The driver couldn’t do that and I asked him how he got round that. His answer was, “My work is my prayer.”
For me, now, prayer is more about being than doing. That’s me. What about you?
Your view of God and prayer may be entirely different. If you set aside time each day for a time of prayer. Carry on. That’s fine. If you want to light a candle to focus your mind. Carry on. That’s fine. If you like to use incense to symbolise your prayer rising to God, carry on. That’s fine.
What I do not intend to do is to lay down a set of rules on how you should pray. In the Gospel accounts Jesus took himself off to pray alone. Perhaps the disciples thought there were special words, gestures or postures that were necessary. As a result they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus’ response was the now familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. Prayed by Christians every day throughout the world even though the words used may be slightly different. If prayer is about bringing about change it is about changing us, not God. I think that is what the Lord’s Prayer is intended to do. I’m sure it was why Jesus taught it in the first place. He knew that if we used it properly it would bring about a change in us. I don’t know whether you use the Word for Today but it so happens that the last few days have been about prayer. Starting today there are four session with the title, “Different ways to pray.” After that there are another seven thoughts about prayer.
If you don’t have a copy I would suggest you take one tonight. I hope that, in your prayers, you might get closer to God.