Continuing some musings about prayer, here is another of my categories of prayer:
is there anybody there PRAYER?
This sort of prayer can be the beginning of a relationship. It is a tentative exploration of whether there is a God and hoped-for responses range from a gentle feeling of reassurance through to a full-on multisensory display of the Almighty’s power. The reality is that it is more likely to result in the former than the latter, although occasionally people have had such a life-changing experience. If it is a fuelled by a genuine hope that God is there he will respond although maybe not in the way that a person expects.
Why doesn’t God give everyone the full-on show? I suspect it is something to do with him not wanting to overwhelm us. The occasions when he does are perhaps occasions when he knows that subconsciously that person is ready and willing for such a display. The rest of the time he gently cultivates the faith expressed and offers an almost imperceptible increase in awareness of who he is over time in order that the individual’s free will and fledgling faith is not stamped on by incontrovertible evidence of his existence that makes it impossible not to believe. God values our freedom to choose him or reject him so highly that he goes out of his way not to overwhelm it.
(By way of an aside, whatever you think God’s Judgment ultimately is perhaps it is nothing more than him honouring the decision we have made about whether we want to be with him or not: he’s not making the decision, we are!)
If you don’t hear him at first, don’t give up. This sort of prayer often requires persistence – not because God is silent but because we are not always well-attuned to his voice because we have not heard it before. We may not notice that he is there in that sense of peace or wellbeing. We may not recognise him in the way that other people speak to us or treat us. We may not sense him in nature around us. We may not find him in the words we read in the Bible. It doesn’t mean he’s not there, it’s just that we have to learn to recognise him (and that process continues throughout our life). We may need the help of a more experienced follower of Jesus to help us.
If so, do find someone – a friend, pastor, Spiritual Director…
Imagine that you are staying at a hotel. Breakfast is included in the price you are paying and, after a good night’s sleep, you get ready for the day and head down to the restaurant where there is a wonderful breakfast buffet spread across lots of stations. You look at the wonderful variety of food on offer – cereal, many different types of bread and pastries, continental breakfast, fruit, yoghurt, cooked breakfast and more beside. Having looked at everything that is on offer you fill your plate from the delicious array of options and head back to your table. Your companion decides that they will just start with a piece of toast.
But that’s just the first visit to the buffet.
After you have finished you head back with an empty plate and indulge again from the wide selection and come back to your table. Your companion also returns from the buffet.
With another piece of toast.
You do this several times and each time your companion only has a piece of toast. Eventually you ask why they are only choosing toast from the wide range of food on offer.
Your companion thinks about it for a moment and then says, “It’s what I am used to.”
How do you feel?
Is our approach to prayer like your companion’s approach to the breakfast buffet? Do we limit ourselves to what we are used to? Is there more on offer for us to experience? Absolutely and there are some excellent books on prayer that these bloggages can never hope to emulate – God on Mute by Pete Greig and The Message of Prayer by Tim Chester are two that I have read and value.
I am going to look at prayer in the following categories over the next few bloggages: today it’s 999. Subsequent bloggages will look at prayer categories such as: is there anybody there?; Christmas list; sorry, wrestlemania; lament; praise; gratitude; chattitude; and listening
You could say they are are the official nukelearfishing prayer categorisations, but before you go diving in please note that there is nothing wrong with any of these. If I appear critical it’s only if that’s the toast we eat every time and we don’t expand our diet. What I am seeking to encourage is a much wider breadth of engagement with the whole variety of ways of praying. I am also hopefully not so arrogant that I expect to make this an all-inclusive list but hopefully it might encourage you to try some new items from the buffet…
999 (or 911 in USA)
Some people pray in a moment of crisis or when they feel out of their depth trying to invoke the help of a higher power to get them out of trouble rather like calling 999 to request the assistance of one of the emergency services.
These prayers can sometimes be freestanding or can sometimes be linked to a promise / bribe – ‘If you will help me then I will…’ – and can be generated by self-interest or self-preservation which is a motive that can lead to amnesia if the prayer is answered positively and the promise / bribe is forgotten.
Linked to these are prayers offered on behalf of someone else who is in peril. This can also be linked to a bribe / promise and the commitment to those is similar to above. This more altruistic approach to praying is nonetheless still relatively limited in scope and expectation beyond an immediate resolution of the problem.
Acceptable answers to these first 2 categories of prayer may often be limited to fulfilling the request in the desired manner and any deviation from that answer can be seen as evidence that the prayer was not answered or that the higher power was unwilling / unable to assist or does not exist at all. This un-nuanced approach to answers to prayer is to be expected when prayer is seen more as a call to an emergency service than the lifeblood of a relationship.
There is nothing wrong with praying in these circumstances but it’s a shame if the mustard seed of faith expressed here is not cultivated when the moment passes. They are moments of engaging with the Almighty and can be gateways towards faith, but if our expectations are limited to getting what we want the faith expressed may not be much more than the faith expressed when we put money into a vending machine and hope to get what we asked for. It’s a shallow faith and if it is not deepened is likely to lead to an abandonment of that faith at the first sign of disappointment.
This bloggage was first written as a ‘Thought for the week’ sent to all of the ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…
Isn’t it interesting how easily we can overlook things? I
have recently been reminded that when reading the New Testament letters it is
important to remember whether they were written to an individual or to a
whole church. That can help us apply and unpack what is being said in revealing
ways. (It doesn’t mean, of course, that God won’t speak to an individual through
a ‘church’ letter or a church through an ‘individual letter’).
This Sunday I am preaching on Ephesians 6 – the armour of
10 Finally, be
strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full
armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For
our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against
the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the
spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore
put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be
able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand
firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the
breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet
fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In
addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can
extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the
helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in
the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this
in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray
also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will
fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I
am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
I know that I have often applied this individually to myself
and to others as a guide for how to protect oneself spiritually. But when you
consider that the letter to the Ephesians was written to a whole church the
passage takes on a different tone. If you think about it, one soldier on their
own is not going to last long in a battle. It’s only when soldiers are together
in a platoon, a company or battalion that they are effective. Paul’s injunction
to put on the armour of God is for all of us so that we may be effective together.
Roman soldiers were an extremely powerful force when they locked their shields
together and stood side by side or when they moved forwards together – look at
how far the Empire extended!
Ephesians 6:10-20 is about prayer. Verse 18 begins with the
conjunction ‘and’ which means it is a continuation of the preceding thoughts.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the last three verses are another way of
saying the same thing as the preceding seven. Pray together, pray for each
other. Did you notice how many times in the passage the word ‘stand’ or phrase
‘stand firm’ is mentioned? It comes four times in just four verses. One of the
main reasons for us to pray for one another is to enable each other to stand
firm. Wobbly Christians don’t last very long so it is important that we are
able to stand firm together and we need the prayers of others to help us. Pray
that we (collectively) may be a people of truth, righteousness, good news,
faith, salvation and the word of God.
And this is one of the reasons why I lament the demise of
corporate prayer in our churches. How can we expect to stand firm as followers
of Jesus if we are not praying together and praying for one another regularly?
How can we expect to be a spiritually strong unit together if we are not
collectively listening for our Commander-in-Chief’s orders? How can we expect
to make an impact on the communities we serve if our armour is uncared for,
rusty and falling apart?
If any of you have found ways that help your church to pray
together I would love to hear from you. if you don’t mind I would like to
compile them and put them on our website as a resource to help.
And of course we are part of a bigger movement – the Church.
We are encouraging all of us to join in with the Thy Kingdom Come
movement leading up to this Pentecost. You can find plenty of resources here: https://www.thykingdomcome.global/
And we will be inviting you all to join in with another Wave of Prayer
in the weeks leading up to our Gathering (which will be on September 28th
at Billericay Baptist Church). And we are blessed to see how many of you pray
for your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ through the weekly prayer focus
and this email.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of
prayers and requests.
Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.
But it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?
Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?
What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant: they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.
So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?
*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):
11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.
The following bloggage began as a ‘Thought for the week’ I shared with the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association.
Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Ephesians 6:18)
I don’t know about you, but I still find prayer to be a deep mystery. We know that God wants us to pray, that Jesus gave us a pattern for praying, and that the Spirit helps us to pray (including interpreting our deepest groans when we can’t find the words). But why does God want us to pray, and how can our prayers make a difference to the Sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the Universe?
There’s no easy answer to this – prayer is a mystery, and a complex one at that. There’s no way I will give a comprehensive answer in this email. But here are a few things that we already know:
We know that part of it is because it’s one of the ways in which we express and enhance our relationship with God: our prayers are part of the way in which we communicate with ‘Our Father in heaven’.
We know that part of it is that prayers change us – when we pray ‘thy will be done’ not ‘my will be done’ we open ourselves up to the possibility that our attitude and action may be different because we have prayed with an open heart and an open mind.
We know that part of it is about us investing ourselves in God’s kingdom purposes (‘Thy kingdom come’) and lifting our eyes up from the things of life that vex, distract and consume us so that we can see and get involved in what God is doing.
We know that part of it is about restoring our relationship with God, other people and his creation as we pray for and offer forgiveness.
We know that part of it is about reaffirming our dependence on God for all that we need and (the corollary of this) restating our willingness to surrender control of our life and our dependence on our own resources and ingenuity.
All of that, and so much more, is true. But I still wonder why prayers make a difference to God. Are they like power cells that recharge his ability to act? No! He is all-powerful. Does he need them to motivate him to act? No! He says, “Before they call I will answer…” (Isaiah 65:24). I have pondered why prayers are so precious to God and why he responds to them throughout my whole faith journey. And I think that part of the answer lies in “Our Father…”
Perhaps because he is Our Father God graciously chooses to involve us in his work in the same way that a parent makes room for a child to help with chores because they enjoy doing things with their child (even though they might be able to it quicker and better on their own); perhaps he gracious chooses to respond to our praying in the same way that a parent will respond to a child’s request – seeking to give them the best; perhaps he graciously chooses to cherish and value our prayers in the same way that a parent cherishes and proudly displays a child’s naïve artwork on the fridge.
Whatever you think of my answers, there is no doubt that prayer is further evidence of God’s grace – it is not a right, it’s a privilege. So let’s pray…
This is Sandy. She was the first of our family hamsters. As you can see she was a very holy, prayerful hamster.
It may be that she was actually eating a sunflower seed, but it looks like a praying hamster to me (as opposed to a praying mantis).
I use that image to illustrate a reflection card, which I still use. The reflection goes as follows:
At the end of every day take a few moments to review the day as you and God together watch an action replay. As you do this, have these questions in mind:
How did I experience God’s love today?
How did I express God’s love today?
Where did I act out of selfishness rather than love today?
Let the answers to these questions lead you into gratitude (for your experience of God’s love), encouragement (for your growth in service) and confession (for the times you missed the mark).
These are simple, but profound questions that I find enhance my relationship with God and others.
I don’t always remember to do it: I have tried to associate it with cleaning my teeth at night so I remember to do it, but sometimes other things push it out of my mind. However, when I remember, I find that this sort of reflection is helpful. Perhaps you will become a holy hamster too.
Today I am having a day off, and it is proving to be quite a mixed event. In anticipating the day ahead of me I had some plans in mind of what I was going to do to relax. And since I woke up other things have started to invade the space I have today and are taking control. I had planned to go out, but as Robbie Burns wrote: “The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gan aglay.”
For example, it’s a nice sunny day today. So we could do with me doing a couple of loads of washing. But that means me being around to load and unload the washing machine and then to hang out the wet clothes. This is best done in the morning so there is a good opportunity for the clothes to dry. So I need to stay home this morning.
And then I had some messages that several different items that have been ordered online are going to be delivered today. One is a pair of concert tickets I ordered months ago, the other are a couple of items I only ordered yesterday and which were despatched in record time. It is good to receive notifications that these items will be delivered today, but I don’t know when so I have to wait in for both of those to be delivered. And one of them contains a light that will need fixing up outside the house, so that’s another job for the day. If you have read any of my bloggages about deliveries then you will know I have low-level paranoia about this so I have already checked that the doorbell works and that the sign showing where it is is still visible.
And then there’s the reason for this photo. No, I am not intentionally pointing to the frown lines on my head, I am trying to show the mark on my head that was caused by me getting dressed this morning. I bent down to open a drawer in order to get some clothes out and made several misjudgements: (a) how far away I was from the chest of drawers (b) how long my arms were to reach down into the bottom drawer (c) that my head was connected to my torso and when I bent forwards my head would move towards the top of the chest of drawers (d) how dopey I am.
I leant forward and down into the bottom drawer but before my hands could reach the clothes I was trying to get my head reached the top of the chest of drawers. It wasn’t a major impact. I am not concussed or in need of a visit to hospital. It was more of a surprise. But for a while there was a noticeable red mark and it may be that a bruise emerges (hypochondriac? me?). The initial red mark was much more noticeable than this photograph shows and it made me wonder about going out today as people might stare at me.
The combination of all of these things (coupled with me taking the time to write this bloggage) means that I may well not go out today because of a number of circumstances beyond my control.
How often do we have to adjust our plans and ideas because of circumstances beyond our control? Unless you have decided to become a hermit and live a self-sufficient lifestyle in a remote cave somewhere (in which case how have you got internet access to read this?) you will be living in the reality that other people will make an impact on your life. Sometimes that may be negative, other times it may be positive. But we have to respond and react to all of these other people as well as to many other unforeseen events.
It has been said that if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans. I think that’s rather a sad parody of how things are. I think God really does want us to share our thoughts, ambitions, plans and hopes with him. But not so he can mock us and hit the ‘smite’ key on is computer. Rather it is with the attitude that as he is God it would be a rather wise thing to consult and involve him in our life. The pattern for prayer that Jesus taught encourages people to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. I believe that if we pray and share our plans with God in that attitude it makes him smile rather than laugh – smile because he delights to work with us to help shape our lives, to walk with us in the tough times and dance with us in the joyful ones.
Although there may have been a divine snigger when I banged my head this morning!