Two and a half weeks ago, at our Ash Wednesday service, I used these words:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.
Here we have six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves up to the presence of God in a new and fresh way. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Third Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at prayer.
Our theme verse for Lent is the well-known verse from the Book of Revelation:
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).
In this verse the Lord is calling us to welcome him again into the centre of our lives – to return to our first love for him, or perhaps to kindle a deeper love for him than we’ve ever known before. And there is probably no practice that’s more fundamental to this than the practice of prayer.
Prayer was central to the life of Jesus. Jesus had a busy daily schedule and he was always on the move. But in the midst of all that, the joy of his heart was to take time to be alone with God. In Mark 1:35, after a very busy sabbath, we read these words:
‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’.
We know from the gospels that this was his habit – regular withdrawal from the crowds for that quiet time with God. When he had decisions to make or when he was facing some particularly difficult task, he sometimes spent whole nights in prayer – no doubt waiting on his Father to guide him and strengthen him for what was ahead.
Jesus is also our teacher of prayer. In Luke 11 we read,
‘(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples”’ (Luke 11:1).
Have you ever felt that? Have you ever felt this deep hunger inside to come closer to God, to be more aware of God’s presence in your daily life? Have you ever wished you could find a journeyman prayer who could teach you how to pray? If so, you can understand what the disciples felt as they saw Jesus’ prayer life and thought, “Wow – he seems to be so much more aware of God’s presence with him! I wish I could pray like that!” And Jesus responded by giving them a prayer outline that we’ve used ever since – we call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, although it might just as easily be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’.
I don’t consider myself to be a journeyman prayer – far from it – but this morning I want to give you a personal testimony of prayer. My experience is that prayer is like a rich banquet with many different dishes available for us to enjoy. Christians have been praying for nearly two thousand years now, and our Jewish ancestors in the faith were praying long before us, as the Book of Psalms testifies. Down through those years our fathers and mothers in the faith discovered many different ways of praying, and all of us can find ways that work well for us. So this morning I want to pass on to you some of the things I’ve learned from them, in the hope that maybe you might get some ideas that will be helpful to you.
I’m going to go in roughly chronological order, in terms of when I discovered these various ways of praying in my life. So I want to start with the simple daily Quiet Time. The person I learned this from was my dad.
Some of you will have heard me tell the story of how, when I was a young teenager, my dad challenged me to give my life to Jesus, and I did. Not long after that, my dad gave me a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. It was designed for people who had never prayed regularly before, and it described a very simple and accessible way to get started in daily prayer. The idea was to start with a short time, with the idea that it’s better for people to think “I wish I could go longer” than “This is boring – when is it going to end?”
The idea was to start with half a minute of silence, just to slow down, relax, and open yourself up to the peace of God in your heart. Then you would turn to the Bible, read a short passage, and maybe try to find one thing you could take with you through your day – perhaps a promise to receive, or a command to obey, or an example to follow, and so on. Having done that, you would turn to a very short time of vocal prayer, based on the outline of the word ‘ACTS’ – ‘adoration’, ‘confession’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘supplication’. ‘Adoration’ of course stands for worship and praising God. ‘Confession’ is admitting our sins to God and asking his forgiveness. ‘Thanksgiving’ is self-explanatory – naming our blessings and thanking God for them. And ‘supplication’ is simply asking God for his help – whether for other people or for ourselves.
The little booklet gave strict time allocations for this – half a minute for silence, four minutes for Bible reading, half a minute each for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, and then half a minute at the end again for silence. I started following that outline almost immediately. I was always a morning person, so I liked doing it first thing in the morning before anyone else was awake.
As time went by, of course, I found that seven minutes wasn’t long enough, and so it gradually expanded. I wanted to spend longer in Bible reading, thinking about the passage and maybe noting down specific things I thought God might want me to do about what I was reading. I wanted to pray about what I was reading, too. And of course, it didn’t take me long to think of far too many sins to fit into thirty seconds of confession – not to mention needy people I wanted to pray for. So without feeling any sense of compulsion about it, I found that as the years went by the time expanded until it gradually settled down to about half an hour.
I didn’t always feel anything special while I was praying. I didn’t have great mystical experiences of the presence of God, and a wise spiritual writer called C.S. Lewis taught me not to worry about that. Don’t try to manufacture a feeling of God’s presence, he said; let God worry about that. If he thinks you need it, he’ll give it to you, and if not, trust that he knows best. One thing I did almost always experience, though, was a sense of peace after my prayer time. I still experience that today.
So that was the first meal I discovered on the banquet table of prayer. The second meal came after I started working as an Anglican minister. That was when I became aware of the ancient discipline we call ‘the Daily Office’. The Daily Office was developed over many centuries in monasteries as a way for monks and nuns to pray together. Monks had seven daily services, but in the sixteenth century Anglican reformers wanted to make them more accessible, so they reduced them to two – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Many of us who have been lifelong Anglicans remember when these services were used on Sundays, but they weren’t originally intended for that – they were intended for daily prayer.
The Daily Office uses set written prayers. At its heart is the praying of the psalms – one hundred and fifty hymns and songs written by people in ancient Israel, and quickly adopted by the Church for its worship. We still say the psalms in our services each week; they are by far the oldest part of our service, as they were all written before the time of Jesus. In the Daily Office we pray through the book of Psalms regularly – the joyful ones and the miserable ones, the loving ones and the cursing ones. It doesn’t matter whether an individual psalm fits for us on a particular day; the Daily Office is the prayer of the whole church around the world, and you can bet that someone, somewhere is feeling what that psalm says! So we join with that person in offering the cry of their heart to God on that day; on other days, they join with us.
The Daily Office also includes short readings from the Bible, canticles of praise for us to pray together, and intercessions for us to offer for people all around the world. You can find the Daily Office at the front of our Book of Alternative Services in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Many Anglican clergy and some lay people use these offices to help them through times in their lives when prayer seems difficult, as well as good times. If you’re interested, I’ve prepared a shorter form of the daily office in bulletin format, and I’ve put some copies of it on the table at the back of the church today.
As I mentioned, I find the Daily Office very helpful when I’m going through a dry time, or when I’m tired, or when I just can’t think of what I should say to God. Sometimes it’s a great way of ‘priming the pump’ and getting prayer going. And it gives a good sense of fellowship; even if you pray it alone, you’re conscious of hundreds or thousands of others around the world who are doing the same thing. When we lived in the Arctic, in a very isolated community, I found that very meaningful.
So we’ve looked at two meals on the banquet table of prayer – the simple daily quiet time, and the daily office. A third one that I discovered was the prayer of silence, sometimes called Contemplative Prayer.
In one of his books, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a priest who noticed that an old man was coming into his church every day to spend an hour or so, just sitting quietly, looking up at the figure of Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the front. The priest noticed that the man just sat there quietly, not moving very much, and he didn’t appear to be praying, because his lips weren’t moving. ‘He must be praying in his mind’, the priest thought. Eventually after a few weeks of this, the priest went and asked the old man, “What are you saying to the Lord when you sit here every day?” The old man smiled and shook his head. “Nothing”, he said. “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together”.
That’s a good description of contemplative prayer. We have a tendency to want to fil the universe with words all the time, but contemplative prayer recognizes that God is far beyond any words we can use. In contemplative prayer we simply quieten ourselves down, listen with our hearts, and open ourselves up to whatever it is God wants to give us. If we feel something or hear something, well and good. If we don’t, well and good too.
Some people find that quietly saying a verbal prayer in their hearts, over and over again, is a good way of moving into that contemplative silence. An old Orthodox prayer called ‘The Jesus Prayer’ is especially well known; it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The idea is to quietly say it in your heart, over and over again, until the repetition helps you to centre your heart on God. Some people like to coordinate it with their breathing, so that they’re breathing in for the first half of the prayer, and out for the second half. Eventually, when the verbal prayer has done its work, you can let it rest and just be quiet before God. If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the verbal prayer again, to centre your mind and heart.
I have to say for myself that I find contemplative prayer difficult. It’s rewarding, but it’s hard work for me, so I don’t try to do it very often. That’s probably something to do with my temperament. We’re all different, and, as a wise prayer teacher once said, “Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t”.
So we’ve talked about three ‘meals’ on the banquet table of prayer: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, and contemplative prayer. Now I want to mention a fourth one that I’ve personally found very helpful: writing my prayers.
I learned this one from Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Bill is the sort of person who runs on adrenalin; slowing down to be with God is not something that comes naturally to him. He’s also discovered that it’s very easy for him just to say words without really thinking about what they mean. But he’s discovered that writing is a good way of slowing down.
Bill’s daily discipline is to journal and pray, one after the other. Every morning he writes a page of journaling, just looking back on the previous day, reflecting on his walk with God and how it’s going. He then writes a one-page prayer, thinking carefully about what he wants to say to God, usually using the same four-part outline I mentioned earlier – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s his practice to then kneel down and pray the prayer he’s written out loud.
I tried Bill’s method for a while and then I modified it a bit to fit my own preferences. I started with the journaling, and then I did my daily Bible reading, trying to be alert to any particular verse or teaching that God wanted me to reflect on a bit. I find that reflecting with a pen in my hand works very well for me, so it was easy for me to write out my meditations and underline the things that were particularly significant.
I sometimes found that my writing was turning naturally into prayer. I didn’t feel the need to follow Bill’s practice of reading my prayer out loud to God; I figured that God could read my writing quite well, thank you very much! Nor did I necessarily feel the need to cover all four of the prayer subjects – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. An ordinary conversation doesn’t go that way; it tends to be unscripted, and sometimes we’re surprised at the way it goes. But I did find, like Bill, that writing the prayer was a good way for me to slow down, think about what I was saying, and use words that meant something – not “heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard by their many words”, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:7.
This prayer journaling is a very effective way of praying for me; it’s probably my favourite way of praying. As I said, we’re all different, so pray as you can, not as you can’t!
However, it’s not my most common way of praying. I know my sermon is longer today than it normally is, but this is an important subject and there’s one more ‘meal’ I want to lay before you. We’ve thought about the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, and written prayer. The last one I want to share with you this morning is regular prayer with someone else.
People who want to exercise regularly will tell you that there is real power in agreeing to exercise together with someone else. We don’t always feel like doing it, but our commitment to the other person can carry us through those difficult times. And prayer is like that. Monks and nuns meet together every day to pray – that’s how the Daily Office started. They have their private prayers too, but the daily corporate prayer keeps them going. And praying together can be a powerful way of bringing us closer together too.
Well, I’m not a monk, but I do have a community; it’s called a marriage. And so I’m very happy to share a commitment with Marci that we pray together each day. This is not something that we’ve been doing for very long. We tried it a few times over the years, but we usually fizzled out – often because we were trying to do it last thing at night, and sometimes when you’re tired, it’s easy to put things off. But about three years ago we decide to try praying together first thing in the morning, and it seems to have worked well for us. We make a cup of tea and then pray a simple form of Morning Prayer together. We use little devotional Bible commentaries that lead us through individual books of the Bible; sometimes we discuss what we’ve read, and sometimes we don’t. Then we pray out loud in an informal way, first one of us, then the other, bringing our thanksgivings and requests to God. If one of you has asked for our prayers, that’s when we pray fro you. We finish with the Lord’s Prayer, and then we start our day. I think we’re both grateful to have discovered this practice, and we would certainly recommend it to others.
Well, this morning I’ve laid out a banquet table for you. Here are five different ways of praying that God’s people have discovered down through the centuries: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, written prayer, and praying together with someone else.
Is it possible that this Lent God might be calling you to try one of these things? Maybe you’ve already got a regular habit of prayer, but you’re getting a little bored with it, you want to try something different, and something you’ve heard this morning has piqued your interest. Or maybe you don’t really have a regular prayer practice at all, and you can sense the Spirit calling you, saying, “Now’s the time”.
Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). That knocking that you hear this morning is the call of the Holy Spirit to a deeper life of prayer. It’s probably one of the most powerful ways of welcoming God into the depths of our hearts. Psalm 8 says:
‘“Come”, my heart says, “seek his face”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.’
Let’s not ignore that voice in our hearts. Let’s seek the face of God by going deeper in prayer. Amen.