2018 RLT #31: Praying Together

As I mentioned a few days ago, I think you can make a strong argument that prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. The prayer that Jesus gave us is a community prayer: ‘Our Father…’ Of course we should pray alone, but even when we pray alone, we still pray as members of a community.

Throughout Christian history monastic orders have born witness to the importance, and the power, of daily community prayer. Most of the daily offices we use today originally evolved in monastic settings. And perhaps most of them find their natural home there still. For those of us who aren’t called to celibate community life, they often need a bit of adaptation to fir naturally in our situation.

For most of my Christian life my natural community has been my family. But is it possible that the obligation to pray prayers originally developed for monastic communities might make it harder for us to develop prayer forms that work well for families (especially families with small children)?

I know I usually failed in this way. When my kids were little, we were on-again, off-again in our family prayers – more often off than on. During Advent we were good – everyone loved the Advent wreath and the ‘same old’ Advent book (woe betide us if we tried to change it!). But through the rest of the year – not so much.

Now that Marci and I have the house to ourselves, its easier for us. And for the past few years, we’ve started every day with prayer together. I get up in the morning, make a pot of tea, bring her a cup, and then we sit up in bed with our tea and pray our own ‘poor man’s Morning Prayer’ together, using the bare outline in our Canadian ‘Book of Alternative Services’. It’s very simple; it goes like this:

Opening sentences and either Psalm 95 or Psalm 100
One or two other psalms (depending how long they are) (see below)
A Bible reading, with a commentary (see below)
Each of us prays in our own words
We finish with the Lord’s Prayer

We don’t use the daily lectionary; we find it works better for us if we take one book of the Bible and work our way through it. At the moment we’re going through ‘Mark’ and we’re supplementing it with the daily explanations and comments from Tom Wright’s little book ‘Mark for Everyone’. Tom Wright (‘New Testament for Everyone’ series), William Barclay (‘Daily Study Bible’ series), John Goldingay (‘Old Testament for Everyone’ series) and the Bible Reading Fellowship ‘People’s Bible Commentary’ series (now available as PDF downloads at https://www.brfonline.org.uk/commentary-downloads/) are all very good and helpful.

For psalms, we start at the beginning of the book and work our way through it, usually doing two psalms a day. If they’re especially long, we might just do one. If they’re very short, we sometimes do three.

In the prayers after the reading, we both have little lists that we use. I’m hopeless at remembering all the people who’ve asked me to pray for them, so I keep a list and revise it every week. We pray for our own concerns, family and friends, wider concerns and world issues (of which there are rather a lot right now!), and try to remember to add thanksgivings too.

We’ve tried adding Evening Prayer to our routine as well, but it rarely seems to work for our schedules.  But we rarely miss Morning Prayer; I’d say we average six days out of seven each week. I like this because it keeps me steady, draws us closer together, and gives me a Bible reading partner who thinks differently from me.

I don’t know what your pattern of daily prayer is – or if you have a prayer partner you can pray with regularly. If you would like to start daily common prayer with someone, I commend this as a model that might work for you.

 

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2018 RLT #28: ‘Hallowed’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

2018 RLT #27: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV).

The Anglican liturgical tradition in which I was raised has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. But Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of pretention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

2018 Random Lent Thought #23: Jesus and Prayer

I once heard Eugene Peterson talk about how Jesus transformed the prayer lives of his followers.

As far as we can tell, most people who came to Jesus in the Gospels did so because they wanted something from him – usually healing. There is no evidence that Jesus discouraged this; in fact, several times he asks people ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ If we can describe these requests for help as prayers, then almost all praying people in the gospels prayed out of a deep sense of personal need. And Jesus was happy to answer those prayers.

However, some of those people went on to become disciples of Jesus – as members of ‘the Twelve’, or of the larger group of those who followed him. These were obviously people who were beginning to move beyond self-interest and learn from Jesus to ‘seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33 NIV). And as we saw yesterday, these people were attracted by the quality of Jesus’ prayer life, and so at a certain point some of them came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 NIV). In response, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, and two things about that prayer stand out.

First, it’s a prayer that starts with God’s concerns: ‘Hallowed be your name…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In this prayer we learn to delay our own felt needs and focus first on God’s vision – the glory of God, the love of God, the healing reign of God. ‘Not my will, but yours’.

Second, it’s a prayer that replaces the word ‘me’ with the word ‘us’. “Our Father…Give us each day our daily bread…Forgive us our sins, as we forgive…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. Christian prayer may take place from time to time in a solitary place, but even when we pray alone, we don’t really pray alone; we pray as part of a community. And the fundamental prayer in the New Testament seems to be community prayer, just as it was for the Old Testament people. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV).

Still today, Jesus is happy to teach us to pray. When we start out in our journey with him, we tend to come out of need – forgiveness, healing, comfort, strength, loneliness, fear etc. And Jesus is happy for us to start there; he has not one word of reproach for us.

But he’s not happy for us to get stuck there. Growth for us is going to mean  growth in learning to seek God’s will ahead of our own, and learning to see ourselves as part of a praying community, not just as isolated individuals. So when we ask him to ‘teach us to pray’ (and I hope we all continue to do that), here is his guidance: first, pray, about God’s will ahead of your own, and second, find someone else to pray with.

Lord, help us put these things into practice today.

2018 Random Lent Thought #22: Teach Us to Pray

‘One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,just as John taught his disciples”‘ (Luke 11:1-2).

There was no such thing as privacy in the time of Jesus, and there wasn’t much silent praying either. People prayed in public and they prayed aloud. Jesus’ private prayer life was often not private, except when he withdrew to lonely places to pray.

I’ve learned a lot about prayer through books, but I’ve learned more from people who’ve been open about their prayer life and have been willing to invite me into it. I’ve learned the most from good friends who have ended significant conversations by offering to pray with me, and modelling for me what genuine, unpretentious prayer really is.

Jesus’ prayer life was attractive to his disciples; they wanted to learn to pray like that. And if the prayer that follows is any indication of the way Jesus habitually prayed, we can describe it as short, simple and unpretentious, focussing on God’s concerns first, not greedy for things we don’t need, but focussing on our real needs (daily bread, forgiveness, strength in times of testing).

Lord, teach me to pray as your prayed. And Lord, help me to teach others too. Amen.

2018 Random Lent Thought #9: More About Prayer

Yesterday we explored a simple framework for a daily prayer time. This is a good starting place for people who have never done anything like that before.

But of course there’s always more that could be said, and I’m a preacher, so I always have more to say! Today I’d like to explore the words we use in prayer. It seems to me that there are three options, or three elements if you like.

First, we can pray using our own words. This is sometimes called ‘extemporary prayer’. I think of what the psalmist says in Psalm 62:8: ‘Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge’ (NIV). When we ‘pour out our hearts’ to someone we don’t tend to use special words or a polished presentation; we just speak words of heartfelt honesty. The ACTS outline I gave yesterday (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) can easily be filled in with this sort of prayer. This style of prayer is also very easy when we’re in desperate need or overflowing with thanksgiving!

But sometimes we find it hard to find words. Conversational prayer can be a bit weird when the other party seems reluctant to join in the conversation! And this is where the second option can help: we can pray using other people’s words.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this. After all, a whole book of the Bible (the book of Psalms) appears to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to give us words to use in prayer when we can’t find words ourselves (and some of them are very gritty and honest words). Jesus also gave us the Lord’s Prayer, which we can legitimately use either as a prayer in its own right, or as a framework for our own prayers. In the catholic traditions, the daily offices have made heavy use of the psalms and other biblical prayers to give depth and structure to our prayer lives.

But sometimes we need to stop talking. So, thirdly, we can pray without words (which C.S. Lewis thought was the highest form of prayer, although he admitted that he was often not on ‘good enough form’ to manage it). In silent prayer we simply sit or kneel in the presence of God. We listen, but we don’t worry if we don’t hear anything (with our ears or our hearts). That’s not the point. The point is simply to be with God, in that deep intimacy where words are not necessary. It’s what the psalmist was talking about: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’ (Psalm 62:1 NRSV).

I suspect that most mature Christians use a combination of these three elements: our own words, other people’s words, no words. I suspect that we all have one we like best and one we like least. And I suspect that Lent is a good time to challenge ourselves to explore the one we like the least.

2018 Random Lent Thought #8: Prayer

‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’ (Mark 1:35 NIV).

One of the things we think about in Lent is prayer.

When I was a little boy I was taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer and other simple bedtime prayers. On Sunday we went to church and I joined in the liturgical prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. But I didn’t really have a personal prayer life.

I gave my life to Jesus when I was thirteen, and not long afterwards my dad gave me a little booklet called ‘Seven Minutes with God’ by Robert D. Foster (it’s now available as a PDF download on the Internet). It was written for beginners, and so Foster recommended starting with a short prayer period – five minutes might be too short, ten at first would be too long, but seven was a good compromise. He recommended doing this first thing in the morning, the beginning of the day, as a good time to tune into God’s presence – like Jesus getting up ‘very early in the morning’ and going out to a solitary place to pray.

The structure was simple:

Half a minute to prepare your heart, thanking God for the blessing of a night’s rest, asking God to cleanse your heart, open the scriptures to you and help you understand them.

Four minutes to read a short passage from the Bible, listening for a word from God for you.

Two and a half minutes to pray. The prayer should include (here are the old words Foster uses) Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS).

Adoration is worship. I would add – if you can’t find words for this, use a psalm as a prayer of worship. Psalm 150 is good, or Psalm 92 or 93, or (if you want to take a little longer) Psalm 104. A well-loved hymn or song of praise can also be a help (‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, ‘I Lift My Eyes Up’ etc.).

Confession is simply being honest with God about our sins – we have not loved God with our whole heart or our neighbour as ourselves. Think back on the last twenty-four hours, call to mind specific failings, ask God for forgiveness, and thank him for his grace.

Thanksgiving comes next. Gratitude is a vital component of Christian living. Think of all the blessings (people, experiences, things, faith, community) you enjoy, and thank God for them.

Supplication is asking God for things. We pray for the needs of others, and our own needs too. Don’t be shy about this! You can also look ahead to what the day may hold and ask God’s help for any challenging situations you may be facing.

Foster doesn’t mention this, but very quickly in my own practice I got into the habit of concluding my prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer – it’s a good summary (and maybe correction!), and also ensures that I don’t leave out any of the important stuff!

This is a simple guide but I found it a great place to start! Gradually you’ll find the time grows (I find that now, nearly forty-six years after I started, I’m spending 30-35 minutes). But don’t rush to that; let the prayer time grow naturally, as you get used to it and begin to sense the benefits of it. You may also become more flexible about how you combine the various elements, what order you put them in, how you incorporate silence, and various other factors. That’s great! ‘Seven Minutes with God’ is not meant to be an inflexible structure – it’s meant to be a place to start.

I have absolutely no doubt that this ‘Morning Watch’ or ‘Quiet Time’ (to use two of the traditional names for it) has been by far the most important factor in my own Christian growth for the past forty-six years. I recommend it to you without reservation. and if you’ve never done it before, Lent is a good time to begin it.