Friday, October 16, 2015

Praying: A sermon for the National Prayer Weekend

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It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning.  I’m very grateful to Matt for the invitation to be here, and I bring you greetings from your Cathedral Church where we pray for you regularly.

We pray for you, and I’ve been invited to talk this morning on the theme of prayer.  At the Cathedral, I’ve been involved in running a “School of Prayer”. In part, that is for those who are Christians but could use some focussed input on prayer.  It is also aimed at those who are not Christians, but who want to learn to pray.  Learning to pray, of course, brings people close to God.  The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that communities of prayer are one of his key priorities, and launched a communitybased at Lambeth Palace this week.  So it is really great that you are marking National Prayer Weekend.  This is important stuff you are doing.

But let me make a confession.  I find prayer really difficult.  It’s not something that comes naturally to me.  As a young man, I had a discipline of a quiet time for Bible reading and prayer.  I found the Bible reading easy, but the prayer hard.  As I’ve grown as a Christian, I’ve made an amazing discovery.  Praying is still hard, and that’s just how it is.  If you find prayer easy, then that is fantastic.  I have friends for whom praying comes easily, and I’m happy for them.  In fact, I’m a little bit jealous.  But for me, praying is difficult.  It is not something that I find easy.  I have a strong suspicion that there will be others here today that find praying difficult.  I’d say you were in good company, but I’m not sure about that.  You’re certainly in my company anyway!

For a long while, I beat myself up about that.  How could I be a good Christian if I wasn’t good at praying?  You see the real truth is that I think prayer is pointless.  I would sit on my bed and say my prayers and it just felt like talking to myself.  It just felt pointless. 

And then, eventually, it dawned on me.  Prayer really is pointless.  What can we say in prayer that tells God something that he doesn’t know?  We can’t.  Our first reading tells of how the battle was won as long as Moses prayed.  But really, couldn’t God have just made it so that the army of Israel won regardless?  Of course God could do that.  And here’s the crucial point.  God chooses not to.  Prayer is pointless, except that God chooses to invite us to be part of his work.  There’s nothing I can tell God that he doesn’t already know.  In fact, God knows far more about whatever I’m praying about than I do.  But God wants me to pray.  And that is the most incredible thing.  God wants us to pray, God wants to involve us in what he is doing. 

Prayer is pointless, except that God wants us to pray.  Prayer is nothing more and nothing less than entering the presence of God.  When we pray, we are caught up into God’s presence.  And that’s why it is so important.  The Archbishop of Canterbury this week tweeted this: ‘Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ’ (Twitter: @JustinWelby 23.9.15).  ‘Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ’.  As we pray, we come into the presence of God and we are made more like Jesus.  That changes us and it changes our world.  That is why the National Prayer Weekend is so important.  Because ‘Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ’.

I find prayer difficult, but that is alright.  Prayer can be difficult.  Prayer is pointless, but praying is something that God invites us to do – to join in with his work of changing the  world, beginning with ourselves, as in prayer we become more like Jesus.

I want to end by offering you five things that you can do to learn to pray, or to get better at praying.  (I’m not really sure what it means to get better at praying.  There aren’t really any experts in prayer – we are all still learning to pray.)  So five things to help us all learn to pray.

The first thing is to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  The little booklet ‘Why Pray?’ may help you.  But the Lord’s prayer has everything in it.  The whole Gospel is in the Lord’s Prayer.  You could try praying it slowly and savouring every word.  But pray it, and pray it daily, make it part of your prayer every day.

Second, be honest.  David Runcorn tells a story of a woman who stood up in the intercessions in a church service and berated God for allowing a famine to happen.  She really told God off and then just sat down.  Clearly, David says, no one had ever taught her how we pray in church.  He goes on to say, I hope no one ever does.  My experience of teaching children and adults to pray, is that children are far better at it because they are more honest.  We adults pray for the things that we think we should pray for.  Children pray for the things that they really want to happen.  Be honest in prayer, say what you really think to God.  He can take it.  If you want an example of how honest you can be, read the Psalms.  The Psalms are full of complaints to God, questions, violent thoughts and desires, and all kinds of things that don’t make it into our praying in church.  Read the Psalms and be honest in your prayers, remember praying is going into the presence of God and being changed.  Be honest, or it won’t really be you that goes into God’s presence.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer; be honest and third, be silent.  Silence is an underused part of our prayer.  In silence we listen to the voice of the Spirit of God.  In silence, we are able to relax and just be in God’s presence.  In silence, our masks fall away and we can be truly honest with God.  Start with just 3 minutes at a time.  See how it goes.  Be silent in the presence of God.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer, be honest, be silent and fourth, pray with other people. For me, that makes prayer much easier.  Pray with others.  It stops us feeling alone when we pray (not that we ever are, but we can feel alone).  It brings us close to other people, binding us in fellowship with one another and with God.  It gives us people to share our questions and our difficulties with.  It is also how Jesus tells us to pray – his prayer starts ‘Our Father’!  If you don’t already, why not find one or two other people and pray with them this week.  See what it does.

Pray the Lord’s Prayer, be honest, pray silently, pray with other people.  The final thing to do is to pray.  We can only really learn how to pray by praying.  In fact, the desire to pray, even if we don’t really know how to do it, is something that God will treasure and honour.  Pray.  It doesn’t matter that you’re not good at it.  No one really is.  Pray.  Pray because it is entering the presence of God.  Pray because it is what Jesus tells us to do.  Pray because it is pointless, and yet the most wonderful invitation.  Pray because in prayer God uses us to do his will.  Pray.  It is all you have to do.

Those are my five things: the Lord’s Prayer, honesty, silence, other people and praying.  Nothing there is rocket science, no deeply spiritual things that are only for deeply spiritual people.  I don’t believe in rocket science, nor in deeply spiritual things for deeply spiritual people.  But I do believe in prayer.  It changes the world.  It changes me.  It will change you.  Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, teach us to pray;
bring us into your presence
and make us more like you,
change us, and through us change the world;
we ask this in your name and for your sake. Amen.


First given at St Thomas, Brampton, 27.9.15.
An audio of the sermon is available here.

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