On of the most reliable Christian tropes is the phrase ‘the power of prayer’ – you hear it used in a variety of settings – I once heard someone in a prayer meeting praying to find an adequate parking space so that they could do some shopping! But, even though I have struggled with my ‘prayer life’ all my life I have never doubted the power of prayer. I have called this post ‘The Pursuit of Prayer’ because I believe that is what I am engaged in, the pursuit of a way of praying that suits me, not in some egotistical sense, but in the sense of the best advice I ever received on prayer; ‘pray as you can and not as you can’t’.
The question behind all of this is of course ‘does it work?’, does prayer actually alter the course of human events, or does prayer makes God change God’s mind? As far as the first I would offer the thought that prayer does not so much change the course of human events as change the person who prays. Even a cursory glance at a prayer list provided by an organisation such as Tear Fund or Christian Aid informs you of people and situations very different to yours, and information means change – praying for refugees in Syria may not alter their situation overnight but it will alter your view of the world, and I am convinced that there lie the seeds of real change. Of course there is much more real political change needed there as in so many other places in the world, I pray for relief workers as well because they are doing God’s kingdom (or kindom) work! And prayer can be a salve for the terrible impotence I often feel as the television pictures depict unbelievable cruelty and suffering. And as to the second, the bible records the way that God changes God’s mind when the circumstances change – consider the strange story of the Flood in Genesis, or Abraham’s exchange with God with regard to Sodom and Gomorrah.
If God is present in this world (and other worlds) then prayer can be seen as an effort to align yourself with that presence either through words or simple silence. Simply holding a loved one in your thoughts can qualify as can just resting in silence – one writer on spirituality suggested that silence itself is the presence of God! In his book ‘The Christian Agnostic’ Leslie Weatherhead quotes a simple and elegant prayer by the missionary teacher Florence Allshorn; “O God, here I am and here are You”, she writes “Just as lying in the sun doing nothing, surrendering your body to it, with the sun blazing down on you, affects your body and your senses, so this surrendering of the soul to that transforming Power affects the soul, and I believe that as truly the sun changes the colour of your skin so that Power changes you at the centre”. Of course in these days we would want to read that with our Factor 50 firmly in hand I think that the analogy holds true. Prayer is always about more than words it is about a pursuit, and a surrender and an opening of your mind to the God who is everywhere.
Times of prayer can often be unexpected, H.G. Wells wrote this; “At times, in the silence of the night and in rare, lonely moments, I experience a sort of communion of myself with Something Great that is not myself”. There can be times when prayer is almost wrenched from the person praying as difficulties are realised and faced. As a minister faced with a difficult situation I learned the value of ‘arrow prayers’ shot up and out seeking guidance, or simply, presence. There is something deeply mysterious about this, something that defies any number of ‘how to’ books, and sometimes all you can do is simply pray – frame the words and find the silence and see where it takes you. Or you could, as I do often, go back to something old and trusted such as the Jesus prayer; ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. I think that there is also a sense in which, when the words run out and the silence and darkness seem inhospitable, the ever faithful God carries you onward.
It remains impossible to say all there is to say about this deep and mysterious subject – here is Weatherhead again; “We must go on praying, for prayer seems to so alter mental attitudes and reinforce mental energies……….But we must not lose faith when God does not answer prayer in the way we think we should if we had His power”. I am still pursuing prayer, and I am still practising it because it is so closely associated with faith. And there are times when faith is really all I have but paradoxically all I ever need. Prayer is, like so much in this life, a work in progress.
To conclude this reflection here is a verse from the hymn by James Montgomery which says it all; “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, / Uttered or unexpressed, / The motion of a hidden fire / That trembles in the breast”.
(Leslie Weatherhead’s book ‘The Christian Agnostic’ (published in 1965) was given to me by a friend in a time of great doubt and need. It has been the most valuable book in my library and I commend it with reserve!).
The photograph was taken in Cumbria in a house with a view over Morecambe Bay.