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Haddon Willmer shares some thoughts about prayer

21 September 2017

I have a friend who considers himself still a Christian.  Indeed he is determined to go on being a Christian, and publicly.  But he says his prayer life is shot to pieces and has been for some time.  I’m in much the same place. 

What is prayer? he asks.  It seems, in much of our practice, to be asking God for things, expecting answers, which is rather like customer satisfaction.  But we often don’t get what we ask for.  We see people in desperate need in the world, for food, for security, who cry out to God but don’t get the help to live.  They are encouraged to ‘ask and you will receive’ but experience throws the advice into doubt. And then the doubt spreads to God. God seems not to care, not to be. 

Does prayer have to take a form that runs head-on into a brick wall?  Is ‘Ask and Get’ the primary, essential form of prayer?  When we pray to God as God is in Jesus, are we coming to the keeper of a shop which stocks everything – and all just for the asking?  

I don’t think prayer is like that.  It is much more a matter of keeping company with God who keeps company with us in the way we see in Jesus.  Jesus did not get what he asked for in any straightforward way.  Remember his praying in Gethsemane, when his soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death:  ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’ (Matt 26.38).   Jesus talked with his Father, out of a lifelong relationship.  That relationship did not consist in ‘asking and getting’ or in a comforting intimacy, so much as a working obedience, loving service and risk-taking trust, which were the ingredients that went into making the life and death and resurrection of Jesus as we are given to see it in the Gospels. 

To pray is to be thinking the living of real life on earth, in a truthful relation with God the Father. 

The words we put together in order to bring our praying relation to God into our consciousness – God doesn’t need them – have  to be fashioned carefully so that they are truthful about our life and about God.   We often pray with words that come to us casually, or are given to us by convention; there is not enough truthful thinking in them.  And when they are not truthful, they easily come to mean nothing to us, or they lead us into mistakes about the reality of our earthly life or the reality of God, as God is in Jesus.  

Would it help our praying to look at ancient written prayers, which come out of thinking, living life, and attending to God?  

I find prayers of this sort helpful, but not because, being written, they are ready-made and demand little effort. Rather the problem is that prayers composed by people in other ages or other places, often have features I cannot make my own, as I live in my own times.  They help me to work at prayer rather than to get an easy ride.   Through classic prayers, I can see how to go about thinking and even writing my own prayers.  When I have a good clue about how, I can get on trying to do it truthfully, with some hope that my praying will be worthwhile.   

Take an example: a collect from the old English Book of Common Prayer

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What is the structure of this prayer?  

First God is addressed, but not merely named.  The name of God by itself has too many possible meanings to be any help in focusing our minds and living, or helping us to distinguish the true God from mere imaginings. 

God is named, and then identified.  God is not completely described – that is impossible.  A particular characteristic of God is specified:  ‘the author of peace and lover of concord’.   These are big words, calling for a lot of meditation and searching.  That is one reason why it is worth saying a prayer like this frequently, so that it gets embedded in our memory and can repeatedly speak to us.   

Is there such a God?  If God is ‘the author of peace and lover of concord’ what follows?  What does it mean for our living?  In knowing Go, the prayer tells us,  we find eternal life, life not in the  human earthly abundance of some sort of wealth, but life in the abundance of God as God is in Jesus.  And then it offers a further specification of God, which carries an implication for how we human beings are to live:  serving God is ‘perfect freedom’.   This language has been dismissed as impossible and oppressive paradox – how can servitude be freedom?   As it stands it does not truthfully explain much of our experience of the human world.  It is a prayer of desire and aspiration, reaching for something better than we routinely have.  So it invites us to venture into God, who is not like the familiar powers that arrange and manage the earth, only bigger.  God is the mystery at the heart of a ‘strange new world’, his own new creation. 

In this prayer we start by seeing God in a specific way and then we find ourselves challenged and invited to risk moving into and with God. 

After this start, the prayer goes on to present our need to God – in a world where we have enemies, we ask to be defended, on the basis that we are God’s humble servants, against the ‘others’ who are not.  As those who serve God, we ask to enjoy the freedom that goes with service (‘whose service is perfect freedom’).  We trust in God to defend us, keeping us free from the assaults of our enemies.   And this we expect to happen, because our Lord Jesus is ‘mighty’.  

A prayer needs to have this sort of second half, answering the first half which presents God to us.  Now our existence is brought to God, presented to God for service, so that we can live it with God in   faith. 

This is often the hardest part of a prayer to think and write.  The second half of this prayer makes me uncomfortable;  I don’t want to say from the heart ‘Yes’ to all these words;  indeed, if this is Christian faith, I may not be able to  go along with it.  

Why are these words difficult?  Should we find them difficult?   The prayer identifies God as the author of peace and lover of concord, and then puts ourselves in the picture as God’s humble servants against enemies.   And then we call God with his might into action on our side in the battle.  When we trust in a God of Battles, are we trusting in God as he is in Jesus? This prayer does not ask for the peace of the world, we ask for our peace, our freedom from fear, in a world structured by the logic and spirit of enmity, a world where we struggle for our survival.  

It is natural enough for us to pray like this; there are enemies, and we have reason, sometimes, to be fearful, unbearably.   But when we pray in these terms, are we being faithful to God?  Are we being wise and generous in our approach to living?

I criticise this prayer and feel inclined not to say it.  So can I leave it there?  Not if I want to be a responsible human being in this present world; not if I have any glimmer of God as the author of peace and lover of concord or have the beginnings of an aspiration to serve him.   I find myself constrained to try to write a prayer I can say. 

Here is my attempt.    If you can’t join me, which is quite likely, make your own. 

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, Continue your patience with us, who make, manage and suffer a world at war in itself and do it all with fearful discordant spirits:  please do not give up on us just yet, though a fair case is made against us,  as some of our own wise prophets tell us.  Our mountainous sins rise up in witness against us.    Enlighten us so that we may see how your patience gives us time to change our thinking and our practice.  Help us to use our time redemptively and to give our full energies to your service.    Please go on walking your weary way in our world, which loads its sin upon your frailty and mocks your example of a better way of being human.  Go on walking in our world so that we may come to  follow you, share your spirit and work with you.   May we see you gladly when you come our way .   Do not give up on us: Come Lord Jesus!





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