Say one for me?”
(From a sermon preached on 5th July – readings Ezekiel 2: 1-5 and Mark 6: 1-13)
At the end of June we began thinking about how to respond to Bishop Nicholas’ initiative “Renewing Hope”, and the three questions we’re being asked to consider in relation to our own parish. (For those whose memories are as variable as mine, I’ve included both the questions and the Diocesan Prayer at the end of this article!)
First, I want to spend a little time thinking around the question “What do you pray for”?
At first sight a very simple question – and I know that if I asked you directly, some of you could answer without hesitation: there are things you were taught to pray for as a child and continue to do so religiously day in day out. And perhaps there are serious things on your mind right now and prayer is the only way you can deal with them.
Some of you might answer more in terms of HOW you pray – the times of day you choose to pray or naturally fall into prayer, or the kind of prayer you find most fruitful.
Those of you who lead prayers in church probably have a preferred method of constructing them – looking at what’s in the news and what’s going on in our town, seeing who’s getting married or who’s died – or possibly following one of the set patterns from the prayer book.
All of those things are relevant to the question “What do you pray for?” But, if we’re really going to engage with this question then I think we need to ask it in a more fundamental way.
Imagine that same question asked by someone sceptical about faith. “What do you pray for?” – what are you doing that for?
So, what ARE we doing when we pray?
When we first learn to pray, we possibly tend towards the “wish-list” school of prayer – asking God for things, asking God to make things happen. In that mode – we naturally pray for the sick, the needy, the wayward: And maybe that’s not so far from what we heard in the gospel, the first Christians anointing the sick and relying on God for their healing. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, it is indeed a strong expression of faith and trust in God. But if we only pray in that way, there’s a danger that we don’t then do that much to address problems ourselves.
In contrast, we might be working on the assumption that prayer is really about effecting a change in ourselves – rather than changing other things for us. In that case, we’re probably more concerned with praying for the gifts we need in order to flourish as a church, praying for grace to recognise the gifts that others bring into the mix and to see more clearly “what’s out there” in God’s world and also “what comes next” for us.
We might use prayer in a very intentional way – seeking a greater awareness of God – perhaps craving some very powerful experience of God’s presence that brought us to faith in the first place – perhaps aspiring to the clear vision of God described in Ezekiel.
If we’re praying in that way, then WHAT we ask for probably doesn’t matter that much – it’s more about the simple fact that we’re talking to God. Familiar times of prayer, familiar patterns of prayer – other sights, sounds and scents – can all help us to reach beyond the words we’re reciting and on to something which simply can’t be expressed in words.
That’s a very absorbing and rewarding form of prayer – although, I suspect, possibly not one of the answers the Bishop is looking for!
We sometimes use the phrase “united in prayer” – suggesting that prayer can actively deepen our fellowship.
We meet together to pray, here and elsewhere. We can use our weekly sheet, when we pray at home, so that we know we’re praying for the same things.
Recently I was invited to attend worship at Great Wishford School and I discovered that they have a school prayer that all the children and staff know off by heart. And as they prayed that prayer, aloud and together, there was a real sense corporate identity and of being caught up in the same offering to God. And I think that sense of “unity” is a very good reason for praying – for adults just as much as for those children.
There is a real energy to be found in expressing that shared sense of mission – of willing God’s will into reality.
And then, one last thread for now.
There is real comfort, real strength, in knowing that other people are praying for us – especially when we are facing particular challenges or fears. Most, if not all of us, will have some experience of being buoyed up by the prayers of others when our own prayers had dried up and we’d started to feel we were sinking.
Whether we can somehow communicate spiritual strength through the ether, or whether it is purely psychological, I don’t know – but it certainly seems to help.
That’s one reason why every week over the past six months we’ve include on our weekly sheet George Barsby, working in Tanzania and Julian Lyne-Pirkis in Somalia. At the very least we hoped they might be assured that, for us, “out of sight is NOT out of mind” and at best we might better arm them for the challenges they face.
Clearly I could only scratch the surface here, but for all if us I think it is worth taking time to consider what WE think prayer IS, and then to ask ourselves whether we are praying for the right things and ALL of the right things.
To answer the Bishop’s question “What do you pray for?” is actually quite hard, I think. Surely what we pray for should always be changing. But that doesn’t make it a simplistic question, or an unrealistic one : it just means that we need to keep asking ourselves the same question, to sharpen our thinking and to refresh our spiritual health.
There is, however, a more straightforward answer to the cynic – who sneers the question “What do pray for?” (i.e. why bother?).
Jesus prayed – to his Father – to enable him to carry out his ministry on earth. WE pray in order that we can continue that ministry now. The cynic may not be convinced by this, that prayer is worth the effort — but we should be.
- What do you pray for?
- Whom do we serve?
- How will you grow?
God our Father, renew our hope.
By the Holy Spirit’s power,
strengthen us to pray readily,
and grow abundantly
rejoicing in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.