I’m reading a book about prayer at the moment and I begin to see the impossibility of putting into words the magnetic draw and the passion of prayer. The poor author! Who could ever describe the work that prayer does in our hearts and minds, when God moves in every heart in the way that only that heart needs? We are all so alone in our prayers and our relationship with God that there is nothing anyone can say that can step between God and me to improve my discourse with Him. No, that’s not quite what I want to say… I can be taught a whole lot about prayer, and I do welcome and need that teaching, but God is the best teacher. I turn to Him. I didn’t know what prayer was a couple of years ago but now I’m taken-over by the idea of an open, honest, worshipful discourse with God. With God! Blog writing is a prayer. This room is full of the clutter of a Christmas family lunch and when I can ignore it no longer and clear it up, that will be a prayer. I’m going to watch a film tonight by my fireside but I’ll watch it conscious of my God, with Him, in something I call prayer. You might not call it that.
Anyway, that book : On the whole I struggle with authoritative writing about my relationship with God. The ‘how to’ and the ‘don’t ever’ of it all. In fact I resist most Christian books, the often named ‘devotionals’. You probably think ‘Ahah! She thinks she knows better!’ but my problem is the very opposite: Brought up in an Irish Catholic environment, taught to believe and obey the priest, the daughter of a clever and well educated military man, struggling at school, leaving as soon as it was legal to do so, I know how to examine and ponder but I don’t know how to discuss, how to sit in a group and put my case, how to question without seeming to challenge. And then, of course, Catholic girl that I was, I feel bad about opening my gob. Weird, eh? It might help to understand when I tell you that in a Religious Education Class, as a teenager, I said “But Madame, I think…” and the Nun (an Irish woman in a French order in Bath. Go figure) replied immediately and forcefully “You do not think, Lucy Gannon. Sit down.” This was typical of the atmosphere of my childhood, and of many in my generation. I struggled with maths and my father, a clever man, decided to tutor me – every time I got an answer wrong an arm would shoot out and I would go flying. Big strong arms too, because he was a Sergeant Major. So, questioning authority doesn’t come easily.
I struggle with these books not because I know better, but because I can get lost in the worry of ‘Am I understanding this or am I just getting it stupidly wrong? Who am I to question this, to know if the writer is on the right track?’
And ‘Help! How the hell do I find out?’
I didn’t go to college or Uni, so I have never learned how to question aloud, or in writing, how to be a part of an interested and constructive debate in any medium. It still seems morally questionable to question a belief put forward authoritatively, although my mind is screaming the questions. I don’t know when an academic paper is valid or biased. I can google the name of the writer, try to glean who he or she is, but really I’m a bit lost. So, reading books about a relationship with God, I feel either that I must believe them totally (plainly stupid and I jolly well shan’t) or disregard them as soon as a single statement is made that I disagree with. Almost as stupid. I struggle to find a balance. That’s why I love the teaching we receive in church – we know the people doing the teaching, we see their lives, we know when they are Godly, we understand what they mean this week when they say something that has a bearing on what they said last week. We trust them, whereas I don’t set out trusting any book written by someone I don’t know. They have to earn my trust! And some authors have done that; last year I read ‘Shaped By The Word’ and it changed the way I read scripture, it changed my daily routine, it taught me so much. I could happily learn from it, be open to everything in those pages, apply it to my life. But such books are rare.
A trusted friend said a little while ago “I know what your ministry is!” and I had that feeling you get when someone who knows you really well is about to sum up your personality in just three words; a feeling of real curiosity fighting with mild panic. Here comes a truth and it might be properly uncomfortable. Was I going to be told that my ministry is to go out into the world with just a pair of sandals and a staff, preaching the word? Or maybe to start an orphanage in Afghanistan? Or, as one of our church men (had to be a bloke!) suggested, that I might find my calling making cakes for the firefighters of the town? Thankfully, none of the above.
My ministry, said he, is prayer. Phew! What a relief. I’d known that prayer was a deep calling for some time, and this came as a confirmation – not only a deep calling and personal need, but also a wonderful joy and fulfilment. Hah! Make yer own cakes, firefighters! At first, discovering the relevance and reality of prayer, I thought I had fallen into it by happy happenstance, but now I see that God guides in all things. Last year He took me to a verse in Jeremiah, a verse that consumed me for weeks, I spoke on it at Church, and now it’s on a large canvas in my home… “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” and that led me into prayer, calling on Him, waiting for the answer. In my church we are often encouraged to give thanks ‘in all circumstances’, and to pray ‘without ceasing’ , to make time for prayer, to consider it absolutely essential. Our aim is to be ‘prayer saturated’. All this has led me into a whole new experience of prayer, rich and sometimes rugged, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting and sometimes just plain dogged and dutiful.
Prayer is what I’m fitted for, and not much else! And I’m dead chuffed. A year ago I would have wished for a different suggestion – writing or broadcasting or storytelling, but in the last few months prayer has risen and risen and risen, like the most wonderfully fragrant, lightest, most delectable bread, to sit, centred and nourishing, in my life. And now it is the most important aspect of every day. I can’t imagine a morning without prayer. I would be lost.
The book I was telling you about is very thoughtful and thought provoking. It’s so certain, the author so authoritative, his statements are so startling that they can take me by surprise. I’m not an underliner but there are underlinings and question marks and exclamation marks on several pages. Amazing stuff. Great truths and a couple of places where I say ‘Erm…. Hang on, let me get my head around that.”
I think, I think, I like the writer. But I’m very glad he’s not coming to dinner.
The writer is Andrew Murray, and he casts prayer in a strong and bold light. For him prayer is full of assurance and faith and courage. He examines the teachings and prayer life of Jesus, and makes some bold claims. That’s fabulous and he’s thrown new light on so many aspects of prayer. But ( I say this tentatively because I’m still praying about it) I think that his prayers are nothing like mine. Maybe because I came to prayer so late, and after such a Maverick life, I’m jealous of my time with God and how we spend it. I have peace and confidence but I don’t ask for Mr Murray’s bold certainty and claims. God is leading me up a slightly gentler slope. And here’s the thing, here’s what I really want to say tonight; reading this book (and I will finish it) has shown me that the verse in Jeremiah is true and real and NOW and has actually been proved in my prayer life:
“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
I have called to Him, and He has answered, and He has shown me great and unsearchable things. They are also things I can’t quite put into words. They are the world receding, the sea falling silent, a deep calm knowledge of His love, time standing still, great peace in prayers offered, impossible knowledge of His delight in others, a glimpse of grace, eternal forgiveness, oneness with the sacred. These are things that Andrew Murray doesn’t speak about. God has shown me how to pray, but it’s so personal, so intimate, so broken and healed, it fits only me. I can’t tell you how to pray. I’m not the one to do that. But I can repeat and encourage you with what Jesus and the Bible says, pray, go to a quiet place, give time to God, be still and know Him, give thanks, ask and know that He will give you only good things, rejoice, trust, care, plead and never, ever stop.
Prayer. What an adventure. Up close and personal.