Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Luke 11:1 (ESV)
One of the many odd things about prayer is that it is at once an excruciatingly difficult and a nearly automatic activity.
On the one hand, you sit down to pray and it’s impossible to concentrate, or the words don’t come, or the idea of forming thoughts into an orderly line, as opposed to a bewildered mishmash, and saying them, seems somewhat ridiculous. As John Donne apparently said,
…when we consider with a religious seriousnesse the manifold weaknesses of the strongest devotions in times of Prayer, it is a sad consideration. I throw my selfe down in my Chamber, and I call in, and I invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a Flie, for the rattling of a Coach, for the whining of a door […] A memory of yesterdays pleasures, a fear of to morrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer…
Or sometimes the superfluity of as-yet-unanswered prayers is overwhelming: you sit in church as testimonies are given and the Voice of Cynicism wonders at God for answering this or that prayer of the person up at the front of the meeting, and not answering this or that prayer of one’s own. Philip Yancey:
I never managed to fly through the classroom, though, and bullies continued to torment me no matter how hard I prayed. Even the “answers to prayer” confused me. Sometimes, after all, parking places did not open up and fountain pens stayed lost. Sometimes church people lost their jobs…
And yet when a trivial want or need arises there’s an instinctive God please sort this out, and this, and this. Please let it not rain tomorrow. Please let this thing go alright. Please let that person not react to such-and-such in such-and-such a way. Please provide this or that…
So how is it possible,—is it possible, in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, to present our requests to God—without littleness, and with a confident hope that God will not remain silent and unresponsive? Can we, and are we right to persuade ourselves that prayer achieves anything? And how can we achieve an act of prayer in the first place?
Since these questions are clearly far too ginormous to tackle in a mere (if lengthy) blog post, I’m going to introduce a diversion. Here’s Emo Philips on the subject.
And here (hopping from one train of thought to another, but they are related) are some observations about the kind of miracles Jesus did, which I think might possibly, if developed, shed some light on some of the whats and whys and hows of asking for, and celebrating, miracles.
One. Jesus did the miracles that people really wanted. How many times did he say to someone, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ —?
One and a half. (Because it’s almost the same thought.) Jesus did the miracles people really needed. For example, I assume this was why he told the paralysed man who had just been lowered through the roof in front of him that his sins were forgiven, before healing his paralysis, which was presumably what the mat-carrying friends had anticipated.
Two and a half. (Being a conclusion from one and one and a half combined.) Jesus didn’t do miracles just to prove that he could. In the case of the man lowered through the roof, the healing proved that he, Jesus, had authority to forgive sins (and presumably benefitted the man himself). (Here’s the relevant passage.)
Three. Jesus seemed to think you could have faith without having much faith. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Faith as small as a mustard seed, etc.
Four. Jesus said his disciples had authority from him, and had the right, for example, to tell the wind and waves to be still.
Five. Jesus grieved over a miracle that hadn’t happened. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Matt. 23:37 (NIV).
There is, I think, some kind of point that I’m trying to get to here.
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me…
Another diversion, because I can’t work out how to word it. Let’s adhere to the standard procedure that Christian youth-group talks used to follow, and watch a clip from Bruce Almighty.
There must be an alternative to a prayer life consisting mostly of failed attempts to “pray”, half-aware pleas for immediate intervention in whatever happens to be happening at the time, and resentful doubt as to whether anything’s likely to change in the situations one really cares about. And possibly the alternative is to discover that God not only wants to hear us talk to Him about stuff, but wants to share in our feelings, and for us to share in His. If there’s a reason to grieve, His grief must be greater than ours; if there’s a person to love, His love must be greater than ours; if there’s a reason for joy, His joy must be greater than ours. There are things that really do matter, and He really does care about them: consequently prayer, deep calling to deep, is worth our while.
I’m not sure that’s hit on the point exactly, but anyway. One final quote, which I think is from John Wesley (emphasis added):
Storm the throne of grace, and persevere therein, and mercy will come down…