I don’t consider myself much of a natural pray-er. It feels neither natural nor comfortable, and I’m not even sure what prayer is. When I cast my mind back to those confirmation classes of 40-odd years ago, the thought of writing something that includes a list of set ingredients doesn’t sound too bad until you actually have to do it. Start with thanks and praise, and leave the requests til last. Even then it felt dishonest to me. Of course I want to say thanks, but when there is something really big on my mind, why am I keeping that part of myself back? Is God some kind of fierce uncle that has to be soft-soaped first to get him into a good mood ready for when I have the temerity to ask for something? How am I supposed to ask for things? I don’t mind asking for a return to Foregate Street, or a book of stamps. And when I want more involved things, I go to Lidl, or Waitrose, plug myself into BBC Sounds, and go round and pick what I want off the shelves without having to ask for anything at all. The thanks-before-you-ask thing makes it feel to me as if prayer is a kind of transaction. I am quite sure that it is not.
Prayer is all very well when life is easy. I once raised the subject of how to pray when life was difficult, many moons ago, while bogged down in a quagmire of disappointment and disillusion brought about by repeated miscarriage and stillbirth. Of course I prayed for a baby. I didn’t get one, at least not then, not for a number of years.
There was always a good reason why I didn’t get things I asked for. How we love logical answers to difficult questions. As one person earnestly told me, ‘God has three answers to prayer: yes, no, no and not yet.’ I never bought that and I still don’t. I don’t like the Benevolent Parent model of God. I bought it once, and took it back when it proved unsatisfactory, which didn’t take long. I never did find out what good the ‘not yet’ model of answer to prayer was supposed to have done me.
In all of my fifteen years at my previous church, I fastidiously avoided doing prayers. When, earlier in 2020, I was first asked to lead the prayers at St Matthias, my initial reaction was one of dread. But I am polite, and, against what I thought was my better judgement, I agreed. The result was conventional and deeply uninteresting. I had ticked the box, but it had done nothing for me. And if it had done nothing for me, how was it supposed to do anything for anyone else? What was more, I had been profoundly hypocritical. I had spoon-fed the congregation with insincere prayers that I did not believe for a moment would make any difference.
Feeling horribly uncomfortable with my maiden efforts at St Matthias, I eventually evolved my own modus operandi, and it seems to have become the basis of my prayers. This is what I think prayer is:
I think that prayer is talking to yourself before God. Simple as that.
God already knows what I need and why I need it. I cannot change God’s mind with prayer, either. The legacy of the faulty teaching during the years of infertility and miscarriage was that the act of intercession felt like trying to cajole a capricious person into generosity. And that cannot be right. That is not how it is. God does not withhold things from me, or grant them to me when I am somehow ‘ready’, in the hope that, somehow or other, I am going to learn something from the experience. The truth is that I am loved, and I cannot make God love me any more than he does. So what is the point of prayer? I ask myself.
There is a simple answer that works for me. It is that the act of talking to myself before God about things that matter to me, changes me. I can’t change God’s mind, but God can change mine. The act of prayer is not a matter of persuading. It is a matter of allowing myself to be drawn into love by contending with God. Wrestling with him, if you like. I believe that prayer is another way of entering into relationship with God that is honest and full of integrity.
The act of writing prayer down is for me a way of thinking; and in that act, somehow I receive a gift. The gift that I am given when I stumble about trying to write prayers is that I am enabled to see things from a different perspective. That is how, when writing about Epiphany, I realised that the epiphany was actually something about me. Not that there is not an infinite amount that I do not know yet about God; but just for then, the revelation I got when musing about how to pray for our country, was not that God appoints our leaders, but that I do. It was not God’s power that I saw, but my own. That is all very well when it works out successfully, but when it does not, how far have we colluded in harm that is done? I was not shocked by the thought, as I had been when the image of the cross in the midst of the murderous riot at the Capitol building on January 6 sprang unbidden to mind; I was sobered. Is this what sin is? That we do not consider carefully, and from our lack of consideration, harm is done to God’s creation. That, to me, is prayer: letting the thoughts that I have when I sit at the keyboard before God come in a stream, letting them settle, and finally finding something clear at the bottom of the jar. Then I know that something in me has changed. The writing of the prayers is the change happening.
There is no magic revelation about God in the story of the Three Kings, or the Wedding at Cana, just as I don’t think God reveals himself in the military victories of the Old Testament story we had on Epiphany 3. I don’t think it works like that. If it did, what are we to make of the times when illness is not miraculously cured, or victory is not secured? You have only to look at levels of despondency and bitterness that followed hard on the heels of Trump’s defeat at the hands of Biden to see the flaws in such arguments. The revelations that these stories give us are what they tell us about ourselves.
There’s nothing wrong in writing a story that expresses our desires for God’s purposes in the world as if those desires had already happened. It is simply a way of expressing what you want. I think the ancient writers knew that, and so did their readers. For now, it is enough to regard these ancient stories as an invitation to contend with the word of God, to wring out of it by patient thought and diligent study its meaning for us. They used to say that talking to yourself was the first sign of madness; I don’t think it is. I think it’s the first sign of divine struggle that is the start of accomplishing God’s loving purposes for the world.