It's funny how you can live with a truth for many years but not fully comprehend it real meaning until a moment of 'insight' opens it up and you finally understand it in its depths. One recent example I want to share is the power of prayer and how it works.
Before moving to my previous parish I was inspired by an address the incumbent gave once at a conference where he told the story of the parish and how it grew under his ministry. He told of being there 5-6 years but with minimal success until one day, having read a book on prayer (I forget which one) he decided to tithe his time and devote a tenth of each day praying. So for two hours and forty minutes each day he gave himself to prayer. Within a space of time things began to happen and his church grew and blossomed and the congregation size trippled.
Since then I have always looked at prayer as being important but without realizing how. I merely saw it as a tool to bring about renewal and growth - just as it did in my predecessor's ministry - but I went no deeper than that. I have often reflected on this but seemed to progress no further than seeing the connection between prayer and the growth of the congregation in his church. Now, finally, I think I understand how it happened. Through giving himself more to prayer my predecessor got closer and closer to God and as he did HE changed. He developed a greater sensitivity to the voice and promptings of the Holy Spirit. God's thoughts became his thoughts, God's ways became his ways and God's will became his will. There was a coming together of the two - my predecessor and God - to such a degree that they became, sort of, one.
Jesus tells us about this in John's gospel, chapter 15, a passage that has always fascinated me. Here Jesus likens the relationship of the disciple to Him/God as a branch to a vine:
"Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; ift can do so only if it remains in the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.... If you remain in me and my words remain in you, then you will ask for anything you wish, and you shall have it."
(John 15:4-5,7 GNB)
Here, especially in the last verse, Jesus explains what in fact happened with my friend and colleague. He 'remained' or (NIV) 'abided' in Jesus. This led to him being able to "ask anything" he wished - although it was not in fact 'he' who asked but this new 'he/God' partnership - which led him to see things happen and change. Prayer was not so much the key to changing the parish as it was, first of all, the key to changing him.
The power of prayer is to bring us closer and deeper into God so that God can finally work His will in us, and through us, for His world, starting where we are. Just as the 'light' in Matthew 5:14-16 can only be light if it is connected to the source of all true light i.e. Jesus, and the salt in Matthew 5:13 can only remain 'salty' if it is made salty by the true salt itself i.e. Jesus, so life can only produce life it it is connected to the source of life, God Himself.
Of course we must not, as we often do, turn this into some sort of 'formula' for parish/church renewal. This is not some kind of mechanical device. No. It must always be personal in terms of being real and genuine. But God has so designed us that we need to maintain and develop in our relationship with Him if we are to achieve anything of spiritual and therefore real and lasting, value. So the lesson I have learnt from all of this? Pray as much and as often as you can. And when you do, pray as if your life depended on it, because it does.