Thursday, 21 March 2013

Prayer and God's presence

Sometimes you come across a quote that just seems to scratch where you itch. Here is one such quote. I have no idea where it comes from:

"To pray is to expand God's presence in our lives."

For years, on and off, I have struggled with prayer swinging from elation to condemnation in equal measures. I started praying with any conviction after my conversion. I was told that that would help sustain my relationship with God and would help me grow as a Christian. Initially it was exciting as God seemed to answer so many of my prayers. Then, just as quickly as it started, the excitement faded and things got tougher. My prayers bounced back at me as soon as I prayed them and it seemed as if God had taken a leave of absence. I kept praying - because that's what I was told to do - but my prayer times became erratic and I found it hard to reach any kind of consistency in the regularity of my quiet times. Condemnation began to creep in and the more I let prayer go the more guilt-ridden I became and therefore the less I prayed.

I did from time to time try to re-ignite my prayer-life as I hopped like a frog from one book of prayer to another. What was the key to a good prayer life? What pattern or shape should I use? When I went to Theological College I said the office - i.e. recited Morning and Evening Prayer plus Compline every day with the rest of the community -  and valued at least the regularity and the discipline of doing so. To this day Compline remains one of my favourite offices usually prayed before sleep. But the formality of using these forms only soon lapsed into a dry recital of words and as the head spoke the words the heart shrivelled up and went into a kind of hibernation.

I did discover the Jesus Prayer during my time there and once again this did kick start my praying for a period of time. The words "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner" seemed to capture my heart's cry for more and I still use it from time to time today. But the busyness of life, children, ministry etc. quietly relegated prayer to the background and it was the same up and down experience I had had from the beginning.

In latter years something has changed.
First, I relaxed a bit more. Occasionally not praying, I discovered, was not a sin. I am a son of my Father and there is now, therefore "no condemnation for all those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1) and I live under grace not under law (Romans 6:14).

Second, I saw that to reduce prayer to a single slot during the day was to risk the danger of making it more of a duty or daily chore than a conversation with the Father. Sure the daily discipline of a regular time with God is a very good thing in the sense that routines and patterns ensure that we continue to do the right or beneficial thing. But once we miss one for whatever reason, to get into guilt or condemnation then renders what we are trying to do as more Law than grace and turns God into a stern taskmaster demanding an audience with his subjugated subject rather than a Father longing to spend time with his son or daughter.

Third, I saw prayer as a much larger thing than a 30 minute slot with Bible study, confession, praise etc.. I noticed that as I drove from one place to another I would turn the radio off and ask God something. Before a funeral service or taking a local assembly I asked God to guide me or inspire me to speak for him. I said grace at meals or offered a quick 'thank you' when I found a parking place or enjoyed some experience. In other words prayer expanded throughout the day and with it a sense of God's presence.

Which is where our quote comes in: "To pray is to expand God's presence in our live." It's true. As prayer passes from a duty into a delight, from a once daily into an all day occurrence, then we realise the truth of God as our constant companion rather than a booked appointment with a doctor.

I must add that I still strive for a quiet time at both ends of the day. But if the morning is only 10-15 minutes and the evening only "Thanks and goodnight God" then that's now okay as there is plenty of time in between to connect with the God who is always near.

So prayer is about enjoying being in the presence of the Father and engaging with him in conversation at every opportunity. And as we do so his presence expands to cover the whole of our lives and not just the 'Sunday slot' first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

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