Praying Creatures / Praying Space
Making time for prayer in busy lives
Holy Communion Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Mark 1, verses 21-38
Praying Creatures / Praying Space
Do you remember the story of Daniel in the lions’ den? Daniel had been taken away from his home country and brought to live in the city of Babylon. He was a handsome, highly intelligent young man and so, although technically a “slave” in that he was not free to go home, he actually enjoyed a very privileged lifestyle, working for the King himself.
Daniel was not altogether unhappy except for one thing. He was not allowed to pray.
Daniel had grown up in a religious culture, where every morning and evening his people would gather for prayer. People were also expected to pray privately in their own homes at least three times a day.
But Babylonian society became more and more secular. Their so-called “gods” were no more than images set up to celebrate money and power. Finally all pretence at religion was swept away. The people were told that they must not worship anyone at all except the King. Anyone caught praying to a different god would be thrown to the lions.
No-one is threatening to throw us to the lions but finding time and space for prayer is becoming increasingly difficult in our culture. Most of us can probably remember a society that was still “nominally” religious. Sunday was allocated “church time.” Now a lot of people chose not to go to church but there was very little else they could do. There was no Sunday sport or Sunday shopping and not a lot of Sunday work. Space for church was still in the calendar. Likewise, most schools had a daily assembly, which was still an act of worship. Some assemblies were pretty dire, a few were definitely inspiring but the space was there and, despite the Ofsted regulations it is not there now. “Saying your prayers” before going to sleep at night was a recognised habit, even amongst people who seldom went to church.
But now there is no “recognised” space. Our society is secular. It is now totally up to us to make space in our lives for regular prayer- private and communal. And that can be a huge challenge. When working hours are long and a couple of hours of travel added every day; when opting out of Sunday work is simply not an option; when families live at a distance and not round the corner; when both parents work long days and have limited time with their children; when grandparents are called upon to take up a lot of the childcare; when drawing attention to your faith can arouse suspicion or even isolation socially- life today does not make it easy for people to pray, any more than it was easy for Daniel. We may not be threatened by live roaring lions but there is the fear of alienating our families, over-stretching our physical strength, getting into trouble at work if we insist on taking the time we need or believe we should be giving to regular prayer. The lions are there for us too.
Over the last few weeks we have been exploring the habit of prayer and I think we probably do agree that it is indeed a “holy habit.” It is an activity worth pursuing. Prayer is about communicating with God, allowing God to get involved in our lives, building up our relationship with God. And, just as any human relationship will certainly fail if the people concerned never spend any “quality time” together and never talk to each other, so our relationship with God will never develop without the holy habit of prayer. I would like to look at this habit in three different ways.
First: prayer as a regular routine. We know that any good habit worth getting into needs a regular commitment. Whether we are talking physical fitness, studying for a new qualification, supporting a good cause - it requires allocated space in the diary. If you wait until you are “in the mood” for the new habit, it will never happen.
Exactly the same is true of prayer. When I meet with a family wanting their child baptised, I make the point that in today’s society, if they really intend to bring their child up -as they promise- within the support of the church community then they will need to schedule “church time” into the diary, along with the swimming lessons and the dance classes and the visits to Grandma. Because if they do not schedule it, it will not happen. I say much the same thing in every church membership class- that it is important is to make a commitment both of time and of money to their church. Some people can give a lot of one or both; some can give only a little of one or both and that is OK. But if we wait to see what time is left in the diary or what money is left in the bank at the end of the month, we will end up having neither to give.
It is important, life being what it is and human nature being what it is, to allocate a space for prayer each day. You will have seen in the Newsletter recently how different people in our church respond to this challenge. I cannot tell you the routine that will work best in your life. But I do know from my own experience that that appalling pun “seven days without prayer makes one weak” is absolutely true. …. We need regular, committed prayer.
Most people who want to get into the habit of regular prayer will find it helpful to have some kind of stimulus; something that will get them started on their prayers, particularly when they are tired or fed up or distracted by a long to-do list. Some still use published Bible reading notes or books of meditation and prayer- there are many of them. An increasing number use on-line resources. You will see some suggestions on your notice sheets for sites that will place an email reflection and prayer in your inbox every day. We have also updated and reprinted our own Prayer Card, suggesting topics for prayer concerning the work of this church on a daily basis. Other prayer calendars are offered from time to time suggesting places around the world or particular human situations to be remembered day by day. It is good to use these kind of guidelines because they inspire us to pray about things we might not otherwise think to pray about. And, as we pray for what is going on in our church or our world, we find that we are taking ownership of what is going on. This is about us and not just about “them” because, in prayer we become aware of our part in God’s world and our part in Christ’s church.
We are human. To build up a Holy habit needs commitment and help.
The downside of a “prayer routine” is that it can become a box-ticking exercise. “I have said my prayers/ done the “God bit” and now I can get on with the rest of my day.” The prophet Amos had strong things to say about people who regularly joined in elaborate temple worship but who had no intention of allowing their worship to make any difference to the way they lived their lives. Temple attendance may have been high in Amos’ day but so were economic and political corruption. Prayer is only a Holy Habit if it produces holy standards of living.
This brings me to the second thing about prayer. It is a 24/7 activity. For surely if, when we spend our allocated time of prayer, we are inviting God to become involved in our lives, then it is reasonable to assume that He will do so. Which means that God will be involved with us when we sit (or stand) on the train, when we go about our daily work, when we take decision-making meetings with our colleagues, when we meet up with friends in the pub, when we take our children to football, when we go to the gym, when we decide how to vote in an Election. Walking the Way; living the life of Jesus today means not dividing our life into “the God bit” and “the other bits.” Every single moment of our life becomes filled with God.
I chose our reading from Mark’s Gospel because it shows the pattern of Jesus’ daily life: he spent time in private prayer alone, he spent time worshipping with others in the synagogue (the public place of worship), he spent time performing his ministry of teaching and healing, he spent time eating and relaxing with friends. And we can see that God’s power was poured into him hour by hour. His “prayer life” and his “everyday life” were one and the same thing. We may feel that our lifestyles are very different to that of Jesus but the principle remains the same: if our times of prayer do not feed into our lives on a 24/7 basis, then we are wasting our time.
You may have heard the expression “arrow prayers.” These are the quick one-liners we shoot off to God in a crisis situation. “Show me what to do,” “help, what can I say,” “give me strength to deal with this.” It is like a panic call to a really good friend when we are in trouble and, even if it looks as though our friend cannot actually do anything, just knowing that they are on our side, thinking of us, holding us in their hearts can make a huge difference. So with God. He does only condescend to listen when we are sitting in the right place at the right time with the right book. His eyes are always watching, his ear listening and his heart reaching out in love.
But this is not the same thing as treating prayer like some kind of spiritual slot machine. Make your request and get your answer. With the good friend we call in a crisis, the foundations of our relationship have already been laid by years of regular communication and interaction. The foundations of our relationship with God are laid in regular, committed prayer time, which should then make it possible for us to call on God as and when we need, every hour of every day. I am not saying that God does not respond to “arrow prayers” if we have not stacked up enough hours of daily prayer. But the more time we spend getting to know God, the easier it will be for us for receive his answers, to be open to his guidance, to act on his wisdom hour by hour, moment by moment. Prayer is a 24/7 activity.
And just in case this is all sounding like rather hard work and an unreasonable obligation, look again at Psalm 8, which we read together. This is a prayer but a purely spontaneous outpouring of praise as this person becomes acutely aware of the glory of God all around him. It is a “wow” moment.
And this is the third thing I want to say about prayer- that regular, committed prayer enables us to see the glory of God even in the most unlikely places. We have probably all felt that “wow. There really is a God,” when looking at awesome natural beauty or holding a new born baby or coming out on top of a huge challenge. But countless men and women have also witnessed to that “wow. There is a God” moment in the darkest, most dreary places; when confronted by a screaming toddler or a stroppy teenager; when feeling like a total failure; even in situations as hellish as Concentration Camps and Cancer Wards. They have seen the glory of God.
The Holy Habit of prayer makes us acutely aware of the constant faithfulness of God. Jeremiah, living in a hostile culture and trying to be a Minister to uncooperative people nevertheless wrote that the mercies of God were renewed in his life morning by morning. He could look out on a life that might appear to us as pretty bleak and thankless and still see the glory of God.
Edmund Banyard, a URC Minister, wrote this prayer: “God, all in all, may I wake each morning to look on the world with awe and wonder, not asking whether you are at work but rather asking how I may better recognise the signs of your presence around me…..”
Prayer makes the whole of life, whatever our circumstances, so much better and more beautiful. Is it not a holy habit worth cultivating with all our might?
Remember Daniel? Despite the law against praying, he continued to pray three times daily as he felt he needed. His faith was rooted deep in God and not in what he might have seen as his “credibility” in the eyes of other people. He knew quite well that most of the Babylonians thought he was crazy but his faith, nourished by prayer, was fixed in God. Daniel was indeed thrown to the lions but, the story goes, God held the lions back from harming him. And Daniel earned the deep respect of even that most arrogant King.
Please do not try this at home….. Do not walk into a den of real, wild lions.
But please do not feel that you have to apologise to anyone for being a person who prays. The world still needs praying people and I suspect that far more people are aware of this than will ever admit to it. Standing up for what we believe and holding to our “Holy habits” can earn us respect. It can also bring some sense of security to those who are struggling with life and don’t know quite what to make of God. “Somebody prayed for me/ I’m so glad they prayed for me.”
And as for the “lions” who might threaten us in our lives of prayer, can we trust God enough to hold us safe, as He held Daniel? I don’t know. You know your “lions” better than I do. But if that appalling pun is true-that “seven days without prayer make one weak”- I would feel more confident facing my lions conscious of a source of true strength within me and around me.