Question: how do you intimidate most Christians with the use of just one,tiny word? Answer:just say,“prayer"...

The “p ”word can hit unsuspecting believers with the precision targeted power of an exocet missile,Normally grinning,confident Christians shrivel into shrinking violets when zapped with the guilt that can suffocate when the word prayer is uttered.I know that guilt well.Start talking casually about “the devotional life ”,and I get that feeling that I used to know when my school report included the comment in red pen:“could do better ”.If the person mentioning it is a successful intercessor, I ’m ready for a conference call to the Samaritans.

As an ‘Every Day with Jesus ’fan,I confess that often it ’s often,‘Every other day with Jesus ’and go through seasons when I wish that there was a devotional product available called ‘Once in a while with God ’.Every year on New Year ’s Eve I enter into solemn vows,planning to read my bible right through.I invariably come unstuck in the gall bladders of Leviticus or the family trees of Chronicles and Kings. I ’m currently developing a ‘Read through the Bible in 300 years ’ course...

I fall asleep when I pray.This most often happens when I attempt to have a ‘quiet time ’while still in bed first thing in the morning.It gets very quiet indeed,mainly because I ’m unconscious.And then there ’s the problem of being half asleep,which is even more dangerous because one is still praying but is also in the twilight zone of semi-consciousness,which means that one ’s prayers have no sense of logic or reality. One morning I had started to pray in the warm cocoon of my bed,but then,drifting into a march for Jesus through the land of nod,I began to think about Disneyland.So I began to pray for Disneyland,and interceded for some of the colourful cartoon characters that live in that playground of fun.I am sad to confess that two minutes later I sat bolt upright in bed,and shouted,“Oh God, save that duck ”,at the top of my voice, which of course is a gross error.First off, ducks don ’t need saving,and secondly, Donald is a Warner Brothers character anyway...

Those muscular praying types designated as intercessors make me feel especially intimidated.These SAS shock troops of petition (whose ministry I totally endorse as vital)seem to have the ability to engage with the invisible with an ease that I envy.And books about heroic pray-ers like Rees Howells or John ‘praying ’Hyde make me want to give up praying.I forget that they had a special calling in prayer;I measure myself by their stature and feel tiny. The logic is totally flawed;I am not David Beckham.Therefore,I will not kick a football.

One of my problems is that there are times when I go to prayer and,quite simply,just can ’t think of anything meaningful or intelligent to say.It seems that Jesus understood this dilemma,which is one of the reasons that He so forcefully steers us away from “vain repetitions ”in the Sermon on the Mount.You only move into mindless mumbling when you ’ve run out of live conversation – or enthusiasm...

But another reason for my struggling in prayer is because I have come to believe that I can ’t pray –and because I am so convinced of my impotence in this area,I feel that any serious attempt to change is vain.I have often flown the white flag of surrender because of the stronghold in my mind that says,“You can ’t do this ”.I believe the stronghold, and so give up before I begin.I have also discovered that I have a collection of myths about prayer floating around in my head,myths that conspire together to silence my praying and nail me down to a place of ineffectiveness.Let me list some of them

Myth 1: Everyone else is good at prayer.

We risk opening our eyes and a quick glance at our watch during a ‘snory ’ prayer meeting,and imagine,with some measure of envy,that everyone else in the place is hurtling along the intercessory information super highway with fluid ease,no trouble with a wandering mind for them,no momentary lapses of concentration threatening their unbroken harmony with heaven.The truth is, we all struggle,and that knowledge alone can be liberating.I ’ve discovered this when I ’ve preached about doubt, and have confessed to being mugged by awful unbelief at the most inconvenient times.The rested,prayed-up,just-read- my -bible -and-enjoyed-it version of me knows very well that there ’s a God –but the slightly depressed for no apparent reason,jet lagged,irritated and disappointed me isn ’t always so full of consistent assurance.When I mention this during a sermon,a few of my hearers look aghast,their mouths agape,their vertical take off eyebrows hovering in horror,as if I have just removed my trousers while preaching.But most of the crowd sigh with relief,delighted to know they are not alone in their occasional hikes through Doubt ’s shadowy valley.

I think that the disciples of Jesus probably felt intimidated by others who were apparently better at prayer than they.Perhaps they shifted uncomfortably in their half sleep on those days when Jesus stirred himself in the dawning hours and wandered off to confer with His father about the coming day. Did they feel some pang of guilt as they turned over and huddled back down to catch some more sleep?None of the disciples came from a background of practiced spirituality –they were amateurs at prayer,and asked their master to teach them how to do it.(Luke 11:1) I imagine that they would have been intimidated by the eloquence and ‘dress to impress ’piety of the Pharisees praying on the street corners.These trained experts in public prayer were required to pray for a minimum of three hours each day;their Rolls Royce silver-tongued petitions would have made the friends of Jesus shrink as they ambled by in their little Robin Reliants of prayer.Feeling intimidated about prayer is nothing new;it ’s a practice that is as old as Christianity.

Myth 2: The only good prayers are long prayers

The Rabbis were convinced that the only good praying was long praying – Jesus links their wide open mouths with their inflated egos:“The teachers of the law for a show make lengthy prayers.” (Mark 12:40).In the evangelical subculture,a similar idea still exists today, even if only at a subconscious level.If you ’re going to pray,it had better be for at least an hour –and then,because we feel we can ’t pray for an hour we don ’t pray at all,and we miss the golden opportunity for “mini-sabbaths ”.Isn ’t it better to pray for 5 minutes than to aspire to pray for an hour (and indeed passionately believe that hour long praying is the way to go)but not pray at all?If we have this “never mind the quality,feel the width ”approach to prayer,then we miss out on the opportunity of just being with Jesus.Some of the most wonderful prayers that I have ever prayed have been very short of profundity.Here is an extract from a recent prayer of mine: “Hello?Hello Lord?Help! Help!HELP!” Help ….amen. Ps. Help!”

Feel free to use the above as a personal liturgical experience of your own. I ’m nervous about the complicating of spirituality.Michael Eaton says,“Jesus asks for simplicity in prayer rather than verbosity or complexity ”.As Rob Warner says,“there are times when the simple cry of Father sums up all that needs to be said in prayer.”

Myth 3: God is not too pleased to hear from me

I was standing in a minister ’s office, ready to go into a meeting where I would preach.Everyone looked bright, happy,positive –until someone suggested that we should pray for the service in general and me in particular.What happened in the next three seconds would have provided a wealth of material for a psychological study of evangelical spirituality.In an instant,everyone around me burst into tears (there were no actual tears,just the sound of much wailing and crying)as each person came mournfully into the presence of a God who they assumed must surely be irritated with them.There is of course a time to cry,but this fast-food style of intercessory wailing freaked me out. And as soon as the prayer bit finished, everyone stopped sobbing,brightened up and began an immediate discussion about the football results.If my children burst into crocodile tears every time they saw me,I ’d be very worried.

Some of us don ’t pray because we don ’t feel welcome,and we couldn ’t be more wrong.When Jesus taught His disciples to say “Our father ”,he was not just laying out a protocol for entry into the divine presence,or an opportunity for us to let God know who He is.“Our father ”lets US know who God is.And Jesus ’teaching on this was radical.The pagans used to address God as father, but Jews were not in that general habit, mainly because the fatherhood of God is not a central theme in Old Testament biblical theology.And so Jewish prayers would focus on the multiple titles of sovereignty,and the Lordship,glory and grace of God;it must have seemed somewhat outrageous to hear Jesus and his disciples talking about God as Father.But he insists that we know that we are welcome.The early church fathers could hardly believe this concept of fatherhood.They put a preface on the Lord ’s prayer,a hesitant peek around the corner to see if it was okay to run into the arms of God.“Grant that we may dare to call on Thee as Father ”was their nervous prayer.It was as if they were saying,“Can we really do this?”. The alphabet of Christianity starts with F for Father.

Myth 4: God is watching us from a distance

The idea that God is “Our father in heaven ”can suggest that he is located somewhere out there,perhaps slightly to the left of a distant solar system, watching us from a very great distance. Hence the weariness that I feel when I raise my hands in worship –it feels like I am stretching vainly for the distant stars,desperately trying to stretch through all that space to where God is. The truth is that he is our Father in heaven and that Christ has become Emmanuel God with us,and that the omnipresence of God means that God ’s presence is in and on the earth.God is not just ‘up there ’,but he is ‘right here ’.

Yes,God is transcendent,and exalted and glorious.And He is imminent – ‘here ’.Dallas Willard says,“God is constantly at play across the earth.” He is very much here,and not only when He is acknowledged or noticed. That helps me to understand why a piece of gloriously inventive music may be written by someone who doesn ’t know God;I can admire the masterful use of colour and shade on canvas,the work of an artist whose heart is in the far country,and yet who has been kissed, though they don ’t know it,by the touch of the Creator.Shall I ascribe the source of their creativity to Satan?I will not, because we are living in a God-bathed world.It ’s a mystery,but God is near.

Myth 5: Personal spirituality is enough

When Jesus taught his friends to pray “Our ”Father,he confronted the myth that solitary prayer is the only way to pray,and that we somehow don ’t need the mutuality and strength that comes from being part of what Willard calls “the community of prayerful love ”.

Prayer with friends is easier.Ishmael, the Duracell inspired children ’s ministry,is my prayer partner.This requires me to do a lot of bouncing,but it is very beneficial.The disciplines of silence and solitude are being rediscovered as we search for a coherent evangelical spirituality:but let ’s not emphasise them at the expense of community.To be able to come in from the lonely cold, in a culture of arctic techno isolation,is God ’s faithful provision for us. So you can pray.You are not alone in your struggles –and you are very welcome.The writer to the Hebrews urges us to draw close to God.God is close – and is often to be found in the praying agreement of a friend.