‘Hi, Jeff,’ the group responds in unison. Hopefully. While I do find some time alone helpful, extended solitude quickly becomes solitary confinement for me. Even the mention of the word ‘prayer’ intimidates me. Most of us labour under the impression that everybody else is better at praying than we are. This feeling is compounded by books written by bionic mystical saints who, 300 years before the invention of TV, would pop off to the woods, crawl into the bowels of a log and spend six blissful weeks in fasting and prayer with apparently zero effort. I could never aspire to such dizzy heights. I’d probably give myself 20 minutes of fervent prayer before exiting the log hastily to (a) remove errant woodlice from my underwear and (b) break my gruelling 20-minute fast by demolishing a double cheeseburger.
Perhaps we need to adjust our thinking about prayer. Scripture freely acknowledges that we will find prayer tough, so if we’re challenged by it, we’re just human. ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought’ confesses the mighty apostle in Romans 8:26. I appreciate Paul’s honesty in acknowledging that talking with someone who is invisible isn’t that easy.
The Bible frequently portrays people struggling to pray – and falling asleep as they tried. Jesus’ disciples (hand-picked to change world history, remember) drifted off into exhausted slumber no less than three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, even though Jesus had specifically asked them to stay awake.
‘Prayer is a conversation’ is the phrase I’ve heard preachers use most frequently to describe it. I’ve taught others this myself. But although God can and does speak, I’m not sure that he’s as verbose as some make him out to be. My experience of prayer is that it is generally about thanksgiving and request. I simply come grateful, offering him my cares and concerns.
I’m encouraged that Jesus countered the pharisaic idea that the only good prayers were long prayers. We might need to pray at length, but we don’t have to set a meter running. Here’s a thought: it’s better to pray for five minutes a day than it is to believe that you’re supposed to pray for an hour a day, but not actually pray at all.
I need to manage my disappointments about prayer. Those who imply that they have a hotline to God and are guaranteed to get whatever they ask for, as long as they have the required amount of faith, are building false expectations. If you don’t believe me, head back to Gethsemane again and witness Jesus putting in a request – no less than three times – for the cup of suffering to be taken away. Put simply, he was saying: ‘If there’s a way to avoid the cross, then I’d like that’. But the request was turned down flat. That doesn’t mean Jesus was ignored. Jesus was heard, but his specific request was denied.
I’m trying to be more practical in my approach to prayer, too. Shared prayer with another is good, and easier, but strangely sometimes doesn’t feel like it truly counts as much as the solo variety. This is odd, seeing as we’re specifically instructed to agree in prayer, which has to involve others (Matthew 18:20). And then I like to go for a walk when I pray. Not only does this double the benefits, giving me a physical workout as well as the opportunity for time with God, but I’ve also discovered that it’s fairly difficult to drift off to sleep while walking.