It struck me at the time that older people can impart incredible wisdom but also have the ability to come out with absolute tosh. I think of two comments my mother made after Claire Tompkinson had finished with me and I was a heartbroken 14-year-old. She said, ‘Never mind! There are plenty more fish in the sea.’ I didn’t want lots of other fish – I wanted dolphin Claire. And then she added, ‘Anyway, cheer up – we’ve got jam roly-poly for afters.’ My life was over, my love life ruined, and the best comfort she could come up with was jam roly-poly for tea.
Going back to that visiting preacher: what I wanted to say to him was, ‘But I can see my girlfriend. When I speak, I watch her reaction and I can hear her replies. Of course it’s harder to talk with somebody you can’t see, can’t hear and who – at least in my experience – never answers back so you can physically hear him.’
When I was asked recently to give a talk entitled ‘How to pray’, I thought about the occasion when the disciples woke early one morning to find Jesus’ sleeping mat already empty. They found him praying in ‘a solitary place’ (Mark 1:35), maybe in the hills above Galilee. Moments like these must have had a deep impact on the disciples. They had attended the synagogue all their lives and had prayed thousands of prayers, but as they watched Jesus praying they saw something special – something that one day led them to say: ‘Teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1).
If you have lost heart in prayer then listen to the sheer simplicity of Jesus’ teaching: ‘When you pray, go into your room, [and] close the door’ (Matthew 6:6). I suppose the modern equivalent of ‘close the door’ might be ‘switch off your mobile phone’. Next, Jesus says not to worry about the length of our prayers. And then he continues: ‘This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven…”’
This short prayer, which we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, begins with the three things that God wants from us: reverence – ‘hallowed be your name’; allegiance – ‘your kingdom come’; and obedience – ‘your will be done’. And then it goes on to ask for the three things we need from God: food – ‘Give us today our daily bread’; forgiveness – ‘forgive us our debts’; and freedom – ‘deliver us from the evil one’. This is a prayer for the whole of our lives: our past, our present and our future.
I know some readers will find it easy to pray. But what if you are not one of them? What if, even though you serve God faithfully – and you are, perhaps, even a church leader – you have stopped spending time alone with him in prayer? Is it possible that sometime this week you could go into a quiet room, close the door and say that simple prayer? Could you begin the day by saying that prayer from now on? Do you have a good friend with whom you share your deepest joys and fears, but never pray? Could you start to change that by saying the prayer that Jesus taught together?
I know it won’t take very long to say, and because of the desperate need most of us have to prove ourselves – even to God – it won’t feel anything like long enough. But it is a start; and perhaps, it will become more than that.
After all, it’s what Jesus taught about prayer.