Our son David plays the saxophone. He’s had lessons for quite a few years now and he plays the saxophone very well- well enough that we have had to upgrade his sax to a better model. So every evening he comes home and plays – the guitar. My guitar, actually. For hours. And he is getting quite good on the guitar too. But it’s the saxophone we are paying for all the lessons for and its the saxophone he is preparing to take his Grade 8 exam on. So we would quite like him to practice the saxophone sometimes.
Because learning to play the saxophone is like learning to play the piano (which I was doing at his age) , or learning to ride a bicycle, or learning to drive a car as our daughters have had to do. We don’t learn any of these things by reading books or talking to other people or even watching other people (although the books and the advice can be helpful). The only way we learn to play a musical instrument is by practice. You just have to practice! Just as we learn to ride by sitting on a bike and pedalling and steering and getting back on when we fall off. We learn to play a musical instrument by practice. Scales, pieces, arpeggios, pieces, broken chords, pieces, hands separately, hands together, practice, practice, practice!
And learning to pray is just the same. The only way to learn to pray is by praying. Sometimes the reason we don’t pray is that we feel we are not good at praying. We feel we need more teaching before we can pray properly. But that is a mistake! The way to learn to pray is by praying. We may neglect prayer and hide away from God because we feel we are no good at praying. The answer is to pray more, not less.
We may feel that we are failures because we pray so little. We mustn’t be discouraged. We need to learn “the prayer of beginning again”, getting back on and trying again, and again, and again, rather than giving up and just not praying. Richard Foster gives very wise advice. “For now, do not worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. By praying we learn to pray.”
One day Jesus’s disciples asked him, “Lord teach us to pray.” Listen to what Jesus replied.
Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
What did Jesus teach his disciples about prayer? Simply this. Ask. Seek. Knock. Richard Foster calls this “simple prayer”, just asking God to meet our needs. “Ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a compassionate Father.” Coming “just as we are” to God, with openness and honesty and no pretence. Making your requests to God, asking, seeking, knocking.
As Spurgeon once said, “Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the Kingdom.”
Sometimes we stop praying those simple “asking” prayers because we are afraid that our prayers are “too selfish”. Foster reminds us, “We never outgrow that kind of asking prayer because we never outgrow the needs that give rise to it.” “The only way we move beyond `self-centred prayer’ (if indeed we ever do) is by going through it, not by making a detour round it.” So our prayers must begin with where we are. “The only place God can bless us is where we are, because that is the only place we are!”
We must begin by learning to ask God and seek God and rely on God in the ordinary events of everyday life, with our families and jobs and neighbours and friends. What Richard Foster calls, “PRAYING THE ORDINARY”
Praying the ordinary means discovering that God in involved in EVERY aspect of our daily lives and learning to trust God in EVERY area of our lives. We need to rediscover the truth that we are Christians WHEREVER we are. WHEREVER we are is Holy Ground!
Of course we should pray about our Christian activities. We should pray for our church. And its services. And our minister. Of course we should pray about witnessing to friends who are not yet saved. Of course we should be praying for the gospel to spread around the world. There is that challenging question, “If you were to die tonight, would your prayers be missed on the mission field?” We should pray MORE for our Christian lives.
But we also need to learn to see every place as Holy Ground. We can do this by “praying the ordinary”. By turning ordinary experiences of life into prayer; by seeing God in the ordinary experiences of life; by praying throughout the ordinary experiences of life.
Richard Foster puts it this way. “We need to recognise the sanctity of the ordinary, the holiness of created things. In His great acts of creation and incarnation, God has intertwined the spiritual and the material, wedded the sacred and the secular, sanctified the common and the ordinary. We shouldn’t look to find God in the spectacular and the heroic but in the daily and the ordinary. If we can’t find God in the routines of home and shop and family and work and rest and play then we will never find God at all.”
Some people see their jobs as a hindrance to prayer. In fact our jobs are an opportunity for prayer. We can sometimes pray while we work. We should always pray about our work and for our work. But we can also pray through our work. Our work can become prayer – prayer in action. We can present our work to God as a prayer offering to Him.
Colossians 3: 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1Corinthians 10:31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
“The work of our hands and of our minds is acted-out prayer, a love-offering to the living God.” In the film, Chariots of Fire, the Olympic runner Eric Liddell said, “When I run, I feel His pleasure.” All good work is pleasing to our Heavenly Father, even jobs that seem boring, unimportant and mundane and meaningless or unpleasant. In these days of superstardom in the celebrity jungle and 15 minutes of fame in the Big Brother House, the Bible shows us again and again that “God values the ordinary”. Whatever the task, we can choose to do it in God’s strength and for God’s glory. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Everything that one turns in the direction of God is a prayer.”
So we can pray the ordinary when we see and meet God in the everyday experiences of life. In times of waiting, in queues in the supermarket and the bank, waiting for the telephone to ring. Especially in traffic, driving or as a passenger, we can offer our waiting to God. Just keep your eyes open as you pray! “In the everyday and the commonplace we can learn patience, acceptance and contentment.”
As we learn to pray through the ordinary experiences of life, TV news and newspapers will prompt us to pray there and then for world leaders and current events. We silently pray for the people we meet in shops and corridors and school gates. And we pray in our home life. Our homes are just as holy as our church. All places are sacred places! We just need to learn to pray the ordinary. This will bring us to a conversion of the heart, a Copernican revolution. Copernicus realised that the sun doesn’t go round the earth but rather the earth goes around the sun. So in our spiritual lives, “We need to pass from thinking of God as part of our life to the realisation that we are part of His life.”
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6-7
Paul is not saying, “Whatever your problems, one quick prayer and everything will be alright.” It is an invitation to continuous prayer, to pray without ceasing, praying about anything and everything. Paul is saying “keep on presenting your requests to God”. And as you keep on bringing every aspect of your life to God in prayer, God will keep on meeting your needs and so you will continue to experience that peace which passes all understanding, which only God can give.
I learned something very important about prayer from the six weeks I spent on Sabbatical in Uganda. Christians in Uganda PRAY before every meal, before every drink, before every journey, after every journey, before they say goodbye, every time when somebody is hurt or sick – not just when it’s something major! For all their problems with water supply and health and transport and survival hand to mouth from day to day, the Christians in Uganda know much more of the peace God gives than most English Christians. Even though many of them suffered terribly at the hands of Idi Amin’s regime, these Christians experience God’s peace. Ugandan Christians consciously depend on God for their daily bread and for all their day-to-day needs much more than we think we need to. They know much more than we do about “praying the ordinary.”
So how can we move on in our prayer lives? This is where Richard Foster points us to the great value of
“COVENANT PRAYER” – committing ourselves to the duty of prayer
We must make time to pray! Prayer is nothing more than an ongoing growing love relationship with God. But all good relationships demand time and effort. As we need to commit ourselves to another person for any relationship to grow, so we need to commit ourselves to developing and deepening our relationship with God.
A.W.Tozer:- “Probably the most widespread and persistent problem to be found among Christians is the problem of retarded spiritual progress. The main cause is most likely to be this: failure to give time to the cultivation of the knowledge of God.
The Christian is strong or weak depending upon how closely he has cultivated the knowledge of God. Progress in the Christian life is exactly equal to the growing knowledge we gain of God in personal experience. And such experience requires a whole life devoted to it and plenty of time spent at the holy task of cultivating God. God can be known satisfactorily only as we devote time to Him.
There is no short cut to sanctity. A thousand distractions would woo us away from thoughts of God, but if we are wise we will sternly put them from us and make room for the King and take time to entertain Him. To neglect communion with God is to hurt ourselves where we cannot afford it. God will respond to our efforts to know Him. It is altogether a matter of how much determination we bring to the holy task.”
A.W.Tozer in The Root of the Righteous
We like to be busy and active. Sometimes we hide from God in busyness and activity. We surround ourselves with noise. What we need is silence and space to meet with God. It’s all about how we use our time. The more important an activity is to us, the more time we will give to it. If we want to get to know God better, we need to make time to pray!
So Richard Foster points us to prayer as an expression of our covenant obedience to God. We may be afraid of commitment and “acts of duty”. Responsibility sounds confining. We fear we may lose spontaneity and joy. We fear we may fail to keep our promises. But God expects and demands and deserves our commitment. Like the discipline of practising the piano or learning to ride a bike! We will never learn to do these things well if we do not commit ourselves to practising even when we don’t feel like it! When we fall off we just get up, get back on and try again. Falling off doesn’t hurt as much as staying on the floor.
If we mean business with God, we need solemn vows of commitment to prayer! Being a living sacrifice will include praying when we don’t feel like praying! God Himself invites us to discover the riches of prayer.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good!” Psa 34:8
But we need detailed resolves! Resolutions to find the best time for prayer, the best place for prayer and the best heart preparation for prayer. See whether God might be leading you make any changes in your patterns of personal prayer.
We need a Covenant of time – constancy, a regular experience of prayer even if it interrupts what we think of as important work. Fixed times of prayer taking priority over everything else reminds us that God is more important than anything else. That could be a commitment to a regular time each day. In this modern busy world some people find it more helpful to commit themselves to a WEEKLY time of prayer and devotional reading. Either way, we need discipline to MAKE a regular fixed time for personal prayer.
Then we need a Covenant of place – stability. Finding a place which really is “Holy Ground” for you. A room, a chair, the garden, some convenient quiet location where you find it easy to pray with the minimum of distraction and disturbance. If this all sounds too restricting, too legalistic, think about these wise words from John Dalrymple.
“The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.”
Then we can benefit from a Covenant of heart preparation. A PATTERN of steps we can take which bring a holy expectancy when we come to prayer. Rituals for preparation, like adopting a helpful posture – sitting, kneeling, standing. Using a Christian book, or a prayer book, or a psalm to prepare for prayer. Many Christians of all denominations find it very helpful to light a candle to turn your living room into your sanctuary. Time; place; heart preparation.
Our times of prayer are a vital expression of our relationship with God. So often so many Christians approach times of prayer with the same level of enthusiasm as we would being summoned to the boss’s office or a visit to the dentist. What a contrast with happy children who are usually delighted to be ably to spend time and have a long chat with loving parents. Richard Foster writes about trysting prayer. A tryst is an old word meaning a prearranged meeting of lovers – a special date with God. Our times of prayer can be like that! “We are glad to waste time with God for we are pleased with the company.”
Lord teach US to pray! Simple prayer. Ask, seek, knock. Asking is the rule of the Kingdom. Praying the Ordinary. Wherever we are is Holy Ground. And times of Prayer as our covenant commitment to God. Time, place, heart preparation.
“For now, do not worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. By praying we learn to pray.”