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Easter 7: Prayer

20 May 2007
Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-26, Psalm 97 The Lord shall reign
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find. Matthew 7:7

Even atheists pray. Everyone who has ever said, even if under their breath, let it be fine for the wedding tomorrow, let my son come back safe from Afghanistan or let the tests be negative is addressing someone or something.

At some deep level we all, even those who would indignantly deny it, believe in the existence of a higher power whom we naturally call on in moments of need. Anthropologists believe that primitive man prayed to his gods, and there is written evidence of humans praying going back 5,000 years.

And what is prayer? Well, I suppose it is an active effort to communicate with God − to make a request or seek guidance, to offer praise, confess sins, or simply to express one's thoughts and emotions. The word itself derives from the Latin precare, meaning simply to ask.

Why do we pray? Well, as Marian Anderson said:
Prayer begins where human capacity ends.

Or, as Abraham Lincoln expressed it more forcefully:
I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day.

Frank Sinatra put it in a nutshell:
Basically, I'm for anything that gets you through the night - be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels.

So what do we pray about and what goes through our heads as we try to start the communication going? Let's see what the street has to say in this rap:

God almighty, are you real or am I talking to myself
when I tell you how I feel, and I ask you for your help?
Seems I never get an answer, nothing I can recognize,
and I wonder who I'm seeing when I look into my eyes...
Lord, I pray you give me power to resist the things I must:
Envy, Anger, Greed and Gluttony; Pride, Laziness and Lust.
So I pray to my Creator for some small degree of trust
in a faithful guiding Spirit on my trip from dust to dust.
Seems I'm always doing something that I know I should not do.
Looking back, I feel so stupid, but I haven't got a clue
why I do the things I shouldn't when I know they make me sad.
How can I control it? You know I feel so bad...
Lord, I pray you give me power to discern what is your will,
whether Biblical or mystical, or just a sugar pill.
So I wander through existence with a whole lifetime to kill,
and I wonder how I'll pay when I finally get the bill...
lyrics and music by Chris Watson

Mother Teresa pointed out:
Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at his disposition, and listening to his voice in the depths of our hearts.

I asked for wisdom...
And God gave me problems to solve.
I asked for prosperity...
And God gave me brains and the strength to work.
I asked for courage...
And God gave me danger to overcome.
I asked for love...
And God gave me troubled people to help.
I asked for favours...
And God gave me opportunities.
I received nothing I wanted.
I received everything I needed.
My Prayer has been answered.

As to what we should pray about, Meister Eckhart said:
If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, thank-you, that would suffice.

Sometimes it is difficult to find the right words:

A grandfather was walking in his garden when he heard his granddaughter repeating the alphabet in a tone of voice that sounded like a prayer. He asked her what she was doing. The little girl explained: 'I'm praying, but I can't think of exactly the right words, so I'm just saying all the letters, and God will put them together for me, because He knows what I'm thinking.'
Charles B. Vaughan

Because, as Saint Teresa of Avila said,

Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.

Friendship is of course a two-way relationship. Do you remember the story Father Cavanaugh told President Bartlet in 'The West Wing' about the devout Christian from the American bible belt? A flood warning went out on the radio that the Mississippi was about to burst its banks; everyone should leave their houses at once. But our Christian stayed put, saying The Lord will save me. The river duly flooded its banks, and a man rowed past the Christian's house, ready to rescue him. Our hero again stayed put, saying the Lord will save me. Finally he had to crawl out onto the roof, where a helicopter spotted him and let down a rope. But our Christian refused to budge, saying only the Lord will save me. You know what happened next. When our Christian reached the gates of Heaven, he remonstrated with God: why didn't You save me? God was a touch exasperated and said: I sent you a radio announcement, a man in a boat and a helicopter - what on earth are you doing here?

As Hippocrates pointed out:
Prayer indeed is good, but while calling on the gods a man should himself lend a hand.

How often should we pray? Well, as George Herbert put it:

Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.

As Dean Inge explained:
For one thing, Prayer gives a man the opportunity of getting to know a gentleman he hardly ever meets. I do not mean his maker, but himself.

And, of course: Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays. Søren Kierkegaard

Above all, in these times of environmental awareness, prayer is ecologically sound:
Prayer is free, does not use up artificial energy, does not burn up any fossil fuel, and does not pollute. Neither does song, neither does love, neither does the dance. Margaret Mead

And, to complete the passage that began our service:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For whoever asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, the door is opened. Matthew 7: 7-8

Lord, we ask for that quietness of mind and spirit which reflects the stillness in the heart of God, as a calm sea reflects the shining stars. Enable us, Lord, to hear the still small voice of eternity speaking through the sounds of time, that we may dwell in your peace and be one with your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Raymond Hockley

Look graciously upon us, O Holy Spirit, and give us, for our hallowing, thoughts that pass into prayer, prayers that pass into love, and love that passes into life with thee for ever.
Eric Milner-White

The illustration is Albrecht Duerer's well-known 'Praying Hands'