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Grappling with Prayer

Prayer is something that I have never really understood. Growing up within a Christian context it has always been a part of my life and has always been something that I have practiced. I know the words to use, and I know all the right formulas that have been promised to get my words to sound more pleasing in God’s ears - as if how I pray effects whether God will answer my prayers or not.

However, the older I have gotten there has always been a discontent with prayer. How people describe it to be, compared to my experience, has always left me not really understanding the main purpose of it. If prayer is a relational conversation, why does it need a formula to help me get my prayers right? Why do we place more value on certain people’s prayers than others when God supposedly has no favourites? Does the amount of people praying for something mean God is inclined to hear and respond more? If so, what does that mean for the lonely who suffer - isn’t the Gospel meant to put those people first?

These are just a few questions that I have had over time. But to set expectations, I'm not going to answer those questions (Although I do recommend Philip Yancey's book on prayer, he does a stellar job).

So, if I were to put all my assumptions of prayer aside and wonder anew what this weird conversation I get to have with God is about, what really is prayer?

The God conversation

The last thing I would like to do is bog everyone down with some Trinitarian theology, so instead I would like to give you two Latin translations of the Gospel of John 1.

The Vulgate which was written by St. Jerome, translates the Greek word Logos as such:

In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum et deus erat verbum

Verbum, Word.

This became the authoritative translation of the time, and hence we get the translation we all commonly know: Word. However, there was an alternative translation which was completed by Theodorus Beza, who when coming to translate John 1, did not use the word Verbum, but instead opted for this translation:

In principio erat Sermo et Sermo erat apud deum et deus erat Sermo

Sermo is the Latin for a talk, speech, or discourse. In other words, a conversation. This changes the tone of this verse altogether, and when we look at Jesus’ ministry and life, it was diffused in conversation, with His Father and also those around Him.

In the beginning was the Conversation, and the Conversation was with God, and the Conversation was God.

Whether you would like to hold to that translation or not, the reality is this is very much true – Jesus maintained constant trialogue with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. This conversation is so unified, and so loving and self-giving, because they have always been One. Realising humanity has been left out of the conversation because of our fallen nature, Jesus sacrificing Himself on the cross so that I might be able to be connected into this conversation is the ultimate gift, and one that I will spend my life pondering.

For the sake of length, I’m going to stop on that line of thought there - we could be here all day!

What does this mean for prayer?

It seems that if I am to have a dialogue with God, then I need to recognise there is always a conversation going on, and if being British is anything to go by, it’s a bit rude to butt into a conversation.

Reading Beholding by Strehan Coleman was such an eye opener to the beauty of seeing prayer as beholding God’s character and nature. But also in my approach to God in prayer. If there is already a conversation going on with God, it would seem that I should first behold this conversation. What is God saying?

I’ve found when I do this, I become aware of His faithfulness, His creativity and compassion towards myself and to others a lot more.

Prayer is beholding the Conversation of God.

Joining the conversation

This next part is pretty obvious: I get to join in this conversation with God. But if we are to look a bit more at the relationship that God has within Godself, then it might help us figure out what our role is with prayer.

What I find interesting when we see the persons of the Trinity interact with each other within Scripture, is that they seem to Glorify each other with no restriction. (Biblically, to glorify something/someone would mean to lay yourself down, it is a sacrificial term.) They offer themselves fully, for example, as depicted with Jesus on the cross.

This might seem like an obvious point, but I think the invitation with prayer is to offer ourselves fully. I know I always get into a place where I think I have to come to prayer and think if I’m not coming joyfully or in great faith then there’s going to be no point. However, when I look at the story of the righteous man and the tax collector, it’s the one who gave their true and vulnerable self fully to God that walked away justified.

I find comfort knowing that the tax collector probably walked away still feeling rubbish, and maybe even envious towards the righteous man who appeared to be living a happier life, and yet walked away justified and thus more in unity with God.

It seems that when I give God my frustration, disappointment, happiness - my all… Then God responds. My involvement within this conversation allows me to receive a response by offering up my all, and as this conversation is Love, that is what I would receive. Thank you, God, for the cross.

Prayer is being a part of the Divine Conversation.

Reaching out for other to join

During my time as a youth worker, I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing young people. A recent experience that deeply moved me was at a festival in the Spring time, where after a talk I had numerous young people come up and share their stories with me, what their life was like at home and how they struggled. My heart broke for these young people, and it caused a dilemma within me.

How do I pray for these young people? Everything within me just wanted to pray that they would be healed from their depression or anxiety, but hearing their stories made me realise that the long-term challenge wasn’t that they had these diagnoses. It was around the environments they found themselves. If God did move and remove their anxiety, they would go home and find themselves in the same situations that they had temporarily left.

John Swinton, in his book Finding Jesus in the Storm, talks about two types of descriptions that we can have: thin or thick. Thin descriptions means to take something at face value - to hear of these statistics and diagnoses and see them as the issue. Swinton says this is the same as putting something through Google translate – you kind of get the right answer, but you lose any kind of context, culture, or history. However, to have a thick description means to know the individuals behind the statistics, to hear their life and understand the narrative of their lived experience.

I think what the Spirit was convicting me to through hearing these stories was action – to invite them to also receive this Love that is found through being involved in this Holy Conversation. By partaking in this relationship with God, I am allowed to offer His love to those who are in pain and are struggling with complexities of adversity. I get to offer a different narrative, one that is found in Perfect Love.

I now can look to moments within the Old Testament where God is frustrated with Israel for not seeking Justice but only offering sacrifices and worshipping, with God demanding the people ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly’. But I can also look to Revelation where Jesus offers a warning for those who seek Justice but have ‘abandoned the love they had at first’.

If the ministry of the cross is reconciliation, and the mission of God is to unify all tribes, tongues, and nations, then prayer must also lead us to seek unity and justice with our enemies and with our brothers and sisters.

So prayer…

My conclusion is that prayer is this: beholding the Conversation of Divine Love, and finding yourself immersed within it, and responding by offering it out to the world and to our neighbour.

In other words, prayer invites us to love God and love our neighbour.

And the cool thing is that my experience is just that. As I find myself offering more of who I am to God in truth, honesty and with all my frustrations and worries, I really have experienced God responding to my prayers.


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