The various forms of Prayer: Sermon preached by Rev Christopher Harrison atAll Saints’ Church, 16th October 2016
Jesus told the disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. A widow kept coming to a judge asking for justice against her enemy; for a long time he refused, but finally gave in. ‘I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face’.
The Gospel writer describes this as a parable about the value of perseverance in prayer, as well as being an encouragement to the disciples to remain steadfast even if they were unable to see any signs of God granting them justice.
Let’s look more closely at the Christian tradition of prayer. The impulse to pray seems to be part of what it means to be human. Prayer is a key element of all the major religions, in one form or another. Even though the different faiths of the world all have different beliefs about God, all take as one of their starting points the fact that prayer is important. Prayer, then, is a response to the awareness, however dim and poorly understood, that there is something, someone, some Being or Power greater than ourselves; and that something within us wants to relate to that Being – the Being who, of course, in the Christian tradition we call God. I’m not going to make detailed comparisons between the different religions, but as we look at what prayer is, and what it involves, it is worth bearing in mind that some aspects of prayer are similar across the various faiths, and this should be a source of mutual understanding and partnership.
In the Christian tradition, there are four main forms of prayer: Adoration, Confession of Sin, intercession, and listening to God.
(i) Adoration – this means remembering that God is the source and origin of all that is; God is Love, God is characterised by mercy and compassion, blessing and justice. Adoration, therefore, is a response to God’s goodness which involves us in thanking, praising, worshipping God. This may be something which is exuberant and emotional; it may also be an inner attitude which is calm and serene, in which we focus on God and God alone, perhaps through contemplation of an image of Christ or the Trinity, or something similar. Part of the prayer of adoration can be thanksgiving; showing gratitude to God for all those things in our lives which it is so easy to take for granted: health, family, security, shelter. Sometimes when things are difficult in our lives it can help us a lot to remember all the ways in which God blesses us. As today’s gospel reading reminds us, our prayers to God should help us not to lose heart, even when the struggles of life seem impossibly heavy. Sometimes as we cultivate an attitude of quiet adoration of God, we are able to put our self and our selfish concerns aside; and this is a good discipline as we try to cultivate the quality of leading a life which is not self-absorbed.
(ii) Confession of sin, and asking God for forgiveness: However far we think we have travelled along the Christian path, there will always be aspects of our lives in which we fail God and one another. Simply by being human, we will always fall short of how we might ideally be in our relationships with one another and with God. Part of our regular prayer, therefore, must involve humbly acknowledging this, and seeking God’s forgiveness and guidance as we try to make amends and avoid falling into the same traps in the future. Humility is one of the core values of the Christian faith; if we don’t keep this in mind we will tend to forget that we all need to embrace and take into our lives the tremendous gift of God made to the world by the self-giving sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, taking upon his shoulders the consequences of the world’s sin and making a new reconciliation possible between God the world.
(iii) Thirdly – intercession. This is, essentially, praying for other people. When we pray for someone, we can never tell what God’s purpose for them might be. Our prayers are, rather, an expression to God of our concern for them, offered not as an alternative to giving whatever practical help and support we can, but as an addition to this. Does intercessory prayer ‘work’? Prayer isn’t like one of those self-service machines for sweets, chocolate and drinks you get in hospitals, where you put in your money and your chosen item drops out with a ‘clunk’ in the tray at the bottom. When we pray for someone, it’s rather like focussing our love, care and concern towards them, in the faith that just as when we are showing care to a sick person by their bedside, our prayers, even if we are far away from the person concerned, somehow connect with them and with the love that God is showing them. Many times people have said to me how much they have been encouraged and strengthened by the prayers of others, even though they may not know exactly who is praying for them. And when we pray for groups of people in need, for communities, even countries, we may not ever know just what effect these prayers may have, but they should be part of our wider efforts to help build a society in which all may have the opportunity to be the person God wants them to be.
(iv) Adoration, confession, intercession: fourthly, listening to God. Prayer shouldn’t be just a one-way street in which we just talk to God. Listening to what God is saying to us is just as important – and, some would argue, more so. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between what God is saying to us and what our own inner voice is telling us, and we must be careful not to rush into doing something just ‘because God has told me to do it’, without proper reflection and full consideration. But if we learn how to cultivate an inner stillness, it makes it easier to distinguish between those of our impulses and instincts which are selfish, and the voice of God guiding us towards a better path. We may also find that when we ask God for guidance in resolving a particular problem or difficulty, it may take some time before we see where God is leading us, and the way suddenly becomes clearer. We shouldn’t expect our approaches to God to be like just turning on a tap and the water comes out on demand; quite often answers to prayer are not given immediately, and we have to wrestle with the problem ourselves as well. And of course we must also be ready, if we are listening properly to God, to receive answers which are not always comfortable.
Adoration, confession, intercession, listening to God: if we are take Jesus’ instructions to pray continually (something also echoed by St Paul), we need to cultivate the habit of making all of these forms of prayer part of our everyday life. Prayer isn’t just for Sundays. Prayer should, moreover, be rooted in Scripture, as well as being connected with our thinking and rational faculties; and with what the teaching of the Church in its ancient as well as more modern traditions can tell us. As we pray, we can use set prayers, prayers written by others, as well as prayers which come from ourselves. Our prayers are also a way in which the Holy Spirit works through us, helping us to pray, guiding us in prayer, and enabling us to become closer to God and one another through our prayers. So it’s up to each one of us to persevere in prayer – in particular not giving up when prayer seems difficult. The more we turn to God regularly in prayer, we should before long begin to see things in a new light, and to realise that our prayers are helping our relationship with God to deepen and mature, in ways, sometimes, that we did not expect. Being attentive to God in prayer also helps us to learn how to be more attentive to other people, and to appreciate more fully the journey through life that we share with all others. So let us not neglect to keep faithful in prayer, in all the ways I have outlined. Do not lose heart if the way sometimes seems hard; for it is also a great Christian truth that we have to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves; and we do this in the faith and sure knowledge that after the Cross comes Resurrection. Amen.
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