Summary: This is the 3rd talk in a series, and this week the focus is on learning to pray by paying attention to the Master Teacher himself, and by learning from him. Then, we actually need to learn by praying!
Jesus said, “Your Father [in heaven] knows what you need before you ask him” (6:8).
An elderly man was on his deathbed. He wasn’t afraid of dying or of death, but he was having trouble praying. When a pastor from the church visited him one day the old man told him about his problem. “It just doesn’t seem real to me,” he said; and so the pastor made a suggestion. “Why don’t you have a chair next to your bed and imagine that Jesus is sitting in it. Then talk to him the same way you’re talking to me.” Well, a few days later the pastor received a call from the man’s daughter, who’d been nursing her Father. She said, “I just wanted you to know that my father died this afternoon. I’d just finished getting his lunch and went to check on him and he was gone. He looked just the same as when I’d left him except for one odd little thing. His hand was resting on the chair beside the bed.” (From Simon Coupland’s book Spicing up your speaking.)
And as I think about that story I’m reminded of words from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps 23:4). To recognise his presence is key!
And so we come to my third talk in a series of talks on prayer. Two weeks ago I spoke about the presence of God. Instinctively people everywhere reach out to God in prayer because of His all-encompassing presence. Last week I spoke about the Lord’s Prayer – a template or a framework upon which Jesus teaches us to build our prayers; and today the subject is praying like Jesus; or perhaps the question should be, “How can I get better at praying like Jesus?”
Jesus is the Master Teacher. At the start of Luke Chapter 11 we read this: ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray”’ (11:1). The disciple wanted to learn from him. So must we!
He is the Master teacher; and yet having said that there is ultimately no substitute for actually getting on and praying! I’m currently re-reading a book called The Sacrament of the Present Moment by the French Jesuit Priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade; and he says quite rightly that to quench thirst it is necessary to drink. Reading books about it will only make it worse!
If we’re thirsty for God in prayer we need to get down and pray; but of course if we’re not thirsty for God we can still pray: “Lord, make me thirsty for you!”
Bishop Paul Butler was announced this week as the new Bishop of Durham, successor to Justin Welby. I know Paul Butler as he was my Bishop in Southampton and he led the Rwanda trip that I went on in 2007; and it was in Rwanda that I learned that Bishops sometimes have designer underwear. The washing line at the guest house had several pairs of purple boxer shorts with a white band at the top!
What’s that got to do with prayer? Not a lot! Although it illustrates the fact that as a team we were eating together, working together, dwelling together, serving together, doing our washing together and praying together; and in his book Temptation and Testing Bishop Paul writes, 'we need to be people who are continually learning in prayer, by praying - there is no other way to learn how to pray.'
It’s all very well me spending 10 hours or more to prepare this talk. If as a result not one of us actually gets down and prays, or grows in prayer, then the question could be asked: What was the point?
But we turn to the One who is the Master Teacher - Jesus Himself. Time with Jesus is never wasted time! In order to pray more like Jesus we need to hear his instructions both on how to pray and on how not to pray. Both are important and both will transform our relationship with him and our praying.
So Jesus says “when you pray.” Quite simply he expects his disciples to be people of prayer. Friends we may feel inadequate in this whole area of prayer; but today I want us to eagerly desire a depth, a freshness, and an excitement about being able to converse with the maker of Heaven and earth! Jesus himself would often withdraw to a quiet solitary place for prayer, usually on a mountainside (Luke 6:12 and 9:28) and the Garden of Gethsemane was probably a regular spot where Jesus would go to pray (Mt 26:36).
So, how about us? Where do we go to pray? Jesus often needed to slip away from the crowds. If he needed to get away then so do we; and many people find it helpful to locate - or create - a place for prayer. It is also true that we can and indeed must pray wherever we are. God longs to hear our prayers; but to locate or create a place for prayer is a helpful discipline. It shouldn’t be a straightjacket and there must be freedom and flexibility but we need discipline.