This last week we embarked on a ‘week of prayer’ as a church. It was nothing extravagant – one prayer meeting in the morning, one prayer meeting in the evening, Monday to Friday, 45mins to an hour in length.
And when I say it was nothing extravagant, it’s because it really wasn’t! We could have been more creative and engaging. We could have gotten out and about to pray in certain geographical areas and for certain places; we could have had more visual aids to help direct our thoughts; we could have done many other helpful things that would help us to pray, but for whatever reason, we didn’t. It was simply a group of us sat together in a cold (though surprisingly not too cold) church building, praying. Twice a day, for five days. It was so simplistic, and yet right now I can’t think of a better way to spend five days’ worth of spare time.
Reflecting on the week, here are three things that I’ve learned and/or been reminded of:
1. God teaches us as we pray
Sometimes we might think that prayer is a completely different subject to teaching for the Christian. We are taught from the Bible, and we respond in prayer. We are taught as we read, and we then discipline ourselves to pray. But while it’s true that we are indeed taught from the Bible we are taught also as we pray.
This makes sense doesn’t it? Particularly as we pray together as God’s people. A big part of our praying is that we verbally affirm truths about God. This is how Jesus prays in John 17. So in verses 1-5, for example, his request – “Father, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (v.1,5) – is made with a string of affirmations about the Father – “You have granted [the Son] authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him”; “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When Jesus prayed he verbally affirmed truths about God.
When we pray out loud together as God’s people, we find that people voice truths about God that we have not pondered before, or that we have not pondered for a while. God teaches us through his people as we pray together.
2. God convicts us as we pray
Praying is an emotional task. Take Psalm 90 for example, which is a prayer Moses prayed. It’s so clearly packed with emotion as he retraces how “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Ps. 90:1) Retracing our steps is always an emotional task. You don’t have to talk about ‘good old days’ with an old friend for very long before you find yourself experiencing the emotions of yesteryear, the highs and the lows. Praying is an emotional task. It was emotional for the Lord Jesus too, more emotional than we will know it to be. Just consider Gethsemane; consider the intensity of Matthew 26:36-46, of Mark 14:32-42 and of Luke 22:39-46 as Jesus prays before being betrayed and crucified.
And praying is an emotional task even in more ordinary prayers. Why? Because the very act of praying is a humbling act. It says, “God I am completely dependent upon you.” And in the midst of our humility and our vulnerability, to pray is to say, “God, you are completely dependable, completely sufficient.” As we are brought to that point, God convicts us. He convicts us not only in the negative sense of the word. He doesn’t just convict us of sin (though he absolutely does) as we pray. He convicts/convinces/persuades us of ways forward, of steps to take, of people to minister to and so much more. In the vulnerability of of corporate prayer, God deals with us.
3. God unites us as we pray
There’s something special about God’s people praying audibly together. There’s something unique that is achieved as we pour out our hearts and minds to God among brothers and sisters. In these times we are struck that the person sat a few seats around from us who annoyed us earlier with an off-hand comment about something or someone, is in fact a child of the King, and so our annoyance disappears. In these times we can sit opposite somebody who we disagree with on x, y or z on how church should function and love them as we hear them speaking to our God – the God we share; the God we worship together. When we pray together small things are seen for what they are – small things.
Of course, this isn’t a given. In 1 Timothy 2:8 we see that Christian men in first century Ephesus were full of anger as they prayed. Disputes even broke out during prayer times! (Nobody ever said a prayer meeting was boring in first century Ephesus…) Corporate prayer is a great opportunity for us to come and lay down our preferences and put our little annoyances aside – but we need take that opportunity. We can harbour anger in our hearts against one another even as we pray together. Disputes still break out in prayer meetings today – probably not so often as clear cut disputes, but we can easily turn our prayers into duals and try to counter-act something that somebody else has prayed! Corporate prayer is an amnesty invitation to gather together around our great God and Saviour with worshipful hearts, not divisive hearts. Corporate prayer entices unity. I’m pretty sure that we could coin the phrase “Show me a united church, and I’ll show you a praying church.”
Let’s not neglect meeting together… to pray. It has value. It has bigger value than we know. And in a (Christian) culture that is constantly in our face urging us to do, do, do, we need to remember to gather together and pray, pray, pray.