There haven't been many books on prayer that've really affected me - School for Prayer (Anthony Bloom - helplessness is your starting point) and the chapter on prayer in Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster - if you care for something/someone, that's a sure sign you should take up the prayer baton), but apart from that, I find books telling you how to pray don't help much. Because prayer is difficult, and eventually you just have to find ways of doing it that fit you and are sustainable, and enjoyable. I don't really want dry theology, I want to know how to do it. And keep doing it. And I want to know how those rare people whom you know to be really prayerful people, get to be like that.
The first thing Paul Miller says is become like a child. He asks the question: can you pray for parking spaces? I gave this one up ages ago - of course not - it's selfish. Or is it? He simply points out that small children don't double think. They don't weigh up 'shall I ask for this, or not?' they just ask. They chatter away to their carer all day long, because they're open and innocent.
Jesus told us to ask for things, often without caveat, so why don't we? Why do the really important things that get us down, remain untouched by deliberate, change-announcing prayer? Miller suggests three areas where we don't ask. We don't ask for change in others (too difficult); we don't ask for change in ourselves (too scary) and we don't ask for real change in our culture (too overwhelming). Instead we limit our requests to narrow religious themes and forget that God is concerned with the whole arena of life.
He writes, 'most of us isolate prayer from the rest of what God is doing in our lives, but God doesn't work that way. Prayer doesn't exist in some rarified spiritual world; it is part of the warp and woof of our lives. Praying itself becomes a story' (p. 168).
He constantly talks about where real prayer meets your real life. I often hear people say 'I don't pray for myself', but what if that is precisely what God is longing for? True and real admissions of weakness, boredom, longing and anger would be a breath of fresh air in corporate prayer life. I'd much rather someone say 'I'm absolutely fed up with God', than 'I think we should pray for my neighbour's friend's daughter's mother in law, who lives in Glasgow'. Maybe that good lady does indeed need prayer, but what about you? If the Psalmist hadn't prayed for himself, we wouldn't have any psalms, basically.
But we are people of experience too. And we know that things don't always happen the way we want. Things go wrong - often the very things we hope and pray won't happen. We get ill, our jobs and relationships fail; we get disappointed; our dreams remain unfulfilled.
So what's going on when we ask and 'nothing happens'?
Miller's book is really good on this. Firstly he talks about the desert, that metaphorical place where you're forced to go when things are really tough - it can be scary, lonely and painful. But it's here you learn what your real desires are. So not hearing the answers you want straight away ends up serving an important purpose.
A good Lenten theme, the desert. Miller goes as far as to say 'God customises deserts for each of us' (p. 184), a statement I found initially hard to digest. Is God some sadist constantly wanting to test me out? It all comes down to your view of God, I suppose. If you trust God more than anything else in the world, you'll come through the desert. Jesus did. As Miller puts it, 'the desert is God's best hope for the creation of an authentic self...desert life sanctifies you. You have no idea you are changing...After a while you notice your real thirsts. The best gift of the desert is God's presence' (p. 184-5).
Secondly (and the best bit of the book for me) he talks about the bigger stories we're living in. When your prayer isn't answered you need to look at the bigger picture, not give up (maybe God isn't interested; or he doesn't care; or my problem isn't prayer-worthy). What is the larger story weaving through your life, that this particular prayer not being answered is part of? He writes, 'often when you think everything has gone wrong, it's just that you're in the middle of a story. If you watch the stories God is weaving in your life, you, like Joseph, will begin to see the patterns. You'll become a poet sensitive to your father's voice' (p. 203).
It does rather throw into relief all those prayers you wing upwards a bit desperately, only to see them come crashing down again seemingly unanswered. We're all in a hurry to see stuff sorted. We want God to dance to our tune. But something else, something long term, something better is happening.
Having been off with a health issue all week, I've had plenty of time to ponder, to be with a body that's being weird. What is God doing longterm with me, with you? Miller describes what prayer was like as he and his wife battled longterm to pray for their severely autistic daughter: 'it was work, prayer, mistakes, frustration, more work, more prayer, breakthrough, work, prayer and so on' (p. 199). It hints at the relationship between human effort and God's sovereign action, another prayer-related conundrum that has kept theologians busy for centuries.
All in the book manages to combine a childlike approach with wisdom and authenticity, not an easy balance. I'm all for childlikeness, but I also know that in life, 'stuff happens' (polite version). Cynicism is deeply unattractive, particularly in clergy, but naivety does not cut it either. Things are often not simple and God is not a benign slot machine. There is a real mystery to prayer, but that doesn't mean we understand zero: 'something mysterious happens in the hidden contours of life when we pray. If we try to figure out the mystery, it will elude us. The mystery is real' (p. 126).
When you meet a rare soul who combines real child like closeness to God and deep wisdom, it is compelling. How do they do that? I can't think of many people, but there are one or two. One of them, via social media, inspired me to read this book, though they may never know it. Thank you.