A wing and a prayer…
There are the times when I can be heard to mutter something like, ‘We got through that on a wing and a prayer!’ I know what it means – we scrapped through something without sufficient preparation – and got away with it
Somehow some people seem to manage this more often than others – but then some of us need lots of preparation and others of us are bored by preparation and hope for the best.
The prayer component of the saying, and the experience, is perhaps more straightforward. There are times when we ask God to bale us out when we are in danger of going under.
I remember once spotting a wayside pulpit poster outside a church: ‘Sudden prayer makes God jump!’ In other words, don’t come cold to prayer in a dire emergency, but develop a relationship with God out of which prayer can flow naturally.
But I suppose God must be bombarded with sudden prayer. People who don’t normally count him as one of their closest relations call out desperately when things get tough. Don’t knock it. This reflex reaction, even from people who may at other times say they don’t believe in God, is evidence of their God-given humanity. In extreme situations we cut to the heart of things and prayer can be an expression of our need of someone beyond and above.
The psalms are full of cries for help; and remember that Jesus invited people to come to their heavenly Father with requests: ‘Ask…seek… knock.’
Yet I also realize that the implication of Jesus’ encouragement to come with our requests was in the context of a relationship of children to their parent. Such a relationship isn’t based on gifts received but on mutual love. We should focus on the giver more than the gift, a correction which would help much of our praying. The heart of prayer is relationship.
But often we don’t know what to ask for. John Bunyan once said: ‘The best prayers have often more groans than words’. Inspired by Paul’s reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit in our praying, Bunyan not only encourages us to pray what we feel, irrespective of how well we can express it, but actually suggests that words, however polished and accomplished, are going to be inadequate. He continues: ‘and those words that it hath, are but a lean and shallow representation of the heart, life, and spirit of that prayer.’
In other words, the heart of the prayer is in the heart not in the head or the mouth. God will often honour our cries for help because they come from the heart, albeit self-interested, self-absorbed, self-protecting hearts.
It all comes back to relationship – sincerity and honesty – rather than eloquence or expertise. That’s not to say that we can’t benefit from the guidance, wisdom and prayer experience of others.
I recently came across a very fine guide to prayer for both beginners and improvers – as some of the hobby instruction books put it.
It’s called Exploring Prayer by Sue Mayfield, published by Lion in their ‘Questions of Faith’ series. It’s a snip at £6.99 as well as being beautifully produced and illustrated.
The first half of the book asks, ‘What is prayer?’ and explores the different ways in which we can relate to God in prayer. Each short chapter presents a different theme: prayer as encounter, celebration, asking, listening, carrying and holding etc.
But while this book is a trustworthy guide to the principles of prayer it is also thoroughly practical. Each chapter contains two suggestions for how to pray in the light of what has been discussed. So the first chapter, on prayer as encounter, has two guides for prayer sessions based on the story of the burning bush.
The chapter on listening prayer has suggestions based on the story of young Samuel in the temple or the passage about waiting on God at the ends of Isaiah 40.
There is not only the link to a bible passage, but a step by step guide for either the beginner or people more experienced in prayer who want to explore different ways to enrich their prayer life.
The second half of the book explores a wide range of methods of prayer, from using the imagination, to using music, pictures, touch, taste and smell, as well as praying with others, or alone or with movement or creativity.
The photographs are beautiful and in themselves will often offer a focus for reflection. This book would make a lovely gift and can be helpful to a wide range of people.
But I offer a health warning. Have you noticed when certain slimming foods are advertised they are usually accompanied by a statement such as, ‘Can help you lose weight when part of a calorie controlled diet’? Books on sport only help you improve when you exercise – and books of prayer only help your prayer life when you pray! But this little book is the best I’ve come across.
Originally published in The Baptist Times