Saturday, January 28, 2006

Pray Without Ceasing

The other day I was reading an account by someone who went with an inter-faith party from Leicester to take part in the big demonstration in London which preceded the declaration of war against Iraq in 2003. The Christians were deeply moved when they saw the Muslims in the party dropping out of the march from time to time in order to pray. They prayed in a mosque on the route, but also in Hyde Park at the end of the speeches, kneeling on discarded placards to protect their clothes from the mud, seemingly oblivious to the cold and to the crowds swirling around them. It dawned on the Christians that they had made no plans to pray at all, despite the importance of the issues at stake, but fortunately they encountered a group of people from Leeds who invited them to share in a liturgy for peace while their Muslim colleagues at prayer.
It was a reminder that – despite all we have in common with Muslims and the followers of other faiths – Christians are often seen as a bunch of lightweights when it comes to prayer and meditation. In fact, that's sometimes the reason why western Buddhists have forsaken Christianity. Having been to services where Christians spent much of the time talking rather than listening, they hanker for a spiritual tradition which gives them more space for contemplation and silence.
Of course, there have been many people in the Christian tradition who have taken prayer extremely seriously. Members of religious orders, who devote much of their lives to the rhythm of prayer, come immediately to mind. Orthodox Christians have a very long tradition of using meditation. And in the last fifty years there has been a rediscovery in the whole of Western Christianity of the importance of prayer in worship.
At one time Methodist ministers liked to boast that they could preach for 25, 30, or even 45 minutes. Anglican and Roman Catholic priests were viewed with some disdain because of their habit of sometimes giving little homilies from the altar steps rather than proper, full-blown sermons from the pulpit. Not any more. At a recent retreat day for Methodist superintendents in the District, several confessed to spending more time preparing prayers for use in worship than sermons.
But what about prayer during the week? We live in hectic times, and I guess many of us find it difficult to devote a proper amount of time to prayer and contemplation. For many Christians, too, prayer is not as important – if we are honest – as serving our neighbours.
'Pray Without Ceasing' could be seen as a challenge to do extreme praying – a bit like the devotees of extreme ironing who try to set up ironing boards, and iron a shirt, while hanging off a cliff face or riding in a white water raft. Extreme praying involves non-stop prayer for long periods of time or praying at unusual times of the day and night. I'm not saying that this isn't a useful spiritual discipline. Some of the young people in our circuit have been doing extreme praying this weekend and there are opportunities for everyone in the circuit to get involved in extreme praying at our Beeston Hill church during the coming week. But I think it's important to remember that it is the discipline of prayer that is the essence of 'Pray Without Ceasing', not extreme prayer for its won sake.
If we want to re-engage with the discipline of prayer, there are plenty of resources for us to use. We have the material in the excellent Methodist prayer manual – this year called 'Pray Without Ceasing'. And there are the prayers in the Methodist Worship Book, too, though some of them are a bit wordy in my opinion. is blog features new prayers for each week. You can use any of these resources as a starting point for your own personal prayer and reflection.
But, like me, you may find traditional prayer difficult at times. Don't despair! There are many resources and techniques that give us a new angle on praying and a new way into it - prayer Labyrinths, for instance, prayer graffiti walls – or message boards – and craftwork can all stimulate prayer and reflection.
Pictures and images are another good way into prayer and contemplation. And never be afraid of lighted candles or other symbols. They are not, as one old Methodist once asserted, wicked examples of Popery creeping into our church life. They are useful tools for focusing our minds on what really matters.
So why does prayer matter? Because in the end it opens us up to what St Paul calls 'the extraordinary power of God'. When we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, prayer helps to ensure that we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or destroyed.[1]
Back to the encounter with the Muslim tradition of prayer with which I began. When the twenty-four-seven prayer room was created at our Building Blocks Centre last Autumn it was indeed a wonder to behold – something like a cross between Father Christmas's grotto and a student den. But people who spent time there testified to how peaceful and spiritual it felt. And Muslim colleagues at Building Blocks were dead impressed. For the first time, in many cases, they saw some Christians taking prayer seriously. If one bi-product of 'Pray Without Ceasing' is that we all take prayer more seriously it will have been a good thing.
[1] 2 Corinthians 4.7—9

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