The old hymn tells us 'Prayer is the Christian's vital breath, the Christian's native air'.
This leaves me asking myself the question, 'If that is true, why do so many of us find prayer so hard?' It may surprise you that even though I write books of prayer, there are still times when I find it something of a struggle talking to God.
My most exhilarating times in prayer have come when I've been seated at my computer and feeling overwhelmed by the Lord's presence. They are still precious moments when I feel that I am simply writing down the words I believe he is whispering in my ear.
To be honest, I don't have a secret solution to enabling our prayer life to be the utterly glorious experience I think the Lord desires it to be. What I am offering are simply a few pointers that have guided my own prayer life and rescued me from despair.
It was in June 1965 that I became a Christian and opened my life to Jesus. I knew instinctively that I ought to pray. But initially my time with God was more like shopping online with Sainsbury's! The change came in a moment of a literally heavenly revelation. It was a crystal clear night - there was Jupiter, Venus and the Plough – and billions of stars stretching out into the vast depths of space. And in that moment it dawned on me that I could talk to the One who held the cosmos in the palm of His hands.
I believe we cannot pray until we are overwhelmed by the knowledge of the one to whom we are speaking. Instead of a shopping list of requests my prayers became a conversation with the One who is sovereign over all things.
The next issue that raised its head in my prayer life was: where do I begin? I soon discovered that this was perfectly obvious. I mean, if I was in the presence of the Queen, I would naturally wait for her to begin the conversation. How much more should I allow the Lord to set the topic of our time together. It seems to me that it is utterly essential that I turn first to the Word of God and wait for Him to speak to me.
It is equally important that we don't then change the subject! What He says to me through the scriptures I try to use as the starting point of our conversation. Those times when I am finding it hard to pray, I am learning not to beat myself up or to worry about it. It seems that the Lord is more than happy for the two of us to simply sit in the silence of His presence and enjoy simply being together.
I believe that the leading of public prayer should not be seen as the same as private prayer. Leading the people of God in conversation with their Maker is both a serious and a challenging task. It is too easy to slip into time-worn phrases that lull the congregation into ever deeper slumbers. When I was first called to be a preacher of the Word, I struggled with leading the congregation in prayer. I initially relied almost entirely on extempore prayer. It wasn't long before I realised that I was simply saying the same things in my prayers over and over again. I am sure that the congregation realised that much sooner than I did! It was then that I began to write my prayers down and that meant I could try to bring a freshness to the prayer life of our worship.
When writing prayers, I set myself a series of guidelines. First, I have aimed for simplicity of language and for a direct style of writing. This is important if they are to be 'prayed' and not simply read. Secondly, I restricted the choice of congregational responses. A simple straw poll revealed that the main dread of congregations was not the length of the prayers but whether they could remember the latest complicated response that the preacher has dreamt up!
Thirdly, I have never used any book of prayers just as they were written and I do not expect those in my books will be used any differently. In some sections I have deliberately given a larger number of stanzas to the prayers than should really be used on any one occasion, to provide options. They are intended as a mine in which to dig, not a building plan to be slavishly followed.
I try to have the prayers set out in verse form. Line breaks have been considered carefully, and punctuation used judiciously, to guide the spoken word. To me one of the important guidelines is that I write as I speak. I believe that this also enables the prayers not simply to be read – but prayed. I never say to a congregation, 'Let us pray.' Instead I simply say, 'Let us talk to God.'
This a recent prayer that perhaps, more than any, calls me to talk to the One who longs to talk with me:
Thank you for Judas
I want to say thank you for Judas!
Well, not for him and what he did
but because Jesus had room for him at his table
It tells me
whoever I am,
whatever I have been,
whatever I have done
and whatever is my name –
there is room for me in your kingdom.
There is room for me -
not to stay as I came,
not to be unaffected by your love;
but to be overwhelmed by your presence
and to be made whole
as I am touched by your grace.
So, Lord, thank you that in Judas
I see the evidence that there is still
room for people like me at your table. Amen.
David Clowes is the author of a number of books on prayer, including his latest title '500 Prayers for the Christian Year', out now priced £11.99.