I called round to Tim's house one weekday evening sometime in the 1990s. Soon he served up a meal, as he often did. While sitting on one of his armchairs, I began to tuck in.
"Daddy!" cried his young daughter, "Uncle Frank did not say grace!"
I blushed slightly, expecting my mate to walk into the room scowling, for I perceived as showing a bad example to his children. Instead he had a big grin and said words to the effect, "Saying grace before meals is all religion, isn't it?"
I was relieved. The guy understood.
When I first became a Christian in 1973, I used to say grace before meals at home, before I flew the nest. It was done as an attempt to win my agnostic parents into God's Kingdom. Then on one occasion we all sat at the dinner table and after giving thanks (the only family member to do so) I immediately protested to my mother,
"Mum, you know that I don't like garlic!"
And began to pick them out.
"YOU HYPOCRITE!" My father shouted across the table. "It just goes to show what a hollow sham all this thanksgiving really is."
We both looked into each other's eyes. I knew full well he was right. Religion. After that I never said grace before meals again, except as a guest at a Christian's home.
But grace before meals is only a small portion in what is sanctimoniously called prayer. What is prayer? Truly, it means "Having a chat with God" which is a result of a good relationship.
But as a child, prayer was something quite different. While in English the word carries a religious ring to it, in the Italian language the meaning was more blunt. The Italian for Prayer is Pregare which literally means "to beg." Even in classic English, much now archaic, the original meaning of the word "pray" was used in the context, "I beg you" For an example, a request like this was most likely used,
I pray you allow me more time to repay the loan.
From my childhood days, prayer was about religion. As with grace before meals, we were taught to pray at morning assembly, something which I had to do from age five to 15, when I left school and was able to put all that pretence behind.
At junior school we were told to hold our hands together (as shown in the above illustration) and shut our eyes. Of course, I believed that if I posed otherwise, then it's not prayer. This stayed with me well into adulthood and even after my conversion. During school assembly we recited the Lord's Prayer every morning, starting with Our Father, which art in Heaven... with some feeling that God was not my Father, and in those days he wasn't. We also subconsciously associated our image of God with the strict, cane wielding Deputy Headmaster, who would cane a pupil for just talking while filing through the corridor to our classrooms. Little wonder there were a growing number of atheists particularly among the boys. I was more than glad to ditch this religious stuff the moment I walked out of the school premises for the last time in 1968.
To recap, Prayer was no more than Recital. At the Catholic Church with which I grew up, prayer was more to do with reciting the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. These were set prayers, and I had to be mindful not to get the words wrong. More devoted Catholics had the Rosary, a string of beads with which a set prayer was recited at the handling of each bead.
Recital prayer is the binding force of every religion. Hindus, Muslims, Judaism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, even Church of England services. It is relatively easy to recite a prayer at a set time and place. It is easy for a priest to instruct a penitent to recite two "Our Fathers" and eight "Hail Marys" with the aid of a Rosary each day at 10.00am and 3.00pm.
But supposing all recital prayer is removed from our Christian lives altogether? What then? Church prayer meetings?
Going to a prayer meeting is something totally different from a lifetime of recital, especially in non-formal churches such as Baptist or Pentecostal. In these there are no fixed prayers. One imagines sitting for a hour or more, wondering what on earth is he going to pray about. It does not excite enthusiasm.
Dave Rogers, an elder at Ascot Baptist Church and a personal friend of mine, could not have been more spot on. Standing at the front, he unreservedly announced:
Prayer is hard work!
And so it is. The big issue here is what to pray about. And how to keep on praying for a full hour long after you have run out of ideas.
Furthermore, I tend to feel put down when I read or hear of the likes of Martin Luther or John Wesley so patronisingly declare that one cannot be spiritual, nor care much for God's affairs unless he prays for up to four hours every morning! Whew! Fine for a full-time minister living in a much slower, agricultural world than the fast paced service/industrial world we live in today which takes up the greater part of our working day.
Various aids were put out to help us in our prayers. One of them originated from Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago. He formulated ACTS, taken from the name of the New Testament book. It is an acronym, and when the code is unscrambled, we get this:
Although this formula, no doubt have been a help for many in their prayer lives, it is a formula. Therefore there is a tendency to turn this aid into another religious format by believing that this is the way to go about it. And this in particular when it was shown to have worked with certain or even with many individuals.
So what is prayer to me?
Personally, I find spontaneous prayer more functional than set prayer meetings. Spontaneous prayer is turning into prayer a thought that have dropped into my mind. Setting out to work in the morning, often whether its sunny or dismal, it's good to thank God for this new day, thanking him for keeping me alive to see this day in human history. Counting all that I have and thanking God for them. This kind of thanksgiving exceeds grace before meals by a long shot. Along with thanking God for food and drink, I can thank him for good health, a roof over our heads, our clothing, my spouse, my job - without we would not be able to eat - our tax credits, our holidays, and everything we have - computer, TV, cooker, microwave oven, washing machine, tumble dryer and all other utilities as well as niceties which grace our home with little luxuries.
Along with thanksgiving there at times a need to confess my sins. It is this that at times puts me off prayer. Confessing is something I feel I need to "clear the air" before settling down to prayer. Then again there are supplications, asking God for things. I don't feel it's wrong to complain to God that we are hard up and we could do with some financial uplift. Often enough, this problem resolves itself, often with an offer of extra work, or a backpayment from a client just returned from holiday or other absence.
Then there is intercession, to me the most difficult form of prayer. Difficult due to the intensity of love for this other person or group of people. It is much easier to pray for someone I love than it is for someone I don't love.
All these can be spontaneous prayer. I'm lucky enough as a self-employed worker to stop what I'm doing and start praying if such a thought drops into my mind. For those at work for an employer, this could be much harder to accomplish. Although I don't have this kind of experience, maybe jotting down on a piece of paper the passing thought before it's forgotten does not sound a bad idea.
Then my friend Dave Rogers, along with the other church elders, spend time in prayer and Bible study each morning before doing anything else. This requires being shut alone in a quiet room, undisturbed. This is praiseworthy and demonstrates a high level of self-discipline. With me, because I tend to be less strong on discipline, so far I have accomplished the Bible study bit, reading a chapter each morning. Whether this is right or not, I rely more on spontaneous prayer than fixed times.
And I should say here that the will and ability to pray comes from God in the first place. True prayer is a gift of God, not human strength, and therefore not recital. But how one conducts his walk with God is a matter between each person and God. No one in the church should judge or criticize an other's walk with God.
Prayer is hard work. Especially in fixed times. Talking to God in one sense is like talking to a parent or a friend. But when the other person replies straight away, when one finishes prayer, all there is is silence. It takes faith to believe that God has heard (paid attention) to prayer.
But for believers in Jesus Christ, having a chat with God is as essential as breathing.