This is a reconstruction of the talk I gave, last night, at the 3 in 1 group at St Michael's Church, Anderson's Bay, Dunedin.
We have all had unhelpful experiences of prayer . I remember the clergy colleague who would sometimes correct the theology of my sermons 5 minutes later, when he led the intercessions; or the prayer groups when you dreaded THAT person speaking, because you knew they would speak for a quarter of an hour and list everything they knew to be wrong with the world. I've heard prayer used to share gossip, or to preach sermons, or to make announcements. I've seen prayer used to shame, or to control or to boast. In all these instances I have to ask "who, exactly is being addressed here?" and find myself asking again what, exactly, is prayer anyway?
I know what it's not. Prayer is not telling God what God should do with the universe. Neither is it barking into a silence in which nothing is ever heard. Prayer is not exercising some position of privilege in order to get the Lord of all things to temporarily suspend the laws of physics on our behalf. Neither is it foolishly seeking help where no help is to be found. Prayer is not earning brownie points with God or trying to get God to like us a bit more (as if such a thing was even remotely possible). Neither is it a course in self improvement. Prayer is acknowledged as important, at least it is in some of the circles in which I move, but hardly anybody does it, and all who try find it not as easy at you might think. That difficulty is because prayer is about relationship; a relationship with God, which, even as a concept, is a tricky phenomenon. In the great prologue to John's Gospel, the writer says:
No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)
So how is it possible to have a relationship with someone it is impossible to see? It must obviously be a very odd type of relationship, but it is one that, in my experience anyway, is a real one even if it has its own particular joys and difficulties. I want to talk about those particularities over the next few weeks, but tonight I want to think about some of the dynamics of relationships in general, because those dynamics apply in a relationship with God as much as they do in the relationships we are more familiar with - those with our partners or workmates or children or neighbours or friends. .
I think all relationships, including the relationship fostered by and expressed in prayer have 3 dimensions.1. Knowledge. Knowledge and connection are so closely tied that I sometimes wonder if they are synonyms. When we know something it becomes part of our consciousness - part of our inner mental landscape. Or in other words, it becomes part of who we are - part of us. So, when we know another person they similarly, become part of our inner life, regardless of whether that knowing brings us joy or not. The process of bonding with another person is largely a process of getting to know them, and the more we know them, the closer we are bonded. This is why we ask so many questions in the early stages of a relationship. This is why connection is difficult between people who are lying to each other. When we lie, the other's inner world contains not us, but a fiction we have created: something unreal, and the connection is correspondingly unreal.
"We think more than we can say, We feel more than we can think, We live more than we can feel and there is so much else besides – " and then he goes on to say, with specific reference to a relationship with God, "Perceiving Gods presence is a far cry from knowing what God is".