Prayer, the discipline at the heart of discipleship
“Discipline not desire determines your destiny,” declares pastor Charles Stanley. Someone clearly with an appreciation for alliteration. Something to think about this Friday morning at 8.30 am. It’s blog time and however I may be feeling, whatever is happening around me, I start to type. I’ve only got about 45 minutes and so there is no hanging about. So get going – the inspiration comes later. So how does inspiration work? I guess one of the key goals of following Jesus is to disregard our feelings, to lay aside our emotions as motivation. We do it, whatever we may be feeling. Here we are challenging one of the main assumptions of our culture. How often do we hear the phrase “I don’t feel like . . . .” This is particularly so in the practice of prayer. The constant danger is that we are prey to our own feelings. Here the temptation is that we treasure those moments when we feel God’s presence, when we experience his good pleasure. We love mountain top experiences. The problem, however, is that we live most of our lives in the valley, when we frequently find it difficult to pray. Our words - so to speak - bounce off the ceiling – and so we don’t bother. Here the danger is that we make ourselves subject not to God’s word but to our emotional state. Instead, we need to develop the practice of praying regardless of our hormones a rule of life - day-in, day-out. Sadly we are so easily disheartened by our performance. “Call that prayer?” mocks the devil. “Well, it’s in Jesus’ name –that’s all that counts.” For Jesus, with surprising boldness, promises: "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:14). In fact, the one thing which Jesus does teach about prayer is to keep at it, undaunted and undeterred. Hence the parables of the friend at midnight and (for this Sunday’s sermon at St Mark’s) the unjust judge. Just do it, irrespective of your feelings. It’s the discipline at the heart of discipleship. Over the years I have found that those times of prayer where I have simply had to grind out my intercession, resisting every temptation to go and make a coffee, are those which in retrospect have been the most powerful. I can recall two. The second was when I determined to intercede throughout Lent for a particular person by praying in tongues every evening for five minutes with them in mind. I simply set my watch for 300 seconds. Sounds easy? It was hugely difficult. As the apostle Paul, who wanted to downplay the status of this particular form of prayer for the Corinthian church, writes “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” (1 Corinthians 14:14) And my mind certainly was unfruitful. It was simply a case of pressing on until the beep – and then I would promptly stop. Sounds daft, I know – but then much of the Kingdom of God is the very opposite to what you would expect. However, the outcome was spectacular. (I can’t say any more). And so I look back and say “Keep at it, Ross. It’s actually doing something.” However, my foundational experience was 40 years ago when I was a curate in Heswall. Tom was a faithful church member; an older man, he was truly inspirational in his Christian life. I’m afraid to say that I was watching TOTP with my young daughters when the phone rang. It was Tom’s wife. She phoned to say that they had just come back from hospital where Tom had been diagnosed with mouth cancer. Could I go round right away? Right away? The problem was that I was feeling profoundly unspiritual – that’s what Top of the Pops does to you. So when Tom asked me to pray, I felt totally unprepared; my feelings were dead and my faith level zilch. I could hardly say “I would love to pray for your healing but I simply don’t feel like it!. After all, it was my job. So I made the decision there and then to pray not with my own faith but with the faith that Jesus promises. In other words, I subcontracted my faith to him. So I prayed “Lord, I’m praying this with your faith”, asked for Tom’s healing – and went home to help put the children to bed, never an easy task. Only much later did I discover the full story. It seems that as soon as I prayed, the continuous discharge promptly stopped. And such was the success of his subsequent surgery that his surgeon would regularly exhibit Tom to his colleagues. (Tom died some 12 years later at the age of 90 but from something else.) So in ministry, I just pray. I don’t wait for any feelings; certainly I don’t try and work up any emotions – they are, as I have discovered, entirely irrelevant. It’s simply a case of standing on the promises of God. he remarkable Victorian evangelist, George Müller, lived a life of expectant prayer. He concluded: “It is a common temptation of Satan to make us give up the reading of the Word and prayer when our enjoyment is gone; as if it were of no use to read the Scriptures when we do not enjoy them, and as if it were no use to pray when we have no spirit of prayer.” He was right.