Common Life and Personal Prayer
Common Life and Personal Prayer
What would you think if you were watching a baseball game on TV, and in the interviews after the game, the manager said, “my strategy worked out well, didn’t it?” or a player said, ‘I pushed myself hard, and it paid off when I hit that home run, those other guys that I batted in would do well to watch how I do it.” You’d think, ‘where’s the teamwork? Where’s the sportsmanship?’ At the very least, you’d think some-thing was strange, because in real life, no sports team that ever talked only about ‘I’ and ‘me’ would ever win a game. What about a choir where after a performance, everyone said, “Well, I was singing at the right tempo and pitch, everyone else was slow and flat.” You probably wouldn’t waste your time going to the next concert, would you? In families, a man who is focused only on career and goals and personal gratification will be a disaster as a father and a husband. In every circumstance, a healthier, happier, more productive stance is to talk about ‘us’ and ‘we’, rather than ‘I’ and ‘me.’
When we think to ourselves about God, we tend to think about ‘I’ most of the time. We talk about ‘my faith’ or ‘my beliefs’, or we say, ‘I can’t get anywhere when I pray.’ No one would dare to say, ‘we don’t get anywhere when we pray.’ It sounds presumptuous to us. But look at how Jesus taught us to pray: Jesus didn’t teach us to say “My Father…give me today my daily bread…and forgive me my trespasses.” He teaches us to say ‘our’ and ‘us’ not ‘my’ and ‘me’ when we pray. As a result, when we pray in terms of ‘I’ and ‘me’, we can feel very alone and unsatisfied; the words seem inadequate, or unreal. This loneliness and isolation is part of what Jesus was teaching against when He taught us how to pray, and it doesn’t just happen when we talk to God when we’re alone. Often, we can be in a church full of people, and still we imagine ourselves all alone, talking to an almighty, all-powerful God who is also alone.
How did we get from Jesus teaching us to pray together into this bad habit of thinking about our-selves as isolated and separate? There’s no short answer, except to say that it goes back a long way, into our history, into what our parents and grandparents passed on to us. We humans have a tendency to isolate and alienate ourselves, which is just as strong now as it was two-thousand years ago. But the words of Jesus are just as clear and alive now as they were when He first spoke them—we are to pray ‘our Father’ before we pray ‘my Father.’ There is a sense in which there is no such thing as ‘private’ prayer for us Christians. In baptism, we were made members of One Family, One Body. So part of the challenge given to us in our baptism is to learn to say ‘we’ as well as ‘I.’ When I pray, as a Christian, I have to pray the way a baseball team plays baseball, or the way a singer sings in a choir, or the way a healthy, functional family behaves—never thinking just of ‘me’ alone. Even in solitude, even in moments of great desolation, we Christians pray as members of a worldwide community, a timeless and eternal community, The Church.
Does that mean that you shouldn’t pray on your own? Far from it! Prayer on our own, is important and necessary. In a sports team, sometimes a play will be worked out between only two team-mates; in a choir, there are solos and duets; in a family, there are special moments between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. All of them are important and necessary, but during those special moments we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We are part of a team, a family, and we need to know that we are never alone. That knowledge transforms us, it changes us, it gives us a sense of belonging.
What does that mean for us, here and now, as we try to pray? Part of prayer is learning that we are not alone. When we are seeking God, or looking for help, or for guidance, or for patience, or for wisdom, people from all over the world, millions of them, are praying for the same thing, encountering similar obstacles and hardships, and reaching out to God in the same way. It has been figured that if you simply say the ‘Our Father’, at any given moment, more than a million people will be saying it at the same time as you. Some will be saying it in church, some as part of a personal prayer of devotion, some be-cause it’s the only prayer they know by heart. Some will be praying it in English, some in Chinese, some in Maori, some in Shona, some in Italian—but all will be uttering the same prayer at the same time. If you think of them when you say the Lord’s Prayer, the shocking reality is that some of them (there are a million of them, after all) will be thinking of you. There is an open door in prayer that allows us to join together with countless others, the ‘silent multitude of souls at prayer’ as a friend of mine calls it. We are not alone—no matter what. In solitude, in silence, in sleep, in suffering, in birth, in death, in despair, in evil, and in good, there is always the peace of prayer available to us. All we need to do is reach out to God, and we have entered the ‘Church of Souls.’ All of creation is constantly reaching out to God—it is the great song that we are all invited to sing.
What would you do at a party if someone said, “Stand up and sing us a song!” If you’re anything like me, you’d shy away, and try to go unnoticed until the request had been forgotten. What if everyone at the party were singing the same song? That changes things, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sing when you’re part of a company of voices—in a good crowd you might belt out a song so loud it makes you hoarse, but sing-ing alone would make you self-conscious and quiet. Together, it comes naturally—alone, it takes practice and skill. Prayer is the same way—it comes most naturally when we have a sense of doing it together.
So, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us Christians to talk about ‘my’ prayers; we can’t just say ‘I praise you’ or ‘I ask’ for whatever. But that doesn’t mean that we stop being ourselves, it doesn’t mean that we get swallowed up in some anonymous crowd. In fact, it means the exact opposite. It means we are set free to be ourselves. We are no longer responsible for doing everything—we are part of a community, and we do things together. And that means the world. It means that when we are feeling overwhelmed, it’s not all on us to fix the situation, we have a community that will help to keep us afloat; it means that when we have our doubts, we don’t need to wait for faith or believing to hit us on the head before we join in with the rest of the church, we have a community that will help to carry us through, and our faith will be nourished through them; it also means that we’re not responsible for fixing what’s wrong with the world all by ourselves, we are part of a family, and when we genuinely love each other and listen to each other and help each other, we open the door for God’s grace to heal, nourish, strengthen, and build.