What is prayer all about? (Revd. Stephen Thornton)

When you seek me you will find me if you seek me with all your heart. – Jeremiah 29:13

Luke 11:1-4, Ephesians 6:10-20

We are gathered to consider prayer.  What’s it all about?

Well it’s very important for Christians.  It was very important for Jesus, then surely it’s important for us.

And yet, as I’ve listened to people through the years, and I’ve listened to myself, I often find it difficult.  Sometimes it doesn’t always seem a good use of time, and I struggle to discover what its real meaning is.

So let’s listen again, and see if we can discover the true meaning of prayer, for it’s so important for all of us and without it we lose our way.

And I suppose the first question to ask is “to whom do we pray?”

Now you might say, well, God.  But what do you mean by God?

So as we try to answer that question, it’s easier to try and work out what we don’t mean by God.  I guess some people imagine that God is an old man up there above the clouds waiting to listen to our instructions and waiting to zap people that God doesn’t really approve of.

But we know that’s not who God is. God is not an old man above the sky.  Indeed we know what there is beyond.  There’s billions and billions of miles, and galaxies and galaxies galore.  And God is not an old man up there.  People have been and looked and never found.

So if God is not an old man up there in the sky, who is God?  And that’s a crucial question for us all to seek to answer.

Of course, any attempt of ours to describe God will always fail because God is far bigger and broader and wider and deeper than we can ever understand. So even when we’ve made our best efforts, it will not be perfect because God is far bigger than we can ever understand.

But yet we need to have a try.

And so, trying to discover who God is, our best bet is to look to Jesus, and seek to discover from Jesus who God is.

And the heart of all that Jesus came to teach us is that God is love.

God is love.  That’s who God is.

But not your love and my love, not that kind of love.  It’s a love which is bigger and broader and wider and deeper than we can ever imagine.  But God is love and love is God.

God is love and love is God.  And this love is all around us.  Day by day.  For we do say that God is nearer to us than a brother or a sister.

So, who is God?  God is love and love is God.

Therefore, what are we doing when we are praying?  What we are doing when we are praying is drawing close, as close as we can get, to love.

That’s what we do when we pray.  We bring ourselves before God in prayer, before love in prayer, and measure ourselves by that love.

And that’s why it’s so important for us to pray, because without prayer, without making a constant attempt to draw near to this God that Jesus revealed to us, without a constant attempt to do that, we drift away and imagine that God thinks exactly as we think, and all we need to do is continue.

But God is far bigger and broader than our understanding.  So we need constantly to draw near to this God of love, and measure ourselves by that.

And constantly change and develop as we draw near to God.

Yes, it’s a very dynamic relationship.  We don’t just pray and go away the same as we began to pray.  When we draw near to this God of love, we realise how far short we fall from this God whom we adore.  And so we decide to make amends and do better.

So when we pray, we don’t expect just to hear our own understandings of things.  When we pray, we expect to hear something bigger, better, broader, deeper, and be changed by it.

I’m often puzzled when I share in worship with people leading prayer, because often it sounds like a list of things for God to do:

“God, there’s a mess here.  Go and sort it.

What are you doing about Syria?

What are you doing about this situation?

God, go and help these people.”

But God is already doing all that God can, with all the people who we mentioned, for God knows far more about it than you or me.

So prayer is not giving a list of instructions for God to get on with it.  Far more is it God coming to you and to me to change us and transform us and make us better lovers in the world.

So God is love and love is God, and prayer is bringing ourselves into that enormous love that we can never fully understand and asking God what do you want me to do about this situation or that situation.  And God never fails to answer our prayers.

So, therefore, our prayer life.  Hopefully we are all praying at this time for Syria and ISIS and that awful mess around Syria and Iraq and the Middle East.

What are we doing?  As I’ve said, we’re not giving God instructions what to do in Syria.  As we draw near to God’s love with Syria in our hearts, we are listening to God and God will tell us what God wants us to do about Syria.  So it’s not us telling God what to do; it’s listening for what God wants us to do.

And then the migrants – that’s the issue that’s on all our hearts and minds at this time.  What is our prayer there?  Well, when we come to God in prayer about the migrants, we listen for what God wants us to do about the migrants.

And how do we discover what God wants us to do about the migrants?  Well, we measure with Jesus, for Jesus is the nearest to God that we know.  So we listen to Jesus.  And what would Jesus say about those migrants?

Jesus would say about all those migrants, “You are mine!  I died for you and I love you more than you can ever know.”

That’s what God says to us about the migrants.  And that will drive us to do all that we can to share God’s love with them.

And it’s been amazing to see on the television and hear on the radio about how the churches in Calais have ministered to the migrants there.  When other people scorn and laugh and ridicule, the churches in Calais have done all that they can to ease their pain.

We hear of people taking them food and drink, and we hear of that woman who impressed me most, who looks after people’s feet in her daily life, and she went to look after the feet of the migrants in Calais.  They had walked hundreds of miles and their feet needed attention, and she gave it free every evening.

So when we bring our prayers for Syria and the migrants, the God says “I love these people more than you can ever know.  So do what you can for them.”

So when we bring situations before God, God’s answer will be very different from our own.  And when we respond to God and go out to care and lose our life for others, which is what we are asked to do as Christians, people will ridicule us and say, “You stupid people! Look after yourselves, don’t look after others!  Keep yourselves safe!”

And God will say, “Is that what I did for you?  Did I look after myself?”

No, God gave his Son, and Jesus was crucified to show us how much God loves you and me and all people whoever they are.

So prayer will not establish us in a way of thinking which is common in our society: that what we are here for is to look after ourselves and keep us safe.  God would ask us to lose our lives for others, for that is what God has done for us.


Well that’s the world.  But we pray for other things rather than world.

So, when we pray for this country, what shall our prayer be?

Well, those on the left of our society are in turmoil after yesterday, and there are certain questions in our society about poverty and about education and about medicine.  So what do we do?

We bring all of these issues before God in prayer, and God is love and love is God.  And then we measure all our responses by Jesus.  What would Jesus say about our lives?  What would Jesus say about the poor and the needy?   What would Jesus say about education?  What would Jesus say about medicine?

“Oh, keep it for those who are rich”?  Oh, so many selfish and self-centred ways, and God will have none of it.

So that’s why we need constantly to bring all of these issues before God, who is love, in prayer.  For God will change our attitude and make us different.  And maybe one of the reasons why our churches are not so well attended these days is because sometimes we aren’t any different.

So, when we bring our nation before God in prayer, God will ask us to measure our responses by Jesus.  And insofar as they echo the ways of Jesus, then they are good.  Insofar as they contradict Jesus, then they are poor.


And then our churches: we need to bring our churches before God in prayer.

We have a church meeting on Tuesday.  So tonight when we pray for our church, we will ask God to speak to us about our church.  And certainly God will say, “Be there!” so that all our members are there, because that’s what we mean by membership.

But God will ask us to ask questions about our church – how is it sharing God’s love with our community, our nation, and our world?

Being retired, in inverted commas, I get invited to chair all sorts of church meetings, which is a fascinating exercise.  I see agendas full of what colour to paint the toilets, and the spouts need attending.  All sorts of irrelevancies really.  But very rarely do we have on the agenda key issues about politics, or about how we care for the needy here.

So when we pray to God about our church and our church meeting on Tuesday, God will be saying, “How are you sharing with me in this task of loving a bleeding world?”


And then our prayer for others.  Certainly we should pray for other people.  And that’s very important, and no doubt there will be people on our prayer tree as the weeks go on.

What are we doing when we are praying for people?

We are praying that they will know the love of God which surrounds them day by day, never failing, ever sure.  And we will be asking God, “What do you want us to do about such and such a person, or such and such a person?” so that when you come through the door and read the prayers on our prayer tree, you will see various issues, and then you will ask God, “What do you want me to do about that?”

And as a minister in our churches, and other people will have noticed the same, when you pray for someone deeply and calmly, asking God’s love to surround them, and asking what God would want us to do, it’s amazing how often we have the experience of God saying, “Get up and go, and visit, and ask, ‘What do they need?’”.

How it happens, I’ve no idea.  But it happens so often when you bring your prayers for someone, God will give you a nudge and say, “Get off your seat and go!”

So this is prayer, bringing our lives and our hopes and our fears before the throne of grace, the God of love.  And God will always give us a clue as to what God wants us to do about these situations.


And then, of course, our prayer must be for ourselves.

When we bring to God ourselves, how does that work?  Well, when we do that, we understand the enormity of God’s love for each one of us.  For Christ died for us, as we shall celebrate later in the service.  That’s a measure of God’s love for us.

And then we look at ourselves and ask, “How have we loved our neighbours as ourselves?”  And we realise how far we’ve fallen, how far short we are.

And then when we look at the world in its pain, we will be sorry for all the things we left undone, that we could well have done.

And so, when we bring to God our prayers, we bring first our confessions.  “Sorry, God!  Sorry, God, for all the ways we have failed you!  Help us to do better!”

But then, God has a purpose for us, each one: a major task for us to do.  And when we bring ourselves before God in prayer, God will give us the hint as to what God wants us to do, be it in politics or medicine or education or industry or whatever, God has a work for us to do and a place for us to be.  And to know It is life in all its fullness.  Not to know what God wants of us is darkness indeed.

So when we pray for ourselves, we are asking God to tell us, “What do you want me to do, God?  What is the task you have for me?”

And God will give us all the resources we shall ever need to do the work to which he calls us.


So, prayer.  God being God of love and love is God.  Prayer is bring the whole world and all its peoples, our nations, our relatives and friends and neighbours, bringing them all before God in prayer, that they will know this enormous love and God will tell us what God wants us to do in the service of humanity and the service of each other.

So pray!  Pray well!  And when you’ve prayed, make sure you come out differently from the way you went in.

Thanks be to God!


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