Apparently 11 April is World Breathing Day, an annual global event that invites everyone to remember, experience and celebrate the healing and unifying power of breath. We all breathe, and we all breathe the same air, yet rarely do we stop to acknowledge how fundamentally important our breath is, or how it connects us to our planet and to each other beyond our differences. It was only after major heart surgery in June 2014 that I really appreciated the value of breath, and realised just how bad my breathing was prior to the operation. Without boring you with the details I had a congenital heart defect that actually stole oxygen from my body – particularly during extreme effort when playing various sports (which is why I never played football or cricket for England, I now realise), or times of stress – which the operation corrected. I still recall with pleasure taking those first breaths after my operation and being able to breathe really deeply for the first time in living memory.
According to the hymnwriter James Montgomery (1771-1854), ‘Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air’. I wonder just how true this actually is in our personal experience. Is prayer as vitally important to us as the actual air that we breathe? A recent Bible Society survey suggests that the ‘average Christian’ spends just 60 seconds a day in prayer? As you would expect, the same survey revealed that members of the clergy fared much better. Seemingly the ‘average cleric’ spends 90 seconds a day in prayer. Whilst it is true, of course, that quality is more important than quantity, the measure of a man or woman can undoubtedly be gauged by the depth of their prayer life. As the godly Church of Scotland Minister, Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-43), once penetratingly observed, ‘What a man is on his knees before God, that he is … and nothing more!’
The Lectionary suggests that during this Post-Easter period in the life of the Church we give some time to reflecting on John 17. The whole of John 17 is taken up with a single prayer offered by Jesus. It is often referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer or Consecration Prayer. The four Gospels contain quite a number of the prayers which Jesus prayed in the hearing of other people, but nearly all of them are remarkably brief. They were to the point and incisive. For example, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11) he prayed aloud for the benefit of those who were witnessing the event. But it was a very short, simple prayer. Even the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:5-15), which Jesus gave us as a model for the way we should pray, is very brief. But it is crammed with important things, and says to God just about everything we need to say to him.
The length of the prayers we pray is not a measure of our spirituality. In fact, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for praying long public prayers in order to give people the impression that they were devout. It is a good rule to pray long prayers in private and brief prayers in public. The only time when a long prayer is of spiritual value is when we are praying in private, when we are spending time alone with God, trying to find out what his will is and to know what his thoughts are, or interceding for others. Jesus was able to pray short, powerful prayers in public because he prayed so much in private; he had a very strong relationship with his Father. Often he would go off alone, getting away from his disciples and the crowds of followers, and would spend time with God, seeking his face. His public prayer was incisive and effective because it was supported by a great deal of private prayer.
But why did Jesus spend so much time in prayer? After all he was God in his own right, co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Surely, he already knew what was going to happen? Surely he had already willed future events. What we fail to recognise is that because of his Incarnation Jesus laid aside many of his divine attributes and exercised his earthly ministry primarily in the power of the Third Person of the Trinity (rather than in his own inherent power). As the Apostle Paul tells us, ‘Jesus has always been as God is. But He did not hold to His rights as God. He put aside everything that belonged to Him and made Himself the same as a servant who is owned by someone. He became human by being born as a man. After He became a man, He gave up His important place and obeyed by dying on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8 New Life Version). Thus, prayer was of vital importance to Jesus – as vital as the air he breathed! Now, if Jesus needed to be a man of prayer … how much more so do we need to be men and women of prayer?
Can I encourage you (if necessary) to make a fresh start with your prayer life. Set aside a specific time each day for personal prayer (even if it is just a few minutes). If you are married to a fellow Christian (or have a close Christian friend) make time each day (or each week if each day is too difficult) to spend some time praying together (even if it is again only for a few minutes to begin with). Make the effort to attend the weekly Church Prayer Meeting (and if the time is not convenient for you either change your schedule or get together with a few others at a more suitable time each week to pray with them). Corporate prayer is just as vital for a local church as prayer is for the individual. There is a good argument to suggest that the Church Prayer Meeting is a better place for making corporate decisions than either the Deacons’ Meeting or the Church Business Meeting (unless both of these latter meetings are themselves ‘soaked’ in prayer). There was good reason why our Baptist forefathers held their Church Business Meetings either following on from the mid-week Church Prayer Meeting or from the Sunday Morning Worship Meeting.
‘I’m not one for sunbathing,’ Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 2 listeners recently, ‘too much lying around and I get fidgety and a bit guilty. But there is something about sunbathing that tells us more about what prayer is like than any amount of religious jargon.’ So what is Dr Williams saying here? That prayer is like a former Archbishop of Canterbury in Speedos lying around on a deckchair? No! As Dr Williams went on to explain, ‘You’re not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating … you simply have to be there where the light can get at you!’
Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
the Christian’s native air,
his watchword at the gates of death:
he enters heaven with prayer.
O Thou by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way,
the path of prayer thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray!
~ James Montgomery