Saturday, 7 January 2017

Jesus, children and prayer

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; don’t hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these...” Matthew 19:14-15

I was eighteen, and it was my last Sunday at church before heading off to university for the first time. An elderly lady came up to me to wish me well. I don’t think I had ever spoken to her before, and I didn’t know her name - when you’re a bolshie teenager the “older people” are just a grey mass really, aren’t they, not actual people? - even, I’m fraid, the butt of a few jokes.

Anyway, I thanked her a little awkwardly for her kind words; and she then said, “Ever since you were a little boy in Sunday School I have prayed for you regularly.”

I’ll leave you to imagine how I felt: embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, moved - yes, all of that, and more besides. Above all, perhaps, humbled.

That happened over half a century ago. Who could ever calculate the impact of that woman’s prayers on my life?

Our minister recently challenged us to take on a responsibility. He asked us all to pick one child from the church’s children’s work and “adopt” that child for systematic prayer. Just that; nothing more - in the privacy of our own prayer lives, to remember that particular child on a regular basis. I couldn’t help being reminded of that old lady from all those years ago.

Two strands of thought come together in my mind.

The first strand, of course, is children, and how precious they are to God. Hence that beautiful story from Matthew 19 (it’s also found In Mark and Luke) about Jesus welcoming the children and praying for them.

One of the great joys of church life is the gift of children. I remember receiving a message from the secretary of a church I was due to preach in which said, “There won’t be any need for an all-age talk as, sadly, we don’t have any children at the moment.” Sad, indeed!

A joy, yes; but children are also, of course, a great responsibility. Thank God for those who teach and lead them, who give up many hours in thought and preparation! Thank God for those who give them attention and take them seriously! Thank God for those who pray for them! (Should you be thinking about getting involved in ministry to children?)

The second strand is prayer

When Jesus tells us to “ask”, “seek” and “knock” it’s prayer that he’s talking about, and one type of prayer in particular: what you might call soaking prayer. The English translations don’t convey this, but you could translate his words as “ask - and go on asking; seek - and go on seeking; knock - and go on knocking.” In other words, he’s not talking about one-off prayers, though obviously there are times when that’s what’s needed. 

(He says pretty much the same thing in Luke 11:5-8, the story of the man who pesters his neighbour and gets him out of bed; and in Luke 18:1-8, the story of the needy widow who won’t let the judge rest till he does what she asks. I knew someone once who referred to Christians as “God-botherers” - it sounded a bit disrespectful, but perhaps she was onto something!)

Anyway, this is why “soaking prayers” is a good way of describing what Jesus is talking about - simply taking a person, a problem or a situation and soaking it in prayer on a regular basis. That woman who prayed for me didn’t see many “results” for her prayers (apart, of course, from my baptism when I was fifteen - I mustn’t forget that!) but she simply made it her business to “soak” me in disciplined, persevering prayer. 

This type of prayer can, of course, be difficult. It can lose any feeling of freshness, because it’s bound to involve repetition. It isn’t easy to find new words to express what’s on our hearts, so it can seem little more than a duty (though what’s wrong with duty?). It isn’t particularly emotional most of the time, so it can seem a bit flat, even rather dull.

But who cares? We all know that it’s hard to fathom how prayer “works”. But the message is simple: don’t try to understand it; just do it...

Lord God, even when I have prayed for someone or something a thousand times, please help me to keep on keeping on. Amen.

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