If you had been in the church I grew up in, then at a certain point in the Sunday morning service you, if your hearing was good, would hear two faint beeps.
The beeps you would have heard were me and my friend Mark starting the timers on our watches because Mr Farmer (not his real name) had stood up to pray.
A godly man
Now please hear me when I say that Mr Farmer was and is a godly-man, someone who had and has my respect. But …his prayers were long, so long that Mark and I would time him each week (very immature I know, but we were 10 or 11 years old) to see if his prayer was longer or shorter than the week before. I mean, we are talking 10-minute prayers which to young energetic boys seemed like 10 years.
This Sunday we will be looking at Matthew 6: 5 – 14. These passages not only famously include ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ but other instructions about praying.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (v7)
Mr Farmer may have used ‘many words’, but he most certainly did not use ‘empty phrases”. His prayers drew from the deep well of his knowledge of scripture and the time he had spent alone with God in the fields on his farm.
Nicholas Carr is a writer and journalist who noticed he was finding it hard to sustain his concentration. This set him off on a journey which bore the fruit of him writing a book called, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. In many ways, the title tells you all you need to know about the findings of his research. What we do, and what we do not do, re-wires our brains and, given many of us spend lots of time on the internet, this is having a massive impact on how we think, read, and remember.
Implications for Prayer
Carr argues that in general we are remembering less, our thinking has become shallower, we are constantly distracted, and we struggle to sustain our concentration. If this is true (think about your own circumstances) then this has profound implications for “deep” prayer, for spending time with God and meditating on His word.
Mr Farmer’s prayers were “deep” because he was soaked in scripture and this informed the content and language of his prayers. Significantly, his prayers on a Sunday were the overflow of time he had spent with God during the week. He was, in short, the opposite of Carr’s description of so many people today.
We can’t un-invent the internet, nor do I think we would want to. It has many benefits as well as many problems.
The question is not “how do we un-invent” the internet, but how do we become more like Mr Farmer? Not in terms of praying 10-minute prayers in the Sunday morning service, but of growing a life of prayer which is rooted in spending time with God in the “quiet” place and in His word.
Learning to Pray
There is a very real sense in which the “school of prayer” is lifelong. A couple of years back I read Justo González’s short book on The Lord’s Prayer and found it refreshing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Early in the book, he quotes Origen, one of the great Alexandrian Church Fathers, and his words seem good ones to end on.
Let us not imagine that what we have learned is just some words that we are to repeat at certain times set aside for prayer …Our entire life is to be a constant prayer that says ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’.