I had quite a revelation about prayer this week, thanks to, of all things, a chain letter. I am notorious among my friends for destroying chain letters. I love a good meme as well as the next person, and probably more than some, but no email annoys me more than the one which promises good luck when you forward it, and bad luck when you don't. They get deleted straight away.
The most heinous, I feel, are the prayer emails. If you want to mail out a prayer, feel free - but don't attach it to a message that says bad things will happen if you don't pass it on. But just to show that God can use anything to get our attention, the prayer chain letter I received last week stopped me in my tracks with this line:
I got into a terrible tangle over praying for people once. I knew I had to stop my great long monologue about what I thought people needed, and just ask that God's will be done for them, and that was a good start. But I still felt like my prayers were just a shopping list of requests - 'Let Your will be done for this one, and that one, and, oh, don't forget the other one.'
I ended up drawing up a rota, so that everyone got prayed for at least once a week - but there were still some people that I wanted to include every day. Gradually, that list grew until all I was doing in my prayer time was reading out a register of names.
After a few months of this, I began dreading my prayer times, and so I stopped praying for other people altogether. I couldn't work out how to do it without being overwhelmed, and just stuck with, 'Let Your will be done for everyone'. It wasn't what I wanted, but it was better than a daily list, a weekly rota, and five different charity Prayer Diaries every morning.
Some time later I read a book which was instrumental in my coming to Quakerism. It was called Invitation to Solitude and Silence, by Ruth Barton, and it's sadly out of print (although the link takes you to Amazon.com's used and new listing). I wasn't too keen on the solitude - I had enough of that already - but the silent prayer really grabbed me.
That was when I began keeping silence, and I have carried on ever since. I love the idea that I need to shut up and listen, rather than telling God what I want done.
Recently, though, I have heard from several friends who are in difficult situations. I said to all of them what I always say - 'I'm thinking of you.' Well, some people don't like the idea of being prayed for, and I'm not comfortable yet with telling them that I will hold them in the Light.
Once again, I found myself with a problem. I would settle into silence, and this line of people would come trooping into my head, ready to be held in the Light. It got to be like a conveyor belt. One would pop up, I'd think about her, then another would take her place. I was starting just to go through a list of names again.
It was then that the chain letter arrived, and that phrase went 'ping!' in my brain like an egg-timer. I was looking at things from completely the wrong direction. It isn't just when I can't pray that God listens to my heart. It's when I'm not 'officially' praying. In other words, it's all the time.
I babble on to God all day in my head, about all kinds of things, and I think about my friends a lot. He knows full well what their problems are, and hears all day how concerned I am. That's not the purpose of the silence.