So the idea of prayer for me as a boxed up, contained thing that you do with certain words attached to it has always been a bizarre one. No, prayer for me has been more like that moment on a cool crisp morning, when you are walking up the street and fill your lungs with that cool air and say to in your heart 'I am so glad to be alive'. That is a prayer of thankfulness. Or prayer is the moment when bent over the sink doing the dishes I say 'God, what should I do about this situation?' and let the possibilities flow as I stack up the clean plates.
Because God, (surprise, surprise!) is everywhere. I believe and find God to be in my waking, my sleeping, my thinking, my doing, my past, my future and very much in my present. God, I find, in the birds, in the sunshine, in the air I breathe, in the eyes of those around me, in laughter, in joys and in sorrows.
There is God, underneath it all, like a steady heartbeat that I feel and hear in every part of my life. So I makes sense to me that prayer is something to be unleashed onto the whole of life rather than contained in specific moments. Prayer in this way is an attitude, a constant connection, a living of life in the presence and guidance of that God who is everywhere and in everything.
That's not to say that moments where your entire attention are on God and you retreat to just the quiet inside yourself are not important. This is where things get trickier for me. I am such an active person that sitting in silence for any length of time is difficult because I am always thinking about the next thing I want to do. But when I do it, which I schedule in for myself a couple of times a week, I am nearly always surprised and bowled over by what comes to me. A sense of peace, yes, but also many times a feeling of deep conviction about what I ought to do or how I might see my situation in a new way.
And praying for others, well that really is a transformatory thing. Try this one on for size, try asking for as many blessings as you can imagine for someone who annoys you or has upset you. It is incredibly freeing and I've found it shift the dynamic of my relationships many times. Praying for the community and the world is part of life working for a local church and I really treasure it. It remind me every day that my part in the world is so very small, that life is so very fragile and to look outside of myself to the situation of others. It challenged that reflex to be all about me and my world and draws me outside of myself.
For all its benefits, though, perhaps one of the trickiest things we find hard to get to grips with is that prayer is not like a vending machine. You don't pop a prayer in and out comes your tasty treat. I tried that out when I was five asking for a bag of hot chips and I can tell you it doesn't appear to work like that! Logically we know that if every prayer was answered the world would be a very different (and perhaps very odd!) place indeed. It wouldn't even be possible for every individuals prayer to be answered when so many conflicting, and perhaps sometimes unwise, prayers are prayed every day.
Recently as I have been praying about one particular issue in my life I have been struck by the feeling that God may not be answering my prayer because he is answering someone else's and logically I know that these two things can't happen at once. Does that make sense? I don't know, but sometimes I wonder if that is how it is. If I am being told gently and quietly to just hold on because in the chain reaction of events linked to everything that happens there is someone who really needs to be heard and for things to come together in their favour.
The life of prayer can certainly be mysterious. I have had so many prayers answered and yet sometimes it is those big one, those great whopping burdens of life, that never seem to be relieved. In all of that, though, I have found that one prayer never fails to be answer and that is this, 'Be with me, hold me up, be my rock' and its close neighbour 'Guide me, direct me, keep me strong.' That, for me, is the true beauty and wonder of prayer - its ability to keep you going on life's journey, to travel through its difficulties and to fully appreciate its joys.