Central to the idea of a Christian community is prayer, and how we think about prayer depends very much on how (or what) we think about God. If we think of God as a superhuman ‘old man’ type figure who is deciding whether or not ‘He’ wants to answer all of his prayer mail for the day, or an angry God who won’t answer our prayers until we’ve sacrificed enough to keep him happy, or a God of love, these ways of thinking about God will radically impact on how we relate to God and our life of prayer – both personally and as a community.
The primary name given to God in the Old Testament is the name YHWH (Yahweh) – a name that is difficult to translate into English but is something close to “I am that I am” or “to be”. Perhaps this invites us to see God as the one who transcends the idea of a superhuman type figure and instead moves toward something like the very source and substance of being and existence. In the New Testament, the person of Jesus invites us to see God as defined by love and even further than that, Jesus and the presence of the Spirit invite us into a trinitarian view of God which allows us to see that God is always moving through and between, in and out; and this movement of divine life is shaped by love given and love received.
Prayer is participation with God
This means that prayer is not trying to initiate a conversation with a static God, and then trying to convince God into a response. Instead, prayer is entering into something that’s already happening; a conversation and movement that is already underway. Prayer is entering into something; or, we might even say, someone. It is participation. Which is why stillness and silence can be potent modes of prayer too. They allow us to slow down and perceive and pay attention to what is already going on.
In the book “Unapologetic” by Francis Spufford, he says of prayer:
“It remains perfectly clear that at the moment of asking nothing happened, nothing altered in the world, nothing started up. But we begin to recognise that the moment signifies anyway, because it was then, when we asked and because we asked, that we started, falteringly, tentatively, to be able to notice something that was happening already. Something that did not need to start, it having never stopped, never paused, never faltered. Something that did (we come to see) constitute an answer; something that had been going on all the time unremarked, so steady and continuous that we had never picked it out of the general background roar of the world.”
So what does it mean to be a community of prayer? Much of the language of prayer in the biblical text is communal. The Psalms are prayers of the community, the prayers of the New Testament are prayers for communities and by communities. When we over-individualise prayer we can become distanced from the ways in which prayer can foster whanaungatanga and contribute to the flourishing of community life. Instead, we are encouraged to take shared responsibility and to experience the divine together.
Prayer is participation with one another
One of the ways we emphasise communal prayer and spiritual practice is to sing our prayers together. We come and gather together from our various experiences, weeks, lives, struggles and successes - and we sing and pray together the same words. The Apostle Paul, in Eph 5:19, suggests that we “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” This reminds us is that our participation in the life of God is also participation in each other’s lives.
When we’re in community, we can’t cater everything to our specific needs and purposes. We’re joining in with something that’s already happening, which in some way is a beautiful reflection of what prayer is with God too – joining in and participating in something that is already moving and is ultimately out of our control. And yet it’s not irrelevant to us; it’s a recognition that we live our life and faith in community with others. There are other needs and stories and experiences in the room, not just our own.
Prayer as the naming of desire
When we pray we’re not necessarily trying to convince God to do things all the time. But there is something beautiful, healthy and holy about naming our need, our longing, our desire, our pain, grief, or joy.We take these things that circulate in our heads and hearts and keep us awake at night and make us anxious and worry and stress and wonder and problem solve - and we bring them out of ourselves into the midst of this ongoing conversation that is already happening with God and with others.
When we do this in community we become able to name something that would otherwise remain hidden. To draw it out and in a vulnerable way, place it before somebody else who can hold it with care and then to have someone else name it too – and to draw you into a conversation with God that you might be unable to find your way into on your own. To find God as present in the face, words, voice and hands of another.
You can’t get this on a podcast or a blog in the same kind of way. You can find some level of community here, but there is something about being in the same room as each other. Sitting next to each other. Breathing the same air. Sharing the same meal. Moving with the same rhythm. Singing the same melody. It’s a beautiful, unique, extraordinary thing.