As I look back over my teenage years one sermon stands out in particular. The preacher was a Welshman who had never been to theological college and yet who had an amazing gift for words – through his preaching literally hundreds were won to Christ (there was a period when almost every month a dozen or so people confessed the faith in the waters of baptism), and through his praying hundreds (yes, it was a large congregation) were led into the presence of God. One Sunday these two gifts combined. The text was taken from Acts 9.11 (AV): where the Lord says to Ananias: “Go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house for one called Saul of Tarsus; for behold he prayeth”. Time and time again in that sermon the phrase rang out “behold he prayeth” as my minister, Frank Goodwin, hammered home the point that ‘Christians pray’.
Strangely none of the dozen commentaries on Acts which I consulted make this point. Indeed, most of them don’t even mention the fact that Saul/Paul was praying – the one exception is David G. Peterson who writes that this “suggests that he has been humbled and is seeking God’s help”. But not even Peterson draws attention to the way in which Luke emphasises how remarkable it was that Saul/Paul was praying. For Luke uses what grammarians call a ‘demonstrative particle’ (idou) to emphasise the importance of the fact that Paul was praying – “behold”, declares the AV and the RSV, or in the words of Arndt and Gingrich, the standard Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, “consider”. Amazingly none of the modern English versions (or at least not the GNB, nor the NIV nor the REB nor the New Revised Jerusalem Bible) attempt to give force to this particle. Yet almost certainly Luke used this word to show how the Lord sought to overcome Ananias’ scepticism: ‘Believe it or not, Ananias, but Saul is praying’. His praying (the verb is in the present tense) was a sign that God was at work in his life. His experience on the Damascus Road had led to ‘conversion’. Christians pray!
This is the context in which I wish to draw attention to one of the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy reissued by the Church of England in 2015. There in the section on ‘Learning and Teaching’ we read: “It is part of the mission of the clergy to teach those whom they serve the ways and the delight of prayer”. Significantly, teaching people to develop in their praying is the only thing which in these Guidelines Anglican clergy are called to teach! The implication is that praying is at the heart of the Christian life.
I sometimes wonder whether some of my Baptist ministerial colleagues attach the same importance to prayer. By contrast I have found it instructive to see how in this challenging time of Covid-19 prayer has been central to the life of Chelmsford Cathedral, where I now worship. Here I have in mind not just the daily streaming of morning and evening prayer, but also the Dean’s Prayer for Today emailed out every day around 5 a.m. Prayer for Today is a guide to the daily ‘Quiet Time’ and has four brief sections:
- A call to praise God followed by a few verses from a Psalm
- An invitation to be still in God’s presence: “As you enter into prayer today, take a moment to be still. Come into God’s presence with a deepfelt desire to meet with God now. Know that God is the God who sees you and that God is looking at you now with great love. Pause for a moment and be still.” This is followed by a formal prayer for the day.
- A Gospel reading always preceded by two or three insightful comments on the passage to be read.
- An invitation to continue in prayer: “Spend some time reflecting on the reading, mulling it over. Ask God what God wants you to hear today. Offer your personal prayers and thanksgivings and offer the day to God in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving. End this time of prayer by saying the Lord’s Prayer.”
From comments I have heard, I know that many deeply appreciate this daily guide to prayer. What a difference it makes when Christians pray!
Thank you for your comments about the importance of prayer, which I echo in my own spirit.
I have written a course called ‘Prayerful Evangelism’ which I pedaled around the diocese a few years ago.
What strikes me about Acts 9 v 11 is that the Lord reckoned it noteworthy that Paul was praying. Surely he had been praying all his life! What was it that was different/special about this new time of praying… if there is an answer to this then it may help us to know what sort of praying especially receives the Lord’s attention.