One of the problems in our very busy lives is the extent to which we are controlled by the diary or the electronic calendar. We live in a time-conscious, time-driven culture. Most of us have more things to do than we can comfortably manage. These pressures have created an environment where missing appointments is a constant threat. Some people have said to me that they are so anxious about missing an appointment or a deadline that they even dream about it. I can remember (many years ago) of thinking ill of the person who had failed to turn up to give a seminar to a class which was meeting in the room next to my office only to discover that I was the culprit, so absorbed had I become in responding to an email!
Some missed appointments can be very costly. Data has shown that patients who fail to keep hospital appointments cost the NHS more than £600 million a year, enough to run two medium-size hospitals. However the most costly missed appointments are the ones we fail to keep with God in prayer. Nobody could have been busier than Corrie ten Boom, who travelled the world as an ambassador for Christ to some 60 countries, following her release from the notorious Revensbruch prison in 1945. Her secret was the regular meeting with her Lord: ‘Don’t pray when you feel like it. Have an appointment with the Lord and keep it’. Martin Luther felt similarly constrained to prioritize prayer. When he had more business to get through in the day he would rise earlier to secure victory over the powers of darkness.
The need for regular appointments
The need for more prayer as individuals and as a congregation was raised very movingly by two of our members recently. One of our elders said from his own experience that if he had really believed the words of Jesus ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John, 15: 5), one of our dual epigraphs during the vacancy, he would have prayed much more than he had. One of our longest-serving board members gave the Congregational Board a similar challenge with regard to one item of business at the last meeting, which had taken up some time in discussion: ‘We really need to pray more’.
God has been wonderfully encouraging in the first year of the vacancy. At every morning communion there have been people joining us by profession of faith or by transfer. Ministry on Sundays and on Wednesdays has been richly blessed. Ministers have said either directly to the congregation or through others that they have found their ministry to us a considerable enrichment of their own personal experience of God. With the blessing has also come a challenge. Given that the first iteration of the Presbytery plan has been suspended and the timescale for the delivery of the next plan is as yet uncertain the church is likely to remain ‘vacant’ for another year. To sustain and enhance the work undertaken in previous ministries and the work which has developed over the last year (standing still and marking time in Christian service is effectively going back) there is a need for all of us to engage more in the prayer life of the congregation.
How easy it is for us to forget the incalculable privilege that God has given us in prayer. We can sometimes treat the exercise as mere duty and miss out on the opportunity to have fellowship with the Triune God (in the Bible prayers are to the Father through Christ). While it is true that God hears the ravens cry, and was merciful to Nineveh, and to others who flaunted his holy laws, He promises to listen to the cries of his children. One of the great incentives to prayer is that it is based on relationship. We are not a computer reference in heaven (‘I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ said the Lord in Isaiah, 49: 16). Prayer is a reminder to us of that ‘fountain privilege’, our adoption into God’s family.
The privilege is open to all who believe and not just to a spiritual elite (not that this terminology exists in the divine economy). There is sometimes a tendency to think that effective prayer is a mysterious practice reserved for ministers, missionaries and full-time workers. In fact, many of the most powerful illustrations of prayers in the Bible come from the lips of some of the most ordinary people (Hannah, 1 Samuel, 1:1-20); the publican (Luke, 18:13), the dying thief (Luke, 23:42)). Moreover, as George Philip and Peter White, and, indeed, so many ministers, would acknowledge, the effectiveness of their ministry has been due in no small measure to the faithful praying of God’s people in their congregations, and beyond. If the apostle Paul could earnestly request prayer for an ‘open door for the message’ (Colossians, 4: 3) and for ‘words to be given that I might fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel’ (Ephesians, 6: 19), how much more do we need to come to God for this life-transforming power.
At a time when the country is celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II it is good to remind ourselves that our access in prayer is by royal invitation. Ancient kings were largely unapproachable (see Esther, chapter 4). Our own monarch is more accessible but cannot give an audience to all of her many millions of subjects both in the UK and abroad. Those who have been invited either for the most brief of audiences or even to particular events such as the Diamond Jubilee Concert have found it an honour to be prized and have been prepared to queue for hours to gain an entrance. The realization that God is freely inviting us to an instantaneous audience with the King without our having to put our names in a ballot with countless millions should deliver us from thinking of prayer as boring, as a chore like the ironing or the washing up (or whatever particular irritant you may find in your household!) or as a ritual to be performed. Listening to and talking to God (through the intercession of our best friend Jesus) should enlarge our knowledge and appreciation of Him, as we celebrate his attributes and character such as his greatness, his goodness, his grace, and his glory, and should give dynamic to all that we do.
The cost of missing appointments
The disciples had to learn the lesson of the necessity of prayer the hard way, when they were unable to help a boy with an evil spirit because of the inadequacy of their prayer life (Mark, 9: 29). With all the teaching in the Bible on prayer and all the books written about the subject, prayer should be one aspect of the Christian life that we are good at. The major problem, however, is the credibility gap between theory and practice. At the beginning of the last century Andrew Bonar challenged his congregation of some 3000 people about this gap: ‘And we must not talk about prayer, we must pray in right earnest. The Lord is near. He comes softly while the virgins slumber’. Sadly, over a period of years following Bonar’s death his congregation failed to heed his words. His church, situated some 200 yards from our congregation, declined. Over the portal, still visible, was the verse from Proverbs (11: 30), ‘He that winneth souls is wise’, an exhortation which had inspired a ministry which saw many thousands turn to Christ for their salvation. The rest of the entrance was covered in graffiti, a metaphor of what has happened to so many congregations throughout Scotland. The cost of missing our appointment can be great. But let us avail ourselves of this privilege beyond equal and make this next phase of our vacancy a special one as we engage more fully with the God who loves to hear prayer and wants to do great things through his people.
With very best wishes
Session ClerkView All Letters