Graham Turner: My Experience of Prayer

Added about 3 months ago by Graham Turner

GUEST BLOG: In a deeply moving personal account, Graham Turner reveals his experience of prayer. Graham is author of Alternative Collects: Prayers to a Disruptive & Compassionate God.

A little while ago I was asked by my local church if I would say something about my experience of prayer. It was not to be a sermon but rather a chance for me to tell the story of my prayer life and how it has worked out for me. Since my wife and I moved into the neighbourhood two years earlier I had not been asked to do anything at the church as I work most Sundays as a prison chaplain, so I felt honoured to be asked. Then, when I thought about it, I was a little unnerved. I realised it would be easier to preach on the topic, to speak about prayer in general terms rather than talk about my prayer life specifically; it felt too personal, too close to home. There are many things about my life that I want to keep private and prayer is one of them. In support of this I could quote the words of Jesus who said we must go into our private place to pray so that others do not know what we are up to (Matthew 6.6), and if we fast to make sure that no one else can tell (Matthew 6.18).

However, when I reflected on the matter a little further I had to own up to the fact that the main reason for my disquiet was that I felt a fraud. I am hopeless at praying. Who was I to talk about prayer? Being an ordained minister in the church does not magically make one a first class pray-er, just as being married does not automatically make one a first-class lover. So within just a few short hours, I travelled from being delighted to feeling quite apprehensive.

Alternative Collects I am amongst august company, though. St Paul said that we do not know how to pray (Romans 8.26), clearly including himself among the “we”. This was despite the fact that he had the benefit of meeting the risen Lord in an overwhelming experience on the road to Damascus, and that as an apostle of the church he saw dramatic healings and witnessed many coming to follow the Christ he proclaimed—yet still he said he was rubbish at praying. There is, then, some encouragement here.

Over the years I have heard a lot of talks on prayer and read numerous books on the topic. For instance, like many others, I was told about the acronym A.C.T.S., the lesson being that prayer should be made up of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. This was interesting information which sounded good and correct, but it changed nothing for me. I just felt that I was not making the grade nor applying myself to the task as I should. Teachings on prayer usually made me feel guilty and further from God, not closer.

I met people who told me about their wonderful prayer lives, sometimes calling them “prayer ministries”. Some claimed they would pray for three hours before breakfast each morning or that God would wake them up at night to make them intercede about this, that, or the other. They were vocal about living lives of busy excitement, constantly moving from one spiritual experience to another. I have to say that it was not too long before I simply did not believe what they said. After all, a truly humble, Christ-like person would not boast about such things.

Over 25 years ago, when I was a vicar in inner-city Birmingham, I attended a conference on worship. I went knowing that the state of prayer in my life was dire, to say the least. I shared this fact in one of the small group sessions; a group member said they thought I would get the answer before I went home. The main speaker was Sandy Millar, who used to be vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton—one of the largest Anglican churches in London (subsequently famous for the Alpha Course). He simply said what he did to pray. He told the conference that one day each week he made a packed lunch and drove out of the city for the best hours of the day for a weekly retreat out in the countryside. This, he said, kept his spirit alive. I thought, if he can do this while heading up one of the largest churches in the country, surely I can do the same.

This, then, became my weekly practice. I would drive out of Birmingham to a nature reserve with my sandwich box, some spiritual reading, and a prayer book or two. Did this make a marked difference to my life? No, not really—at least, not initially. In the early years I felt I was wasting time. There was so much work to be done back in the parish and here I was sat idly by the side of a lake. But I believed it was the right thing to do and the members of my family and church held me to it. So I stuck at it.

Over time I learnt two crucial lessons about prayer. First, prayer is not so much about saying words, making requests, or good feelings. Before anything else, prayer is about nurturing a relationship. It is about how I live with God and how God lives with me, in me, and through me. It is about finding how my life starts with God and ends with God. It is about me becoming fully alive as I, like you, am a chip off the old block, made in his image. Second, I learnt that prayer is about presence, about being there, about turning up. There is a saying which states we need to waste time with the people we love: eating, laughing, sighing, talking, crying, or simply being still, quiet, and silent.

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to pray with him, to keep watch. He did not give them a list of prayer requests, he simply asked them to be with him and keep watch—to be present and alert. But they failed three times. Again, I feel I am in good company. We need to waste time with God. I am still trying to learn to be present in all that I do: to God, to my family, to the people I work amongst, to the person on the till at the petrol station, to life in general. It is an extremely hard lesson to learn, though. We all know we can spend some time with a friend or person in need, yet be somewhere else completely different in our heads, making a list of what we need from the shops or working out how to deal with a church member we have had an argument with. This is never truer than in prayer; my mind is always going anywhere rather than staying in the present moment. The result is that I demean and devalue the one I am with.

In the third Gospel there is the wonderful account of Mary and Martha having Jesus to tea at their house in Bethany (Luke 10.38-42). The text tells us that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, completely attentive to what he was saying—she was fully present in the moment. Martha, though, was like a whirlwind in the kitchen getting the food and drinks ready for all, resentful and complaining that Mary was not helping. Then Jesus called Martha back to herself, “Martha, Martha”. He went on to say, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Being attentive and present is not the sum total of what prayer is, but it is the most important aspect of it. Without it we have nothing.

Do I ask God for things in prayer? Yes I do, but my expectation is that what will usually change is me, rather than God. Do I keep a checklist of prayers answered? No, I do not. My life of prayer with God is about nurturing the love between us, not about getting a result or trying to twist God’s arm to do something. God will do what God will do, and my task is to humbly allow that to happen and then find my place within it.

Graham Turner has written a new set of collects that follow in the wake of Cranmer. Turner fully understands and appreciates the force of the genre; his offer is a set of prayers that are fiercely timely, bold in their claims, and venturesome in their voicing. I cannot think of better access points to worship.

Walter Brueggemann (Columbia Theological Seminary)

I find it easier to pray with others—praying alone is a hard and sometimes lonely task. When I pray with others I find it best if there is plenty of silence, time for listening. As in another well-known phrase, we could say, “Pray at all times; use words if you must.”

Sometimes I have found it helpful to carefully compose and write what I want to say. This book is the fruit of such times. By using carefully considered words and phrases I am better able to express my inner thoughts and feelings. There is time to reflect, change words, and alter nuances before committing myself to the prayer.

It is very rare that I get a letter through the post nowadays except a circular or invoice; so much communication happens electronically. A hand-written letter, though, is a very precious thing. Sometimes I choose to write a letter the old-fashioned way to someone who is dear to me and is going through an important or difficult time. A few carefully considered words can say so much. They nurture a relationship so much more effectively than a quickly composed and dispatched email. (Walter Brueggemann’s collection of prayers has been a great inspiration to me in this regard.)

Not being a vicar now, I commute to work. I am surprised how the gentle twenty-five-minute drive across the countryside has become a valuable time for me to try to be present to God. During this time I either listen to solo piano music or simply make use of the silence. I never listen to the radio. As I travel in the morning it prepares me for the day; then the journey home resolves the issues of the day before God.

Throughout most days opportunities crop up to pray, as chaplain, with others. These prove to be the most moving part of my days. Prisoners who let you pray with them are often open, troubled, and desperate. What is important in these interactions is not so much the words of the prayer, but encouraging each of these men to be present to God who, of course, is always present to them.

Our day ends at home with a few well-known prayers and a simple reflection. My wife and I look back over the day to identify what has given us life and what has drained life from us, what we have been most grateful for and what we have been least grateful for. After a final prayer or two together, our day ends.

The prayers in this book will not solve anyone’s problem with the struggle of prayer; such struggle is an important feature of any significant relationship. Instead, it is my hope that these prayers will help you negotiate the disruptive times of life and find God’s compassion in all things. In this, I pray that you find how to be more present to God and to all reality than you were previously.

For over thirty years, Graham Turner has served in a variety of parishes, mostly in urban neighbourhoods, working tirelessly to help overcome social injustice while also exploring a range of Christian traditions to help deepen his own faith as well as that of others. Alternative Collects is his second book with Sacristy Press and is available for only £7.99.

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