Back at the beginning of June I had the opportunity to go to the Rivendell Retreat Center on Bowen Island. The answer to your next question is yes. It is named after the mythical Elven land in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having never read the Lord of the Rings books (or even managed despite several attempts to stay away through the first movie – please don’t judge me!) I was not aware of this bit of trivia. While the retreat centre is sadly not populated by elves, it is an incredible escape from the noise and busyness of the city. Friends from Regent had been encouraging me to go for years, but this was the first time I had been to either Bowen Island or Rivendell. The purpose of my visit was for a silent prayer retreat. Having finished up four years at Regent, started working at St. Peters and getting ready to have a baby, Alastair strongly suggested that I get away for a few days to spend some intentional and extended time in prayer and Bible reading.
One of the first things I realized as I prepared to go was that I had no idea what I was going to do. For most of my life I have been defined by busyness, and the last few years at Regent had been no exception. Between a full course load, working as a teaching assistant, interning in the Artizo program, playing music and trying to be a husband and friend, the only way I really knew how to be in the world was busy. So the prospect of going away for two days of silence with nothing to do except meditate on Scripture and pray was a little unsettling.
The other problem is that personal time in prayer has always been a struggle in my life. As the entries in my prayer journal would testify, I have had fertile periods and periods of drought and the latter is where I have resided for some time. It’s not that prayer isn’t a big part of my life, it is. But a daily pattern of personal prayer is an area in which I have often struggled. The anxiety over going away for a few days to do just that made me realize that I needed a better theology of prayer. Why do we pray? What is the ground of prayer? What exactly are we doing when we pray? What do we hope to get out of it? Because I was wrestling with all these questions I decided that as part of my time at Rivendell I should read something on prayer. After doing a little research I landed on Ole Hallesby’s classic book simply titled Prayer. Alastair talked a bit about this book a couple of weeks ago in his post, Embrace Your Dependency. What I want to do in this post is flesh out Hallesby’s description of prayer.
The questions Hallesby sets out to answer in the first chapter of the book are: first, what are we doing when we pray and second, how do we do it? His answer to the first question rests upon Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Hallesby argues that prayer is as uncomplicated as this. The beginning and the end of prayer is not our own effort; our own ability to conjure up some spiritual feeling or emotional state by which we attain clarity or peace. Jesus is already standing at the door knocking. Prayer then, is simply the act of allowing Jesus to come into our lives and spend time with us. Prayer can therefore be thought of more as an extended meal with friends than a solitary spiritual exercise.
The other night Carrie and I had the chance to have dinner with four of our closest friends, two of whom live in Vancouver and two who had just returned home from a year spent oversees. We passed the evening telling stories, recounting what’s been going on in our lives, debating over issues, laughing and enjoying the simple pleasure of sharing a table covered in good food. This is how Jesus envisions prayer. It’s a communal act. A meal shared between us and the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. In the same way as the meal we shared the other night, it’s a chance for us to tell Jesus stories of what’s been going on in our lives and for him to remind us of all the stories of his own life and teaching that we have in Scripture. It’s a chance for us to tell Jesus what we think about a particular issue, even if we disagree with him, and a chance to sit as he convinces us that his ways are in fact higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). It’s a chance to laugh and cry and be shaped into the people God wants us to be. If meals shared with our brothers and sisters in Christ have a way of shaping us more into the image and likeness of Christ, how much more does a meal shared with Christ himself!
Hallesby’s answer to the second question, How do we pray?, is twofold: it requires both helplessness and faith. While helplessness is indeed vital, as Alastair pointed out beautifully in his earlier post, faith is also vital. Helplessness is the recognition that we can do nothing on our own, but are wholly reliant on Christ. If we cannot even sustain our own lives, how can we possibly think that we will be able to compel others to recognize Christ as Saviour and Lord? The flip side of the helplessness coin, though, is faith. As much as we might recognize our own inability to bring about the change we want to see in our lives and in the world around us, if we don’t have faith that Jesus can actually effect real change, then prayer is pointless. We may as well be talking to the wall. Helplessness without faith leads to despair and faith without helplessness leads ultimately to self-reliance. The two must go together – always remembering that we do nothing in prayer but allow Jesus to come in and have a meal with us.
Hallesby’s simple explanation of what we’re doing when we pray and how we do it has made a deep impact on my heart and mind. Prayer needn’t be over complicated. Yes, it requires something of us. It requires us to recognize that we can do nothing without Christ and it requires faith that he can actually do something. But both of these requirements are simply opening the door to a God who is already knocking, eager to come in and share a meal with us; to hear what’s going on in our lives and to form us more and more into the likeness of His beloved Son.