I was preaching on Acts 3 yesterday – Peter and John healing the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate. I spent a bit of time reflecting on the first verse which tells us that Peter and John went up to the temple at the hour of prayer – three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s an easy verse to skip by, and, indeed, when it was read out (excellently, I must say), it was almost as if it was a superfluous detail. It struck me as important.
The Jews of Peter and John’s time, devout ones, that is, regularly went at the set times for prayer – 9am, 3pm, and sunset. Those would be alongside prayers at other times such as meals and around other daily bits of life. It would certainly have involved reciting the ‘Shema’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one…love the Lord your God with all your heart..) and there would have been Psalm recitation.
I felt it was important to point out that, even in the excitement and amazing moving of the Spirit in the newly birthed Christian community, these guys were still in the discipline of regular set time prayer. There is no real evidence to suggest that this stopped, even when they were ultimately expelled from the Temple courts…and ‘fixed hour prayer’ goes on well into Christian history.
Except, we know better than that, don’t we? Oh no, we don’t read our prayers from books! No, we fervently pray from the heart, all through the day without any problem at all. Well…I hope you forgive my sacrastic tone!
I do remember many years of thinking two particular things: a) that if you had to read your prayers from a book, you weren’t very good at it and, b) that setting steady times for reading and prayer were just legalism…I’m free, and don’t need that discipline.
How foolish I was.
I need every element of structure available to keep me on track. I need to have times set to ‘show up’ before God lest I arrogantly assume I’m too busy for all that. I need a framework for my life of discipleship, mainly because I’d languish otherwise!
We mustn’t confuse having discipline in our Christian lives with any idea that we’re not then reliant on the Spirit. That was the point that I was noticing from the little story in Acts 3. These guys were in the thick of one of the most amazing moves of the Spirit, being used in mighty ways, such as in this healing story. But, here they were rocking up to pray in the Temple. Why? Because it was time to! And…because I think its the regular turning up to be in God’s presence where the heart and devotion is really altered and changed. I am not sure that sort of work really happens when we’re just winging it.
Down through all of history, Christians have adhered to ‘fixed hour prayer’ or ‘praying the hours’. The monastic tradition were and are experts at it, as are many other parts of the church then and now. The 24/7 prayer movement has done most in recent decades for the evangelical/charismatic wing of the church in awakening this desire for prayer, but also for that rhythm and regularity.
My question is what will it take for other believers to realise that prayer is as much a discipline to be forged than it is a relationship to develop. In the beginning, turning up to be in God’s presence is like the first few dates of a relationship – awkward, nerve-wracking, uncertain, mostly awkwardly silent! But, through the discipline of turning up, we come to know who our Beloved is.
I think we all need to get serious about our prayer life – our life of prayer. No excuses. Stop being so easy on yourself. I rarely meet a person who can say to me ‘my prayer life is good’. Thing is – it doesn’t come easy or naturally…it takes discipline!