Prayers for People Under Pressure
- Tuesday, May 13, 2008
When I found out what an Alpha course was, I did everything I could to avoid it. A cover story in The Spectator by Christina Odone on Alpha was published a week before the 1997 autumn course began. It was a hatchet job, caricaturing Alpha as an extremist sect for the Hooray Henrys and Henriettas of Chelsea and Kensington who enjoyed swooning in the aisles, confessing their sins in groups, and empowering themselves with the Holy Spirit to make more money. I promptly tried to back out of the course I had signed up for, but a surprisingly steely Michael Alison persuaded me to stick to the plan. As I was still wavering on the night the Alpha course began, his persuasion took the form of physically escorting me to Holy Trinity, Brompton, where I felt out of place, uncomfortable, and unpleasantly notorious. The only reason I could think of for being there was that I had made a bad call of judgment out of good manners to Michael Alison and Sandy Millar.
I found the Alpha course far more orthodox, interesting, and congenial than I had expected. These reactions had much to do with the quality of the talks given by the Alpha chaplain, Nicky Gumbel, and the normality of the people who were in our group, which was led by Bruce Streather, a lawyer and amateur golfing champion who in time was to become one of my closest friends. However, despite the good preaching of Gumbel and the good company of Streather, I do not think I would have lasted for the duration of the ten-week course had it not been for the fifth talk, entitled “How Do I Pray?” It was given, not by an ordained clergyman, but by a young woman in a miniskirt named Jo Glenn. It was her message rather than her miniskirt that captivated me, for by the end of the evening my searchings had taken a new turn toward something my spiritual life had sorely lacked—prayer discipline.
What the “How Do I Pray?” talk of the Alpha course suggested was that prayer can benefit from having a structure. The one recommended was a four-part structure under the headings Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Other ideas included setting a fixed time each day for prayer, keeping a prayer diary, and persevering with prayer through all disappointments and setbacks. I cannot explain why Jo Glenn’s talk spoke to me, but it did. I tried her recommendations, and they started to work. Within days I was settling down to a regular, disciplined prayer life using the ACTS format.
Although I did not understand it at the time, the Alpha course talk on prayer had set me off on a momentous journey. One of my first discoveries was that each one of the initials in the ACTS acronym requires a voyage of exploration of its own. So I began with Adoration, a spiritual subject I had hitherto considered for approximately two seconds a year on Christmas Day when singing the “O come let us adore him” line from “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
But what is adoration? I now think of it as the starter motor of prayer, the energizer of all our requests and communications to God. For how can we hope to receive our Lord’s gifts and mercies if we fail to transmit to him our love, reverence, and praise? If one believes this, one starts to search for the right thoughts and language with which to express adoration. Soon my prayer diary was filling up with my own and other people’s attempts at responding to this challenge. As a result, a selection of prayers of adoration fills the first twenty pages of the main body of this book.
T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem, The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” While I was in politics, I measured out my life in coffee mornings. As my spiritual life began to take off, I measured it out in prayer notebooks. Keeping a prayer notebook, or diary, is a chore at the time but a joy afterward. It is also a great strengthener of faith to turn back the pages years later and to see how many of one’s prayer requests have been answered, although not necessarily in the way or time-scale originally asked for. However, at the time when the notebook is being written, one immediate blessing is the noting down of appropriate Bible passages as well as prayers by authors ranging from first-century saints to twenty-first-century evangelists. The paths trodden by such masters of prayer are well worth following, and I hope I have reaped from them a rich harvest of what Shakespeare called “other men’s flowers” when compiling the various sections of this book.
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