Brennan Manning was a Franciscan priest who belonged to the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order whose members lived a contemplative life among the poor. Much of his life was spent working hard in poverty-stricken communities, but his vocation also involved much time in prayer and solitude.
Fellow author Larry Crabb once asked him what he got out of spending so much time alone with God, to which Manning simply replied: “I just figure he likes it when I show up.”
In this productivity-driven world of ours, it’s tempting to evaluate everything by what we can get out of it. My new kettle boils 30 per cent faster, my mobile phone can do 10 things at once, and my friendly Personal Digital Assistant can switch on my electric blanket for me when I’m 300 miles away. (Admittedly I’ve yet to work out the point of that particular bit of technical wizardry.) Perhaps it’s no surprise then that we can view prayer in a similar way. We’ve heard sermons on how important it is; we’ve read books on how powerful it is; now, all we need do is find the most efficient way to upload it into our multi-tasking lives and all will be well.
The trouble is, prayer isn’t first and foremost about productivity. It’s about presence. When Jesus’ three best friends fell asleep instead of praying, Jesus wasn’t saddened by their lack of productivity; he was saddened by their absence (Matthew 26:40). Astonishing as it may sound, it is our presence – our simply ‘being there’ – which most delights God’s heart.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I sat on a riverbank in Canterbury with a young man who was deeply troubled. Neither of us knew what to say to help him, so we just kept him company in prayer. As we sat there, God’s presence became more and more tangible, to him as well as to us. And that’s the thing about ‘showing up’. When we choose to ‘be present’ in prayer, we open spaces in this troubled world for people to experience God’s presence.
Prayer changes lives, not because it’s a formula that works but because it’s a series of simple ‘showing up’ encounters through which the timeless, limitless love of God seeps into the fabric of our world. This is why prayer is so crucial for our direction as a diocesan family. While we’re tempted in so many ways to get caught up in the busyness and productivity of building God’s Kingdom, the Changing Lives Prayer Network will continue to call us back, to remind us to sit awhile with God – for ourselves and for our world.
By Lyndall Bywater, Canterbury-based writer and speaker.
From the summer edition of Outlook, issue 39 available here.