Article 5 - Finding a Pathway to Prayer Print
Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Soldier's Story

The equator's Armageddon sun makes a quick exit. There is no twilight like the northern zones. Its legacy of stifling heat, however, has nowhere to hide. It fills the streets and pours into houses. It fills the rain forests and the rubber plantations. It commands the space between the trees. It follows every track and roadway. It tumbles into the monsoon ditches where our perspiring bodies lie in ambush. We await the communist terrorists which the infantry are driving towards us. The fall of night is a signal for grass to rustle to the winding movements of hunting snakes. Most are deadly. Mosquitoes feed on our uncovered skin and from our bodies inside our clothes. Leeches gorged with blood, hang like fat, red slugs.

Across the track in front of me, I hear sounds of muffled Mandarin and the moon tricks my eyes into believing that there is movement, but it is the night-black, unbroken stare of the rubber plantation that I see. Our orders are to shoot to kill. I take aim and wait. We are spread out in pairs. If the breakout happens here we could be quickly overrun. My thoughts turn to life and to death which could quite pointlessly happen to us or them.

A desire to pray rises from somewhere within me and I am surprised. I have not consciously prayed since being an infant, when I joined my mother in a child's goodnight prayer. This is the only prayer I know. So, as a young soldier, bristling with armament, at a critical moment, I pray.

Lord keep my safe this night,
secure from all my fears.
May angels guard me while I sleep,
'till morning's light appears.'

All the passion I feel for life passes through the slender memories of childhood.

As I look back, I realise now that my journey to find faith had begun and inner searching had become a frequent feature of my days, but as yet I had not regarded this as prayer. My experience was to look for an outer form that would legitimise feelings that were new to me. I lacked the confidence to allow the prayer in me to take a form of its own. It was a very small beginning, a mere glass of water, drawn from an ocean, yet it had the quality of elemental purity. I had taken the first step onto a pathway of prayer and my exploration began.

It is as if the different phases of my life's work have already been in place along this pathway waiting for my arrival. To look out over prayer's limitless creative potential, is like being able to view the breadth and depth of space that runs on without end, or like the never-ending discovery of God. The best thing we can do is to find pathways by which we explore its vastness. The greater our exploration, the more we are in awe of what lies beyond. So we become smaller and smaller people. Though prayer will take many forms, it will be like wisps of steam that curl upwards from a boiling kettle. They never take the same form twice. Prayer has a personal identity. It is the gift of the real me .. . that I give back to myself. It builds in me an independent loyalty to the person I am discovering myself to be. This became dramatically strengthened in an unexpected way.

An Unexpected Inheritance

Three years of active military service drifted by without my knowingly meeting another Christian and without owning a Bible. Yet inwardly, I seemed to have found a fixed point from which I could judge the distance and value of most things that immediately concerned me. I decided to change my army status and to spend the next four years in the Army Reserve. On the first day of the month-long troopship voyage home, I met Christian soldiers who gave me an Army Edition Bible. Immediately it made sense of my experience. It brought no feeling of restriction but pushed the frontiers of life further out than I imagined. Crossing the Indian Ocean, with nothing but the sea to the horizon, and with only the sound of the waves washing against the hull, was perfect, but only a preparation for what was to come.

The army provided me with a civilian job, which meant I drove a truck from 4.30am until 2pm. This was ideal. I needed time alone to allow my future to come into focus. By 2.30 each afternoon I would be kneeling at a chair with my Bible open. The day I opened my Bible to John 14:13-14, fixed my future forever. From this time on, I would live out of this inheritance so that my life's work would be prayer and the actions that grew from it. It was a simple bold statement which, before His death, Jesus left to the responsibility of His disciples. In 1958 this was how I interpreted His words and I have yet to find reason to change.

I will do whatever Rowland asks in my name so that the Son may bring gory to the Father. Rowland may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.

It read like an open invitation to fully explore the possibility of prayer. This is what I love to share with my younger colleagues who have the shape of the future in their missionary vision.

To the Horizon Furthest Out

Visualise with me our young missionaries as they begin to grasp a wider view of the privilege and responsibility of prayer. We choose not to use the classroom but a hillside or better still, a mountainside with unrestricted view. The Welsh language, which is an intricate weave of the spiritual and material, has a name for such a place. 'Disgwylfa.' (Remember it in my second article?) 'A hill of expectant hope with unrestricted vision.'

Here we have the space to visualise the size of our inheritance. 'Ask anything, anywhere, any time. Somewhere in the vastness of prayer, a heart beats and by it we find our rhythm, for it beats out the longings of Jesus Christ who is the soul of prayer. Our boundaries are governed only by His passion for a world of people. Under an open sky, amid the slow seasons of nature, it is easier to silence the disturbing voices within us and to find the quietness of heart where we can overhear the sound of His nearness.

With each one dreaming of their horizon, I ask the simple question. 'Why do we pray?' There is normally an embarrassing silence as they wonder if I am serious. Then a variety of answers. All of them have the colour of truth. I then ask them not to use popular religious cliché, but to listen deeply to the voice at the centre of who they are and then speak out what they hear in a language that a non-Christian may understand. For a missionary's value is limited by the extent he can see and hear as a non-believer does.

They make many attempts to express spiritual truth in unfamiliar words. Then someone, with all the apprehension he might show attempting to launch a small boat into the breaking surf we can see in the distance, says, 'I think I pray . . . just because I can. Just as I breathe . . . because I can.' Immediately it becomes a crystal moment, transparent simplicity, reflecting light. Tensions are eased. Everyone smiles, everyone chatters and a song of quiet laughter is born.

Because we carry the impress of Divine likeness, we will love prayer as we love life. It will become a world of possibility that we will never cease to explore; each prayer, a framed landscape, a masterpiece that everybody understands, yet only the smallest fragment of the whole.

'When did we begin to pray?' I continue. They offer no ready-made answers. 'From birth,' suggests one. 'Perhaps even before we were born,' says another, thinking out loud. They all agree that probably communication with the Father would have started in the womb. Could it be that, after birth, our environment forced prayer and life into separate existence, and prayer, through lack of exercise, did not continue to develop? Together we are silenced by the mystery we have not yet entered.

The group are waiting for the next question and I make it my last. 'Have you ever prayed?' I ask. Some think they have, some doubt, others say, 'Perhaps our prayer has been like your prayer in the monsoon ditch.' All agree that sometimes prayer seems to be little more than an attempt to 'get God on our side' without reference to His Eternal Purpose as the core value that threads through time. For every answered prayer is no less than a Divine visitation that leads us towards understanding the meaning of our existence.

We know that we have not ended our journey, but are just about to begin and, like Abraham, we will only inherit the land of prayer on which we place our feet. God honours our creative exploration, for by it we honour His creative image in us. Our experience of prayer need not be a duty we dislike, but a pleasure we live to the full, wherever the wind may carry us. Our prayer will need no form other than what we give it, each its own inherent beauty.

I ask the group to be alone with God in some part of the world, blessing it and knowing it is blessed, yet not having left the mountainside.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 16 April 2009 )
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