Prayer is a relationship. We all know that. It's not reading out a shopping list to God, or mouthing some special formula of words whose meaning has not been internalised. No. We talk to God, and God talks back.
I know this, and I sometimes experience it to be true. However, I still fall back into a different way of thinking and behaving, which Gerard and Chrissie Kelly, in the book "Intimate with the Ultimate," call humanity's default setting when it comes to relating to God, or the gods.
Christianity, they say, has a more sophisticated spirituality, but it has to work hard contradict this way of thinking that we all lapse back into.
So what's it all about? It's about the fact that when we don't know who we are talking to, we act out of fear instead of trust. When we don't feel that we know anything about the God we are trying to communicate with, we can't embark on a relationship with any degree of trust. If the trust isn't there, then we've no idea what God's attitude is towards us. He might be angry, he might be capricious, he might be indifferent.
The first thing we must do, then, is appease him, or impress him - do something to capture his interest. Otherwise, how will we know that he'll even bother to listen to us? So we bring a sacrifice. Not a dead animal, like ancient people used to, but something. We give up something for Lent. Perhaps that'll impress God. We go to church. I mean, that's a sacrifice for a start. Sit on a hard pew in a cold building listening to some vicar droning on - surely God will be impressed with our dedication if we do that!
The whole point of the sacrifice is to change God's attitude towards you. You want to get him onside, then perhaps he'll answer your prayer.
But that is not why Christians should pray. Or Jews, for that matter, because in this case Old and New Testament speak with the same voice. We don't pray to change God's attitude to us, we pray to change our attitude to God. We've got it completely backwards.
The Bible, Old and New Testament, tells us time and again that God loves his people, that he wants to bless them, that when he's cross and disappointed with them it's because they won't come and speak to him, and would rather worship someone else. God sounds more like a wounded lover than a stern father. God wants our friendship. He likes us. He enjoys hearing us pray.
If only we could understand that - everything else would change!
To back this up, the Kellys quote Isaiah 55. That link will take you to the whole chapter, and you can see how it begins with a lovely offer from God to come and enjoy all kinds of wonderful things free. We haven't got to pay for them, we haven't got to offer sacrifices to get them, we haven't got to impress God with our holiness to deserve them. We just have to come and get them.
But if you read on, you can all too easily lapse back into default mode spirituality Because later, it talks about God being so different to us:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
There you are then, we think. God is so far above us, we can't begin to understand him or relate to him. We can't possibly know what he thinks of us. We'd better go back to the old way of thinking, and come with a sacrifice, just in case. People even quote these verses as a justification for times when they've prayed for something and felt their prayers weren't answered.
But that's not what it's saying! If you read this chapter properly, and don't chop a bit out of it and examine it in isolation, you'll understand. Isaiah is saying, yes God is far above us, yes the sky is really really high. But it's from the sky that the rain and the snow comes, which waters the earth and makes it bring forth its fruit. Doesn't matter how high it is, the blessings still come. Doesn't matter how high and mighty God is, he still loves you, still blesses you, whether you deserve it or not.
Get it through your head. God is not against you. God loves you, wants to bless you, wants to relate to you, wants you to trust him and believe in him, and let yourself be changed and healed by him. He really does.
What we need to do (what I need to do!) is examine our attitudes, and try and trust God. It's called faith. Often it seems crazy, flying in the face of the evidence. But if we don't try it, we'll never find out if it works.