Last week, I was fortunate enough to be able to go for a week to Camp with the 1st Waterlooville Boys Brigade. I was in the company for quite a few years before I went to Uni, it’s had a big impact on my growth as a Christian, and it was good to get the chance to spend some time getting to know a whole new generation, most of whom were new to me. The boys, ten in all, were aged between 13 and 18, and there was an incredible variation in where they were each at on their journeys in faith – some had grown up in Church all their life and would openly say they were Christian, others had somewhat thought about it but not decided anything concrete, and for others, Christianity was something thoroughly new. It was a wonderful surprise, joy and challenge then to be asked to run the evening “Devotions”, a 10/15 minute talk each night exploring Christianity, which was a totally new challenge for me! I’ve done a little preaching before, but nothing in the way of a Bible Study for small group of semi-Christian guys. To give it the feel of a series, we looked at 1 John, taking a few verses every day and unpacking them, and I tried to incorporate an activity or extended illustration into each one to keep things fresh and link it back to their lives and the 21st Century.
I’ll be honest, the first night didn’t go too well! The guys didn’t look too interested, a few looking across the table and whispering, and only really engaging with the activity of writing down hopes and dreams for life (to compare to John looking back on his life). I also tried an ‘open’ time of prayer, praying at the start, and then leaving it open for anyone to pray before closing. Needless to say, we sat in silence for a few minutes until another Officer thankfully stepped in with a prayer!
For the second night, I shifted things around a little, changing the layout from just the regular layout of our dinner tables and pushing them together to form a big circle, which gave me the chance to look everyone in the eye as I was talking and I think did a better job of holding their attention and cutting down on cross-table whispers! Then, at the end, I picked up a tennis ball, christened it the ‘prayer ball’ and explained that I would pray, and pass it around the circle, and when it got to them, everyone could either pray if they wanted to or simply pass it on. I could hardly believe it. Every single guy, spoke up and prayed when the ball got to them! All of them! It was massively encouraging, but the thing that struck me most was the innocent power of their prayers – they might not have been the kind of deep, theological prayers that a Minister or Pastor might pray, but I really got the sense that they meant them. It is incredible how powerful ten prayers thanking God for the weather, for dinner, or for the day we’d just enjoyed together can be when they are spoken with heart and in truth.
As I went to bed though, some doubts crept in. What if I hadn’t explained it properly? What if the guys had felt pressured to pray when they were holding the ‘prayer ball’, even if they hadn’t wanted to? What if that would actually turn them away from God, regardless of what I’d been saying? I went to sleep thanking God for the response, but resolving to be crystal clear the next day that prayer was not compulsory.
The next night though, as I sat there, explained everything again, and passed round the newly christened ‘prayer peg’ (a mysterious new object every night!), exactly the same thing happened. Every single guy prayed, and with incredible honesty and conviction. It was a real joy. That happened again and again, every night, and it really got me thinking about the beauty of simple prayers. How often do I open my mouth to speak, forgetting that what I’m doing is talking to my loving heavenly Father and mistaking it for a chat with an eternal Theology Professor who is just waiting to be impressed by my clever phasing? It’s not that good theology is bad, far from it, but I find sometimes that the more I try too hard to wrap up what I’m saying in academic jargon, the less it reflects what I’d actually wanted to say in the first place. True prayer is a conversation, speaking from your heart and listening and responding to God’s prompting, and that can only happen when you’re willing to open yourself, be a little bit vulnerable, and pray freely, honestly and without restriction. It’s something I pray that I will become better at.
Jesus once said that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we need to become more like children – those who run freely to our heavenly Father, secure in His love and in our identity as His beloved children. Prayer seems as good a place as any to start.