Currently I  am reading  the book Prayer by Philip Yancey.  I had read it when it first was published in 2006  and found it to be very helpful.  In reading it again it becomes even more helpful.  I want to begin my column today  with a quote from the book:  “Why pray?  Evidently God likes to be asked.  God certainly does not need our  wisdom or our knowledge, nor even the information contained in our prayers.  But by inviting us into the partnership of creation, God also invites us into relationship.  God is love , said the apostle John.  God does not merely have love or feel love.  God is love and  cannot not  love.  As such, God yearns for relationship  with the creatures made in his image.”

     If our prayer life seems ineffective the problem may  be that our prayers are superficial.    We are not really opening ourselves to God.  In “Hamlet” Shakespeare wrote, “My words  fly up,  my thoughts remain below;   words without thoughts never to  heaven go.”

     I am not suggesting  that  prayer  requires special skill or high intellect.  Prayer is indeed a serious business but thank God it does not require specialized skill.   No professionalism is demanded.  Always we need to remind ourselves that prayer is basically conscious fellowship with God.

     In this column today I  want to share with you four phrases I say to myself  before I actually   pray.  I   can’t guarantee they’ll help  you.  All I can say is that for me   they have been helpful. I share them with you in that spirit.

     The first thing I say to myself is, “Take off your hat.”  Removing a hat is a gesture of respect.  Hats come off when one realizes he is standing in the presence of the sublime and the holy.  I think one of the reasons for our difficulty in prayer today is that people have lost the feeling of reverence and awe.  We are far more impressed with the power of the atom than with  the  power that brought the universe into  being and sustains it in being.  This lack of reverence and awe is one of the reasons for the muddle we are in.

     If prayer is to  be a vital force in our lives we must capture something of the spirit of Moses.  When he saw the burning bush he heard a voice saying to him,”Remove your shoes for the place where you are standing is  holy ground.” As we prepare to  pray, we must feel that truly we are standing on holy ground.

     The second phrase I   remind myself of as I prepare to pray is, shut the door.  Life today is a confusing business. We live in a world     that makes the strong quake and the weak fall.  We find ourselves driven in many different directions all at the same time.  If you were asked  to give a characteristic trait of people today you wouldn’t   be far wrong  to say busyness.  We  rush here and there.  We dash back and forth. Merle Colby in his novel The Big Secret has a character say, “I hope I never meet a busier man than  you, Waldo.  Too busy to take time to think.”   We could change that just a bit to read,”Too busy to take time to pray.”

     Prayer cannot be really effective if we habitually approach it in a spirit of haste.  So when you pray you need to shut the door and draw apart to a quiet place.  Jesus met every  crisis of  his life by closing the door and concentrating totally on God his Father.  Through prayer he prepared himself to meet and master life’s most testing experiences.  Always prayer meant for Jesus a strengthening of faith,  a confirmation of purpose, a new quietness and confidence, a fresh inflow of spiritual power.  It came in part because he shut the door.

     The third phrase I say to myself is open the window.  The mind is such a marvelously active thing that it will  not remain empty.  Something will be there;  if not a memory , then a hope.  If not thoughts of good, then thoughts of evil.  If not faith, then fear.  So after we shut the door to the things that tend to blot out God we need to open the window  toward those ideas and emotions which will aid us in truly feeling the presence of God.

     Some think that no effort is needed to sense God’s presence.  They feel God is always present and there is a sense in which that is quite true.  God is always present but sometimes there is a block between us and that block must be removed.  God will never be the burglar of the human mind  but only a lover waiting on the threshold until love opens the window.

     The fourth phrase I say to  myself is, fold your hands.  When my hands are folded I somehow feel a sense of peace and quiet.  The strain and stress of life is stilled.  I feel a closeness to God.  When my hands are folded I more readily hear and obey the admonition of the Psalmist:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  Then I am ready to come to God in trust and confidence that He is more than ready to hear and respond.