It is always interesting to observe a different culture and I have had the opportunity a couple of times when I have taught in Thailand. The overtness of Buddhist devotion was something new to me. It was not uncommon to encounter a shrine to Buddha where people were praying, offering incense or rubbing gold leaf onto an image.
Buddhist temples are colourful and interesting cultural icons, standing out in the landscape. My Thai friends would often tell me about the various activities, and I soon learned that the Buddhist equivalent of prayer was one of the major activities. I was interested to note that many of the prayers were about receiving good luck. The worshipers wanted to win the lottery, or win the heart of a young man/lady, or be successful in business and so on.
I was a bit shocked at first and put it down to heathen greed, but on reflection (eight hours on a plane back to Australia) I wondered if we Christians were all that different. Now I would not pray to win the lottery – that would indeed be a sin – but some of my prayers really are a bit self-centered.
I have thought a lot about prayer during my life – prayers that were important to me, but seemingly went unanswered; prayers that were nothing more than a ritual of recitation before falling into bed, or after falling out of bed; prayers for reassurance when I learned that I had to have emergency surgery on Sabbath morning during the time of the church service, and so on. I thought what did they really achieve, what did I get out of them?
My moment of revelation came one day when I was at a group prayer where everyone around the group was supposed to pray. As usual I was trying to think up something really smart to say so that the group would remember my prayer as a contribution to their Christian experience, when someone’s prayer cut right across my thoughts. They had prayed for something where I knew I could help. And then it hit me right where it mattered. You have got to use your ears when you pray. I knew that I could help someone, and I had learned that while I was praying. How often my whole attitude to prayer was about what to say, when it should have been what can I hear?
Jacob found that out. He wrestled a whole night with an angel but it was only in the morning when he was in pain that he was prepared to listen. The promise of prayer is not about thinking about the smart question for God to answer, but about being the answer that God wants you to be.