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It was just a nondescript photo, on the back of the Dutch newspaper Trouw. A hut like those you often see in pictures of slums in poor countries. The cross on the roof makes the hut look like a church or chapel - only made of cardboard and corrugated iron.
This scene was captured in Calais, less than 350 km from us. Here, in a makeshift refugee camp, migrants are waiting for their chance to cross over to England. In this little church hut, they are praying - perhaps their last - "little shooting or other prayers," according to the caption.
We all recognize that image of those quick prayers. Praying in times of need. Expressing your despair in a vacuum. In times of uncertainty, fear, worry and distress, people - believers or not - sometimes direct their hopes towards heaven. Especially when your life is at stake, you seem to have no choice but to surrender to something outside yourself.
Do you associate prayer with quick prayers? Or more with kneeling men and women in a religious assembly? Or with people sitting cross-legged, with their hands open and eyes closed? Praying and meditating is part of culture and religion in all countries. But what is prayer really?
What is praying?
For the five world religions, the answer to this question is the same: prayer is having contact with God. This makes it something very universal. Everyone prays at some point, but in different ways. A prayer in a church, mosque or synagogue, lighting a candle, kneeling to recite a prayer, quick prayers. Prayer is a broad term, even for people within the same religion!
Prayer from the perspective of Christianity
Christians believe that when they pray, they are speaking to God. Thus, it is not a ritual which is obligatory and where certain conditions are imposed. No, they are responding to an invitation from God to enter into conversation with Him.
In conversation with God
In conversation with God! Yes, that does sound a bit abstract. Maybe it helps to compare it to a conversation with a friend.
With a friend you have a bond. You know each other and you can speak your mind. To a friend you talk candidly about your life and they listen to your story; and vice versa. This is how prayer is for many Christians. Speaking out what is in your heart, sharing what is going on in your life, your ups and downs.
Why should you pray?
I don't know at all if you believe that God exists. But suppose God did exist. In that case, praying would be quite amazing. Because if you could just talk to God, what would you say?
Would you share your hopes and dreams, your questions and deepest feelings? Millions of people (Muslims, Jews, Christians) seem to think so.
In Christianity, many people believe that God made people out of love. The Bible also says: God is love. Apparently God was so overflowing with love that he wanted to make something with which he could share that love. He wants to be in a relationship with people to be in contact.
Relationships slowly bleed to death if they are not tended to with conversation, thought and care. So it is with God. God longs to be in a relationship with people, with you. He therefore longs to talk to you.
Prayer: does it really work?
If praying is "talking to God," then the question is whether it matters that praying really works? Because the question "does praying work?" implies that you may expect a certain outcome.
Some people - maybe you too - are a little disappointed after praying. It can feel as though you are talking in a vacuum. Or like talking to the ceiling. That's pretty hard and it can actually feel like praying isn't working.
Answer from God
What do you expect from God when you pray? Probably you hope for an answer, a bill from heaven. Or an instant solution. Would God work that way? Would he give people everything they want? Morgan Freeman, who plays God in the movie Evan Almighty, shares a beautiful thought about answer to prayer.
What is prayer according to the Bible?
Prayer is talking to God in the broadest sense of the word. Sometimes when you talk to someone, it is helpful if you know them a little. You can get to know God by reading about him, for example in the Bible. Especially in the Bible you can read more about God's character (although that is easier said than done: the Bible is not exactly an easy little novel that you can finish in a few hours).
The Bible also contains examples of people praying, and/or crying out to God as well as people who sometimes feel that God is not listening. I believe that God hears every prayer, that he responds in his own way, time and for his own reasons. This is evident from many stories in the Bible.
Praying according to the life of Jesus
But of all the figures in the Bible, perhaps we get the best answer to the question "What is prayer?" from the life of Jesus. In several places in the Bible, we see Jesus speaking to God as if in a real conversation. For example:
How should I pray?
Yet Jesus' life shows that prayer is not about a set of rules. His own way of praying shows that prayer is about meeting God. Right in the middle of the situation - the reality, the brokenness, pain, difficulty, joy - that you are in.
Would you like to try that yourself? I would say: pray in a way that suits you to maintain a relationship. There is no standard format. Nothing is required. Anything goes. As much and as often as you want.
Would you like some more concrete tools? Then read our answer to the question, "How should I pray?" here. Hopefully it will help you on your way!
Quest for hope
Remember that photo at the beginning of this article? That little church made of cardboard and corrugated iron? The setting and background of the photo is harrowing, but the photo is full of hope. The man on the right looks into the camera smiling. His arm is strong in the air, as if he has just scored a goal. Within the background is that church, that chapel, with an open roof. There is apparently hope. Hope for people, in dire situations and there is hope for you.
Need help with prayer?
Don't hesitate to contact us! We will be happy to help you.