// language acquisition for the recently born

Our current 24-7 Prayer Room at St Aldates Oxford

There’s a famous story in the first few chapters of John’s account of Jesus’s life where Jesus tells a man called Nicodemus, a respected religious leader who has come to see him by night, that “unless is one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus, understandably mystified, replies, “how can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” and Jesus tells him, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Because the term “born again” is now an established part of culture, and it’s pretty easy to point to the groups that would identify themselves as “born-again Christians”, it’s become pretty easy to skim past this without really hearing what Jesus is saying in all its strangeness and power. You lose the sense, for example, that new birth is a painful thing; something eagerly anticipated, true, but only coming after the agonies of labour.

Incidentally, did you know that the closest analogy that many ancient writers could make to the pains of labour was that of being crucified?

Interesting…

You also lose the sense that the person who’s just been born isn’t yet the finished product; yes, they’re new creation, but they also have a lot to learn about this life. They don’t even know how to walk yet.

Elsewhere, Peter, writing to the early church, tells his readers to, “like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up in your salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” And at least in my own case, I’m regularly struck by just how young I am when it comes to this whole ‘spiritual life’ thing; I’ve been a Christian nearly eight years, but I feel like only recently have I started to ‘get’ any of it, and even then, not all that much. Maybe I’m a spiritual toddler now…

This all comes to mind, I think, because it’s 24-7 prayer week again this week – and one of the lines that always stuck in my mind about 24-7 prayer was Pete Greig talking about how prayer is “climbing into the lap of our heavenly father”. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come to try and write about prayer, I find that I lose all powers of articulation. Some people can write eloquently about prayer (usually the ones who have been praying forever), but not me – and if my prayers are eloquent, then it’s usually in an attempt to impress someone, and that’s not really the point, is it?

That, then, is the beauty – and the joy – of 24-7 prayer. It provides the space to pray inarticulately, or ineloquently, spiritual toddlers in our father’s arms – simply conversing, not trying to impress. It allows us to pray at the level we’re at, even if that’s just writing three or four heartfelt words.

“God, I love You.”

“God, help.”

So maybe we pray childish prayers, but maybe that’s okay, too. Either we claim to have arrived, to ‘get’ prayer, or we’re still learning, and I think I prefer the latter, in all honesty – there’s more wonder that way.

I can sit here and pray an impassioned prayer that all Oxford will come to this prayer room, but it’s unlikely to be heartfelt. I don’t have the level of faith, or the personal connection with ‘all Oxford’, to pray that way. But I can pray this:

“God, this place is incredible. Let others come and see that too.”

I could spin that out to a meaty two or three-minute prayer and, at a prayer meeting soon, I probably will.

Not that I’m proud of that fact.

But the core of that prayer ultimately stands here instead, “in the lap of our heavenly father” – inelegant and ineloquent, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

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