All that Wycliffe does is built on a foundation of prayer. Jo Constantine, a long-term Wycliffe supporter, writes about how God has been leading her deeper into ‘praying at all times in the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:18).
Like the first disciples, I frequently say, ‘Lord, teach me to pray’ (Luke 11:1). It has not come naturally, yet I can say that God is graciously teaching me about prayer and about being available to the prompting of the Spirit at all times. It has taken me a long time to believe that God really wants to hear my prayers.
It has taken me a long time to believe that God really wants to hear my prayers.
Wycliffe and me
As a university student, in January 1980 I attended a pre-term house party organised by the Oxford University Christian Union and that was when I first heard of Wycliffe Bible Translators. I was amazed to discover the huge number of languages in the world, and the scale of the long-term literacy and translation work that was needed in order to bring all people the Bible in their own language.
By 1985, I was married and living in London, attending Herne Hill Baptist church. There we met someone who was a keen supporter of Wycliffe, and it was around then that we decided to begin to donate to Wycliffe regularly.
We were linked with Doug and Hazel, and I remember visiting them at their home, just as they were preparing to return to serve with Wycliffe in Papua New Guinea. Hazel asked me to help her sort out some suitable clothes for their two young daughters from the pile of stuff that had been donated to them. I was challenged by their willingness to bring up their children in a far-off place. Such faith and sacrifice was beyond my imagining.
I knew that I was supposed to be praying… but the reality was that I did not pray... I did not know how...
Not knowing how to pray
I knew that I was supposed to be praying for them, but the reality was that I did not pray for Doug and Hazel – because I did not know how to. I did not believe that my prayers would make any difference. I did not know that I had a voice, and I did not believe that I would be heard by God.
That prison of lies stemmed from my childhood, of course, where children were ‘seen but not heard.’ It felt like no one was paying any attention to me, and I played a game with myself in which I pretended to be invisible, because that’s how I felt.
Sadly, my family experienced tragedy when one of my brothers was killed in a road accident. My parents could not cope with their grief, either individually or together, and separated a few years later. So at the age of 17, I was bereaved and ashamed, and felt alone and abandoned.
‘Let me hear your voice’ (Song of Songs 2:14)
God rescued me when I was 19, but it was another 25 years before I began to look at all the repressed emotions. A counsellor encouraged me to begin to express myself, and slowly, slowly, in the safety of her loving presence, I found my voice. Over many years of counselling, I have been helped to dismantle the prison of lies, and to walk in the truth that God wants to hear my voice, and is attentive to my prayers.
Through the gentle words and kindness of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I came to understand that my heart needed God’s spiritual surgery. Once, when I was away from home on a retreat in another country, a minister – who did not know me – suggested to me that I open my heart, with the clear implication that my heart was closed.
How prayer became exciting for me
God has been working in many ways, and through many people, to open my heart more and more to him in prayer. Some of the main ways that God has been teaching me are:
Learning from the practices of others:
I remember years ago sitting in our minister’s office discussing our women’s group, when he suddenly started addressing his thoughts out loud to God – conversing with Jesus as if he was in the room with us. I was so surprised, as I had never witnessed such a natural way of praying. There was no special voice or posture – he simply talked to Jesus as a friend. I thought: ‘I want to have that easy familiarity with God.’
In 2009 I went on a retreat to the Northumbria Community, and experienced their daily rhythm of Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer and Evening Prayer. It is a short and simple liturgy, which I found helpful. It meant that I was consciously thinking about God at least three times a day! Set prayers like this can help me to get started focusing on God rather than myself.
Learning from Jesus:
I decided to read through a gospel, or rather to listen to a gospel being read to me via CDs (that shows it was a while ago – today I listen to the Bible on my smartphone!) Listening is a very different experience from reading, and with repeated listening, I have built up a more vivid picture of Jesus and the 12 disciples. It helped me to listen to long sections, rather than individual episodes.
I felt that the word was feeding my soul...
I often listened to a chapter last thing at night, so that I went to sleep with the word of God filling my mind. There was a season when I just listened to John chapters 14–17 night after night. In this time, I really felt that I was getting close to the heart of Jesus, and listening to his intimate conversation with the Father. I felt that the word was feeding my soul, not just downloading information into my head.
Learning in silence:
Romans 12:1–2 encourages us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This has been one of my favourite Bible verses, because I long for it to be true in my experience, and not just a truth in my head. I wanted God to ‘write it on my heart.’ I realised that this could only happen by God’s Spirit working with my spirit. It could not happen by my willpower, because it is a spiritual work. This reminded me of John’s description of being born again:
‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a man’s will, but born of God.’ (John 1:12 )
To allow and invite God to work in me at a level beyond my human understanding, I choose to spend time sitting quietly, being aware of the presence of God, and stilling my mind. This is not easy in our busy noisy world!
Over time, and with regular practice, I found it easier to be quiet and still, and my desire to sit in the presence of God increased. I have learned to notice my breath and my heartbeat, and this helps me listen for God’s breath and God’s heartbeat.
As the months went by, I noticed that I was watching less television, reading less ‘rubbish’ and listening to less music. I had not deliberately set out to make these changes. They just happened as a result of my spending more time in silence, seeking God and the things of God.
Learning to surrender:
I have a friend who is like a spiritual father to me, and I visit him weekly to talk and pray about our lives and the things of God. He has spent some time in a religious community, and he has also spent time in prison. He loves to share what God taught him in these places. One of his favourite words is ‘surrender’. He mentions it so often that it is obviously a very significant attitude to him, so I have asked him and asked God to help me understand too. It has taken years, and now I do see more clearly.
Jesus surrendered: ‘Not my will, but thine be done.’ (Luke 22:42) And Paul writes about how our attitude should become like that of Jesus, ‘who humbled himself and became obedient – even to death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). This is surprisingly releasing – no longer do I come to God with my ‘shopping list’ of good ideas and people to pray for. Instead, I surrender.
Praying with God’s word
I noticed that I and others around me were asking God to give us things that he has already given, or asking him to do something that he has already promised to do.
For example, ‘Lord, please be with my brother on his journey.’ Or, ‘Lord, give my sister peace in this situation.’
In my ears, this sounds like doubt, as if I don’t believe God’s promises. What if instead I say, ‘Father, thank you for your promise to be with us always. I know you will be with my brother.’ And, ‘Jesus, thank you that you give us a peace that the world cannot give. I trust you to give this peace to my sister.’ Then I am reinforcing truth, and building faith in my own ears and in the ears of all who hear.
Praying Psalm 23 is my favourite. I am grateful to notice how much the Lord does (he leads me, he makes me lie down, he restores my soul, he prepares a table etc) and how little I do.
This applies to many psalms – as I looked at the verbs, and who was ‘doing’ things, I saw that God does it all, and my response is to stand in awe, trusting in his infinite strength and obeying his infinite wisdom. Remembering this releases me from thinking that prayer is something I ‘ought’ to be doing, to allowing God to be at work in me and through me.
I am a friend of God
We read that Moses talked with God as a man does with his friend – which I have slowly learned to do. I reveal something about my relationship with God in the way that I speak to him. My tone of voice, my attitude, and my choice of words give clues about what I believe and have experienced. Is my perception of God intimate or uninterested, close or distant, powerful or ineffectual, listening or not?
One of the prayer practices I have learnt involves declaring aloud verses from the Bible that remind me of the truths that I need to hear again and again. This builds my faith and reassures me of who I am in Christ, so that I can now pray with confidence that God is listening, that my prayers make a difference, and that when we pray we are simply passing on God’s heart of love.
Jo lives in rural north Hampshire with her husband Simon. They have three grown-up children. Having been a full-time mother, Jo now enjoys exploring her creativity in different ways, including making music, tending her garden and writing poetry. She is a worship leader at their church, St Leonard’s Oakley.