Learning to pray: University Vice Chancellor on how he coped with great loss

Dr Michael Spence is Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney. He spoke movingly at this year’s Sydney Prayer Breakfast about his own prayer life after his wife passed away. His talk is printed here in full with permission, or you can watch his presentation in the video below.

I do public speaking for a living. I do it two to three times a day. One of the great things about my job is you’re an incredible dilettante. You have to speak about almost anything. It might be astrophysics at 10 o’clock, jewellery making at 11 and something to do with the vet hospital at 12. So you become an instant expert; really good at picking up a fact and spinning it into a yarn.

Michael Spence

So when someone rings you up and asks you to speak at the Sydney Prayer Breakfast, you think, ‘Fair enough, that’s what I do for my day job’. But then, three months later, someone rings and says ‘We’d like you to talk about prayer’. And all of a sudden the thing becomes simply terrifying. And terrifying for a number of reasons.

18 months ago my wife of 22 years died rather unexpectedly… how do you pray in a context like this?

Terrifying because I think we Australians don’t know what to do about prayer, often. We’re doers. This is a pragmatic country. Making Christians, recruiting people, doing evangelism; we like that. Reading the Bible, doing stuff; we like that. But prayer seems so pointless. It seems like talking to the ceiling. What does it achieve? What does it do? What difference does it make? And I’m not a very good prayer myself. So to talk in a country that I suspect might be rather dubious about prayer and as a man who’s not very good at it, seemed like a rather more daunting challenge than talking about photonics when you nothing about it at all.

And so what I thought I would do is tell you four things that I have been learning about prayer in the last 18 months. I won’t say that these are particularly insightful things, and I won’t say they’re things that I didn’t know before, but they are things that have become deeply real to me. Deeply real. And they’re things that I wanted to share with you this morning, not to say that you should understand these things and you probably don’t… but just to tell you how important I think these things truly are.

18 months ago my wife of 22 years died rather unexpectedly. She had more or less never been to the doctor. She was a champion rower, champion basketball player, champion volleyball player; the very picture of health. Unlike me, who has a medical history as long as your arm.

She got stomach pains in November. She was admitted to hospital on the 28th November. On the 3rd December she was diagnosed as having cancer in her liver, back, bowel and hips, and by the 22nd December she was dead. We had three lovely, lovely weeks together as she was dying in the hospital. And in intensive care, her last words were from John 10. She looked up all of a sudden, and she said three times: “I and the Father are one”; an affirmation I believe not only that she knew that her Lord was in heaven, but that she knew too that that was where she was going.

But when that happens—when you have five kids and a happy family, a demanding but rewarding day job—when that happens, what do you do? And how do you begin to pray in a context like that?

If you find you can’t pray about something, pray that God would help you love the people involved.

The four things that I have learnt over the 18 months since Beth died are these. They’re two things that you need, and two things that you really don’t need.

The first thing you need, and you need it desperately, is love. God is relationship. Love is the language of the trinity. Love is ontologically central. The Father loves the Son—loves the Spirit—loves the Father—loves the Son—and has done for all eternity. So to share in the language of the trinity, you have to share in their love.

If you find you can’t pray about something, pray that God would help you love the people involved.

One of the remarkable things about suffering great loss is that you come to see people differently. My son James said, when you go to Westfield now, you look at the people on the escalators and think, ‘I wonder what personal tragedy you’re facing’. And we found that in the context of loss, we became more aware of the loss and pain of other people. And as I became more aware of the loss and pain of other people, it was easier to pray for them.

If you have trouble praying, ask God that he would grow your heart. It’s not surprising that that should be the case. Paul tells us that it is, in my favourite chapter of the Bible in Romans 8. He talks about how we groan with a world that groans and the spirit of God groans with us.

And I think that what God is calling us to do, great people of Sydney, is to love this city. I think what God is calling us to do is to groan with the pain of our city, our country and our region. And I think that when we do that it will drive us to our knees. Prayer has a point as we share in the love of the trinity for this broken, sad, tired old world that God has made. God is calling us as a church to groan; to groan with him. And as you do, you have to love.

Now, you need love. You don’t need many words. Bishop Holloway once said, ‘In Christ the Word became flesh, and in the church the flesh becomes words.’ And I think that’s often true too. And of course Jesus warns against many words in prayer.

One of the things I discovered was that as I became aware of the pain of those around me, and in particular of the pain of my friends, as I thought about my own pain and the pain of my family, I had no easy solutions. I had no advice to give God. I had no suggestions about how he might improve this situation. All I could do was say people’s names. All I could do was hold people before God and say, ‘God, sort it. It’s your problem’. We don’t need words. We do need love. And we need the capacity to hold people before God in prayer.

We don’t need our own words. That’s the other thing. We don’t have to make it up. People’s names are enough. Or if they’re not enough, the church has for 2,000 years developed a rich liturgy of words for us to use.

We’ve just prayed the Lord’s Prayer and I love the fact that … while in Matthew’s version it says ‘when you pray, pray like this’, in the Lukan version it says, ‘when you pray, say…’. And it seems to be that what the writers of the New Testament are doing are endorsing both prayers of our own words and prayers that are borrowed words.

For months after Beth died all I could do in my quiet time was say the Creed. I wanted to say ‘this is true no matter what I’m feeling’. I could say the Creed, I could say the Lord’s Prayer, and I could say the General Thanksgiving:

Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we pray give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we may declare your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen. 

I didn’t have to pray, because for 2,000 years the church had been praying. And I could join my prayers with that great, historic torrent of prayer. And that gave me the space to be… It gave me the space, before God, to say this is true and I’m sticking to it. And I’m going to be carried along by 2,000 years of the great intercessions of the church. You need love. You don’t need many words. You don’t even need your own words. But you do, and this is my last thing. You do need to listen.

One of the very surprising things in the period after Beth died was I came to understand how things that had come to me in my times of prayer—passages of scripture I had recalled, patterns of thoughts that I had had as I had been praying for things before Beth died—prepared me for her death. And I kept a list of them, as they would become useful in the weeks and months that followed.

Learn to pray, brothers and sisters… Because, let me tell you: If you don’t already, you will need it.

I suppose what I’d been doing, quite unawares, is listening. It seems to me that’s what we need to do too in prayer, to watch and to listen as we dare to believe that in this extraordinary activity, the great creative God, the God of the universe, is engaging with us.

I won’t say I had a prayer revolution in this period. I won’t say that now I still don’t spend most of my quiet time thinking about how well I did at the gym that morning, or what the meetings are that I have at work that day. I won’t say that praying doesn’t often just feel like talking to the ceiling.

Bishop Ramsey once said ‘Pray for half an hour and you probably get two minutes worth of prayer’. I will say that sometimes, prayer happens. And when it happens, I know I don’t need words, and I especially don’t need my own words. But what I do need is love. And what I do need is an attitude of attentiveness to God.

We do not know how to pray, says Paul in Romans 8. But the Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too deep; too deep for words.

When Beth died, my son Oli had Romans 8:18 tattooed on his arm. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”.

Learn to pray, brothers and sisters. Learn to pray. Because, let me tell you: If you don’t already, you will need it.