Prayer is like playing tennis doubles

How are we meant to stay awake for God? Yes, we heard Jesus encouraging us do this in today’s Gospel, (Matt 24:37-44) but what does that actually mean we should do? Well it certainly means that we should pray more, but this will only work for us if we understand what prayer really is. The problem for some people is that they see prayer as simply an activity called “speaking to God” or a “Quiet Time” – something they are supposed to do at least once a day. But if prayer is just this, if it is just an activity that we try to fit into our day, then many people will find the idea of praying more something just too difficult to achieve. Faced with St Paul’s suggestion that we should not just pray more, but “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess 5:17) then some might well say “Well, that’s just impossible.”  So if we are to really respond to this call to prayer, we need to think about prayer and staying awake for God in a different way.

 In order to explain this I want us to think about the two tennis playing brothers : Andy and Jamie Murray.Should we pray the way Andy plays tennis, or the way Jamie plays tennis?  Andy is a brilliant player, of course, but his way of playing tennis would not help us to pray because he plays by himself, he does not have a partner. It is Jamie Murray who teaches us more on what prayer is like, simply because in every part of his play he has to be aware and working alongside his partner Bruno Soares. He may be playing with every bit of his energy and concentration as if nothing else could fit in, and yet unless he does that within a vivid awareness of what his partner is doing and is about to do, they’ll not win the game. And that is what true prayer is like, because true prayer is living our whole life in a partnership with God.

This partnership must of course include specific times when Jamie and Bruno do talk together about their play, and discuss and plan the moves they may decide to make in the next game. That is like our specific times of prayer both alone just with God, and in church with others, and it is a very important part of prayer. But it is not the whole of prayer, because once Jamie and Bruno begin playing, few words are uttered between them and yet their communication is actually much deeper. Instead of words, it is much more a sensitivity to what the other is about to do in the game, not least so that they do not both go for the same shot and collide in the middle.

It is also important to remember that God has chosen to make this partnership an equal partnership. We cannot simply stand back and expect that God will do everything for us. No, our part in the game, in life, is very important indeed, for although God may sometimes help us in a difficult moment, just as Bruno might step in to help Jamie when he senses he needs some intervention; most of the time we have to play our part to the full. That is surely why we hear Isaiah saying in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 2:1-5) “O House of Jacob (that’s us) come, let us walk (note my emphasis) let us walk in the light of the Lord”  Yes we are called to walk with God, or even, as in our Opening Prayer today, and from St Paul (1 Cor 9:24) to run with God. “To run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) Yes we have to be very active indeed if we are to be in a true partnership with God!

But just because God wants us to be active, this does not mean that God wants us to be the dominant partner. If we try and play the game mostly by ourselves, trying to take almost all the shots and only referring to our partner occasionally – and I have seen people play like that – then we are making a very great mistake. This is the path of the person who builds his house on the sand, who thinks that all that matters is his or her endless activity, instead of basing all he or she does on a real partnership with God.

There are still two other ways I need to mention in which we need to be awake in our lives. First, because in a game of tennis doubles, or indeed in any game where we play alongside others, as in football, as well as being awake to the people we are playing with, we also need to be awake to those we are playing against. The opposition for us who wish to walk with God is very strong and clever. The temptations to take our mind off the game are very many, which is why Jesus suggests that we must think of ourselves as servants waiting for our master’s arrival always awake to when he may come and not allowing other activities to turn our mind away from what really matters. 

 Second, we must always remember that although God is with us, working within and alongside us, like a tennis partner, the Advent season reminds us that God is also ahead of us, God is our leader, and we need to be awake not just to God’s presence, God’s activity in every moment of our lives now, but also ready for what God will want of us tomorrow and on through death and into eternity.  That is why Jesus says we must be like a servant, awake for when the master comes, awake to what he may suddenly want of us not just today, now but also on into the future.  To pray more then, to be awake for God, means living every moment of our lives with and for God. The Christian life is always an adventure with God, as he leads us on into the future, and we never know where that may lead next.