For years, my devotional times had the distinctive odors of discouragement and defeat.
The instinct to pray – I know this is important – frequently got sacked for a ten-yard loss by a sense of shame – when is the last time I actually did this?
After clearing the jacket and pile of papers off my favorite chair, I settle in and try to focus my thoughts. Good luck with that; my mind resembles a dog let loose at an off-leash park.
The books of Job and Revelation refer to Satan as the accuser, a fitting description of the inner voice I often heard. You told ___ you’d pray for him. How long has it been? Loser.
Ah, but there have been many a restart, each time with a fresh energy and a new book to record my petitions, complete with columns: the prayer, the date offered, and a place to record God’s answers. True confession: I still have a few of those stacked in a drawer somewhere, with blank pages in each far outnumbering the ones on which I recorded my requests.
Can you relate?
Although rare is the pastor who will admit it – confessing that one’s prayer life is in the pits doesn’t make for an inspiring sermon – this is a very familiar struggle for the clergy. And here’s a free behind-the-scenes tidbit: the ministerial backpack your pastor carries around is equipped with a hidden pocket, overstuffed with guilt about his times alone with God: I’m supposed to be good at this. It’s my job!
What’s a sincere believer to do? Just keep chugging along with a sputtering spiritual engine?
There can be better days ahead. I know, cuz I’m living it … and loving it. Oh, I’m still learning and growing in my prayer times, but now it’s a comfortable routine instead of a lifeless rut.
What happened? Over the years, I have made several choices and implemented some helpful changes in my prayer times. In today’s post I’ll share some of those with you, as we continue our series about thriving in our life with God. What I’ve done might work for you.
Then again, maybe not. But maybe my changes will spark your own ideas that will help you tune up your engine and enjoy the ride.
I offer the following thoughts – first some conceptual ideas, and then a couple of practical strategies.
Move your feelings to the back of the bus. If we let them, our emotions will insist on driving the bus of our prayers, either excusing us from spending time with God – I don’t feel like it – or evaluating how it went – what’s the point? I don’t feel any better. Someday in another post, we’ll take a fuller look at taking charge of our emotions. But for the sake of your prayer life, get them out of the driver’s seat.
Let the dogs run. Relax. Your efforts to keep your thoughts on a leash will not succeed. A better option is to identify the destination of your wandering mind – an unfinished task, or maybe a thorny dilemma – and lift that very issue up to God. Right then. He knows you’re concerned, so talk to him about it. You might also keep a notepad nearby; write it down so you’ll attend to it later. Then take a deep breath and go back to the matter of prayer that previously had your attention. Did I already say relax?
Open your eyes. I generally close my eyes regularly for one purpose: sleep. I understand the logic behind closing them when you pray, but it’s pretty lame – as if not seeing anything will keep your mind from wandering. (We just covered that; see above paragraph). Bottom line: God never instructed us to close our eyes when we speak to him, and we don’t do it when we talk to anyone else. Open your eyes. You’ll find it to be much more natural and freeing.
Keep it Simple. Keep it Real. Keep it Up. Sound familiar? I hope so.
Now for a couple of strategies.
Get organized. Talking with God is multi-dimensional – asking for help; confessing our sins and accepting forgiveness; saying thanks; lifting up the needs of others; praying for his Kingdom to come on earth; pleading for mercy; speaking words of adoration; lamenting our trials and afflictions – and those of others; asking him to draw people unto himself; offering ourselves wholly to him.
Whew. That’s an exhausting list, and yet there’s more that could and should be included.
Around ten years ago, I developed a rhythm to my prayer life which has been incredibly helpful, and I no longer wallow in discouragement and defeat. My prayer times are now organized around the seven days of holy week, the last week of Jesus’ life. On a specific day I know what I’m praying for, and I no longer feel bad about what I’m not praying for.
On the list below, I’m only listing a couple of the dynamics I’ve chosen for each of the days, but you’ll get the general idea.
Get Visual A couple of years ago, I added a helpful new dimension to my prayer rhythm. The top of my lateral file cabinet in my home office holds symbols for each day’s focus. I see them throughout the day; the visual reminder prompts me to pray more often.
Holy Week: Palm Sunday and Resurrection Sunday
My prayer focus: Praise and Adoration
Area of Growth: gratitude and love for God
Symbol: A candle representing the light of the world.
Holy Week: Clearing the Temple
My prayer Focus: Opening up my soul to God and personal confession
Area of Growth: Trust and Obedience
Holy Week: Teaching in the Temple, including The Great Commandments.
My prayer focus: Family – immediate and larger
Area of growth: Remembering the WOW!s and Discipleship
Symbol: A picture of my family.
Holy Week: Eschatology and Return of Jesus
My prayer focus: The Universal Kingdom of God, including the church
Area of growth: Service, Unity, Justice and Righteousness
Symbol: A vase filled with multi-colored marbles was a symbol of God’s church for the congregation I served in Olympia, Washington, River Ridge Covenant.
Holy Week: Jesus’ last meeting with his disciples
My prayer focus: closest friends
Area of growth: loving one another
Symbol: A wood carving from Africa, two people working together.
Holy Week: Crucifixion and death of Jesus
My prayer focus: for specific friends to meet Jesus and for my neighbors
Area of growth: passion for the lost and lonely
Symbol: A Celtic cross.
Holy Week: A day of watching and waiting
My prayer focus: Intercessions for others
Area of growth: compassion and loving-kindness
Symbol: An olive-wood carving of a shepherd holding one of his lambs.
Next week’s post will look at my prayer focus for Saturdays: prayers of intercession on behalf of others. It’s a crucial dimension of our prayer life – which again, can either be extremely frustrating or extremely fulfilling.
Please send me a comment if you find this helpful.
Benediction of Blessing
May you be convinced that God smiles whenever you lift your eyes to pray.
May your times of prayer be free of discouragement and defeat.
May you move your emotions out of the driver’s seat of your times with God, and leave the driving to him.
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Picture of Bus Driver: harveypekar84, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM