Finding time to pray

How do you find time to pray? I set out to pray for 30 minutes a day and frankly am struggling to manage even that! I can usually get in 15 minutes a day without any stress, but the additional 15 minutes is much harder to find, or to remember to make time for. In theory, 30 minutes of prayer time a day should be an easy thing — simply a matter of making it a high priority and doing it.

But is it really that simple? In order to pray you need to get alone with God (see Matthew 6:6). I live with my wife and three young children in a small house, work all day in an office with six other people, use public transport to and from my job and am pretty tired by the end of each day (this last point is relevant!). While I have read some advice on training your kids to not annoy you while praying, that is much easier to advise than to do; my eighteen-month-old son is often up in the mornings when I am and loves to climb onto the dining room table to stand there investigating my coffee! Such antics make it difficult to read the Bible, let alone pray.

As alluded to, my preferred time to get alone with God is in the mornings, in fact the ‘easiest’ times for me to pray and focus on God are early in the morning while everyone else (aside from my son!) is asleep, or late at night when everyone else is asleep. Can you spot the problem? (Hint, I pointed out that I’m tired at the end of each day).

At the very least, making more prayer time in my life will require not only discipline, but also some re-arranging of other priorities in order to be able to spend time in prayer. Some folks might try forgoing some sleep, however, I am in a stage of life where I have been getting too little sleep for too long and am physically suffering for it already, without purposely making it worse. So what is the answer?

I honestly do not know. What I do know is that I am not giving up on praying, I am still aiming for 30 minutes per day but am flexible regarding attempting to consolidate that time into a single block, or even two blocks. I have been encouraged by a blog called The Prayer Experiment in which the author is setting the goal of directing his thoughts Godward every minute.

The prayer experiment

Instead of writing a post this evening (I need sleep!) I am going to refer you to a very interesting blog I just discovered:

The Prayer Experiment 

The abridged definition: Over the course of a year, beginning tomorrow, March 23rd, 2010, I will begin trying to discipline myself to “pray without ceasing” and then I will write here about what happens as a result, and I fully expect that things will happen.

Where is the hope?

“The Bible assures us of many things, but it never promises that we won’t be slammed with overwhelming hardship.” (Leslie Vernick)

This felt like a punch in the face when I first read it, in fact it still does. The context of the quote is a passage refuting the idea that, ‘God never gives us more than we can handle’.

I think that idea is probably an out-of-context distortion of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which is in fact referring to temptation to sin, specifically idolatry, rather than any promise of endurance through hardship. Jesus said we will encounter hardship (John 16:33) and wisdom confirms this (Ecclesiastes 11:8). Realistically, Christians are not promised specially favourable treatment in this world, unless you count persecution as ‘special treatment’ (John 15:20).

So where is the hope? If being a Christian offers no guarantee of safety in this world and carries the burden of annoying everyone who doesn’t believe in God, then what’s the point? Why put faith in someone (Jesus) you can’t see to gain something (heaven) you cannot have until after you’re dead?

This is where understanding what we stand to gain as Christians makes all the difference – my hope is not primarily focused on a ticket to heaven, my hope and goal is Jesus Christ. That’s it. Ultimately, nothing else matters to me if I can be included amongst those who are given the right to become children of God (John 1:12-13).

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8 ESV)

Evidence of grace

My last post highlighted how it can feel to do ‘spiritual exercises’ when it falls flat and seems like a big farce. The obvious question following such a post is; ‘why bother then, if it all seems like a ludicrous waste of time?’

My answer to that is to look for ‘evidences of grace’ a phrase which comes from a message by C.J. Mahaney called Pastoral Character & Loving People which is based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. As we know, the church at Corinth was at least as messed up as our modern ones are, yet Paul could still say:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,
(1 Corinthians 1:4 ESV)

Despite having wrongheaded ideas on many basic aspects of living as Christians, Paul could see enough evidence of the grace of God at work in the folks in the Corinthian church to be able to sincerely thank God. This is an excellent way to view any Christian, especially those we may not like. It is also encouraging to look for the evidences of grace in your own life.

As CJ says, “Most people are more aware of the absence of God than the presence of God. Most people are more aware of the presence of sin than evidences of grace. What a privilege and joy it is in pastoral ministry…to turn one’s attention to ways in which God is at work, because so often people are unaware of God’s work. And much of God’s work in our lives is quiet; it’s not ‘spectacular.’ It’s rarely obvious to the individual, and normally it’s incremental and takes place over a lengthy period of time.” (excerpted from a post on the Acts 29 Blog by Scott Thomas).

What might such evidence look like? A few examples might be: do you want to know Jesus more than you do now? Do you know that God has called you to be His child? Do you recall a time when you hungered for Christ and loved to worship Him? Are you aware of sin in your life? If you could answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions, God’s grace is working in you. Even the negative sign of being aware of sin is actually evidence of God’s grace in making you aware that it is sin and not allowing you to rationalize away what you are doing.

Another way to notice the evidences of grace in your own life and other people is to have a look at the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24 and notice ways in which God is growing you in these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There are many characteristics of Christian transformation listed in the New Testament, they are not there as rules of law to strive for, but as signposts to encourage us that we are indeed being transformed into the likeness of Christ and to urge us on to grow even more. (See Romans 12:1-2 and Ephesians 4:20-24).

Real life

real-life

I arose early today looking for God. He wasn’t lost, I know He hasn’t gone anywhere but I cannot sense Him and this is not something I can change easily.

When I read the Bible the words barely touch the sides of my neurons as they slide down into the oblivion of forgetfulness. I pray, and there are two voices in my head; one mumbling pleas to God, the other mocking me and sowing doubt. Pausing to listen for the voice of God, I hear the fridge humming irritatingly, the fire pinging, a child coughing and a dog sighing.

Where is the ‘on’ switch for a spiritual life?

I let my hungry stomach remind me of hungering for God… until it becomes distracting and toast beckons. A cup of tea also, to resolve the parchedness of body at least. With body fed and watered there are now no distractions, aside from the nagging impatience to connect with God in the next five minutes before I need to get the kids out of bed…

I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O LORD!
My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit.
Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,
for in you I trust.
Make me know the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.
(Psalm 143:6-8 ESV)

Have I been stood up? I kept my appointment, as I try to each work day. Did God not show up?

One way to view this exercise sees a deluded middle-aged guy reading a reprinted translation of a very old book while eating breakfast. He is struggling to concentrate, re-reading the same passage, occasionally putting his head in his hands and mumbling for a few minutes (perhaps with a headache, or are those delusions troubling him?).

Another view sees a child of God wanting to grow and craving to know his Father. So he reads God’s words, turning them over and pondering how they apply today. Praying and accepting that God answers in His own time.

What makes the difference between these two views?

Faith.

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19 ESV)

Prayer fodder

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16 ESV)

A concern I had about committing myself to pray more is that I might end up repeating the same prayers over and over in a monotonous litany each day. I needn’t have worried — every person I talked to at church this morning told me of something that I should either praise God for or pray for (or both).  Which reminds me, to my shame, of all the times I have ‘resolved’ to pray for someone, or even told them I would pray, and only actually offered a token mention once or twice, soon forgetting the issue. That is really a betrayal of trust and I would very much like to change my prayer habits such that those comments of ‘I’ll pray for you’ mean something real.

100 iPod-free days completed

100-ipod-free-days-completed

I have now gone for 100 days without using my iPod. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe. Am I going to use my iPod tomorrow? Yes!

So, what was the point of this exercise? I was finding myself easily distracted and noticed that rather than thinking deeply about anything I was tending to just plug in earbuds and let someone else’s preaching, teaching, musings or music lead me where they wanted to go. I chose a 100-day period because I really wanted to allow enough time for a change to occur and had read somewhere that changing a habit takes about 90 days (and since I like round numbers I made it 100).

This time span seems to have been appropriate. It took well over 50 days to unhook my brain from expecting to plug in an listen to someone else’s ideas rather than thinking for itself. What has also happened, which was worth the wait, is that my mind and heart are finding and valuing peace and silence again. This seems a little ironic because one of the reasons I like using an iPod is for the way I can isolate myself in a little bubble of sound, despite the traffic noises, advertising and inane chatter which characterizes public spaces. Now I am able to ‘zone-out’ that stuff without the electronic crutch.

Why then do I want to use my iPod tomorrow? One reason is the (virtual) stack of audiobooks I’d like to listen to. I’ve also discovered that certain parts of my day, such as waiting for the bus each morning, are pretty much useless for thinking or praying — my mind just won’t focus no matter how much I’d like it to. For these times the ability to select what my limited attention span will drift along to is a valuable spin-off from modern electronic gadgets.

Would I do this exercise again? If it seemed that I had again become a slave of a gadget, yes.

A distracted heart

a-distracted-heart

I once had a job in which I was interrupted every 6 minutes on average. That is no longer an issue in my work, but curiously it seems that I have an habitual tendency to seek a change of focus roughly every 6 minutes or so.

What I have noticed is that as the external distractions are removed, internal ones take their place – I distract myself. External distractions stress and frustrate me when I am trying to get something done, but without them I allow myself to stray off task remarkably easily anyway. There is a relentless hum of unproductive activity in my heart which pulls me away from what’s most important.

Lately I have been increasingly going ‘unplugged’, especially from my iPod. It has been my practice to listen to sermons and audiobooks on the bus to and from work each day, which has been very helpful to me in deepening my faith. Yet even good spiritual food can become a substitute for actively cultivating a Godward heart. I do not need constant input, the information coming into my mind also needs to be considered and understood, compared with scripture and prayed into my life.

A very helpful tool helping me direct my heart Godward is memorizing Bible verses. I’m not very good at it, but the concentration required for me to memorize a Bible verse certainly pushes other internal distractions out, and the goal of memorizing provides focus to bring me back to my task when my thoughts do wander off into Lala land.

Psalm 131 is a fantastic guide:

O Lord, my heart is notlifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

A humble heart, a focus on what God has revealed for us to know, determined effort to quieten my soul and hope firmly placed in God.

Now to consistently remember to do it!

Blue Like Jazz – book review

Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller, reads like it’s title, meandering through a narcissistic world of faith, community, church, love and doubts, among other things. It was an easy read which allowed me to be challenged in places without being confronting.

This self-absorbed ramble plunges into an inner world of insecurities, doubt, pride and faith, inviting us to judge the very things we are ourselves guilty of. As an example, in the chapter on ‘Community’ Don writes:

Living in community made me realize one of my faults: I was addicted to myself. All I thought about was myself. The only thing I really cared about was myself. I had very little concept of love, altruism, or sacrifice. I discovered that my mind is like a radio that only picks up one station, the one that plays me: K-DON, all Don, all the time.

When I read that I thought, ‘what a selfish jerk!’ Then as he revealed more of himself I kept seeing elements of myself and was confronted with my own version of the same fault.

As I have mentioned, this is an easy book to read, the author actually seems a bit dense in many of the situations he describes – maybe this is a ploy to draw the reader in? He discusses a lot of deep and profound topics in a conversational, everyday manner. I could read this stuff even when feeling a bit brain-dead at the end of the day and still get the point of what I was reading, which indicates a good communicator to me.

Not bad for a $4.99 bargain bin purchase, though I would hesitate to pay the $24.99 full price (obviously, the book was published in 2003 and I am only reading it now, seven years later!). Blue Like Jazz is published by Thomas Nelson, ISBN 0-7852-6370-5.


Material Connection:
I bought this book with my own hard-earned cash. This review is my own opinion, no arm-twisting was involved!

Agnus Dei

agnus-dei

I am feeling very ‘down’ this evening, in fact I have been all day – a heavy melancholy mood that won’t lift.

However, something curious happened as I listened to the song Agnus Dei by Michael W. Smith earlier; my spirit soared while the sense of pain and loss deepened. It was as though my soul reached toward God in praise, the act of which intensified the inward pang of being bound to a broken, fallen world (see 2 Corinthians 5:2-5).

What is magnificent about this song is that it is completely God-centric. To let my heart and mind focus upon God’s glory alone, to worship the Lamb who was slain, the Holy One, God Almighty – this is what I was created for, and for brief moments the veil is removed, my soul joins the great multitude crying out Hallelujah! (Revelation 19:6).

So I take courage, the time will come when I do join that choir and until then I walk by faith (2 Corinthians 5:6-10).

Alleluia
Alleluia
For the Lord God Almighty reigns

Alleluia
Alleluia
For the Lord God Almighty reigns

Alleluia
Holy
Holy are You Lord God Almighty
Worthy is the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb

You are holy
Holy are you Lord God Almighty
Worthy is the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb

Amen