Part of my new year routine is taking time to answer Donald Whitney's 10 Questions for the New Year, as you would probably know if you've been reading this blog for a while.
It is always meaningful reading through last year's answers, and realizing how much you'd forgotten or fulfilled since then. What I found most interesting was that each year, one particular thing seemed to repeat itself, to reappear in several answers like it was the theme of that year.
Last year's emerged as knowing God better. Learning to love His attributes. Learning more about the person of God. Learning to see how His attributes applied to my life in a concrete way. I phrased this idea differently in several answers but in essence that was it.
This time, it was simpler. I need to protect my devotions and prayer time, I found myself writing several times in my answers, using almost the same words each time because somehow they were the right ones.
I was surprised at myself. Protect wasn't a word I'd ever used in this context. But I thought back to how I had lapsed for weeks because oh, it was the holidays; I slept late last night; I'd just take a quick scroll down this feed, or check those pesky unread messages first; or there were so many things waiting to be done, I'd just get a head start on clearing them today and be so productive....!
Protect, I realized, was an apt word.
I need to protect that short pocket of time every day from distractions, from work, from laziness. There were so many reasons and excuses one could pick from, and it got easier everyday. I'll start next week, on Monday, get up early and all that, put my life back into balance again, I would think. Like so many (doomed) diets and exercise plans this thought has seen, it didn't quite work out.
I had to protect the time I spent on prayer and devotions from my own excuses.
This was a humbling realization. It was not so much my schedule and all the responsibilities on me. It was not so much whether I'd slept late last night or not. It was just making small decisions--the same small decisions--every day, faithfully. Put down the phone. Those messages can wait, it's not like reading them now accomplishes anything. You don't need to be immediately updated on what the world has been doing for the past few hours you were asleep. Don't look at your schedule yet. You'll be spending the rest of the day looking at it, after all.
It's like training a child to make their bed in the morning. Growing up we all had to do what my mom called the Five Morning Duties. (always in capitals, in my mind. They were important in a basic, pragmatic way; they existed, simply, the way the Seven Wonders of the World or the Four Great Beauties of China did, regardless of your existence.)
Make your bed. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Comb your hair. Change your clothes and take out the dirty ones.
Making the bed was the first one, which led to the others, and it took as little as a minute--fold your blanket, pick up your stuff toys if they had fallen onto the ground, and pull the quilt over everything. (or prop the mattresses against the wall, in the early days before we got our bunk bed.) It was a decision you made in those first few seconds after you sat up in bed, it didn't take a lot of effort, but you had to make it every day, and it was being able to make it every day that was the greatest accomplishment of all to your mom.
But small decisions, to be made every day, are easy to fail in.
That's why the word protect kept coming to my mind when I looked back soberly upon the weeks which had slid by this past year, each day a chance I had knowingly passed by.
In 2017, I want to protect the time I give for prayer and devotions every day. Even if I wake up late. Even if my phone is blinking with unread messages and notifications. Even if I'm itching to plunge into the to-do list for the day and slap some nice satisfyingly long tailed ticks in there.
We make choices, every day. Small choices which mean great things in the big picture.
Doing Search the Scriptures on the Lord's Prayer made me see prayer in a different perspective--as a mirror.
Really? you think silently at this point. I think she's running out of ideas for this blog.
It isn't as absurd as it may sound, I promise. After all, the type of relationship we have with someone, for example, determines how many times a week we call them--why we call them--what we talk about when we call them--how long our calls are--and even what sort of language we use when we call them. Understandably, then, examining how we pray can function as a mirror that reflects the state of our relationship; either with God, when we pray to Him, or with others, when we pray about them. Our relationship with God is many-faceted, like a--alright, I needn't complete the simile. We relate to Him as children, dependents/creatures, and sinners/debtors, to name the first few that come to my mind. Each facet of our relationship with Him is important, and how we pray should reflect that. In other words, you could say this is the theology behind the ACTS prayer mnemonic. (yes, it took me so many years to see this) Without the corresponding prayer for these different facets, our relationship with Him is in danger of being imbalanced. As children, our prayer should include love, sharing, confiding, asking. As His creatures and dependents, gratitude, praise, and acknowledgement of our need for Him. As sinners and His debtors, confession and repentance...and so on, as you can go into detail somewhere else.
Seeing prayer as a mirror of our relationship with others, however, is a bit more messy and unsettling. That's what happened when I applied this perspective to the different people I was praying for (and the different struggles I had in praying for them--umm please help her with whatever upcoming exams she's going to have...she's having exams right?...ohh I forgot to pray for him AGAIN...err...can I skip this one...I'll pray for that tomorrow...GOD MAKE THIS PERSON STOP BEING SO ANNOYING...)
It helped me to see that I should be praying for the opportunity to get to know this person better.
That the fact I wasn't praying for someone, or kept postponing to, reflected the unacknowledged strain in our relationship.
To realize that surprisingly, even for people I cared deeply about, it was easy to neglect praying for them, revealing in me an underlying carelessness about their spiritual conditions.
And that the first step in dealing with difficult or unlovable people is always to pray for them--instead of conveniently pushing them from my mind, or praying only that God would take away the challenge they presented in my life.
Take a moment to think about your last interaction with someone and see if how you prayed for them--or your failure to do so--affirms the assumed status of your relationship. Chances are they may not correspond as you'd expect. Seeing this disparity has helped me be more aware and critical of my relationships with the people I'm praying for, rocking me in my otherwise comfortable complacency; it's challenged me to pray more honestly, accurately, and humbly.
Virtual communication has superseded verbal communication today, in a similar way to how communicating with God has evolved.
We talk about God more than we talk to Him. Technology gives us access to many good articles, websites, and e-sources to help us in our relationship with Him. Our lack of time, however, makes it easier for us to focus on these rather than on the relationship itself. After all--and I'm guilty of this!--it only takes so long to read an article. Five minutes or less is enough for the average article nowadays. In one click and a few rapid scrolls we can get an espresso shot of insight and wisdom, and feel that we've 'done something about our spiritual life' for the day. As a healthy marriage requires time with each other, rather than individual studies of even the most helpful marriage counselling books, we need to change this mentality.
(On a side note--yes, I'm aware how ironical this blog post is!)
One of the most important and most neglected ways to 'grow spiritually' is prayer.
In today's fast-paced lifestyle, the mere idea of sitting still, keeping your eyes closed, or your hands clasped, seems agonizingly stagnant and static. Even though there are so many ways we can incorporate prayer into our schedule; on the treadmill, on the road, on the bus, (amen to that!) in the kitchen, over the sink...all the same, prayer is something most of us know we regularly neglect everyday.
Ironically, one of the biggest reasons for this neglect--besides the delusion that it requires a solid block of unfettered time where we can sit in perfect hermit-like isolation, cool and cross-legged a la a yoga advertisement--is that there are so many things to pray about. It overwhelms us, especially when we feel we've only got five minutes to pray.
How can we possibly squeeze everything into five minutes?? We can't! Let's just avoid the whole issue and settle for a brief superficial Dear Lord, thank You for everything please help me to do everything I have to do today and keep me close to You Amen.
If we had an empty morning to ourselves, preferably on an isolated mountain top with lots of green and perhaps a waterfall or two in the background, ah, then we could really pray, we tell ourselves.
But since we don't--and it seems quite likely we never will--we need to have a sense of structure in our prayer.
Don't misunderstand me.
Prayer should be, ideally, spontaneous and natural and uninhibited. When someone first suggested that I keep a prayer schedule, I was outraged. Perhaps with an instinctive knowledge of my go-getter, list-maker mentality, it seemed to me like a death blow to the ideal of prayer itself. Mechanized, automated, so horribly and meaninglessly structured. You might as well tell me to plan how to start loving someone. I had a very Dickensian reaction to this seemingly Gradgrindian proposal.
But having started from that extreme, I've since changed my mind. In the constant struggle to maintain prayer in the 21st century lifestyle, I feel that a schedule of some sort is important in making any progress, or enabling any perseverance in prayer.
Based on your context, lifestyle, personality, and even prayer items, your prayer schedule will, and should, vary. Some people have incredibly organized and precise schedules that specify what day, what topic, what particular request. Others have a much more flexible approach, more like a basic format of organization. Wary of my personality's bent, I'm trying to keep to this, encouraging prayer time to remain spontaneous and natural instead of becoming a list of boxes to be ticked.
Even at such a simple level, this has helped me so much, I would like to share it here. It may be a very obvious idea to some of you, probably more mature Christians who have experience and wisdom. But, remembering how only a few years ago this was something I had to learn through sheer trial and error (I've been through both extremes of the hyper-organized and the hyper-flexible approach to prayer), I hope it will be helpful to some, at least, who want to do something about prayer but don't know how, short of a major restructuring of their lives. (and if you don't have time to pray as much or as well as you would like, I'm guessing you probably don't have the time for that either.)
My prayer journal is a notebook I throw into my schoolbag on weekdays, and reinstall on my shelf on the weekend. It undergoes quite a lot of wear and tear from being fished out and chucked back so many times on the bus, on the way to classes. (Note to self: invest in a hardier notebook, or else a real leather book cover for protection. From the current state of my prayer journal I'm soon going to have to deal with bits of flaking grey synthetic leather. Ugh.) You could always do a high-tech equivalent on your phone, I'm sure--but keep in mind how easy it is to get distracted by social media notifications, emails, or texts.
Every now and then--annually at the least, or else whenever I feel it's no longer relevant--I take time to reorganize my prayer schedule.
There are several items that don't change: Myself. Family. My church. Friends. Specific people I'm praying for. Salvation for certain people. Missionaries, leaders, world events.
Recently I've taken to organizing them a little differently, into Salvation (unbelievers), Spiritual Life (Christians), Prayer Requests (people I'm praying for), Me--in the roles and life You've given me, and as Your child. There is a special one for thanksgiving as well, to remember answered prayer.
You may not use the same format, of course. I suggest though, the simpler the better, especially when you first start.
What I like about this method is that you choose whatever category you feel most drawn to pray for that day--it formats all those prayer items into manageable 'servings', so you don't feel overwhelmed, or guilty for forgetting to pray for that person you said you would. (aha! we've all been there, haven't we?) Most of all, it gives you what I call 'largeness of mind' (aka mental space) which is more tied up with heart space (the 'largeness of heart' that the Bible often talks about) than we often realize. When our minds are full of what we haven't done and what we need to do, we feel overwhelmed and unable to care for anything or anyone beyond our immediate circumstances. I don't even have time to pray for the salvation of my family, or for my spiritual life. Let alone Syrian refugees or that lonely girl people whisper about. Mentally, we feel harassed and frustrated and overwhelmed--and our hearts close up simultaneously...
And God, knowing this, calls us to lay our burdens on Him--through prayer. Ironically, what a vicious cycle we sometimes make of this...
Psalm 119:32 ...For You shall enlarge my heart.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are