Over the past six months, I have been working at cultivating a more regular prayer life. And I cannot report the effort an unqualified success.
Prayer is supposed to be part of the life of every Christian (every religious person?), and certainly it ought to be part of the life of every church leader. I get that in my head. I have found it hard to put into practice.
To be fair with myself, I pray. But it happens mostly in gatherings with other people. Prayer is obviously a part of our weekly Sunday services, and I pray as I write sermons, and as I join in the corporate prayers of the gathered people of God. Our church staff meets for a brief service of scripture, reflection, and prayer every morning, Monday through Thursday. I’m usually there. Prayer is a significant part of those services and I engage seriously and sincerely. So, it’s not like I never pray.
The challenging part has been developing that regular, every day, at the same time every day, discipline and practice of regular private prayer. It seems like I go a few days in a row and then suddenly it’s been a week without. It shouldn’t be that hard, should it?
Almost a year ago, I registered for the Grace Institute of Spiritual Formation, figuring that after trying to go it alone for years with not much to show for it, maybe I needed some professional help. The spiritual formation process consists of 8 three-day retreats spread over two years. Each retreat includes a cognitive element in which we learn intellectually about some aspect of spiritual discipline and spiritual practices and each retreat includes time to engage in those practices both alone and in the context of a small covenant group.
I’ve now attended two of those retreats and while they’ve been helpful, they haven’t been a magic bullet. I’ve gotten instruction and some practice in different kinds of prayer. I’ve gotten encouragement to develop a more disciplined prayer life. But what I have not gotten is some easy, foolproof solution to what I have viewed as a problem for a long time – how to develop a disciplined and regular prayer life.
Part of what I’m trying to come to grips with is that my challenge to pray is not just about prayer. It’s about the contours of my life and personality. I do not like routine. There are things I do regularly, but find that I need to switch them up often. I exercise regularly, but don’t like doing the same thing over and over. I don’t like my days to look the same day after day. I find that after a few months of using the same process for sermon generation, I need to change it and do it a different way for a while. I don’t like cooking the same things week after week and am always on the lookout for new recipes.
So accepting that this is the way I am, what I’m trying to figure out is how to make prayer a regular part of my days, knowing that a rigid routine is probably not going to work for me.
In all of it, what I’m learning is that for me at least, developing the habit and practice of prayer is work; it is hard. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep trying, but it does mean that the magic bullet, the whiz-bang solution are probably not out there. I let you know how it goes.
Page 187 of UNBINDING THE GOSPEL offers a commentary on this through the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, sinner.” The author says if we pray simply and often, we begin to pray all the time. I will test it out and report back on my success or failure.