I struggle with a regular prayer life, which makes me kinda feel like a Lenten Loser. Lent is the time of year where we’re supposed to get better at the whole prayer thing, not worse. It’s like spilling coffee all over the inside of your car while the outside is getting washed (you know, from the bumps of the automatic carwash — I can’t be the only person to have experienced this irony).
“I’m not very good at prayer” is usually caused by one of two factors: Time and Distraction.
Let’s talk about these, won’t we?
If you fall into the “I’m not very good at prayer” category because you don’t set and keep a time to pray, then be of good cheer: your problem isn’t as bad as you assume. Speaking from experience, this is merely a case of a bad diagnosis. How discouraging it must be to think that we are bad at connecting with God when, in reality, it’s just a matter of moving the day around. To put it more succinctly: “I’m not very good at setting and keeping a time for prayer.” It’s not that I’m bad at prayer, it’s just that I’m bad at scheduling. Perhaps this problem isn’t as hard to fix as it seems.
How do I fix my time issue?
Setting a time for prayer is easy. Keeping it is hard. Most everything else you do is in strict observance to the clock. An alarm tells you to get up, a boss tells you to be at your desk by 9, your English prof demands a paper by midnight. Somehow you abide by these rules every day. Every stinking day. The reason we struggle with setting a time for prayer is that there’s no direct negative correlation, at least not that we detect.
First, decide in advance when you’re going to pray.
Without a specific time in mind, a prayer time left to chance has a good chance… of being forgotten or pushed later and later in the day until your Colbert/Netflix binge lulls you to sleepytime. I know you’re not a morning person because of how angry you will get when I suggest this: get up earlier in the morning so that you can pray. That’s the only way it works for me. If I miss my 5am wake up call, I can occasionally get away with pushing it to 5:30 or 6, but, after that, the chances I will have a solid prayer time are quite diminished. Just set a time and do it.
Second, decide where you’re going to pray.
Pro tip: if you want a deeper prayer life, don’t multitask it. By this I mean don’t drive/take a shower/read the news feed as you pray. Indeed you could pray during these times, and maybe you should, especially with how you drive (just seeing if you’re still angry about the morning thing). But multitasking is a myth. We can only do one thing at a time. Multitasking is just doing two things in quick succession — and wasting time and energy switching between the two. By deciding where to pray, you set aside a mini sanctuary that is meant for only one purpose. For me, it’s my Mom’s old drawing table, set up in the dusty corners of my basement. I know that when I sit there, facing that direction, it’s prayer time.
Third, decide how long you’re going to pray for.
You’re working on time management, right? Time management includes when you start something as well as when you stop. For me, it’s one hour. That’s a HUGE bucket of time in my day, but, for my life, it’s vital. It may sound like a long time to you, but here’s the stinger: after an hour, I don’t want to stop & the time flies by! That’s strange. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to win any saint medals – just set a realistic time limit (10 minutes? 20 minutes? 5 minutes) and see where it goes. Pastoral disclaimer: if the Holy Spirit has you go longer, don’t drop my name as a reason to stop.
Now that you’ve got a plan for making and keeping a prayer time, you’ll find another prayer deflator: distraction.
Distraction: I’m bad at concentrating [squirrel] during prayer.
This one is common to everybody. Praying along, and all the sudden you can’t stop thinking about your March Madness Brackets or how to replace the rotors on your Nissan. You’ve probably heard someone tell you to push the distractions out of your head. Here’s some advice: don’t. Explore the distraction. Follow it, doing so in a conversation with God. You can push it aside but it’ll keep crawling up onto the table. Put a lasso around it, consider it in the presence of the Lord. Why does this distraction come to mind? If you can treat your distractions as a gift, you may find that the Spirit of God is pulling the conversation in a better direction. I have found that entertaining the distractions with Jesus in the mix has an arresting effect on what was initially seen as a troublemaker.
Prayer is a conversation, not a presentation
If you were sitting at this table conversing with me and saw what I just saw, our conversation would’ve stopped. I won’t go into detail (you had to be there) but, when that bird flew into the… sorry, you had to be there. Wouldn’t it be weird if I went on talking as if it didn’t happen? You’d think I was zoned. OR what if I apologized profusely for the distraction and kept asking you to forgive me for it? Awkward, right? Hardly conversational. There is no powerpoint in prayer, we’re not onstage, and there is no pressure to present yourself as someone you’re not. Be free.
Pastoral disclaimer: if the distraction is a voice that tells you you’re no good, etc., don’t entertain that. That can be pushed aside because it’s simply not true.
If it’s a time issue, you can fix that. If it’s a distraction issue, try just going with it. Can you imagine a prayer life that wasn’t based on anxiety and instead found a home in just giving it your best shot? That’s the kind of thing you’d do for a friend, and that’s exactly what the Holy One invites us to. Grace is amazing. It’s Lent.
How have you conquered these two obstacles in prayer? Where’s your struggle? What’s your challenge and/or encouragement to others? I’d love to hear!