Life is funny sometimes; this isn’t the blog entry I was going to write for this week. I started that one and I’ll finish it another time. This struggle hit me right in the face this week and I felt like, if nothing else, it was therapeutic to write about it. One of my awesome friends is going through a very tough life struggle and it made me want to stop and spend some deep time praying for them. Yet, when I sat down and tried to do so my mind kept wandering. I’m sure (and the Scriptures support this idea) that God hears the heart of our prayers over the length of our prayers but this struck me as a real struggle. Why could I not spend a large quantity of time praying for my dear friend who deserves so much more than just my prayers?
I’ve known for years that prayer isn’t my best spiritual practice. You want to discuss systematic theology? I’m your man. If you want to do a Bible study and cover the historical and cultural context of the passages; I can do that no problem. Yet, if you want me to spend quality time on my knees pouring out my heart to our great God on behalf of someone in need I can’t seem to make it more than 10-15 minutes before I tap out. My brain starts wandering and I cannot seem to keep it together. All of my worries about life come pouring in; bills that need paying, plans I need to make for the future, worries about my family, concerns about what I need to eat, how I can plan our grocery list, wondering if I put my girls’ homework in the backpacks, and on and on and on it goes.
This just breaks my heart! How can I not want to spend time with the God who loves me so much? How could I not look forward to getting by myself to go to Him on behalf of those in need? Why is it such a struggle to simply get alone and pray to my Savior? It baffles me that this could be such a problem in my life. I can make it to the gym 5 days a week, I can feed myself multiple times a day, I can keep clean clothes in my closet, and I can keep a reasonably clean house. Yet, I cannot seem to make it through a simple prayer session! This is a really big problem.
The good news is that I’m not alone. According to Dr. Donald G. Bloesch (Ph.D., University of Chicago) that only 8% of people claim to find comfort in praying for extended periods of time (The Struggle of Prayer, Harper & Row, 1980, pg. 12). This, obviously, leaves the other 92% of us to struggle through what it takes to spend some quality time with God and bring our issues to our loving God who wants so much for us to speak to Him. The Apostle Peter wrote that we should “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” (1 Peter 5:7 NLT) Yet, if we cannot spend time in prayer we cannot make this happen.
Dr. Bloesch continues to explain that prayer is a struggle because we find so many other worries that we feel have an immediate demand of our time. We have bills to pay, and children to raise, missions to accomplish, goals to accomplish, and jobs to work which requires us to take our focus off of our creator and place them on the created (Ibid, pg. 4). It is in this middle of this problem that so many of us find ourselves in daily. We want to pray, we feel compelled to pray, but we just cannot find a way to do so. I know this is a struggle for me and it is an area I am now compelled to work towards overcoming.
At a veteran’s retreat my wife and I attended a few months ago, I was introduced to a practice known as ‘mindfulness.’ Mindfulness is the art of “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68). I will confess that, at the time, I viewed the experience we went through as hokum and perhaps a load of hogwash (as my grandfather would often say). The more I research this idea, however, the more I see how the practice of mindfulness increases the ability of the person to focus their mental efforts on the present and take it off of both the past and the future. This can be a powerful practice when trying to learn how to stay present in prayer and not get distracted by all the crazy thoughts that invade my brain when I try to simply sit and pray.
Jesus taught about this and provided a constant example to His followers about how prayer should be done. We see the continual example of Jesus taking consistent time to withdraw from the things going on around him, get by himself, and pray (Mark 1:35, Mark 6:45-46, Luke 4:42, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, etc.). From His example we can draw a multitude of powerful practices to implement in our daily lives. I would also add what He taught His during the Sermon on the Mount:
 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.  But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 5:5-6 NLT)
With these two sections combined we find some powerful practices that Jesus gave through His words and His example that we can apply to our lives:
- Pray with intention – It has been said that if we fail to plan that we are planning to fail (Zig Ziglar). We should make prayer purposeful in our lives.
- Pray with regularity – Jesus prayed with such regularity that His followers felt it was worth writing about decades after they saw it happen. This is something I would want said about me too.
- Pray away from distraction – Jesus prayed away from distractions and told His followers to do the same. Get alone, shut the door, and pray in private. This keeps the distractions away and our focus from the constant demands of life.
- Pray with the right purpose – The religious leaders prayed in public and used a lot of words in order to get recognition and to be known as ‘godly’ people. Jesus taught His followers to get alone and let God be the one who knows our heart intention. We should pray with the right purpose in our heart and a desire to be with our King.
At the very moment I am writing this I am thinking what I imagine you are: “I can do all of these things and yet I am still distracted!” I think here we can look to the practice of mindfulness to help us out. While this practice originated from Buddhist practices I think we can still apply some of these ideas to our own lives. Like yoga, we can take the good and leave off the bad when it comes to these things. We can eat the meat and spit out the bones when it comes to these things.
Looking back at the mindfulness study I referenced earlier (Marlatt & Kristeller) we can take these steps to practice the art of mindfulness:
- Set aside some time. You don’t need a meditation cushion or bench, or any sort of special equipment to access your mindfulness skills—but you do need to set aside some time and space.
- Observe the present moment as it is. The aim of mindfulness is not quieting the mind, or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: we’re aiming to pay attention to the present moment, without judgement. Easier said than done, we know.
- Let your judgements roll by.When we notice judgements arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.
- Return to observing the present moment as it is. Our minds often get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
- Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
With both of these sets of ‘to-dos’ set up for us, I encourage you to take time to practice these 9 things. I am going to get back with you on how my prayer life has changed from this (if it does at all) and let you know my thoughts on this practice. One thing I know, prayer was important to my King and it should be important to me. I must become better at the practice of prayer so that I can draw closer to God and be a better bringer of concerns to Him.
Here is my game plan for this week:
- Set aside a certain time to pray – I will be setting aside 20 minutes (plus 5 minutes to get away and 5 minutes to get back, so 30 minutes total) from 10:30am – 11:00am every day for the next week. Many of my friends and pastors would say that first thing in the morning is best; but I am not awake enough to do much more than put my gym clothes on at that point in the day.
- Practice through the steps of mindfulness as listed above – I will spend around 5 to 10 minutes going through each of the steps and getting my mind prepared to pray without distraction.
- Bring a prepared prayer list – I have found that having a list of things/people to pray for makes it easier to not get distracted. This doesn’t mean that I am permanently tied to that list but it gives me direction.
- Take time to enjoy God’s presence – I have realized that my most neglected aspect of prayer is to just enjoy God’s presence in my life. His Spirit lives in me and I do not take time to just bask in the knowledge that He is with me. I will try and spend some time just sitting with Him.
Perhaps you’d consider joining me? Let’s try this together and see what changes. It is my hope and prayer that God will honor this and show up in our lives in a mighty way. Here is a passage I plan on meditating on if you want to use it as well:
 The Lord is good to those who depend on him,
to those who search for him.
 So it is good to wait quietly
for salvation from the Lord.
 And it is good for people to submit at an early age
to the yoke of his discipline:
 Let them sit alone in silence
beneath the Lord’s demands.
 Let them lie face down in the dust,
for there may be hope at last. (Lamentations 3: 25-29 NLT)