I’ve felt a stirring in my heart lately to write on prayer. Writing about faith always feels like sketchy territory. I am fearful you will either a) assume I have it all together, or b) even worse, assume I think I have it all together. So let’s clear this up: I don’t have it all together. For the stats lovers out there, if I translated my “togetherness” into a percentage, it would be in the neighbourhood of 0.6%. So with my 0.6%, here you go: a personal, practical look into prayer.
My parents met at church, my mom worked at church, my parents served together at church, my brother and I attended sunday school, watched our parents build two churches (literally, involved in the manual labour of both,) watched our parents tithe and give offerings, were taught to read our Bibles, prayed together before every dinner. We went to youth group Friday evenings, home group every Tuesday. The last half our education was at a private Christian school. We were Christians.
I loved Jesus. Well, from what my parents, grandparents, teachers told me about Jesus (AKA: what I knew of Him) I loved Him. I prayed in kids camp and when I concentrated really hard on Sunday mornings, I prayed then too. I sang songs. I liked church. But as a “Christian kid” there comes a time when what you’ve been handed needs to be chosen. The greatest metaphor we have for a relationship with Jesus is a relationship with anybody else. It’s conversation layered upon experience layered upon more conversation, until one day, it clicks for you. You’re in love. Although you might remember the moment you recognized your love for someone… you didn’t fall in love in one moment. It was the culmination of multiple moments.
I see my Christian childhood (and the majority of my teen years) like dating months. Little conversations, shared experiences, quiet moments. “Of course, I love God!” but missing the emotional maturity to explore the depths of following Jesus. After high school, I began to recognize I was in love with Jesus, while I simultaneously chose to walk with Him forever. I imagine a similar paradox of emotions beating in the hearts of a bride and groom on their wedding day. Love is not either/or.. it’s and/both. You can’t make yourself fall in love, but you can commit to choose love you found.
I’ve heard it said “You love your spouse on your wedding day the least.” This is how I see love for Jesus. Last Christmas, I loved him less than I do today. On graduation day, I loved him less than I do today. At 12 years old, the first time I felt God’s presence and knew in my soul he was real… I loved him less than I do now. A friend once shared that her and her boyfriend (now husband) knew 3 months into their relationship they loved each other. Looking back, she smiled, “That was really cute, thinking we wanted to get married.” They did love each other then (and are happily married today!) but they had an untested, untried, unsolidified love. As babies must drink milk before they can eat solid food, so must our untested faith for God grow (through joy, conflict, conversation) into solid maturity. My heart is to be one spiritually ready to receive solid food. (Hebrews 5)
My heart changed when I was 18 years old. I wanted to know Jesus. Church, raising my hands in worship, going to youth, dinnertime prayer, occasionally reading my Bible, it wasn’t enough. I was hungry for more. I had a lot of questions. I researched questions for hours (in true INTJ style): Does God want to heal? What does it mean to hear from God? What do people mean when they say they have a “prayer life?” Every opinion is available on the internet… so I read them all. God never heals! That was for years ago. And God can heal today! He can talk to you today! I was getting nowhere… so I started praying. (Naturally, prayer was the last resort. Whoops.) I committed to knowing the Jesus I spent my childhood following.
I had never, ever, woken up early to read my BIble before but I found myself awake as early as 5:30am on some mornings. To my best memory, I had certainly never “waited” in prayer before. I didn’t know what it meant to “rest” with God. To sit with an open Bible and an open journal, “Hey God. I want to know you more, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know much about your character… but I want to. I want to know you. The Bible tells me You want to know me, too. I’m gonna start seeking you. Praying you show up.” And He did! He really, really did. I fell in love with Jesus. I learned how to hear from God. I forgot everything I knew about “how to pray the right way” and I started talking to Him. From that day forward, He has continued to pursue me with His love as I seek Him.
Don’t get the wrong idea here, five years later, I don’t effortlessly live there. I was not up at 5:30am this morning. Excuse the abundance of relationship comparisons, but I really feel it is the best illustration. I don’t think a random Tuesday six years into marriage will carry the same emotion and passion as a honeymoon. I have been through dry seasons of “God, I don’t feel you close.” I have also experienced beautiful seasons of closeness in prayer. Through the rough patches, my heart recalls the past faithfulness of the Lord–the past closeness–and trust in Him grows. And just like my marriage someday, I pray every, single, year will grow our love deeper and truer, despite the “emotion” of whatever trials/joys our year held.
So how do we grow? How do we make the transition from milk to solids? I’ll never forget a message from summer camp a speaker (and now-friend) shared. It was a simple message, a practical look into this seemingly “mysterious thing” some Christians do called prayer. He talked about celebrating his wife’s birthday. He gathered a bunch of people in a room, and they all sang songs about her but none of the people talked to her. Afterwards they shared lunch together and her name came up a few times, but she wasn’t invited. Later in the evening, they sat around and said “Her birthday this morning was awesome!” but none of them had bothered to look her in the eye, write her a card, sit down and share their lives. What do you mean, being near her wasn’t enough?! Look at all they did to celebrate her! (Of course, this never happened. Speaker analogy. Didn’t see that coming, did you!? Just kidding, you did.)
How often do we treat Jesus this way? We gather every Sunday morning to learn about Him and we sing songs. We could faithfully attend church for 30 years and never really know Him unless we pray! Prayer is simply the process of knowing God. It’s sharing the deepest parts of us with a God who knows everything we will ever say or think or do but still wants to hear it from us… simply because He loves us that much. The list of excuses we silly humans make to keep from praying are endless: “Prayer is boring. Prayer is hard. I’m too busy to pray. I have other things to do. I don’t feel like God hears. I feel like I’m talking to the wall. I get distracted really easily. I don’t know what to pray about.”
Prayer is a discipline. There’s no way around it. We struggle with this concept as a generation. No, I don’t think we are all lazy-good-for-nothings… but culture has taught us “everything should come fast and easy.” If we need to warm up leftovers, we have microwaves. No need to wait for the stove. If we want to contact a friend, no need to call their landline and leave a message. We text. TV commercials? Who watches those anymore? We have PVR, fast-forward through it all. I’m not calling any of these conveniences negative but they communicate one thing: We don’t need to wait.
One of the biggest components to a prayer life is WAITING! We are talking to the God of the universe. How can we sit down for two minutes and say, “Hey, please tell me everything you know and give me direction for my life now, because I got a 9am appointment” and expect him to answer at the snap of our fingers? (Now, now, God is infinitely more gracious and patient than I. Amazed at the knowledge He does impart even in two-minute prayers sometimes.)
In any committed relationship, there are two kinds of communication: quality time and “grab it when you can get it” time. You build a relationship during the focused, isolated one-on-one times (in a relationship, these are dates) and you maintain the communication of such a relationship through the “random” times: texts, phone calls, notes. Someday, if my relationship with my husband consists of only three minute chats before falling asleep… that isn’t a marriage. BUT, if we’ve shared quality time and invested into each another throughout the week, those three minutes before bed are actually something BEAUTIFUL and life-giving. In our relationship with God, there are likewise two kinds of communication: isolated prayer time and “shotgun” prayers (to borrow Matt Chandler‘s phraseology.)
In one sermon on prayer, Chandler asked his church via show of hands, which prayers they found easiest: concentrated or throughout-the-day? In my head I responded, “concentrated.” Less than a minute later, he spoke right to the Type-A’s and said we find the former easiest. It’s true. Read my mind. Morning prayer time on the to-do list, boom, checked that off, now onto the next task. The negative side is some days, I won’t communicate with God at ALL until I flop into bed that evening. Other personalities might struggle with a committed time, but find it natural to pray while waiting at a red light or in the grocery store. (I’m a terrible multi-tasker. I’d probably run red lights and knock over a display of canned beans.) With a Type-A personality comes a driven personality. With a driven personality comes high-standards, for other people, but especially yourself.
I have fought condemnation long and hard in this area of prayer. As Christians, we all know we should pray more. We just don’t like to hear it because we feel guilty. I like to achieve things, I don’t enjoy being lazy (unless I’ve worked all day, duh) and I can have a fear of living mediocre. Last year I worked myself into a tizzy. Some mornings, I would try to pray, get frustrated and use all of excuses listed a few paragraphs above, and then leave my room feeling like a FAILURE. I’m lazy, I can’t pray, why can’t I just focus, what a pathetic Christian, people are being persecuted all over–my willpower is ZERO in my safe, cozy, warm house.
I had such a stupid perspective. None of those feelings/emotions/thoughts are of God, or His heart towards me. It’s twisted. The Lord is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands.” (Exodus 34) Abounding in steadfast love. And in Romans 8:1, Paul writes “There is therefore (because of what Jesus has done on the cross) no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What will I believe? My emotions or the truth that 1) God abounds in love and 2) in Him, there is no condemnation?
Practically speaking, in my life, prayer is a combination of structure and freeform. I sit down with my tea on my bedroom floor in the mornings. That is my place. It is helpful to have a place. (I also set an alarm to make sure I have time. Priorities.) I start by asking God to reveal Himself in a new way through His word. I read a section of the Bible (I pick books to go through from start to finish over a few weeks. Today I read Galatians 2-3 and 5 Psalms. I read the Psalms all the time.) I read slow, trying to digest. I often remind myself the Bible is not a textbook. I keep a journal by my side. Some people find writing out their prayers helpful… I’m much too scattered. I use my journal to write down verses, usually 1-3 a day. Then I start to pray.
I was never able to pray for any length of time. I’d pray for my family by name, for health, for work and… then I’d open my eyes. THREE MINUTES? Lord, have mercy. One of the most helpful things has been keeping a list. I have it written on my phone. Every day of the week, I have 5-10 set things to pray for. Sometimes grouped by “category” other times they are a mix. Mondays, I pray for my business (I pray for my business more than just one day a week, but this is the “scheduled” time.) It is helpful to be specific! Some of the things I pray for include: increased readership on my blog, the right kind of clients every year, opportunities to share my faith in Jesus, opportunities to be featured in magazines and on blogs, new creativity in my sessions and on wedding days, inspiration for new ideas/blogs/branding/next steps. If a business decision is weighing heavy on my mind, I pray about it! If I think of another photographer, I pray for them! If I think of specific clients, I pray for them! If I remember a blog reader’s comment, I pray for them! Over time, prayer becomes an expanding trail of things you could pray about… and 30 minutes won’t feel like enough time.
Other things I pray about include my church (pastors, leaders, creativity, passion), my youth group (pastors, leaders, creativity, passion), various church plants/missionaries (Vancouver, Victoria, Melbourne, Quebec), my hub group (all of the girls by name!), for healing (I keep a long list… I hate sickness) and of course, anything else that pops into my brain. Some days (this is the free-form part) I doodle mind-maps. I’ll put someones name in a circle and then have “spokes” going out every direction praying for specific areas of their life. Or I’ll do that with my business, or a church, etc. Some days, I’ll copy my list into my journal. After writing each name/request, I’ll pray. The neat thing about recording request is looking back and seeing the date I prayed for such-and-such then to see how it was answered miraculously a month later. Sometimes I review past entries and cross items off to remind myself of the Lord’s faithfulness.
At times, being honest and transparent in prayer is a challenge. I have days where prayer doesn’t feel… easy. My mind is itching to focus on anything but talking to God. Sometimes, I get mad at myself (condemnation: bad news, but it happens) and I go to work in frustration. Other times, I get annoyed at God. The latter is what God would prefer. (Isn’t that crazy? His grace is enough for our bad moods. His love can handle our frustration.) Some days, I don’t WANT to pray through my list and I don’t WANT to read 5 chapters of the Bible. I confuse these feelings with “I don’t want to talk to God.”
But no! God is not necessarily found in those good things. Some mornings I tell God something like this, “I can’t concentrate on your Word. I don’t want to pray through my stinkin’ list. I am having a rough morning and I’m sorry I feel like I need to come to You with my neat lists or a perfect attitude. Thank you for loving me despite my moods. Thank you for hearing me when I pray. Today, can I feel Your love? Can You make me aware of your presence?” It’s okay to throw structure out the window.
Have you ever been around those Christians who just seem to KNOW Jesus. Not in the way I know Him. Not in the way you know Him. But in an incredible, deep, lasting, trusting, intimate friendship way. They inspire me. I want to know Jesus like that. And He is available to me. God doesn’t play favourites–every promise in His word is for ME, just as it is for YOU, just as it is for the pastor of the world’s largest church. He is so willing to meet us. When I witness that closeness with God, I truly want it in my life… more than anything else on Earth.
What a safe, terrifying place to be.
A relationship with Jesus is the only thing that matters. Not our fluffy words and Christianese, not our church attendance, not our ability to read the Bible, not our tithing record, not our small group attendance… nothing matters without Jesus. I don’t want to live a neat Christian life but miss Jesus. I don’t want to go to church but miss Jesus. I don’t even want to spend my life giving away all my money and serving people but miss Jesus in the process.
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
P.S. If you want to read some of my favourite books about prayer, here’s a list for you! All of these books I really, really enjoyed. But a reminder for me and for you, we can read about prayer until we die, but unless we put our books down and pray… it’s kinda fruitless knowledge.