Imagine a person who for years and years has grabbed coffee and a bagel each morning and then fasted till the next day, taking only sips of water, juice, or soda maybe, grabbing a cracker or a pretzel when her busy life made that a thing that she could easily do. And then imagine one day she hears of this new approach to nourishment. Something called meals. Three times a day. Cereal with milk and coffee in the morning; entire sandwiches at lunchtime; meat, pasta, salad, and crusty bread for dinner; and at bedtime, a piece of apple pie like you haven’t tasted since you were a child. That comparison comes closest to describing the change in my life once I started praying for 15 minutes 4 times a day. It gave a whole new meaning to the instruction to “taste and see how good the Lord is” (Ps. 34:8).
I might have expected that when I began this new discipline it would be like pulling teeth—that difficult and painful. But prayer is what we were made for; prayer is a spiritual connection with the living God. It is not an ordinary experience. Once I had completed the daunting task of upending my life to take on this new challenge, I found that it was like coming home to a place I had only dreamed about. We are creatures designed by God to operate in a certain way. When we are in harmony with our design, we function well, and when we are out of harmony with our design, we don’t. A whale stranded on a beach flops about. Ah, but see him in the water and he is the magnificent creature God made him to be. And when we are in communion with our Lord in prayer, we are something to behold—something God beholds with pleasure.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the change from snatching snacks to sitting down to three meals a day was a slight thing. It was enormous. It called for a radical overhaul of my weekly schedule, an upset of priorities and commitments, a rearranging of relationships and, especially, of my mindset. It meant revision of my goals. And the preparation took more thought and energy and planning than the prayer. Think about preparing a Thanksgiving dinner. It takes ten hours to make the meal, and one hour to eat it. Or, consider the preparation for painting a room, the taping and moving furniture and covering everything in sight, all of it requiring much more time than the actual brushstrokes.
The first thing I had to do was take a look at how I spent my time, and then ask about every activity on the list: Is itnecessary or optional? And then the next question: Can I reducethe amount of time I spend on this? Can I make do withsleeping ten fewer minutes? Can food preparation time be cut? When Martha raised that question with Jesus, he had some pretty specific thoughts on the subject (Luke 10:41). Do I need to open junk mail, answer every email and every cell phone call, shop, read magazines, and watch the news?
If you own a full apartment building and want to move in a new tenant, you must first evict one tenant who is already living there. We don’t have blocks of time sitting vacant, waiting to be filled with prayer. They are already filled with other activities that we will no longer be able to do. To give prayer a central place in my life, I had to eliminate a number of things that felt pretty vital to me—or rather, they felt vital until I tried prayer in their place.
Until praying became routine, I literally wrote my prayer times in my calendar. I decided for the sake of practicality that I would not stick to set times, although I do love the grounding, reverent aspect of the formal honoring of God at set times of worship through the day. Instead, I made my daily prayer times first thing in the morning, right before (or some days instead of) lunch, then at the end of the afternoon, and finally, late in the evening—but I allowed myself flexibility so that “first thing in the morning” meant 6:30 some days and 8:30 others.
My experience of praying became enlivening and regular—that is, until it waned. I found that regular prayer is not an easy course to chart. I am very good at falling by the wayside, but just because I failed and had to begin again—and again—does not mean that I do not believe this is the way of prayer that I want in my life.
New Times, New Prayers
As I began my new practice, it became clear pretty quickly that not only when but how I prayed was also going to change. For too long, prayer had often been my sitting with my head bowed and my eyes closed, asking God to bless me and my dear ones, asking a quick blessing on the day, and hurrying away. So I began to acquire several collections of prayers written by saints down through the ages—some prayers prayed a thousand years ago—prayers I prayed with concentration and intent.
And I began praying Scripture (and not just the Psalms), reading each word very slowly, forming each phrase into a prayer. This was very different from my study of Scripture. Now the Scripture studied me.
Prayer is being consciously in God’s presence, focusing our eyes on him, on who he is, on what he’s like. My prayer took the form of singing hymns and songs of praise, sitting, kneeling, standing, hands raised high, or falling on my face before God. We are flesh and blood. We must pray with our bodies. My prayer was also contemplation, meditation, listening to God’s voice, sometimes writing letters to God, even emails. Often for evening prayers I would light a candle, sometimes with a Gregorian chant playing softly—the candle and the chant helping to focus my thoughts on him—standing in my often-chilly kitchen late at night, praying to the One who is the light of the world.
My prayer might find me standing all alone in the middle of a deserted ball field on a clear winter’s day, singing out in that beautiful air “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” I walk a lot, and I’ve often stopped to praise the sunset. I began stopping to praise the sun setter. The sun riser. The already risen Son of God. I have a particular spot on a worn and wobbly bench in a local park that is my prayer place there. I have a corner in my sunroom where I sit, being consciously in the presence of God, sitting down alone in the evening, leaning on him, and talking the whole thing over, filling my mind with images of him. Prayer became astonishing. I began living into the discovery that prayer is the most outrageous, enlivening thing that we can do.
The Hours of Prayer in Scripture—and in Our Modern Lives
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is always going off to be alone with his Father. He would leave in the middle ofsomething to go pray. Jesus needed that. His heart longed for that. Jesus often withdrew to pray (Luke 5:16), going up into the hills by himself, being with his Father there (Matt. 14:23).
And throughout the Bible, there are set times for prayer, specifically the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour of the day—or 9:00 a.m., 12 noon, and 3:00 p.m.—prayer times observed by the Old Testament saints, the New Testament church, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Three times a day Daniel prayed (Dan. 6:10). And in the Book of Acts, it was the third hour on the day of Pentecost when 120 disciples were in the upper room praying and were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3, 15). The New Testament church customarily went to the temple at the hours of prayer. “Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1 KJV, emphasis mine). And Cornelius was in prayer at about the ninth hour when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a vision, and Peter went up on the housetop to pray at about the sixth hour when he saw a vision of a great sheet, full of all kinds of beasts, let down from heaven (Acts 10:9).
Jesus was crucified in the third hour of the day (Mark 15:25). The darkness at noonday occurred in the sixth hour (Mark 15:33; Matt. 27:45). Finally, at the time of the evening prayer, the ninth hour, Jesus gave up the ghost (Luke 23:44). These hours of prayer are memorials of him who made it possible for us to come boldly before the throne of God in prayer (Heb. 10:19).
And yet we say: We don’t have time to pray. We imagine that we are the first to have demanding lives. We think that we invented busy. But busyness has always been. Martin Luther said he generally prayed two hours every day, except on very busy days. On those days, he prayed three. Luther was the dictionary definition of a busy man—defending theology, translating the Bible, writing, leading a Reformation, not to mention tending hearth and home. Family and children, the care of others’ lives, the most relentless occupation of them all. Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, gave birth to 19 children, of whom 10 lived to adulthood. This home-schooling mom prayed two hours every day, and when there wasn’t solitude to pray, she would sit down in a corner and flip her apron up over her head. Her children knew that meant that she was in communion with the very God. Hudson Taylor, that missionary to China who changed the world, lived days far, far too busy to pray, and so he rose at 2 a.m. and prayed till 4 a.m.
How do we arrive at that place of continuous connection, unbroken fellowship, where every breath breathes in his love, breathes out his majesty? Not by dropping by for a quick “Dear God,” a fast “Thank you for this day. Please bless me on my way. I see our time is up.”
“Well, it’s a start,” we say.
But I have come to think this may not be the case. Perhaps it’s not a start at all but rather an ironclad guaranteed finish, for the simple reason that it is, by design, as doomed to failure as is devoting five minutes a day to any enterprise we deeply value.
“I tried.” “I prayed.” “Nothing much happened.” “I gave it a shot.”
I think the devil must dearly love short prayers, the quick and easy kind where we can dip one toe in, tell ourselves we did it, and console each other: “Prayer is hard.” We shake our heads and say, “It’s not easy,” as if to say God isn’t always there, when truth be told, we haven’t stuck around long enough to find out whether he is or not. We knock on the gates of heaven, then scribble a quick note we stick between the rails, and run back to our busy lives. “I guess nobody’s home,” we say.
We pray in such time as we have to spare. Which is fine. We can do that. We can do whatever we want. We can give God five or ten minutes, bending on one knee, one eye on the clock, the motor running. We can even tell each other and ourselves that it is reasonable. But let us not pretend our spirits and our God require no more. We need hours—one a day and sometimes more—to spend in mystical communion with the God of the universe, the Creator, our Father and our Lord.
If God is a maybe, or even just a good idea, then it makes sense to pray a little in the morning and whisper prayers here and there throughout the day. But if God is God, and if the God is interested in being in communion with me, then the only thing that makes even a particle of sense is to pursue him 24/7, to drop everything to enjoy that sweet, delicious honor.
What’s Theology Got to Do with It?
In the course of my four-times-a-day discipline, I have sometimes found myself asking, What is my theologyof prayer? That is, what do I believe about the nature of the practice and the One to whom I pray?
Much of this may seem obvious, but it is important to say clearly that prayer does not exist as a freestanding endeavor; the practice cannot be divorced from the One to whom our prayers are addressed. And surely all prayers are addressed, sealed, stamped, and sent somewhere, and so they will be deeply influenced by our understanding of the recipient, be that God, or nature, or art, or the universe, or the spirit within. This is a concept of both magnitude and consequence, a matter that we need to consider if we are to pray and live in satisfying communion with the Lord God.
The book The Knowledge of the Holy, by A. W. Tozer, is probably the one piece of writing, apart from Scripture, that has had the most profound influence on my life. In this small but profound exposition, Tozer sets himself the task of writing about the attributes of God: God as independent, omnipotent, loving, faithful, and truly other. Tozer teases out the reverberations of each attribute as he offers help to understand and experience each one as it plays out in our lives. He contends that every human problem is theological, and he makes a case that will convince even the most skeptical of the wisdom of these words. The book is dated now, its references and language of another time and sensibility, but every sentence in the book rewards the reader. On the final page, Tozer concludes with four words of advice: “Acquaint thyself with God.”
If this is not the business of our prayers, then I don’t know what is. Here is the stark antithesis of prayer for prayer’s sake. Here lies the reason that we might do well to analyze our theology of prayer, comparing it to prayers of our friends who pray to art, to the universe, or to goodwill. We are wasting our lifetimes if we fail to study, to ponder, and to seriously consider to whom we pray, and based upon that understanding, how we pray to him.
If prayer matters, and if we even consider that it is something we might attempt with daily discipline and care, then we will do well to invest a bit of time and thought considering its most elementary foundation. There will be no shortage of big questions: Who is God? What is he like? And, Who am I? What might be the nature of communication between us? And surely, ours will be a theology that evolves across the span of what will be a lifetime.
We can have a theology of praying, and just as truly, we can have a theology of not praying. I think it might run something like this: “Truth be told, I don’t pray much, but I am a Christian. I love Jesus, I go to church, and I try to live a good life, so therefore God must be someone who doesn’t really care whether I pray or not. To him, it must be optional. I should pray more, but bottom line, I think God’s fine with my not praying.”
For most of my life, that is how my functioning theology has played out in practice. I might sit every morning for an hour, gearing up to pray. I read Scripture; I read books. I had 10 or 12 great books at all times stacked beside my praying chair. But most days I was lucky if five minutes of that hour I did in fact pray. I was like the wife who reads a million books on how to have a world-class marriage but six nights a week skips dinner with her husband.
As in so many areas of theology, the doctrine I espoused was founded not on Scripture, not on the teachings of the church, but on the particulars of my own behavior. Many contemporary decisions regarding morality follow just this creative logic: we watch what we do, and we decide it is good because we do it. We do not pray, and upon the basis of that behavior, we decide it is okay.
But God is Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all. Christianity is many things, but one thing it is not is a sideline, a nice hobby, a part-time occupation. We have two choices: in or out; holy or not holy. We must never pretend God sent his Son to die so that we might have life occasionally, so that we might flicker in and out.
A theology of prayer that understands prayer as the centerpiece of life will offer no alternative. We are not free to say, “Well, prayer is not really my thing, so I’ll do service, feed the poor, give money, fight for justice, teach and preach.” Whatever prayer may be, whatever theology of prayer we may espouse, if we are sons and daughters of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit, prayer is not an option we might practice or neglect.
Let us begin with looking heavenward, to see our God; to wonder who and what he is; to make it the business of a lifetime to discover him.
Linda McCullough Moore is author of The Book of Not So Common Prayer: A New Way to Pray, A New Way to Live (Abingdon Press), from which this article was excerpted.
Image Credit: Ed Yourdon, Flickr