I need to make a confession: I have been weak in prayer lately. Does that make me a Christian atheist? What I mean is that for the past number of years, five or so, I haven’t prayed much. I lead Faith Church’s weekly prayer meeting, we pray before Serve Team and Leadership Team meetings, and I go to my local ministerium’s monthly prayer meeting. My family prays before meals and bedtimes, but personally, privately, I don’t pray much. Some people would say Christians who don’t pray much are Christian atheists.
It wasn’t always that way for me.
I really had my eyes opened to the importance of prayer in college. I took a course on prayer, taught by my wife’s father, though he wasn’t my father-in-law at the time. We not only read great books about prayer and studied what the Bible says about prayer, including the great prayers in the Bible, but we were also required to pray. It was right there in the syllabus. This course that I was paying a lot of money for was requiring me to pray. And if I didn’t pray, I would get a bad grade. When have you ever taken a course like that? What’s more, in class we often spent time in prayer. And my eventual father-in-law held prayer retreats that students could volunteer to attend. They were not part of the class requirements, but we were encouraged to go. Over those weekends, we would spend long sessions in intercessory prayer.
For the class, our daily prayer requirement was 30 minutes. We would then have to record our time and turn in our records for a grade. This was based on the honor system, of course, but can you imagine lying about how much you prayed? That was an irony I didn’t want to touch. So with money and a grade on the line, I endeavored to pray. I will never forget that first day attempting to hit the 30 minute mark in prayer.
I was taking the course during the fall semester, so after soccer practice, I ate dinner, got a shower, and collected my gear. I brought my Bible, a notebook, pen…and my watch. It was a gorgeous late summer evening, so I wandered outside my dorm to find a secluded spot on campus behind the library. I decided that I would try to employ some prayer methods that I had learned, such as ACTS, which is an acronym for Adoration – Confession – Thanksgiving – Supplication (a fancy word for prayer requests). I began praying, “Dear Lord, you are an awesome God…” and off I went, praying through each section of ACTS. I confessed my sins, I thought of ways to be grateful to God, and I prayed for everyone and everything I knew. I was doing it. I was praying more than I had ever prayed in my life. And it was great. I have to admit that I was really intimidated by this assignment. Thirty minutes seemed like an eternity to pray, and to think that I had to pray that long every day for an entire semester was daunting. But after this first day, maybe I was wrong. This might not be so bad. That is until I looked at my watch.
Five measly minutes had gone by.
I was in shock. I thought I had been talking with God for at least 15 or 20 minutes. But only five? That was a dose of reality. I was totally prayed out. What more could I possibly pray for? In class we were studying people that prayed for 3 hours nonstop every day. And there I was emptied of prayer in five minutes. I had a moment of frustration.
But then some people came to mind. I had forgotten to pray for some friends from high school. So I prayed for them. One thought sparked another, and more people to pray for entered my mind. I then got out my Bible and started praying about Scripture that I read.
I admit to glancing down at my watch a good bit too. I don’t think I prayed 30 minutes that day, but as the semester wore on, I was amazed at how I eventually hit 30 with regularity, and soon 30 was not enough!
So why am I having such a weak prayer life now? And what about you? How would you rate your practice of prayer? Christians who don’t pray are like atheists, it is reasoned, because they don’t show faith in God through a vibrant practice of prayer. In college I distinctly remember how deep my faith in God was, in large part because I prayed so much.
I maintained that practice of 30+ minutes in prayer daily almost my entire college career. I even prayed a good bit after graduating from college, getting married, and starting full-time work. But ever so slowly, my practice of prayer dwindled. I had read and really believed in the message of the book, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. I think he is onto something, a method for following Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, where Paul says “pray without ceasing.” Brother Lawrence had a nonstop conversation with God all day long in the monastery where he served in the kitchen. In fact he stopped attending set prayer times because he felt they interrupted his conversation with God! So I thought that I could be like Brother Lawrence. I didn’t need set prayer times, as I could just learn to converse with God all day long too. Except that I didn’t. I might have periods of weeks or months where I returned to a healthy practice of prayer. But never for long. Never like those college days. And much more often than not, I have long periods of prayerlessness. I’m not happy about this, and I want to change. I believe that both set prayer times and a continual conversation with God can be very healthy practices to avoid Christian atheism.
This coming Sunday as we continue studying Jesus’ Words, Works and Way in Luke, he is going to tell some stories about prayer. He was a great example of a healthy practice of prayer, as we have seen many times in Luke. Now he teaches about prayer. And he has some really important instructions for how we can grow our practice of prayer.