Friday, April 8, 2016

I am not Very Good at Prayer. Are you?

"It just hurts not to be good at important things like prayer. I recent read this phrase--I want to say it's by Brother Lawrence--who said, 'I decided I was never going to be good at praying, so I'm just going to start not being good at praying. I'm just going to start to pray.' For a performance person, that's freeing: just to say, 'I'm not going to be really good,' and just do it. It won't be something to write a book about. But the the thought that Christ meets us there, not when we get good, but when we're not--doesn't that define grace?" ~ a quote from a pastor in Resilient Ministry

Currently, one the of the books I am reading is Resilient Ministry, and it is an excellent read. It is generally geared towards pastors, but it would be something helpful for a congregant, elder, church staff member, or anyone to read. I am not very far into the book so far, but one of the ways it has already blessed me is to remind me that I am not the only pastor who is not good at personal time in God's Word, prayer, understanding my own emotions, etc.

Are you good at praying? Does it come naturally to you? Do you rarely get distracted, discouraged, or go long periods of time without much prayer? If so, you are much, much better at it than me. I am not very good at prayer. I think that most people think pastors are just naturally good prayers. Why not? I mean, we are "professional Christians" right? (That was major sarcasm, by the way.) Sometimes when people come to me asking for prayer, and I get the sense that they think my prayers are going to carry more weight with God or something like that. Now, do not get me wrong: I love it when people ask me to pray for them, but my prayers are no more effective than anyone else who is in Christ. James says in Js. 5:16, "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working," but that is not a call to rest in our own works for powerful prayer. It is a call to rest in the righteousness of Christ--the righteous Person--and simply to pray on the merits of His righteousness that He has given to us. That means any Christian can pray with equal standing before God. But, I digress... Again, I am not very good at prayer, and one of the blessings of this book is that it made me realize that I am not the only pastor who feels that way.

But, not being good at praying is no excuse for not praying. The Scriptures command us to pray, and prayer is one of the three objective means of grace (prayer, the Word, and the sacraments) that the Spirit uses to grow us in grace and in the likeness of Christ. We need prayer. The Church needs prayer. So, what does that mean for those of us who are not good at praying?

Well, it means just what the quote above says: we just need to start not being good at praying, i.e. praying "badly" but still praying. Do you get distracted during prayer like I do? Well, you can probably take some practical steps like solitude, specific times for prayer, writing prayers out, etc. (and I will talk about one practical step below), but the most important thing for us to remember is: keep praying and let the blood of Christ cover your wayward mind. Do you sometimes know you have many things to pray for/about but for some reason nothing is coming to mind? Well, again there are many practical things we can do here (and I am about to get to one), but the most important thing we can remember is: persevere in prayer even if your mind draws a blank, confess that to God, ask for the Spirit to help you pray, and trust the blood of Christ to cover your forgetfulness. When you pray, do you sometimes realize you are not really sure where you were going with a thought or think, "Good grief, I sound like the most confused person in the world!"? Well, again, there are probably some practical things we can do like writing out prayers, but, again, the most important thing we can remember is: Christ is our advocate before the Father (1 Jn. 2:1) and the Spirit prays with us and for us when we do not know how (Ro. 8:26). As Richard Sibbes wrote in The Bruised Reed, "God can pick sense out of a confused prayer."

Friends, you might be bad at prayer like me, but that does not mean God does not want our prayers! He is our Father, and He wants us to pray and loves it when we throw ourselves at His feet whether we are good at it or not. My three-year-old is not very good at speaking yet (though he is quite remarkable for his age), but I love for him to come to talk to me no matter how confused it is. I love trying to make sense of his confused thoughts. Remember, God is a Father far more loving than me or any other earthly father. And, Christ's grace covers our bad prayers, so we just need to accept ourselves where we are and be bad at praying but pray anyway!

But, even though we may not be very good at praying, we cannot use that as an excuse for not doing what we can to help our prayer life and grow. I am not going to talk about prayer from a theological perspective here, for their are many great books on that: Prayer by Tim Keller, Approaching God by Steve Brown, The Hidden Life of Prayer by David McIntyre, just to name a few. I just want to tell you about one thing that has helped my prayer life (and perhaps in a future post I will mention a few others things that have helped). It may seem silly to say this, but it is an app called PrayerMate. (I really do feel a little silly for saying an app helped me, but I am not the only pastor who thinks so. Tim Challies wrote "How An App Revitalized My Prayer Life" on it, which is actually how I found out about it.)

What I love about this App, is that it helps you keep track of all those people you want to pray for, and it makes it manageable. Do you ever feel like you have more to pray for than you can remember? Or, if you have a list, do you always make it all the way through? If not, can you remember where you left off or do you start back at the beginning again? Well, this app helps make prayer times manageable by allowing you to create categories of prayer, subjects under each category, and then giving you a set number of prayer subjects from each category each day/time you refresh the app. So, instead of feeling overwhelmed by a list, the app gives you a set number of subjects (however many you choose) from each category, and it rotates through so you do not have to keep track of what you have and have not prayed for lately.

Hopefully, that is not confusing, but if it is, let me try to clarify by giving examples from my use of the app. In mine, have a number of categories:
  • God's Perfections & Adoration: This one helps me with adoring and praising God. I have in it God's perfections (i.e. His attributes; you can find the list here) as well as a number of psalms of worship (e.g. Ps. 19, 33, 103). Each time I use the app, I get one of those, so I either pray/praise through a psalm, allowing it to guide me in adoring God, or I spend time praying about and meditating on one of His perfections. I have found this helps make my praise of God more well-rounded--instead of always praising Him for the same things that come to my mind, in a period of time, I praise Him for all that He revealed to us about Himself. 
  • Confessions: This category is to help me with repentance. I have in it Ps. 51 as well as a number of prayers of repentance from The Valley of Vision like "Yet I Sin," "Mortification," and "Sins." One cannot pray them rotely, of course, but each time I use the app I get one and they are very helpful as guides that jog my memory of how I need to confess specific sins of my day, week, and life. 
  • Personal Godliness: I have this category to remind me to pray about ways in which I know I need to grow in Christ. I have it in the fruits of the Spirit, as well as some other ways I know I need to grow. Each time I use the app, I get one and I spend time confessing how I am sinful in that area, thanking God for any growth I might have seen, and asking for the Spirit help to grow in that area with respect to my ministry (in general) or certain people (specifically). 
  • My family: I have all my family members listed in here along with ways I know I need to pray for them. Each time I use the app, it gives me two to pray for. 
  • My friends: I have many of my friends in here (and I add new ones as I am reminded to) along with ways I know I need to pray for them. Each time I use the app it gives me two to pray for. 
  • My youth: At my church, one of the areas I cover is the youth group. I love my youth group. And, I have a subject for each of my youth and how I need to pray for them. Each time I use the app it gives me two to pray for. 
  • I have other categories like missionaries, non-Christians, graduate students (another area of my ministry at my church), and a few others. 
In the end, each time I sit down to pray and use the app, I get 16 out of 152 items/subjects in my list. Now, if I tried to pray for the 152 all the time, I would never finish, and I would probably forget where I left off each time, thus missing some almost completely. But, this app helps make that manageable and keeps me from skipping any of them. 

Now, a few tips:
  • It is an app and it is designed specific times that one sets apart in which to pray. It does not replace spontaneous praise, confession, thanksgiving, or petition. Do not depend on it but let it help you. 
  • It is an app, which means it is connected to a device with an Internet connection. If you are like me and easily distracted, turn off your WiFi or put it on Airplane Mode while you pray
  • As mentioned above, it is really designed for designated times of prayer, so pick a block of time that is manageable for you and use it then. I would recommend even setting apart a time of day. You do not have to be legalistic about that time, but put it on your calendar, so you do not schedule things during that time if you can at all avoid it. The app will even alert you at that time, if you want it to. 
  • Look and then close your eyes or look and then stroll around the room as you pray. This helps me not to be distracted by the other things I could do on the device. 
I do have a couple of complaints about the app. Its UI is a little cumbersome. It does not have a central syncing location for keeping several devices synced, but it does allow you to export to Dropbox and import from there. However, that means extra steps when you update your prayer list. But, overall, it is excellent and really has helped my prayer life. 

So, if you are not very good at praying, like me, pray anyway. As quoted above, say to yourself, "I'm just going to start not being good at praying. I'm just going to start to pray." Read a book on it or make use of an app to help you. You know what I have noticed since I have started having dedicated times of prayer with the app? I have noticed I pray more spontaneously throughout the day, and distractions are not quite as bad (though I have a long way to go). Remember, if you have put your faith in Christ, you have the Spirit to help you pray when you do not know how and the blood of Christ to cover your not-very-good prayer life. If you learn nothing else from this post, please try to learn to rest in that grace. 

By His Grace,

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