catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 4 :: 2006.02.24 — 2006.03.10


Unnatural prayer

I never thought I’d be one to pray through a daily prayer guide. The whole idea of assigning myself a designated time of prayer using a strict format just smacked of the artificial, as if one could reduce the complexity of a relationship with God to an easy-to-follow recipe. It conjured up fears of legalistic piety and a false sense of accomplishment. What’s more, even if I had wanted to follow a prayer guide, my procrastinating temperament and general lack of organization would have killed it. Yet somehow I find myself, despite these fears, enamored with engaging God through structured prayer.

For seven years I worked for a company that advocated the practice of daily devotions?Bible reading and prayer?even if just five minutes a day. I was careful to work into the introductions of our products that this was just a starting place for a deeper relationship with God; as prayer became more mature it would be more spontaneous and free-form, and as the habit of listening to God’s voice became more attuned, you would hear him not only in the Bible but in the everyday moments of your life. I saw a prayer guide as a set of training wheels, the starting point on a continuum of healthy prayer. When I used one, it felt restrictive, like going on a date and having to follow a prescribed set of conversation topics. Christianity is a relationship with God, not religious exercises.

But lately, to continue the metaphor, I’ve been getting the sense that God is asking for an RDT?one of those dreaded Relationship-Defining Talks. He’s asking me: “Where is this relationship headed?” This is not a question we are often asked to have with God in a church that tends to define salvation by being on one side of a line or the other. This is not a question that fits with the metaphors of king/servant, of shepherd/sheep, or creator/creation, where our places are static. This is a question from lover to lover, or from mentor to disciple: Where are we headed? What are you growing toward? What is your ultimate goal? What are your dreams for your spiritual life?

The dream for us all, the destination we strive toward, even when we push it to the background, is Christ-likeness. That is what it means to be a Christian, a little Christ. So often we are eager to categorize our spiritual gifts and find our niche in the church. I have been searching for many years for such a niche yet still find myself adrift. I thought for a long time it would be with the Christian press, then in the arts, followed by forays into church vision, into behind-the-scenes work, then into small groups and developing community. In each case the question was: What do you enjoy? What are you gifted at? It’s a different sort of pursuit than Christ-likeness. None of us are particularly loving, peaceful, joyful, patient, gentle, generous, hospitable, faithful, sacrificial—not without a big God infusion.

I’m an intellectually inclined person. School always came naturally to me; I didn’t have to work that hard. I could put things off until the last minute and cram the information into my brain. I always put off studying, writing term papers, or finishing projects; I took a kind of pride in it. It wasn’t merely laziness that led me to cram; I found that working a little each day actually made me over-think a project to death. I played my piano recital pieces better when I hadn’t practiced all week than when I’d taken the time each day to work on the details. Public speaking seemed to go better when I crammed the night before and winged the speech than when I had carefully prepared each point I wanted to make. Slow and steady just didn’t jibe with me.

This pattern has largely shaped my life, at least until last year when I lost my big-deadline-oriented intellectual job and moved into a more day-to-day physical job. I can’t cram anymore. Each day my wife and I have a certain number of houses to go to and sit cats; we have a certain number of eBay packages to get in the mail. It’s a different sort of rhythm from what I’m used to. But I’m finding it a refreshing experience; it’s helped me to live less inside my head. You can cram the mind, but not the heart. You can cram projects, but not relationships. You can cram Christian duties, but not Christ-likeness.

I look back on my school days and am saddened that I never had a big dream. My goal was simply to accomplish whatever someone put in front of me. But what if I’d had a dream of being a concert pianist? What if I’d had a dream of being a pastor or counselor? Wouldn’t I have stuck with the daily piano practices even when they bored me because I knew that they were training me? Wouldn’t I have spent more time learning how to make speeches and practicing the craft? Having a dream is, I think, what makes daily discipline possible. If you want to change the very nature of yourself, it takes a daily rhythm of aligning yourself to new practices. You can’t cram patience. You can’t cram joy. You can’t cram long-suffering.

I do not reject the practice of prayer as free-form talking to God whenever the mood strikes. But as long as I’m the one initiating it, as long as it’s on my terms, I don’t know that I will ever change my nature. I hear the verse “Pray continually” and I think it’s a form of “practice continually.” Keep examining your heart. Keep confessing. Keep giving thanks. Keep practicing the act of aligning your heart with God’s, even when you don’t feel like it. No one ever got to Carnegie Hall by working only when he or she felt like it. No one ever achieved Christ-likeness on the weekends.

The most useful daily prayer guides?St. Ignatius’ Examen of Consciousness, the Lord’s Prayer, psalms, laments, meditations, daily offices, and A.C.T.S., among others?are ones that ask you to pray to God in ways you often skip over in your typical conversations. They ask you to search your heart for temptations, to examine your actions, to repent. They ask you to shower adoration and praise on your God. They cut; they heal. In many cases they stretch back hundreds of years, and in most cases are used by thousands of people around the globe, connecting you with others who walk the same path. These guides encourage walking with others and sharing your journey with a group of like-minded souls.

There is, still, a temptation toward piety or checklist Christianity. I feel this most when, instead of comparing myself with Christ, I compare myself with the church’s meager expectations for an acceptable spiritual life. I can begin to think I’m doing pretty well, instead of about how much I lack. I have to remind myself that structured prayer in itself is just a warm-up. If my spiritual dream is a mountainous climb against my natural inclinations, then a devotional life is wind sprints, weight training, building stamina. It’s spiritual exercise, but in the best sense.

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