Thursday, May 31, 2012

Praying in the Dry Times

I have been thinking about prayer the last few days. I was taught in the churches I grew up in that a mature disciple prays daily as part of a regular time of devotion or “quiet time.” I have, by and large, maintained such a practice through most of my life. Now, as at certain other points in my journey, I find these devotional times to be difficult because I do not find them to bring renewed perspective or deeper insight. Often I feel like I am just going through the motions, and I was also taught that this is not something we want to do as true disciples.

I have been reading Eugene Petersen's book Tell It Slant and in a recent chapter found these thoughts on prayer:

“As we follow in the steps of our praying ancestors, we do not find them stopping off along the way to hold a seminar on prayer, or conducting controlled experiments to demonstrate the efficacy of prayer. They are preparing for the way of the Lord, following 'the Jesus Way.' They don't take time out to pray. Praying is what they are doing as they are preparing, as they are following. (emphasis mine)

Can a faithful, mature disciple of Jesus maintain a healthy spiritual (and overall) life without setting aside specific time for prayer each day? Previously I would have answered with a theoretical yes but a practical no. Now I'm wondering if that is true. Does spiritual growth require something like a “quiet time” or devotional time? Certainly we are told in the Scriptures to pray without ceasing, which implies something that happens beyond just a specified time during each day. I've also been told that we should follow the example of Jesus, and the Scriptures speak of him taking time away from the intense demands on his life. However, it doesn't tell us whether this was a daily routine or something he did occasionally, as he needed to particularly recharge his spiritual vitality.

I could read books about prayer, maybe even attend a seminar on it. But that would only give me information about prayer. I've read books and heard many a fine message on prayer. But what does one do when prayer feels artificial, or forced? I don't want to be hypocritical and make a fine appearance of prayer devoid of any real substance. I like Petersen's frankness:

“The remarkable thing about prayer is not that so many people pray, but that some of us keep at it. Why do we keep praying when we have so little to show for it? Anyone who has made a practice of prayer knows the feeling, overwhelming sometimes, that prayer is a leaky bucket. You go to the river to get a pail of water and by the time you get home the water is gone, the bucket empty, and all there is left to show for your effort is a damp trail soon to be wiped out by the sun.”

Petersen acknowledges what I all-too-seldom hear in Christian circles: often the only response we get to our prayers is silence. We hear nothing from God and nothing we can do, no change in routine, method, timing, words used or anything else will change that. Petersen reminds us how often in the Psalms we hear expressions of people who are waiting for God to speak, to act, to respond. And many of them didn't get a response. Our cries, our prayers, don't force God to respond to us. I wish that were not the case, but it is and somehow I must deal with that.

Someone once told me, or maybe I read it somewhere, that when you don't feel like praying the thing to do is pray. It seems trite, simplistic even. Maybe there's a core truth in this response. When I don't feel like praying, I should keep at it anyway. I can affirm this in principle, but I do struggle with the practical application. What do I say when I feel like I have nothing to say, when nothing comes to my lips, or when I feel like I cannot adequately express myself? What do I say if I expect only silence in response?

I read a book a few years ago about Mother Teresa (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light) that revealed, through letters she wrote to others during her life, how rarely she felt the presence and nearness of Jesus. She longed for him, longed to hear from him and to know his love. But for most of her life he remained distant—silent. Nonetheless she pressed on in prayer and in the practical outworking of her faith. Some read this book and were quite disappointed to discover the weakness of this great woman. I read it and found encouragement that if one as great as her could struggle with faith, then my struggle needn't indicate spiritual failure on my part. I must read that book again.

I don't have the answers yet. Perhaps I never will. I'm allowing myself greater latitude in my practice of prayer. I try to talk with God each morning as I begin my day, but some days it doesn't happen. Sometimes I do it sitting in a chair watching the day begin. Sometimes I do it as I walk in our neighborhood. Sometimes it is more scattered, broken thoughts directed god-ward as I juggle several other activities throughout the morning. That seems to fit with Petersen's description which I quoted earlier: Prayer as something I do while I am preparing and following, not some specialized activity or time cut off from the flow of real life. Sometimes I think that I'd like to fast from praying, but I have enough doubt about doing this as a result of the teaching I've received, that I must say I'm afraid to, because I still believe in some part of me that people who don't have regular “quiet times” are obviously not really spiritual people. Yet praying out of fear, duty or obligation doesn't really seem like a great thing either.

In the book I'm reading by Petersen the second half examines Jesus' language in prayer. I'm curious to see what he has to say. Maybe I'll find some helpful insights there. I'd love to hear the practices and experiences of others. Share with me your perspectives on praying. What works for you? Have you experienced times when all you heard was silence? How did you respond to that? 

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