I'm trying to learn to pray more.
It might sound odd that a minister would have to remind himself to pray. Here's a news bulletin: Preachers are just people, too.
I used to assume that as you got older, life got easier. Less stressful.
Maybe it does for some people, but it hasn't for me. I find myself more pressured today than I did 20 years ago.
I'm the sole pastor of a congregation, with all the duties that entails, from preparing sermons to meeting with deacons to counseling the troubled to visiting the sick. Which would be fine, if that was all I did. I love that job.
But I also own and manage 20 apartments. I can't explain how many headaches that involves, unless you've done it or you've got a whole day to listen.
Also, I battle a plethora of health issues. I've got a general practitioner, an endocrinologist, a retinologist, a gastroenterologist, and so on. I spend more time waiting in doctors' offices than watching TV in my own den. At least it feels that way.
There's more, but you get the idea: a lot of demands, a lot of irritations. Plus, by and large, often I plain don't feel good.
It's not a great formula for spiritual bliss.
Some weeks ago, as I raced my car down the bypass from one task to another, my phone ringing, I thought, "I need quiet time. This is nuts. I've got to talk to the Lord."
I realized I needed more prayer. Better prayer. More concentrated prayer. Time devoted to nothing except prayer. And I needed it regularly.
It's not that I didn't pray already. I've typically snatched prayer here and there, as I drove, as I prepared a sermon, before I fell asleep.
What I needed was to make prayer a priority.
Not long after, I read a passage from Luke's gospel. It told about Jesus finding himself under attack from religious legalists who were filled with rage and plotting to do him harm.
"It was at this time that he went off to the mountain to pray, and he spent the whole night in prayer to God," Luke said.
Jesus — obviously refreshed — came down from the mountain and renewed his ministry. He healed a slew of sick people. He appointed his 12 apostles. To top it off, he preached the greatest sermon in history.
The circumstances hadn't changed, but apparently all that prayer enabled Jesus to face them with a fresh power.
Hey, if it's good enough for Jesus, I thought, it's good enough for me.
I'm not a guy likely to pray all night on a mountaintop, for any number of personal and logistical reasons.
But I did make this vow: As often as I could, I'd carve out time to pray. Whether it was in my home office, a coffee shop parking lot, our church sanctuary on weekdays when nobody else was there — wherever, whenever — I'd sneak off to talk with the Lord. If it was 10 minutes, OK. Twenty minutes, better. A half hour, hallelujah.
I'd have no radio blaring in the background. No text messages dinging.
It would be just God and me.
I've been practicing this a while now, and it's making a real difference. I've got the same obligations and illnesses, but my inner harmony has improved noticeably.
I'm sure a lot of you already devote special time to prayer or meditation. If, however, you aren't in the habit of doing this, allow me to recommend it.
Here are a few suggestions about making the most of this prayer time. There's no single right way, I imagine, but these are things that, so far, are working for me.
First, this isn't about adding another stressor to my life. It's not an obligation. I never "have" to go pray. Instead, I "get" to go. If I forget, or simply am too busy, I don't beat myself up. I do regret the missed time and look forward to the next opportunity.
Second, I'm not there to grovel and beg God's forgiveness for my failings. I'm there to bask in my heavenly dad's love for me. That's all.
Third, I use these mini-retreats to center myself, to refocus my day, to remind myself of what truly matters and who's really in charge.
Fourth, I talk about whatever's on my mind. I tell God what's bugging me. I tell him what I'm afraid of. I ask him to help friends or family who are having a rough time. I thank him for whatever nice things have happened that day.
Fifth, I take a few minutes to listen, in case he wants to tell me anything, too.
That's it. It's simple. It's easy. It's free. It has no calories.
Yet every session leaves me refreshed, more at peace with myself and with the nutty world around me, and better able to cope with the rest of the day. Try it.