Okay, let’s get one thing straight from the outset: I’m not writing an article about prayer and spiritual formation because I’m any sort of expert. The fact is I’m a rank beginner who is desperately trying to learn everything I can so that I don’t make a complete mess of my ministry and my life. I’m practising prayer to try to get it right, and sharing this with you in the hope that some of the lessons I’m learning might encourage you to connect with God in prayer.
The way I function in my day-to-day life is going to have its roots in what I’m like when I’m out of the public eye. The hidden causes in my character will have a huge impact on the effect of my ministry, so I have to pay attention to my spiritual integrity. If I don’t, I lose credibility in God’s eyes and, sooner or later, in everyone else’s as well. I would love to be able to say that I seek God simply out of a desire to be close to him quite apart from the ‘usefulness’ of prayer in terms of ministry outcomes – but that’s something I’m still growing into.
For years I had good intentions about prayer, but that was about all I had. My dislike of anything forced and artificial caused me to shy away from committing certain times to talking with God. I figured I could talk with him anytime. Well, that’s true, but I didn’t actually talk to him all that much until I nailed down regular times to do so.
I’ve had a few different ways of approaching time commitments to focussed prayer. All of them are just props to help hold in place my intention to devote myself to prayer – an intention which is still not strong enough to stand against the pressures of other demands on my time without the support of artificial disciplines. See how weak I still am! The little mental structure I hold in my head is this: divert daily, withdraw weekly, retreat regularly, abandon annually.
This was originally hung off the maths of jubilee: the one-in-50 ratio. So, calculating very roughly, in each 24 hour period a half an hour is given in diverting my attention to God. Likewise, in a 168 hour week, 3 hours are set aside to withdraw into his presence. Then every seven weeks (or 49 days) one day is given to retreat, and in a year (52 weeks) one week is taken to abandon everything and get away. This has virtually NO exegetical validity whatsoever, and I don’t pretend the approach has any Biblical authority by which I can lay this on others! But since it was never intended for anyone else, just for me, it didn’t seem to matter. The point was that I had some structure that made sense to me.
My practise of personal prayer is just one of several elements in my spiritual formation regime alongside other disciplines such as reading and study, having a mentor and being part of a high-accountability small group. I have the hunch that how I relate to God when no one else is looking is somehow fundamental to all of them. The effect of this approach to prayer has been to keep this wayward disciple more or less on track, and gratefully aware of the nearness of God at every point in my journey.