Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

“How Many Minutes a Day Must I Pray

if I Want to be a Christian?”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

 

 

Luke 18: 1-8

 

Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Next to sex and money, there is no topic that causes more guilt in the Christians I know well than prayer. I don’t know how many active church people have confessed guilt to me because they don’t pray enough or, in some cases, hardly at all. This guilt leads to questions like this: How many minutes a day MUST I pray if I want to be a good Christian?

 

Now, think about that question from God’s perspective. If you were a relationship counselor and someone came to you and asked the question: How many minutes a day MUST I spent talking to my partner to be a good husband, wife or partner, you might suppose some long term relationship counseling was called for, not so?

 

How much time MUST I spend listening to music a day to be a music lover? How much time MUST I spend reading a day to be well informed?  

 

How do we suppose God feels when we think of prayer as a chore we need to commit ourselves to in order to qualify as good Christians?

 

I think part of the problem is that many of us misunderstand the meaning and nature of prayer. Another part of the problem is that prayer has become in our minds and hearts an obligation with moralistic overtones. It has become a “should” and an “ought” and “shoulds” and “oughts” rarely are helpful in spiritual matters.

 

In a wonderful article entitled “Prayer for the Hurried, the Undisciplined and the Disorganized,” Laurence Wagley, who teaches at St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City, says much of the literature about prayer and spiritual formation within the last several decades has taken the “pumping iron” approach[i] to prayer and spirituality, and I suspect this way of thinking about prayer has worked its way into our churches and Sundays schools.

 

We compare prayer as a spiritual exercise or discipline to the discipline of physical exercise. How many minutes a day MUST I exercise to be healthy? Well, they used to say 30 minutes three times a week of vigorous exercise was the minimal requirement, although the last report I read has upped it to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise five times a week.

 

OK. Then the next question is: what kind of exercise should I do? And the answer always is this: Do whatever exercise you enjoy because if you enjoy it you are more likely to keep doing it. Do whatever exercise you enjoy that gets your heart beating at 65 to 85 percent of it maximal capacity for a person your age and condition.

 

So if we insist on turning prayer into a discipline, I’d say 30 minutes three to five times a week is fine so long as the form prayer takes for you is a form you enjoy. We’ll talk about that.

 

But if we need an analogy for prayer, I would rather avoid the analogy of exercise and discipline, and I would much prefer the analogy of date night with a partner or spouse, or getting together with a good friend, or making time for beauty or recreation in our lives. Prayer is not so much of a duty as a way of enriching our lives.

 

Part of our problem, I think, is that we tend to view prayer as one thing…talking. Closing our eyes and talking to God. It is the form public prayer takes most of the time, so we think this is the normative way to pray.

 

But take a step back and think about prayer in more functional terms. What is prayer meant to accomplish?

 

Prayer is a means of grace. (This is John Wesley’s language.) One of the functions of prayer is to open ourselves to the grace of God, the love of God, divine affirmation and acceptance. This is not to say that prayer is always easy or fun because grace convicts us as well as comforts us; but the end result of prayer is the experience of divine forgiveness and love and inclusion and affirmation without sacrificing our essential God-given identity.

 

So if you were to ask me for advice on your prayer life, one of the first questions I would ask you is what you do in your life that causes you to experience grace. I might well say that if closing your eyes and talking to God, whom you can not see, is not a means of grace for you, don’t keep pressuring yourself to do more and more of it.

 

If, on the other hand, reading poetry is a means of grace for you, as it often is for me, poetry may be a better way of praying for you. If a conversation with a certain friend is a means of divine grace for you, talking to a friend whom you can see may be a more effective means of prayer for you than talking to God whom you can not see.

 

Jane and I just did another training in the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator this past week. Most of our thinking about spirituality and prayer is biased toward introversion. All of us need some introversion in our lives, but all of us also need some extraversion. I find it difficult to believe that prayer can only be introverted. Part of the reason some of us need to be part of prayer groups is because we experience the presence and grace of God better in extraverted settings than introverted settings. Part of the reason some of us need to do silent retreats is because we experience the presence and grace of God better in introverted settings.

 

No one expression of prayer is normative. We do not need to all pray in the same way. I do believe, however, that all of us need means of grace. We all need times and spaces in our lives when we can experience divine mercy, divine love, divine acceptance, divine affirmation.

 

Lots of time, teachers and preachers will inadvertently impose on others our own experience and spiritual preferences. Journaling works for us, so we talk over and over again about the importance of journaling. Well, maybe journaling is not a means of grace for you. Maybe journaling bores you stiff but every Sunday your pastor is talking about journaling, and you will suppose you aren’t very spiritual because you don’t like to journal. This is a form of spiritual malpractice.

 

I’d encourage you to try an exercise of listing on paper or in your head those things in your life that are means of grace. Not what someone told you should be a means of grace, but what actually helps you experience the infinite grace of God. Then, it is pretty important to include enough of those things in our lives so that we are living in a state of grace as much as we can.

 

If it turns out that softball on the Mall is a means of grace for you, and your boss asks you to work late on an evening you’ve got a game scheduled, just tell your boss you are not available because you will be spending the evening in prayer.

 

Prayer is a means of grace, so make sure the ways you pray are grace-filled for you. We are not all alike, and the expression of prayer that works for one of us may be different from what works for another of us.

 

Prayer is a means of grace, and prayer is a means of discernment. So if you were to ask me for advice on your prayer life, perhaps the second question I would ask you is what you do in your life that gives you a sense of authentic direction. Parker Palmer would put the question this way: How do you listen to your life?

 

In his book Let Your Life Speak,” Palmer says: “Vocation [or direction] does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

 

Or this is another way he puts it: "Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you."[ii]

 

Fred Buechner says something very similar. Buechner’s most powerful writings, I think, are his several volumes of autobiography. He says that he was embarrassed to admit to people that he was writing autobiography because, he says, why should anybody care about my life?

 

But he was driven to do it nonetheless, and the reason, he says, is this: “If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think [God] speaks to us largely through what happens to us…. Because the word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word – a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and movies we see – the chances are we will never get it just right.… But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that however faintly we may hear [God], [God] is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, {God’s] word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling.”[iii] So, Buechner says, paying attention to our own lives is a way of praying.

 

Prayer is a means of discernment. Another way of saying this is that prayer is whatever aligns our lives with God. Whatever helps us live in a way that is in alignment with God’s direction in history and nature and culture is prayer.

 

Prayer is a means of grace. Prayer is a means of discernment. Prayer is a means of empowerment. Prayer, first of all, empowers God. Then it empowers us.

 

Prayer empowers God. Especially praise empowers God. Psalm 22:3 says that God is enthroned by the praises of Israel. God is empowered by the praise of God’s people.

 

Traditional philosophical definitions of God emphasize that, by definition, God is omnipotent. But the biblical story is about God entering ever more intimately into relationship with humanity. Whenever we enter into a relationship with another, we give up some of our power. Relationship means interdependence.

 

So God becomes dependent upon humanity’s empowerment, just as we are dependent upon God’s empowerment. Desmond Tutu articulates this in his often quoted motto:  “We can’t do it without God, and God won’t do it without us.”

 

This is the meaning, I think, of Jesus’ story about the persistent widow who just kept knocking at the door of the unjust judge. As a result of her persistence she empowered the unjust judge to do what he didn’t want to do. Jesus’ point is how much more will our persistence empower God to do what God already wants to do.

 

It is my conviction that beauty especially empowers God. Whatever you can do that is beautiful is, I believe, a profound form of prayer. If I could sing in such a way as to enhance the beauty of the choir, I would be in the choir. I believe our choir empowers God. I believe their singing empowers our choir members. If I could dance I would dance. Praise God with dance, the Psalms say (Psalm 150:4)[iv] If I could teach children, I would teach. Teaching children is a very beautiful thing. If I could do mathematics, I would do mathematics. Mathematics is beautiful. Science is beautiful. If I could raise plants, I would raise plants.

 

Whatever we can do that is beautiful empowers God and is a way of praying.

 

Prayer is whatever in your life empowers divinity, including the portion of divinity in you.  

 

There are those of us who will want to become spiritual power lifters. If you are interested in spiritual exercises and spiritual disciplines, there are good books to read. Perhaps the best one is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. In the 20 years since it has been written it has become a spiritual classic.

 

But for many of us prayer is really about those things in our lives that are means of grace, means of discernment, and means of empowerment.

 

In his article, “Prayer for the Hurried, the Undisciplined and the Disorganized,” Laurence Wagley suggests a half dozen ways that we ordinary Christians can pray.[v] Here they are:

 

1. Prayer as listening: listening to music, listening to the wind, listening to the noise of the city. Listening may lead to a sense of the presence of God. Listening may lead to insight. “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalms say (Psalms 46: 10).

 

2. Prayer as remembering. The central act of the church’s holiest prayer – the Eucharistic prayer, the Communion prayer – is an act of remembering. Fred Buechner says his prayer room is a room called remember.[vi] Remembering creates identity, helps us know who we are and what is most important in our lives.

 

3. Prayer when you can’t think of anything else. Crisis prayers. Panic prayers. Prayers when we are in big trouble. Prayers during these times are often very subjective and very naïve. They are us at our most human and vulnerable, and I believe God has a special heart for such prayers.

 

4. Prayers to go to sleep by. The emphasis here is on presence, not content. It is a prayer of trust, of letting go of the day’s worries.

 

5. Prayers during wasted time…while driving, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, waiting. My friend Hal Taussig has a very slow internet connection. He says he used to sit at his computer waiting impatiently for it to connect. He decided to spend that time praying. He says that that time has now become one of the most cherished part of his day. In fact, he says that when he hears someone else’s computer play those notes they play when you turn a computer on, it puts him in the mood for prayer.

 

6. Non-discursive prayer. Laurence Wagley says Protestants especially have a hard time thinking of prayer as nonverbal. We think we have to talk at God. Some of the most powerful praying is about emptying ourselves of words and concepts and just being.  

 

Someone asked me not long ago what I do on my Sabbath. I go to the gym. I sit at Starbucks and read and people watch. I may watch a movie. I may putter in the garden. Hopefully I’ll spend some time with Jane. My Sabbaths are profoundly renewing and profoundly prayerful. I wish this for you too…space and time in your life to experience grace, space and time to discern the meaning of your life and space and time to align yourself with the spirit of God, to make and enjoy beauty and empower God. And may it be guilt-free.

 

 

 

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[i] Laurence A. Wagley, “Prayer for the Hurried, the Undisciplined and the Disorganized,” The Christian Century (March 24, 1993), 323.

[ii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 1999), excerpts at http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/1999/12/Letting-Your-Life-Speak.aspx.

[iii] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (Harper & Row San Francisco, 1983), 3.

[iv] Watch this video as an example of dance as prayer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KHuDHfFApo

[v] Find Wagley’s article at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n10_v110/ai_13618056?tag=content;col1

[vi] This is my interpretation of Buechner’s sermon entitled “A Room Called Remember” in A Room Called Remember (Harper & Row San Francisco, 1984), 1-12.