Aim: in just six minutes of reading time, my goal is for you to compare your present actions in isolation, against what I will argue is the current essential, and so to stir you to wonder about alternative convictions and behaviour, arriving at a point of clarification and maybe even decision.
Making the decision will of course be in your hands.
In these days of pandemic isolation, fierce focus on the essentials is required to flourish. Besides sustaining rigorous routines, personal relationships and health (good eating, sleeping, hygiene etc), for an athlete that would mean maintaining daily exercise (somehow), for an artist - staying constantly creative (within the limitations), and for a student it would be regular (remote) learning.
And now for the even deeper identity category: how about for a Christian, what would be the essential behaviour for us at this time? I suggest that rigorous application to personal prayer is close, if not the answer. Why? The famous saying of John Calvin is part of the answer, that prayer is the chief exercise of our faith in God! Prayer is so fundamental in our relationship with God through Christ in the power of the Spirit, that the famous reformer would go on: “those who do not invoke God under urgent necessity are no better than idolaters.” (Institutes Book 3, chapter 20, section 14)
It takes me 22 seconds the say the Lord’s Prayer, just longer than the recommended soapy handwash. While frequent cleansing is still advisable (yes, even during stay-at-home mode), I have discovered Jesus’ warning against “heaping up empty phrases”(Matthew 6:5) coming true, so I now alternate praying it with singing My God is So Big, reciting Psalm 23, along with a few other prayer patterns I have devised. Strange times leads to ‘crazy behaviour’, but less crazy than singing Happy Birthday twice, multiple times a day, I can assure you! I have implemented some other ‘essential’ prayer practises as well.
Do you have a handwashing routine that lifts your heart towards God at the same time as sanitising? There are many other ideas for ways of essential prayer at this time: I’m sure you could think of many – why not have a brief brainstorm.
Could it be that one of the things God is doing to us during this time of pandemic is kindly drawing us to connect with him in prayer, perhaps in ways we have only heard or dreamt of before? Or even just coaxing us to take a next step in the praying life. If you are not sure, what would open you up to God’s conviction about this? Having a few good ideas (or reading this short article) does not equal an intention just yet. Until you can see the possibilities and imagine the consequences and be captured personally by the idea, prayer is likely to largely remain a neglected opportunity during iso.
I mentioned God’s kindness, and that is what has captivated me. So I would also add to John Calvin by flipping the coin and looking at prayer from the other side; that prayer is essential because it is a chief means of being refreshed and challenged in God’s grace. Prayer is such a fundamental gift, that we cannot be sustained in faith without availing ourselves of it. “Draw near the throne of grace, that you might find help in your time of need.” (Hebrew 4:16) Prayer is his radical kindness to us.
But a stark warning – focussed praying is not like a nicely cooked pie of which you should simply just ‘try’. No, prayer is a contending against the status quo (Read Luke 18:1-8 to get the picture!) It can be serious work. Expect setbacks. So, as well as the help of the Holy Spirit, implementing a sustained prayer life takes planning and forethought, not just good intentions. If you are keen to implement with prayer, then this is crucial: work into it, think about how you will establish prayer habits amongst all the other things you need to do in a day or week. Studiously finding fifteen, or maybe even five minutes a day for several weeks sets you on a ‘training’ mentality with prayer. Such an attitude is much more realistic for a contending type activity, than for example by ‘trying’ to get into it by launching a three day prayer and fasting retreat. Remember, prayer is a God given means of his grace to us, not a challenge or dare. So maybe attach focussed prayer to one of God’s other daily graces to deepen the experience – eg. the gift of food to eat (a different prayer issue each different meal), the gift of shelter each night (as God is our refuge), or the gift of education (before each new class starts).
If intention is high, and who of us doesn’t find God’s grace darn attractive, then please don’t just “try it”. Best implementation requires that you first pause, think, and arrive at a simple 6 point training plan:
- When will I pray?
- Where will I pray?
- How long will I pray for? (Humbly consider what length of time during the first training cycle of a few weeks is really feasible for your current 'prayer fitness' and all your other commitments. Remember we are all extra tired at this time too! Be humbly realistic.)
- What will I be praying about?
- Will I use a system? (a journal, an app, a list, pray the Psalms, ….)
- What length is my first ‘training cycle’? ( ie. when will I pause, reflect, assess and perhaps modify this simple prayer plan?)
Beyond these, a few other key implementation questions arise, especially after the first ‘training cycle’ of a few weeks: Where can I tap back into motivations for prayer when I experience the setbacks? Who can I get ‘training’ assistance and collaboration from?
Of course, I’d love it most if you joined me in focused prayer in these weeks of microPrime, but here are some questions if you would also like some interaction. (You may have other issues to raise as well). Hit the comments!
- A. Is prayer really the personal essential for Christians as I’ve described? What other behaviour(s) could sub in as the most basic alternative in this time of isolation? Genuine question! (Just remember you’ll be arguing the toss with me, not John Calvin, so it’s all good. He’s a genius, and dead, whereas I’ve still got things to learn.)
- B. If prayer is a fundamental grace of God to us, why is it so hard? Does the nature of prayer as frequent wrestling and arduous contending mean that it is somehow not a kindness, but rather a challenge from God, even a taunt or mockery?
I’ll be praying by name for every individual in microPrime each week for the duration of isolation (God being my helper). If there are personal matters you’d like me to pray for, email me at paul[dot]winch[at]credoorgau