Monday, March 14, 2022

Crap Detector #2: The Role of Prayer

A couple of weeks ago, I reintroduced you to my "crap detector," my inner alarm that goes off at times related to my passion or areas of study.  Crap detectors are very personally tuned, and mine is likely differently calibrated than those of others around me or some of my readers.  I thought I would share three different things that set off my crap detector.  I first shared about the way "blessing" sets it off, when Christinas bask in blessing as passive receiving rather than seeing it as God's active equipping.  Today I want to talk about how some talk about prayer sets my crap detector abuzz.  I do so with some fear and trembling because there is a danger that I may be misunderstood but let me proceed and trust you to hear me out.

Over the seventeen years that I have lived and worked in Africa, I have heard many a pastor and church leader boast about how much they pray.  Many tell that this spiritual practice usually comes at the cost of sleep.  There can be a subtle competition among Christians about how little sleep one gets because one is up so early or late praying.  Most of the time, these comments are met with murmurs of "wow" and respect is given to the person who seems so dedicated to God.

On my last trip to East Africa, some of the pastors in our workshop, were nodding off and dozing in their chairs at 9 am. This was way before we could blame the carbs they ate at lunch or the heat of the day.  I knew that some were nodding off because they had only gotten four or five hours of sleep and had gotten up at 4 am to pray.  I wondered to myself, "Is this what faithfulness looks like?  Is it more important to be up praying than to accept sleep as a God-given gift?  What if that early prayer time prevents you from not being able to stay awake at 9 am during a workshop where God may have a message for you?  How many of the dozing pastors had boasted that they "don't need much sleep" because they choose to pray but find themselves instead napping through the day?"  This sets my crap detector to a level one low buzz.  

It made me wonder, how do we, as Christians, figure out where, when, and how much prayer should fit into our lives?  

There are two things I know:

  • God is the only one who does not slumber or sleep.  The rest of us need sleep.  Scientists continue to discover the importance of sleep on our lives and its effect on our health and wellbeing.  They say we need seven to eight hours of sleep per night.  And that is the rule - not the exception.  I can't tell you how many people I hear say, "Well, I don't need that much sleep."  Actually, you do.  It's a fact.  There may be exceptions to the rule, but those are rare, and while people may say they are an exception, there is usually a cost somewhere that they may not even be aware of.  Read the excellent book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker to learn more.
  • I know that almost EVERYONE complains almost all the time about how busy they are.  It's one of our favorite pastimes. 
Therefore, I know that if we are so busy during the day AND we need seven to eight hours of sleep per night, it makes it difficult to find time for prayer.  Do I give up work?  Time with family?  Sleep?
Where is the time for prayer?  There is no one way or pattern, and no easy answer to these questions.  

How much prayer is the right amount?  One hour per day?  Two hours?  More?  Less?    Do we do what Martin Luther said, "I have so much to do that I will spend the first three hours in prayer."  At what point do we move from prayer to action?  Certainly, one would say Luther's example is admirable but is that something we can manage every day?  

A few weeks ago, I heard a sermon on prayer.  The preacher said that "prayer is more important than other ministries." Then added to that statement that "prayer tells us about our love for God."  The preacher complained that "few people were coming to the church's prayer meetings."  

My "crap detector" started going off and I glanced around hoping that no one would notice its loud buzzing.  I would not use the words "more important" but rather that prayer should be the foundation of every ministry.  The following heavy statements about love of God followed by attendance of church meetings was a good recipe for guilt for members.  I wondered whether this pastor was assuming that because we aren't praying in the church building, that therefore we as a church (the people) are not praying?  The sacred/secular divide rears its ugly head again.  The church was being defined by what happens in the building (church gathered), not by what happens to the equipped people when they are the church scattered from Monday-Saturday.

The ministry of DML holds three one-hour prayer meetings every week, which I rarely miss.  DML leadership doesn't expect pastors, elders, or deacons from our churches to make regular appearances in our ministry meetings.  Likewise when some from the gathered church may have a workplace prayer meeting or Bible study, church leaders and staff don't usually make an appearance.  My crap detector started buzzing as the sacred/secular divide seemed to assume that unless we attended the gathered church's prayer meeting, then is it assumed that our prayer lives were deficient, or that our love for God might also be deficient?  There were no questions by the pastor about what we are doing related to prayer, just assumptions about what we are not doing.

I find that in Africa as well as North America, or maybe just around Christians in general, there is lots of guilt about prayer.  As a person well acquainted with guilt, my crap detector goes off quickly when I hear it as it is so often abused and does not invite people into a more responsive faith.  

I am a firm believer in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."

This threefold structure of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks is something that helps us integrate our faith into our lives.  Some have described it as a framework of freedom, not a set of rules that restrict us, but a way of living out our faith in the context of our work and community.  

There is a time for dedicated prayer.  There are some who are called to be intercessors.  Prayer is a critical part of us being in relationship with God and listening prayer (rather than listing all my concerns) is how we hear God.  But how that looks for each person is going to be a bit different.  Let's give grace and space for those differences and ask more questions of each other to learn what that looks like in each other's workplace or home space.

I invite you again to share with me how and where your "crap detector" goes off, or how you balance your prayer life!