If there were championships for mind-wandering, my brain would win gold every time. I remember one occasion when I was supposedly having my morning prayer time, but suddenly realised I was thinking, “Eggs. I could have eggs for lunch. Boiled would be good, with soldiers…”
How, how did I get from praying for my family and friends to ‘I could have eggs for lunch’?
And this wasn’t a one-off. This has been the pattern of my prayer life for as long as I can remember; three seconds of prayer followed by 20 minutes of recipes, shopping lists, replayed conversations, daydreams, overwhelming urges to check my phone… Disaster.
If I’ve said I’d pray for you over the past thirty-odd years, sorry, but that’s about all you’ve got – usually an ‘arrow prayer’ at the time, while it was fresh, but then a pitiful attempt at stringing a few words together the following morning before the wandering began again.
If I’ve said I’d pray for you over the past 32 weeks, however, you’ve fared much better.
Last Christmas I received a free diary from a charity I support. It’s just a little slim one, with a week to view. Nothing special. But it has transformed my prayer life. As I debated throwing it away at the beginning of January (even I don’t use a paper diary any more!), I suddenly thought ‘Why don’t I use it as a prayer diary?’
Writing helps me focus, you see, so I’ve tried journaling before. I even managed to sustain the habit once for the heady stretch of three consecutive mornings. Wow. They were great mornings, brilliant times of connecting with God and listening as well as speaking. The trouble was, they were long. Journals are big things, with scores of vast empty pages stretching out in front of you. I always think if I’m going to make the effort to journal I need to make it worthwhile. The ‘Aunty Ethel’s Elbow’ kind of prayers (‘Dear God, please heal Aunty Ethel’s elbow. Amen’) seem a bit too prosaic for A Journal. So I don’t bother, just pray in my head instead. Or not. The journal stays closed, Aunty Ethel’s elbow stays sore, and I have eggs for lunch. Again.
But this little diary has four lines per day. Four. ‘I can write four lines’, I thought. They’re really short ones, too. Even if all I wrote was a bullet point prayer for each, Aunty Ethel’s elbow, Uncle Joe’s job interview, the refugee crisis and Liam’s lost wedding ring (listen to his recent sermon to get the reference) would be getting infinitely more prayer each day than they had in the whole of the previous year.
So I started. I didn’t have much hope it would work, but to my surprise, it did! I actually remembered it every day. My bullet points soon turned into real sentences, and as I prayed consistently, I began to remember to ask people how their elbow was, how their job interview had gone, etc. And as I heard of improvements and set backs, new developments and further difficulties, I was able to rejoice with those who rejoiced and mourn with those who mourned.
We’re on week 33 now, my diary tells me, and for almost all those weeks I have filled Monday to Friday, and often the weekends, the notes sections and the margins, with prayers for friends, family and myself. I’ve ‘held up the arms’ of others as they have prayed, and I’ve begun to feel as though through my prayers I’m playing my part in bringing God’s plans to fruition.
It’s not perfect. It’s still often a struggle, particularly to be persistent in prayer for things that don’t seem to be changing, but it’s working better than anything has before.
I’m sure its season of usefulness will come to an end someday, too. Either because it becomes a meaningless chore or, hopefully, because I find that the space is just too small and I need room to write down what God is saying to me, too. While it’s working, though, I’ll keep at it.
I highly recommend trying it if, like me, you struggle with focus and consistency in prayer. You might be able to find a small academic year diary to make a start with now, so you don’t have to wait till January. You could just use any small notebook, of course, but for me having the reminder of dates helped me not to let it slip (because if you miss 3 days in a diary, you see the big gap, whereas in a notebook you just carry on where you left off). Also having the dates there meant I could write in people’s job interviews, chemo appointments, weddings etc so I could pray specifically on the right days.
Give it a try. What have you got to lose?
Now, if I could just find a way of staying focussed in other areas of… oh look! A squirrel!