July 25, 2012

Pray Without Ceasing

Most of the memories of my formative years revolve around three institutions: family, church, and Adventist schools. The foundation laid by those three made me who I am.

In the mid-1960s my family moved from a quiet suburb a few miles north of Los Angeles to a much more cosmopolitan suburb a few miles east of Los Angeles. Our relocation meant that I wouldn’t be attending academy where most of the rest of my eighth-grade classmates would be going to school. Instead I began my high school career at an academy where I knew practically nobody.

One of my enduring memories of that groundbreaking experience was sitting in first-period biology class and listening to the teacher share a devotional thought from the book Are You Running With Me, Jesus?

For someone raised on such classics as Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages, the idea that prayer as a spiritual discipline should be practiced outside a few structured, defined moments such as morning devotions, prayers before meals, and bedtime prayers was a new and, frankly, astonishing notion.

I’d read, of course, these words about Jesus’ prayer life: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). And that counsel was always accompanied with the encouragement that we should likewise begin each day early in the morning with a few moments of quiet prayer, study, and reflection.
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Problem was: I wasn’t much of a morning person.

Beyond that, my understanding of devotional exercises was colored by the belief that our devotional experience is something that has a beginning and an end, like taking a shower or eating breakfast. When you’re finished, you go on to the next activity.

But our devotional life can’t be compartmentalized, even for people used to setting aside one day out of seven as holy or dedicating one tenth of our income to God. Spending 10, 30, or 60 minutes with Jesus in a segment of time called “worship” may be desirable, but our devotional life has to follow us throughout the day. It does us no good if we leave it behind on our nightstand with our Bible and the Sabbath school quarterly or morning devotional book, or neglect it altogether. In order to be spiritually strengthened and sustained throughout the day, we have to stay in contact with Christ wherever we go, whatever we do.

When I served as a parish pastor, I remember feeling frustrated whenever I sat down to have my devotions. I kept being distracted by random thoughts and ideas that interrupted my train of thought and tempted me to believe that I wasn’t properly “spiritual.”

That’s when I started reading and praying with a pen and a piece of paper (OK, a pen and my Day-Timer). Instead of trying to repress whatever “unspiritual” thoughts that came steamrolling through my mind, I welcomed them as messages from the Holy Spirit, reminding me of someone I should visit, someone I should pray for, a letter I needed to write (this was before e-mail), or some idea that might come in handy in a sermon I was preparing.

Later in the day those reminders came in handy as I tried to structure my day. Sometimes, however, when it seemed that I was being prevented from reaching those I wanted to reach, I had to stop and pray, “OK, Lord; I’m not making any progress on my list. What should I be doing? Whom do You want me to see?”

Often a name would come to mind that wasn’t on my list. When I’d show up at their door, the response was often “How did you know I needed to see you?”

And more often still, just being in step with Jesus brought me into circumstances totally unforeseen and unscripted. Once while visiting a rehabilitation center, I saw a staffer, greeted her by name, and we went through the time-honored ritual:

“How are you?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“I’m fine too.”

Something about her told me that she wasn’t fine. When I asked, “How are you really?” she broke down in tears. We had an impromptu conversation about a life situation that was eating away at her.

Once after lunch I stopped by a friend’s house on my way back to the office. It was an unscheduled visit, totally impromptu. How could I have known that power to that part of the county had been knocked out, and that my friend, dependent on an electrical contraption that pumped oxygen, was panicked by being unable to breathe? I arrived just as paramedics were helping her manage the portable oxygen tanks she had in reserve. I stayed with her until her daughter was able to get home from her office across town.

When she arrived, the woman’s daughter said, “Thank God you were here.”

As I look back it occurs to me that I was led to their home. But I was just being friendly when I had decided to stop by. I wasn’t responding to any spiritual “prompt”—just following a desire to reflect something of God’s love.

Always On
Now that I’m older, I can better identify with those words from Mark’s Gospel: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). It may be old age, or a symptom of the incredibly stressful, complicated lives most of us live, but I often (Mondays through Fridays, at least) find myself jolted awake long before dawn by the thought of a looming deadline, or some author I have to contact, or some sermon I have to prepare. And countless times throughout the day—in the parking lot, in the store, in the office, on the ball field, while running (especially while running)—my mind is open to God’s influence, and my prayers reflect the circumstances I find myself in at the moment.

Even though we’ve been trained to emulate Daniel, who prayed three times a day, or David, who prayed “evening, morning and noon” (Ps. 55:17), we can’t confine our devotional exercises only to certain times of the day.

Life doesn’t stand still. We can carve out a few moments of quiet devotion each morning before things get crazy, but we can’t depend on those few quiet moments to get us through the day. We have to be guided by God’s Word, a constant connection with Christ, and continually being open to the almost-inaudible whisper of the Holy Spirit saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isa. 30:21). 

Stephen Chavez is coordinating editor of Adventist Review. In his local church he chairs the church board, teaches earliteen Sabbath school, and serves as a local elder. This article was published July 26, 2012.