As we continue comparing chopping wood to a daily time of prayer, today we turn our focus to, well, focus. Such a simple but important thing.
- Random whacks here and there accomplish very little
My first attempts at chopping wood were rather pitiful. I was whaling away with great gusto, but you never would have known it to look at the log. There was about a three-foot span that bore the scars of my higgledy-piggedly swings. There was no discernable method to my madness, more like a beaver with ADD had happened by on his way to someplace else. Our prayers can be like that when their primary focus is to present a daily wish list to God: “Give me this. Do this for me. Here’s the plan, Lord. If you could make this happen, that’d be great.” Certainly our God is both able and willing to supply our every need, but if all we do is fling out orders in our prayers, we have sadly missed the point.
This reveals one of my concerns about the traditional prayer list. At any given time, these tend to be made up, I’d say about 95%, with sick people. Now does God care about sick people? Of course He does. We are admonished in James 5 to pray for the sick. When I am sick, I certainly hope that my friends will be praying for my healing. But that not the ONLY thing we are supposed to pray for and about. God is more concerned with our character than our comfort, and sometimes (though no one enjoys it at the time) it is through illness and adversity that God reveals things about Himself that we would otherwise miss.
A related issue I personally experience with an extensive prayer list is that I find it overwhelming and hard to focus when I look at two columns of bullet-pointed requests. They start to blur together in my mind and I find myself resorting to blanket statements, like, “Please heal all the sick people,” or “Bless all the needs listed here.” I simply do better with one or two specific needs to concentrate on. The other thing is that I am very forgetful. When someone asks me to pray for them, my best plan is to do so right at that moment. Even though my intentions are absolutely to intercede on their behalf, the six hours that pass before my regularly established prayer time will consist of thousand different thoughts. Will I remember that particular one? Maybe. Maybe not. It is easier for me to honor my promise if I do so right away. (These last two paragraphs are not intended as an attack on prayer lists. We cannot intercede for someone if we don’t know they need it. If prayer lists are meaningful to you, by all means use them. These are merely concerns based on my own personal struggles with using them effectively.)
- It is not necessary to chip up the entire log
Once I finally got that ax sort of headed in the right direction and there were actual wood chips flying through the air, I started to feel pretty good about my lumberjack skills. Then I paused to take a look at my portion of the tree. Hmmm. Now if I had intended to create a dugout canoe, I’d have been well on my way. Only I was indeed NOT trying to make a canoe. I wanted to turn the giant root ball into smaller, burnable pieces. What I needed, and so obviously lacked, was focus.
Each night before we go to sleep, Jeff and I pray together. Jeff is a concise kind of guy. He can say all he needs to say in about five minute. I, however, love words. Sometimes I will catch myself going on and on about every little thing you can possibly imagine. It pops into my mind and I pray about it. He and God both must wonder sometimes if this ADD chick (not beaver) will ever get to the point.
One of the things that I’ve found helpful is a mental outline to keep me on track. Certainly the “Lord’s Prayer” gives us a structure to follow, and an acronym like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication – aka requests for yourself and others) makes it easier to stay focused.
- Lock in and don’t let up
When swinging an ax, where you look is what you hit. At different seasons of our lives, God will reveal certain things we need to turn our attention toward, whether a character trait we need to develop, or preparation for a new job, or a relationship that needs attention of some kind. In our daily, concentrated times of prayer, we turn our hearts to these matters regularly and consistently. We speak to God then listen to what He has to say to us on these matters. This can take time. Lots and lots of time in some situations.
- Have a plan, but don’t hesitate to try something a bit unconventional
I love order. I love having and executing a well-made plan. But one thing I learned from 20+ years in a middle school classroom is that while a plan is a great place to start, don’t think for one minute that you will be able to follow it to the letter every single day. Some days you just have to toss the script. In the classroom, it seemed like those were often the golden days when real learning took place.
While I was inadvertently creating that dugout canoe, I’d been chopping away from the same position. I moved my feet over just a few inches and took a left-handed swing. Man! What a difference! Even though this was definitely not playing to my strength, attacking from another angle gave me a fresh perspective on what I was doing. When it feels like our prayers have become stale, sometimes we need to mix it up a little bit, whether that means ditching the normal routine, going to a different location, speaking out loud, or adding a musical soundtrack in the background. Even strategic prayer can become rote, and our minds disengage. Every so often, we just need something new.
- Learn from others
Jeff realized I was making that canoe a few minutes before I did, but he was smart enough to wait. When the ax started gliding over the top instead of removing chips of wood, I stopped and cocked my head to one side, as I do when I’m thinking. He asked if I wanted some help (SUCH a very wise man!) and I gladly accepted his offer. He showed me how to make a small V that led to a point of ever-thinning wood. Ohhhh. Now I get it!
There is so much we can learn about prayer from other people. There is no reason for us to try and reinvent the wheel. We have examples in the Bible from great pray-ers like David and Daniel and Solomon, we have books written by mighty people of faith over the last few centuries, we have people in our churches and circle of friends who just seem to know how to talk to God, and as Romans 8:26 reminds us, we also have the promised Holy Spirit who will lead us in our times of prayer.
- Generic wishy-washy prayers get the same result
If we are not careful, a daily and consistent time of anything, including prayer, can fall into a rut. Just like swinging the ax all willy-nilly does nothing but waste my time and effort, so too can a half-hearted time of prayer. Our daily communication with God should be specifically targeted and deeply personal.
- Not quick, but very effective
It sure would be a whole lot quicker to lop up those trees with a chainsaw, and sometimes that is exactly what we do. Other times, however, it is the slow work done by hand that brings great satisfaction. When we pray each day, our intent should not be to get it over with as quickly as possible. Sometimes God is gracious and answers our prayers right away. More than likely, however, it takes time. Lots of time. More time than we would prefer. But in the end, as we look back, we can see the incredible value of the leisurely pace. After all, this isn’t about getting what we want when we want it. It’s about developing a relationship with our Father and growing into the likeness of His image.
Just as a quick aside, my two favorite books on the subject of prayer are The Circle Maker by Mark Batterton and Moving Mountains by John Eldredge. Both revolutionized my personal times of prayer.