Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Missing Curfew: Contemplating Bounds’ Emphasis on Long Seasons of Concentrated Prayer

I used to stay up late for conversation. Sometimes it was the doorways of our dorm rooms when our minds were still processing the new information supplied, the old perceptions challenged, and persistent habits overwhelmed by looming deadlines. With some, though, it was not an excess of ideas, but an unwillingness to close the conversation, so as to remain in her company, yet not allow the silence to lead to communications of the nonverbal nature. So, whether with classmates and colleagues, or with more romantic interests, the time spent with those closes was always longest.

More than three decades into marriage, our time together is still substantial. Some of the longer than average conversations are a function of locating our lives in the rural mountain valleys where essential services are separated by long distances. So, are we closer because we have longer to spend with each other? No. We are closer. But those hours each week in the car together do not approach the depth of conversation that occurs elsewhere, and at other times. We lose track of the topic amidst the interruptions of traffic, wildlife, construction, and other distractions. The hours together recounting the events of life, the observations of others’ behaviors, and so much other mundane minutiae—these do not replace the more intentional focus of other, purposeful conversations.

This comes to mind in reading E.M. Bounds’ chapter, “Much Time Should Be Given to Prayer.” I promote the discipline of engaging in an ongoing conversation with God throughout the day. I believe that is an important focus of any authentically Christian life. It would be rude, were we to truly believe God is ever-present (and I do believe that), to ignore His input or fail to include Him in the discussion. But when our conversation is interrupted, do I return to the topic we had been addressing? Rarely. Sometimes my mind continues on down its own path, oblivious to His presence and partnership. Then, I am left with the question: Is my sense of inspired problem-solving, decision-making, or scripture-obeying truly sources in my conversations with God, or have I followed other impulses, ascribing them to God’s influence even after I’ve stopped listening quite so carefully as I pretend I was during our ride throughout the day?

Only in the closet of uninterrupted, focused, intentional, and listening prayer can I be sure that my “brilliant solution” to a problem, or my “great idea” for improving my service to Christ and others, or my “excellent phrasing” for some paper or sermon actually represents what Jesus would have me do. Otherwise, I am at the mercy of my own misperceptions, the overestimation of my own wisdom, or even my own imaginative fantasies of what God would have said, if He were to parrot my own inner voice.

There are times and places where short prayers are indispensable. “Lord, help!” is as valid a request as ever arose from within Luther’s three-hour morning ritual. And the concept of conversational prayer, including the Lord in the events of the day He has given me, those momentary utterances, distracted as they may be, have no doubt been answered repeatedly in the words spoken, the actions taken, and the results and blessings recognized.

But as Bounds writes, “The short prevailing prayer cannot be prayed by one who has not prevailed with God in a mightier struggle of long continuance.” To illustrate, imagine that I telephone you, my voice breathless with anxiety, and make a request of such brevity and urgency that you find yourself looking down at the phone after I have hung up abruptly. The likelihood of you taking action on my appeal to you is directly proportional to our prior relationship. If you can say, “he would not ask if it were not of vital importance,” then you will likely reorder your priorities in that moment in order to accommodate my need. If, however, you and I are not so close, and our relationship inconsistent, then there are any number of responses you might consider…including the possibility of assisting me. But if you have responded to similar urgencies in the past, and I have not been so careful to follow up with an expression of gratitude, or even an explanation of the circumstances in which you had been so graciously helpful…then you might be less likely to respond positively in the future.

Thankfully, God is far more gracious than we humans could ever be. Still, for me to request of Him what it is that He is seeking to accomplish in any given circumstances, much less my ongoing life-story, then it stands to reason that deepening our relationship is definitely in my best interest. So, I know the benefits. I agree with Bounds, “much time should be given to prayer.” And I will continue to count on His immediate response to “Lord, help!” in the future. You would think that all this would prompt some declaration of my intent to set aside longer times of prayer more frequently. But I am convicted regarding my tendency to use clever phrasing to make me sound more holy than I am. So, instead of announcing my recommitment, I would ask you, should you have opportunity to greet me any time soon, to do so by asking a question. It is the question that Bounds quotes John Fletcher as using as his customary greeting: “Do I meet you praying?” The answer will, and would already be, “Yes. But not so much as I would like.” Still, I could use the reminder to continue expanding those singularly devoted times.

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