Slowing down to pray?

Finding a path to deeper personal spirituality

Derek Morris, D.Min., is a professor of preaching and pastoral theology at Southern Adventist University, Collgedale, Tennessee.

I wish I could tell you that my ministry was like Mary's. But I have to confess that all too often I have been like Martha so busy serving God that I have not taken time to be with Him. Running on empty. Praying on the run.

I began my seminary training with such good intentions, but I got caught up in my own little academic world deadlines and GPAs. I loved the Lord, but I was too busy to spend much quality time with Him. Something was missing.

I graduated from the seminary in 1980 and was assigned to a three-church district in northeastern Pennsylvania. To those members, it didn't matter one iota what my GPA was; it didn't matter how vast my knowledge of current theological trends was. They had only one concern: Was I a man of God? Did I know God personally, and could I help them to find peace of mind and assurance of salvation? They were looking for spiritual leadership. Almost in spite of myself, the Lord blessed my ministry there. But deep in my soul I knew that some thing was still missing.

I enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry pro gram at the seminary, and by the summer of 1985 I had almost completed my classwork. And then one day in that sweltering summer the Lord spoke to me, changed the direction of my life, and redirected my ministry. I was sitting in a project seminar with a favorite professor of mine. He told a story about a religious educator who visited our seminary and made this comment: "You have an excellent academic program here, but tell me, where do your students learn to pray?"

That story struck me forcefully. Suddenly I came face-to-face with my own spiritual poverty.

The case of Martha and Mary

At about the same time God led me to study a familiar narrative in Luke. I had read the story before, but this time it was as if I was looking into a mirror, and I didn't like the reflection I saw. It was the story of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42).

As I read this story, the words of Jesus gave me a unique glimpse of what was going on inside Martha. Jesus said, "Martha, Martha, you are worried, you are anxious." The verb used here is a strong one, merimnao; it implies division and distraction of the mind. In other words: "Martha, you are all mixed up! You have no inner peace. You need to center yourself. To put things in their proper perspective." Because things weren't right inwardly, things weren't right outwardly either. Not only was Martha worried, but she was also upset about many things. The verb thorubadsomai implies an external agitation.

Martha was full of inward turmoil and outward agitation. And as a result, she was distracted, drawn about in different directions. She was stretched to the limit and get ting nowhere. And so she turned on Jesus. "Lord, don't You care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (see Luke 10:20).

This was my own story. I was praying on the run. I was very busy "serving the Lord," but taking little time to be with Him. I was like Martha, caught in the trap of ministry.

In the quietness of that moment of discovery, the Lord invited me to hunt for that one thing that was needful, to spend time sitting at the feet of Jesus, to actually seek an experience of intimate communion with Him. It was a turning point in my spiritual journey.

Strategies to handle the Martha complex

Here are some specific strategies that I have used to handle my own crisis of spirituality.

Buy a Bible and read it. First, I bought a Bible. Of course, I had many Bibles, but this particular one was to be a symbol for me. My wife wrote the following words in the inside cover: "Presented to Pastor Derek J. Morris by invitation of the Lord." This Bible represented a personal commitment to take time alone with God, listening to His Word. I had read through the entire Bible once before, but that was the extent of my systematic Bible reading! For many years my reading of Scripture had been very selective and functional. I read Scripture to prepare for sermons. I gathered texts to defend doctrinal positions. But I realized that my time alone with God in a contemplative reading of Scripture had always been limited and sporadic.

My experience was not unique. Some years ago I was teaching a colloquium at the seminary entitled "The Pastor's Spiritual Life." At the end of our first session a doctoral student cornered me. He was obviously under conviction as he shared with me his confession: "I have been studying here for the past five years, but I don't re member the last time I opened my Bible just to listen to God." He had been caught just as I had. Of course, this kind of experience plagues pastoral ministry and conference administration. We become preoccupied with the task of "speaking for God," but take little or no time to listen to Him speak personally to us. God invites those who speak for Him to take time to listen to Him. And the place we most clearly hear Him is in His Word. So it is our privilege to make a commitment to a personal, daily, contemplative reading of Scripture. So, it is helpful to buy a new Bible. Build an altar and make this commitment.

Keep a spiritual journal. Second, I began to keep a spiritual journal. This was not a new idea for me but doing it was a new experience. I discovered that journaling is a very profitable exercise. The first lesson I learned was my pathetic inconsistency. My journal didn't cover for me. If I spent several days praying on the run, taking no focused time alone with God in prayer and Scripture reading, my journal would record the tale. Not in words, but in blank space. My journal brought me face-to-face with my spiritual poverty. Like a mirror in the hand of an unkempt hobo, journaling exposed my poverty. But journaling also gave me the opportunity to slow down and reflect upon God's marvelous workings in my day. I realized that on many occasions I had neglected to give thanks to God for His gifts of love and mercy. I had not taken the time to give Him praise and thanks for who He is and for His marvelous work in my life and ministry.

Many times, my journaling has taken the form of prayers. By providing a permanent record of my intimate communion with God, my journal has become a hallowed "place" to which I can return when I need the assurance of God's activity in my life.

For someone who is beginning to journal, I would recommend the resource en titled Journaling Through 1997. 1This journal begins with a brief introduction to the discipline of journaling and provides a place to record each day's journal entry.

Explore various models for prayer. Third, I began to explore various models of prayer. As I wrote out my prayers, I became aware that many prayers were simply an itemized list of my wants. I now classify this type of petition as "shopping-list prayer." I am very thankful to God that He responds even to such narrow requests when they are for our best good. But I soon realized experientially what I already knew theoretically: petition is only one aspect of prayer. For example, as I learned to pray more maturely and thoughtfully, I discovered the joy of beginning my prayer time with praise to God. I also discovered the profound truth that God wants me to live my whole day in His presence. God is not calling us only to a devotional time, but rather is inviting us to experience a devotional life. I also learned from Juanita Kretschmar's Encountering God in Prayer, that God longs not only to offer me forgiveness for my sins but also deep personal healing and freedom.

For an enriching exploration of various models for prayer, I would strongly recommend Larry Lea's Could You Not Tarry One Hour? Learning the Joy of Prayer. 2 This book not only taught me a valuable model for prayer, but showed me a dynamic example of what can happen when prayer becomes central in a person's life and ministry.

Interact with Spirit-filled individuals. Fourth, I have found it most helpful to grasp every opportunity to interact with those in whom I discerned the Spirit of God at work. It has been amazing how much I have learned when I have taken a few moments to listen to particular fellow humans who are on the same journey with me. This attentive listening has also involved the reading of biographies and autobiographies of great men and women of God. I have discovered Colin Whittaker's Seven Guides to Effective Prayer, drawn from some of the great prayer warriors of history. Reading these stories had a tremendous impact on me.

The more we listen to and read about great Christians, the less we will be content to live our lives on a mediocre plane.

It is time to stop praying on the run. It is time to stop running on empty. Jesus invites us to slow down, sit at His feet, and learn of Him.

1 Journaling Through 1997. (Nashville: Upper
Room Press, 1997).

2 Larry Lea, Could You Not Tarry One Hour?
(Altamonte Springs, Fla.: Creation House, 1987).

3 Colin Whittaker, Seven Guides to Effective
Prayer
(Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers,
1987).


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Derek Morris, D.Min., is a professor of preaching and pastoral theology at Southern Adventist University, Collgedale, Tennessee.

November 1997

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