There are three kinds of prayer I try to find time for every day—meditation (or contemplation), petition, and repentance. I concentrate on the first two every morning and do the last one in the evening.
Meditation is actually a middle ground or blend of Bible reading and prayer. I like to use Luther’s contemplative method that he outlines in his famous letter on prayer that he wrote to his barber. The basic method is this—to take a Scriptural truth and ask three questions of it. How does this show me something about God to praise? How does this show me something about myself to confess? How does this show me something I need to ask God for? Adoration, confession, and supplication. Luther proposes that we keep meditating like this until our hearts begin to warm and melt under a sense of the reality of God. Often that doesn’t happen. Fine. We aren’t ultimately praying in order to get good feelings or answers, but in order to honor God for who he is in himself.
There are two kinds of Bible reading that I try to do. I read the psalms through every month using the Book of Common Prayer’s daily office. I also read through the Bible using Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s reading calendar. I take the more relaxed version—two chapters a day, which takes you through the Old Testament every two years and the New Testament every year. I do the M’Cheyne reading and some of the psalms in the morning, and read some Psalms in the evening. I choose one or two things from the psalms and M’Cheyne chapters to meditate on, to conclude my morning devotions.
Besides morning prayer (M’Cheyne, Psalms, meditation, and petition) and evening prayer (Psalms and repentance) I try as often as possible to take five minutes in the middle of the day to take a spiritual inventory, either by remembering the more spiritually radioactive ideas from my morning devotion, or by a quick look at my most besetting sins and idols. I do that to see whether so far that day I’ve given in to bad attitudes such as pride, coldness and hardness of heart, anxiety, and unkindness. If I see myself going wrong, the mid-day prayer can catch it. The problem with mid-day prayer is finding a time for it, since every day is different. All I need is to get alone for a few minutes, but that is often impossible, or more often than not I just forget. However, I carry a little guide to mid-day prayer in my wallet which I can take out and use.
The last form of prayer that I do daily is prayer with my wife, Kathy. About nine years ago Kathy and I were contemplating the fact that we had largely failed to pray together over the years. Then Kathy exhorted me like this. “What if our doctor told us that we had a serious heart condition that in the past was always fatal. However, now there was a pill which, if we took it every night, would keep us alive for years and years. But you could never miss a single night, or you would die. If our doctor told us this and we believed it, we would never miss. We would never say, ‘oh I didn’t get to it.’ We would do it. Right? Well, if we don’t pray together every night, we are going to spiritually die.” I realized she was right. And for some reason, the penny dropped for us both, and we can’t remember missing a night since. Even if we are far away from each other, there’s always the phone. We pray very, very simply—just a couple of minutes. We pray for whatever we are most worried about as a couple, anyone or anything on our hearts that day. And we pray through the needs of our family. That’s it. Simple, but so, so good.
It is very hard to stick with this regimen, especially when I’m traveling. But every so often I buckle down for a 40-day period in which I push myself to do every one of my stated times of prayer every day. This creates habits of mind and heart that stick with me, so that even when there are very busy times, I find I am able to stick with some of my disciplines, and I don’t find myself getting cold and hard toward God.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was reputed to have said to ministers, “what your people need most from you is your personal holiness.”