by Rowland CroucherMost of us want to pray more effectively. We know this takes time. But for most of us it's very hard to find this time. Australia may be "the Timeless Land" as Eleanor Dark calls it, but only for its aboriginal, rarely for its white inhabitants. "Banjo" Paterson in his ballad "Clancy of the Overflow" says:
"For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste".
Research tells us that middle-class people are least able to master their time. (1) Working mothers with children are particularly harried. Then, for Christians, there are the incessant demands to attend Church functions. Parents seem to be constantly chauffeuring their children to school activities, or music lessons, or club outings, or little athletics. Clergy, who have more "discretionary time" than any other group, also, paradoxically, suffer more than most other from shortage of time.
"The heathen in his blindness
bows down to wood and stone':
the modern Christian worker
is slave to door and phone;
the diary his bible
to guide the daily plan,
dispensing or refusing
the love of God for man....
Our lives are all time-shackles,
programmed and set in place,
and scarcely ever able
to apprehend Your grace;
our spirits want the freedom
the risen Christ can give:
a space for timeless praying
a land of spacious
UNIVERSAL FATIGUEOur stressful lives have resulted in what Paul Tournier calls 'universal fatigue', which has reached epidemic proportions. Even our leisure and exercise activities are 'time-intensive'. We play squash or tennis, or ride an exercise-bike, to 'save time' while getting fit. Our reading is mostly related to professional demands. We try to do two or three (or more) things at once. Many of us wake to an alarm, whether we've had adequate sleep or not. e breathe polluted air, are exposed to too much artificial noise, worry about economic problems (Jesus told us not to do that), live in crowded cities, and our kids can't safely travel in trains or walk the streets in the dark anymore. Car drivers have more and more information to process in less and less time, creating more stress and accidents. "Information overload" makes our decision-making more complex. We move house, change jobs (and partners) more often. Our meals (particularly breakfast) are "self-serve". We rarely write long letters to people nowadays. Even our worship is regulated by the clock.
Most Christians are not reading as much as they feel they should, and yet are spending more of their lives these days getting 'educated'. We mostly need a 'reason' for walking or driving. ('Can't I just be in the woods without any special reason?' Thomas Merton asks). Adults are not 'playing' enough (or if they do, it's highly competitive - beating the other person or the golf score).
EXPLOITING TIMEWe have done to time what we have done to nature - attempted to dominate it rather than submit to it. We've followed the Creator's injunction about subduing the earth and forgotten the other command about replenishing it. Our "conquest mentality" has led us into the destructive habit of 'using' natural resources, of 'exploiting' time.
So our 'time management' courses are almost totally preoccupied with a how to get more done in less time mentality. The clock has become our master. And being a slave to clock-time can be the worst tyranny of our stressful existence..... While we in the West have conquered material poverty, we have paid an awesome emotional price; 'economic growth entails a general increase in he scarcity of time. consumption gobbles up time alive'. (3) So - another paradox - the more we go on seeking additional material goods, the less time we actually have to enjoy them.
WASTING TIMERecently, in Lae, Papua New Guinea, I bought a book called Prayer for Pilgrims by Sheila Cassidy. You may remember she was the British doctor who was tortured and imprisoned by the Chilean authorities in 1975 for treating a 'freedom fighter'. She has some excellent advice on finding time for prayer in the midst of our busy-ness. (If a young doctor working 80-100 hours a week can learn to pray, anyone can!). She writes: "One of the break-throughs that I have experienced in the understanding of prayer is the significance of 'wasting' time. One day I was working at a boring job and a friend came to join me. He loitered about for nearly an hour, perched on the edge of the table ... and talking occasionally of nothing in particular. When he had gone was filled with a special joy because I realized that he had deliberately wasted an hour with me; it was not that we were discussing something of importance or that I needed consoling: it was a pure and unsolicited gift of time.
If we think about it, for busy people time is often the most precious thing they have to give. Doctors, priests, those who counsel, will always 'spend' time with those in need. They may sit up all night with someone who is distressed; they may pass long hours in listening to problems, or in giving advice; but this is all time deliberately spent. We only deliberately waste time with those we love - it is the purest sign that we love someone if we choose to spend time idly in their presence when we could be doing something more 'constructive'. And so it is with prayer; there is a very real sense in which prayer is a waste of time ... it is the purest sign of our love for God that we are prepared to 'waste' our time with him". (4)
We'll come back to that, but let's now go deeper into understanding this mysterious entity we call "time". There are three ways, biblically, of understanding time: chronos, kairos and aion. Chronos-time is measurable, chronological time. Kairos-time is "timeliness". The first is time-as-duration, the second time-as-harmony. Oscar Cullman, in his book Christ and Time, says aion-time designates both an exactly defined period of time (this present age), and eternity; both time-limited and time-unlimited.
Now, to understand different ways of praying we need to relate the three prayer-forms with these concepts of time. Verbal prayer is concrete, specific, active. Meditative prayer is more creative. And contemplative prayer has a timeless quality about it. Please note that none of these biblical expressions for time is abstract. Our times (plural) are in God's hands. The Christ-event was time's mid-point, and the Divine plan for our world and its peoples is moving forward to its consummation.
"NOW" and "NOT YET"The Christian, then, views time in different ways. We are "exiles in time", but we also possess "eternal" life here-and-now. So we must not only "number our days" to achieve certain goals, but also "gain wisdom of heart". (Psalm 90:12). We must strive for the fine balance between "doing", "being" and "becoming".
Perhaps the greatest problem busy people have in relation to finding time to pray is the "tyranny of the urgent". Jesus had a lot of urgent things to do, but he regularly distanced himself from them to do something more important - spend uninterrupted time alone with his Father. So he was able to "finish the work God gave him to do". Many of us rush around doing significant things, but the work God has ordained for us to do includes much more than achieving tangible goals.
"WASTING TIME WITH GOD"Every day, if possible, we should aim to do as Psalm 46:10 says (in Joseph Pieper's translation): "Have leisure and know that I m God". Once a week or fortnight give extended time to "waiting for the Lord". Then, perhaps once a year, attend a retreat, to do a spiritual stock-take. Finding the delicate balance between the "mystical" and the "mundane" will only be learned by trial and error, and great discipline. Finding time for prayer is less a matter of time-organization as an attitude of mind. Time for prayer has to become a priority rather than occupying a peripheral position in our lives. Be sure of this: the half-hour or hour given to prayer at the expense of other things is never wasted. Such "wasting time with God" enriches and enhances all that we do, and in a mysterious way makes our work more creative and productive.
INDIVIDUAL PATTERNSEach of us must find the pattern that is appropriate to our lifestyle. A mother of small children will pray at different times (e.g. when feeding the baby, or when the kids are asleep) than a single person. Teenagers will learn to get to bed early - despite the allures of television - to find time first thing in the morning. Pastors will put their telephone answering-machine on while they leave the crowds to find a solitary place. Nine-to-five workers will slip into a church sanctuary, or park their car a mile from their work-place, or use the train journey for their 'quiet times". Travelling salespeople will find the shade of a tree for a midday hour with the Lord.
Whatever we do the principle is the same: if prayer is our first priority it will not be impossible to arrange the rest of our lives accordingly. "We shall never be safe in the market place unless we are at home in the desert". (5) God has invited - no, commanded - us to pray. His will for us allows this special space and time in our schedules. Michel Quoist says, "Time is a gift of God and he will demand of us an exact accounting of it. But be at peace; God doesn't give us a job to do without at the same time giving us the means to accomplish it. We always have time to do what God wants us to do." (6) The question is: are his priorities for us our priorities too?
Footnotes:1. I am indebted to Robert Banks' The Tyranny of Time, Lancer, 1983 for many insights on this subject.
2. Owen Dowling, ibid., 37.
3. S.B. Linden, ibid., 124.
4. Sheila Cassidy, Prayer for Pilgrims, Fount, 1980,40-41.
5. Cardinal Basil Hume, Searching for God, quoted in S. Cassidy's Prayer for Pilgrims, 86.
6. M. Quoist, The
Christian Response, Gill & Son, 1965,75.
The foregoing is from a chapter in my book "Recent Trends Among Evangelicals". The other chapters are "Recent Trends Among Evangelicals", "Towards an Evangelical Theology of Social Justice"' and "Evangelicalism Towards the 21st Century". Available for $5 plus a few dollars for postage from John Mark Ministries, 7 Bangor Court, Heathmont, Vic Australia 3135.
Shalom! Rowland Croucher
Director, John Mark Ministries - resources for pastors/leaders.
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Asian Internet Bible Institute (graphics) Rowland Croucher (text) 1997