- Troy Hatfield
I know they are easy targets, but come on! Are church signs still being used?! Haven’t the websites and books dedicated to making fun of this medium given the necessary evidence for limiting the use of church signs to giving practical information: service times and, when necessary, upcoming sermon titles and preacher. Do we really need to be know that your building is “prayer conditioned” or that “U R” is missing from “C H _ _ C H”.
So imagine my surprise when a local church sign both convicted and haunted me for a couple of days after I read it. Its message was surprisingly simple and didn’t try too hard to be clever. It was humble: “pray now, not just as your last resort.”
Thanks to that sign’s being on a route I drive regularly, I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer (unfortunately, more thinking about it than actually doing it) and been challenged to live differently.
Be kind to yourself. Few aspects of the Christian life cause people more guilt than prayer. Virtually every conversation I have that centers around prayer has people apologizing (to whom?) that they don’t pray enough. I will never forget the first time I read Richard Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. The second paragraph of the Preface moved me so deeply:
“Countless people, you see, pray far more than they know. Often they have such a ‘stained-glass’ image of prayer that they fail to recognize what they are experiencing as prayer and so condemn themselves for not praying.”
When it comes to the practice of prayer, I think many of us need an increase of self-compassion. Foster’s wisdom should encourage each of us to give ourselves a little more credit. Maybe it would be helpful to memorize this simple couplet from the amazing poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and recite it to ourselves whenever we think about prayer:
“My own heart let me more have pity on;
let me be to my sad self hereafter, kind.”
First word vs. last resort. I really appreciate the sign’s call to pray right now. I’m consistently making some kind of resolution to “carve out” more time in my day for prayer. I should continue to strive for that, but I shouldn’t diminish the regular opportunity that each moment offers to pray.
Bonhoeffer gives some practical advice in his book Life Together that could help give a regular orientation to prayer.
“At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it. Therefore, at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs.”
How might my attitude and perspective be different if my first word wasn’t some kind of cursing of the alarm, but rather a word of thanks or a call for help? Maybe having a first word practice would eliminate last resort situations.
Me, me, me. The brilliant Catholic novelist Graham Greene has a main character in The End of the Affair speak this:
“I wish I knew a prayer that wasn’t me, me, me. Help me. Let me be happier. Let me die soon. Me, me, me.”
I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons I struggle with prayer is because I’m quite simply bored with the subject of my prayers: me. Maybe I need to focus my prayers on someone and something else for a change. Is it possible I’d find new life and energy around prayer if I weren’t always the focus?
I’m grateful for the unexpected urging that has come through that church sign. I’m hopeful these simple ideas can spur you on to a deeper and more consistent practice of prayer.
Troy is Lead Worship Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI, where he’s been on staff since 2004. A musician, Anglophile, voracious reader and owner of more black clothing than anyone he knows, Troy has also recently married Lis, a violinist and lover of every member of the animal kingdom. Follow Troy on twitter @tr0yisbald.