As I mentioned last week, I’m going to start a series about the ten rules I chose for 2023. I’m not going to go straight through these for the next ten weeks; rather, they’ll be spread out between now and the end of the year. I also may not go in order–sort of depends on where my head is and what I’m ruminating on. But I do intend to cover all ten by the end of December. Whether I’ll give myself the same ten rules in 2024 I don’t know–or rather, maybe I should say I don’t know if I’ll add ten more rules or just keep these ones the same or what. I may need more than ten rules to order my life better, but I also don’t really want this to turn into the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.
In any case, some of these may get a little personal or Jesus-y, but also, I intend to explore these rules from a broader perspective than just my own. I’ve been wanting to write more about wellness and wellbeing from a higher level, and I think these rules are probably relevant to most human beings on some level. I want to explore why that is and maybe provoke your own thinking and changes through these posts.
Okay, enough throat clearing. I am starting with Rule #1 this week: Pray more.
Why I Wrote This Rule
Let me start off by acknowledging my faith bias. It’s not a secret to anyone who has read anything I’ve written that I am a Protestant Christian with fairly conservative theology and doctrine. When I say “conservative,” I don’t mean in a political sense; I mean that my theological and doctrinal beliefs adhere fairly closely to early biblical teachings and general views consistent with the Protestant Reformation. I don’t like to label myself as a member of any particular Protestant denomination, but I would say that I am of the Reformed tradition.
I have been fairly consistent about reading my Bible (the New American Standard MacArthur Study Bible, in case you’re curious) for several years now, but prayer has been a struggle for a long time. Certainly I’ve had periods in my life when I was more committed to prayer, but there have also been long dry spells and spiritual deserts.
I started this year knowing that I needed to practice prayer more consistently, but I wasn’t driven primarily by religious commitment. I decided to focus more on prayer because I’ve read off and on for several years that spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation can have positive benefits for the body and brain–yes, Christians, even for people of other faiths or no faith. I know that the Bible commands those who follow its teachings to pray, but maybe there’s a reason for that.
In other words, maybe focusing on something higher than ourselves is good for us.
The Practice of Prayer
As I tried to figure out how to approach these rules, I started to focus a lot on how to practice them. With a rule like “move every day,” it’s easy to understand what the practice really is; clearly, I’m talking about some form of exercise.
But practicing prayer is more challenging. In my faith tradition–at least the way it’s practiced in the modern church–there is no emphasis on liturgy or recitation, really. The way I was raised, prayer was typically made up on the spot. Someone needed intercession or petition, quick, come up with a prayer and say it in your head or aloud, and as long as it ends with “in Jesus’ name,” you’re good to go.
Over the years, I’ve come to envy those traditions that emphasize a more disciplined approach to prayer–certain times or occasions, certain words, etc. I think there is a risk of such prayers becoming so rote that they lose some of their meaning, but I think that modern evangelicals went too far in the other direction.
For me, the practice of prayer this year was just to devote ten minutes to it every morning after my Bible reading. I’ve also returned to reading one of my Puritan prayers every morning, but these are more about setting the stage for my own prayers and aren’t part of the ten minutes.
Y’all. It’s tough to pray for ten minutes.
Between the animals begging for breakfast, my own sleepy brain, scattered thoughts about what I need to do for the day, and whatever other random things jump in to distract me, I struggle to focus for just ten minutes.
Which, honestly, just tells me how much I need that ten minutes.
The Benefits of Prayer
I’ve grown up hearing other Christians talk about how prayer has helped them, and I confess to being largely mystified by their claims. I have not always had the experience of seeing prayers “answered,” and only once can I honestly say that I felt something like a physical presence of God with a clear, nearly audible message. I am an odd duck, I confess–I am a hard-headed Christian who struggles mightily to believe some of the subjective “woo woo” stuff that other Christians claim, but man, I do want to believe it.
But it turns out that I don’t really have to believe the subjective stuff, because there is some good evidence that prayer and meditation are good for the brain and body.
Dr. Andrew Newberg suggests that “people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray.” He points out that it’s not clear whether the spiritual discipline leads to the frontal lobe difference or vice versa, but it seems to me that putting time and effort into improving frontal lobe activity can only benefit the brain.
Other researchers have found potential links between prayer or meditation and improved brain function and even immune system function. Over the last several years, more and more studies point to mental health benefits of prayer such as reduced anger, improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety, and lowered reactivity to traumatic or stressful events.
Results So Far
Has praying helped me? I’m not sure. I’m really not. My church acquaintances may not appreciate my honesty there, but oh well–I may be theologically conservative, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a curmudgeon.
But I continue to pray, because the Bible asks me to do so, and I have to trust the process. I try to engage in intercessory prayer, petitionary prayer, worship, and gratitude, but dang, it’s tough sometimes. The point is–the process isn’t for God. It’s for me. God doesn’t need me to do any of this–he’s God, and he can do what he wants. But prayer is to change me–to help me process my worries and put them somewhere else, to acknowledge my place in the universal order, to reset my view of my own importance.
And if I get to reap some of those other benefits in the process, all the better.
So as with everything, I’m working on it. Prayer, as much as diet, exercise, or any other habit, is as much discipline as anything else. And even if time proves my religious beliefs false or shows that my prayers were for naught, simply becoming a more disciplined person is a positive thing.
Next week, I’m bringing more of that Ouiser Boudreaux energy to this blog and telling you why some popular writing advice is crap.