Sunday, October 9, 2011

When Popcorn Prayers are All You Can Manage

In life before children, I would get up each day and dress for work, eat my breakfast bar, choke down my 8 oz. of OJ, and kneel at the kitchen table with my prayer journal before me. In the evening, I would sit in bed with my Bible study open on my lap and pray with the rhythmic sounds of husband's breathing or cats' purring.

Since becoming a mother of twins, however, one of the biggest struggles I've faced is finding the quiet time for my quiet time. The funny thing is, I literally have a closet designated solely for prayer, but I don't yet have children who will leave me alone long enough to say too much to the Father before I have to go kiss a boo boo, stop a squabble, or just be visibly present.

I've read with admiration the story of Susannah Wesley who would flip her apron up over her head and pray wherever she was. Her children knew not to interrupt. Mine would be standing with their face inches from the cloth or peeking beneath its hem to see if my eyes were closed. Preschoolers don't understand personal space.

Most authors I've read suggest getting up earlier than your children, but since I go to work when my brood goes down for the night, that hasn't worked for an already sleep-deprived me. (Yes, you can fall asleep while on your knees.)

After three years, though, I've adjusted and have learned to pray more frequent yet shorter prayers throughout the day, most of the time out loud so my children can hear me--when I'm folding laundry, fixing a meal, or pulling weeds from the flowerbeds; when I feel overwhelmed with parenting, when I am thankful for a breeze or cloud to cover the sun, when I am burdened for someone.

Still, each time my pastor asks, "How much time have you spent in prayer this week?" I feel guilty. I have an attitude of prayer throughout most days where I dialogue out loud with God as the thought comes to my mind to pray for this, give thanks for that. But, until nightfall, prayer time is not something I can use a timer to measure.

And so, I feel like my prayer life is insufficient, that I am failing in my relationship with God just because my time in prayer with the Father doesn't look like what one typically imagines.

The book of Nehemiah, though, has encouraged me over the past few weeks, showing Biblical prayer in a new light.

In the first chapter, Nehemiah's prayer is just what one would expect from an Old Testament prophet. He weeps, fasts, and mourns "for days" before praying heaven down in a long, flowing, beautiful prayer of confession, repentance, and intercession for his people, all while reminding God of who He is and of His promises before asking for help.

He prayed. He sought God's will. But after this first textbook prayer, Nehemiah's prayer life shifts, at least on paper, as he moves into circumstances that take his undivided attention.

One chapter later after the king has finally asked what Nehemiah wants to do about the city of Jerusalem lying in ruins, Scripture recounts, "So I [Nehemiah] prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king..."(Neh. 2:4). In one sentence, the text says he prayed, and in the next, it says he's speaking aloud to the king. Why? The circumstance he was in.

In this instance, Nehemiah didn't have time to pause for a long prayer. He was in the midst of the situation and likely had time to only speak God's name in his heart before responding to the king's question.

A few chapters later after Nehemiah returned Jerusalem and was facing opposition from enemies who did not want the city's wall restored, he suddenly stopped his historical recounting of the situation to pray for God's help: "Hear, O God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders" (Neh. 4:4-5).

Again, he simply interrupts the narrative for a two sentence prayer before moving forward with the labor that requires his full attention, only to pause from his wall--building a few verses later to say "But we prayed to our God" (4:9).

Prayer is not absent from Nehemiah's heart and lips. But, in this circumstance where the builders and the wall must be guarded both day and night to protect the people from their enemies, Nehemiah likely did not have time to sit down for a two day fast and prayer, maybe not even for an hour of prayer at one time.

In the next chapter, Nehemiah describes confronting the people over their sin, then again abruptly interrupts the narrative to say, "Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (5:19).

And again, in the next chapter when he is frightened by his enemies, he interrupts to say, "But now, O God, strengthen my hands" before describing how he refused to cower or hide from his enemies(6:9). When the enemies continue to attack, he prays again, saying, "Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were trying to frighten me" (6:14).

Later, after confronting Israel for their sin once again, Nehemiah prays, "Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services...For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness" (13:14,22).

His last recorded prayer is, as the others, abrupt: "Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites" (13:29).

Except for the first prayer where Nehemiah fasted, wept, and spent days in prayer seeking God's will, every other instance shows him interrupting the narrative for a one to two sentence prayer. It's like watching an older movie where the narrator interrupts every now and then to give the main character's inner thoughts. The prayers do show some commonalities:
  • Each of these prayers could be wiped from the narrative without the reader noticing, indicating how truly extemporaneous they were.
  • Most are asking God to "remember"--either in the sense of judging the unrighteous or in blessing / protecting him who was serving God.
  • And all were prayed in the midst of difficult circumstances of service to God.
Praying for God's will as Nehemiah does initially in the first chapter does seem to require much fasting and praying, a concentrated time in communion with the Lord. Yet, once one knows the will of the Lord and is in the thick of that ministry or battle, I'm not saying to stop the concentrated prayer times, but know that popcorn prayers throughout each day, each hour, are Scriptural.

No, your attention, my attention is not consumed with rebuilding a city wall without getting ourselves or our countrymen killed by enemies both without and within. But, you may be in a particular chapter of your life where your God-given ministry requires so much attention that long periods of prayer are less frequent than you would like, than you need. Perhaps that ministry is raising young children in the Lord or being the primary caregiver to a sick family member or to an aging parent.

A concentrated quiet time of prayer is important. Yet, in the midst of the trial, the God-appointed ministry, the battle, when there seems to be no time to sleep, much less pray, prayer is still necessary. It may take a different form, showing itself in those daily, hourly sentence prayers lifted to heaven, but be encouraged.

You might be surprised at how popcorn prayers spoken instantly throughout each hour at every thought of need, fear, or concern for another will strengthen your relationship with the Lord and make you more attuned to His Spirit living within.


  1. Your words are so true and very much encouraging. This, very, post may be the simple push to keep us all in the path of prayer throughout our day. (Even if others do think we're talking to ourselves. . . . Ha!)

  2. The problem is I've gotten so used to talking to God throughout the day that I literally talk to "myself" all the time now and have to check myself when I'm out shopping. Lots of strange looks, but thankfully, my kids think it's just about normal.