Centered by prayer
Four Christian leaders describe the practices that renew them in the midst of their busy lives.
The Rev. Tony Campolo, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, frames his busy days with a centering prayer in the morning and the prayer of examen at night.
He sits silently for a half an hour each morning, silently repeating the name “Jesus” as a private prayer of the heart and waiting for the “still, small voice” that is God. At night, he spends an equal amount of time lying in bed and working through the prayer of examen. First, he reviews his actions and thoughts of the day, looking for places where God has worked through him. Then he reviews the day a second time, looking for places where he failed to allow God in.
“I ask Christ to reach out and absorb from me those dark things in my personhood that have accumulated during the day,” said Campolo, who has written about spiritual practices with Mary Albert Darling in “God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism and Justice.” “I find that is crucial if I am to do centering prayer in the morning and receive the Holy Spirit, it is important that I be cleansed at night.”
The Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, prays while driving in his car, lying in bed at night and often before picking up the phone. “I ask for the Lord’s wisdom and guidance and pray that he will help me to reflect well upon the kingdom of Christ.”
He also blocks off part of every day -- at least a half an hour -- for devotional Bible reading. Whether at the desk in a hotel room or at his own breakfast table, he pulls out a black leather-bound New American Standard Version Bible and begins with a prayer: “Father, keep me in awe of your holy word and keep me in awe of your grace and help me to always mentally take the shoes from off my feet when I approach Scripture and when I stand behind the sacred desk when I seek your word.”
Phyllis Tickle, a lay Eucharistic minister in the Episcopal Church, has written more than a half-dozen books on fixed-hour prayer and includes several sessions of it in her daily routine. “When you do that, you are essentially praying with the church all over your time zone, but you are also doing what Paul calls a constant cascade of prayer before the throne of God,” she said. “It is a significant way of joining the community of saints.”
In the morning and before bed, Tickle also prays a breastplate prayer, a type of lyrical prayer to God for personal aid. One of the most famous is by St. Patrick. Tickle has composed one for herself -- typed out it comes to two single-spaced pages -- and she sometimes changes it to suit what she feels she needs from God.
“It involves the person praying in stating his or her own weaknesses and needs,” she said. “You have to know where the weak spots are.”
The Rev. Jim Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, a Christian magazine and related ministries dedicated to social justice. Wallis’ daily discipline includes Bible reading and a session of kneeling prayer while grasping a wooden, palm-sized cross in one hand.
But the practice he says is most important is listening to his children’s bedtime prayers. Despite a schedule so busy that he often conducts interviews during taxi rides, Wallis tries to be home each night to put his two sons to bed.
Some nights, the practice is easy -- like the night Luke, an avid baseball player, thanked God for making him a switch hitter.
Some nights, the practice is more difficult, as when Luke, struggling with the newfound knowledge that children die each day of poverty and disease, brought up the issue with God.
“He said, ‘Dear God, I pray those children don’t die again tomorrow,’” Wallis said. “Then there was a long pause. ‘But that is unlikely.’”
There was another long pause, and Luke continued: “Dear God, I pray then that it would be their best day ever. But it won’t.” Finally, the child came to the meat of the matter. “Dear God, please help us to stop this from happening.”
Hearing prayers such as these “distills the essence of Christ’s love back to me,” Wallis said.