Prayer schedules are optional. If you can’t live with them, don’t.
Some of us are morning people: We bounce out of bed every morning ready to tackle the coming day. It’s the best time of the day!
Some of us are night owls: We don’t mind staying up late to have fun, to get work done, to do whatever. It’s the best time of the day.
I’m a night owl. And for one semester in seminary, I lived with a morning person. Thank God he wasn’t one of those annoying morning people, the sort who think everyone should love mornings the same as they, and all it’ll take to convert us is getting a good night’s sleep. I used to work for such a person. She was so chipper every morning, I wanted to stuff her into one. But I digress.
My morning-person roomie believed in starting every morning with God in prayer. Makes sense, right? But he had to take it one step further: Start every morning with sunrise prayer. He and some eager friends would wake at the crack of dawn, head to the chapel, and pray.
They’d pray indoors, in the chapel’s prayer room. Which had no windows. Which meant they didn’t see the sun rise. Which still makes no sense to me. Isn’t that the point of sunrise prayer?
More than once, he invited me to come along. I went once. That was all. Like I said, I’m not a morning person. I had no problem going to the all-night prayer vigils with our Greek-letter society; I had no problem getting to see the sun rise from that route. But rising at dawn: The only reasons I bother is when work requires it, when I go to bed really early, or insomnia. I’d make a lousy monk.
King David was clearly a morning person. ’Cause he sang about morning prayer.
“Look,” I tried to explain, “my prayers are gonna suck when I’m sleep-deprived.”
’Cause back in my Fundamentalist days I was involved in ministries where early-morning prayer wasn’t voluntary: Everybody was expected out of bed bright ’n early, and off we’d go to morning devotions. And my prayers really sucked. First 10 minutes consisted of my complaining to God about being up so God-damned early in the morning. Followed by many apologies for saying “God-damned” to God, of all people. And for my rotten attitude. And for not really being able to focus on anything, much less God. Really, all this grousing and apologizing was time wasted. I could’ve just prayed when I was more conscious.
“Besides,” I joked to my roommate, “you don’t need to be awake to talk to God. Ever heard of prophetic dreams?”
Genesis 20.3-7 KWL
- 3 God came to Avimelekh in a nightly dream and told him, “Look: You’re dead.
- For the woman you’re taking has a husband, a husband!”
- 4 Avimelekh hadn’t come near her, and said, “My Master, would you destroy a righteous gentile?
- 5 Didn’t he tell me, ‘She’s my sister,’ and she said, ‘He’s my brother’?
- I did this with an upright heart and clean hands.”
- 6 In the dream, God told him, “Yes, I know how you did this with an upright heart.
- I kept you from sinning against me: I didn’t let you touch her.
- 7 Return the man’s wife. He’s a prophet. He’ll pray for you. You’ll live.
- If you don’t return her, know this: You’ll die, die. You, and all who are yours.”
Not the happiest example of a divine conversation in a dream, but there y’are. Biblical precedent.
We worked out an arrangement. He didn’t pester me about sunrise prayer, and I wouldn’t razz him for dozing off during the prayer vigils. (Not that he dozed off often. Dude drank pots of coffee to plow through those vigils.)
Early morning, late night, whenever.
Muslims are well-known for their prayer times: Sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset, and dusk. Five times a day, whether you need it or not. (Probably do.)
Christian monks are likewise known for their prayer times. St. Benedict ordered his monks to pray eight times a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (3 a.m.), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (noon), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (6 p.m.), and Compline (9 p.m.). That’s right: You can only sleep three hours at a time, ’cause you gotta keep getting up for prayer. Because to monks, prayer is life. Doesn’t matter what you’re doing at the time, even if it’s urgent: Prayer comes first. It’s more important than sleep too.
The rest of us Christians are far less structured. Some of us have specific prayer times: First thing in the morning, or during our lunch hour, or after work, or before bed. And before meals. The rest of the time, we just pray whenever we feel like it. Just like when we get on the phone and call friends: We don’t schedule when we’re gonna call people. (Well, most of us don’t.) We just call ’em. We’re the same way with God.
Which is fine. If you find prayer to be an easy thing to practice, and you pray every day, don’t worry about structure. It’s only for those of us who don’t remember to pray every day, who haven’t made it a regular habit: If we never remember to pray, it’s time to get religious about our prayer practices. When you have a young, weak tree, you stake it and fertilize it and monitor it constantly. When it’s strong and more mature and well, no worries. Same thing with Christian habits. When we lack regularity, it’s time to work on our self-control.
So… how many times a day should we pray? At least once.
A lot of Christians follow Daniel’s example, and pray three times a day.
And be flexible with your times. Because don’t be surprised when you find suddenly everything in the world seems to be conspiring against you keeping those prayer appointments. How every distraction imaginable keeps happening at those times. Yeah, sometimes it’s the devil. But more often, it’s your very own carnal nature objecting to this new habit you’ve imposed upon it. True of every new habit we try to develop. The solution, I’ve found, is flexibility: Have your scheduled times, and have other, unscheduled times. Pray at set times… and pray at other times, whenever the mood strikes you.
Pray when you’re awake.
I hear God best when I’m paying attention. That’s definitely not when I first wake up: I want coffee and breakfast, and low-impact brain activities like music and light reading. Morning prayers are not gonna be my best prayers. When I’ve been up for an hour or so, and I have some food in me, I’m prepared for prayer.
But if I followed the advice of morning people who insist every Christian should start the day with prayer, I’m gonna put too great an emphasis on too drowsy a time. I’m gonna greatly frustrate myself by expecting too much of myself. I’m gonna discourage myself from praying. I’m gonna wind up going through the motions because of somebody else’s standard, and my prayers are gonna stop being living religion, and turn into dead religion: The one thing prayers should never be.
So don’t do that to yourself!
Are you a morning person? Pray at dawn. Are you a night owl? Pray at midnight. When does your brain function best? That’s when you oughta pray. Take advantage of the way you individually work.
If your church or spouse or some other Christian leader insists on dragging you to sunrise prayer, and you keep falling asleep, stop going. I’m serious. You’re not worshiping God. You’re wasting your time and his. Don’t feel guilty about it: Just go back and pray when you’re most ready to pray.
I know; people will try to make you feel guilty about it, and try to beat you over the head with this particular story:
Mark 14.32-40 KWL
- 32 They were going to a place named Gat Semaním/“oil press,”
- and Jesus told his students, “Sit here while I pray.”
- 33 Jesus was taking Simon Peter, James, and John with him, and began to panic and freak out.
- 34 Jesus told them, “My soul is deathly sad. Stay here. Stay awake.”
- 35 He went a little ahead, fell to the ground, and was praying this:
- “If it’s possible, have this hour pass by!”
- 36 He said, “Abbá! Father, you can do anything: Take this cup from me.
- But not what I want. What you want.”
- 37 He came back and found them asleep, and told Peter, “Simon? You’re sleeping?
- You can’t stay awake one hour? 38 Stay awake. Pray, lest you come to temptation.
- Though you’ve a willing spirit, your flesh is weak.”
- 39 He went away again, praying the same words.
- 40 Coming back again, he found them asleep. Their eyes were heavy.
- They didn’t know how to answer him.
Of course, it’s an unfair comparison. Jesus’s circumstances were unique, and dire. He was about to get arrested; he was nervous. If your friends have an urgent prayer need, it doesn’t matter whether you’re at your best or not: Pray for them.
But if there’s nothing urgent at all—it’s just some overzealous Christian demanding you keep up with them—it’s wholly inappropriate of them to demand you pray to please them. We’re doing this for God, remember? It’s to maintain a relationship with God. It’s not an endurance competition. It’s not “I love you so much, God, I’m willing to torture myself for you.” He’s not trying to keep you without sleep till you break. God never demanded any such thing.
God doesn’t demand early-morning prayer. Or overnight prayer. Or 24-hour prayer watches. Or any such thing. All those ideas, all these extreme schedules, are human inventions. They’re optional. Follow them if you want. Otherwise don’t. Especially don’t impose them on weaker Christians, and especially don’t let some control-freak Christian inflict them upon you.
Got that? Stop abusing prayer, and stop abusing petitioners. Stop fruitlessly sucking the joy out of talking with our Father.
And lastly: If you’re gonna pray at sunrise, watch the sunrise. You may as well; you got yourself up for it. It’s okay to pray with your eyes open. Plus you can appreciate God’s new creation, and share your appreciation with him.