Eric said on Sunday that he’s been praying daily for over thirty years. I’ve been to a number of prayer and meditation retreats, and have been praying daily for, like, two years. I wanted to share an experience I had recently that I think will illustrate the ups and downs of a life in prayer.

My ritual is to take my son to school, then make tea, then sit down to pray the psalms, read a selection from the New Testament, and do 20-30 minutes of silent meditation. A few days ago I sat down as I do every weekday morning (and most weekend days). As usual I had my journal, pens, Bible, and psalter near the chair I designated as my prayer spot (I’ve been to Prayer 101 twice. I know how to set up a prayer space. It sounds like I know what I’m doing, right?) I read the selection of psalms for the day, set my timer, and started meditating.

Approximately seven minutes into this particular meditation session I got the urge to check my phone to see if I had any new email. Random impulses to do anything but pray are not uncommon. It’s also not likely God will speak to you through Facebook, Twitter, email, Instagram, Pinterest, or any other social media. You’ll get all kinds of twitches and impulses when you sit down to pray. Eventually you’ll learn to ignore most of them (I hope I do). I’d checked my phone before I sat down to pray, and I’d answered all the email that arrived overnight, so the odds of having any new email were slim. Don’t reach for your phone, I thought. There’s no need. This is God’s time. Be still and know that God is God.

I reached for my phone. Fail #1.

Surprise! I had email! But knowing wasn’t enough! I opened the email! Fail #2.

I’m participating in a group promotion project in November, and the organizer sent a mass email to all the participants asking us to select a Christmas movie about which we would write a witty, engaging blog, and list the prize we’d give away to one lucky, lucky commenter. Twelve other people were participating in this giveaway, and as soon as I read the email I knew, I just knew that someone else would want to blog about my favorite Christmas movie, Bad Santa, a masterpiece of perversion and gross-out humor starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls, a little person, and a fat kid. My monkey mind announced that if I didn’t act RIGHT NOW, I would lose that chance and have to blog about something sappy and stupid like It’s a Wonderful Life or Love Actually (which are both fine movies but I find having the holidays crammed down my throat for two months infuriating and extremely stressful. Bad Santa is the perfect antidote. Trust me on this one.)

This email required immediate, and I mean immediate attention, and because it would go out to the other twelve writers it needed to be a little witty, even pithy, concise, and include a super-cool gift idea. The pressure. Which meant I could either just go and write the damn email, or sit for the rest of my meditation time crafting the damn email in my head, then get up thirteen minutes later and write it.

This whole thought process took less than five seconds of my precious prayer time. This is Margaret’s brain…on fear. I know you’re hoping for the Hallmark ending. Did I act with any faith or even a hint of patience? Is this where years of meditating paid off?

No. I got up and wrote the email. I actually got up from prayer to write an email about Bad Santa so I could promote my book. Epic fail.

I’m sure there are more worldly, self-involved things people have done rather than sit quietly listening for the finely powdered silence…right? (If you’ve got any, please list them in the comments. My self-esteem needs the boost.)

My point in telling you this story is this: when we talk about praying and discerning our purpose and direction in life, it’s easy to feel like it’s an all or nothing thing. Once we sit down and try to listen, the monkey mind makes it feel like a completely hopeless, insane task for which there is no chance of success. We might as well set off in search of the Holy Grail, or the cave where Jesus was buried. But like God’s grace, prayer works slowly, over time. Yes, this particular session was backwards sliding, but the effects of God’s grace in my life over the two years I’ve steadily prayed are nearly impossible to describe.

So just do it. Even twenty minutes a day gives you lots and lots of opportunities to open to God’s guidance and receive God’s grace. I’ll lay odds you won’t fail as spectacularly as I did. My only advice? Remove all electronic devices from arm’s reach. You’ll still get the urge to stand up and go check your email, but you might be able to talk yourself out of it if the device is in another room.

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