Tony Merida has been my pastor only five weeks and I like him already. In fact, he grabbed me in his very first sermon with a little story he related about prayer.
“Once in a seminary class, some of us asked the professor about all these saints of old who are supposed to have risen at 4 o’clock every morning and prayed for hours. After all, we wanted to know, didn’t these people go to bed at dark? I could get up at 4 o’clock too, if I’d gone to bed at 5.” We laughed, and he continued.
“Then someone asked the professor what time he gets up in the morning. He said, ‘For the past fourteen years, I have gotten up at 4 a.m. so I can spend two hours with the Lord in prayer and the Word.'” Tony continued, “What struck me about that was that he did not work this little fact into his lecture or class notes, but the only way we found it out was by asking him.”
I thought about that all Sunday afternoon. Personally, I have a checkered history of trying to rise early and pray. Years ago, I got up at 4 am for a while, but could not get to sleep early enough the night before and I wasn’t worth shooting the next day, so it did not seem to be accomplishing its purpose. I once picked up a book that purported to tell the reader how to pray six hours a day. My first reaction was who can do this? and why? and don’t we have to live our lives? Anyway, the writer said to choose a country and pray for its leaders, its churches, its pastors, its legislatures, its missionaries, and so on. Then move on to another country. Well, if praying six hours is the point, that would do it. How many countries are there in the world–three hundred? But I’m not convinced God asks this from us.
You can probably tell I’m conflicted on this subject. That’s why I did something. I sent an e-mail to the seminary professor Tony Merida mentioned in his sermon and asked him about his practice of praying from 4 to 6 am for 14 years. Questions like how did you get started, what do you do, how do you keep at it, and why.
Dr. Jim Shaddix has left our beloved New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where he was Tony’s mentor and easily the most popular preacher on campus. He now pastors a large Baptist church in the Denver area. But he took time to write back with his story.
“God used a man named Don Miller to challenge me to begin spending unhurried, protected time in prayer back in the late 80s. At the time, we had two small children and my study was at home. When the kids got up in the morning, life revolved around them. So, I came to the conclusion that having uninterrupted time with the Father meant it would have to be on my time. Either I got up earlier or stayed up later, and frankly, I’ve never particularly like staying up till all hours of the night.”
“My plan is fairly simple. First, I sleep in on Saturday mornings! That’s a reward I give myself. And although I get up at 4 am on Sunday mornings, that prayer time is devoted to the morning message and other aspects of the worship time. Monday through Friday, I use a number of resources. Unlike some people, I’ve never been much of a journaler, but I have really enjoyed learning to pray Scripture. That’s the most confident praying we can do, because whenever we pray Scripture we know we’re praying according to the will of God (I John 5:14-15). Each day, I pray through 5 Psalms and 1 Proverb. I use the psalms to prompt my praise and petition, and I pray the proverb for myself, my wife, and my kids that we might be conformed to the character that is described.
“I also use an older tool called the ‘2959 Plan’ developed by Peter Lord. This is a prayer book that provides resources for different kinds of praying. Finally, I incorporate my Scripture memorization into my prayer life by praying through the verses I’m memorizing and reviewing.”
“What has kept me at it? Mark 1:35 has been a great inspiration and motivation. After an incredibly busy and straining day in Jesus’ ministry, He rose a long while before daylight, departed to a solitary place, and prayed. After that, He stayed focused on His mission even though the whole city was looking for Him in order that He might minister to them. John MacArthur calls this the ministry of ‘planned neglect’–neglecting some good things in order to prioritize other things. I just keep reminding myself that to stay focused on my disciple-making mission, to know God’s smile and experience His favor on my preaching, I have to keep my secret place with Him. I learned a long time ago that the toughest choices I have to make are not between bad and good but between better and best.”
“I’m tempted to quit all the time. But I guess that’s the nature of spiritual warfare. And once in a while, I do quit. I mean, sometimes my flesh gets the best of me and I get lazy and become inconsistent. When I do, it shows up in every area of my life–my marriage, my parenting, my preaching, everything! But God graciously and patiently beckons me back. So, it’s a weekly…no, daily struggle. I’m not sure I buy this thing about being a morning person or a night person. Christianity is not always about just doing what comes naturally. Getting up early does not come naturally for me. Even after 16 or 17 years, I still have to set the alarm, and I still drink coffee to help me wake up. Don Miller used to say he offered the Lord a cup every morning, but He hadn’t ever accepted! I don’t usually offer HIm a cup because He doesn’t need it, but I sure do!
“The most obvious benefit has been the privilege of getting to know Christ like Jeremiah 9:23-24 and Philippians 3:10-11 talk about. While I still have a long way to go, I am confident that the precious minutes and hours through the years have gone a long way in sustaining my Christian growth and ministry. I don’t know what my life would be like had the Lord not called me to Himself in this way–maybe a divorce, maybe I would be out of the ministry, maybe complacency. I don’t know, but I’m certain that I would never know His strong hand of anointing on my preaching.
“One by-product is that I’ve been able to challenge young ministers in this way. I left a pastorate in Texas in 1992 to return to school in order to get qualified to teach. My motivation was not to teach in a particular seminary or discipline, but to just get in a context where I could influence young ministers in training. That burden grew out of the shallowness I often saw in many pastors’ personal lives. I saw guys who were pastors of successful churches by all the standards that we measure success, but I knew their private lives were far from holy. And I learned something that has haunted me my entire ministry. It’s possible to be successful in ministry by all the standards we use to gauge success, and yet do it in the flesh. God used my own prayer journey in the late 80s and early 90s to set me on a ministry course to influence the spiritual lives of young preachers. And that’s been my privilege (at NOBTS) for the past 11 years.”
Jim Shaddix ended his chat with me with these words. “The call to prayer can be a deceptive thing. It’s a privilege to come into the presence of the God of the universe, and we can do it anytime or anywhere. We can do it with our eyes closed or open, standing or sitting, lying down or leaning. If terrorists took over our country tomorrow, they could never take prayer away from us. They could confiscate our Bibles and close our churches and silence our pulpits, but they could never keep us from praying. So, you would think that prayer would be the easiest thing to do and the thing we do most often. Yet, it is neither.
“Prayer is hard work and it doesn’t come naturally. The temptation that every minister–every Christian–will face is to just ‘pray along the way.’ After all, Paul told us to ‘pray without ceasing.’ So we are tempted to pray while we drive, pray while we jog, while we shop, and so forth. Yet we must always remember that the man who was closer to the Father than any of us will ever be–the Lord Jesus Christ–felt it necessary to steal away for unhurried, protected time with the Father. If He needed it, surely it is necessary for us.
“My advice is to carve out time to pray, to calendar it like you calendar everything else, and then covenant with our Lord to pursue Him in prayer.”
Thank you, Brother Jim. You will be happy to know that one of the many young preachers you have mentored, the new shepherd we call Pastor Tony, has learned the lesson well and is modeling what you taught. I would not be surprised if he passes on to the next generation the benefits of the planned neglect for the unhurried, protected time with the Father.
(The title of this article comes from a line I picked up a half century ago. The person who waits until night to do his praying is like a musician who plays a concert, then tunes his instrument.)