Sometimes we need to take a break from the books to see the sky and the little things in the grass at our feet.
Spending an hour with God
Mary Anne Voelkel grew up in an alcoholic home. When she was a teen, her family started to fall apart. Later, at Wheaton College (IL), Mary Anne learned about prayer and forgiveness under the care and tutelage of a fellow student. We asked Mary Anne, the Prayer Coordinator for InterVarsity, to tell us about the daily hour of prayer she began as a student and which she continues to maintain.
StudentSoul: We often hear that prayer is simply conversing with God and that it should be as natural as breathing. But most Christians struggle with prayerlessness. How can we overcome this?
Mary Anne: If I’m struggling with prayerlessness, I find it helpful to set a time of house cleaning. Jack Taylor, in his book Prayer: Life’s Limitless Reach, has written a wonderful chapter on prayerlessness, and he offers three suggestions for any area of our lives where there’s a “-lessness.” First, we should seek God’s forgiveness and repent of prayerlessness. We’re commanded to pray without ceasing, and if we’re not obeying the Lord in prayer, we’re being disobedient and must ask forgiveness.
Second, we can resist and renounce the enemy. He uses all kinds of tactics to keep us from praying: tiredness, little physical discomforts such as headaches, and distractions of every kind. 1 Peter 5:8-9 and the verses following say that we are to be “self-controlled and alert … resist him, standing firm in the faith …” We can resist the attacks of the enemy and his ploys: fatigue, laziness, discouragement, apathy — even sleeping in too long in the morning. Prayerlessness is sin and can become a form of bondage, but we can ask the Lord to come and help us.
And that’s the third thing — depending on God to rescue us. When I discovered that I was doing plenty of Bible study but no prayer, I began to pray for my prayer life. I asked God to come and strengthen me and lead me out of prayerlessness. Romans 8:26-27 indicates that the Holy Spirit has been given to us to help us in our prayer life: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our heart knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” The root of the word translated “help” carries the sense of ongoing companionship, friendship and fellowship.
StudentSoul: What are some ways students on campus could get started in prayer?
Mary Anne: Other than simply to start praying, there are some good examples in Scripture that describe prayer and offer specific things to pray for. 1 Peter 5 is a good chapter for leaders of groups, since it talks about being good shepherds, casting our cares on the Lord and resisting the enemy. That section is well worth studying together and then using as a guide for prayer. When my prayer life needs renewing, I often turn to John 15, Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches and his command to abide in him when my prayer life needs renewing. When I’m anxious, Philippians 4:4-6 urges me to rejoice in the Lord and not to worry, but rather to be thankful and to let my requests be known to God. And the imagery of Isaiah 55:1 refreshes me with God’s invitation to “come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.”
StudentSoul: As a college student, you developed a discipline of praying for an hour every day. Some of us struggle to pray for five minutes! How do you pray for a whole hour?
Mary Anne: I use a definite pattern for my hour of prayer. I think of it as a circle, like a pie diagram. It has three major sections with several smaller parts in each. The three divisions are communion with God, spiritual combat and communication.
Communion with God
For communion, I do four things: singing, waiting in silence, meditating on the Word and confessing sin. First, I come into God’s presence with singing. Sometimes I use music CDs with worship songs. Ephesians 5:19 says to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.” Psalm 33:3 encourages us to “sing to him a new song,” so occasionally I make up a tune and a little love song to God. Then I move from that into praise, using the Psalms.
After a time of praise, I take time to wait on God in silence. “Be still, and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10 says. This isn’t a time of confession yet because that requires self-examination, and at this point I still want to focus outwardly on the Lord. In the silence, I love God and I usually meditate on a verse about his love for me. I think this is the thing he looks forward to the most in prayer: not only our praising and thanking him, but also just our loving him.
StudentSoul: What do you mean by “just our loving him”? Can you give an example?
Mary Anne: First of all, I simply say, “Lord, I love you!” I think about things I’ve seen recently or experiences I’ve had. I might say, “I love how creative you are, Lord, like the way this lake looks.” Or I might say, “I just love the fact that yesterday on the plane you sat me next to those people and used me to encourage them.” Sometimes my expression of love is a kind of thanking, and sometimes it’s just “I love you for the way you are. You are so kind and beautiful and strong.”
And then I think of how God loves me. I meditate on a verse like Isaiah 43:4, “You are precious and honored in my sight,” or Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” God loves us whether we feel it or not.
StudentSoul: Can you describe how you meditate on Scripture?
Mary Anne: Meditating is like eating a delicious piece of chocolate. You take a little bit and savor it. With the Scripture, you mull over it and repeat it in your mind and ask the Lord to speak to you through that little piece. Take, for example, one of the verses I just mentioned, “You are precious in my sight.” Think about what it means to be precious. What is precious to you? Who is precious to you? Your activity for the Lord is not what is precious to him. You are precious. Sometimes I’ll read the passage with my own name in it: “You are precious in my sight, Mary Anne. You are honored and I love you.”
StudentSoul: What do you do next?
Mary Anne: At this point I’m ready to confess sin and forgive those who have offended me in the last twenty-four hours. In Psalm 139:23-24, David calls upon God to examine him. I like that, because some of us are too easy on ourselves while others of us are too hard on ourselves. So I ask the Lord to examine me. He sees things I don’t see, and he cleans out all those little corners I can’t reach. 1 John 1:5-9 promises his forgiveness and cleansing. And Mark 11:25-26 tells us that if we are to receive forgiveness, we are also to forgive others.
I have really worked hard on the area of forgiving people who have hurt me, and I try to keep my heart clear. I wrestled for years to forgive my mother and father, but I was finally able to do that and even saw God move them to receive him before they died. I’ve learned that being able to give and receive forgiveness is vital to unhindered prayer.
StudentSoul: It sounds like forgiveness, while it may be hard to offer, is absolutely essential to your prayer life.
Mary Anne: Exactly. And that’s why I next spend time in the “combat” section of my pie diagram. I thoughtfully put on the armor of God, as it’s described in Ephesians 6:10-20. I clothe myself with Jesus. He’s really what all the pieces of armor are about. If my earlier time of confession is like bathing, then putting on the armor is like dressing. To use Paul’s metaphor of fresh clothing, I have put off the old nature, and I remind myself that I have put on the new. Then I move into a time of intercession — praying for others.
StudentSoul: Who do you pray for?
Mary Anne: I pray for people in a lot of different ways. First, 1 Timothy 2:1-2 encourages us to pray for rulers and people in authority. In Ezekiel 22:30, God says he’s looking for someone who will “stand in the gap” of our cities’ broken walls, confessing the sins of our cities and our institutions, including our Christian groups.
I then pray for my family, for faculty in the seminary where I taught for a number of years and for leaders of the IFES movement that we led. And I usually pray for something out of the current newspapers, often a place of suffering or famine. I keep a picture of a woman lying down in a fetal position with her two little children to remind me to enter into their suffering and to remember them in prayer.
For each person I pray for by name, I use a four-by-six-inch index card with his or her picture clipped to it. I write on the card any Scripture the Lord gives me, and then I pray through the cards. When God has answered a specific prayer, I put the card into a separate pile. One day a week I thank God for the answers he’s given. One year I ended up with a two-inch-thick stack of answers to prayer!
StudentSoul: What do you pray for when interceding for all these people?
Mary Anne: I’ll often pray through one paragraph a day in a book like Colossians or Ephesians. Praying the Scripture like this has transformed my life of prayer. I’ll take a section of Scripture, say, Ephesians chapter 1 as an example. Verse 3 says that “God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” So I turn that into a prayer for a student group by saying, “Lord, I thank you that you have already blessed this group with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Open their eyes to see those blessings.” The passage goes on to say God “chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” So I pray that each person, in their devotional life, in their group meetings and in their daily walk, would become holy and blameless in his sight, and that they would gain confidence knowing that they have been chosen. And so it goes on. I turn each phrase into a prayer, and eventually pray through the whole book.
Communication: ask, seek, knock
StudentSoul: But you’re not quite through the hour at this point, are you?
Mary Anne: The last step is communication, or what I also call, “Ask, seek, knock.” This is where I talk with God about more personal needs.
StudentSoul: What do you ask for yourself?
Mary Anne: I pray about my day, the people I’ll meet and my work. When I was writing my master’s thesis several years ago, I was extremely busy and so I organized myself by using cards. I put all my projects for school on separate cards, and I prayed quickly for them each day. As I prayed over the cards, there were times the Lord would seem to give me a specific idea or some word of guidance as to what to do next. I felt like the Lord was a co-student with me. I finished all my remaining course work and my thesis in one semester. I think it’s because I continued to depend on him. Even when I was overwhelmed with school work, I tried to remain diligent in prayer and worship.
After the asking part of my hour, I am again silent. Sometimes I enjoy the peace that comes from being with God. When we were living in Colombia, sometimes I needed to sing again, because it could be so depressing. We had twenty-eight murders one week in our area. The week before, someone was killed at our front door. We had a lot of witches, too. One lived up the hill from us, and I’m sure she often cursed us. I don’t always hear God during my silent time, but I try to be open to whatever he might want to impress upon me. Sometimes it’s another section of Scripture, or it might be the name of someone I should call, but I don’t always hear something from him.
StudentSoul: And so is that how you conclude your hour of prayer?
Mary Anne: Actually, I end with a prayer of victory, as in Psalm 18:30-50. At the end of my hour, I affirm that God is victorious, that I am armored and that I can march into the day.
StudentSoul: So you always do this in the morning?
Mary Anne: I often do, and I always did when I taught in the morning. I wanted to go into my busy teaching schedule with words from God. So I would get up at 5 a.m., shower, grab a hot drink and then go to my office where it was quiet.
StudentSoul: Do you have any other special places to pray?
Mary Anne: I keep a picture of the prayer garden at Fuller Seminary where I met with the Lord so often while studying there. I especially remember when I was invited to lead prayer at an Urbana convention. I asked Dan Harrison, the director at that time, if I could pray about it. I went to the prayer garden and I felt like the Lord was telling me his people were thirsty. I had been studying Moses and his call, and had just been reading Exodus 17 where the Israelites were thirsty. I felt the Lord wanted the prayer at Urbana to be refreshing for students, quenching their spiritual thirst. And while I was sitting there, someone turned on the watering system. I’d never seen it happen before, and I’d been to the garden many times. So all of a sudden the garden was an incredible sprinkler display, and I knew that’s what God wanted to do at Urbana. And he did it.
StudentSoul: Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for student leaders who want to see more interest in prayer on campus?
Mary Anne: The prayer life of any group will only rise to the level of the prayer life of the leaders. If an InterVarsity leader really wants to see a vision for prayer grow, that leader should first develop a prayer support network from his or her home church, area churches and neighboring chapters who are already praying.
The worst thing to do is to push your group beyond what God wants to do. We need to ask God, “What is your prayer strategy for my chapter? What is your prayer strategy for our small groups? What is your prayer strategy for my own life?”
Leaders might want to take a whole day apart to pray about this, because a prayer movement always starts with the leaders. Each person could go apart for a while and be quiet and pray individually over those ideas, and then come back together later to share one or two things that the Lord seemed to be impressing upon them. Perhaps it’s a daily prayer meeting, or a prayer retreat for everybody, or inviting someone who is experienced in prayer to come and lead a workshop. But let God say how he wants to bring about a vision for prayer and what means he is going to bless.
The American missions movement was born in a student prayer meeting held in a haystack during a rainstorm. The Lord has always used students in prayer to change history. The real question is whether or not we are willing to let him work through us to bring change in us, our campuses and our world.