As I dusted the other day, I straightened a stack of old story books. On top was one of our son’s favorites as a toddler—Tootle by Gertrude Crampton. It is the tale of Tootle, a baby locomotive, who is attending train school. His schoolwork includes tasks such as stopping at red flags and pulling a dining car without spilling the soup. His most important lesson is that he must stay on the rails.
One day when Tootle is chugging along, he hops off the tracks to play in the meadow with a horse he sees there. He likes it so much he makes a habit of it. His instructor, Bill finds out about Tootle’s escapades and comes up with a plan to get the little engine back on the tracks. Bill places red flags throughout the grasses. Red flags signal that a train must stop—something engines never like to do. Tootle learns his lesson and at the end of the book we see an older and wiser Tootle teaching some new locomotives about staying on the rails.
Often during my prayer personal prayer time, I find myself acting a lot like Tootle—getting off track. The slightest distraction can lure me away from my time with Jesus. A stray thought can become my focus. The need to plan for an upcoming event can wheedle its way into my prayers. A worry can become a mantra instead of a prayer. At times getting reconnected with Jesus feels like I am trying to wrestle the weight of a locomotive back on the tracks.
As I researched ideas for staying on task during prayer, I realized that most if not all Christians struggle with this problem. Sifting through the many articles on the subject, I found several common suggestions to help us keep our spiritual wheels on the prayer tracks:
Shut the door. Find a quiet place and a quiet time—out of the hustle and bustle of the household. Maybe it is while walking; perhaps it is in the bathtub. For you it might be early morning while for someone else it may be after the rest of the household has gone to bed.
Use ready-made prayers as a guide. When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, He gave them the Lord's Prayer. There is no harm in praying a pre-written prayer, whether it's from the Bible or your favorite devotional. I personally like the guided prayer times in SacredSpace.ie and Walk Thru the Bible’s “Quiet Walk”.
Read Scripture beforehand. Reading scripture before your prayers, especially scripture about prayer, like Philippians 4:6, Romans 8:26 or Ephesians 6:18, will remind you why you're praying in the first place and motivate you to get the most out of your prayer time.
Play music. For me, quiet instrumental music helps me stay focused while at the same time opening my mind to what God is saying and doing.
Speak. Praying aloud reinforces that prayer is a conversation. Thinking and hearing prayers can keep us in dialogue with God. I especially like to sing the praise portion of my prayers. For some reason singing connects my heart to Jesus.
Journal. You can either write as you're praying or wait until you're finished, then write a summary of your experience as a reference for next time. Write without restrictions—don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or structure. For some journaling takes the form of art, sketching a little doodle that expresses what you are saying and hearing in prayer.
How about you? Do you struggle to stay focused during prayer? When your mind wanders, how do you get back on track? What are the “red flags” that stop these errant thoughts and turn your heart back to the Lord?