World Cup fever is at a high this week. England was stunned by Croatia in the semi-finals–Croatia will face France in the finals on Sunday. Teams have played hard all season to make it to the World Cup– most of them will go home disappointed (at least a little). Fans will have to wait until next season to see their favorite team make another attempt at winning it all.
In the meantime, the players will be in the “off-season.” Some will take well-earned vacations, and spend more time with their families. Some will spend time with doctors and physical therapists to work on injuries sustained during the regular season. Some will be working with coaches and trainers to develop in areas where they feel they need extra help. Others will cut back on their training schedule. Still others will spend time with agents trying to get traded to another team (or avoid being traded to another team).
People who study sports often say that what happens in the “off-season” can be as important to players and teams as what happens during the intense training of the regular season. Habits form, attitudes develop, team chemistry alters– any or all of these factors can change for better or for worse.
The same is true in our prayer lives. When we are facing struggles or heartaches, we pray with intensity and passion. But when things are going smoothly, sometimes we let our prayer lives “take a break.” We pray with less frequency, less intensity, and less focus. I’m guilty of this; even though I know it can happen, bad habits creep in, and suddenly, my prayer life is haphazard and lackluster. Using a journal helps, in that I have a focus for each day already written in, and a place to write in new requests, and even answers.
However, a major part of staying on course is to commit to the discipline of prayer. “Discipline” sounds boring and constrained–something I do out of obligation and not out of love. But that’s not true of all discipline. Athletes are disciplined– because they love their sport, and they want to develop and play at the best of their ability. Musicians are disciplined– because they love music, and they want to develop their art. Professional athletes and musicians often have a contractual commitment to stay in practice and develop their talents. When athletes are part of a team, or musicians are part of a band, orchestra, or chamber group, they have an additional reason to be disciplined– to play more effectively with others.
In my personal life, there are disciplines– hygiene, sleep habits, diet, and exercise, that I practice, not because I love saying, “NO” to that piece of chocolate cake or walking that extra mile, but because I want to stay healthy, clean, and active. Prayer is no different– except that it is for my spiritual health– and it is part of my relationship with God.
Instead of slacking off during the “off-season”, many athletes and musicians will use this time to step back and look at what they have learned, what they would like to do better, and how they can develop their skills. I think this offers a great opportunity in prayer, as well. After a season of grief, struggle, doubt, or testing, it is good to take some time to make some assessments. Sometimes we don’t know all the reasons for the times of testing or trial we have just faced. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back and see whether we have grown, or if we need to make some adjustments, or if we have developed new habits or skills (good or bad). It is a good time to “count our blessings”, “pray without ceasing”, “ask, seek, and knock”, and look at the ways God has been faithful (and hopefully ways that we have been faithful!) over the years.
Some of us are in the struggle of a busy, harsh, or painful season. Let’s not let that struggle go to waste. Some of us will be facing trials next week, or next month–spending time training in the “off-season” will make us stronger for the fight! And the best news– we already know the outcome! Let’s pray harder– pray stronger–and go for the win!