My local used Christian bookstore has a huge number of out of print treasures. For a few dollars you often get something that nobody else has been looking at in years and years. I hope to bring to light some of the things I’ve found, dusting them off from their long sit on forgotten shelves. Today’s text? Cecil Murphey’s Prayerobics: Getting Started and Staying Going (Word Books, 1979). The title caught my eye, and I hoped (vainly in the end) that the text might take “prayer fitness” in a reasonably literal fashion.
Cecil Murphey’s Prayerobics is a guide to prayer as a “spiritual exercise” or devotion (in the Catholic sense). Daily prayer is a means to spiritual fitness, a chance for readers to “get into spiritual shape.” We might start with the advice of a pastor’s wife who commented that she does “most of [her] praying on the hoof.” The hoof is taken broadly–driving the car, shopping for groceries, washing the dishes–and Murphey identifies this as a habit-forming practice that can lead to more serious prayer efforts. These “short contracts with the Lord,” he writes, “keep us turning back toward him [for more].”
This is a moment-by-moment approach that saturates everyday activities with mindful prayer. Murphey argues that the danger of this practice is that prayer isn’t the only focus of these moments. This can lead to superficial prayer experiences tied to convenience or one’s emotional state. A deeper prayer experience is surely preferential, but these shorter efforts help you to get the ball rolling.
After your efforts are established as a personal habit, Murphey suggests that sharing that commitment with others will help strengthen your resolve and bolster your success. Bible study can be done with a devotional aid to start with, but he urges that more developed efforts be done with others. Communal prayer is presented in this sense as a form of “positive addiction.” Praying with friends is not only the start of a “daily fellowship with Christ,” but it can also help distracted participants, create a natural prayer rhythm, and encourage accountability.
The model for much of this narrative is Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps (of What would Jesus do? fame), where divine exchange is sought in a daily prayer: Lord, today I give you my life; Now you give me your life. Murphey sees this as a natural step to more personal prayer, but cautions that the prayer exchange is not a tool for selfish prayers. This doesn’t mean that prayer to meet one’s needs should be avoided, but rather that “God doesn’t call [us] to meet every need. He only calls [us] to obey Him.” Thus, discerning God’s will is central to prayer efforts.
We should therefore be careful what we pray for. One of Murphey’s examples is a couple that prays to get a house. They get the house, but the demands of home-ownership take their toll on the couple’s marriage. Divorce ensues. Is this a case of divine rebuke? Maybe. Murphey suggests the result of prayer is often didactic; “God wants to teach us” his will and prayer is one of his instruments.
This book is an in-the-trenches approach to a life of prayer. It was surely intended as a partner in the beginning of prayer, but one which more advanced users would graduate from. It doesn’t seem to have suffered much for its age, but it is not likely to make any appeals from beyond the used-bookstore shelves to return to print. Its author may be more familiar now for his ghost writing, most recently 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, but this book certainly capitalized on the perennial desire to pray more fervently, more successfully, and more righteously.
I find it sad that Prayerobics’ central metaphor–spiritual “fitness” through daily prayer “exercise”–is not employed to greater effect. In the end, the idea that Prayerobics begins with fails to match Murphey’s idea of prayer at its end. Fitness, whatever else it may be, is generally not didactic. It could be, but it isn’t here. Spiritual fitness is offered as a routinization of prayer but the link between daily exercises and discernment are unwritten. How does one get from the habitual motion of prayer to accurately hear God’s will? Without this explanation readers are likely to be lost wondering whether their desires (house) are in fact God’s. Discernment, like fitness, is not merely a walk in the park.