The Joy Of Prayer: 5 Ideas to Cultivate Joy in Your Prayer Time

The Joy Of Prayer: 5 Ideas to Cultivate Joy in Your Prayer Time

What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think about prayer? Someone on their knees with their hands clasped together toward heaven? The prophet Daniel praying three times a day with his window open toward Jerusalem in defiance of the government? A monk or a nun in deep contemplation? Or, is it someone falling asleep out of boredom? I get it, some days prayer is rough, particularly in the afternoon after lunch!

But what if I told you that prayer is joy? What if I told you that prayer is movement and breath, a labor of love in the presence of the One who is with us in lament and in dancing, in painful sobs and belly laughs, when the spirit groans and when it soars with delight? Would you believe me? In case you don’t, let me share with you the image that comes to my mind when I think of prayer.

When I think of prayer, I remember a former pastor of mine with fondness, particularly the way in which he nurtured his prayer life and intimacy with Jesus. I often saw him pacing back and forth talking to God, and if you happened to find yourself next to him during a long drive, you would hear him murmuring as he talked to God. He woke up early to read the Bible, journal, and pray for an extended period of time before he went to his office at the church. At the elder meetings we prayed for a while before we did anything else. And on Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM you would always find him at the weekly prayer meeting.

I learned much from watching my pastor and other servants of the Lord tend to the presence of God with such diligence and delight. The strength of their faith, their zeal for the Lord, and their desire to be with him was evident. They always wanted more time to pray because they never get enough of Jesus! I am indebted to these saints, intercessors, and prayer laborers for everything they taught me as they shared their prayer lives with me.

What is the “secret sauce”? How do they do it? How is anyone able to cultivate a consistent prayer life and find joy in it? Building a consistent prayer life is not always joyful. It starts with discipline! One minute seems like an eternity when you are trying to concentrate in prayer but the mind keeps wandering. Did I switch off the stove, add detergent to that last load of laundry, will I ever finish that project at work, will God ever bring Prince Charming? Don’t fret, keep at it; this is all part of learning to give God our full attention. Over time you will notice that discipline has turned into joy and time begins to fly in the space of prayer. Here are some things I have learned throughout the years that have helped cultivate joy in prayer.


1. Establish rhythms of time and place

Luke 2:37 says, “[…] She did not leave the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers.”

That is what the evangelist tells us about Anna, a widowed prophetess, who had spent all her life serving God in prayer. I imagine she fervently interceded for the coming of the Messiah, whom she was now seeing with her very own eyes as a babe being blessed by Simeon. I imagine everyone knew exactly where to find Anna at particular times of the day. If anybody inquired about her around the temple, one of the priests might have said, “You know, this is her regular prayer time, so she will be at her usual spot, follow me. But you better brace yourself to wait a few hours because it’s gonna be a while before she is done praying.”

You and I need regular rhythms of prayer in order to be consistent. Pick a time of the day when you are most alert and a quiet, peaceful place to pray. Make this an appointment that you cannot break, and always show up. Do not concern yourself with the length of your prayer time, focus on being with Jesus.


2. Devise a strategy

It can be daunting to arrive at our prayer appointment without an agenda. It can feel like staring at a blank page on a computer screen with the cursor flashing, reminding us that we haven’t written a single word. In order to avoid that sensation of being stuck without anything to say, make a plan for your prayer time. Here is a basic outline of my prayer times.

A schedule will help you focus and avoid exclusively self-centered prayers that ignore neighbors and the work of God’s kingdom. Note that a schedule serves as a guide and is not written in stone. The Holy Spirit will often change our plans by reminding us of someone’s name, or bringing to mind a particular situation. Follow the lead of the Spirit! There is no need to be legalistic about the schedule. This is how we learn to listen to the voice of God as we pray, obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


3. Bring your Bible to your prayer appointment

1 John 5:14-15 says, “This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked of him (emphasis mine).”

John tells us that one of the keys to effective prayer is to pray according to the will of God. How do we know the will of God? The will of God is written in the sacred Scriptures. Thus, knowing our Bible is the most productive thing we can do to cultivate joy and effectiveness in prayer. When we pray Scripture, we pray God’s very word back to him!

How do we pray Scripture? The epistles are filled with rich prayers. One of my favorites is Ephesians 1:15-19, as Paul prays for a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, for an opening of spiritual eyes, so that the church would understand the nature of the marvelous inheritance they have in Jesus. Ephesians 1:3-14 tells us that such inheritance is nothing less than “every spiritual blessing.” In Christ we have been chosen, redeemed, adopted, forgiven, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Paul was praying that God would grant understanding to his church, so that she could grasp the glorious gospel she had received in Jesus!

In addition, the Psalms are a treasure trove of ancient, liturgical prayers that often feel as relevant today as they have felt throughout the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Psalms give language, voice, and imagery to the whole range of human emotions. In joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, in mourning and in dancing, in lament and in praise, we can pray the Psalms. These poems help us say to God the things our heart knows but cannot speak. They communicate that which our souls long for but cannot name.


4. Incorporate a variety of prayer types

Isn’t it fun to experience a variety of foods throughout the week? One of my favorite things about going to my mom’s house in Puerto Rico is that she cooks all my favorites when I am home. Oh the flavor, oh the variety…what a gift! If you sense your prayer life growing stale and each day it feels like a burden rather than a joy, try a different prayer type. For instance, instead of interceding, try contemplation: spend time worshiping God and thanking him, pick a passage of Scripture, meditate on it, and pray it back to God. I like to employ a variety of prayer practices in one single prayer time. It takes me a while to get to a space of stillness in prayer because I am usually thinking about the many tasks ahead of me so, during the first few minutes of my prayer time I listen to worship music, praise God out loud and thank him. Other times I sing until it turns into prayer. Then, I start interceding. Other times I write in my journal or type in my computer.

Recently, I arrived at one of my prayer appointments during the week and my soul was heavy; all I could do was cry. And when I say cry I mean ugly crying, shaking violently, snot coming out of my nose, deep sobs crying. I think, perhaps, the Holy Spirit was interceding through me with “unspoken groanings” (Romans 8:26). I could not utter a single word. At that moment, I felt compelled to type on my computer, and God was gracious in granting me language to give voice to the things that were in my heart but I could not express. Don’t be paralyzed by a long list of prayer requests; incorporate variety in your prayer time and let the Holy Spirit carry you!


5. Be creative

I think one of the reasons prayer sometimes appears boring is that we have a narrow view of what it looks like. There is no need to be inside a room, still, and on our knees when we pray. Stillness in prayer is a posture of the heart, not the body. I routinely pace while I pray. Yes, I look a little crazy, but the movement helps me stay focused when I am tired, and it reminds me that prayer is not a static activity. When we pray, we accomplish the work of God’s kingdom and the angels get their marching orders. Prayer is movement! This is why long walks, which are a favorite pastime of mine, are a fantastic time to pray.

Another way to add creativity to your prayers is to write them. I write them in my journal or type them on my computer. Slowing down to write my prayers helps me think carefully about the words I say to God, the theology that is in my heart, and my deepest desires. This practice also allows me to encourage those for whom I intercede with the words God lays on my heart to pray on their behalf.

There are many other ways of engaging the discipline and joy of prayer. I know some people like to draw as they pray and others engage art as a way to cultivate their imagination. Do not let the thought of a bland room paralyze you and rob you of the joy of praying, and growing in depth of intimacy with Jesus.

May you pray earnestly and freely, in mourning and in dancing, in lament and in praise, at home and at work, for you and the world. May the Lord grant you peace as you pray, and may you know the deep joy of keeping company with Jesus in the space of prayer. Amen.

So You Went from Scientist to Pastor? Please Explain!

So You Went from Scientist to Pastor? Please Explain!

It was January 26, 2023, the end of my fourth week as a pastor at the Downtown Campus. That month had been filled with endless meetings, some delightful and others…I’ll let you fill in the ellipsis. My favorite meetings were those I had with congregants over coffee, dinner, or just about every meal! That cold January evening, as I walked to my car after having coffee with a congregant, I stumbled upon what looked like a lovely place to grab some dinner; soup to warm up my Puerto Rican bones. A little while after I was seated and cozy in my chair, with my head buried in something, (probably the menu or a book), someone approached my table. She waved at my face so that I would notice her presence. It was a young woman from the Downtown Campus. “Are you dining alone?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied with delight. “May I join you?” she continued. I was filled with joy and gladness on account of such a wonderful “coincidence” (or shall we say providence?). “Yes, absolutely!” I replied. After some small talk and giggling over God’s gift to both of us that evening, my new friend blurted out a question with puzzled sincerity, “So you went from scientist to pastor? Please explain!” I bursted out laughing because I often see this question in people’s faces when they meet me for the first time, but no one had ever asked it in such a creative, pointed, and hilarious manner. Hence, here I am, explaining.

From scientist to pastor: when God’s calling makes no sense

I moved to the mainland U.S.A. right out of college in 2006. I was armed with a newly acquired B.S. in Microbiology, two suitcases, a handful of professional dreams, and tenacious determination. I was excited about my internship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, M.D., about the things I would learn from the world class scientists that worked there and, of course, about working with human blood and Hepatitis viruses! What’s not to be excited about? My two-year internship flew by. I loved it! My laboratory skills had sharpened, my spoken and written English had improved dramatically, and I was ready for graduate school. So, I enrolled in the Immunology Graduate Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where my love for the immune system deepened and I started an affair with fungi. Upon graduation, I moved to Madison for postdoctoral training at the University of Wisconsin.

Throughout all this moving around and training in different universities and government institutions, I was also learning how to “do church” in English and figuring out my place amidst the predominantly white evangelical church, which is, perhaps, the most difficult experiment I have ever handled! Over time, I became acquainted with my English Bible and the worship style of the churches I attended, although I must confess that I keep dreaming of walking into church to the beat of salsa music, but I suspect that will never happen! I also began to serve at church, although never to the extent of involvement I had engaged in back home. I had leadership and public speaking gifts that were underutilized. Hindsight tells me that during those relatively quiet ministry days, God was maturing my character: teaching me to listen, sharpening my cultural awareness, and shaping me into the woman that one day would bear the responsibility of shepherding God’s people. Those quiet days ended during my time in Madison, Wisconsin, when my particular set of gifts became evident as I participated in prayer meetings, served in prayer teams, and started preaching again. Eventually, I became an elder at that church and I could not run from God’s calling anymore. 

When the time came for me to decide what to do after completing my postdoctoral fellowship, there was turmoil in my soul. I had planned on a long teaching career at a small college, but something in my soul would not find rest in that pathway. I was losing sleep and focus, I was waking up to pray at crazy hours of the night, and I sobbed and had tantrums in the presence of the Lord because I could not understand why God would ask me to leave a career I had studied long and hard for in order to spend the rest of my life preaching his word and caring for his people. But he gave me no choice. He provided what I needed to go to seminary and made his calling crystal clear. So, I packed my bags and moved to the greater Chicago area to complete the M.Div. program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 

I must confess I still do not understand why God chose to do things in this manner in my life. So, I cannot fully respond to the “Please explain!” of my dinner buddy. I cannot fully explain how Dr. Hernández-Santos became Pastor Nydiaris. However, I can offer a few insights I’ve gained along the way.

What does a scientist turned pastor do with her lab coat?

First, when a scientist turns pastor, she brings her lab coat to church. When I greet the congregants and guests of the Downtown Campus on Sunday morning, they will not see me wearing my lab coat, but they will surely encounter part of the skill set I gained while working in the laboratory. This can be hard to imagine, perhaps because most people do not personally know a scientist and what they do on a daily basis. Let me briefly describe the task of doing science for you. 

The duties of a scientist vary depending on where they work and what their position is, but at the core of our profession is curiosity about the natural world. We observe the universe, living creatures, the environments in which they live and ask questions. Then we attempt to answer such questions in a systematic manner, guided by the scientific method. Practically, in the academic settings where I worked, I would spend most of my time designing and performing experiments, which was always my favorite part, working with my hands and cool machines. Some days, I would be writing papers and grants, preparing presentations for conferences, public speaking, teaching the occasional lecture, and collaborating with my colleagues.  

Do some of those tasks sound familiar? Does that sound like anything I could use on Sunday morning? I think so. Sure, I no longer intubate mice (yes, that is a thing and I was really good at it!), but many of my observation, communication, project management, and people skills are still incredibly useful! So, maybe Dr. Henández-Santos and Pastor Nydiaris are not so different after all! Perhaps I should don my Sunday best with my lab coat one of these days. 


Lab skills repurposed not wasted

This brings me to my second point, namely that my lab skills have been repurposed, not wasted. How so? My “observation powers” kick into gear on Sunday mornings when I greet people. My brain starts gathering data: Have I seen this person before? Where? What is their occupation? Do they look distressed? How can I help? Betsy, she’s limping, I wonder what happened. When I go to someone’s house or the hospital for a pastoral visit, I am observing and reading the room, wondering what’s the mood and what questions I should ask, figuring out if now is a good time for a hug and some prayer. Observe, observe, and observe again! Good for science and, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, it is a super power! 

When I am writing sermons, blogs, or curriculum for theFormed.life, a conglomerate of the skills I honed in the lab come to the forefront. As soon as I am assigned a passage or a topic I start reading and researching, looking at the original language, making observations, asking questions, digging deep trying to understand the culture of the biblical text. Then I gather all the information and start thinking about how to communicate it, my favorite part! Just like I did when I worked in the lab, I think about how to tell a coherent and compelling story about the things I observed. This is when my writing and public speaking skills shine through.

Finally, when I worked in the lab, I had the gift of working alongside people from all over the world. They taught me about their religion, their food (a favorite part of mine!), and their culture. They told me about their families and holidays, their upbringing and their academic journeys. Oh what a precious gift! Few things have done as much for my cultural awareness than working in the lab. Being aware of other cultures helps us empathize with our neighbors by gaining understanding of who they are, which is a deeply pastoral endeavor and something that the church in the U.S.A. is in desperate need of.

I will be forever grateful to the scientific community for providing me with such a safe space to grow and develop, a space to try things and fail, a space to be myself and find my voice, a school of storytelling, a place for growing patience and endurance, a place for training a pastor! 

So, have you ever thought of a particular season of your life as a waste? Have you ever asked the question, “What were those years about? Why did I spend so much time studying that?” Have you ever said, “I have all these skills that are useless to me now?” Think again! Your skills may be on the way to being repurposed, even if you cannot explain the journey.

Drunk on Beauty

Drunk on Beauty

It was early in the afternoon, my body was tired, and I was feeling dizzy. My body was desperate to recover all the water and electrolytes it lost during the morning hike through the Amazon jungle. I had been invited on this mission trip to Colombia, and our assignment was to offer personal prayer and encouragement to the ministry staff stationed at the base in Leticia, a city in the southern tip of the country. While there, we also visited the staff in El Puente, a sister base located in the Amazon jungle. Hiking to El Puente was quite an adventure, but what I remember the most is the heat. The Amazon was hot and humid even by the standards of the Puerto Rican sister writing this blog! On our way back to the boat that would transport us to Leticia via the Amazon River, I could feel my body crashing, desperate for even one drop of water. 

I wonder if that desperate sensation, that frantic desire that makes every cell in one’s body scream of thirst and yearn for water, resembles what David’s poetry conveys in Psalm 63.


O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 

Psalm 63: 1

David was desperate, not for water, but for God! According to its title, this psalm reflects a moment in David’s life when he was in the wilderness of Judah, running from either Saul or his own son Absalom. In the arid desert, where water is hard to come by, David must have experienced extreme physical thirst. He was well acquainted with desperation, and allowed his bodily experience to inform his desire and pursuit of God. Isn’t it interesting how our moments of deepest need often point us to the only One who can satisfy it? 

After our hike through the Amazon, another team member brought me a much-coveted bottle of water and a pack of electrolytes. Every cell in my body screamed for joy! But if someone had brought water to David, he would have remained desperate and thirsty because what he wanted (and needed) was not only to quench his physical thirst, but the steadfast love of God, which is “better than life” (Psalm 63:3). As James M. Hamilton, Jr. terms it in his commentary, Psalms, he wanted to be completely “high on God” and wholly satisfied in him. When was the last time we were that desperate? When was the last time we desired God with such intensity and yearning that we sought him earnestly? If the answer to these questions is “never” or “a long time ago,” our most urgent question ought to be why, why are we not desperate for God? Why is our spiritual life stale and stagnant? Before we can answer these questions, we must read further down in David’s poem.


So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.

Psalm 63:2


Gaze on God and drink Beauty

David’s intense thirst and desire for God leads him to stare at God. Other translations render the Hebrew as “So I gaze on you…” which better reflects David’s intent on fixing his attention on God because he is the only remedy for his thirst. This language is reminiscent of another one of David’s psalms, where he communicates his one desire.


One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.

Psalm 27:4


In contemporary vernacular, David’s Gatorade was to feast on the beauty of God. He gazed upon God in the sanctuary, where his presence dwells, in order to see what God does (his power) and who he is (his glory). No wonder David’s immediate response was to worship the object of his gaze! He had no choice. He was contemplating the very source of beauty, the One who is all perfection and excellence. How could he keep quiet? He was drunk with the steadfast love of God, which according to David’s bold claim, is better than life. David was in the desert, surrounded by miles and miles of beige and brown shades, but his spiritual, contemplative life was anything but dull. In David’s mind, there was nothing better than feasting on the beauty of God. In other words, God’s beauty was David’s chief preoccupation. 

Now, let us return to our initial question, why are we not desperate for God? Why is it that some of our spiritual lives are stale and stagnant? Perhaps, the reason why reading our Bibles feels like dragging heavy luggage rather than energetic delight is because we have found something to stare at in our screens and electronic devices that is seemingly more beautiful than God. Perhaps, the reason why prayer feels as dull as talking to a telemarketer rather than talking to a dear friend is because we have exchanged the privilege of basking in the beauty of God for the hurried and frantic journey to wealth, to “success,” to power, to visibility, to…whatever. 

Certainly there are seasons in our Christian discipleship when our relationship with God feels dry and distant. But there is an important distinction between such seasons and the contemporary, distracted, and beautyless journey some of us are on. Whereas the former is characterized by awareness and a longing for things to change, the latter is marked by ignorant “bliss,” distraction, and complacency. The former draws us closer to God, but the latter keeps us at arms length from the One who is Beauty itself. 

In this psalm, I hear both a word of admonition and an invitation. David’s desperation for God and our lack thereof confronts us with the reality that many of us have deemed other things better and more beautiful than the steadfast love of God. We are walking around like Christian zombies, numbed by wealth and dulled by constant scrolling up and down the screens, unaware of our dead walking. But, there is good news! Things do not have to be this way. David invites us to get drunk on Beauty by gazing on God, by looking intently upon his awesome deeds and attributes. 

Friends, the compelling and tempting pictures we see in our computer screens, tablets, and phones have nothing on the One who sits on his throne in heaven surrounded by brilliant light, listening to the unceasing worship of the heavenly creatures who cry Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is, and is to come (Revelation 4:8). Michelangelo could never paint anything remotely close to God’s beauty, and the cleverest of song writers will always be without sufficient words to describe him. He is like jasper and ruby (Revelation 4:3), wholly other and yet so near to us. Yes! The preacher’s pen will never run out of material! Let us hear David’s invitation to get drunk on Beauty, for only in him will our deepest longings be satisfied.    


My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
And my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,

Psalm 63:5


Meditate on God’s beauty 

By now you may be thinking, “Ok Nydiaris, I get it. I ought to stare at God.” But how does one do that? How does one gaze on one whom we cannot see? David was clear on his method; he meditated on God. 


… when I remember you upon my bed,
And meditate on you in the watches of the night…

Psalm 63:6


Meditating is remembering and dwelling on what God has said in his word. Lean into the beauty displayed on page after page, chew on his words, read it again, think on it, journal about it, put a Post-it note on your desk, tell Siri to read it to you and Alexa to repeat it, and… PRAY God’s words back to him. If we make this a habit, we will be held captive by his beauty, completely enthralled by his excellence, alive to him and his work in the world. Let us make the beauty of God and his presence our chief preoccupation, everything else can wait, for his faithful love is better than life.


Let the beauty of God ground you

Gazing at God and saturating ourselves in his beauty fills us with confidence. Note David’s assurance in God’s deliverance in verses 8-11.


“My soul clings to you;
Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek to destroy my life
Shall go down into the depths of the earth;
They shall be given over to the power of the sword;
They shall be a portion for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
All who swear by him shall exult,
For the mouths of liars will be stopped. 

Psalm 63:8-11


Hamilton’s commentary notes that David’s gazing and meditating filled him with confidence because the contemplation of God’s beauty reveals his character and power. He knew that as he fiercely clung to God, the strong arm of the Lord would sustain him. He knew that the God he contemplated was all powerful and kind, zealous for his glory and defender of the lowly. He knew that what God had done for his ancestors in the past, he could do again. Thus, even in the midst of the desert while being hunted down by his enemies, David could confidently declare that “those who seek to destroy my life shall go down to the depths of the earth.” His confidence flowed from God’s beauty, not arrogant self-reliance; he was grounded in the truth that gazing at God’s beauty had planted and rooted in the depths of his soul. 

Unless we make it a priority to be God-gazers and recover a sense of the excellence and goodness of God’s love above everything else, we will be like chaff in the wind, without roots that hold us steady in the hurricane force winds of culture and the trials that followers of Jesus will surely face. Grounding ourselves on Beauty protects us from questioning God’s care and goodness every time a difficult situation arises. The beauty of God, deeply rooted in our hearts, is a scaffold that protects us from falling apart every time we lose a material possession, watch the market crash, or the car breaks down, because we know that the object of our gaze holds the universe (and us) in the palm of his hand. So, let us drink deeply from the beauty of God, starting with prayer. 


Let us pray…


We confess we have been distracted, deceived into thinking that other things are better and more beautiful than you. Forgive us for letting our imaginations be held captive by worldly narratives of “beauty” and success. Resuscitate us with your beauty oh Lord! Breath life back into these dry bones and awaken our souls to your love, for it is better than life itself. Lord, let that truth be tattooed on our hearts and let us be satisfied in your faithful love, so that we are spoiled for lesser things. Stir our spirits, make us desperate with longing for you, move us to read your word with delight and to pray with fervency. Make your beauty our chief preoccupation. Earnestly we seek you! Hear our cries of thirst. Amen.