Teach Me How To Pray: Adoration

As we cross country skied through a deserted section of Algonquin Park this weekend, I stopped for a minute and listened, listened for something, anything—silence. All I could hear around me was the wind lightly rustling trees far off across a lake.

There is something about experiencing God in nature that is restful. But not in the same way that kicking up your feet in the evening while watching the game is restful; restful in a deeper, more rejuvenating sense. It is as if when you look around in nature, you see the fingerprints of God, all over creation. It’s like looking at a painting and being able to identify the painter by the brushstrokes. Or looking at a sculpture and literally seeing fingerprints left behind.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

I love that… “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” Browning sets aside her normal eloquence to hammer her point home. When I think of the word crammed, I picture trying to fit my sleeping bag (which normally fits a full-grown adult inside) into a tiny little stuff-sack about the size of a soccer ball. As I cram it into place, I see if there are any little air pockets of space that more sleeping bag might possibly fit into. That is what I think of when I read that quote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” It’s as if God created the deserts, and the seas, and the forests, and the fields and wondered what other bits of heaven might possibly be packed into the air pockets, little pieces that reflect our Maker.

This week, in Mark 4, we were talking about rest. We looked at how Jesus kicked up his feet in the bow of the boat and rested, while the disciples fought the storm on the raging sea. It is the image of Jesus, comfortable in his father’s creation, at rest on a cushion, in the midst of a violent storm.

And it is that image that makes me want to look at another way to pray. Last week we looked at prayers of lament, but this week we are looking at prayers of adoration, and one specific way to pray a prayer of adoration: a prayer walk. In scripture, Jesus often retreats from society into places away from it all to rest and rejuvenate in creation with his father.

Mark 1:35 says, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Again in Luke 5:16, we see, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The Gospel of Matthew similarly says in 14:23: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” Jesus, in the middle of busyness and ministry gets away to spend time with his father in creation.

So, what I am suggesting this week is a prayer walk. A prayer walk can be done on skis or snow shoes or on foot; it could even be a prayer run, or bike, or canoe. But the purpose is to get out in nature to be with God. Sometimes I slowly walk through a Psalm or meditate on a verse, but other times I just breathe it in, witnessing God’s splendor all around, uttering nothing but subtle smiles and soft sighs.

If you want a Psalm to “walk” through I would suggest starting with Psalm 23, perhaps the most popular psalm of adoration. Print it out and read it, meditating on each line as you walk. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” This is a song of adoration written by David to God. We often only hear it in the context of funerals, but try praying through the meaning of it, showing adoration to the Creator.

Prayers of adoration are often the type of prayer that people struggle with the most. It seems almost childish for some—telling God all of the things you love about creation. And to others it seems too intimate—talking to God like a lover. But it is a prayer of gratefulness, of pondering, of thoughtfulness, of care for and toward God. I find it easiest to pray these prayers while in creation, as I walk about, pursuing God.

Find a nearby park, and snow shoe, walk, or ski a prayer. I think the winter is actually a better time for this because the parks are less crowded! As you go deeper, notice things. Be the person that Browning describes as “taking off their shoes.” Be someone who notices the holy in the commonplace.

Those who notice the holy in the commonplace practice prayers of adoration. Have you seen a person from the deep south witness their first snow? That is a prayer of adoration! Have you watched a child interact with a squirrel, giggling at the wonder of it all? That is a prayer of adoration! Taking delight in the things of God that others would miss; that is a prayer of adoration!

“Earth’s crammed with heaven.” Take a walk and breathe it in.

Journal Questions:

  1. What place have you been where you could unplug and notice creation?
  2. As you go for walks this week, what new things do you notice? (Write them down).
  3. If you decide to try praying through a Psalm of adoration, what was that experience like? Did you feel yourself in the Psalm in a new way? What came to mind as you “walked” through it?

Teach Me How To Pray: Lament

Twice in the past week, people in our church have asked me how to pray. I stumbled through a haphazard response, trying to seem like I knew what I was talking about. And I pray often, I definitely know how to pray (there really is not a wrong way), but to distill it down and articulate it with words eluded me…which is a problem. Any pastor should be able, on the spot, to explain what it means to pray. Let me rephrase that, any Christian should be able, on the spot, to explain what it means to pray.

And so the title, “teach me how to pray,” is the prayer I pray alongside you.

But there is this mentality in the church that there is a right and wrong way to pray, and that you have to do it a certain way. Many of you who are reading this also may find a great difference in praying alone and praying with other people. To be honest, I still find it anxiety-provoking to pray in front of people…what if I say the wrong words?! Let me reiterate—I cannot say the wrong words in prayer and neither can you. And just as private prayer is necessary and foundational to the Christian life, so is corporate prayer, praying together before God and other believers.

So, for the next several weeks as we continue in this series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus,” we will be looking at prayer and different types of prayer. I will walk alongside you practicing these types of prayers, but I will also attempt to explain them in a way that is tangible. Since this week’s sermon and passage were on that ever-exciting emotion—anger, I thought the natural “type” of prayer to cover this week would be lament. Prayers of lament are upset prayers, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes a combination of the two. But prayers of lament are essentially pleas to God that something is not right and ought to be different than the way it is.

Often, I hear Christians pray prayers that sound so nice. Prayers of lament are anything but nice…they are real. Prayers of lament fall on the ears of God our loving parent, who the pray-er deeply trusts with both their positive and negative emotions. Prayers of lament call on God in the face of injustice and suffering in a broken world, and ask for redemption. But they don’t skiff over the angry, justice-seeking part and jump to redemption, they sit with God in the mire of it all.

The author of the book Lamentations, which is a prayer about the exile of God’s people, does not mince his words. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace! Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows” (Lamentations 5:1-3).

Again, earlier in the book, he writes: “When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted—does the Lord not see it?” (Lamentations 3:34-37). In other words…God, where are you in this broken, sick, and violent world? Where are you Lord? Open your eyes!

Prayers of lament are not only present in the book of Lamentations, but are sprinkled throughout the Psalms (a book of prayers written by various authors, including David), and throughout all of the major prophetic literature (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc). Jeremiah writes this prayer, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult…Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15: 15, 18). Jeremiah’s words are not nice. They actually blame God for some of his problems; but they also plead with God for justice.

Similarly, David writes this in the book of Psalms, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” (Psalms 13:1-3a).

What do all of these prayers have in common, other than perhaps that the authors ought to see a counselor?  Prayers of lament are not neutered prayers, but real cries to God. They are unedited in the best sense. They are prayers of real pain, and real sorrow, and real stories being thrown up at an understanding and loving God, who can handle our intense emotions, perhaps the only one who can handle all of our intense emotions.

If this seems un-holy to you in some way, then read the Bible—cover to cover. It is full of prayers like these, real people being real with God; people in pain, expressing that pain to their loving maker in heaven. This, to be sure is not the only way to pray, but it is a great way to start when feeling the emotion of anger! Even when people cannot handle your rage (or shouldn’t have to), God can take it.

We know that this is not unholy because Jesus, Himself, prays prayers of lament. In Matthew 23, Jesus is denouncing the ways of the Pharisees and scribes in their hypocrisy, and ends that with a prayer, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:37). Again, Jesus laments the loss of a friend, Lazarus, in John 11:28-37. Jesus prays prayers of lament in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his death.

Prayers of lament are proof that we trust God with our difficult emotions.

If you know how to get upset at injustice, then you know how to pray.

Journal Questions:

  1. What injustice bothers you more than any other?
  2. What would it look like to turn that over to God, and pray a prayer of lament?
  3. Read the following passages in the Bible, and try a modern translation like the NIV or a paraphrase like the Message: (Job 3:11-26, Psalm 6, Psalm 13, Psalm 22, the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah 15:15-18) What commonalities do you see in these prayers?
  4. Write your own prayer of lament in your journal.

Practicing Discernment

 

This past Sunday was week 2 of our sermon series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus.” We read from Mark 2, but focused in on the verses where the Pharisees are testing Jesus and trying to trap him in blasphemy because he said that a man’s sins were forgiven. Verses 8-12 are what we really zoned in on: “At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’’”

Jesus then tells the man to walk and the man gets up, takes his mat, and walks. This is one of the first miracles in Mark, but what we are focusing on this week is the part before the miracle, the part where Jesus perceived in his spirit.

Discernment can be described in many different ways. I would err on the side of the Apostle Paul who exhorts one of his church plants to “test the spirits,” a form of discernment. To remove the religious jargon from that definition, discernment is to wisely test intentions and meanings.

On Sunday Pastor Andrew defined discernment as, “the ability to see a situation or a person the way God sees them.”

Charles Spurgeon, a historic figure in preaching is known to have said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”

Discernment is basically having a good sense about the people and things around you. All throughout the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament), Jesus exercises discernment, and is able to recognize intentions and perceive what is in people’s hearts before they speak.

Discernment has many different definitions, but I think the essence of it is some combination of the above. The problem is that discernment is very difficult to practice. Some people have a gift of discernment and are able to exercise it from a young age. For others, it does not come so naturally. But I do believe it is something we can all practice to an extent, whether we are gifted with it or not.

I said each week that I would provide some sort of spiritual practice or tool you can use throughout the week to deepen your faith and understanding, something I will do alongside readers. Many of the practices are coopted or adapted from Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. (I would highly recommend this book for Christians who want to take their faith deeper—it is not nearly as rigid as it sounds).

As if last week’s practice of solitude wasn’t enough of a challenge in this world, I will be talking about fasting this week. But before you shut your laptops or turn off your phones, hear me out…

Fasting is normally associated with food, but according to one explanation, “The purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world and instead focus on God.” In Jesus’ day, the average person did not have innumerable distractions and pressures that took their focus from God—no email, no cell phone interruptions, no social media rings, dings, or pings. But we live in a me-focused culture where more, more, more is never enough. We are constantly told by media and advertising that if we just buy one more thing we are sure to find happiness.

We rarely practice habits of intentional denial for practical growth.

But intentional denial does not need to be ascetic, rather it should flow from a settled place of desiring to go deeper in faith, and focus more attention on God. I think that when this happens, and when fasting from something is done in this Spirit, it helps us to listen to the heart of God…It helps to discern.

*Sidebar: I want to be very clear, that this practice, along with any other I discuss in this blog, does not earn you anything. This does not make you a better Christian. If anything, if your heart is in the wrong place, it would make you a bit like the Pharisees (see later in Mark 2). Christianity is the only religion where you don’t earn your way into heaven, to be with God, you only need accept the gift of Jesus’ grace and sacrifice. It’s not a matter of being a good enough person to “get in” to heaven.

With that in mind, when we practice fasting for a time (from food, or alcohol, or television, or social media, or whatever might be something that distracts us from a deepening relationship with God), it is reflective of faith. It doesn’t gain us any love or salvation.

Intentional fasting doesn’t change God’s view of us; it changes us from within.

So, if you are going to participate in this week’s challenge, what are you going to fast from? If it is food, make sure that you are in a physical and psychological place to do that well (please read further on this topic, and safe ways to fast). Other things you might wish to fast from are television, social media, checking email (outside of work), alcohol, sex, coffee or tea, basically anything that you use everyday that would affect your life fairly dramatically if given up.

And when you choose something, the next step is to figure out what to do with that extra time, resource, energy, money. This is where the discernment piece comes in. This week, for one week, I recommend replacing that time spent on prayer and being with God. I, personally, am giving up television. I know that is not the most religious expression, but it is something that distracts me most evenings from going deeper with God. With that time freed up I plan to write in my prayer journal, read the Bible, and pray. In practicing these things, I know God will grow discernment in my life. How will God grow discernment in your life?

Journal Questions:

  1. What thing in your life distracts you most from God day to day (If it is your kids…pick the second biggest distraction)?
  2. What would your week look like if you gave that up? How much free time, energy, money would you save?
  3. As the week goes on, write down what God is doing in and through this practice in a journal of some sort. What changes do you see forming in your life?
  4. How has this changed your capacity to discern during the fast? Do you think this will have long-term effects?

Practicing Solitude

 

We began a new sermon series this week at SPL (St. Paul’s Leaskdale) called “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus.” Together we are walking through the book of Mark in the Bible. During this series I will be posting a reflection on the blog coinciding with the same chapter in Mark, but focusing on the application, the “what now” piece after the sermon text. The Mark 1 sermon related to the text: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased,” where Jesus is baptized and hears these words from God. The very next verse, though, is what I want to focus on this week. Jesus’ identity is established as God’s beloved Son, and immediately out of that, he spends forty days in the wilderness, in solitude.

What I am going to do each week is look at a practice, a specific way of being, that we can learn from the life of Jesus and reflect in our own lives. This week, the practice I want to look at is solitude.

Contemporary society has a lot to say about solitude. There is a huge movement right now in both religious and non-religious circles toward “mediation” and “mindfulness.” The psychological and mental benefits of these are touted in popular magazines and medical journals alike. But I want to take a step beyond mindfulness or meditation to something even more uncomfortable: intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude, as defined by Henri Nouwen (late Catholic priest, professor, and writer) in his book, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, is a “strange period of uselessness.”

The practice of solitude is like a “strange period of uselessness.” Nouwen

Nouwen brilliantly, and much ahead of his time, posits that we have a culture obsessed with being useful. We not only are busy people “occupied” with what is going on now, but we are “pre-occupied” in the sense of being future-busy-oriented. We worry about the future and we plan and we waste much of our lives being pre-occupied with the senseless. And to combat this, Nouwen recommends solitude as a “period of uselessness.”

Earlier this week, my brother-in-law just recommended a show to my husband and I called Alone; which is a reality television show, on the history channel of all things. I have serious doubts about reality TV, but was captivated by this one nonetheless. The contestants are dropped off in Patagonia, the largest region of unpeopled and unchartered wilderness in the world, in the mountainous regions of Chile, and their sole goal is to be the last survivor. At any point, they can pick up their satellite phone and call in help and go home. But they can’t call their families, or read books, or browse the web—they can just be in the woods…alone.

It is a survivalist show at its core, but what the videos seem to show is not an overwhelming anxiety at being in the danger of hazardous weather, or wild animals, or even starvation (most of the contestants are proficient in those areas). Rather the overwhelming anxiety for most of them is being alone. One individual noted in a video that the hardest part was to be alone with her own thoughts…because when you are alone, you unfortunately bring you with you. Nouwen writes, “As soon as we are alone…an inner chaos opens up,” which is exactly what that candidate experienced. We can normally sate our personal chaos with tasks and busyness, but not when we experience true solitude.

When Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days he is alone, while “facing temptations” and being “waited on by angels.” The strange paradox here is that I think Jesus went into the wilderness to be alone, but also to be in solitude before God. He had the discipline to stay in the wilderness in the midst of temptations and stay strong in the midst of the challenges of aloneness, facing himself, but also preparing him for his next three years of ministry. St. Teresa of Avila says, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.” This is the paradox of being alone, but also before God. I believe this is what Jesus was doing in the wilderness…settling himself in solitude, in order to be, just be, with his Father.

So this week, I decided to be intentional about solitude. I have only had one period so far. And I want to set it apart from meditation, which is focused on some thing. Many people meditate on an idea, or a scripture, or a piece of art, or some thing. I daily practice guided meditations on an app that walks you through different mindfulness techniques, and would recommend this as well. But to just be, before the Lord—not reciting prayers, or asking God for help, or having any sort of agenda—to have a period of “uselessness” simply dwelling on God, is much more difficult.

I thought I could easily spend an hour or two in this sort of head space on my day off. I sat down somewhere comfortable, trying to push aside the many earthly to-dos that I had all around me, and settled into being before the Lord. And though my mind wandered back and forth a bit, I settled into focus eventually, waiting for God to speak something to me. And eventually, in the silence, in the solitude, I felt a stirring as I waited and listened, and eventually started to understand the type of stillness I crave so deeply. When my heart finally settled into this place for what seemed like hours, perhaps days, I stirred back slowly to attentiveness, opening my eyes to what was around me—dirty dishes, a to-do list a mile long, my half-eaten breakfast, and the clock.

All of that energy had taken me through nine minutes! in solitude. For nine minutes, I sat there with my soul. I guess it is much harder than I thought. To be, to simply be, requires energy and time; possibly much greater energy and time than to do. It will be an uphill battle to learn this practice of solitude.

As I go about the week, I plan to continue this practice of solitude each morning, not prayer in the active sense, but prayer in the passive sense. Prayer in the active sense is thanking God, requesting of God, even adoring God, which is necessary and good. But this prayer in the passive sense, of listening to and being with God is just as necessary, and profoundly more difficult for me.

I think ten minutes a day is a good place to start, asking God to still your heart and reveal something to you in this time. Join me in this endeavor this week if you dare. Find a quiet place, away from roommates, and spouses, and children, and activities to still your heart before God for ten minutes a day for a week, and see what happens.

Jesus found his identity rooted in his Father in heaven. But a one-time act of connecting was not enough to develop a relationship. Jesus had to be in solitude before his Father in preparation for his ministry, and he continued to be in solitude often throughout his ministry.

Here are a few things to think about as you reflect on times of solitude this week:

  1. Where is your identity rooted—work, family, Christ, a traumatic event, success and performance, etc? (If you aren’t sure, consider where the majority of your energy is focused. Or consider if something went wrong in one of these areas of life, which would derail you the most?)
  2. Is your identity rooted where you want it to be? Why or why not?
  3. What changes would have to take place in your life to realign your core identity?
  4. What is God stirring in you in the solitude?

 

Being Intentional & Intentionally Being

 

A New Year’s Course Correction

Every year that passes, I think a lot about what edges God wants to work out in my life and how Jesus might prune away something to bring forth fruit. A few years back, I had the year of peace, where I focused on experiencing God’s peace, and being a peaceful presence to others. I had the year of hope, where I prayed often for direction and a future in the midst of job changes and not knowing where God was taking me. I had the year of patience…which simply didn’t take. I think that one is a life-long battle! But as I prayed and thought into this New Year, 2017, and what God was stirring in my heart, the word “intentional” kept rising within.

Like many people, I feel busy a majority of the time. I look forward to the next break, breath of fresh air, vacation. Like many people, when asked how my week was, I simply answer, “Busy.” Or when asked how life is, I respond, “Busy.” This is problematic language for a Christian, and even more so for a pastor; because busy living is focused on tasks, whereas unhurried living is focused on presence.

This is not a post to tell you to drop out of everything you enjoy doing, or even a call to “simplify.” I actually believe both of these put the cart before the horse. What I have realized recently is that living intentionally redefines and reframes this call to simplify. Being intentional means putting my time, money, resources, and energy where God is intentionally moving me to put them.

Being intentional (the first part of the course correction) for me means beginning each day in relation to God. That means starting the day off reading the Bible and praying in my prayer journal. What does God want to speak into my life? Where is God calling me to go? What words does God desire me to hear that day? What people does God want to bring through my life that day? How is God molding and shaping me into someone unique?

When my life begins each day with an intentionality to be before God, in His presence, to develop my relationship with Jesus through listening to His Word, and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in my heart through prayer; then everything I do can flow out of that place. Should I join a Zumba class in 2017? Should KidZone be at both services? Should I make a complicated dinner or just heat up leftover pizza? When I start my day by intentionally rising to God’s call upon my life, these and many more questions seem to make sense.

Being intentional means saying no to some decent or even good ideas in order to say yes to the right idea.

The second part of this New Year’s practice is intentionally being. This is not something that comes naturally to me at all. I am a “doer!” Intentionally being for me means practicing the presence of God, regardless of what I am currently engaged in doing. In the book, The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence says that, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayers…I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” This type of intentionality in being, of presence in any particular moment, is what I long for.

Intentionally being also means being present with one thing at a time, fully engaged, which is a far cry from our cultural norm. Rather than doing Sudoku, while texting with my sister, while watching tv, and having a side conversation with my husband (*confession…I actually do this sometimes); I intend to focus on full engagement in one thing at a time, to fully be there, in the moment.

Society has equipped us with all of the necessary tools and tech toys to never be engaged or present in any given moment. Having everything instantly available on a cell phone, having watches that give reminders to stand up and walk around, having the motherload allotment of distractions ever present in our homes, schools, work places, and churches, ensures that we never have to be fully present to anyone or anything.

I think this is why there are so many lonely people, longing for real intimacy and connection, and yet they may have thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers and Facebook friends. I have felt this over and again, a lack of real connection to people, because I allow myself to be distracted by tasks and gadgets.

That is why this year I want to focus on being intentional and intentionally being. Is there a way you have learned to be intentional or to intentionally be?

What is God calling you to this year?

I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below…