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Posts Tagged ‘contemplative prayer’

I’m sure some of you may be surprised that I am writing about prayer as a dilemma. After all, isn’t it fundamental to our faith? How could that be a problem? But then, if it’s not problematic in some way or another, why are there thousands of books written about prayer: how to do it, when to do it, why we do it, etc. From what I can see, most people spend a good deal of time lamenting how little they pray. I should–I could– if only and so on.

My first realization that there are a variety of ways to pray came from Richard Foster’s book, “Prayer.” Written in the early 90’s, he laid out 21 different types of prayers. Oh dear! I was only really good at the first one: simple prayer. So, I figured I’d read through the book, and one by one, I’d practice these other prayers. Ha! By the time I got to the the third one, I gave up (the prayer of Examen). I didn’t get it. Then.

In later years, I became deft at public prayer. I could really bring the people with me into the holy of holies, calling forth the power of a miraculous God. This was a time of many “Praise the Lords.” In those years, I also practiced praying in the spirit (and singing in the spirit). Looking back, I think the biggest benefit to praying in tongues is that words get out of the way.

I confess I also learned how to pray manipulatively; that is, in such a way as to suggest to God how situations, like my marriage for instance, could be better and what my husband could do to implement that change. He would be sitting next to me. Surely, I was infuriating.

As I began to do more speaking engagements and perform in churches or para-church organizations, I learned to pray for others. That was a sweet time, a meaningful time. There was a flow to touching another person’s spirit with my own through prayer.

When I did my skits, I often made fun of various prayer times: everything from prayer poses to coffee breaks to distractions and of course, falling asleep. People laughed because they recognized themselves in the skits. I drew from my own experience.

I knew and I know that prayer is important: it’s the way we communicate with God. But doesn’t God already know what we need? Healing? Food? Shelter? Work? A new Cadillac. Whoa, should we pray for such things? New acquisitions? A Trip to the Bahamas? More stuff? I don’t think so.

Gradually, year by year, my practice of prayer has changed and changed and changed. And although I can still pray out loud with the best of them, I find that silence is the deeper form of communication with God. In silence, I can experience the Presence of God and surrender to God’s intention. I am with God and God is with me. I am with Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus is with me. Holy Spirit is with me and I am with the Holy Spirit.

Privately, when I pray for others now, I say their names and then I wait. When I pray for our nation or our political turmoil or violence in the street or inequality, I state the situation, and then I release it to God. I read a passage of scripture and sit with it. I read a poem and ponder it. I write. I journal. I sit. I slow down. Prayer is more about listening than speaking. Prayer is dwelling in the secret place, God’s dwelling place. And it is in this place, that the words from that famous song make sense: It is well, it is well, it is well with my soul.

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This morning, while contemplating the phrase, “my times are in your hands,” from Psalm 31:15a, I considered how I would respond. Am I willing to give my time to God? Am I willing to surrender my time? So much of me is a planner: gotta be productive. Got so much to do. Busy, busy, busy. For years, this has been my unspoken mantra, drumming away in the background.

On St. Patrick’s Day, while still in Zambia, I slipped on wet concrete, my feet going up behind me and I landed full frontal on top of my wrist. Subsequent journeys to Lusaka to get it set and cast has nearly immobilized me. Wasn’t I already going slow enough on Zambia time? Apparently not. At first, I simply assumed there was a reason I needed to extend my stay by two weeks. But my return to the States has continued to see me moving at a different speed. The dang thing hurts. It’s uncomfortable to rest the hand/arm in any position. I can’t lift or push or grab with my left hand. I have to ask for help, even pouring oatmeal in a bowl or cutting a bagel in half. I have to stand around as others set the table or clean up after a meal.

But here’s the real message for me. It takes time to heal and it’s not always easy, comfortable, or painless. I am on a journey of spiritual formation: becoming more Christ-like and revealing my “true self.” Any believer is ultimately on this critical journey, but the path is different for each one. So, while I kvetch about my wrist, I see I am also bellyaching about my journey inward. Shouldn’t I be farther along by now? Shouldn’t I this or that? Wouldn’t I be/feel/know more? Is my wrist falling out of alignment? Is that why it hurts?

The wrist is on schedule. I just don’t like the speed of the progress. I don’t like the adjustments or the discomfort. It simply takes time. My body is fearfully and wonderfully made. My wrist will heal.

My soul and spirit are no less resilient and beloved. My false self will fall away, bit by bit, and I will know the healing grace of God more and more. My times are in God’s hands.

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lent-2017People are often surprised that I engage in the practice of Lent. Traditionally Lent is part of more mainline denominations and particularly “high church” or liturgical worship. How did this charismatic, “praise the Lord” believer come to Lent?

Part of the reason can be traced back to a few years I spent in a Reformed Episcopal Church. The priest of that congregation was a neighbor and engaging and after a broken experience in our previous church, we needed to rest. At first, the weekly liturgy seemed dry and unyielding. But over time, the words themselves began to unfold and they became a musical meditation to my heart and soul. It was during this time that I began to study and investigate the role of contemplative prayer and other practices like fasting, etc. At this church, we marked and walked the church calendar with an understanding that we were joining millions of others doing the same. The meaning of “our” Father became more real to me.

After I left this church, I continued my interest in the wider Church and its rhythms. I discovered another form of prayer called “keeping the hours” which was daily prayer and liturgical readings at fixed times during the day. So now I had a combined sense of the yearly pattern as well as a daily structure. Many would find this confining but I discovered a river that flowed beneath the practice and discipline.

I would be lying if I said I held to these faithfully year after year, I did not and have not, but there are seasons that I long for that rhythm again, that pulsing of the Spirit’s heartbeat within. I cannot experience this in contemporary worship services. Those have a different flavor, a joyfulness and a passion. I am that too.

And so, I balance my personal worship by choosing the 40 days of Lent, to slow down my body and my mind, to listen, to breathe, to flow in that river. It takes a while to find my way again. And so I fast or re-engage with fixed hours of prayer, or sit quietly.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the next 40 weekdays (including Saturdays) are the days assigned to re-connecting with our inner life in Christ.

I invite my readers to come along with me and let us see what God will reveal.

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When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host encamp against me,

My heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me,
In spite of this I shall be confident.

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord
And to meditate in His temple.
For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle;

In the secret place of His tent He will hide me;
He will lift me up on a rock.  [Psalm 27:2-5, NAS]

enemy proverbI am to walk in confidence and pray so since the promise is plainly spoken, my enemies will fall before and I will dwell safely. But there is no promise of the timetable. And I must remember this. I may be safe in the stronghold, but the outer keeps and lands around my stronghold may suffer pain or loss or injury. There is no promise of a pain-free life, just a promise that no enemy will prevail.

Who are these enemies anyway?

Are there, literally, people out there who want to specifically do “me” harm? Are there people who would intentionally hurt me? I don’t think so, not really. Of course, if I put myself in dangerous places, if I travel in war-torn areas or walk the streets of brutalized neighborhoods, I might indeed become a representative of everything someone hates: while, middle-class, Christian female. For some, that might be enough. I cannot say or expect that I, as an individual, would be excused from misfortune or injury in that situation.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure my biggest enemy is within, that “old self” who continues to look for footing and place where none should be. It is that untamed part of me that kicks against surrender to the Christ Spirit. That part of me continues to behave like a stubborn step child, unwilling to adapt to change, and unwilling to live under spiritual authority.

The prayer, then, makes sense: to remain in the “house” of the Lord (that inner stronghold). For me, this passage has more depth than simply going to church on Sunday mornings. The words ring truer when I consider the house of God within me, that shelter of the most high, where the Spirit meets me willingly and lovingly. This is the place for I have free access to the God of the Universe, where I can see and feel the light ad beauty of God.

The more familiar I become in this place, the more clearly I can experience true peace, and that clamoring enemy and the traps of the worldly concerns have less and less power. Here is the core of worship.

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Photo by Paula Tatarunis

I had always assumed the “House of the Lord” meant the church or temple, a place for corporate worship. I interpreted this scripture (well worn by many of the faithful) to mean, show up every Sunday. Eyes opened today: it means the family place of God, to live or exist within the family, bound by the blood.

Psalm 27:4
One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.

I’ve never been that comfortable when church leaders refer to their constituents (or members) as family. I’m sure I’ve been tainted by a less than ideal family history. As immigrants, we had no relatives nearby. In fact, most were locked behind the iron curtain and Berlin wall until 1991. Family was a small corps of people, only three (since my father died when I was nine). I was always envious of those large family gatherings that people would have each holiday and I was delighted when our small family was embraced into a larger one, even briefly.

But the church family thing never really resonated. I suppose I couldn’t be myself in those gatherings. It was still too much like a public venue. I had to put on my “church face.”

Now, there is a different family to consider. This “family of God” is not the Church alone; it is not only the people who meet Sundays and weekdays, who have placed themselves under the banner of a particular denomination or church name (although they are included). No, I believe this family is within where the Spirit resides.

The “shelter of his sacred tent” [vs 5], is within.

This is the world of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. This is the place of creativity and imagination, music and color, beauty and light. This is the world outside of time.

And when two or more are gathered here [Matthew 18:20], God is in the midst of them: in the house of the Lord.

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