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ACTS prayer analyzed in the light of the Psalms

Thursday July 16 2015

ACTS prayer analyzed in the light of the Psalms

Last week I wrote about ACTS prayer, the idea that prayer alone or with others works well if the components are these, in this order: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication (requests for ourselves or others). I’ve been thinking about the ways ACTS prayer compares with the psalms. The psalms are often called “the prayer book of the Bible,” so they are a very helpful guide to prayer. All four of those components appear over and over in the psalms, no doubt about it.

Here are some of my other observations:

1. Many psalms are weighted heavily toward only one of the ACTS components. My favorite pair of praise psalms, Psalms 103 and 104, are almost entirely adoration. Several psalms are mostly confession, such as Psalms 51.

2. The psalms definitely don’t move smoothly through ACTS in that order. I can’t think of a single psalm using that pattern. (If you can think of one, please let me know.) The vast majority of psalms do not even have all four components of ACTS prayer.

3. The psalms show the close connection between praise and thanks. As I said last week, it’s often hard to distinguish between praise and thankfulness. I was taught that praise focuses on who God is and thankfulness focuses on what God has done. Psalm 136 is a good example of a psalm that mixes praise and thankfulness constantly. I wonder if we should sometimes consider praying something like TATATATA since the two are so closely related.

4. The penitential psalms (that ask for forgiveness) generally do not begin with praise. Psalm 51 begins with a plea for mercy. Later in the psalm, the psalmist says, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (verse 15). I have heard some people recommend a pattern of prayer like this: CATS. The idea is that when we are heavily bowed down by our own sin, we can and should come into God’s presence confessing. Then we will naturally move to praise and thanks.

When I compare ACTS prayer to the psalms, it’s striking to me that the psalms have several components that are completely missing in ACTS prayer, including:

1. Lament, a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. Psalm 10, for example, begins, “Why, O lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Many psalms express anguish about the state of the world. ACTS leaves no room for that kind of sadness. In a time when the news is so overwhelmingly painful, I think we need to rediscover lament. (Next week I’ll post a model of lament prayer I recently used in a worship service.)

2. Statements of trust. Psalm 130 is one of the penitential psalms. It begins with a plea for mercy. After that plea, the psalmist expresses trust: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my trust: my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning” (verses 5 and 6). Expressing our trust in God, or our renewed trust in God after we have prayed, is vitally important and ACTS doesn’t encourage it.

3. Silence. Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” One of my concerns about ACTS prayer is the constant talking the model seems to advocate. Somewhere in the model needs to be an “L” for listening.

In whatever form of prayer we use, God wants us to draw near.

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15, 16).

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning
and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work:
at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:1-4).


Earlier posts on prayer:

Celtic Christianity: Wholistic prayer
Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you
Breath Prayer
The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices

The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, part 2
Psalm for 2014

(If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe.")

Thinking analytically about ACTS prayer

Friday July 10 2015

Thinking analytically about ACTS prayer

I became a committed Christian at 19, and soon after that I started hearing about ACTS prayer. This pattern for prayer was recommended by many of my mentors as a good idea for both individual prayer and group prayer. The acronym stands for:
     Supplication (prayers where we ask for something)

The idea was that we always should start our prayers with praise and adoration, because we are entering into the presence of a holy and mighty God. Entering into the presence of a holy God will make us aware of our own sin, so confession should come next. When we confess our sins, we are thankful God forgives us, so thankfulness would logically follow. Only after these three steps should we offer prayers about our concerns.

One question immediately arose for me: What exactly is the difference between adoration and thanksgiving? I was told that praise and adoration relate to who God is and thankfulness relates to what God does.

Over the years I’ve pondered that distinction. Sure, a statement like this is obviously praise: “I praise you for your holiness.” And a statement like this is obviously thankfulness: “Thank you that we have food on the table today.” But what about: “I praise you (or thank you) for your forgiveness in Christ.” That has aspects of praise because God is a forgiving God. It has aspects of what God has done, because our forgiveness comes through Christ’s death and resurrection.

I decided that a lot of prayer has aspects of both praise and thankfulness, and that’s okay. I don’t need to nitpick about those two categories.

I’ve used ACTS to analyze the pattern of prayer in many different settings. I observe that Christians engage in a lot of praise through music: singing in worship services and through singing or listening to Christian music in the car, while doing tasks like washing dishes, etc. I observe that we engage in a lot of supplication. We ask God for things in corporate prayers at church, in prayer times in small groups and committees, and on our own. “Help me, God” prayers come pretty easily to most people. And “help my friend (or family member or work mate)” comes pretty easily to our lips as well.

In my childhood, every single worship service had a prayer of confession. The same was true in my early adult life. I worry that fewer congregations today use prayers of confession during worship. In order to confess our sins privately, I think we need public models for confession.

And I think thankfulness needs some careful pondering. We do well at the kind of thankfulness prayers that overlap with praise because these ideas are common in hymns and praise songs. In our singing we thank/praise God for saving us, redeeming us, freeing us, giving us a purpose, etc. But I think we do less well with thankfulness for daily blessings. Maybe some people still say grace, which involves thanking God for the food on the table and perhaps also for the people with whom we eat that food. But what about thanking God for our homes, our cars, our jobs, our bank accounts, our family and friends, our computers and phones? What about thanking God for the beauty of a child’s smile, a tree, a flower or a cloud?

Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, has motivated many people to write daily lists of things they’re thankful for. My friend Kimberlee Conway Ireton has blogged quite a bit about her thankfulness list. (Here’s a fabulous post by Kimberlee on gratitude.) My husband and I have a twenty-year spiritual practice. Every time we pray together (these days it’s on Monday mornings), we start with thankfulness. Sometimes we pray thankfulness prayers for 20 minutes before we move on to other aspects of prayer. (I wrote about our thankfulness practice here.)

ACTS has shaped helped me pray in a balanced way many times. But are ACTS prayers enough? Is something missing? Next week: evaluating ACTS against the Psalms, often called “the prayer book of the Bible.”


Other posts on prayer:

Celtic Christianity: Wholistic prayer
Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you
Breath Prayer
The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices

The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, part 2
Psalm for 2014

(If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe." The image above is Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer, 1471-1528)

Celtic Christianity: Jan’s story about pilgrimage

Thursday June 25 2015

Celtic Christianity: Jan’s story about pilgrimage

Jan, 58, spent a year in Britain when she was in her forties. It was a transforming experience in many ways. She described it like this:

In my forties I was running my own consulting business, my husband was an engineer, and our adult children had left home. A minister friend said to me that midlife is a time to take out your values and reexamine them. That certainly happened to me.

I began to question everything: my values, my work, my lifestyle, my relationship with God, my spiritual path. There was a dryness in my faith and in my life. My faith was mostly in my head, not a full-body kind of worship, as the Celts would say.

I kept coming across the phrase, “follow your bliss.” I always answered, “I’d like to live in England and Scotland for a year.” All my life I have wanted to live in Britain and research women in the early Christian church, photograph English villages and visit my extended family.

A friend gave me good advice, telling me to journal about my dreams and daydreams. I realized as I dreamed that I really wanted my life to be an adventure well lived, and not just by rote and habit, which is the easy way when things are going well. I knew I didn’t want just any adventure, but I longed for an adventure with God, for my life to be renewed and transformed.

There were huge obstacles to going: the house, the cats, the 190-pound Newfoundland dog, my husband’s business and my own consulting business. But one by one the obstacles melted away, and we found ourselves on the way to England.

My cousins in England and Scotland found us two cottages to rent. When we first got there, neither cottage was ready so we travelled for five weeks. With no agenda, praying for guidance for the day, we had to simply be open to what we were given. People continually gave us ideas where to go next.

We visited all kinds of sites that are significant to Celtic history: Holy Island, Whitby, Iona, St David’s, Durham, Glastonbury, abbeys and cathedrals as well as ancient sacred sites. In many of these settings, I could feel a sense of sacredness, a sense of place, a connection with the ancestors.

I went to a conference led by Esther de Waal. One night she gave a talk on Celtic Christian spirituality. A huge light bulb went on my head. I realized, “I’ve been on a Celtic pilgrimage! That’s why I’m here. This is the path God has set out for me.”

During the rest of our time in England, we visited and revisited Celtic sites. By now I was listening to my whole body. In cathedrals, I would touch the stones. I would hug those stone Celtic crosses or standing stones in fields. The Celtic sites gave me a sense of time and timelessness, a connection with the early Celtic saints. I realized their incredible relevance for today.

As we returned to the States, I realized I had gained a sense of balance that I had never had before. I would look at something and say, “That’s God’s awesome design,” and I would marvel. I have chickens now, and I experience God’s amazing creativity in my hens every day: their itty bitty eyelashes, the variety of feathers on different parts of their body. God designed each feather, each eyelash, just right for its function. As I look at the wonder of nature, I realize I’m a part of the whole.

There’s a part of me that has become a mystic or monk. I value a quiet spiritual walk and meditation. The Celts ministered to me through the way they prayed: their sense of sacredness, the way they prayed for protection against evil, their awareness of being surrounded by angels. My values have changed so much.

Bruce Reed Pullen, in Discovering Celtic Christianity, gives a good summary of the kind of journey Jan discovered herself to be on:

A “pilgrim” is one who dedicates a period of time to the search for the holy, for a closer experience of the living God. The pilgrim travels light and wears comfortable clothing. Serious pilgrims combine both the outward journey toward a holy place and the inward journey toward self-understanding. Humor and laughter help to make the journey enjoyable when both frustration and fun, rain and rainbows, and stark scenery and beautiful horizons are encountered along with way. Worship, both private and public, is often part of the journey. A pilgrim is patient, knowing that eventually the journey will end in arrival, and in that arriving will be blessings as never before.

(This is the last post about Celtic Christiany excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Previous posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: Ross’s story about art

Friday June 19 2015

Celtic Christianity: Ross’s story about art

Ross, 62, is a retired businessman who has been studying Celtic Christianity for many years. His involvement in creating an illuminated biblical passage in the Celtic style has helped him enter into the values and integrated worldview of the Celts:

Celtic Christianity allowed God to reach me on all sorts of levels. The Book of Kells [1] and the other Celtic illuminated manuscripts made me see another side of God’s truth, the way truth is connected with beauty.

I am awed by the Celtic monks’ willingness to put their lives into their art. I am awed by the beauty, elegance and style of their art. These dear brothers and sisters prepared themselves for the holy task of working with Scripture. Before they picked up a brush each day, they spent time in confession and received forgiveness. They viewed their work very much as a part of their worship.

I myself am working on a piece of Celtic art. I’ve got a nice big piece of vellum [2], and I’ve sketched out a Scripture verse. In this past paced world, where you can generate a piece of computer art in a few minutes, it’s amazing to think of the time and effort lavished on each page of the Book of Kells. Working on my own Celtic art connects me with the patience and long vision of the Celtic months. It may take me ten years to have something of quality that can be passed on.

There’s a lot to it. The art, the chemistry of missing the colors, the challenge of working with gold leaf. The Celts were so integrated with God’s creation, and I experience a little of that integration as I work on my own piece of art.


[1]The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation. The book is written on vellum (prepared calfskin) in a bold and expert version of the script known as "insular majuscule". The manuscript’s celebrity derives largely from the impact of its lavish decoration, the extent and artistry of which is incomparable. Abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament punctuate the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message, and keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader. The date and place of origin of the Book of Kells have attracted a great deal of scholarly controversy. The majority academic opinion now tends to attribute it to the scriptorium of Iona (Argyllshire), but conflicting claims have located it in Northumbria or in Pictland in eastern Scotland. It must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written. (More about the manuscript here, and images of it here.)

[2] Vellum often refers to a parchment made from calf skin, as opposed to that from other animals. It is prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books.

(This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: Paradoxes

Thursday June 11 2015

Celtic Christianity: Paradoxes

As we journey through life, we are increasingly drawn to integrate the various parts of our lives. The Celtic worldview was beautifully integrated, with all aspects of life a part of a greater whole. This integration was possible because the Celtic Christians were comfortable with paradox and mystery. With each passing year of life, most people become more comfortable with mystery and paradox, so the Celts can guide us as we move in that direction.

Some of the paradoxes embraced by the Celtic Christians are:

  • God is present in nature and everyday life through his spirit, yet God is also the exalted Creator and Redeemer. God is in all but also above all – both immanent and transcendent.
  • God is one God, yet God is three persons in community with one another.
  • We can experience God through our emotions, and we can also experience God through our minds.
  • God is at home with us in our daily life, yet God also calls us to pilgrimages where we will learn new things about him and experience him in new ways.
  • Nature is good, it is beautiful, and it displays the artistry of the Creator, yet evil is present in nature and in human nature.
  • The spiritual realm is close by and frequently touches our physical world, yet the spiritual realm is most fulfilled in heaven, which is a totally separate place.
  • God gives us great and wonderful blessings, and God is present when we experience good things, yet God is also present through our sufferings, which teach us and shape us.

Anyone who has lived a few years of life with God has experienced some of these paradoxes. The Celtic Christian acceptance of paradox without the need to explain everything can bring a wonderful perspective of lightness and joy.

To conclude this series on Celtic Christianity, for the next two weeks I’ll post testimonies about the impact of Celtic Christianity in the lives of two individuals. That means this is the last post presenting teaching about this wonderful tradition. Here’s a good summary from Sister John Miriam Jones’s book, With an Eagle’s Eye:

For the Celtic Christians, God was at hand, and their relationship with God was an intimate one.     . . . These were men and women who grasped the full significance of the incarnation, the full reality of a God who became human, like us in all things but sin. . . . So because the Celts understood God’s presence in and through the created world, for them there was no dualism. Nothing was seen as secular. All was holy, or potentially so. Thus, if all of life is holy, all the pieces which make up the mystery of each of our lives are sacred pieces. Patching them together yields the holy.


Some questions to ponder, write about, or talk about with friends:

1. Where are the “thin places” in your life – times and places where God seems particularly present? Spend some time thanking God for those places.

2. Pick one of the Celtic prayers in this series of blog posts and copy it into your daily calendar or onto a slip of paper. Look at the poem several times a day and pray the words, in anticipation of a greater sense of God’s presence with you throughout the day.

3. Which of the paradoxes embraced by the Celtic Christians feels most comfortable to you? Which seems most uncomfortable? Why? Spend some time reflecting on and praying about the role of paradox in your life.

(This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

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