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Listening to God in Prayer: Availability

Thursday February 15 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Availability

The contemplative prayer tradition has always emphasized listening and receptivity. Richard Foster points out the dangers inherent in this tradition. Foster believes that the most common danger is the separation of prayer from everyday life. In addition, he mentions the peril of devaluing intellectual efforts to articulate our faith and the tendency to become so individualistic that we neglect the community of faith.[1]

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Asbury Seminary professor, might respond to Richard Foster’s concerns this way: “A life of abiding in God is characterized by a heart whose deepest cry echoes and re-echoes through every aspect of its life – ‘Thy  will be done.’ . . . True prayer is a life of radical abiding in God.”

Mulholland goes on to say, “True prayer is a life of radical availability to God in the world.”[2]

When we try to listen to God in prayer, we are doing one thing that helps us abide in Christ. As we grow in our ability to abide in Christ, we will find ourselves drawn into his ministry and his concerns. In his life on earth, Jesus modeled a radical dependence on God his Father, coupled with a radical availability to people in need. We cannot love Jesus Christ without loving the people around us. We cannot love Jesus without caring about his priorities and values.

If we are available in this way to God, the messages we receive from God will often be practical, even mundane. Joyce Huggett, in The Joy of Listening to God, writes, “Early in my prayer pilgrimage, I discovered that listening to God did not necessarily result in mystical experiences. Often, it was not other-worldly at all. Rather, it was a deeply practical affair.”

Huggett recounts the time she was praying when the words, “Ring Valerie,” kept coming to her mind. She responded by phoning her friend Valerie at just the right moment to help with a crisis situation.[3]

Over and over as I pray, God has brought to my mind people who I need to call, write to, or pray for. As I respond in obedience to the voice of God in this way, I continue to grow in my ability to hear his practical instructions to me for how to love the people around me.

Surely God’s will for me is that I become more like Jesus. This means that I am called to be available to the people God brings into my life, just like Jesus was. This kind of availability is integrally connected to prayer.

This is the second to last post in a series on listening to God in prayer. Most of the posts were excerpted from my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I have a box of 52 copies of the book that I am hoping to sell at an attractive rate. It’s a great book for small groups because there are discussion questions after each chapter. The book has three chapters about spiritual issues that arise at midlife, plus six chapters about spiritual paths that are helpful at midlife. More information about the book is here. For shipping to the U.S., I can sell the books for $10 for the first book and $5 for each additional book including shipping. For shipping to New Zealand, I can sell the books for NZ$30 for the first book and NZ$15 for additional books including shipping. Check with any groups you know about to see if they’d like to buy them at this price. Contact me if you're interested.

(Next week: some vivid quotations about listening to God in prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts in this series:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms            
Ben's story             

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 53-56.
[2] M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. “Prayer as Availability to God,” Weavings, Sept/Oct 1997, 24-25.
[3] Joyce Huggett, The Joy of Listening to God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986),  206-206.

Listening to God in Prayer: Ben's story

Thursday February 8 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Ben's story

Ben is 56 years old, and he works as an administrator at a university. He describes the way he learned to listen to God in prayer, and what he listens for:

In my twenties and thirties, I was a history professor and department chair. I always loved studying and learning and teaching, and I always kept very busy doing it. There simply wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t choose to take any time for reflection during those years. When I’m honest about it, I can see that in my forties, I didn’t have any fewer pressures to do things, it’s just that I could no longer resist the pressure from within to spend some amount of time reflecting.

In my forties, I pastored a church and I had to preach every week. Week after week I found myself preaching about the inner journey of faith. What a surprise to me!

I had known about contemplative prayer for years, but I never felt drawn to it until I experienced this irresistible drive to spend time focusing on my inward journey. That’s when contemplative prayer began to make sense to me.

Some people call it midlife, but I don’t want to trivialize this huge shift that I experienced by giving it such a trite label. To me, it was an earthshaking change, to shift my focus from the outer world of teaching and activities to the inner world of feelings and reflections.

I can see now what a gift it was that I was able to be a pastor when that shift was going on. Each week I had time to study for my sermon. Sure, as a professor I had studied to prepare for my lectures. But that was study of something out there -- history. My sermon preparations were truly a study of what was inside, my own personal journey with God.

I began to see the centrality of grace. I had always believed grace was at the heart of the Christian faith, but through contemplative prayer I began to experience God’s grace for me. For me! Just for me!

My quiet times changed. Before the shift, I had focused on Bible study and intercessory prayer. Those are both good things, and I still engage in both. After the shift, the center of my quiet time became sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak to me. I’ve learned that I’m not listening for words or even guidance; I’m looking for an assurance that I am loved. When I take the time in the morning to wait until I have that assurance, my day is transformed. I find I can act out of the abundance of God’s grace rather than out of a need to prove myself. This sounds like a small change, but it is a revolutionary difference.

In my fifties, I’ve returned to a university setting. From the outside, my life looks a lot like it did in my thirties when I chaired the history department at the university where I taught. Every day I’m busy meeting with people, teaching, creating vision, making plans. But now everything is different because I have an attitude of listening to God that permeates everything. 

I still try to spend time each morning in the university chapel, waiting until I hear God’s word of love and grace for me. All the activities of my days are centered in that voice of love and grace. I’m living my life much more in response to God’s initiative now. Before my big shift I lived my life based on what I thought I should be doing.

For me, that’s the main point of contemplative prayer: listening to God so our lives can flow out of his love and grace.

This is the 13th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms               

(Next week: Availability. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Lent this year begins next week on Valentine’s Day. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, you may enjoy the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms

Thursday February 1 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms

For me, praying the psalms over more than three decades has been a tremendous blessing. Psalms show me I can bring varied emotions to God. Psalms give me words to express things I feel about my life and about God. They expand my vocabulary as I praise God. They help me relax into the presence of the God who made the universe, redeemed humans from sin, and loves us through and through.

You might wonder why would I include a post about praying the psalms in a series about prayer as listening to God. In what ways does praying the psalms help us listen to God?

1. Emotions. Because the psalms model such a vast array of emotions that people bring to God, they speak to us about God’s acceptance of us just the way we are, no matter what we’re feeling. They tell us that no emotion is too ugly to bring into God’s presence in prayer. Many of us feel so much shame about the way we’re made and the way we act. The psalms reassure us of God’s acceptance of us just the way we are. Nothing about who we are needs to be hidden from God.

2. Praise and thanks. Because the psalms model a variety of ways to praise and thank God, they teach us to offer praise and thanks to God. It’s almost as if God, through the psalms, instructs us about how to offer praise and thanks to God.

Over the course of my marriage, I have sometimes given my husband pretty direct hints about how to love me. I might say, “It would mean so much to me if you could tell me some of the things you think I am doing well in this situation.” Or, “I need some positive feedback about how I look because I dressed up carefully for the event we’re going to, and I’m feeling insecure.”

In the same way, the psalms give us instruction from God about how to love God. And as we praise and thank God, showing our love, we open our eyes to more of God’s gifts to us.

3. Resting in God’s presence. Because the psalms are so accepting of human emotion, they help us enter into God’s presence and abide there. If we want to hear God speak, being in God’s presence makes it more likely we will hear that still small voice.

Many of these benefits come from memorizing or reading psalms. I have experienced that praying them makes the benefits more intense because I offer all I am and all I have to God, I praise and thank God more intensely, and I sense that I am in God’s presence more readily.

Praying the psalms slows us down, which enables us to listen better. In our fast paced world, anything that slows us down is a powerful gift.

If you’d like to read more praying the psalms, and try some new ways to pray the psalms, one year ago I wrote about how to pray the psalms. You can check it out here.

This is the 12th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story           

(Next week: One man's story about learning to listen to God in prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible story

Thursday January 25 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible story

In Ignatian Bible contemplation, we place ourselves in a Biblical scene and try to become a part of it by using our imagination. We might picture ourselves as one of the main characters in a Bible story, maybe Peter or John in one of the Gospel stories. Or we might imagine ourselves as a bystander in a crowd around Jesus as he heals the leper or talks with the woman who had been bleeding for many years.

Ignatian Bible contemplation is another discipline in which prayer and Bible study merge together in a helpful and insightful way. In fact, some might consider Ignatian prayer to be more focused on Bible study than on prayer.

Ignatius of Loyola, who lived in the sixteenth century and founded the Jesuit movement, was the great proponent of this method of prayer. It is important to note, however, that this method stands in the long Jewish and Christian tradition of remembering the significance of God’s acts in history. The great Jewish holidays, Passover, Hannukah, Purim, the Festival of Booths, are all firmly rooted in historical events in which God acted. Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter likewise help us remember what God has done. When we engage in Ignatian prayer, we are affirming God’s acts in history and we are remembering and honoring them.

Ignatius suggests that as we place ourselves in a Biblical story, we try to imagine what we might see, smell, feel, and hear, and what the other persons in the scene might be doing. Always, Ignatius says, at each point in this contemplative exercise, we must “try to draw some practical fruit from the reflection for our own life today." [1] We need to ask ourselves what difference it makes in our everyday lives that we have encountered God through this Scripture passage. One way to do this is to focus on the words of Jesus and consider the ways our lives would be changed if we heard Jesus say those words to us.

I have returned over and over to the story of the woman at the well in John 4, using Ignatian prayer. I imagine myself as a girl of 8 or 10, playing hide and seek with my brother. I’m hiding in the bushes near the well when Jesus comes to talk with the woman. I listen carefully to his words, and as I grow into my teens, his words continue to come back to me. I feel called to grow in worshipping God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus talked about. I am in awe that Jesus knew all about that woman without her telling him, and I ponder what it’s like to be known so thoroughly by Jesus. There is something special about that man talking to that woman beside the well, and I ponder in my heart his person and his wisdom.

You can read a passage like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and imagine yourself as the person who was attacked, as the person walking by on the other side, and then also as the Good Samaritan. As you imagine yourself as each person, what would you feel, see, taste, touch, smell? What would God want to teach you through your connection with each of these characters?

You can imagine yourself as the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). Why are you weeping? How did you become convinced that Jesus would offer you mercy? Imagine your reaction when you hear him say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Perhaps you would like to imagine yourself as one of the other people at the table, watching these events happening.

You can imagine yourself as a shepherd who visits the manger or as a person in the crowd on Palm Sunday or at the crucifixion. All of these exercises help us remember who God is and his faithfulness to us, and help us hear his voice through the stories and words of the Bible.

This is the 11th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture
          

(Next week: Praying the Psalms. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 11.

Prayer as Listening to God: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture

Friday January 19 2018

Prayer as Listening to God: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture

Lectio divina, which simply means “sacred reading” in Latin, is an ancient pattern of reading the Bible and listening for God’s word to us, using four steps or movements. It was developed in the fourth century, so as we use it, we can rejoice in our connection with Christians throughout the ages. The word “sacred” is a great place to start. Just the mention of that word slows me down and makes me expectant that this way of looking at Scripture will enable me to encounter something sacred, something holy.

First movement. In lectio divina we begin by reading a passage slowly and carefully, not so slowly that we are uncomfortable, but just slowly enough to enjoy observing details in the passage. The passage may be one or two verses, or it may be an entire chapter. As we read, we watch for a word or phrase that jumps off the page at us, a word or phrase that shimmers. In this first step, we engage our powers of observation.

Second movement. In the second step, we think about the passage, not straining to analyze it, but peacefully thinking about what the passage means, wiht particular focus on the word of phrase that shimmered. In this second step, we engage our minds and our thinking process.

Third movement. In the third step, we respond to God in any way that feels appropriate. We may say a prayer of intercession, confession, praise, or thanks. We may simply open our heart to God, imagining our life or some insight gained from the passage held in our open hands, lifted into God’s presence. We may visualize Jesus nailed to the cross while we place at his feet the concerns raised by the passage. In this step we engage our hearts, and we bring our emotions into God’s presence as we respond to the passage.

Fourth movement. In the fourth step, we sit and wait. We may return to the word or phrase that shimmered, asking God to speak to us through that word. In this step, we may receive an image, picture, or metaphor from God that seals the significance of the text for us. We may receive a word of love from God. We may just rest for a few moments in the sacredness of God’s holiness and love and his presence with us in the world.

We may repeat these four steps over and over in a single passage, stopping in the middle of the first step as soon as we find a word or phrase that shimmers, and moving on to the next three steps, then beginning with the first step again as we continue to read the passage.     

The four movements are fluid, not rigid. We may find ourselves jumping from the first step to the third or fourth.

Lectio divina can be done alone or in groups. Many Christian leaders have adapted the four movements as they lead groups, and in my book, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation, I describe numerous ways this reflective way of engaging with the Bible can be done in groups.

People who are accustomed to rigorous Bible study often describe their pattern of study as “asking questions of the text.” In lectio divina, we allow the scriptures to ask questions of us. We are not regarding the text with questions in our minds; instead we are allowing the passage to gaze upon us and address us.

Lectio divina is a lovely way to interact with God’s Word because it engages our whole beings: our mind and our hearts, our ability to notice details and our propensity to think in images and metaphors. Lectio divina enables us to be receptive, encouraging us to believe that God wants to speak to us and that we can receive from God. Inlectio divina, Bible study and prayer merge together in a wonderfully peaceful way, helping us hear God’s voice, giving us strength and insight for our daily lives.

(Next week: Imagining yourself in a Bible story. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Lenten Devotional - downloadable

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like an unusual devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

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