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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.

First post in a new series: Listening to God in prayer

Thursday November 16 2017

First post in a new series: Listening to God in prayer

Throughout the centuries, Christians have valued quiet prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, and meditation on the character and purposes of God. In the twentieth century, these quiet prayer forms were largely eclipsed by an emphasis on more outwardly oriented expressions of faith. Christian spirituality of the twentieth century often emphasized service, evangelism, caring for people in need, fellowship and sharing, at the expense of quiet, reflective forms of prayer.

In recent years, more Christians are rediscovering the joys of meeting God in quiet prayer and reflection. Retreat centers offer quiet retreats. Congregations sponsor contemplative prayers events. More Christians visit monasteries to soak up the quiet and peace.

At midlife, many people experience a turn inward, and contemplative prayer can feel more natural than in the first half of life. For those of us who find quiet reflection natural, learning about contemplative prayer can be a freeing and joyful midlife experience. Next week I’ll write about the way that worked for me.

Others at midlife find themselves surprised at the comfort and delight they experience in quiet prayer, often for the first time in their lives. In the first half of their lives, they thrived on all the abundant opportunities for fellowship and ministry offered by their churches. They are often surprised in their forties and fifties to find themselves seeking out opportunities to spend time with God in a quiet setting. They are also surprised to find how refreshing it feels.

Several extraverted and very social people have told me that at midlife they began to wonder if they really are introverts after all, because they find such joy in being alone and praying alone. Being alone takes on a richness and peace that it never had before. Journaling, creating a prayer space in the home or in the garden, walking alone in nature, and many other forms of prayer and reflection in solitude can take on new meaning and satisfaction as a way to be alone yet not alone, because God is present.

The long history of contemplative prayer offers quite a few prayer forms that can be very helpful tools. In this series of blog posts I will explore those forms:

  • Breath prayer, a way of stopping and experiencing God’s nearness;
  • Examen, a way of reflecting back to see God’s presence in past moments;
  • Lectio Divina, a four-fold pattern of sitting with a passage of Scripture;
  • Ignatian Prayer, a way to meet Christ by entering into a biblical story.

These are very helpful prayer forms to learn, because they give us something to “do,” somewhere to direct our thoughts and prayers, as we learn to sit still in God’s presence.

All these contemplative prayer patterns are simply skills to get at the deeper issue. They are useful skills, and I will write about them because they are helpful, rich and rewarding. But the deeper issue that lies behind contemplative prayer, and the goal of using all the skills, is to learn to be present to God and to grow in our ability to hear God’s voice, so we can live lives that are responsive to God’s presence.

In the first half of life, we can easily delude ourselves that we are competent, in-charge people who can easily know and obey God through our own efforts of discipline. In the midlife years, many people find it difficult to sustain these illusions of control and competence. In addition, we find ourselves longing to know if God is real, if God really can communicate to us, if God really does love us just the way we are. We long to experience God’s presence.

Contemplative prayer can give us the space and time in our lives so we can hear God’s voice and rest in God's presence.

(Next week: my journey of growing in listening to God. Illustration: Cambridge, England, 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.)

Two articles I’ve written that relate to listening to God:

     Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others   
     Following Jesus each day    

Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

Wednesday December 7 2016

Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

“Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world.”—Frank Warren

This quotation makes me ask myself three questions:
1. When people tell me their secrets, do I listen well?
2. Do I keep confidentiality?
3. When I suspect that someone has a painful secret, do I respect their right not to tell me about it while still treating them with compassion?

I’ll write about the questions in reverse order. My third question highlights a difficult balancing act. We can use our imagination too little or too much when we think about people’s lives. If we use our imagination too little, we don’t put ourselves in the place of people who have experienced difficult things, and compassion is difficult or impossible. I see imagination and compassion as closely related. Both need to be consciously cultivated.

However, if we imagine too much, we might read something into someone’s life that simply isn’t or wasn’t there. Imagine that you have a grumpy colleague, and it seems likely to you that this person was sexually abused as a child. But maybe not, and the person doesn’t seem inclined to tell you about the past. Frank Warren seems to be advocating compassion whether or not we know the other person’s story, simply because most people have stories that would break our hearts.

Regarding confidentiality, my second question above, don’t forget that gossip is listed twice in the New Testament in lists of sins (Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:2). Proverbs 11:13 uses the language of “trustworthy in spirit” for the kind of person I want to be: “A gossipgoes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence” (NRSV). Some other translations of that verse in Proverbs use “faithful in spirit,” and The Message uses “a person of integrity.”

Gossip is one of the easiest sins to engage in because so often gossip seems innocent. And of course, talking about other people’s needs can play a role in caring. For Christians, the boundary between gossip and sharing a prayer request is pretty blurry. In addition, the deliciousness of gossip plays such a big part in what we call “news,” so we become numb to the consequences of it.

People’s stories belong to them, not to us. If we want people to honor us with their stories, we need to honor the people who tell the stories and let them decide with whom to share the story.

And that brings me to the topic of listening, my first question above. I’ve written so many posts and articles about listening, and I’ll paste in a list below. Good listening skills really do help people talk through events that might have become secrets with the passage of time. And those secrets usually have less power and become less heart-breaking when talked about in the presence of a good listener. Careful, respectful and compassionate listening conveys love.

Frank Warren, in the quotation above, is asking for us to remember that people have painful secrets whether we know what they are or not. He seems to be saying that when we remember the presence of those secrets, we will have more compassion and tolerate differences with more love. This seems like a good idea in our politically polarized world.

(Next week: a beautiful benediction that encourages us to believe God has a purpose in our being where we already are. Illustration, "Paihia Beach," 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.)

Posts and articles on listening:

Listening past the noise
Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others      
John Perkins listened     
good listeners are detectives, not tennis players   

a game that nurtures good listening
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

Friday October 21 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
                      —Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

In this contentious time, characterized by deep divisions and polarities, this quotation is challenging. Do I really believe that the person who has a different opinion than I do on a topic I really care about has “labored in the search for truth”? Do I really believe that such a person has actually helped me find what I consider to be truth?

Aquinas emphasizes the search for truth, a cognitive process. He calls us to honor all who engage in that cognitive process.

His words provide an interesting juxtaposition with a quotation I’ve been using a lot as I teach listening skills:

“There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally.”
                               —Mohan et al., Communicating! Theory and Practice [1]

These authors argue that we can disagree with people but still be interested in how they came to embrace the position the position they hold.  Mohan et al. call us to honor the motivation that lies behind another person’s thinking. They ask us to engage in a psychological process of curiosity in way that honors another person’s journey.

When teaching listening skills, I encourage people to ask the kinds of questions that get to the motivations and experiences that have shaped people we disagree with.
     • “Tell me about why that perspective is so important to you.”
     • “What were some of the experiences that shaped your opinion?”
     • “Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about the journey that brought you to this belief?”

Aquinas might encourage the addition of a couple of additional questions:
     • “I’d love to understand some of the thought process that brought you to this opinion.”
     • “Tell me about the search for truth as you experienced it.”

I find it very difficult, as most of us do, to listen to someone talking on and on about something I disagree with. I’ve found it helpful to ask some of the above questions, because frankly I find it at least somewhat interesting to hear about how a person got to that belief that I find so repugnant. Sometimes the back story really does help me love the person more, because I understand more about the forces at work in their life that led them to the place where they stand.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Message version repeats the first words but adds some additional challenging words: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” One form “the best” can take is asking questions that help us understand what’s going on inside the people we disagree with. How I wish this could be a part of our political dialog in this contentious time, and how I wish people in churches could have this perspective in the midst of profound disagreements.

(Next week: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoyment. 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.)

[1] Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.

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