Advent DevotionalA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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Listening to God in prayer: Breath prayer

Wednesday December 6 2017

Listening to God in prayer: Breath prayer

The simplest form of silent prayer involves focusing on our breath. Slowing down our breathing has the physiological effect of slowing down all our systems, including our racing minds. Therefore, a brief focus on breathing at the beginning of any prayer time can be very helpful. Breathe slowly and deeply – from the diaphragm rather than from the upper chest – as you begin to pray, and you will often find it easier to relax into God’s presence, love, and peace.

After the initial slow-down using our breath, we can move onto another form of prayer, such as intercessory prayer, confession, thankfulness, praise, or another form of contemplative prayer. (I’ll be writing about other forms of contemplative prayer in this series of blog posts.)  Or we may choose to stay with breath prayer for a longer period of time.

God is present in all of creation. “In him, we live and move and have our being,” says the Apostle Paul to the Athenians (Acts 17:28). Through the Holy Spirit, God lives inside all Christians. The air we breathe is a good metaphor to help us understand and experience God’s presence around us and in us.

In breath prayer, we focus on our breath: breathing in, breathing out. We focus on our breath as a reminder that at any moment of our lives we can rest in the reality that God’s love, care, peace, and protection are just as present in our lives as the air is. We rest in the joy of being children who are cared for by a loving and powerful Heavenly Father. We rest in the reality that God is in control of the universe and we are not. We rest in our utter dependence on God for each breath.

God really is all around us and even in us, just like air, and we are safe, loved, and protected by his wonderful presence.

Options for Breath Prayer

1. During breath prayer, we can imagine that we are breathing in God’s love with each indrawn breath, and we can picture ourselves releasing our cares and worries into God’s presence each time we breathe out. This form of breath prayer is a great favorite with children. Sometimes it takes me many, many breaths before I have released all my cares and worries to God!

2. The Lord’s Prayer works well as a breath prayer. In your mind, say a few words or a phrase from the prayer with each breath. You’ll find yourself meditating on the prayer in a new way because you are going through it slowly.

3. The ancient Jesus prayer, based on the words of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, is the first form of breath prayer I used. I pray one phrase on each breath: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

4. Later, I found myself substituting other names for Jesus in the Jesus prayer. I often pray these versions using one breath for each phrase:

  • Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, have mercy on me, grant me your peace.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd, have mercy on me, feed and guide me.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, have mercy on me, shine your light on my path.

5. Any memorized scripture, Bible passage we’re reading, or printed prayer can be turned into a breath prayer by praying the words of the passage, one breath for each phrase.

The theme of this series is “listening to God in prayer.” How is breath prayer a form of listening? Aren’t we focusing on the words we’re saying?

I find that slowing down by focusing on my breath puts me in a place of receptivity. That’s the place where God seems more likely to break through my busyness and cluttered mind. In addition, breath prayer so often makes me feel loved by God, and sometimes I think love is the main thing God is trying to communicate to us.

(Next week: distractions in prayer. llustration 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.)

Advent Devotional (downloadable PDF)

Advent began this past Sunday. My church, Bethany Presbyterian in Seattle, asked me to write reflection/discussion questions for an Advent devotional they have used in the past. For each week of Advent and for Christmas Day, there’s a short liturgy with a reading from a psalm. I’ve written reflection/discussion questions to go along with each psalm. If you’ve never made connections between Advent and the Psalms, you’ll enjoy this. Available here.

Listening to God in prayer: Alone or with others

Friday December 1 2017

Listening to God in prayer: Alone or with others

Any contemplative prayer form can be practiced alone. You are warmly invited to experiment with the forms of prayer described in this series of blog posts as you pray by yourself. In addition, you may find great joy in experiencing contemplative prayer in a group. It took me a while to wrap my mind around the notion of praying silently with others.

I can remember the first time, more than twenty years ago, when I heard someone describe her experience of silent prayer in a group. She was the pastor of a Presbyterian Church located near several other churches. She told me that every Friday all the ministers of the churches, along with anyone else who wanted to come, gathered at the Episcopal Church over lunch hour and prayed silently together for an hour.

I was incredulous. I didn’t say anything out loud to her, but inside I was thinking, “You mean you gather with a group of people for an hour and you don’t talk? At all? How weird! You can pray alone at home. When you’re with people, what’s most fun is to talk. This is craziness!”

Soon after that conversation, I began to attend contemplative prayer events in my own congregation. At first I felt very self-conscious praying silently in a room with other people. After a while, I began to realize it was one of the richest experiences of community that I had ever experienced.

A few years later, I interviewed participants in one contemplative prayer class for our church newsletter. “What is contemplative prayer in a group like for you?” I asked them. “And why would you encourage others to participate?”

Here are some of the answers:

  • “I like that you have an affinity with people without talking. God is joining hearts together.”
  • “I like everyone here. It’s a liking that comes out of quiet.”
  • “It’s a time to be alone with God but without loneliness, because there’s intimacy with God and with others.”
  • “Being quiet with God enables us to be a group. It begins with our relationship with God and then we can share it with the people around us.”

Because of those comments, I became more comfortable suggesting a period of quiet at the beginning of meetings. Freedom from words, in the presence of other people, is a great gift, and most of us have very little experience with it. I encourage people who want to learn patterns of contemplative prayer to participate in a contemplative prayer group of some kind, because that experience of intimacy in silence with others as well as with God brings such unexpected blessings.

Some people use the term “our presence for God” when they talk about silent prayer. This term refers to our willingness for God, our openness to God, our commitment to take the time required to hear God’s voice and experience God’s presence. Contemplative prayer, at its heart, acts out the truth that our lives depend on continual grace from God poured out upon us. Contemplative prayer allows us to relinquish the myth that it is our discipline or our competence that runs our lives.

As we practice contemplative prayer, this “presence for God” begins to spill over into our everyday lives, and more and more we experience God’s hand in daily life. We grow in acknowledging our dependence on God.

Often I find it easier to put myself in this stance of openness to God with when I pray with others.

(Next week: Breath 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. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Advent Devotional (downloadable PDF)

Advent begins this coming Sunday. My church, Bethany Presbyterian in Seattle, asked me to write reflection/discussion questions for an Advent devotional they have used in the past. For each week of Advent and for Christmas Day, there’s a short liturgy with a reading from a psalm. I’ve written reflection/discussion questions to go along with each psalm. If you’ve never made connections between Advent and the Psalms, you’ll enjoy this. Available here.

Listening to God in prayer: My journey

Wednesday November 22 2017

Listening to God in prayer: My journey

I learned about contemplative prayer when I was around 40. It dovetailed perfectly with other things that were going on in my life.

I am an introvert. My mother is extremely extraverted. In recent years, she has developed some ability to pray alone and to appreciate quiet things, but in my childhood and early adult years, her values were totally and completely placed in the realm of activity and socializing. She has a very high energy level, she values action over being quiet, and she has always kept a social schedule that makes me feel exhausted just to hear about it.

In my teen and early adult years, I strained to be more like my mother. It was only at midlife that I began to accept myself and allow myself to be an introvert. Ironically, people call me energetic. They don’t see the hours of quiet that I need to balance outward activity.

I have always valued quiet prayer and reflection, but I felt somewhat guilty for how much I like to be alone with my thoughts and alone with God. This drive to spend time alone made me feel ashamed and inadequate. Learning about contemplative prayer gave validation to these inner drives. In fact, I find contemplative prayer very natural. I’m actually good at something that more outwardly-oriented people find difficult. But it took me until midlife to appreciate the strength of my inner life.

The specific prayer styles of contemplative prayer – examen, lectio divina, breath prayer, and so on – have given me more options for quiet prayer, more things to do as I pray. I love them all. They are very helpful to me.

What is even more helpful is the general attitude that we embrace in contemplative prayer. At midlife, I began to slow down, let go of some of my need for control, and tried to live my life more in response to God. In intercessory prayer, which I still value highly, we say, “Dear Lord, here are the things that are on my mind.” And we tell God what we long for and hope for.

In contemplative prayer, we say, “Lord, enable me to hear you. What is in your heart that you want to communicate to me today? What do you want me to think about, do, say, pray?” This posture of listening changes the whole focus, and it fit perfectly with what was going on in my life in my forties.

In my teens and twenties, I really believed I knew a lot, and I was always striving to know more. I felt that I had right answers a lot of the time. In my forties, I began to realize I am so much less certain about lots of things. That lack of certainty has continued.

I still pray lots and lots of intercessory prayers for people in need, for my children, granddaughter, husband, family members, and friends, and for the needs of the world. But because I’m less certain about so many things, I really want to be guided in how to pray. I really want to listen to God’s concerns, God’s priorities, God’s passion. I want to hear his voice in how to pray.

In my twenties and thirties, I felt very optimistic that I could do most things that came along; that I would have time and energy to explore what I wanted to. In my forties, I found I have so many relationships, so many options, so much to do, and that feeling of too many possible directions has only gotten more intense with each passing decade. I need guidance and a sense of priorities. I find that guidance through listening to God in contemplative prayer.

And I want to hear God’s voice of grace, too. All that busy activity of my early adult life came in part from my doubts about who I am and what I do. Now that I’m older, I’m more able to rest in God’s love for me, but I need to hear and feel that love. Contemplative prayer encourages me to wait and listen for it.

The specific patterns of prayer that we call contemplative are just a means to an end. And that end is a posture of listening, an attentiveness to the voice of God. I find I can’t live without it.

(Next week: The blessings of contemplative prayer, alone and with others. Illustration: Me in Stockholm in my early 50s, 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.)

In case you missed these last week, here are 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 

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    

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Praying the Psalms

Friday February 17 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Praying the Psalms

Lent starts this year on 1 March. You may be interested in the Lenten devotional I wrote two years ago, using a psalm for each day of Lent. The devotional is illustrated with beautiful paintings by Dave Baab. You can download the devotional in pdf form here: Draw Near.

Throughout the ages, the psalms have been the prayer book of the Bible, used by Jews and Christians for individual prayer and for prayer in congregations. As we learn to face with increased honestly the wide variety of emotions inside us, praying the psalms can be both comforting and challenging. During my years of psalm reading, described in last week’s post, I often found that my reading turned into prayer, and I came to love the psalms as prayers. They voice for me so many parts of myself, and they bring those aspects of my personality and emotions into God’s presence in prayer.

When I pray the psalms, I receive several gifts from God. I feel connected to people throughout the ages who have prayed these same words. Because so many of my unsettling emotions are expressed in the psalms, I feel that God must accept my volatile and passionate feelings because the psalm writers and so many people down through the years have brought those very same emotions to God in prayer. When I pray the psalms, I receive peace and acceptance from God.

If you want to begin a pattern of praying the psalms, here are some suggestions. If you want to pray a psalm that is completely new to you, or only somewhat familiar, it helps to read the psalm through first to get an idea of what it is about. Then pray it. You may feel most comfortable reading the words very slowly as you pray. I find that when I pray a psalm, I read the words more slowly than usual, but only slightly more slowly. The pace is up to you. Experiment with what seems most comfortable.

You may wonder where to start if you want to begin to pray the psalms. One suggestion is to start with psalms you have read or heard before. Find those familiar psalms in your Bible and, instead of reading them, pray them. Often I start with a well-loved psalm and then continue praying the ones that come next. You can also start at the beginning, with the first psalm, and pray one or more each day. A wide variety of emotions and styles of prayer can be found in almost any set of consecutive psalms.

Often when praying a psalm, I find that the emotions being expressed are not anywhere close to what I am feeling at the time. In those instances, I often find myself remembering other times when I’ve felt those emotions. I also remember that others all around the world must be feeling those emotions right at the moment I am praying. I try to pray the words on behalf of the people who God loves who are feeling those emotions right now. In that way, praying the psalms is a prayer form that connects me with people all over the world.

Praying psalms in a group setting is also very rewarding. Invite the group to begin by reading the psalm aloud as a group, either in unison or having one half read the odd numbered verses and the other half read the even numbered verses. Then give the group enough time to pray the psalm individually in silence. After a nice leisurely amount of time, read the psalm aloud again, using the same method as you used the first time. You may want to end with a time of sharing, allowing participants to describe what the experience was like for them. Or you may want to encourage participants to write in a journal after the prayer time.

These days, my most common form of praying the Psalms is to hum along with the Sons of Korah, an Australian band that sings the psalms. They've got many CDs, and many of their songs have been posted on YouTube, which you can find here.

This is the fourth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           

(The series continues next week with “God’s presence through the Holy Spirit.” 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, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

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