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Listening to God in Prayer: Noticing God’s Presence

Thursday December 21 2017

Listening to God in Prayer: Noticing God’s Presence

Have you noticed all the emphasis these days on mindfulness? Pay attention, people are saying and writing, to what’s going on right now in your life. Breathe. Be present and notice.

Christians have emphasized a form of noticing for centuries. In the ancient prayer of examen, we take time to look back and try to see the hand of God in our lives. Examen, like all contemplative prayer forms, is most effective when it is unforced, when we try to let our awareness of God float into our minds rather than forcing ourselves to review every event in an analytical fashion to see if we can detect the presence of God.

First, select a period of time to focus on. It’s best to look at one day, although you could also choose to look at a period of a few days or even a week. Focus your thoughts and your heart on the time period you have selected. Ask God to bring to mind one or two times when God was present in your life.

Don’t analyze. Don’t try to go sequentially through all the events in that time period. Just try to gently notice. In the prayer of examen, to notice is to pay attention, to turn your gaze from worries about the future and absorption in present tasks to events that took place, the meaning you placed on them, and the possibility that God was working in and through what happened.

When you are able to identify one or two times when God was present to you, respond to God in the light of your noticing. You may want to imagine yourself holding in your hand that moment of God’s presence, offering it back to God in thanks. You may want to picture yourself smiling at God. You may want to thank God for that moment using words.

Continue in an atmosphere of noticing. This time, ask God to bring to mind one or two moments when you resisted God’s presence. Again, don’t try to analyze or examine your life’s events sequentially. Try to let a memory of resistance to God float into your conscious mind.

When you are able to identify one or more moments when you resisted God, spend some time responding to God. You may want to pray, “Lord have mercy.” You may want to offer that moment to God and ask him to heal and transform you. You may want to move into a time of confession of sin.

We so often forget to take the time to notice the patterns of our lives. Examen is a lovely discipline because it gives a structure to pay attention to God’s working. Often God is present in our lives and we fleetingly experience that presence, but we rush on to the next event and we neglect to ponder the patterns of his presence and to thank God for the gift of our awareness of him. Examen gives us the opportunity to notice the hand of God, something many midlife folks are longing for.

Examen also gives us the opportunity to notice the patterns of our resistance to God’s work in our lives. Sometimes we can change those patterns by conscious discipline. More often all we can do is offer our patterns of resistance to God and ask for his help and mercy. Either way, simply noticing our resistance makes us more likely to notice God’s presence next time.

My husband and I have found that the prayer of examen has impacted the way we talk to each other at the end of the day. Often my husband will ask me at bedtime, “When did you feel closest to God today?” or “When did you experience God’s hand in your life today?” I am always grateful for that question, because it makes me stop and notice.

Examen is a wonderful discipline for midlife. The speed of our lives and the necessity to focus on the future keeps us from recognizing when God has been at work in us. So many of us long for meaning and the assurance that life has value. What better way to find meaning and value than to take the time to notice what God is already doing?

(Next week: looking back on 2017 in preparation for the new year. Illustration: Golden Gardens in Seattle 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 adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

*** If Advent isn’t feeling real to you, even though Christmas is rapidly approaching, I encourage you to download my Advent Devotional, which links psalms with the themes of Advent. Even if you work through only one set of questions, pondering relevant psalm may help you be more ready for Christmas. ***

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Tuesday April 18 2017

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

This week I’m reposting an earlier post because the ideas are still so relevant. Maybe I’m reposting it because I need to follow my own suggestions!

Did you know that in many times and places in Christian history, Easter has been viewed as a season, not just a day? The Easter season goes from Easter Day to Pentecost Sunday (June 4 this year), a period of seven weeks. Because Jesus’ resurrection is such a huge, amazing, overwhelming, fantastic gift to us, focusing on it for seven weeks allows time to ponder many aspects of what we receive on Easter Day.

The liturgical color for the Easter season is white to reflect the holiness and purity of Jesus, which enabled him to die in our place. White also symbolizes light. Jesus submitted to the darkness of the grave, and Easter morning he came back into the light, and his own light was again revealed. Paintings of Jesus after the resurrection often show him surrounded by light.

What spiritual practices are appropriate in a season of light and joy? This is a season of feasting, not fasting. Celebrate joy and light in whatever ways you can. Ponder, journal or talk with others about the joyful events of Easter and what they mean for you. Here are some suggestions for spiritual practices for the Easter season:

1. Practice thankfulness. Watch for God’s good gifts in your life and your loved one’s lives. Look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection life in events and people around you. Go out of your way to express gratitude and love to people who have cared for you. Pay attention to the small gifts of daily life, and thank God for them. To help you pay attention, consider starting (or re-starting) a thankfulness journal and commit to adding five items to the list each day. Or partner with others to talk through the things you’re thankful for every day. Be sure to pray your thanks as well.

2. Focus on light. Watch for the word “light” in scriptures, praise songs, hymns and poetry. Write a poem or statement about the ways Jesus is your light, and ask for further light in specific areas of your life and in the lives of loved ones. Use various names for God and Jesus in breath prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world, shine your light on me” (John 8:12). “Jesus, bright morning star, guide my steps” (Revelation 22:16).  “Word of God, be the lamp to my feet and the light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). “Lord God, sun and shield, give me your light and protection” (Psalm 84:11). All of these prayers can be prayed for others as well as for yourself.

3. Ponder the fact that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). In what ways has Jesus freed you from that fear? In what ways would you like to experience more freedom? What do you think that might look like? Journal or talk with a friend about the role fear of death has played in your life. Pray your thanks, and pray for further growth in this area.

The seven-week Easter season nudges us to look at life through the lens of resurrection power. Maybe you’ll think of additional ways to do that.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
   O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
   wrapped in light as with a garment (Psalm 104:1).

(Next week: Support for Earth Day from hundreds and thousands of years ago. 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.)

Quotations I love: Five quotations about thankfulness

Thursday December 29 2016

Quotations I love: Five quotations about thankfulness

“A thankful heart is the parent of all virtues.”—Cicero (106-43 BCE)

Another year will draw to a close in a few days, and the self-help magazines are full of ideas for New Year’s resolutions. I wonder why the recommended task of the last week of year focuses on looking ahead in the area of self-improvement, rather than looking back at the past year for the purpose of thankfulness.  

I’ve started this post with a quotation that dates from a long, long time ago in order to show that the significance of thankfulness was recognized, at least by one person, in the ancient world. I love Cicero’s idea that thankfulness gives birth to other virtues. Thankfulness as a psychologically helpful practice is being recognized both in the secular and Christian worlds these days. I wonder how much more motivation for thankfulness we would have if we saw it as “the parent of all virtues.”

“Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.” —Estonian proverb

This second quotation implies that an attitude of thankfulness either permeates a person’s life – with a focus on everything, large or small – or not. The proverb suggests a connection between noticing big and small things to be thankful for. Do you try to notice both?

“The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.” —Henri Nouwen

Nouwen is so right that there’s a kind of training involved in learning to be thankful. If we practice thankfulness, we’ll get better at it: “Every gift I acknowledge reveals another.” Noticing things to be grateful for, and extending thanks to the giver on earth or the Giver in heaven, helps us notice more things. Over time our hearts are shaped in the direction of receptivity, and we realize everything good comes to us as a wonderful gift.

“Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” —Karl Barth

Barth like Nouwen connects thankfulness with grace. Barth uses a vivid metaphor to help hammer home this connection. He implies that for people who are aware of God’s grace, thankfulness will be automatic. Is it possible our lack of thankfulness comes from our inability to perceive the magnitude of the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

“For what has been—thanks! For what shall be—yes!” —Dag Hammerskjöld

This last quotation illustrates the connection between thankfulness and hope. We can enter a New Year with hope because we have seen the many gifts of 2016. Even if 2016 was hard year, and I’m sure it was for many people, there were gifts from God and from family and friends mixed in with the hard things. We can look at 2017 with optimism and hope because those good gifts will continue, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in new forms. God’s grace will continue to flow abundantly in the New Year.

In this last week of the year I want to challenge you to do two things:

1. Think of three people who have contributed something positive to your life in 2016. Drop them an email, a text message or a card to express your thanks. Be specific about what you’re thanking them for.

2. Make a list of ten things you can thank God for in 2016. Include things like a place to live and food on your table and the people in your life. Stretch the list to 20 if you can. Post the list on your bathroom mirror, in your kitchen or by your desk, and each time you see it, express your thanks to God.

(Next week: Enter the New Year by listening in on Jesus’ early morning prayer. Illustration: someone I’m thankful for, our son Mike, drawn by another person I’m thankful for, my husband 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 is the last post in a series on quotations I love. Here are the earlier posts:
Richard Halverson on being sent
Secrets and compassion    
Four Quotations about attention            
Breton Fisherman’s Prayer  
Arnold Glasow on feeling at home with people  
A. W. Tozer on worship that illuminates work  
The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things  
Thomas Aqinas on loving people we disagree with  

Paul Tournier on building good out of evil 
Thomas Merton on our transparent world  
Moving from intending to pray to actually praying  
Eugene Peterson on paying attention  
Regret and fear are thieves  
Rick Warren on love and disagreement  
Henri Nouwen on being beloved
 

Quotations I love: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things

Wednesday October 26 2016

Quotations I love: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things

Everyone must render an account before God of all the good things he beheld in life and did not enjoy.
          —The Jerusalem Talmud

I find it quite challenging to accept the notion that we have some sort of responsibility before God to enjoy the good things of life. For most of my adult life, I’ve had an inner dialogue running through my brain along these lines: “How can I truly enjoy this wonderful event when 22,000 children will die today of the effects of hunger?” [1] “How can I relish this beautiful weather when 11.4 million Syrians are displaced from their homes?” [2] Ever since my mid-twenties, I’ve been much, much better at mourning with those who mourn rather than rejoicing with those who rejoice.

However, I’m doing better these days enjoying God’s good gifts. I want to reflect on how that happened. I’ve identified four factors:

1. The Sabbath. Since the quotation above is from a Jewish document, it’s appropriate that a Jewish Sabbath tradition contributed in a lovely way to my spiritual growth. In Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are not appropriate on the Sabbath because it’s a day of rest. In contrast, prayers of thankfulness are encouraged. On my Sabbath day, when I start thinking about any kind of pain in the world, the kind of situations that might motivate prayers of intercession, I tell myself, “You can think about that and pray about it tomorrow. Today’s focus is rest and being present to all of God’s good gifts.”

Over many years, that Sabbath habit has helped me turn off anxiety and sorrow, albeit briefly, and focus on the gifts of the moment. I see good things more readily now, and I can enjoy them, knowing that the time for sorrow and prayer will come. Indeed, for everything there is a time and a season under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). (If you want to read more that I've written about the Sabbath, numerous articles about the Sabbath are posted on this blog, and you can check out my Sabbath book and Sabbath Bible study guide.)

2. Thankfulness prayers. More than 20 years ago, my husband and I decided that every time we pray, we would begin with thankfulness. This practice has changed my perspective and enabled me to see and enjoy God’s good gifts more often. When we thank God for things, our eyes are opened to more things to thank God for. (I described our experience with thankfulness prayers in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, and I’ve written quite a few other posts on thankfulness.)

3. The Psalms. In the Psalms, confession, lament, praise and thanks recur over and over, reinforcing in my mind that there is a time for everything and that life should be lived in a rhythm. Yes, it is completely appropriate to grieve over Syria and to pray for refugees. But it is equally appropriate to stop and look and enjoy the beautiful clear eyes of a small child or a flower newly unfurled.

4. Jesus the Redeemer. I’m not God. I’m not responsible for running the world. I’m not the Savior. We already have a Savior, and it’s not me. Yes, God calls me to feel sadness and compassion about the brokenness of our poor hurting world, but God also calls me to embrace joy and praise and thanks because so many good gifts surround me. But ultimately Jesus is our Savoir and Redeemer, and my job is to respond in gratitude, faithfulness and prayer. This reality has become more real to me over time as I have practiced lack of worry and sorrow on the Sabbath and as I have practiced thankfulness. My habits have changed my thoughts.

None of the shifts described here happened very quickly for me. But I can see movement over time, and I have to say that after decades of feeling so much sorrow and sadness, having a good number of moments of joy is pretty wonderful. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High. . . . For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your works; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 91: 1, 4).

(Next week: A. W. Tozer on God’s call to worship. 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] The Hunger Project
[2] Syrian Refugees

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

Thursday October 6 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

"Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true."
           —Thomas Merton

I love the idea of a transparent world. I love thinking about ways I can see God’s character, beauty and creativity “shining through” the things, people and events of our world. But I’m not wild about the word “divine.” I looked up the word, and found two definitions: (1) like God and (2) very pleasing, delightful. This makes me wonder if “divine” is the right word for what Thomas Merton is trying to say here. I think he’s saying that God shines through this transparent world. What we see shining through is not something like God. It is God.

The definition of divine, “very pleasing, delightful,” is worth pondering. Christians have majored on intercessory prayer, not prayers of praise and thanks. Maybe if we looked more carefully at the world around us to see the pleasing and delightful aspects, we would see God's presence more clearly and engage in more prayers of praise and thanks. (I wrote two weeks ago about a Eugene Peterson quotation about paying attention.)

While I was thinking about what I wanted to say about Merton's words, I happened to look through my vast collection of quotations to find some more to use in the weeks to come. I found two that echo Merton’s thoughts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
                        —Elizabeth Barrett Browning [1]

“God’s love is the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the light we see. All natural phenomena are different material forms of the love of God. . . . God’s love surrounds us, but we do not feel it, anymore than we feel the pressure of the atmosphere.
                         —Ernesto Cardenal, Abide in Love

These last two quotations imply that it’s not easy to see God’s love surrounding us or to recognize common things “afire with God.” Part of what I love about all the talk about mindfulness these days is the encouragement to stop right now, in this moment, and pay attention. For the rest of this post, I’ll write about the ways I have recently seen God’s love surrounding me and common things afire with God. Maybe my words will encourage you to write down (or draw! sing!) some of the places where you have seen God shining through the transparent world.

1. Flowers. It’s spring in New Zealand, and we’ve got trees and bushes covered with flowers. We’re at the end of the daffodils and the beginning of the tulips. We’ve had a bunch of sunny days in a row, and when I see sunlight shining through blossoms, I see God’s creativity and beauty.

2. Birds. I recently visited an aviary, and the colors of the parrots and parakeets made me smile. We have three blackbirds nesting in trees near our house, and it’s been a delight to see the mama birds flying back and forth with bits of grass in their beaks, while the papa birds stand sentinel. God created beautiful birds.

3. Activists. I feel shame and guilt at how little activism I have done over my lifespan to fight for things I care about. I love to read about activists, and I often see God’s passion and energy in them.

4. Children. Their pure skin, clear eyes and energetic movements give me deep joy, and I rejoice that God made such diversity in his children.

5. Poetry. Such creativity with words must reflect the creativity of God.

6. Art. Colors, shapes, lines curved and straight. I thank God that he gave us eyes.

7. Human kindness. I love seeing people extend love and care to others, reflecting God’s character in their actions.

I could list so many more: skies, clouds, the moon and stars; baby lambs and ducklings; chocolate, fruit, a good salad, roast beef; cool water to drink, warm water for bathing, a fluffy towel and clean clothes; dogs, cats and other pets; my home, my desk, my bed, the sofa, the kitchen, the table where we eat.

I’m sure you’ll think of other things. To paraphrase Thomas Merton: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God’s character, beauty and creativity are shining through it all the time. Our job is to pay attention.

(Next week: Paul Tournier on bringing good out of evil. 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] The quotation comes from a poem entitled “Aurora Leigh,” which you can read here.

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