Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Lynne's Blog

Creative prayer: Returning prayer

Thursday June 27 2019

Creative prayer: Returning prayer

“Returning prayer is a way of coming back home to God and to ourselves. We leave the ‘far country’ and our false self efforts and return to who God made us to be.” [1]

I found this language of “returning prayer” in a new book on the Enneagram that I really like. The words reminded me of a statement I love from the Church of Ireland Prayer Book: “When we were far off, you met us in your son and brought us home.”

In one sense, any prayer is a returning prayer, because we draw near to God through Jesus Christ, who met us in the far country and brought us home. In any moment of our life, the forces of our culture (materialism, the fast pace, etc.) as well as forces from within us (ego, fear, etc.) try to pull us away from God. These human forces are amplified by the demonic forces at work in our world and in us as well.

To call all prayer “returning prayer” can help us remember that so many forces are pulling us away from God, and we need to consciously chose to return. But to identify “returning prayer” with all prayer dilutes the meaning. I have found it helpful to be more specific. What exactly do I need to return from?

We have a very talented musician in our congregation, Ben Newton. Last Sunday we sang one of his songs, “Bring us Home.” (You can listen to the delightfully rhythmical song here.) The song opens with the refrain:

"Bring us home, God our Father, how we need to know your touch
To feel your arms around us, to know your love
Because you are home, God our Father, you are everything we need
How we need to know you love us, bring us home"

The first verse focuses on the role of the speed of life that we need to come home from: “Our world is rushing by, we are missing the deeper life.”

The second verse focuses on our tendency to run after the many distractions of life that draw us away from God: “We have spent our time chasing distractions from the center of life.”

Yes, we need to return to God when we get absorbed in rushing around. We need to return to God when we have chased distractions that have taken us away from God our center.

I can think of several additional things that I need to come home from. One of them is sadness and grief. My husband’s sister died last month, and our granddaughter will probably be moving away with her parents in a few months. I am grieving. I need to come home to the arms of Jesus for comfort and peace.

The authors of the Enneagram book where I got this idea of returning prayer, Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, write, “Returning prayer begins with returning to body awareness. We remember that we are inhabited by the Spirit of God. As we become present in our bodies, we can breathe into our hearts so they open up and return to a place of listening to God.”[2]

I definitely need reminders to return to awareness of my own body and my location in a specific place. My scattered thoughts and unruly emotions take me so far away from this present, physical moment. So for me, one application of these words “returning prayer” has to do with mindfulness of this moment, this body, this place, these people, this work. My body is inhabited by the Spirit of God, but I often don’t pay any attention to that reality.

In the bridge of his song, Ben Newton uses the words “real water for our true thirst.” We can pray that the various things that draw us away from the ability to rest in God will create in us a thirst for the real water that comes from God, our true home. We can ask God to help us feel a deep need to return to our center, God’s very real presence.

Next week: Some ponderings about the ways mindfulness meditation can inform Christian prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. Words to Ben Newton's song used with permission. His band is called Lightcure, and his playlist on YouTube is "Doubt Melts Like Snowmen." If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below (for cell phones) or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

Two blog posts about the giant AHA moment I had in 2011 about the concept of “home.”

[1] Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, Spiritual Rhythms of the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, InterVarsity Press 2019, page 199.
[2] Ibid.

Creative Prayer: Relinquishing and welcoming

Friday June 21 2019

Creative Prayer: Relinquishing and welcoming

My favorite of the young adult novels by Madeleine L’Engle is A Ring of Endless Light. The main character, Vicky Austin, makes friends with a dolphin (always a dream of mine!) and has a sweet romance with an admirable teenage boy. In addition, she wrestles with what it means to be so full of self that there’s no room for God.

The vehicle for her wrestling is a poem by Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1685). The poem uses the metaphor of a shell, either empty enough that God can fill it, or so full of self that God cannot enter in:

If thou could’st empty all thyself of self, 
Like to a shell dishabited, 
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, 
And say, “This is not dead,” 
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity, 
That when He comes, He says, “This is enow
Unto itself– ’twere better let it be, 
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.” 

A Ring of Endless Light came out in 1976, and I read it soon afterwards. I have pondered the phrase “thou art all replete with very thou” for most of my adult life. A major part of my journey has involved finding my own voice. How can I discover my true self – created by God – and find my own voice if I believe that God wants me to empty myself of self?

I came across an interesting twenty-first century version of Thomas Browne’s words in a wonderful new book on the Enneagram written by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, her husband and two other authors. Calhoun wrote the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which I have used extensively in my teaching. In a series of appendices, Calhoun and the other authors propose numerous prayers and other spiritual practices.

They offer a prayer in four movements called the “Welcoming Prayer.”

  1. I let go of my desire for security and survival. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  2. I let go of my need for approval and affection. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  3. I let go of my desire for control and power. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  4. I let go of my desire to change this reality. Welcome, Jesus, welcome. [1]

I have no idea exactly what Sir Thomas Browne meant by being too full of “very thou,” but maybe he meant being too full of desires for security, approval, and control. I’m totally on board with relinquishing those into God’s hands and welcoming Jesus into our heart, into the space those desires usually occupy.

And I do love Browne’s metaphor of the shell in the ocean. We do need to welcome Jesus into our lives, and feeling like an empty shell is one vivid metaphor to help us make space for Jesus. I wonder, though, if we have the capacity within ourselves to make space for Jesus. Maybe our first prayer should be to ask God to identify and remove the desires that take up the space God wants to occupy in the shell that is our heart. I’m not sure we can do it on our own.

Next week: Returning Prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to get an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below (for cellphones) and in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

Two posts on this blog with themes somewhat similar to this post:

[1] Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, Spiritual Rhythms of the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, InterVarsity Press 2019, page 209.

Creative prayer: Prayer cards

Thursday June 13 2019

Creative prayer: Prayer cards

Back on February 20, when I started this series of blog posts on creative prayer, I mentioned that when I was a young adult, I was taught that prayer consists of adoration (or praise), confession, thankfulness, and supplication (or intercession). We used the acronym ACTS to be sure we hadn’t forgotten an aspect of prayer. Prayer, we were taught, was to done after studying the Bible in the morning at a desk. In addition, we were encouraged to pray ACTS prayers with others in prayer partnerships, Bible study groups, and worship services.

To my surprise, a few years later, I found I prayed best while walking. And a few years later I began to experience the insomnia that has been a part of my life for four decades and which has provided an opportunity for lots and lots of prayer. No Bible study beforehand! No desk!

In addition, I learned about many forms of prayer that go beyond ACTS. I read the Psalms and began to think that ACTS should be transformed into LACTS to include lament. But then I read Jeremiah, and one of my favorite prayers comes from him: “Lord, you know.” (I wrote about Jeremiah a couple of weeks ago.) That prayer doesn’t fit into the LACTS pattern.

I found that as I walked and prayed, I imagined myself putting my concerns into Jesus’ hands. I also developed something I call “thinking in the presence of God,” which is a combination of prayer and ruminating, and which was a huge blessing to me. I began to pray using art (I wrote about that here and here). I saw people turning their hands palm up to receive God’s blessings. None of these forms of prayer fit with the ACTS or LACTS acronym.

I learned so much from contemplative prayer events at church about listening to God or waiting on God, other forms of prayer outside ACTS. Some upcoming posts will go in the direction of silent, receptive prayer. When I started this series of blog posts, I thought it would center on forms of prayer that don’t fit with the acronym.

To my surprise, more than half of the posts in this series so far focus on how to do ACTS or LACTS prayer more creatively, more frequently, or with a certain perspective. I’ll list those posts below so you can read any that you have missed.

When I started the series, a friend emailed me to say she uses prayer cards. We were emailing to plan a time to meet, and she said she would show them to me. Her prayer cards enable her to pray systematically for other people, the “S” for supplication in ACTS. So today’s posts fits within the pattern of how to do ACTS prayer more systematically and thoroughly.

My friend’s cards are half the size of an index card. She has six of them, and she writes a dozen or so names on both sides. She puts a card in her purse, and prays for the people on one side for as long as it takes for her to pray thoroughly for each one, a day, a few days, a week. Then she prays for the people on the back side for as long as it takes. She then switches to another card.

She uses the cards when she walks, waits in line, waits for anything, or sits at her desk having a quiet time. Some people in her life appear several times on the six cards. Other people appear only once. Over the course of several weeks, the cards enable her to pray for a wide variety of people. And then she cycles back through them again. 

When I emailed her to check on the accuracy of what I’ve just written, she replied: “This helps me to hold myself accountable to pray for the people who are important in my life – immediate family, friends, relatives, neighbors – especially those in my circle who are not believers.” 

I met this friend when she was 18 and I was 23. Over the course of my life, she has prayed for me as consistently as anyone I know. I was thrilled to get to peek at her prayer cards, so I could see how she manages to pray so faithfully for people.

Here’s a list of other recent posts about how to do ACTS prayer more effectively:

Here are recent posts about how to ACTS prayer with a certain perspective:

Writing this series has been pure joy for me, as I have had the chance to write down the many forms of prayer that have helped me enter into God’s presence (or prayer forms I would like to engage in more). I believe we all need to think creatively from time to time about how to pray in fresh ways. Sometimes freshness in prayer comes from tweaking what we’re already doing so we can do it more often or more enthusiastically. Sometimes freshness comes from trying something completely new.  May God guide you into fresh and refreshing ways to pray. 

Next week: prayers for letting go and for welcoming Jesus. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cell phones) or in the right hand column of the website (for laptops).

I have chapters on several forms of prayer that fall outside the ACTS acronym in my book Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. The chapters focus on contemplative approaches to scripture, various forms of contemplative prayer, and receptivity.    

Creative prayer: Pressing pause

Friday June 7 2019

Creative prayer: Pressing pause

In an online discussion about the spiritual practice of simplicity, one of my students used the words “press pause” to describe what simplicity helps us do. I began thinking about other spiritual practices that help us press pause. Fasting and Sabbath are good examples.

Then my thoughts expanded to include prayer. When we stop to pray, we are pressing pause on the activity we were doing and the thoughts that were filling our mind.

A friend of mine loved a visit to a monastery, with consistent times of prayer day after day. When he got home, he set his phone to ping at 9 am, noon, and 3 pm. Whatever he’s doing, he stops and prays at that time, sometimes briefly, sometimes for a longer period of time. He is pressing pause on the activities and thoughts of his workday or his weekend activities.

Prayer invites us to do something different with the preoccupations and concerns that have been filling our time. As we turn to God in prayer, we may pray about those preoccupations and concerns, or we may set them aside to pray for something else. Either way, we are pressing pause on our normal way of dealing with the tasks to be accomplished and the things on our mind. We are acknowledging that God is God and we are not.

This stopping when we pray can also help those of us who are prone to worry. The very act of praying enables us to acknowledge – at least on some level – that God love us, cares for us, provides for us, and loves, cares, and provides for those we love. This presses pause on worry and anxiety.

All forms of prayer invite us to press pause on the way we look at life and the way we cope with challenges. Specific forms of prayer help us press pause on specific aspects of our daily life. I’ve thought of quite a few, and I bet you can think of more.

Praying for our own needs helps us press pause on the messages from our culture that we are self-made people and that everything we have comes from our own effort.

Intercessory prayer for others helps us press pause on our preoccupation with our own needs. In addition, entrusting people into God’s care can help us press pause on the feeling that we are hyper-responsible for everything going on in other people’s lives. (See my blog post from a few weeks ago about this.)

Thankfulness prayers help us press pause on our thoughts about what we lack. We can let go for a few moments of the strong messages of the advertising culture that we need that next thing right now. Thankfulness prayers help us appreciate the many gifts God has given us.

Silent meditative prayer helps us press pause on the endless stream of words and noise that surround us.

Prayer with others – whether aloud or silent – helps us press pause on our habitual conversational patterns with those people, which sometimes get into ruts.

Praying the words of the Bible – a psalm, a prayer by someone in the Bible, or the words of any passage – helps us press pause on our habitual patterns of prayer.

I’m finding it helpful to think about two ways to apply this notion of pressing pause in prayer. As you can see above, I’ve been thinking about the ways various forms of prayer help me press pause. My next frontier is to think about the areas of my life where I need to press pause a bit more often and then to consider the forms of prayer, as well as other spiritual practices, that might help me do that.

(Next week: Learning creative prayer with prayer cards. Illustration by Dave Baab: a moment of pressing pause at the Mount Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below or in the right hand column of the whole webpage.)

One of the major ways we can press pause is to keep a Sabbath. I have eight articles on my website that I’ve written for magazines about the Sabbath. You can access them here. I also wrote a book and a Bible study guide about the Sabbath.