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

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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.

Creative prayer with Jeremiah

Friday May 31 2019

Creative prayer with Jeremiah

I fell in love with the book of Jeremiah in my early twenties. Ever since I hit puberty, I had felt that my emotions were unruly, confusing and sometimes overwhelming. I found a soul mate in Jeremiah, who (in God’s presence) cursed the day he was born and even cursed the man who brought the news of his birth to Jeremiah’s father. Jeremiah shouts at God, “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jer 20:14-18).

Talk about unruly emotions!

Jeremiah obeys his call to be God’s prophet, but he is not at all happy about it, and he pours out his frustration to God in three passionate prayers (Jeremiah 12:1-4, 15:15-18 and 20:7-18).

The prayers are noteworthy because mixed into the complaints and anger are statements of trust and faith. “My heart is with you,” Jeremiah affirms (Jer 12:3). In chapter 15 he says, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me,and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors” (verse 15). And in the middle of his long complaint in chapter 20 are these words: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (verse 13).

Jeremiah’s complaint at the beginning of chapter 12 is followed by a long response from God. I wonder if dialog with God, described in so many places in the book of Jeremiah, is part of why Jeremiah can affirm trust and faith in the midst of the deep pain he expresses.

In addition, the prophecy that God gave to Jeremiah contains numerous mentions of God’s compassion, mixed in with the vivid and powerful statements of judgment that Jeremiah is famous for. The reminders of God’s compassion must have influenced the prophet personally. Here’s an example. God describes “plucking up” the people of Israel from their land, a form of judgment for sin. Then God says, “And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land” (Jer 12:15).

I wrote last week that in our prayers we must balance direct requests with submission to God’s purposes. I said that we are called to both entreaty AND submission. We must pray with sincerity AND assent to the purposes of God, candor AND surrender.

God also invites us in our prayers to balance honest expression of emotion – even what we consider to be negative emotions – with statements of praise, thankfulness and submission.  

Like Jeremiah’s, our honest expressions of emotion might include complaining and pain. They might involve deep lament at something going on in our lives or in the lives of people we love. They might include passionate expressions of sadness about world events or people in need on the other side of the world.

But, that pain we’re expressing is not the whole story. Sometimes we are so sad we have to wait for God to give us encouragement, but even in those cases we can expect that God will bring eventual comfort. Sometimes we can find the energy to shift our thoughts to the blessings we have, all of which come from the hand of God.

“Lord, you know” (Jer 15:15) may be one of the most helpful ways to balance pain and faith. Whatever we are feeling, God knows about it and enters into it with us. My husband’s sister died last week, and we have just returned from her funeral in Ohio. I’m grieving with her husband, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as with my husband. Lord, you know.

Almost every day I see homeless people on the streets of Seattle, and I grieve. Lord, you know. I’m thinking of children starving to death in Yemen and in other countries, crop failures in Central America that send refugees north, and a piece of plastic found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. All of this hurts. Lord, you know. My heart is still with you.

Next week: creative prayer as pressing pause. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to sign up to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

I’ve posted a new article on my website, “Local Ministry: A Cord of Three Strands.” In it I’m arguing that in this increasingly secular time, local mission must be woven together with pastoral care and spiritual practices in new ways. The article was originally published in the Christ and Cascadia online journal.

Creative prayer: Submitting AND entreating

Thursday May 23 2019

Creative prayer: Submitting AND entreating

Some friends were talking about prayer recently, and a couple of them mentioned their desire to shift their prayers away from constantly asking God for things. They expressed their hope to become more focused on praying for what God wants and submitting to God’s action in their lives.

As they were speaking, a vivid illustration came to mind. Several years ago, my husband Dave walked the Kepler Track, a four day hike (or “tramp” as they say in New Zealand), one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The first day of the hike is a series of switchbacks that climb from an altitude of just over sea level to 1000 meters (3300 feet). The second day involves a slight increase in elevation, then a long walk along the top of a ridge.

The trail along the ridge is maybe 2 feet wide. On both sides are dramatic drop offs. Dave walked along that ridge on a calm and quiet day, but he found it scary even on a calm day. He heard stories about people crawling along the ridge in high winds. (You can see the ridge in the top photo on the Kepler Track website.) In prayer, we are called by God to walk along a kind of ridge between dangers on both sides.

I believe that in prayer we are called to ask God for exactly what is on our minds. God invites us to pray honestly and fervently for our needs and desires, as well as the needs and desires of friends and family members, people in need around the world, Christian leaders, people who work in government, scientists who do the research to help us take care of this beautiful earth, historians who help us learn about the past, journalists who help us understand what’s going on in our world, and whoever else we believe shapes our life on earth. This kind of prayer is right and good, but it can morph into selfish preoccupation with our own desires.

I believe we are also called to ask God to lead us into prayers that reflect God’s will. God invites us to listen, through the Holy Spirit, to the voice of Jesus guiding us into prayer. God wants us to be willing to submit to whatever God is doing in the situations that matter to us. This kind of prayer is also right and good, but it can morph into passivity and inaction.

Walking the balance between these two aspects of prayer is like walking along that ridge at the top of the Kepler Track. We are called to walk a path that avoids the cliff on one side – our obsession with our own desires and a belief that only our wants and needs matter – while also avoiding the cliff on the other side – a hyper-spiritual approach that expresses only our desire to submit to God’s will.

The Bible invites us to pray honesty about what’s on our mind AND also express willingness to let God guide us. We are called to both entreaty AND submission. We must pray with sincerity AND assent to the purposes of God, candor AND surrender.

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane illustrates this perfectly: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

I’ve been studying the prayers of the Bible for most of my Christian life. I am awed by the honesty in so many of the Psalms. These prayers model a radical approach to God with everything that is within us – our hopes, desires, longings, and negative and positive emotions. The prayers in the Psalms also model a deep praise for God and God’s purposes.

I am also awed by the prayers in the Apostle Paul’s letters, which express his longing for growth in faith on the part of the people he’s writing to AND a deep desire for God’s will for them. (I’ve written blog posts about Paul’s prayer in Colossians, the two prayers in Ephesians, and the prayer in Philippians.)

I am challenged by the balance in the Lord’s prayer: we are to ask for food, deliverance from temptation, and forgiveness of sins, while also praying that God’s will would be done.

In our prayers, we are called to both entreaty AND submission, walking a path between excesses on both sides.

Next week: emotion and passion in prayer. Illustration: daisy on the Kepler Track, watercolor 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 (for laptops) or below (for cellphones).

Another post on prayer you may enjoy: Thankfulness in the Apostle Paul’s prayers

Creative prayer: Seasons

Friday May 17 2019

Creative prayer: Seasons

On Valentine’s Day when I was 41, I woke up unable to get my breath. I’d had the flu for a few days, but this breathlessness was something different. Dave took me to the Emergency Room where they tested my blood oxygen level (very low) and gave me a referral to a lung specialist. I walked out with a cute little oxygen tank and a bigger oxygen tank for refilling the little guy.

It took six weeks to get a diagnosis (hypersensitivity pneumonitis) and a drug to heal it (high doses of prednisone). Meanwhile one of my closest friends was dying of a brain tumor. Maggie died when I was about a month into the prednisone, and I went to her heart-breaking funeral carrying my little oxygen tank.

After two months on prednisone, I was healed, and they started the process of getting me off the drug. I felt awful during the two months of steadily reducing doses. I felt awful for the first two months after I was off the drug. Then I had to begin the long process of getting some level of fitness back. Another Valentine’s Day had come and gone before I felt good again.

During the weeks when I was waiting for a diagnosis, I found that the only part of the Bible I could read was the psalms. During the months on prednisone and the months of withdrawal from it, I found I could read only Psalm 90. I read the psalm over and over, praying the words. For the better part of a year, I’m not sure I prayed much else besides the words of that psalm.

I still don’t know why, of all the characteristics of God in the Bible, the words of verse 1 meant so much to me: “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations.” I can see the appeal of verse 2 for someone who is ill:

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)

And I see the appeal of verses 3 to 6 for someone whose close friend has just died:

You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night. 
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning; 
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:3-6)

In her wonderful new book, The Gift of Wonder, Christine Sine compares the rhythms of our life to the seasons of nature. She talks about the habits we can develop in the seasons of good weather that will take us through the dark and cold.  

I’m glad I had a habit of Bible study and prayer before Maggie died and before I got sick. I still find it absolutely fascinating that in a hard season, my Bible reading and prayer narrowed, first to the book of Psalms, and then to only one Psalm. I still have a deep connection with Psalm 90, which kept me spiritually alive in those long months of feeling awful and grieving a loss that I still feel.

As I look back on that experience, I resonate with a poem Christine Sine wrote and placed in her chapter on seasons:

God prepare us for the winters of our lives.
May we not forget
that hidden within winter’s dark embrace
are the seeds of life.
Remind us, loving God, that when all seems dark and empty,
you are still at work,
strengthening our roots,
healing our wounds
anchoring our souls. [1]

May God give you peace in all the seasons of your life. May God enable you to prepare in the good times for the dark months of winter.

(Next week: the balance between entreating God for what we want versus prayer as submission and relinquishment. 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 on laptops or below on cellphones.)

Some previous posts on the Psalms:

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms         
Drawing near to God with the heart: Praying the Psalms          
Drawing near to God with the heart: All will be well            
An AHA moment on Mother’s Day           

[1] Christine Aroney-Sine, The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019, 114.  

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