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Creative prayer using the imagination

Thursday April 18 2019

Creative prayer using the imagination

Sometime in my twenties, a worship leader suggested visualizing a cross. Using our imagination, we could lay our concerns at the foot of the cross, entrusting our worries and struggles to Jesus.

That was the first time someone suggested using my imagination in prayer. In the years since then, I have developed detailed imaginary worlds that enable me to talk to Jesus and to pray about things that matter to me. In this post, I want to chart the development of using my imagination in prayer by focusing on the first three steps.

That first step involved laying concerns at the foot of the cross. Sometimes I imagined myself writing my concerns on slips of paper, which I left there by the cross. Other times I pictured Jesus hanging on the cross, and I brought to him my pain and struggle. I took comfort that Jesus was “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” and of course, his death on the cross is a significant manifestation of that powerful description of him from Isaiah 53.

I’m writing this blog post between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and I am enjoying pondering the significance of imagining the cross of Christ as we pray.

In my thirties, I developed a new pattern of prayer with my imagination. I had a walking route that I took two to three times a week. I walked seven blocks from our house in North Seattle to Greenlake. I headed south along the shore of the lake until I reached the aqua theater at the southern tip of the lake. Then I turned around and headed home by the same route.

Many times on my walks I followed the same pattern. Between our house and the lake, I thought about what was bothering me most in my life. When I reached the lake, I imagined Jesus in a rowboat on the lake, and I handed him my worries, concerns, struggles and pain. He received the things I handed him, and threw them in the lake. It was clear to me that I didn’t have the strength of character to throw those concerns into the depths of the lake myself, but I knew Jesus could do it for me.

When I reached the aqua theater and turned around, I continued to imagine Jesus in the boat beside me, but heading this direction, I imagined him handing me gifts like peace, contentment, and joy.

My imaginative prayer using Jesus in the boat added a couple of things that putting my worries at the foot of the cross didn’t do. This one involved my whole body, because I was walking, and it involved Jesus' body, too. Jesus reached out to take worries from me, and then he gave gifts to me. I enjoyed picturing Jesus’ arms and hands receiving from me and giving to me. This form of imaginative prayer felt more active than the earlier one.

My third form of imaginative prayer came in my fifties, when I no longer walked by Greenlake. I exercised in a gym, not a bad place for praying. However, in those years, a lot of my prayer took place in bed at night, before I fell asleep or in the middle of the night when I dealt with sleeplessness.

This time I imagined a beautiful big meadow on one side of a wide river with dramatic mountains on the other side. The river, I imagined, was the River of God’s Love. I walk with Jesus through the meadow and stand on the shore of the River of God’s Love. I hand Jesus the things I’m concerned about, and he throws them into the river. God’s love absorbs my problems, and they float away in the river to be dealt with by God.

Again, I know I don’t have the strength to throw my concerns into the river by myself. I can, however, hand them to Jesus. After I hand them all to him, and after he throws them into the river, I put my right hand in his left hand, and we stand there together enjoying God’s love. “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you’” (Isaiah 41:13). 

Standing with Jesus beside the River of God’s Love gives me a sense of intimacy with Jesus and a deep peace, knowing my problems are taken into God’s love.

Maybe these three forms of imaginary prayer will stimulate your imagination. Maybe you already have imaginary settings that help you pray. Either way, I’ll leave you with Hebrews 4:15-16. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

(Next week: creative prayer while walking. Illustration: the portion of Greenlake in Seattle where I used to imagine Jesus in a rowboat. Watercolor by Dave Baab.)

This is the ninth post in a series on creative prayer. Previous posts:
     Creative prayer with art                    
     Creative prayer: Art as symbol and metaphor                      
     Creative prayer for creation care            
     Prompts for prayer         
     More prayer prompts    
     Creative prayer using our hands       
     Creative prayer in a hospitable spirit                
     Joy spot sightings                        

Creative prayer: Joy spot sightings

Thursday April 11 2019

Creative prayer: Joy spot sightings

Choosing habits that nurture thankfulness has changed my life. I always found it easy to see needs, and even as a young adult I was a champion intercessory pray-er. I struggled with depression for 16 years of my early adult life, so I had a lot of practice in seeing the half-empty part of the glass.

Twenty-five years ago, Dave and I decided we would always begin our prayer times together with some thankfulness prayers. We made that decision because, at that time, life was filled with challenges. Our prayer times, a couple of times a week at bedtime, were filled with “help me with this” and “give us that.” We came away from our prayer times feeling discouraged because we had named so much pain.

Focusing on thankfulness for a few moments a couple times a week was so helpful that within a year or two, I decided to try to start every prayer time of my own with prayers of thankfulness. Soon after that I suggested to my women’s prayer group that we begin our prayer times with thankfulness. (I describe this personal journey in more detail in a blog post here.)

Even today, almost every time I ask God for something (which I do many times each day), I also thank God for something. This practice of thankfulness, over and over, has been one of the great gifts of my life. I still can easily see the half-empty portion of the glass, and I am still deeply committed to intercessory prayer, but I am so much more aware of the gifts God gives each day. I am so much more present to God’s abundant blessings and mercy. I am happier.

I’m always looking for new ways to engage in thankfulness prayers. My friend Kimberlee Conway Ireton keeps a numbered list, and she has often posted parts of her list on her blog. Here’s the post where she gets to 2000. She got that idea from Ann Voscamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts. Making a list like Kimberlee does simply hasn’t worked in a major way for me. I do it from time to time in my journal, but the heart of my thankfulness prayers is their link to my intercessory prayers, which often come in settings where I can’t write something down.

Christine Sine has a chapter on thankfulness in her helpful new book, The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God. Be sure to notice the subtitle of her book. For me, consistent thankfulness prayers have truly helped me grow in delighting in God and God’s gifts.

Christine describes a friend of hers who uses the term “joy spot” to describe something that makes her smile. This friend and her husband decided to watch for “joy spot sightings” during the day and call them out to each other. This habit grew into a daily thankfulness time in the morning and a desire to find more joy spots during the day. Christine’s friend noted, “We grew expectant” (p. 144).

I love the notion of watching for things that make me smile and giving them a name – joy spots. I’m going to try using that vocabulary to see how it works. Anyone like me who innately sees the glass half empty needs to grow in paying attention to smiles.

In her chapter on thankfulness, Christine mentions something else worth noting. Thankfulness builds on itself, like a spiral upward. I have experienced this, and so have Christians throughout the ages. Christine writes, “As we express gratitude, we become more grateful and start to realize that all we have is indeed a gift from God” (p. 141).

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Psalm 107: 1, 2).

(Next week: Creative prayer using the imagination. Illustration by Dave Baab.)

Some previous posts about thankfulness on this blog:

     Why optimism and thankfulness are not the same thing
     Five favorite quotations about thankfulness              
     The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things              
     Thomas Merton on our transparent world               
     A thankfulness challenge – reframing events in your mind and in your prayers               
     Another thankfulness challenge – why thankfulness matters               

Here's one of my all-time favorite posts on this blog, expressing my thankfulness for a cat we had when our son was young: A cat with a noble character. When I re-read it today, I got tears in my eyes. Thank you, God, for your gifts small and big, human and animal.

Creative prayer in a hospitable spirit

Friday April 5 2019

Creative prayer in a hospitable spirit

In 1999, I read a book that changed my life – Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl. I’ve had two decades to ponder the notion that hospitality is a major theme throughout the Bible. For two decades, I’ve viewed all Christian ministry under the umbrella of hospitality, rather than vice versa, as I did before 1999.

What are the implications of this stance? Each encounter with another person is an opportunity to express a hospitable spirit, a welcoming attitude for who they are and what gifts they might offer to me and to others. Hospitality happens in our homes, yes, but it happens in every setting where we encounter another person. I try to have a welcoming attitude at all times.

This week I’ve been having some new thoughts about prayer. What does prayer in a hospitable spirit look like? I’ve been challenged by Christine Sine’s delightful new book, The Gift of Wonder, where she talks about cultivating a child-like openness to wonder. For Christine and her husband, Tom, hospitality – hosting people in their home – has been a source of wonder as she has opened herself to the gifts that a wide variety of people have brought to her.

Christine asks, “What difference would it make in today’s world if we looked at all strangers in the same way we look at a child – an unknown but welcome person we hope will become a friend in our home?” She cites Jesus’ words in Luke 9:48 about welcoming a child in his name as being equivalent to welcoming him (page 189).

I’m wondering what it would look like to pray for people as if they are valued and cherished children, beloved of God. I’m thinking about politicians I disagree with, family members who push all my buttons, and members of groups that feel like they are “other” to me.

Christine writes,

“How did you respond to the last newborn child you were introduced to? What feelings and emotions welled up within you? How did you greet and welcome the child? What changes in behavior were you willing to make in order to get to understand this child, accommodate its needs, help it feel welcome in your home? What further responses did your meeting invite?” (page 189).

Christine mentions the scene at the manger at Jesus’ birth, where all are welcome: “animals, family, strangers, despised and wealthy are all invited. Who stands around the manger with you today? Who are you still excluding?” (page 197).

Who have I been excluding in my prayers? People I love easily and care about deeply are so easy to pray for. The fact that love empowers my prayers is a good and wonderful thing. But equally good and wonderful is the ability to pray for people who are easy for me to exclude.

My ponderings this week have been fueled in part by the shooting at the mosques in Christchurch, and I’ve been wondering exactly how often I pray for Muslims. Not very often. Not often enough.

For the past two decades, working hard to cultivate a welcoming, hospitable spirit in my encounters with individuals has been fantastic. I have received so many gifts from people I’ve conversed with, gifts that I might not have noticed if I hadn’t consciously tried to be open to the other person. Now I’m going to challenge myself to cultivate more of a hospitable spirit in my prayers. Do you want to join me?

(Next week: Creative prayer – joy spot sightings. Illustration by Dave Baab.)

Previous posts on hospitality:
          Contrasts: Guests and hosts               
          Benedictine Spirituality: Hospitality, service and work             

Creative prayer using our hands

Thursday March 28 2019

Creative prayer using our hands

About ten years ago I led a worship service at a retreat. The setting was intimate, unlike the Sunday worship services at church where the leader—sometimes me—usually stood some distance away from the congregation. At the end of the retreat worship, I said a benediction. To my surprise, several of the younger women sitting close to me turned their hands so their palms faced up. They looked as if they were trying to catch the benediction in their hands.

I had often said, “Now, receive the benediction” before I ended a worship service, and these women looked as if they were taking those words seriously. They used their hands to indicate a posture of the heart, a posture of receptivity.

What might they have been trying to receive? What might they have been longing for?

Perhaps some of them had a specific need in mind as they turned their hands up to “catch” God’s blessing. Perhaps they were hoping for God’s action related to a specific need in their family or in their job, or maybe they were hoping for God’s guidance in a particular situation. Perhaps they had learned something new about God at the weekend retreat, and they were hoping God would cement that new knowledge into their lives. They could have had many other specific needs, requests, or situations on their minds as they used their hands to “receive” the benediction.

Perhaps some of them were simply open to more of God in their lives. Perhaps the motion of their hands expressed a willingness to receive anything and everything from God, an indication of their commitment to be disciples of Jesus who would follow their Master wherever he might lead them.

I invite you to think about the way you use your hands in prayer. Have you ever prayed with your hands palms up? Have you ever prayed with your hands raised above your head? Do you often clasp your hands together as you pray, an age-old traditional posture for prayer? Do you use other hand positions when you pray? What do these hand positions mean to you?

Another way to use hands while praying is to walk a finger labyrinth. I’ve written two previous blogs posts where I mention walking a labyrinth (here and here). Christine Sine, in her wonderful new book The Gift of Wonder, recommends printing out the image of a labyrinth (such as this one), and walking it using a finger, preferably a finger on your non-dominant hand.

She suggests a beautiful prayer as you begin: “Walk with me, Lord, through all the twists and turns of life; walk with me when clouds obscure the way, when what seemed close is now so far away. Walk with me, Lord, until I trust in you; lead me to the center of your love” (p. 90).

She finds it helpful to bring a question to the labyrinth, something that has been a faith struggle, inviting the Holy Spirit to guide and instruct. Christine suggests that as you walk the labyrinth with your finger,

“Stay open to whatever presents itself: feelings, sensations, memories, ideas. Pause at any time to breathe. Stay with a thought or memory or just relax into the labyrinth and the question stirring in your mind. At the center of the labyrinth, sense your connection to your own center and to God’s centering presence. Acknowledge the Holy Spirit, the heavenly Counselor directing your thoughts and exploration. Relax, pray, sing. Repeat your question” (p. 90-91).

After you rest your finger in the center of the labyrinth, trace your way out from the center, staying open to however God is present with you. Christine recommends ending by laying both hands on the image of the labyrinth and sitting quietly in God’s presence a bit longer, reflecting on the journey of your hand and praying about what you’ve experienced.

A finger on a labyrinth, hands turned palm up . . . this week experiment with the way your hands might play a greater role in your prayers.

(Next week: creative prayer in a hospitable spirit. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column of the webpage. The first five paragraphs of this post are excepted from my book Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for your Congregation. Photo credit: Crista Brennan, “Art therapy directives using labyrinths.”)

Previous posts on walking a labyrinth:

Creative prayer: More prayer prompts

Thursday March 21 2019

Creative prayer: More prayer prompts

What prompts you to pray? I wrote last week about three of my prayer prompts and asked readers to respond with examples from their own lives. I had no idea that something unexpected had happened to my blog – the ability to make comments had disappeared. I’ve contacted my website fellow and he’s hopefully going to fix that.

I did get feedback from two friends on Facebook and from two friends by email. I think you’ll enjoy reading their responses.

I mentioned last week that one of my prayer prompts is ambulances and fire trucks. One of my friends wrote:

“I used to live opposite a fire station, and every time the alarm went off, I would pray. It certainly made for a positive response when people asked how I coped living so close to the fire station. In my new town I live opposite a fire station AND an ambulance station, plus the police cars seem to use my road a lot, too. Lots of opportunities for prayer. Doesn’t God have a great sense of humor?”

After I wrote my post last week, I wondered why I don’t have the habit of praying when I see a police car. I’m going to try to add police cars to my prayer prompts.

The nurse I mentioned last week, who told me she prayed when she saw hospital helicopters, wrote:

“Working for eight years in an Emergency Department which was the 14th busiest in the USA, we were required to have periodic practices of mass casualties. Volunteers would have been made up to look like various levels of injuries, say from a plane crash, and we’d triage patients as treatable or not – even if actor patients were talking to us. I know the New Zealand first responders of Christchurch did a terrific job with the Mosque casualties. Nursing is an incredible way to serve. Praying with and for patients and loved ones is a natural way to address great suffering.”

This friend allowed her job to deepen her prayers. I wonder how I could see various components of my work as prompts to prayer.

Another friend wrote:

“One of my prayer commitments is to look for at least one person each day who looks like they may need encouragement and send an ‘arrow prayer’ for them (you know, sort of ‘shooting them’ or shooting an arrow for them to God, with a request for their encouragement).  It has been people I’ve seen on the road when I’ve passed in a bus, or people on the bus, or in a shop, even those in my work setting whom I don’t know well.  I’ve had a couple of times when people have actually looked around, or looked a bit startled as I have prayed for them, which is always fun.”  

She also mentioned that she keeps a couple of stones on her bedside table. One of them comes from the specific place where her university is thinking of expanding. The rock reminds her to pray for everyone involves in the dream of expansion.

I love the idea of finding physical objects to represent dreams, and keeping those physical objects nearby to remind me to pray. I’m going to be ponder how I might do this.

Another friend wrote that she uses people’s posts on Facebook as reminders to pray for friends. I do the same, and I am often very pleased by the level of support expressed on Facebook when people are ill or grieving.

My encouragement to you today is to look around at your life. What everyday physical objects or habitual actions might become prompts for prayer?

(Next week: Creative prayer using the body. 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.)

We are just over two weeks into Lent. If you haven’t settled on a Lenten devotional, I’ve got two options to suggest to you:

  • The devotional I wrote a few years ago that uses one psalm for each day of Lent, illustrated with my husband Dave’s paintings. It’s available here as a pdf.
  • The one I co-wrote this year for our church, focused on creation care as a hopeful spiritual practice for Lent, also illustrated with Dave’s paintings. It’s an online devotional, available here.

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