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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    

Breath Prayer

Thursday June 26 2014

Breath Prayer

Because of its simplicity, breath prayer is a great way to start when introducing a group to contemplative prayer, and breath prayer is a great way for an individual to slow down and remember God’s presence in the midst of everyday life. I know a family that engages in breath prayer at the beginning of their Sabbath day, and if the parents forget to make time for it, the kids remind them. I’ve used breath prayer in many different small group settings and occasionally in worship services as well, and most people take to it easily.

One way to engage in breath prayer is to imagine breathing out all our concerns and worries into God’s presence, while breathing in God’s love and care. At the Areopagus in Athens, the Apostle Paul said about God, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28). If God’s presence and love surround us, then it is not a stretch to imagine exhaling our troubles into God’s presence and inhaling God’s love and care with each breath.

When I engage in this kind of breath prayer, I focus on one concern or one person in need as I breathe out. As I feel the air leaving my lungs, I picture myself relinquishing that concern or person into God’s care. Then I breathe in, imagining God’s love filling the empty space where the concern or worry was located inside me.

Sometimes the concern is so great that I spend several breaths on the same issue or person, always relinquishing the concern into God’s hands as I breathe out, and always imagining God’s love coming into me as I breathe in. Sometimes I simply name all my family members as I engage in breath prayer, saying one name silently with each breath out, knowing that God is aware of that person’s needs even more than I could be.

Another form of breath prayer uses the ancient prayer called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is based loosely on the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 8:9-14 in which the tax collector says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (verse 13). One phrase of the Jesus prayer is prayed on each breath, with the breaths providing a rhythm for the prayer.

In groups, I have used a white board to list the favorite names for Jesus that the group members suggest, such as Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, Light of the World and True Vine. I suggest to the group that they pick one of those names and adapt the Jesus prayer to that name, along these lines:

Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, have mercy on me. I need your peace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Bread of life, have mercy on me, feed me.

Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, have mercy on me, shine your light in me.

Lord Jesus Christ, True Vine, have mercy on me, help me abide in you.

Then we spend some time as a group praying the new prayer silently in harmony with our breathing.

Breath prayer works well as a first stage of prayer for many other kinds of contemplative or intercessory group prayer. It provides a good introduction to guided meditations. So simple and non-threatening, breath prayer helps people relax and feel competent about silent prayer when they might feel a bit unsure about engaging in quiet contemplative prayer in a group.

Breath prayer engages the physical body and helps us experience God’s presence in our bodies and in the physical world, integrating the physical and spiritual parts of our lives. Focusing on our breath slows down our breathing, which has the effect of slowing down all bodily functions, a way to experience peace from the One who gives us breath and longs to give us peace.

Breath prayer also reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God in our lives. When leading breath prayer with a group, any of these connections can be highlighted for the group, helping them to deepen their experience.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appears on the Godspace blog. It is an excerpt from Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation by Lynne M. Baab)

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