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Creative prayer: Prompts for prayer

Friday March 15 2019

Creative prayer: Prompts for prayer

For the ten years we lived in Dunedin, New Zealand, I had two prompts for prayer that I don’t have here in Seattle. The Dunedin hospital served the whole southern half of New Zealand’s South Island. The only helicopters we heard in Dunedin were coming in to land on the roof of the hospital, bringing patients from towns that might be several hours drive away, or taking them home.

When I first arrived in Dunedin, someone told me that every time she heard a helicopter, she prayed for the people in it. She was a nurse, so I’m sure she was praying both for the patients and for the medical staff. I tried to do the same thing. For me, praying for the sick people in the helicopter reminded me of other people in my life with medical needs, so I would often pray for them at the same time.

Here in Seattle, I try to do the same when I hear or see an ambulance or fire truck. Emergency vehicles have become a prayer prompt for me, a kind of memory device that reminds me of people in need.

Another prayer prompt I experienced in Dunedin came when I drove or biked past two schools on my way to town, an elementary school on one side of the street and an intermediate school on the other. When I saw the schools, I tried pray for children – the children in those schools, children I knew from church, my colleagues’ children, and children in need around the world.

I hadn’t realized until this week that I don’t have a prayer prompt like that in Seattle. I don’t drive or bike past any schools on the routes I commonly take. I miss praying for children like that, and I wonder if I could figure out another way to remember to pray for children.

A friend told me a couple of weeks ago that she often uses the alphabet to help her pray when she wakes up in the middle of the night. She thinks of someone whose name begins with A, then B. She’s often awake long enough to pray through the whole alphabet, but sometimes she falls asleep before she gets to the end. She said that using the alphabet like that helps her pray for people she might not otherwise pray for.

I’ve tried her method three times. I have found it hard to get through very many letters at one time, because when I think of someone whose name begins with A, and I pray for that person, I end up remembering her family members and others involved in her life, and I pray for them, too.

The first time I used the alphabet for prayer I made it only to D. So the next time I used it, I started with E. Again, I only got through a few letters because praying for one person kept reminding me to pray for others in their family or community. The third time I used it, I started with P. I couldn’t actually remember how far I’d gotten the previous time, but I thought it might be good to use some letters near the end of the alphabet.

The goal with these prayer prompts is not to pray exhaustively (or to make it through the alphabet!) but to allow them to remind us to pray and to help us pray for people or situations that might not be in the forefront of our thoughts.

Do you have prayer prompts? Please use the comment section below to let us know the kinds of things that remind you to pray and open your prayers into new areas.

(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.)

This is the second week of 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.

Creative prayer for creation care

Thursday March 7 2019

Creative prayer for creation care

What’s your favorite place in nature? A beach, the mountains, a lake, a meadow? What’s your favorite aspect of nature? Flowers, reflective water, a specific kind of animal, a tree?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we can pray more deeply for God’s creation and how we can feel like we are walking with Jesus when we care for creation. I’ll give you some ideas here, and you can see more of them in the Lenten devotional I co-wrote for our church this year.

Gratitude and praise. Thankfulness prayers are deeply appropriate – and even foundational – when we pray about God’s creation. We don’t have to look very far to find things to praise and thank God for when we look at the beauty of flowers, trees, hills, mountains, lakes, oceans, clouds, and thousands of other manifestations of God’s creativity and beauty.

Lament. We also don’t have to look very far in God’s creation to feel upset about damage to the beauty of the world God created so intricately and carefully. Lament prayers express sadness, grief, anger and frustration. We tell God what we’re upset about. Lament prayers are appropriate in so many areas when we see or think about environmental degredation. 

Confession and assurance of pardon. If you’re like me, and you feel guilt about not engaging in creation care as much as you’d like to, or as much as you’ve felt led to, God invites you to bring those thoughts and feelings into a prayer of confession. God always forgives us and gives us a fresh start.

Intercession. Prayers of intercession for creation are appropriate in many areas. So many people are involved in aspects of caring for God’s creation. So many people create policy that impacts the earth. Where can we start in our prayers?

I’d suggest picking something you love in nature, and think about all the scientists who do research in that area, all the people who are involved in taking care of that part of God’s creation, all the policy makers who make decisions that have an impact on that part of nature, and all the ordinary people whose decisions have an effect on that part of nature you love. Pray for those people and for God’s continued sustenance and care of the beautiful earth.

To deepen prayers for creation care, I suggest reading Psalm 103 and 104, and then praying the words to both psalms. They can be read as a pair, each reflecting one of God’s major roles in human history.

Psalm 103 focuses on God the Redeemer, and if you confess your sins about anything, including not caring for creation as well as you should, you’ll find joy and assurance from God in the words of Psalm 103. If you read it, notice how many nature analogies are used to make the points in the psalm.

Psalm 104 focuses on the way that God sustains the plants and animals. And humans! I find it delightful.

At my church this year, we are focusing on creation care as a hopeful Lenten practice. A friend, Janette Plunkett, and I wrote a devotional for Lent that provides lots of suggestions for each week of Lent. Each week focuses on a different aspect of creation care, such as food, home energy, and transportation. Each week includes suggestions for experiencing God’s companionship with us in the area of creation care, as well as scriptures, ideas for prayer, poetry, songs, quotations, activities for families, and ways to learn more about the topic of the week. Each lesson is illustrated with my husband Dave’s beautiful paintings. It’s an online devotional, available here.

Whether or not you use the devotional, give some thought to how you might pray with joy and hope about the ways humans care for the beautiful earth God entrusted to our care.

(Next week: mnemonic devices in prayer. 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 of the whole webpage.)

If you’d like a more traditional Lenten devotional, consider the one I wrote that has one psalm for each day of Lent, illustrated by Dave’s paintings. It’s available here.

Creative prayer: Art as symbol and metaphor

Wednesday February 27 2019

Creative prayer: Art as symbol and metaphor

I fell in love with Australian aboriginal art the first time I saw it as a young adult. I love visual patterns, and aboriginal art is full of them. A highlight of our first trip to Australia in 2001 was the art museums and art galleries where I got to see a lot of examples. I bought a book about aboriginal art and learned that many pieces are actually maps, representing the land forms, human settlements, and animals of specific places.

In 2011, my husband Dave and I began a new habit which we have continued. Several morning a week we pray silently together for 20 minutes. We do it in the late morning when I am ready for a break from working in my home office. In the first few years of that practice, I often picked up a book of art prints and prayed using the prints. Last week I wrote about doing that with paintings of biblical scenes.

One morning during our silent prayer time I picked up my book on aboriginal art. I thumbed through it, marveling at the shapes and colors, thanking God for the creativity of aboriginal artists. My eye landed on a 1987 painting called Emu Dreaming by Darby Jampijinpa Ross. You’ll see the painting at the top of this blog post. For many months, Emu Dreaming stimulated my prayers in unexpected ways.

I know that my interpretation of the painting bears no resemblance to the intent of the artist. I find myself hoping that my great love for the painting would please Darby Jampijinpa Ross anyway.

You’ll notice a circular center with eight wavy lines coming out of it. Seven of the eight lines end in a  spiral. In New Zealand Maori art, that spiral is a symbol of new life, modeled on fern fronds in the spring. In my symbolic interpretation of the painting, the circular center of the painting is God. The eight paths are various things we do in our lives. If we want the freshness of new life, we have to say connected to the center.

However, one line moves from the center to the upper right of the painting without ending in a spiral. This helps me accept that sometimes even when we are connected to the center, our actions don’t bear good fruit that’s visible to us.

The three black circles that are detached from the center circle represent to me the good things that God can spin off of our actions, blessings and good fruit that originate in our God-centered actions but take on a life of their own apart from us.

Between the wavy lines that are connected to the center, we can see eight sets of straight black lines with what looks like arrows on either side of the straight lines. The arrows are pointing away from the center. To me, those arrows represent the deep truth that when we get disconnected from the center, so many forces within us and outside of us want to move us further and further from the center.

Emu Dreaming has called me, over and over, to stay connected to the center. My center is God in Christ, experienced though the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. The painting has helped me pray about the connectednesss of components of my life. Are various aspects of my life connected to the center, or are they actually like those thick black lines that want to draw me away from God? The painting has helped me evaluate and pray about habits, Christian ministry, and the relationships that shape and sustain me.

The painting has called me to confession. It has helped me renew, over and over again, my commitment to stay connected to the center so that I might experience new life in the various components of my life. It has helped me accept that sometimes – not often but sometimes – I engage in actions that result from my connection with God, but good fruit is not visible.

Thank you, creative God, for Darby Jampijinpa Ross and other aboriginal artists in Australia who delight me with the patterns they have painted.

(Next week: creative prayer for creation care. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sing up under “subscribe” in the right hand column of the whole web page.)

If you’re looking for a devotional for Lent (which begins in one week on March 6), consider the online devotional I co-wrote for our church. It focuses on creation care as a hopeful Lenten practice. Each week’s lesson begins with “walking with Jesus,” and each week offers numerous additional components: Scripture; suggestions for prayer; links to music, art and poetry; ideas for families; and options for further learning. It’s beautiful to look at, with my husband Dave’s paintings illustrating each lesson.

First post in a new series: Creative prayer

Wednesday February 20 2019

First post in a new series: Creative prayer

About a dozen years ago I attended a morning of prayer led by Louise Holert, a Presbyterian minister here in Seattle. Louise gave us postcards of sacred art to look at alongside scripture passages. The paintings illustrated the passages. She guided us into times of prayer where we pondered the passage. I found the juxtaposition of art and Bible stories to be very powerful. The paintings gave a richness and depth to my interaction with the biblical passages, and they helped me pray in new ways.

I was thrilled when I learned that Louise has put together a book using 31 paintings of the life of Christ, with instructions for how to prayerfully engage with each painting. I’ll describe the book below. But first I want to introduce this new series I’m writing for my blog.

When I was a young adult, I was taught that there are four components to prayer. We were taught the acronym ACTS to help us remember the four kinds of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanks and Supplication. Those forms of prayer are still vitally important in my life, and in this series I’ll be writing about creative ways to engage in those basic kinds of prayer. I’ll also be writing about forms of prayer that fall outside those four categories.

Let  me tell you about Louise’s book, Praying with the Arts: Illuminating the Church Year with Sacred Art. She opens with five pages of introduction, where she briefly discusses why she structured the book around the church year, and then moves into a helpful discussion of the power of art and how sacred art can play a role in prayer.

The bulk of the book is 31 paintings, each followed by 2-3 pages of instruction. The painters mostly come from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, including Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Fra Angelico. The reproductions are good quality. The instructions begin with a few paragraphs about the painting, including some pointers about the symbolism in the paintings. The introduction is followed by the scripture passage that is illustrated by the painting. Next are two sections that are the meat of each lesson: “For your prayerful reflection on the art” and “For your prayerful reflection on the Scripture.” Each of these two headers is followed by four to ten bullet points with specific ideas to ponder. She concludes each lesson with brief suggestions for prayer and thankfulness/praise responses.

The introduction and the lessons include many wonderful quotations by a variety of authors. I appreciated the richness of the quotations Holert uses. I’m so grateful for this resource linking art, the Bible, and prayer, and I recommend it to you.

If you’d like to try doing something similar on your own, ask God to guide you. Then go into Google Images and search for a story you’d like to see illustrated, perhaps the prodigal son or the road to Emmaus. Or you can search for a specific painter like Fra Angelico or Rembrandt. Maybe one painting will catch your eye, or maybe you’ll be attracted to two or three paintings.

Read the Bible story connected to the painting, and ponder the way the artist or artists chose to illustrate the passage. Notice as many details as you can in the painting(s). You might want to imagine yourself in the painting watching the action or talking to Jesus.

You might want to use the four common forms of prayer, ACTS, as you gaze at the painting. What can you praise or thank God for as you look deeply at the painting? Do you need to confess anything to God? What would you want to pray for, for yourself or others?

A praise song or hymn might come to mind, and if so, sing it. See where God takes you as you look at the painting, and keep the dialog with God open as you gaze.

(Next week: another way of praying with art. 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.)

I want to highlight one of the reviews of my book on pastoral care, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century. You can find the review here. You’ll see that the reviewer says that my book would be great to use with groups. Please pass on information about my book to people in your congregation or other congregations who engage in pastoral care ministry or in local mission, especially those who lead pastoral care or mission teams.

What I learned from Bishop Aiden of Lindisfarne

Friday February 15 2019

What I learned from Bishop Aiden of Lindisfarne

I visited Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, a few years ago. Connected to the northeast coast of England by a narrow bit of land that goes under water at high tide, it has a rich Christian history. On the island today, you can visit the ruins of a medieval priory and the ruins of a castle built in 1550, plus a chapel and other buildings still in use.

The Christian community at Lindisfarne was founded in the seventh century by Bishop Aiden of Lidisfarne. Aiden, who was born in Ireland, was a monk on the island of Iona when he was asked by the king in 634 to come to Northern England in the role of bishop. The king was a Christian, and he gave Aiden the mandate of spreading the Gospel in Northern England.

Aiden set up a base on the island of Lindisfarne, connected to the Northeast coast of England at low tide. He spent his first ten years as bishop wandering the countryside of Northern England, talking to people about the gospel. He set up numerous Christian communities.

He received money from various sources, and he used all of it to help the poor and to buy people, especially children, out of slavery. At one point the king gave him a horse to aid him in his travels and evangelism, but Aiden immediately gave it away. He felt that the best way to talk to people about Jesus was to walk at their level, not to be above them on a horse.

Aiden also established a community on Lindisfarne to train ministers. The training emphasized study of the Bible, prayer, fasting, and walking the countryside with Aiden to tell people about the Gospel. That community lasted long after his death.

Aiden is often called the apostle of England because of his evangelistic work that had such a lasting influence. A few lessons I’ve been pondering from Aiden’s life:

1. Aiden seemed to have a seamless commitment to:

  • evangelism
  • prayer
  • meditating on the Bible
  • spiritual practices like fasting
  • care for the poor
  • freeing slaves

I love his wholistic approach to physical well-being, spiritual practices, and social justice. I wonder which components of his approach are the most and least apparent in my life.

2. I ponder what it looks like today to walk at the level of people in need. Obviously horses are seldom involved in this decision in our time, but we still need to think about how to build bridges across barriers of culture and socioeconomic level. I wonder what acts and attitudes of humility today would parallel that moment when Aiden gave away the horse.

3. After ten years evangelizing the people of Northern England, Aiden retired to another island to pray and meditate for the rest of his life. Ten years is not a very long time to have made such an impact.

Thinking about Aiden’s ten years of ministry has been helpful to me. I am a very late bloomer, partly because I battled depression from age 27 to 43. After coming out of my depression, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister at 45. I got my first book contract that same year. At 55, I began a ten-year teaching career. The past 21 years since my ordination have been full and rich, but still, I often feel a great sense of loss about those 16 depressed years. Twenty years of productive ministry don’t feel like enough.

I feel a sense of freedom when I ponder the fact that Aiden did what he was called to do for that significant decade, and then left it behind to engage in prayer and meditation on the Bible. I’m not comparing the significance of my ministry to Aiden’s, but I do find myself thinking that if ten years was enough for Aiden, surely I can accept that twice that could be enough for me.  

When I visited Lindisfarne (at low tide!), I was stunned by the number of visitors there on a weekday in September. There were several hundred cars in the parking lot, and people streamed across the island. What a joy to learn about the man who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. May we soak up the model of faithful Christians who speak to us from across the ages.

(Next week: first post in a new series on creative ways to pray. Illustration: the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column of hte web page. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Two related articles you may enjoy:

     Witnesses and Evangelists                                  
     Celtic Christianity: Paradoxes                  

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