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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.

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.

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