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Draw near: Looking back, looking forward, in prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday December 27 2022

Draw near: Looking back, looking forward, in prayer

I used a Jewish Sabbath prayer in my book, Sabbath Keeping: “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” The prayer speaks to me about a common experience of humans. We simply don’t see the miracles around us.

As the prayer continues, the significance of seeing is stressed:

“Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!” [1]

Looking back on the year, trying to see where God was active, helps us see how filled with awe our lives are. My favorite prayer for looking back is the ancient prayer of examen, developed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). The first part of the prayer encourages us to ask God to help us look at a specific time period – the past day, week, or even year – in order to identify the times and places where God was present. Then we respond to God in gratitude in some way, in words or perhaps in a smile. In the second part of the prayer we look for times we experienced the absence of God or resisted God’s work in our lives. In response to identifying those moments, we might ask for God’s forgiveness or simply say “help” or “Lord have mercy.”

The prayer of examen is helpful for year-end reflection. You might use this prayer pattern on your own while journaling or reflecting on a walk or in bed at night. You might consider doing a prayer ofexamen with a spouse, family members, friends, a small group, or in another setting. Others may help you remember a time of God’s blessing, guidance, or presence during the year. Loved ones may also have noticed the hard times in the past year.

Since this is a series of blog posts on drawing near to God, I want to emphasize that noticing moments of God’s presence or absence is only part of examen. We complete the process of examen by turning to God, approaching God, in response to what we have noticed. After writing about wordless prayer last week, I particularly like the idea of exploring how we might respond wordlessly to God after identifying significant moments in the past year: a smile, imagining ourselves holding Jesus’ hand, picturing ourselves as a child on Jesus’ lap, or imagining placing our sins at the foot of the cross or in the vast river of God’s love.

To look ahead at the next year in prayer, I have four suggestions: ask God to give you a word that you would like as a theme for the year, pick a beatitude (Matthew 5:1-12) or spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12) that you would like to develop next year, or identify a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) that you would like to pray for consistently next year.

For several years, I was in a women’s group where the leader asked us to identify a word for each year. Oddly enough, for me the “word for the year” idea worked best in looking back to review the past year, so perhaps you might find that idea helpful as you look back. Others in my group found that picking a word helped them focus their prayers during the year.

As I have interviewed hundreds of people about their spiritual practices, I have heard stories of people using a variety of reminders of prayer requests and significant ideas or scriptures. People have told me about their notes in calendars, phones, laptop screen savers, and on post-it notes stuck to bathroom mirrors and kitchen windows. If you identify a word, beatitude, spiritual gift, or fruit of the Spirit that you would like to focus on next year in your prayers, consider where you might post a few words as a memory device.

In one of my favorite New Year’s posts, I described two stances for entering the New Year: remembering that we are loved and that we are sent. Maybe the best focus for next year is to try to rest in God’s love increasingly often, allowing the Holy Spirit to give us peace and joy, knowing how deeply we are loved, and also allowing the Holy Spirit to give us the power and love to serve in the places where God sends us in our daily lives.

May God fill, guide, empower, and bless you in this coming year.

(Next week: loosening our grip. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Hawea from above Timaru Creek. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Some related posts:

[1] Chaim Stern, Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book (Weekends, Sabbaths, and Festivals), 1975.



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