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First post in a new series: Spiritual practices and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday May 16 2023

First post in a new series: Spiritual practices and prayer

Toni, in her forties, fasts frequently. Sometimes she stops eating all food and consumes only water and tea, sometimes she gives up a specific food or category of food, and sometimes she fasts from various forms of media. Her fasts usually last between a day and a week, although sometimes she fasts longer. When she feels led to start a fast, she usually has several prayer requests in mind that she’s hoping to pray for in the time freed up by the fast. She has found that over the course of her fasts, her prayers shift not only to new topics but also to new ways of praying about the things that were on her mind at the beginning of the fast. In some mysterious way, God uses the fast to speak to her and guide her prayers.

Fasting is one of many spiritual practices or spiritual disciplines. (I use those terms interchangeably.) Spiritual practices include many ways of engaging with the Bible, many kinds of prayer, and other practices like fasting that don’t fit neatly into the categories of “Bible” and “prayer” but can include components of both. When I did the interviews for my book on fasting, many people told me they read the Bible more intentionally when they fast. Toni and many others have told me fasting makes space for prayer.

In this new series of blog posts, I want to explore some spiritual practices that aren’t specific forms of prayer. I want to describe what people have told me and what I have experienced about the way these spiritual practices make space for prayer, make prayer easier, and help us find new and creative ways to pray. I’ll definitely have a whole post on fasting, and I’ll look at some other practices, including simplicity, Sabbath keeping, hospitality, rule of life, self-care, unplugging, creation care, and spiritual direction. I’ll also look at various ways of engaging with the Bible that stimulate creative prayers.

For the remainder of this post, I will give you my two favorite definitions of spiritual disciplines or spiritual practices and reflect on those definitions.

I highly recommend Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s book, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. You can see that her title uses both the word “disciplines” and “practices.” Calhoun lists and describes more than 60 spiritual practices and describes them this way:

“From its beginning, the church linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships, and experiences that gave people space in their lives to ‘keep company’ with Jesus. These intentional practices, relationships and experiences we know as spiritual disciplines” (2015 edition, p. 19).

I love her language of “keeping company with Jesus.” I invite you to pause and think about what you do in your life that enables you to keep company with Jesus. Maybe make a list of all the practices, relationships, and experiences that help you draw near to this One who loves you. I bet you’ll have many more things on the list than you ever imagined.

Marjorie Thompson’s book, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, presents seven specific spiritual practices, and she describes spiritual practices this way:

“My purpose is to help people of faith understand and begin to practice some of the basic disciplines of the Christian spiritual life. Disciplines are simply practices that train us in faithfulness. . . . Such practices have consistently been experienced as vehicles of God’s presence, guidance, and call in the lives of faithful seekers” (1995 edition, p. xv).

Notice that Thompson uses both “disciplines” and “practices” in her definition. Her use of “God’s presence” parallels Calhoun’s vivid wording, “keep company with Jesus.” Notice that Thompson also emphasizes that spiritual practices train us in faithfulness, connecting with the subtitle of Calhoun’s book, “Practices that Transform Us.”

I have been pondering these two definitions for more than a decade. According to these two authors, spiritual practices help us experience Jesus’ presence with us. At his last dinner with his disciples before his arrest, Jesus says to them, “‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). After the resurrection, as a part of what we call the Great Commission, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). If Jesus is right here with us, how do we grow in experiencing that lovely reality? Spiritual practices are part of the answer.

The apostle Paul tells us that we are being transformed into the image of Christ and that our transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). Surely we can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s work. Surely we can make that transformation more or less likely through our actions. According to Thompson, spiritual practices “train us in faithfulness,” and they are vehicles of God’s guidance and call, so they open us to the voice and work of the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual practices also enable us to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit. We need the work of the Holy Spirit in us to hear God’s voice and to receive motivation and power to do what is best and right and good. Spiritual practices, then, allow us to experience Jesus’s presence with us and participate in the Holy Spirit’s work of shaping us to be more like Jesus. Because of these two realities, spiritual practices play a key role in deepening and enriching our prayers.

God who created us, redeemed us, walks with us, and transforms us into the image of Jesus, I pray that we would long to be near you. I pray that we would be creative in the ways we experiment with entering into your presence—or perhaps more accurately, notice and enjoy your presence already with us.

(Next week: prayer and the spiritual practice of simplicity. Illustration by Dave Baab: Taiaroa Head lighthouse, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Some related articles. I didn’t notice until now that I have written two articles with very similar titles. They are very different articles, and they are relevant to all Christians because all of us are called to serve God in our daily lives (“minister” and “serve” are the same word in Greek)

The posts in this series:

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