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Spiritual practices, being/doing, and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday September 5 2023

Spiritual practices, being/doing, and prayer

“I am trying to learn from a Congolese pastor at my church who reminds us, ‘We are human beings, not human doings.’ Yes, there is a rhythm between being and doing. Thank you for the reminder that the being comes first. Inhale, then exhale.”

My friend John wrote that comment on Facebook in response to my post a few weeks ago about the purpose of Christian meditation. Oddly, the same day that I saw his words, I had a conversation with my friend Lisa who said similar words about that particular blog post. Lisa said we have to be careful in approaching Christian meditation, or indeed any spiritual practice, as something to do that equips us to do more. At some point, God calls us to rest as beloved children and disciples. To be rather than do.

For four months now I’ve been writing about the connections between spiritual practices and prayer, and this is the last post in the series. Spiritual practices include many forms of prayer and engagement with the Bible, as well as other things we do that don’t fit neatly into the “Bible and prayer” categories. Those other spiritual practices include fasting, Sabbath keeping, journaling, slowing, unplugging, pilgrimage, walking a labyrinth, and many more.

Spiritual practices make space in our lives so we can experience God’s presence in our lives. As Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes it, they give us space to “keep company” with Jesus. Both Calhoun and my other favorite writer about spiritual practices, Margorie Thompson, emphasize that spiritual practices transform us. [1] Another way to view transformation is to say that spiritual practices help us participate in the Holy’s Spirit’s shaping of us into the image of Jesus. “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord . . . are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Apostle Paul here stresses the work of the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere he stresses the ways that God calls us to praise, prayer, faithfulness, obedience, and service, all of which make us available for God’s transformation. “Inhale, then exhale,” my friend John wrote. We have to inhale God’s goodness in order for God to work inside us. Spiritual practices help us inhale.

Reading or meditating on the Bible, praying in one form or another, keeping a Sabbath, fasting, going on a pilgrimage, or engaging in any other spiritual practice is something we do. And yet, most people who engage in spiritual practices talk about moments of peace, resting in God’s presence, feeling Jesus’s companionship. Engaging in spiritual practices means ceasing to do some things: not racing around, not obsessing, not trying to prove we’re worthy, not trying to earn God’s approval. Yes, spiritual practices are something we do, and yet they are also an opportunity to experience ourselves as human beings, not human doings.

I wrote Lisa an email about the lovely serendipity of my conversation with her on the same day as I read John’s comments, and Lisa wrote this in response:

“I'm intrigued by John’s comments about inhaling and exhaling. I thought you might like to hear about my experience of exhaling is part of my prayer. Recently, when I was at an retreat, I told my spiritual director about a quote that had really stood out to me. Then I let out a big exhale, leaned back onto the couch, let my arms drop to my side, and spread out my fingers a bit. So my hands were open. That then became a posture of prayer for the retreat and since the retreat. Somehow letting my arms fall to the side and spreading out my fingers has become a way of expressing trust and resting in God. I've been amazed at how returning to that simple bodily posture changes my internal posture. It has been a way of practicing being with God.” [2]

Lisa seems to be describing one form of “life-giving, non-cerebral prayer,” that I described last week. Spiritual practices give us the space to receive from God and to experience ourselves as beloved human beings. And then we can grow in serving and loving.

I encourage you to bring this idea into your prayers: Whatever forms of spiritual practices we engage in are ways to experience ourselves as beloved human beings who keep company with Jesus and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit.

God who made us and loves us, Jesus who walks with us and gives us peace that passes understanding, and Holy Spirit who transforms us, we pray that you will:

  • free us from the bondage of our own or others' expectations so we can enjoy being with you in the ways that work best for us and those we love
  • use our current spiritual practices to give us a sense that you are with us, working inside us, shaping us
  • invite us into new spiritual practices that will help us know you, love you, and rest in you
  • lead us into new forms of prayer that will enrich our connection with you.

(Next week: the first post in a new series on friendship, loneliness, and prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab: me in 2011 with a cute dog and cat on my lap. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below.)

This is the last post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. Here's a list of the previous posts. There are more spiritual practices than these! Adele Ahlberg Calhoun has 66 in her book. These are the ones I wanted to write about:

[1]Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlborg Calhoun (InterVarsity Press, 2005). 17, 18. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), xv.
[2] John and Lisa gave me permission to quote them. 

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