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Sep 122016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 9/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 9)


Richards

Photo by Michelle Evans

Richard’s Answer To Question #4

 What is your prayer life like today?  In what specific ways do you feel called to deepen your prayer life?

 

 

 


When one becomes an expert in some field, and especially when one presumes to write a book on a particular topic to help others in that area, there goes with that at least some expectation that one will have that part of their own life in some semblance of order. That expectation becomes even stronger when one dares to write or teach about the spiritual life in general and about prayer in specific. At least it seems so to me.

Yet I have often said that if I could live even a tenth of what I know about the spiritual life, I would be a saint. I am not a saint! I am not any kind of a saint. I am closer than I was twenty-five or thirty years ago. I am even closer than I was last week. But I am not a saint. In the end I can’t really live anywhere near what I know about spiritual formation and prayer. Truth is some days I am not at all sure that I know that much about these complex topics at all. Yet I still feel a strong call to share what I have learned.

I am retired, and in that sense I am mostly free to set up my prayer life however I want—or better said, however I feel led by that Mysterious Other I call God. In response to that freedom I have told myself that I could take my time apart pretty much whenever I wanted. I have convinced myself that I could go into my room and close the door and pray any time I felt called. What I find is that this theory has put me in a kind of maintenance mode. In this maintenance mode I often do not feel “called” on any regular basis and when I do feel called it is mostly when I feel stressed or upset for some reason. In this mode the times when I do “take my time” the process is abbreviated. I often go in my room, sit down, and go straight to contemplation, skipping things like centering, reading, meditation, and prayer. I often sit for twenty minutes and just get up and go back to work. This is good, but it is not near enough. It mostly keeps me on even keel, but it does not always lead to that growth and transformation and conversion of heart that is so central to what I know to be real spiritual formation—real prayer.

What is worse is that for some time now I have been having trouble sleeping. I tend to wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning. I tend to blame that problem on getting older, and keep trying to go back to sleep, often with little success. Sometimes I play games on my mobile phone or read on my iPad. Might this not be that still small voice calling me to take some serious time apart? Might it be coming-out of the monastic call that has been so important on my journey? Whatever else it might be it is clearly a gift— an opportunity for me to take that time and use it wisely. I am reminded of this reflection by Henri Nouwen:

“In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” [Mark 1:35] In the middle of sentences loaded with action — healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue — we find these quiet words: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude. The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn.

Sitting At Sunrise

Photograph by Brian Hill

I know that the secret of my own spiritual life is “hidden in that lonely place” where I go to pray. I know that I need to get out of maintenance mode. I need to get up “long before dawn” and go to my lonely place and pray there. And I know that I need to take the time to formally center myself. I know that I need to read and study. I even know what I need to read and study. The Rule of Saint Benedict was central to my practice for years, and I need to make it a part of my time apart again. I know that I need to take time to reflect yet again on those readings, and then ask that Mysterious Other I call God to guide me and to give me the strength and courage to take this into my active life. And yes, I need to sit silently and listen for that still small voice within. I know all of that. I teach and write about all of that, but I do not do it regularly. Why do I hesitate? What do I fear? For me, Marianne Williamson answers the question well.:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

“Lord God, come to my assistance. Make haste oh my God to help me”.


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If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Introduction View…

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 (This Post)
What Is your Prayer Life Like Today?

Sep 052016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 8/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 8 of 9)

 

What Will Prayer Ask Of Us?
The Call To Transformation

Sometimes it seems to me that we approach prayer as something designed to change God—to persuade God to do our bidding.  As I mentioned earlier, all to often our prayers sound like a todo list for God.  If we  pray for ourselves we are often just asking God do something for us, and even if we pray for growth or change we are asking God to change us.  We want God to do all of the work.

But then there is this from Romans:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 

Romans 12:2 (NIV)

Canon

Photograph by Winnie Southworth

This sounds more like we are being asked to grow and change, and there are very specific instructions for that growth and change.  A persistent commitment to prayer will call us to that growth and change.  It will call us to “the renewing of [our] mind”, and to discerning “his good, pleasing and perfect will” for our lives.  We can pray for God’s guidance and strength and courage, but in the end true prayer will call us to do the “work of the spiritual journey”—to receive that guidance and implement it into our active lives.  In the end this is work which we have to do ourselves.

At its heart Christianity is an inner path of growth and transformation out of which all else in the spiritual life grows.  The essence of that path is captured in these two verses from Romans.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world.  Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.  Discern how we are called to live our lives.  The monastics call this path conversion of heart.  From a more academic perspective it  is called spiritual formation.  Our journey along this path is a lifetime journey.

Belief is not enough.  Baptism is not enough.  Prayer is not enough.  Fellowship is not enough.  Worship is not enough.  Service is not enough.  All of these and other similar activities are good and absolutely necessary parts of the spiritual life,  but they are not enough.  If the spiritual life is to reach its full potential ongoing personal transformation is essential.  That call to “be transformed”, and to “test and approve what God’s will is” must form the very foundation of our daily lives—the very foundation of our belief, our baptism, our fellowship, our worship, and our service, and thus of our prayer.

It is this ongoing “work of the spiritual journey” that is at the center of my own spiritual journey and all of my writing and teaching. There are valid spiritual Practices that facilitate this ongoing growth and transformation that I have come to call The Practice.

Butterfly

Photograph by Kate McFarland

It is spiritual practice—prayer practice that:

  • quiets the inner turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses that typically drive our lives, and;
  • guides us to the ongoing discovery of who we most deeply are  and who we are called to be as unique spiritual persons, and;
  • facilitates the ongoing incarnation of those discoveries into the reality of our day-to-day active lives.

Said another way [a valid life of prayer] must ultimately lead to real growth and change—real transformation and conversion of heart.  It must ultimately lead to our active lives increasingly becoming an authentic expression of who we are and who we are called to be by that Mysterious Divine Presence that created us and  guides us and gives us strength and courage.   It must facilitate Choosing Authenticity.

That is what prayer is all about.  Ultimately that is what the entire spiritual life is all about.  I want to share some of my own experience and some of what I have learned so far through study and through my own practice.  It is my hope that it will challenge you to begin or deepen your own journey of growth and transformation.  If I can help just one person along this journey this labor of love will be worth it.

Question for Reflection

  1. Have I felt called in my prayer to growth, transformation, and conversion of heart?  What specifically have I been called to change in my prayer life, and in my active life?  How have I responded to that call?  In what specific area of my life to I feel called to growth and change now?  How will I respond?

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If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? (This Post)
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 292016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 7/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 7 of 9)

 

Praying Without Ceasing
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

Prayer is more than something we do from time to time, or at least it should be. In its most powerful form it is a way of approaching our lives. The call to ”pray without ceasing”* conjures up a vision of a monk walking along saying the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”)** all day long. As good a practice as this may be from time to time for some, this book does not envision that type of practice. The call to pray without ceasing calls us to be conscious of the presence of that Mystery we call God and be guided by that consciousness wherever we are and whatever we are doing. It calls us to take our daily time apart for prayer and reflection. Approached in a certain way prayer practices open us to that consciousness. In that time apart it also calls us to listen carefully to that still small voice within where that Mysterious Other we call God guides us and gives us strength and courage. In that listening it calls us to discover who we are, who we are called to be, and ultimately how we are called to live our day-to-day lives. The call to pray without ceasing calls us to incarnate those discoveries into the way we actually experience and live our lives—”without ceasing”. It calls us to live that sacred rhythm of discovery and incarnation in every event of our lives. In this way our entire life increasingly becomes prayer. This “pray[ing] without ceasing”—this sacred rhythm of withdrawal into prayer and engagement in our active lives—is ultimately a lifelong journey of growth and transformation and conversion of heart. That is ultimately what prayer is all about. In its most basic sense this is what prayer is. This is ultimately at the very heart of why we pray.

Henri Nouwen points out that:

A prayer in church, at table or in school is only a witness to what we want to make of our entire lives. Such a prayer only recalls to mind that praying is living and it invites you to make this an ever-greater reality. Thus there are as many ways to pray as there are moments in life. Sometimes you seek out a quiet spot and you want to be alone, sometimes you look for a friend and you want to be together. Sometimes you’d like a book or some music. Sometimes you want to sing out with hundreds, sometimes only to whisper with a few. Sometimes you want to say it with words, sometimes with a deep silence.In all these moments, you gradually make your life more a prayer and you open your hands to be led by God even to where you would rather not go.***

Prayer At Picnic

Image From http://www.bigstockphoto.com

There is more to this prayer without ceasing than having some time apart each day, as good and absolutely necessary as that practice is. If those times of prayer are to permeate our lives and make our lives more and more a prayer without ceasing, we have to open ourselves to that possibility. Regular time apart for prayer are necessary but still not enough. It is possible and maybe even likely that we can have those regular times of prayer without making the transition to prayer becoming a way of life. For that to happen with any consistently we have to change our attitude and our approach to prayer and to our active life. We have to change the way we are present in the events that make up our lives. We have to open ourselves to that growth and change.

Prayer often calls us to go “even to where [we] would rather not go”. Yet as Quoist put it, “Where shall I hide? I meet you everywhere. Is it then impossible to escape you?” If our image of God is big enough the answer to that question has to be a resounding “Yes, it is impossible to escape you!”, but then why would we want to escape anyway?

Question for Reflection

  1. Is prayer a regular part of the way I actually experience and live my life or is it mostly limited to my time apart for prayer? How might I might I make prayer more of an active part of my day to day active life?

____________

1 Thessalonians 5:17 (KJV)

** Unknown Author, The Way of A Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Doubleday, 1992). p. 21,

*** Nouwen, Henri J. M., With Open Hands.  (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 1972), p. 158.

 


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If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing (This Post)
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 242016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 6/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 6 of 9)

 

Types of Prayer
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Thomas Moore captures the understanding of what prayer is for many of us:

All the classical things that have been said about prayer are true—petition, praise, adoration, communion, conversation. But one’s notion of God and divinity has to be sufficiently empty, and its mystery sufficiently accounted for, or else prayer becomes exploitation of the divine. Prayer only makes sense in the paradoxical presence of both human pain and desire on the one hand, and divine infinitude on the other.*
Man Praying

Image by Irene Furr

Petition, praise, adoration, communion, and conversation. These are the “classical things that have been said about prayer”. To these I would add confession, penance, and forgiveness. These are the things that most of us have been taught about prayer in Sunday school and church, if in fact we have been taught anything at all. For most of us these are the things that come to mind when we are asked the question, “What is prayer?” They are the things that we think about when we are called to build a relationship with that Mysterious Other we call God. They are the very essence of the traditional answers to the question, “Why do we pray?” As Moore points out they are all valid. They are all a central part of what prayer is all about. It is beyond the scope of this reflection to explore each of these types of prayer individually. The question for us here is how we approach these essential aspects of prayer.

Almost all of these types of prayer are most often seen as different types of verbal or discursive prayer. Even when we think of communion and conversation we still think of these practices as us speaking to God—as us “saying our prayers”. This verbal discursive prayer is the approach I have encountered almost exclusively in the churches I have attended over the years. These “classical approaches to prayer are all valid and profound types of prayer, but taken by themselves they are not enough.

As I have written elsewhere:

There are literally thousands of spiritual practices [prayer practices] available. As I have looked at this vast array of different exercises, I have found that most of the consonant practices are variations of six primary practices. These practices include centering, reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation, and action. Taken as a whole these practices are part of a monastic teaching known as Lectio Divina or “divine reading”.

Again, it is beyond the scope of this reflection to explore each of these types of prayer individually. Some would not refer to some of these practices as prayer at all, yet that would serve to ignore the whole Christian contemplative tradition, as practiced by many spiritual masters, saints, and monks throughout Christian history. It would also serve to ignore the profound prayer experiences of many sincere contemplative Christians, including myself. That said we should also note that the forth practice in the lectio divina model is “prayer” which is essentially verbal or discursive prayer. The critical point here is that our understanding of what prayer is should include all of these different aspects of prayer. Yes, prayer includes us approaching God through verbal prayer. Yes, prayer includes us opening ourselves to God through contemplative prayer.

Richard Sitting

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Taken together these prayer practices can change our lives in profound ways–if we are open to that growth.
We need a broad understanding of what prayer is and what it can be for us. We should not settle for just verbal prayer or just contemplative prayer. Individually they are not enough. We should not settle for just the approach to prayer we learned from our parents or from Sunday School and Church. It is not enough either.

Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to develop a “prayer of our own” that works for us personally. Each of us, as part of our prayer practice, needs to sincerely try different approaches to prayer and observe what works for us when we pray. We need to make appropriate adjustments in our regular practice until we find what really works for us. This process of observing what happens to us when we pray and making adjustments needs to be an ongoing part of our overall prayer practice. We will deal more with this issue in a later reflection.

As an introvert I have personally identified most strongly with contemplative prayer, and it has dramatically changed my life. When I was working, what worked for me was about forty-five minutes “early in the morning, long before dawn”. I would sit in my favorite chair in front of an alter I created, read a couple of psalms to center myself, read a passage from Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, and then sit in silent contemplation for about twenty minutes. Now that I am retired I have adjusted that schedule to include longer periods of time, and often more than one “time apart” a day. I have also added some quiet walks, especially in the evenings, to my practice, and I have used many different readings. These ongoing adjustments are the result of my ongoing effort to pay attention to what happened to me during these times ap. art, and to continue to make my time apart more and more “a prayer of my own”. If you take this effort to develop a prayer of your own really seriously it can change your life as well.

Question for Reflection

  1.  What is your prayer life like today? In what specific ways do you feel called to deepen your prayer life?

____________

* Moore, Thomas, Meditations:  On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life, (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994), p. 69.

** Southworth, Richard N. Choosing Authenticity:  Religion Is Not Enougn, (Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, 2011), p. 53..


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Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer (This Post)
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 172016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 5/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 5 of 9)

 

The Foundations of Prayer
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

All too often we approach prayer as something we have to do—something we have to say. As Susan Cain put it in the subtitle of her book Quiet, we live in “a world that can’t stop talking”. Everywhere we go there is music and noise, in restaurants, in banks, and even in restrooms. As I write this my granddaughter is playing noisy video games on my iPad in the next room. As soon as we get up and when we come home we turn on the radio, our music, or the TV. Now we can listen to music and watch videos on our mobile phone wherever we are. We also live in a world that can’t stop doing either.

We carry those tendencies over into our spiritual life and even into our prayer. We have to “say our prayers.” We have to “take our time”. Even when we speak of contemplative prayer we have to quiet our mind, and we have to listen to God. We develop all kinds of prayer lists and methods to use when we pray. I get an electronic prayer list from my church via email each week, and I am given another printed updated prayer list in Sunday School each week. We are asked to pray for the people and the issues contained on these lists. We are encouraged to read scripture, recite psalms, and read from other spiritual texts as part of our prayer. I even have an app on my mobile phone that allows me to listen to multiple readings from the divine office several times a day.

Let me be clear, all of these and other active prayer practices are good and even necessary parts of the spiritual life. They are an important part of what prayer is all about. But so is stillness and quiet and silence. The title of a book I read once was Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There. Just “sit[ing] there”, just being still and just being quiet must also be a part of our vision of what prayer is for us.

Some time ago the rest of my family went on vacation for a week, and I stayed home alone. My intent was to treat the time as a retreat. I would spend time in prayer and contemplation, I would take long walks in the neighborhood, I would catch up on my reading, and I would focus on my current writing project. The truth is that I actually had a todo list for that retreat, and I was really looking forward to having time to work on the things on that list. After they all left I walked back into the living room and set down in my favorite chair. I did not do anything from my todo list. I just sat there. I was just silent. I just enjoyed the house being quiet. I did not try to quiet my mind in contemplative prayer, and I did not think about my writing. I just sat there enjoying the stillness and the quiet. For the first three days of my retreat I returned to this practice of just sitting quietly again and again. I did none of the things on that todo list. I took care of my meals and other personal items, and I sat in the quiet. I went to the YMCA and sat in the hot tub. There were times when I started to feel guilty and felt the cultural imperative that I should use the time more productively, but for the most part I did not actually do anything. For much of the time I just sat there and soaked in the stillness and the quiet.

Peace

Photo by Teresa Parr

Over time the external quiet of the empty house and of me just sitting still brought an inner quiet and peace as well. The tension in my body dissipated. I let go of the feeling of guilt for not being productive. I allowed myself to “just be” without talking or actually doing anything. I put my phone on “do not disturb” and I did not read my email. I never turned on the television or my music. I did not call or text anyone. It was the fourth day before I even looked at my todo list. When I began working on those items I found that I approached them very differently. Even my time apart for prayer and contemplation was different. I was present in that time differently. I was more open. My mind was less cluttered. As the week went on I found myself “just sitting” spontaneously during the day in a way that I could not do before and actually would not have thought to do before.

It has been my experience that these three things—stillness, quiet, and silence—form the very foundation for prayer. Without this foundation prayer all too often becomes just another item on our todo list. It becomes part of life out of balance. Prayer becomes a demand. It becomes something we do, not a real part of who we are and how we live our lives. For me these three practices are a essential part of my spiritual practice—of my prayer practice.

If I cannot be still, if I cannot be quiet, and if I cannot be silent—if I cannot experience these three foundational things both internally and externally, I cannot hope to really take my prayer practice to its deepest level. The imperative “Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There.” must be a foundational part of our prayer practice, and ultimately of the way we live our lives.

Question for Reflection

  1. How comfortable am I with being still, with being quiet, and with being silent? How easy is it for me to move to a place of inner and outer stillness and quiet, and silence when I pray? How is stillness, quiet, and silence a part of the way I live my life?

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Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer (This Post)
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 102016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 4/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 4 of 9)

 

Prayer Is A Relationship
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

Hands

Image by Irene Furr

Prayer is also not a monologue or what my wife has called a “suffering list”. It is not just us talking to God. It is not just us taking our pain and suffering, and our needs and our desires (our suffering list) to God. It is not just us praising and worshiping God either. It is all of those things, but it is infinitely more than any and all of them. As Moore put it, “Prayer only makes sense in the paradoxical presence of both human pain and desire on the one hand, and divine infinitude on the other”. When we approach prayer as a monologue we fail to honor that “divine infinitude”. We limit our ability to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God. We limit God’s options. All too often we in effect “say our prayers” and go on with our life, leaving the rest up to God. We absolve ourselves of any responsibility. We ignore even the possibility that God might speak to us—that God might call us to respond differently to the situations we pray about, or that God might call us to see the situation differently, and/or to grow and change ourselves. There is almost a cult around the idea that we should give it up to God, and in all too many instances that becomes a copout. As someone said, “lift it up, don’t give it up”. Yes, it is a good thing for us to hold up our problems, concerns, and needs to God, and in certain cases, to let them go and “trust in God” to deal with them, but there is way more to it than that.

We will talk in detail in another reflection about openness and listening, but if our prayer is to be more than a monologue we must approach it with openness. We must stop talking and take time to listen. Jesus put it this way:

6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:6-7 (NIV)

These are pretty harsh words. A pastor friend of mine told me that when he prepared a manuscript for a sermon the last line was always a note to himself that said “Now. Sit down and shut up!” This is good advice when we pray. Yes, it is good to “say our prayers”, but then we need to “sit down and shut up!”, and we need to listen. Sometimes it is good to do that right from the start. As one writer put it, “Don’t just do something, sit there”, or in this case, don’t just say your prayers, sit there. Be silent and listen for that still small voice within that can give us insight into the situations we pray about, guide our response and give us the strength and courage to follow that guidance.

I was at a hospital some time ago with two sisters. Their father was dying. They had been praying for him to get well. When it became very obvious that this was not the likely outcome, one of them acknowledged that he was if fact very likely dying, and said, “I don’t know how to pray now!” She looked at me, as if for some kind of guidance. Hesitatingly I responded, “Maybe it is time to pray that his passing is easy.” In a sense that advice was good. It was in fact time to accept that he was dying, but what I wish I had said, was a more gracious version of “Maybe it is time to just ‘sit down and shut up’ and listen for God’s guidance, connect with God’s strength, and God’s courage to face the reality of the situation.

In all of these classical approaches to prayer—petition, praise, adoration, communion, and conversation, confession, penance, and forgiveness—we need to be absolutely certain that our expectations are not magical. We also need to be sure that we are open and listening carefully for a response from that Mysterious Other—listening for the murmurings of that still small voice within where that Mysterious other, if we are paying attention, speaks to us and gives us guidance and strength, and courage.

It is precisely here that we are called to spiritual growth, transformation, and conversion of heart. We cannot just will ourselves to be silent, and open, and to listen and to hear that still small voice within. We have to develop the ability to be silent both externally and internally. We have to learn how to discern that Still Small Voice within. In the end these classical approaches to prayer must be an integral part of an overall life of prayer that includes a discipline of spiritual practice and spiritual living that permeates all aspects of our lives. As Nouwen put it, “Only within this kind of life does a spoken prayer make sense”. Only within this kind of life can we avoid these “classical things that have been said about prayer” from becoming magical or perfunctory monologues.
Jesus offers us a very short and simple example of how we should pray. There is no temptation to magic here, and there is no babbling:

9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

Question for Reflection

  1. Are my prayers a monologue? Do I spend time in silence listening for that still small voice within? Am I able to quieten the thoughts, emotions, and impulses and really listen to the still small voice?

Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship (This Post)
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 032016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 3/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 3 of 9)

Prayer Is Not Magic
It Is Not A ToDo List for God

First I want to say something about what prayer is not.  True prayer is not magic.  It is not a todo list for God. And as one friend put it, God is not a vending machine where we input our prayers and expect what we requested to appear. I know this sounds redundant.  Of course prayer is not magic.  Of course prayer is not a todo list for God. Of course God is not a vending machine. We all know that, right?

I took a class in religious studies in college called “Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft”.  All through the semester, as we talked about different religions and different religious and magical practices, one underlying question permeated the discussion:  What is the difference between true religion and true prayer and the practices we call magic and witchcraft?  We wanted to know how to distinguish between the two.  The clear answer that emerged from those discussions was that with magic and witchcraft, when the practitioner preforms the ritual correctly—when they “prayed right”, god or the gods had to respond positively.  They had to comply with the request.  They had to do what was asked.  If the gods did not “answer the prayer” it was because the practitioner did not preform the ritual correctly.  On the other hand with true religion—with true prayer—God could say no, as we put it.  But in true religion and true prayer God could also call us to grow and change and see the subject of our prayer differently. As a quote I saw recently said, “I am tempted to ask God why he allows so much pain and suffering in the world, but then I am afraid God will ask me the same question”. In true prayer, God may very well call us to respond ourselves to the things we bring to prayer.

Magic

Image by Irene Furr

How much of what we have been taught about prayer, how much of our understanding of prayer, amounts to magic?  How often have we prayed for some specific outcome and then been disappointed when that prayer was not “answered”. How many times have we felt guilty when the outcome we requested did not happen the way we asked? How many times have we complained that our prayer did not “work”?  All too many of us have been taught that when our prayers are not answered it is because we did not have enough faith, or it was a result of some sin we committed, or there were not enough people praying. Whenever we approach prayer with this attitude we are in effect thinking of it as magic. Whatever else true prayer is or is not, it is not magic.

But this tendency to approach prayer as a kind of magic leads to an even deeper problem.  It blocks us from hearing God’s actual response to us.  If the only acceptable response to our prayer is that God will fulfill our request we will not listen for any other response, and we will not hear what that Mysterious Other wants from us in the situation.  If we are praying for another individual we will not be able to see the needs they have that we might be called to address ourselves and we could miss an opportunity to deepen our relationship with them. In the end we will not be able to develop any real relationship with God, and our lives will not be changed and transformed the way that Mysterious Other calls us to change and to grow.  We will not discover who we are called to be in the situation, and we will not be able to incarnate that calling into our active lives.  Said another way, our lives will not become an authentic expression of who we are called to be by that Mysterious Other we call God.

Sometimes when our prayers are not answered we simply conclude that God just said “no”, or “I guess it just was not part of God’s plan”. This may very well be true, but it misses the point. We are still essentially treating prayer as magic. There is still that unspoken sense that it is somehow our fault—that our faith was not strong enough, etc. All too often we have said our prayers and not really been silent and listened for God’s response. Our underlying expectation when we pray is that if we have enough faith, if there are enough people praying, and if we “pray right”, God will grant our request. Essentially we are treating prayer as magic.

Question for Reflection

  1. Do I sometimes approach prayer as magic? When our prayers are not answered what explanations do we assume? Are those explanations enough?

Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic (This Post)
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Jul 272016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is Part 2/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.

For many of us our “Sunday School Faith” is not enough, especially when faced with difficult life situations. As one woman facing her own impending death put it, “My Sunday School faith is unequal to this spiritual challenge.” Precisely when she needed it most it failed her. Precisely when prayer should have been the one thing that should have made a real difference, it wasn’t near enough. If prayer is to be enough we need a deeper understanding of what prayer is and what prayer is not.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 2 of 9)

What Is Prayer Anyway?
Seeking A Deeper Understanding

The dictionary defines prayer as:

a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.

Woman at window

Photo by Irene Furr

I suppose that captures the very basics of prayer, but it is unsatisfying. Intuitively we know there is more to prayer than that—much more. We know that this dictionary definition is not enough.  The truth is that if we explore that definition at any depth the definition of prayer varies from one religious tradition to another, from one denomination to another, from one culture to another and even from one sub-culture to another. More importantly our own interpretation and understanding of prayer is unique for each øof us.  We each have our own understanding of prayer, even if we haven’t thought about it all that much.  That definition is there in our subconscious, and it drives our approach to prayer or our avoidance of it. Ultimately it drives how we approach our lives.  If we are really serious about the spiritual life we need to take that personal definition out and look at it carefully. We need to be honest and clear within ourselves about what prayer really is and what it means for us personally.  As we work through the reflections in this book we will reflect on the many different reasons we come to prayer, and hopefully, in the process discover and deepen what prayer is for each of us.

For many of us, all of the sermons we have heard, all of the Sunday School lessons we have participated in, and all of the bible studies we have attended, and all of the reading we have done, is not enough. The truth is that as adults all too often what we hear in Sunday School and church are the same stories we heard in about the third grade, and what is worse we often hear those stories with the same eyes and even much the same perspective we had as a child. For many of us as adults our Sunday School faith has not deepened all that much from what it was as a child. It falls far short of giving us a real deep understanding of what prayer is, why we pray, or how we are to pray.

My friend and past pastor, Drexel Rayford tells this story in the forward to my earlier book:

As I go about my pastoral ministry, I often see the spiritual equivalent of my attempt to run a 10k race without training. Not long ago, I visited a woman facing her last days. She has struggled with a cruel disease since she was a little girl and now that she has grown older, complications from that disease will end her life. A profound feeling of injustice permeates her reflections, and as we discussed how to come to terms with her situation she said, “My Sunday School faith is unequal to this spiritual challenge.” She finds herself required to “run a race” for which she professes she has had little training.

In the face of a life threatening crisis this woman realizes that she has outgrown her Sunday School faith. As we reflect on the many different answers to the question “What is prayer for us?” We will see clearly that prayer is not magic, and we will discover that true prayer always calls the person praying to growth, transformation, and conversion of heart.  Yes, at times prayer can change situations in our life and at times even affect other people.  Yes, prayer can affect the outcome of events in our lives and the lives of others.  But almost always it calls us to grow and change, if of course, we are open to that possibility, if we are listening, and if we have the courage to respond to what we hear.

Question for Reflection

  1. What is my understanding of what prayer is? Is it enough? Be specific.

What Is Prayer Anyway?  (This Post)
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…


 

Jul 202016
 

This post is part of a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the first section titled Reflection III:  What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.

So what is prayer really? Have you ever reflected seriously on that question? Has that question ever been addressed in any depth in Sunday School or church? Have you ever really examined your vision of prayer? If you pray regularly what is that prayer all about. What are your expectations when you pray? If you don’t pray what is it about prayer that led you to reject it? Either way the question is still valid—what is your personal vision of prayer?  Here is your opportunity to reflect on just that question. In the nine posts in this series we will reflect on our vision of prayer. 


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 1 of 9)

Richard On The Mountain

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Introduction

I am afraid of saying “Yes,” Lord.
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the “yes” that entails other “yeses”.
And yet I am not at peace.
You pursue me, Lord, you besiege me.
I seek out the din for fear of hearing you, but in the moment of silence you slip through.
I turn from the road, for I have caught sight of you, but at the end of the path you are there awaiting me.
Where shall I hide? I meet you everywhere.
Is it then impossible to escape you?*
Michel Quoist

If we really ponder the question of what prayer is in any depth all kinds of issues and questions arise, and those questions sometimes make us uncomfortable.  What is prayer anyway? What does any of that really mean in the reality of our lives

But beyond even those questions is the question we most want to avoid: will prayer change us?  Is prayer supposed to change us? On the other hand, is prayer, as it often appears to me, all about changing God—about getting God to do our bidding? How will it change us? Will it require something of us that will be more than we bargained for? Michael Quoist’s poem pretty clearly points to the fact that it will. I know from personal experience that if we take spiritual practice really seriously—if we take prayer really seriously, it will call us to change in ways we cannot even imagine, and in ways that we may not even think we want.

At the beginning of a class on spiritual practice I made the statement, “Be careful, this class might just change your life”.  One man responded, “Am I going to have to leave my home, become a missionary, and move to Africa?”  But were it that simple. His question was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it points to a deep, but often preconscious, concern many of us have about prayer.  If we take prayer seriously will it change us?  Will it call us to “go where we dare not go”?  A few of us may actually be called to leave our home to become missionaries, but a sustained and serious life of prayer will call all of us to a lifetime of change, personal growth, transformation, and conversion of heart. It will call us to change the way we actually experience and live our active lives. It will call us to be present in the events of our lives differently. This is the question that often keeps us from going deeper.  Deep inside of us we know, again often at a preconscious level, that if we really take prayer seriously it will in fact call us to change and to grow, and in profound ways.  To even begin a life of prayer it will require that we change our busy schedules to make the space for our time apart.

Prayer is at the same time our deepest desire and our greatest fear.  We often fear the very growth and change we desire. Whatever else serious prayer is about it is about listening to that Mysterious Other we call God—listening to that sacred inner voice inside of us, and paying attention to where that sacred inner voice leads us. Taken really seriously prayer calls us to live our daily lives in obedience to that leading. But even more basic than that is the question, what is prayer anyway?

____________

Quoist, Michel, Prayers. (Kansas City, Missouri: Sheed and Ward, 1963), p. 121.


Other Posts in this Reflection:

Introduction (This Post)

(Coming Soon)

What Is Prayer Anyway?
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us?
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4
What Is your Prayer Life Like Today?

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