Uncomfortable Words and Prayer

Peace

Contemplative, centering and meditation. What do you think when you read these words? Many western Christians bristle at these words. They conjure up images of bald Tibetans in orange and red robes or multi-armed Hindu gods. And yet Scripture is full of admonitions to meditate. Often the admonitions occur with the word “wait” or “still” as well as many uses of the word “meditate.” In Psalms, meditate and meditation (a derivative of meditate) simply mean to muse, or contemplate or pray. It is also interesting to note that “the fact remains that every human brain, from early childhood on, contemplates the possibility that spiritual realms exist”[1].

Our Brains and God

God built our brains to seek after him, but somehow many of us, myself included, have lost our way in how to do this. For instance, I have task lists and check marks for how I “do” faith. My devotion time is something I squeeze in between getting out of bed in the morning and showering. But am I really seeking God or going through a motion to look spiritual? It isn’t so much the timeframe of this practice as much as it the authenticity of it. Reading Scripture and prayer are good things, but where is my head, and especially my heart, when I do them? Is my prayer a laundry list for God, a list of tasks and expectations that resemble my Franklin Planner? Or am I really desiring to commune with the God of the universe?

The Dessert Fathers from so many centuries ago knew better. “Meditation for them consisted in making the words of the Bible their own by memorizing them and repeating them, with deep and simple concentration, ‘from the heart.’ Therefore the ‘heart’ comes to play a central role in this primitive form of monastic prayer”[2]. But things have changed. Foster notes that “usually people will tolerate a brief dabbling in the ‘inward journey,’ but then it is time to get on with the real business in the real world. We need courage to move beyond the prejudice of our age and affirm with our best scientists that more than the material world exists” (emphasis in the original)[3].

I agree with Merton and Foster.

Jesus and Being Self-Aware

It is so easy to lose the peace in my soul and to allow the “joy of my salvation” to be stolen away.  Why?

Partially because I grew up in a home that breathed in anxiety and breathed out worry. We could all be starters for any team in the in the NWL (National Worry League). I don’t know if those of us from Northern European descent are more predisposed to worry or not, but it seems so genetically ingrained that it is nearly impossible to overcome. Yet Jesus still says that with God nothing is impossible; He goes on to say that He gives us peace, not worldly peace, but the peace that passes understanding (cf. Lk. 18:27, Jo. 14:27 & Phil. 4:6-7).

I want this peace; frankly, I need this peace. How can I be a light in the world when I’m dark inside? How can I expect the world to be a more peaceful place when I can’t even be a more peaceful person? This isn’t being self-absorbed, it’s being self-aware. I want to draw people to Jesus, but all I do is repel them if they look at me see a tightly wound up ball of tension that is irritable and angry. I pray, Jesus, take this away! In fact, the centering prayer phrase I’m now using at this point in my life is, “Peace in Jesus; peace in me.”

So again I embark on a discipline of incorporating more centering prayer in my life. Usually such attempts last a few days and then the busyness and tiredness of life bleed this away from me. So far, my latest attempt has lasted a week; and I love it. I still pray for people and for God’s touch in their lives. But now I’m also intentionally allowing the Holy Spirit to flow more freely in my soul. Through this I am receiving fleeting tastes of that peace I have so desperately longed for.

Over time, I will let you know how this is going.

[1] How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Neuroscientist. Andrew Newberg, MD & Mark Robert Waldman, New York: Ballantine Books, 2009. Kindle location 108.

[2] Contemplative Prayer. Thomas Merton, New York: Image Books, 1969, p. xxix.

[3] Celebration of Discipline. Richard J. Foster, New York: Harper Collins, 1978, Kindle location 277.

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Prayer Struggle

Romans 8_26

Lately I’ve been struggling with prayer. Oh, I can go through my lists of requests as well as the next person, but the struggle is the deeper prayer; the soaking in the Spirit prayer. Maybe it’s my age or the season of life I’m in; maybe it’s the listening part or all of the distractions. Maybe it’s something else entirely; even so, I find it both interesting and disturbing. It’s interesting because I haven’t been in such a struggle for a long time; disturbing because I haven’t been in such a struggle for a long time.

Struggle and Soil

Perhaps the struggle is part of God’s plan for me. Instead of fretting over the struggle I need to be okay with it and recognize it as a normal part of growing in my walk with Jesus. The struggle is where the refining of my faith occurs. Outward struggles are obvious opportunities for faith-building, but the interior struggles are invisible to the material world but are every bit as real, maybe even more so.

It is in the unseen where the Holy Spirit does his best work; that is, if the person in the midst of the struggle leans deeper into God rather than turning away. The struggle is where the soil of my soul is being tilled for the deeper things of God.

Painful Reveal and the Crucible

The struggle also reveals weak areas of my faith. Such as being too focused on today’s list of to-dos, or tomorrow’s dreams, or my worrying over the “what ifs” of life, “what ifs” that may never come to pass. It is revealing to me that my mind is not quiet, my soul is not settled and I am not waiting patiently.

The struggle then is honing the discipline of waiting; waiting on God to speak, or not to speak. The quiet is the crucible that is forging the fragile yet precious patience required to truly hear from God.

The struggle helps me better understand what Paul was talking about in Romans 8: “And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. We, too, wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children … And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (verses 23 and 26, New Living Translation).

So struggle goes on, but at least I know I’m not struggling alone.

More to Do, Little to Be

leaf-path_resized

“Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountains to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.”

—Luke 6:12

“To be in His presence is gift enough.” This is a phrase I heard last week at the Hope Pregnancy Clinic banquet. It is a compelling quote, especially when feeling distant from God. Personally, my life is so full of stuff needing to be done that life itself has become a series of to-do lists. I’m slowly and sadly morphing into the recent cliché of living as a human-doing rather than a human being. Perhaps an overused phrase, but it has a lot of truth to it.

Jesus spent hours just being with His Father, I’m sure He had requests but given the amount of time spent with His Father it is likely that much of the time was just basking in the presence of the Lord. Jesus was longing to hear the voice of His Father rather than His own voice. Conversely, much my time with the Father is nothing more than a ten minute “prayer session” of requests and laments. I don’t give enough time to listen to anything other than my own voice. There is no presence of God because I monopolize the time with my own presence.

Apprenticeship with Jesus

Zack Eswine states in Sensing Jesus that life for a Christ-follower is an apprenticeship with Jesus and “apprenticeship needs meditation and time” (p. 26).  Part of this time is spent in prayerful meditation on the character of God or on a portion of Scripture, such as the one mentioned above. It takes time in any conversation to move into the deeper waters of relational richness and soul-moving transformation. It reminds me of strolling with Jesus down a leaf-strewn path, kicking and crunching through the fallen foliage just talking…talking about the deep things like longing for Heaven, or enduring through chronic pain or fearing the future. It is asking Jesus to speak into the darker areas of my heart; the areas of selfish ambition, or the desire to be in control or my covetousness. It is intentionally opening the doors and windows of my soul to the refreshing and cleansing breeze of the Holy Spirit wafting through unhindered, removing the stench of sin and clutter. This opens up spaces for healing and transformation, and for two-way conversation.

Be More Than Do

Instead, Jesus is kept at arm’s length with carefully crafted to-do lists and requests. We have accomplishments next to little check-marked boxes of things we have done; but Jesus is interested in transforming our being, not our doing.  We are called to be lights, not do lights (Matt. 5:14-16 and Phil. 2:15).

What if our mindset was to be healing rather than do healing? And being bathed in the presence of Jesus is in itself healing; yes, the aches remain and things needs to be done for employers, school, and ministry—but that time of being with Jesus can help us become a healing presence for others. But when we focus on doing, our soul shrinks to the size of our check boxes; Jesus wants to transcend us above such a small soul to become more like Him. To become more of a healing light, drawing others to Jesus’ healing presence.

We are to be more than we are to do.