Archives For prayer

“The human mind is perpetually busy trying to control things, trying to figure things out, 

clinging to the latest idea, 

grasping at the nearest straw.

 It works very hard trying to make sense of things by endlessly seeking to put everything into categories and boxes and systems of thought. 

Sometimes even God himself gets relegated to a category or a box in my mind rather than being free to be God in my life. 

It seems that my mind will go to great lengths to fix things, control things and defend against anything that would disrupt my carefully fully constructed equilibrium…

It’s not that the mind is bad; it’s just very limited in its capacity to move us toward the union with God that we seek. The intellect can set the stage but cannot provide the drama of true encounter. 

Our experience with human relationships tells us this: thinking about someone one is not the same thing as being in their presence. Knowing facts about someone, studying the details of their life, admiring them from afar is not the same as being in relationship with them or allowing oneself to fall in love.” Ruth Haley Barton in “Invitation to Silence ”

Great-grandmother and great-grandson

I was struck as I read this: “Relationships develop when people spend time together. Spending time with God ought to be the essence of prayer. However, as it is usually practiced, prayer is more like a series of email or instant messages than hanging out together. Often it involves more talking than listening. It should not be a surprise that the result is a superficial relationship.”                        from “The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery” by David G. Benner

Life *is* busy. And just like my body can survive on fast food, my soul can survive on prayer texts and email messages.

But God is looking forward to a long conversation with me–one that will take more than a few minutes grabbed on the fly, and one where my attention is not so distracted that I never get around to actually having a dialogue with Him about what is really on my heart. 

Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. John 15:4

Come away My beloved…

Some of us, including me, struggle with a head-based spiritual life. It is difficult for me to open up my heart before God, probably because it is difficult for me to open up my heart to myself. Last week I heard the following quotes which were like candles in the darkness:

“I will remind you of only one thing: one must descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you. The prayer takes a firm and steadfast hold, when a small fire begins to burn in the heart. Try not to quench this fire, and it will become established in such a way that the prayer repeats itself: and then you will have within you a small murmuring stream.”
Theophan the Recluse

“Prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart—that is, in the point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one within ourselves, with God, and with others and the whole of creation. In the heart of God the Spirit dwells, and there the great encounter takes place. There, heart speaks to heart as we stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing, within us. And there, in the place of the heart, spiritual formation takes place.”
Henri Nouwen in Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit 

I have found the daily meditation from the online site Sacred Space very rich for me recently. Today, in conjunction with the passage where Judas betrayed Jesus, it offered these thoughts:

“Holy Week is an invitation to walk
closely with Jesus: we fix our gaze on
him and accompany him in his
suffering; we let him look closely at us and see us as we really are.

We do not have to present a brave face to him, but can tell him about where we have been disappointed, let down – perhaps even betrayed. We avoid getting stuck in our own misfortune by seeing as he sees, by learning from his heart.”

“Conversation requires talking and listening.
As I talk to Jesus may I also learn to be still and listen.
I picture the gentleness in His eyes and the smile full of love as He gazes on me.

I can be totally honest with Jesus as I tell Him of my worries and my cares.

I will open up my heart to Him as I tell Him of my fears and my doubts.

I will ask Him to help me to place myself fully in His care, to abandon myself to Him, knowing that He always wants what is best for me.”

Sacred Space

“The point of prayer is not to get answers from God but perfect and complete oneness with Him.”

Oswald Chambers


“Prayer is living with openness to God. Our life becomes a prayer, and our prayer becomes our life as we begin to live with this openness as the core posture of our hearts” David Benner


“May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou I speak to.”
C.S. Lewis

“It is I, speaks the Christ, I am he
who puts Death to death, and stands above
the fallen enemy, crushes Hades
to bland chalk, binds the dark powers, and bears
all humankind up to heavenly peaks.
Yes, says Christ, I am he.

Rhodes, Greece

Rhodes, Greece

“Therefore come, all human families
ruined by sin, and receive absolution
of every error. I am your liberation
and the passage of deliverance.
I am the throat-cut lamb and sacrifice,
your ransom paid, your pulse and life, your fire,
your rescue, resurrection, and your king.
I gather you in one strong hand,
and guide you to the heights of paradise,
where I will show to you your Father.”
Scott Cairns, from his book Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life

Ealing, England

Ealing, England

“In Christ we have everything….
If you want to heal your wound, He is the doctor.
If you are burning with fever, He is the fountain.

Ceuta, Spain

Ceuta, Spain

“If you are in need of help, He is strength.
If you are in dread of death, He is life.

Alcobaca, Portugal

Alcobaca, Portugal

If you are fleeing the darkness, He is light.
If you are hungry, He is food: ’O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy are they who take refuge in Him.’ (Psalm 34:8)”
Ambrose of Milan

Concord, Massachusetts, USA

Concord, Massachusetts, USA

Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca, Morocco

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You;
I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water.
I have seen You in the sanctuary
and beheld Your power and Your glory.

Psalm 63:1-2

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

“There is perhaps a glimmer of hope in the fact that however weak we may be,
however spiritually feeble and inclined to sin,
Christ still remains our sanctuary, immovable and ever desired,
to which we shall always return.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

“Splendor and majesty are before the Lord;
strength and glory are in His sanctuary.”

Psalm 95:6

Entrepierres, France

Entrepierres, France

“I heard a teaching not long ago about the moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what his name is.  God was gracious enough to answer, and the name he gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as YHWH.
Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels. But scholars have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, aspirated consonants that in the Hebrew alphabet would be transliterated like this:
Yod, which we transliterate “Y”
He, which we transliterate “H”
Vav, which we transliterate “V” or “W”
He which we transliterate “H”
A wonderful question rises to excite the imagination: what if the name of God is the sound of breathing?”
Jason Gray


All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Romans 8:22-28 The Message


“Take a breath and breathe it out.  Do it again, slowly, and try to mean it.  Breathing – of all things maybe we take it most for granted. Do we ever wonder why we are built this way, this soft machine of ours always pumping oxygen in and out?
In sadness, we breathe heavy sighs. In joy, our lungs feel almost like they will burst. In fear we hold our breath and have to be told to breathe slowly to help us calm down. When we’re about to do something hard, we take a deep breath to find our courage.  When I think about it, breathing looks almost like a kind of praying.”
Jason gray


The Sound of Our Breathing
“Everybody draws their very first breath with Your name upon their lips
Every one of us is born of dust but come alive with heaven’s kiss
The name of God is the sound of our breathing
Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating
Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud”
Jason Gray, Doug McKelvey, Seth Mosely



Great Are You Lord  by All Sons and Daughters
“You give life, You are love
You bring light to the darkness
You give hope, You restore
Every heart that is broken

Great are You, Lord

It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
To You only”


Take a breath

December 23, 2015 — 1 Comment

I am a woman of words, mostly writing and reading them, but sometimes speaking them [when someone asks me about the advantages of OneNote for example]. When I spend time with God, it’s much the same: I read, journal and reflect with words.

But when my heart is heavy or sad, I find words are harder to come by. Yet silence can turn into a unsettling vacuum where the accuser can whisper taunts to me. My darker thoughts can lead me astray. I need to fix my eyes on Jesus, and my mind on Jesus. But I struggle to articulate the groanings of my soul.

This situation has led me recently to turn to an ancient Christian spiritual practice known as ‘breath prayer’. It has its roots in the Orthodox tradition, and the most famous is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”. As you breathe in, you pray “Lord Jesus Christ” and as you breathe out, you pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Rick Warren also encourages the practice in his book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, recommending that people find “a simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath: “You are with me.” “I receive your grace.” “I’m depending on you.” “I want to know you.” “I belong to you.” “Help me trust you.” ”

The genesis though is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus advocated keeping prayer simple in Matthew 6: “Do you think you will be heard for all your words? Your heavenly father knows what you need.” Paul recommended, “Pray without ceasing” and in Romans, he talked about how the Holy Spirit intercedes with us when we can’t come up with words.

For me, one of the most important things I need to keep in mind is that breath prayer doesn’t depend on using the right technique; it’s not a magic formula. When I first heard about it I shied away because it seemed mechanical. But breath prayer has reminded me that talking to God doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require a big mental effort. I don’t need to use a lot of words in order for prayer to be meaningful.

When I stop for a moment and focus on God who created and sustains the universe, my soul settles down. I am finding that as I breathe in the first phrase and breathe out the second, my rhythm becomes like a rocking chair, back and forth, one step, then another. As I listen to the sound of my breathing in and out, I picture breathing in His grace, breathing out my trust in Him.

Eventually, the prayer becomes like a refrain or an echo. Later it may come to mind like a song that catches in my head and returns at odd moments during the day. In this season of busy preparation and celebration, this keeps me aware that God is present with me now. And it makes me wonder: what simple prayer might Mary may have said as she labored to give birth to Jesus?

Take a moment to stop.
Focus as you breathe in and breathe out,
saying the name of Jesus– in a spirit of thanks, or confession, or need, or desire, or adoration.

Later you may want to make a simple prayer from a request or a sentence from Scripture.
Breathe in the first phase and breathe out the second:

I come to You, I find rest for my soul. [Matthew 11:28-30]

I will be still, and know that You are God. [Psalm 46:10]

Jesus, You love me. I remain in Your love. [John 15:9]

I trust in Your unfailing love, my hope is in You. [Psalm 33:1]

Speaking of lament

December 16, 2015 — Leave a comment

My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to Your word.
Psalm 119:28


” When we cry, it is a defining moment…. Tears uncover our life. Pretense is not possible. Masks fall off. Tears connect with the most primal part of our lives and tears connect us with others. Tears soften our hearts and open our minds.”
MaryKate Morse in “A Guidebook to Prayer”


“…this is what I can ask for you:
That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.”
Jan Richardson


“The ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but really they are acts of bold faith because they insist that the world be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.
There is nothing out of bounds, nothing inappropriate when talking with God. Everything belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God.”
edited from Walter Brueggemann


Question for reflection:
Where in my own pain, did I feel God’s love today?

In praise of lament

December 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

We once had a children’s bible one of our daughters dubbed The Happy Bible, because the word ‘blessed’ was translated as ‘happy’. “Happy are the…” read the beatitudes in Matthew. Even, “Happy are those who mourn.” Frankly, I think we all found that a bit jarring, because we knew better.

But truthfully, when I began to follow Jesus, I expected less sadness in my life. I read the verse in Revelations about the hope of heaven when all the tears will be wiped away, and I wanted that now. Many Christian speakers and authors have been happy to oblige me, offering a false faith that acts like a magic button: you press the button with faith and presto! No need to feel sad.

It is true that we have hope of joy in eternal life. It is true that,”The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence, he desires that every one should be like himself.” [Frances de Sales]

The trouble is that “Jesus saves” quickly turns into “I shouldn’t feel sad because faith in Jesus means perpetual sunshine.” The evil one may be pleased with melancholy but he is also pleased with the lies of shallow happiness:
• Believe in God and you will be happy all the time.
• If you have enough faith, enough hope, and enough love, you won’t feel sad.
• If you are sad, don’t be, because God loves you and Jesus fixes everything.
• When you feel sad, just praise God instead.

Thanks to C.S. Lewis and “A Grief Observed”, we have come to believe we can grieve the loss of someone we love. But when a vague sadness moves in like a thick cloud cover, it’s easy for us to view it as a failure of faith.


It’s not a failure though. When I feel sad, it indicates loss in my life–not only from the loss of a person but from other losses as well: failure, lost dreams, rejection, broken relationships. Given the state of our sin-infused world, there’s more than enough justification for us to feel a heart-wrenching melancholy.

In fact, you could argue that shallow happiness is a far greater danger in turning us away from God. First when the intoxication of happiness makes us believe we don’t need Him, and then when we feel a bitter anger because our happiness has been replaced by suffering .

I remember when a friend of mine, after years of trying to become pregnant and undergoing three in-vitro treatments without success, finally had to face the reality that she and her husband were not going to have a baby. She was exploring Buddhism at the time, a philosophy whose approach to sadness is detachment. Get rid of desire, and you get rid of sorrow. [I should add that the false ‘happy, happy’ approach some Christians promote sounds just as hollow as ‘give up your heart’s desire’.]
But the view of detachment wasn’t working for her. My friend felt the depths of sorrow over her unfulfilled desire and I mourned with her.

God knows and understands this. Reading through the psalms that deal with lament [over a third of the psalms fall into this category], it is clear that God values truth in our inmost parts. These psalms are filled with the heartfelt cries that the world is not the way it is meant to be.

O Lord have mercy on me in my anguish. My eyes are red from weeping; my health is broken from sorrow.Psalms 31:9

The holy reaction to feeling sad is not to ignore it or bury it. Pushing the sadness down and pretending it isn’t there is not a healthy spiritual response either. There isn’t an easy ‘fix’ for sadness. But a start is to let the feelings surface and share them with my loving, heavenly Father. I find a deep comfort knowing that I can pour out my heart to God. What He desires most of all is that I am authentic, not respectable, with Him. He knows the fissures of sadness that seep in the dark places of my heart, even before I tell him.

One day He will wipe every tear away from my eyes. But until then He will listen to me as I cry. He is present with me in my sadness and comforts me. He mourns with me.

“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the entire Bible and also one of the most profound. God incarnate was moved to tears. Later, he looked over Jerusalem and cried. And on the cross, I imagine, he cried as well. This is what “Emmanuel, God with us” really means. He came to the darkness we walk in, and experienced, as we do, all the sadness of this world.

This is who I share my sadness with–“a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, the One who understands.

2013 3 26 rabat rol 046
Where is there sadness in your life?
How is God present with you in it?

“And if I weep may it be as a man who is longing for his home.”
Rich Mullins

Most of our life happens in the routine of the day-to-day. Whether comforting, boring, easy, or thoughtless, the whole point of a routine is that we know what we will do and what we can expect. This is true for our relationship with God as well. Our regular spiritual practices anchor and sustain us in our daily life.

But God enjoys delight and celebration and making things new too.* There’s a place for special, out-of-the-ordinary times like deep sabbath, a night at the prayer spa and a church retreat.*


At the beginning of this year I experienced another kind of special time–a private retreat. Typically this would mean going away to a retreat center for a weekend, but instead I did it a little differently. Several mornings while I was staying with family in Thailand, I went by myself to a nearby retreat center.


I had worshipped at Seven Fountains on previous visits. I had even stayed overnight once after a transcontinental flight [in a very foggy jetlagged state which is not conducive for doing much except sleep]. But this was the first time I went there to be alone with God.

A spiritual director suggested I might walk through the prayer labyrinth. Although I had heard of it before, I had never come across it in all my wanderings through the grounds. But frankly the idea of praying while following a path has never appealed to me. [‘Labyrinth’ turns out to be a bit of a misnomer because it is not a maze. There is a single path to the center and back.]

Seven Fountains crucifix, Safari 056

However being out of one’s routine includes the opportunity to try new things. So when I found a booklet about the labyrinth at the welcome center, I decided to give it a try. I asked for directions and discovered the labyrinth was just beyond a sign I had always dutifully obeyed.

"Do not enter without permission"

“Do not enter without permission”

Since I am writing about the experience now, four months later, you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you doing this walk turned out to be one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. The time I spent with God there [which I did at a snail’s pace] was so meaningful that I returned three more times.


Although I don’t think Jesus ever walked a prayer labyrinth, I think it is significant that the gospels record that he went away by himself to talk with the Father:

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Mark 1:35

But Jesus often withdrew to wilderness and prayed. Luke 5:16

After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Matthew 14:23

Solitude, wilderness, a mountainside–these are not part of my daily routine. But I am so thankful I was able to get away by myself and spend uninterrupted time with my Father. It changed me and months later I am still reaping the benefits.

I don’t know how often it would be good for me to do this. Should I should make it a routine?!? But I manage to go to the dentist once a year for a check-up, and to the doctor for an annual physical. I celebrate my birthday and our wedding anniversary every year too. So I think I can mark one day or one weekend a year to go off alone with God. Or following this year’s approach, I could even make a month of Saturday mornings or Sunday afternoons into a retreat time every January. Whatever I decide, I know God will be ready to meet me.

What about you?
How often do you go away on retreat?
Where have you gone to meet alone with God?

**You might enjoy:
God’s amuse bouches
Time to put on dancing shoes
Making things new
The prayer spa
Deep sabbath
Getting away together

And if you ever end up in Chiang Mai, plan a special time at Seven Fountains

Here is a wonderful description of how God pays attention to us:

“I never have to snap my fingers to get Your attention.
I never have to reel You back into focus.
I never catch You looking away, as though You’re bored with me.
I never have to repeat myself several times to make sure You heard what I really said.

You never interrupt me.
You never spin what I’m saying.
You never talk over me when I’m trying to tell You something.
There’s no one who listens as attentively, respectively, and compassionately as You.

I don’t need healing for deafness but grace for listening— first and foremost to You, Jesus.
You’re always speaking, through the Scriptures, and You speak only words of life.
What a foolish person I am not to hang on to every syllable you utter.”
Scotty Smith

As I read this I’m struck by the contrast between how God listens to me and how I often listen to Him–and to other people too. May I always have ears to hear.

The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.

Dallas Willard


Father, you never demanded that Daniel get on his knees three times a day. You didn’t have to— it was his delight. No government decree could keep him from praying to you, loving you, seeking you, worshiping you. He was much more committed to your eternal glory than to his personal survival.

Scotty Smith

To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.

Theophan the Recluse


God is never impressed with earnestness.

Oswald Chambers


Rejoice always,
pray continually,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I Thessalonians 5:16-18

In the city where I live, you can hear the call to prayer broadcast from loudspeakers at mosques all across the city [and they aren’t called loudspeakers for nothing.] The first prayer time is in the pre-dawn hours, the last prayer time is around 10 PM.

During the daylight hours, you can often see people [actually men, to be gender-specific] who stop their work, get out a prayer mat, bow, and recite their prescribed prayers. By doing this five times a day, they are fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam.

But set prayer times have been around much longer than Islam. In the early church, Christians developed daily prayer times based on the bell that was rung in the Roman forum every three hours. Starting at 6 AM and going until 6 PM, the bell marked the progress of the day’s work. Eventually two more prayer times were added, for a total of seven, and monasteries were started to take on this systematic work of prayer from early morning matins to late night compline.

2014 9 16 rol 2014-09-16 006

I confess this kind of continual, regular prayer has never appealed to me.
My view has tended to be, “I would never want to be forced to pray at a specific time. It would be a bother to stop what I’m doing. It would distract me from my work.”

And then one day as I willingly, even eagerly, interrupted what I was working on to check Facebook, I realized I don’t mind switching mental gears in the middle of my day. Although I’ve never tracked how often I slide my mouse over and make a tiny click, I suspect there are days when it’s well over seven times.

a lean machine ready to tear up the internet

a lean machine ready to tear up the internet

Suddenly I am checking email, my rss blog feed, the online news, Facebook [thankfully I gave up Twitter], or googling some stray thought that has entered into my brain space without getting permission from the air traffic control.

Ten, fifteen, thirty minutes later, long after the man praying on the street corner has returned to work, I am still lost in the wonderland known as the world wide web [created, I imagine, by a giant, time-sucking spider.]

So the question I need to ask is not, “Will I stop in the middle of the day and turn my attention to something else?” Rather it’s, “When I stop, what I will turn my attention to?” Will I answer the siren call of the internet, or will I turn my eyes on Jesus and praise my Creator?

Even still, God doesn’t demand an hourly tribute of praise from us. For all the commands He gave the Israelites to follow [613 to be exact], not one talks about how often they were supposed to pray. And Jesus didn’t specify this either. When the disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, He only replied, “When you pray…”

Of course, regular prayer is a good idea.

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.” Psalm 119:164.

“Three times a day Daniel got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” Daniel 6:10

But that’s not what makes us holy.

Instead, I find it helpful to think about praying at regular intervals like taking a drink of water.

2013 6 13 Dingle Penninsula north west aj 052

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my souls pants for You, O God. Psalm 42:1

It’s a chance to enlarge my vision from the micro focus of the moment to God’s eternal perspective. When I lift my eyes away from the computer screen to pray, I reaffirm core truths such as:

*I’m not the center of the universe
*God is in charge
*He is ready to listen to my concerns
*Work cannot satisfy my deepest desires

Stopping to pray doesn’t come naturally for me; I’m not a perfect spiritual being. And there is much in the internet age that is waiting to distract me. My enemy prowls around like a hungry lion hoping to get me addicted to clicking on links–or just preoccupied enough with the cares of my life that I forget about God.

The other danger I face is that I’m capable of turning regular prayer into a task that needs to be checked off my to-do list. Before I know it, I’ve punched a little mental prayer clock, put in my minutes, and gone back to work, satisfied I’ve ‘done’ it.

Perhaps that’s why when Paul talks about praying on all occasions time in Ephesians 6, it’s in the context of the great spiritual battle that is being fought. One minute Paul is reminding us the fight is not against flesh and blood, and in the next he’s encouraging us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasion, always keep on praying for all the saints.”

Praying isn’t a duty or a distraction. It’s my soul’s lifeblood.

“Prayer is traffic between earth and heaven, ‘a commerce of love.’” Amy Carmichael

What about you?
Do you pray regularly during the day? What does it look like?

And how do you fight the temptations that might distract you from it?

“If roteness is a danger, it is also the way liturgy works. When you don’t have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.

Put differently: I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism. Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour. I worry about my mother’s health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I bop up and down with excitement about good news or sunshine or life in general, but I never get much further than that.

It is returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can’t think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all.

Sure, sometimes it is great when, in prayer, we can express to God just what we feel; but better still when, in the act of praying, our feelings change. Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims. It repoints the person praying, taking him somewhere else.”
Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline


“I saw more clearly than ever that the first great primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord . . .
not how much I might serve the Lord, . . . but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished.”
George Muller


“Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, You have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with Your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of Your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.”
The Divine Hours

The freedom of ritual

July 16, 2014 — 5 Comments

I grew up going to a Lutheran church where every week we followed the liturgy in the red service hymnal–though I don’t ever remember actually opening the book because by the time I could read, I knew the liturgy by heart. Over the years, it became so engrained in me, I could recite it without having the words penetrate my consciousness. Many Sundays I was like a sleepwalker, mumbling the responses with the rest of the congregation.

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that when God became real to me as a teenager, it was not in the liturgical tradition, but in a more free flowing style. The minister made up prayers on the spot, responsive readings changed every week, the language was less formal. I couldn’t coast on autopilot. I loved the freshness, the newness, the variety, the freedom. I turned my back on all things liturgical, viewing them as stodgy, dead, meaningless, and mechanical.

It took a very long time, but eventually I came to appreciate the use of liturgy in worship. I think the first time was on a visit back to the states when I spent a month at an artist’s colony without a car. In the town of 20,000 people, my worship options were limited to a half dozen churches. [And one has to live in a city of two million people that has only *one* English-speaking Protestant church to understand the irony of the phrase ‘limited to a half dozen’.]

I chose the Episcopal church because I had confidence the liturgical service would be a solid, Christ-centered worship experience. I knew what I would be getting–not unlike opting to eat at an international restaurant chain rather than risk the local greasy spoon.

I’ve had the same experience on a personal level as well. Several years ago, my friend Lynette gave me a set of the Divine Hours, with its three-times a day liturgical prayer format. The brief office draws on the Psalms for different elements and includes a short reading, usually from the New Testament, ending with the Lord’s prayer and a concluding prayer [which I’ve now memorized so I have to really slow down and think about what I’m saying rather than just rattle it off]. For a while, I followed the Divine Hours every day, in a lapsed Lutheran kind of way, not reading it at a fixed time and usually only doing the morning office.

There are still times when I go back to the Divine Hours. When I’m traveling, it becomes a devotional anchor for me. I use the online version run by the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church, which allows you to localize the hours for your time zone. ** I don’t have to come up with what I want to say to God, I don’t have to think. I ‘only’ have to tune my spirit in harmony with the words on the page.

Once during a period where liturgical prayer was my life line, I came across this question in a devotional: “Do I relate to God through a specific ritual/routine or do I approach Him as a person, confident in my identity as His child?”

Not only did this question seem to assume that ritual is bad, it also struck me that it wasn’t helpful to put routine and spontaneity in an either/or framework. A child’s life is not all free play. It is also full of routines and rituals. Not just mealtime, bathtime, bedtime, but also special little rituals, sometimes using a game or a song.

The issue really isn’t routine vs. freedom, but distance vs. intimacy. And while it’s true that if I fall into an autopilot mode, rituals can put distance between me and God, it’s also true that freedom can bring distance. I can end up indulging my own whims or never quite get around to confessing my sins. I can conveniently overlook certain aspects of God’s character. Following a liturgical prayer form like the Divine Hours can bring me to places I would never go to on my own.

Divine Hours online

For pity’s sake

December 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

In Walk with Me, as Peter crosses the Swamp of Selfishness, he falls into a sinkhole of self-pity. Instead of trying to get out, he settles into the mud. Perversely, he savours his feelings of woundedness and isolation. Perhaps he sings a song our daughters learned when they were young: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I guess I’ll go eat worms.”

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Self-pity is such a seductive feeling, an emotion that feeds on itself. The more I nurture my self-pity, the bigger the sinkhole becomes. I begin to feel that no one else has ever suffered like me before. No one has gone through such hard struggles like I have. I actually take pride in my pain.

That is a very dangerous place to be, and that is exactly where Satan would like me to stay. My enemy tells me to nurse my hurt, hold my grudge, care for myself because no one else will. He tells me to shut myself off from people so I can avoid feeling pain, to give up hoping, to stop trusting God, to act for myself. If he got his way, Satan would keep me wallowing and self-absorbed forever.

In contrast, Jesus invites me to come out of the hole and sit with Him at His feet. He wants me to lay down my burdens and tell Him what the trouble is.

So last week when I found myself being swallowed up by a sinkhole of self-pity, I resisted the impulse to stay in the swamp. Instead, as I spent time with Jesus, I began to open up about one area in my life. I told Him how difficult and awful it has been, and how hopeless it feels to me. As I shared the emotional tatters of my life with Him, I discovered that self-pity is hard to sustain when you’re sitting at the feet of Jesus.

It’s not that Jesus gave me an instant fix. Far from it. But instead of sending me away, He told me to come closer. Instead of judging me or lecturing me telling me to buck up, He lamented with me and comforted me.

In the presence of His strong compassion, my weak and whiny self-pity vanished. I stopped demanding that He make things better right away and simply acknowledged with Him that the world is not the way it should be. Jesus sadly nodded His head. More than any of us, He knows how true this is.

This quiet pondering is one of the lessons of Advent. In the rush to Christmas, I want to skip over the suffering and head straight to hope and joy and light.

Yes, all that is coming, but first I need to lament the brokenness of the world.
He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted.

I need to name the darkness.
…to proclaim release from darkness for the prisoners.


I need to hear once again, “Comfort, comfort My people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”

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I need to listen to songs in a minor key, songs tinged with despair and longing.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

What about you? What are you pondering this Advent?

Speaking of prayer songs

September 25, 2013 — 1 Comment

“For my part, I will sing of Your strength.
I will celebrate Your love in the morning
For You have become my stronghold
A refuge in my day of trouble
To You, o my strength will I sing
For You, O God, are my stronghold and my merciful God.”

Psalm 59:19-20


“He who sings, prays twice.”
–attributed to Augustine


Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation
And let your laughter fill the air
Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation
And tell the people everywhere
Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation
Tell every man in every nation
To sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation
And let the people know that Jesus cares
–Larry Norman

Recently a close friend was going through a very hard time in her life. As I listened to her story, I found myself taking on her burden. My heart felt so heavy, thinking about what she was experiencing and not being able to fix it for her, as much as I wished I could.

The next morning I talked with God about the situation and the concern I had for my friend. Having recently reflected on how God intends us to bear each other’s burdens, I was glad to carry my friend’s during this difficult time.

But as I prayed, whatever words I could come up with seemed inadequate. They didn’t seem to fully express what was in my heart. After praying, I still felt burdened. I chose a psalm to read but soon I reached the end of it.

I continued my morning routine, which usually includes exercising while listening to worship music. I’m often encouraged by the songs about God’s love and faithfulness, and challenged by the songs of commitment and surrender. The music and lyrics lift me up and inspire me.

That day I found myself singing not for myself, but for my friend. I began to change the words from ‘me’ to ‘her’, from ‘I’ to ‘she’. The songs became a kind of prayerful meditation, like the original psalms were intended. The music slowed me down, and the words gave expression to what I was feeling for my friend. My prayers were centered in my heart, not just in my mind.

In the last few weeks, this has become the primary way I pray for family and friends, from my octogenarian mom to less-than-one-year old Nora. I still sing songs of praise to God, but I also sing songs of lament and hope and affirmation for those on my heart. This form of slow prayer enables me to pour out my heart to God and share my concern with Him.

Here’s a playlist of some of the prayers I’ve sung [or songs I’ve prayed, take your pick], with easy-to-edit lyrics:
The Power of Your Love
Jesus, Be the Center
Savior, Like a Shepherd lead…her/him
O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus
Guide me/her/him,O Thou Great Jehovah
Mighty to Save
You Never Let Go

And just now, in the middle of writing this, I hear news that breaks my heart and brings me to tears. I don’t think we have many hymns of sadness and comfort these days. What songs can we sing for someone in a prison cell who has been beaten and tortured for their faith?

I find two,
When the Tears Fall,
and Grace and Peace
and I sing them for M.; an unknown friend who has suffered much.

What about you? What songs would you suggest for praying and carrying burdens of others?