Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Avoiding prayer for all worth: The Mystery Factor

I want to write a bit about mystery, and more specifically about God as mystery. Many of us dislike any sense of uncertainty or mystery when it comes to God. We want to be able to describe his ways perfectly. It is expected that with enough Bible Studies under our belt, we can move beyond mystery and into knowledge or certainty. People come to me asking very difficult theological questions, assuming that if one has studied long and hard enough, he can live beyond mystery--that she can give exacting answers to the most difficult of questions.

We want a definable God with definable ways.

Sorry to burst the bubble, but I'm afraid we don't have one of those.

When Abraham was called by God, he was invited to go to a place that he did not know. Abraham was invited into mysterious living. His calling wasn't to what he could see or understand, but into obedience in places and time when God would seem to make no sense. His marriage, his fatherhood, his role as an uncle and patriarch were in all ways confusing. Read his story in Genesis 12 and following, and tell me you think he perceived God as anything but mysterious.

But when we pray, we want to get right down to the facts. We will tell God how things are and then define the appropriate divine response. "Lord, you know so and so has these problems, and we ask you to take them away." We assume God will solve problems exactly as we imagine.

So when I repeat prayers in order to center myself in God's presence, those prayers are not of my own writing. They are however, very much from my heart and will. I pray, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me." for long periods of time, and then I come to the place where I feel comfortable switching to "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on ___________." And in the blank I insert a person or situation or church or whatever.

In our western way of thinking, if we are not independent to pray what we want and how we want, then our prayers are not authentic. I disagree.

Often in our evangelical protestant way of thinking, if prayers are memorized, they must be only empty ritual. Again I disagree. And I do so because I believe that God is mystery, "his paths beyond searching out." And my task in prayer is not to instruct him, but to humbly place myself before him...as in the prayer above. Or as in the "Lord's Prayer," with its phrase: "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."


(Over the past couple of weeks I have been silent here. Our family lost a dear loved one, and we spent most of two weeks in California. I apologize for the lack of attention to this site, however, obviously my heart and attentions were rightly placed elsewhere.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Avoiding prayer for all we're worth: Tools Part 3

In my pocket I carry a very small circle of yarn. It has been tied into knots all the way around. I can't tell where the beginning or end is, except that in the midst of the knots is a tiny wooden carving. And if you look closely, you can see the carving is a cross. I'm describing a prayer rope. There are prayer ropes with many more knots, or some with beads that many people call "prayer beads," "worry beads" or a rosary.

And by now, many of you are shocked and dismayed. "These are the tools of the superstitious, not Christians!" (I can hear it now, because it is exactly what I used to believe.) But I am going to ask you to hang with me for a moment. Because I am learning to use my prayer rope. I have been on and off now for a few years.

I don't use my prayer rope to count my prayers, but to keep me attentive to them. In Part 2 of this series, I introduced the use of centering prayers. Each time I begin the prayer again, I move to a new knot, again, not to count, but to notice that I am starting over. Because when you pray a prayer for an hour or so, or even for several minutes, it is easy to begin to drift in your thoughts. (Remember the introduction to this series--"Avoiding prayer for all we're worth." Here I admitted that I have trouble focusing for more than a few minutes. Thus, the tools are what I use to remedy this.) And so the feel of the knots brings my attention back if it has wondered during the previous prayer. And, each time I come around to the cross, I take a moment to pray a brief "Glory to you, Lord, glory to you."

My prayer rope helps me get in sync with my praying, but you probably don't have one. So here's a tool to see if this can help. (Not as good as the rope, but a start.) Touch your thumb to your pointer finger and say your first prayer. Then, move to your middle finger, your ring finger and little finger. You have completed a ssequence of prayers. Now start over.

Next time, I'll share a few more prayers I use for centering. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you about these things.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Avoiding prayer for all we're worth: Tools Part 2

WHY do we struggle to pray, and keep our mind focused?
We are so limited. God, the One with whom we try to relate in prayer, is so unlimited. That is why humility is a great place to start when praying.

In our limitedness, we prefer speaking to that which will respond. Other people can communicate with us in the simplest ways. We say words, they say words. We are even able to communicate with pets to some extent. Funny, we receive more of the response we desire when we speak in a huge empty room, and hear our own voice come echoing back at us. But what we desire (a verbal response to our praying) is not what we receive when we practice prayer.

Speaking to God can feel like speaking into a vacuum. And with the lack of audible feedback, it is tempting to move on to something else that we can do. We take different approaches to our short-lived prayers: At best, we assume prayer is only one way--me talking to God--and so we often practice one way communication. At worst, we fear we have failed in what others seem to accomplish with ease. And failure is a poor motivator for continued effort, so we despair and cease trying.

New paths to prayer
And so this is where the tools come in. In this post, I'll introduce the practice of repeating a simple centering prayer.

Let me deal first with your fears. The idea of repeating a prayer raises red flags with some of you. It sounds like a disobediance of Jesus' warning not to us vain repititions. And you should indeed hear and heed that warning. He is not interested in your mindless, empty repititions. However, remember we begin praying in humility. And a humble heart does not hope to manipulate God with some stream of meaningless words. I repeat prayers every day of my life. There are some I pray each morning and evening--for instance the "Lord's Prayer," (called the "Our Father" by some). And even though I pray it several times a day, each time I seek to draw my heart's sincere attention to praying His words.

Many of you will agree with all I've said, but not like the word "centering" at all! I don't like it much either, but I don't have a better one right now. Maybe you can offer one?

This kind of prayer is a memorized, short and repeated prayer used to focus your heart and attention on God. The Lord's Prayer can be employed in this way.

I'd like to ask you to practice using this tool. If you know the Lord's Prayer or the Jesus Prayer, try spending five or even ten minutes repeating one of them. Here is a version of the first if you do not have it memorized.

Our Father in Heaven, Holy is your name. May your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

And the second is one used by many needy people who approached Jesus: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." (Some add the words "a sinner" to the end of this prayer.) As I pray this prayer, in order to keep it "real," I will occasionally drop and add some words, as I go along. After you have quieted your mind into this prayer, you can also begin changing the "me" to the name of a person or situation or church...or whatever you are praying for. Just keep yourself humble in the process.

Keep these things in mind!
-This is not a race to try and say the words quickly. Your goal is to desire the prayer to be true.
-Your mind will wonder, if so, gently bring your attention back to the text and begin again. The more you practice, the easier this will become.
-Don't be dismayed if you struggle at first. With practice you will come near to God, and sense the ability to remain in him.

Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing." Do you? This tool will help you move in this direction--in God's direction.

Next time: a tool used by millions, distrusted or hated by many, but helpful to me.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Avoiding prayer for all we're worth: Tools Part 1

At the end of the last post, I promised that I would share some prayer tools with you. Because I find it hard to pray for more than a few seconds without losing focus, I have gone searching for these tools. Most people won't comment here, but I here via email and word of mouth that I am not alone in this struggle. And so, I will spend my next few posts striving to give you a few simple ideas and tools that may help you to pray.

(I believe that the best praying happens when we are together, praying as the church. I won't tackle that here, but will refer to it when I write about prayer books.)

For this first entry, I'll speak about place, posture/position and disposition.

We need a place to pray where we can feel alone and uninhibited. We need to have a prayer place. Jesus spoke of "going to your closet" to pray. No matter the fancy definitions of "closet" we may read, the point is that we must have a private place to go and pray. I can't find that for you. You'll need to work on that. Examples might be a garage, a separate room in the house or at work. When my children were young, I used to sit in the room with them with my head under a blanket. They knew to leave me alone when I "went" there.

I find that the posture, or position I take when I pray is important. I do not have any one single posture that I employ. However, I find that my body position is important. Why? We are not merely "spiritual" creatures. We are physical. God is saving us body and soul. There are times when I pray in my bed (the Psalmist speaks of this). There are times I kneel with my face up, and other times when my face is to the floor. There are times when I stand with my arms held in a receiving position, and other times when I sit quietly, with my hands cupped or folded on my lap.

These will make more sense when I go further into these elementary lessons.

So the first tools that I can give you, are to find a place and experiment with posture. I believe you will find it natural to know when to kneel, or sit or stand.

Perhaps it is even more important to speak of disposition. There is nothing more important in the process of prayer than humility. Think of effective prayers in scripture--when people pleaded with Jesus--and you will be thinking of humble entreaties. The thief on the cross, the woman with the issue of blood, the blind man beside the road, the father who's son was thrown into fires by demons, the synagogue ruler who's daughter was at home dying--then dead. Desperate humility typifies those who pray effectively. We too must have God's blessing, and we pray best when we humbly seek it.

Hopefully tomorrow I'll have time to write some more specific prayer tools. If not then, I will in the next few days. I am excited to share some stuff that is really helping me. Today, I enjoyed a few hours of prayer. He is worthy of our pursuit!

Peace to you.