Many moods of silence

October 24, 2014

This morning I was reading Psalm 62, and I was struck by the word “silence” in the first line.

For God alone my soul waits in silence;

Then again in verse 5,

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence

Yet in verse 8, I read this

Trust in him at all times, O people;
    pour out your heart before him

So what does it mean to pour out my heart before God while at the same time waiting in silence?

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Life is good

April 11, 2013

Until Sunday, I had never heard of the company Life is good, which is perhaps not surprising considering that the company eschews conventional advertising. Instead, they grow based on word of mouth, and through the publicity generated by their work on behalf of children affected by poverty, violence, and illness.

Bert Jacobs, co-founder (together with his brother John) of Life is good, was the keynote speaker at the Ellucian Live conference I attended in Philadelphia this week. Bert’s story about the power of optimism is indeed inspiring, and it’s clear that his message – embodied in the grinning face of “Jake” on the products the company sells – resonates with people.

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No bad prayer

January 19, 2013

I am currently reading two books on prayer, both to help with my own prayer life and because I am leading a small group study on prayer at church. When it came to choosing a topic for the small group, I was initially reluctant to consider a study on prayer. Certainly it’s an area where I need to grow. But how could I possibly lead such a study when my own prayer life is so inadequate?

As we talked about the new year, however, and the areas of our lives where we would like to see God do something new in us, I wasn’t the only one to have a concern about my prayer life. Perhaps, I thought, my own need in that regard was a reason to pursue a study on prayer more than a reason to avoid it.

I chose these two books, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster and The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God by Matt Woodley, in part because I found discussion guides to these books available online (here and here). No doubt there are other good books out there I could have used, but based on the discussion guides I was confident the books were worth buying.

I’ve read plenty of books on prayer before, heard sermons, and done Bible studies. Usually I just end up feeling more inadequate, as I compare the poverty of my own prayer life with the examples of powerful prayer I read or hear about.

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The Way of a Pilgrim

November 19, 2011

I had come across passing references to this spiritual classic at least a few times before I decided to see if I could get it from the library. I assumed the book was primarily didactic in nature, and that the title was metaphorical. So I was surprised, when I started reading it, to discover that it is – apparently – an autobiographical account by a Russian pilgrim of the 19th century.

I say “apparently” because the author is unknown, and some people think that it was written as though it were a pilgrim telling his story, but not by an actual pilgrim. I suppose that is possible, although I would think that a made-up story would be told in a much less disjointed manner, with fewer extraneous details and going off on “rabbit trails.”

But regardless of how the story came to be written down, it is a striking example of applying spiritual teaching to everyday life – in a time and place very different from our own. The pilgrim is a peasant who travels from village to village, occasionally requesting husks of dry bread for his pack, but for the most part seeking nothing but quiet and solitude to pursue communion with God through constant prayer.

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Music: Pilgrims’ Hymn

November 19, 2011

This evening the community choir I sing in presented a concert of American music, mostly from the time of the Civil War. (I think this was at least in part related to the Sesquicentennial.) My favorite piece from the concert, however, is “Pilgrims’ Hymn” by Stephen Paulus.

The text by Michael Dennis Browne (adapted from a prayer of the Russian Orthodox church, according to rehearsal notes by the composer) fits perfectly with the music by Paulus. Every time we rehearsed it, I felt moved by the fusion of words and music, and absorbed as much by the prayer as the notes and rhythms.

A recording played on computer speakers hardly does justice to the beauty of the piece, but you can get an idea of it from this performance at the Saint Paul Seminary Chapel by Kantorei, an acapella chamber choir in Minnesota.


Puritan prayers

September 1, 2011

A few days ago, Joe B. at WORLDmag.com Community (previously known as worldmagblog) posted a Puritan prayer that a number of us there found very meaningful and saved for our own future use. Since then he has posted another Puritan prayer each day, and I became curious about the source of these prayers.

I could have asked him, but it was quicker just to Google it, and I discovered that these prayers were not as obscure as I might have thought. I found quite a few pages that contain a number of these prayers, all taken from a compilation of Puritan prayers titled The Valley of Vision. I have seen few books at amazon.com with such high ratings (5 stars by nearly all reviewers, and even the reviews that rate it lower are very positive), and I promptly added it to my Wish List.

As I thought about blogging about these prayers, I couldn’t help wondering what would be the reaction from ModestyPress, my Radical Agnostic friend. What interest could he possibly find in a post about prayers that are all about the depths of personal sin and the glory of God? I know he does believe in right and wrong, but sees no need to link those concepts to a divine being, or to worry about displeasing such a being.

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Not much of a gift

May 10, 2011

This evening I read an excellent post at First Things, “Offering It Up.” Elizabeth Scalia writes about offering up our difficulties, our pains, and our disappointments to God. What surprised me was that she seems to refer to it as a specifically Catholic idea.

I did a Google search, and sure enough, most of the hits were in reference to Catholicism. Some were by Catholics, explaining the practice; some were questions by non-Catholics who had heard the phrase and wondered what it meant. I think a few were from Catholics who knew the phrase but weren’t really clear on the meaning behind it.

Going back to look at Scalia’s post again, I saw that she specifically links the idea of offering it up to God, and other people benefiting from it. Perhaps that is the “Catholic” aspect of it. I may, in the back of my mind, realize as I offer up my difficulties to God that the end result may be something good for other people, but it’s a rather indirect link.

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Books: Radical

April 17, 2011

 I finally finished David Platt’s book Radical yesterday. When I started it, back on Super Bowl Sunday, I couldn’t put it down. (Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to distract me from watching a football game.) Once I was offered the chance to take it home, and finish it at my leisure, I couldn’t seem to get interested in picking it up again.

That’s perhaps not too unusual a reaction. As one of the editorial reviews at amazon.com points out,

“Sometimes people will commend a book by saying, ‘You won’t want to put it down.’ I can’t say that about this book. You’ll want to put it down, many times. If you’re like me, as you read David Platt’s Radical, you’ll find yourself uncomfortably targeted by the Holy Spirit. You’ll see just how acclimated you are to the American dream.” (Russell D. Moore, dean, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Most days I read for relaxation and intellectual stimulation. I like to sit in a comfy armchair, often with a snack or at least a beverage handy. Picking up a book that makes me feel guilty for time or money I spend on my own comfort doesn’t quite fit the picture.

When I did finally pick it up again yesterday, I had another surprise. Most of what I remembered about the book was the emphasis on American Christians needing to be willing to give up at least some of their material comforts and give to people elsewhere in the world who have so much less. Apparently I had pretty much finished that part of the book, because when I started reading again, it was all about needing to take the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to people who have never heard, so that they will not all go to Hell.

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Thanks

November 25, 2010

I have read, though I don’t know if it is accurate, that the Pilgrims would have considered what we call “the first Thanksgiving” more a harvest celebration than a day set aside for giving thanks. Not that they weren’t very thankful to God for the bounty He had given them, but that according to their custom, a day of thanksgiving would be a day of fasting rather than feasting.

While it seems entirely appropriate to enjoy a good meal with family and friends and to jointly give thanks for the food and fellowship, I can see the wisdom of a fast day to help focus our minds and hearts on all that we have to be thankful for. It’s so easy, in the preparations for a big meal – especially if company is coming – and in the enjoying of it (and then perhaps sleeping it off) to get wrapped up in the work and the fun and make the giving of thanks a relatively minor part of the day.

One of the purposes of fasting is to remove distractions – or to allow those that do come to reveal to us just how easily we are distracted, so that we turn to God for his grace in renewing our minds. The time that would be spent preparing food and eating it is instead given over to prayer. (I say all this, mind you, from a theoretical perspective, as I can’t think clearly at all if I don’t eat regularly. Any “fasting” that I do has to be a partial fast, limiting the kinds of food I eat but making little change to the quantity – other than not eating to excess, which I shouldn’t be doing anyway.) 

I have no plans to fast today, though the meal will be less elaborate than some years, when we had more people to share the Thanksgiving meal with us. I wasn’t even going to cook a turkey just for the three of us, but then someone gave one to us. There’ll be the mandatory mashed potatoes, and I’ll make corn casserole and green bean casserole, but that’s it. I bought a stuffing mix, but I think I’ll save it to go with leftover turkey sometime this weekend. Somewhere in the freezer I have a mini apple pie, which I’ll bake if I don’t forget about it.

I have to admit, it doesn’t feel a lot like Thanksgiving, or how I like to think of Thanksgiving. Our older son is away at college, having chosen not to come home for the weekend as he’d spend half of his time just in travel. My husband is sleeping as he has to report for work early this evening – one of the drawbacks to working at a retail giant like Wal-Mart on one of the biggest shopping days of the year (the doors open at 12:01 AM). Thanksgiving – to me – is all about sharing with friends and family, and that fellowship is what I give thanks for more than the food.

But today of all days I don’t want to get feeling sorry for myself, or complaining. So I will put together a list of things I am thankful for. And being the creative, word-loving person that I am, I had to think of a pattern to use to make the creation of that list more interesting and challenging. My younger son and I sometimes play a game where we think of words in a category, and each word has to begin with the letter that the previous word ended with. Usually the category is animals (e.g. horse, elephant, turkey, yak, kangaroo, owl, lemur, rhinoceros, slug, giraffe, etc.).

Music
Church
Health
Humor
Reading glasses
Scouting
Grace
Education
Nature
Employment
Trees
Smiles
Snow
Web
Books
School
Library
Yummy food
Doctors
Singing
God

Feel free to add on!


The Pressure’s Off (cont.)

July 13, 2010

The heart of the New Way, according to Larry Crabb (whose website is even called NewWay Ministries), is “to value intimacy with God more than blessings from God.” The Old Way looks for satisfaction in success and pleasure, and deals with problems by trying to cope with them or make them go away. The New Way finds pleasure above all in simply being with God, and knows that problems cannot stand in the way of a relationship with God, and that sometimes problems help us to value that relationship more.

In contrast to the Adjustment Cycle and the Therapeutic Cycle (see my previous post on Crabb’s book), the Spiritual Cycle starts with brokenness.

You realize how arrogant you are. You don’t welcome trials. You’ve lived for no greater purpose than to avoid them or reverse them if they come. Your ambition has risen no higher than a life that works pretty well. Perhaps you’ve disguised your narcissism by dressing it up in Christian clothing. Find fulfillment in ministry. Clean up your life.

Next is repentance. Then you abandon yourself to God, resisting the urge to “drown your sorrows in any way you can” or to “nobly persevere and present yourself to others as a courageous martyr. Instead, you listen to the Spirit speak through the Bible.” Things that happen still may not make any sense, but you choose to trust that God is in control and that He is accomplishing His purposes in you. This leads to confidence that God is present, no matter how bad things seem. And that in turn leads to the freedom to be the person you’ve longed to be, bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

Some of my reactions to reading about all this:

  • I feel a sense of the brokenness Crabb talks about. I can’t claim to be truly motivated by a desire for God’s glory. I don’t desire God more than experiencing God’s blessings. I suppose in large part that’s because I have experienced God’s blessings, a great many of them, throughout my life. But I have had very few experiences of God Himself, and even those I’m not sure afterwards whether it was more than a combination of emotions and imagination.
  • I feel a bit of despair, doubting that I can ever progress beyond where I am. The ideas Crabb presents are not completely new to me. In college I first read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and realized that I knew a good deal about God but wasn’t sure I knew God much at all. Five years ago I read Cat and Dog Theology, and realized how much more like a cat than a dog I often am. (For a dog, his master is the center of his life. A cat does not think he has a master, and wants to be the center of everyone’s life.) Other books over the years have led me to what I thought was brokenness and repentance. But why do I seem to be still in much the same place?
  • At the same time, I find myself wondering if Crabb is putting too much emphasis on motivation. He writes about how both followers of the Old Way and New Way do many of the same activities. The difference is whether their highest motivation is to enjoy God’s blessings, or to know God and enjoy a relationship with Him. Certainly motivations do matter. The Bible consistently condemns pride, which has more to do with attitude than actions. But the Bible also many times contrasts good people and evil people based on their actions. Obedience to God and enjoying God are often linked, but I can’t think of a Scripture offhand that specifies enjoying God as the motive rather than the reward of right action.
  • If Crabb can tell how to make a relationship with God a matter of actual experience rather than abstract doctrine, so that I can say (as I have heard others say) that I know God is present, I want to do it. I don’t know if my motivation for that is right, though – is it because I want God to be glorified or because I want to enjoy the experience of knowing God? Since God means us to enjoy Him, I don’t think it can be wrong to want that. And anyway, whose motives are ever completely pure?

So what is it that Crabb says to do? He does finally give some steps to follow.

  1. Reflect on where you are.
  2. Recognize the fork in the road that is always before you.
  3. Refocus your goals.
  4. Realize what God provides as the means of grace.
  5. Reorient your prayer life to match New Way living.

I’ve always been good at reflecting on where I am. I’ve lost track of how many times a pastor or other counselor has said how good it is that I recognize where I am, what sinful attitudes and habits I have that I need to replace with godly ones. This step is important, but by itself it doesn’t do much.

The fork in the road Crabb speaks of is the Old Way versus the New Way. The Old Way identifies my deepest personal longings – and sets me on a path to try to acheive them. The New Way identifies my deepest hunger, for God and His glory – as well as my deepest flaw, which is that I’ve been working so hard to achieve my personal longings instead.

New Way goals are

  • an encounter with God
  • a spiritual community where people are known, explored, discovered, and touched
  • transformation that makes us more like Christ

I think those goals sound appealing, but Crabb warns that unless we consciously focus on those goals, we’ll pursue those that come more naturally – “material affluence, personal and physical comfort, and socially acceptable effectiveness in arranging for the life we desire.”

Until I went on the Walk to Emmaus eleven years ago, I had never heard of the “means of grace.” The very idea sounded contradictory. Grace was something freely given, that one could not earn or bring about on one’s own. How could there be a “means” to get grace? But the explanation given there made sense. Through prayer, worship, the sacraments, and other means of grace, God gets our attention so that we respond to Him. (The Walk to Emmaus is a Methodist ministry; I think other traditions such as Lutheranism have a different understand of the means of grace.)

Crabb’s discussion of reorienting our prayer life was what I found the most helpful. It is the one place that he gives specific instructions (remember, I started out looking for a method to follow). There are four parts:

  1. Present yourself to God as you are.
  2. Attend to where you notice God’s presence or absence.
  3. Purge yourself of whatever, in that moment, might be keeping you from noticing more of God.
  4. Approach God with abandonment and confidence, dedicating yourself anew to coming to Him to know and enjoy and reveal Him, not to using Him to make your life better.

(He calls it the Papa prayer, and I have to admit that I did not notice until just now, setting italics on the words Present, Attend, Purge, and Approach, that Papa is an acronym of those four words. I had assumed it referred simply to the fact that God is our loving Father.)

The language of these instructions is familiar to me from meeting with a spiritual director regularly for a few years, a number of years ago. Crabb also talks in terms of spiritual direction, a practice most evanglicals are unfamiliar with but that is beginning to become known in evangelical churches. It is a special kind of Christian friendship, where one person helps the other listen to what God is saying – not just in the words of Scripture but through circumstances, emotions, the words of other people, etc.

During those few years my prayer life did seem to be deeper and richer and far more satisfying – not that finding it satisfying is a particularly good measure, but it did keep me showing up each morning, coffee cup in hand, to pray. Sadly, once I moved away and could no longer meet with her, it seemed that I couldn’t figure out very well how to listen to what God was saying without her. I started to wonder whether I had really been listening to God at all, or only to her.

Crabb specifically recommends spending five minutes at each part of the prayer. That’s long enough that I can’t just say well-practiced words and move on – I have to really think about it, examine myself, and tell God honestly what is on my heart and mind. But the five minute limit also keeps me from spending all my time on only one aspect of the prayer – and the “agenda” it sets helps at least a little in keeping my mind from wandering.

Presenting myself to God means telling Him “where I am” at that moment. I admit whatever is bothering me, whether it’s a fault in myself or someone else, my circumstances, even how I feel about Him. Of course it can be full of joy and praise – I just haven’t been there much in quite a while.

Attending to where I notice God present or absent is more difficult. For me, at least, this is partly because the intellectual side of my mind immediately says, “That’s silly! God is always present.” I think this is supposed to be more where I particularly felt God’s presence or absence, though I find that also hard to say. Examples of noticing God’s presence could be being struck by a particular passage of Scripture, hearing someone’s testimony of how God worked, or feeling great joy in worship. Sometimes it is simply feeling grateful for what God has given me. Laughter is one of those gifts I tend to notice – perhaps because for me it is not all that regular an occurence.

The “purging” part doesn’t seem to different from the confession of sin that I have been taught is always to be a part of prayer, except that it perhaps deals more with attitudes and motivations, while many Christians may think of confession as dealing more with actions. I’ve always been taught that confession has to go hand in hand with repentance, and repentance requires forsaking sin. But if my sin is not loving or trusting God as I should, how do I go about forsaking that, until I learn how to love and trust Him more?

Approaching God because I want Him – well, to me that’s the goal of all this, not something I know how to do yet. At this point my prayer (as it has been for years, it seems) is more along the lines of “I want to want God more.” How do I manage to pray that for five minutes?

So far I haven’t managed to finish the twenty minutes without my mind completely wandering. But I am reassured by one thing – the focus of this isn’t on “getting it right.” The whole idea of the book is that “the pressure’s off” because God loves us and doesn’t wait for us to get it right before He shows up in our lives.