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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Growing a Deeper Prayer Life

 Growing a Deeper Prayer Life

Prayer is easily ruined when we make it a work project.  Instead of treating prayer as a duty, let us allow God to give us the desire to pray.  We will pray because we are drawn to pray and because we want to pray, not because we believe we have to pray.  Our deep desires to pray  are a gift from God.  He will give us the desire to come to Him with heartfelt prayers.  He will lead the way if we will be open to follow.  

Most of our prayers will be simple straight forward prayers – prayers asking God for help and prayers thanking Him for blessings and prayers of petition for others and prayers for forgiveness.  But since there are other ways that we can open ourselves up to God in prayer, - ways that we don’t normally practice and ways that are sometimes taught in prayer retreats - we might want to give several of these prayer practices a try.   We will name of few of these ways to come to God. 

The first prayer practice we will mention is “Lectio Divina,” which is Latin for “divine reading”.  Lectio Divina is a way of prayerfully meditating on a few Scripture verses in order to hear God’s personal word to you.  This prayer practice was developed by early Christians in the third century and became widespread when St. Benedict made it central to monastic spirituality.  Christians have practiced Lectio Divina for nearly eighteen hundred years.

Lectio Divina is a prayer of expectation.  We come in faith expecting to hear God’s voice.  We dare to believe that God still communicates and that Scriptures can become God’s living Word for us.  Then we come to God and read a few scriptures with the desire not just to hear the words of the scriptures but also to encounter the Word behind the words.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to have communion with God.

If God has a word for us we want to listen in faith for this living Word.  Lectio Divina treats the Scriptures as the living Word – always alive and active and new and fresh.  We listen passively in silence as the few verses of Scripture are read and we gently wait for a gift that God has for us in those Scripture verses.  We read the short passage of Scripture over slowly and reverentially.  Instead of studying the Scriptures or analyzing what we are reading, we seek a deeper more personal spiritual meaning as we mull over God’s Word.  We take time and settle ourselves in God’s presence in stillness and silence and we ask God to prepare us to receive His Word for us. 

 You can pick a quiet place that will support attentive openness to God.  Perhaps you could light a candle if that would help you be still and receptive before God.  Practice enjoying the Scripture verses for ten to twenty minutes.  Most people find that this way of praying the Word works best when they use a short Psalm or a passage from a longer Psalm or perhaps a few verses from the Gospels –Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. .  Paul’s Epistles also work well.  But there are no rules. And then lastly we listen for a word from God.  If a verse touches our hearts or we quietly feel it moving us that can be what God has for us. Often God speaks to our hearts  in a still small voice.  Nothing dramatic.

The second prayer practice that we will mention here is practicing the presence of God with us.  Most of us go through life oblivious to the God who is with us as we journey through each day.  God is present to us and this presence can be known and can be part of our experience.  We can cultivate the awareness that God is with us everywhere we go.   

Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, encouraged his followers to take time each day for prayerful attentiveness as to how God had been present to them and how they had responded to God’s presence.  This prayer practice was called the “examen”.  There are three steps to the “examen.” 

1.)    First you find a quiet place and you affirm that you are in the presence of God.  You ask God for the grace of seeing yourself and others and the world as through spiritual eyes.
2.)    Secondly you allow your attention to roam over your present day.  Trust that the Spirit will bring to mind any significant event to which you should take care of.  Give thanks to God as you notice the blessings of the day and also notice the times when you failed to see the face of Jesus in someone you met or encountered.  Notice the people that you failed to respond to in love.  Ask for forgiveness and thank God for His grace in your day.
3.)    Close by asking again for grace to be open and responsive to God’s presence.  Our spiritual life will be no deeper than our capacity to pay attention to God’s presence in our life.  
If we do not want to practice St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “examen” we can still cultivate prayerful attentiveness to God.  We can do this by making time in each day for pauses to be still before God in trust and openness.  And we can watch for traces of God’s hand in our daily life.  Count the new blessings He gives us each day and thank Him for them.  We can make a habit of reviewing our day to see how God has blessed and kept it.  And we can ask for forgiveness for our sins each day too.  We can watch for traces of God in other people. And lastly we can consider taking occasional spiritual retreats as a means of growing deeper in our prayer life. 
One more prayer practice we will mention here is the “Jesus Prayer”, prized in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jesus Prayer is the oldest Christian contemplative prayer tradition around.  This is the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy upon me, a sinner.”  Down through the centuries many have prayed this prayer – repeating it over and over throughout their day. 

Those who use this prayer often say that after repeating it for a while the prayer begins to emerge from a deeper place within their being.  The meaning has gone from the mind to the heart and from the consciousness to the unconscious. The Jesus Prayer can be described as a mantra prayer, which means that it is a prayer based on the repetition of a few words.  Mantras are prayers with the intent to bring us closer to God. 

I believe that praise is a part of prayer.  We used to belong to a church that sang praises to God for thirty minutes every time we came together for a worship service.  It was a blessed time and we could feel the heavy presence of the Spirit of God in our midst in a special way. Scripture says that God inhabits the praises of his people.  (Psalm 22:3)  I miss those praise times now that we have moved and are no longer members of that church. Of course we can praise God either in words or in song when we are by ourselves.  

We will continue our study of prayer in our next blog.  And I will close with this thought.  One time a few years ago when I wasn’t praying very often and was feeling discouraged with life, I grumbled to God saying that I felt like He had moved far away from me. Very soon after that James 4:8 popped into my mind.   James 4:8 says: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”  That verse encouraged me and I began coming to God in prayer more and I began feeling His blessed presence more once again. I believe that Scripture tells us that God loves us and is always waiting there for us.  He is always wanting to be close to us but it is up to us how close we want to be to Him.  

Many of the ideas of this blog were taken from David G. Benner’s book, “Opening to God”.  


Friday, April 17, 2015

How to Grow a Deeper Prayer Life

How to Grow a Deeper Prayer Life


If we are honest, most of us may feel at times that our prayer life isn’t as good as it should be.  We may have been taught that prayer is a discipline or something that we should do.  This is true but prayer is so much more.  Instead of thinking of prayer as a duty or obligation that we fulfill or something that we do, let’s think of prayer as something that God does in us!  God is leading and we are following!  


Unless God lights the flame in our heart, there is no fire.  God invites us to let Him light the flame in our heart.  He invites us to open to Him and to give our lives to Him and our part is to say “yes” to that invitation.  He would have everyone say “yes” to His invitation for salvation and for communion with Him in prayer, and “yes” to the adventure of following Him, but too many turn away.


Prayer is talking to God – asking for help, interceding for others, asking for forgiveness of our sins, thanking God either silently or with words.  But prayer is so much more than this.  Prayer involves taking on the mind of Christ (Philippians 10:5) and this involves something much deeper than beliefs.  As we pray and open ourselves to the Lord, another amazing world opens to us and we are allowed to see things through Christ’s eyes.  When we are given this new Spirit-shaped vision, we go out and live our lives differently.  Seeing life through spiritual eyes involves seeing the world not just through the eyes of analysis and reason but also through the eyes of wonder and love.  When we get just a tiny glimpse of God’s grace and power moving behind the scenes in our broken world we are overcome with praise and thanksgiving.   


And prayer is also listening for what God has to say to us.  And God, our loving heavenly Father has so much to say to us. He is ever reaching out in love to us.  Ever waiting to reveal His wonderful truths to us.  Anxious for us to grow in faith enough so that we can receive them.   The body of Christ – the Church – over the centuries has found that certain habits have helped us to draw closer to God and celebrate our relationship with Him and hear His voice.



Some of these habits are:  (1) reading a passage of Scripture and listening for God’s personal word to you in it.  (2) Walking the Stations of the Cross.  (3) Lighting a candle in church or in a place where you pray.  (4) Affirming your Christian beliefs by reading the creeds.  (5) Letting music draw your spirit toward God.  (6) Singing praises to God either in a group or by yourself.  (7) Celebrating the Eucharist or Communion. (8) Reading liturgical or other written prayers. (9) Praying the Lord’s Prayer.


And also:  (10) Sitting in silence and allowing your heart to be drawn back to God.  (11)  Taking a contemplative walk while being open to God and what He has to say to you.  (12) Pondering or singing the words of a favorite hymn or song. (13) Repeating the “Jesus Prayer” “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.”  (14) Making the sign of the cross or bowing before an altar or crucifix. (15) Praying in tongues. (16) Allowing your hunger during a fast to draw your attention toward God.  And (17) Allowing your mind and spirit to turn toward God as you hear church bells or sit before a lit candle or any of a number of reminders that can call your attention back to God.


God is reaching out to us and is waiting for our attention and response.  We cannot please or respond to God without faith (Hebrews 11:6), but God will give us the faith we need as a gift, if we will take it.  He will give us anything that we need. We can learn to open to God who is already present and communicating.  Prayer is so much more than saying words.  Prayer is making space for God – not letting the world crowd Him out!  Getting the noise and clutter out of the way so we won’t miss Him.  Putting Him first.  Scripture says: “Be still and know that I am God.”  (Psalm 46:10)  How many times have we missed Him because we haven’t made space for Him?  Or put Him first?


 And prayer is communion with God.  And our God is a God of love and grace and we are experiencing that love and grace as we pray.  It rubs off on us!  Our prayers involve union and intimacy – a sacred romance. That intimacy is based on our mystical union with Christ.  We can rest in that reality. This is our fundamental identity – the deepest truth of our existence – that we belong to Christ.


Our prayer life is perhaps like a journey.  When we first become a Christian we begin to experience God’s love in a new way and we find great joy in learning more about the God who has given us salvation.  As new Christians often our prayers are answered quickly and we feel God’s peace.  We are on a high and we are growing in our faith but then after a while, when the honeymoon is over, along with those joyful times there also may come times of desolation in prayer.


 The dark night of the soul has arrived.  We love God but it seems like our prayer life has become dry and our prayers aren’t reaching Him any longer.  How can our faith be growing when we can’t see the way forward?  Scripture says that every follower of Jesus will have a cross to bear and will have times of testing.  But even our desolation has its own divine purpose.  We have to trust God for the reasons. God knows the way through the wilderness.  All we have to do is follow. He is in the darkness as well as the light. In these dark nights, our soul is learning to see by faith and not by sight. 


We can grow a deeper prayer life by learning to open more and more dimensions of our being to God.  Openness to God can be scary since God’s presence is often hidden.  But when we know that our all-powerful and all-knowing God is holy and righteous and always good and that He loves us, we can stand on that stable ground and let the storms swirl around us.


 The Bible proclaims that Christ stands in the midst of those who seek or want Him.  (John 1:26)  The presence of Christ is a hidden one, but if we sincerely want Him we will find Him. (Matt.7:7)  But we must be prepared to allow God to arrange the encounter.  Prayer is not a magical ritual that allows us to bring God under our control.  We must trust God and walk this Christian journey by faith and not by sight.  Let go and let God.


In our Christian journey through life we may have wondered why God allows us to have the troubles we have and why we face the pain and confusion that often is a part of life.  Down through the years, several of the most dedicated Christians we have known have been killed in ugly accidents when they were young adults.  A pastor we knew along the way – a pastor who loved God with all his heart - was thrown out of his church because his wife divorced him and ran off with the choir director.   He not only lost his family but he lost his church. 


One dear Christian woman we knew became paralyzed and couldn’t talk or move or take care of her children. She lived in this condition for years before she died in her early forties.  Other Christians have lost beloved children to drugs and rebellion.  And the list goes on and on.  In the end, if we keep the faith God promises us victory in Christ, but while we are on the way we have to hold onto that promise by faith as we sometimes must walk on and on through the confusing darkness before the Lord finally leads us Home.  God promises to be with us every step of the way and we can constantly speak to Him and He with us through prayer.


Some questions we might ask ourselves concerning our own personal prayer life.  1.) How would your prayer experience be different if you truly believed that prayer is God’s work in you?  2.) How deep is your confidence in God’s love and His goodness?  3.)  What noise and clutter do you need to get out of the way so that you can make space and time for God?  4.) What makes it difficult for you to offer God this space and time or stillness and silence?  5.) Do you make space for listening for God’s voice?  6.)  Looking at the list in this blog of things that we suggest are part of Christian prayer, which of them might be helpful for you?  And 7.) Where has the Spirit of God been leading you?  Should you respond to any invitation that you sense may be coming to you from God?  We will continue this study about developing a deeper prayer life next week.

Many of the truths and thoughts in this blog were taken from David G. Benner’s book, Opening to God