Beyond Words

While on a road trip last week I listened to a few podcasts by Ruth Haley Barton from her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership series. In one of them she talked about communing with God, as opposed to communicating with God. It’s easy to settle for communicating with God–pouring out my heart, submitting my list of requests, and then moving on with my life without waiting for or being attentive to God’s response.  What might it look like to really commune with God…?

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…     -Genesis 3:8

Can you imagine walking in the garden with God in the cool of the day?

A few years ago as I was “communicating” with God, I asked him to help me learn to listen. I knew well my tendency during a conversation to be thinking about what I wanted to say rather than truly listening to what the other person was sharing. It’s rude and dismissive, shutting down the opportunity for vulnerability and meaningful conversation. My communication with God was not much different. I was convicted of my need to change, but also of my powerlessness to do it without some divine intervention! So I asked for help…then went on with my life…which happened to include becoming a spiritual director. Much of the coursework for spiritual direction revolves around listening, so for two years I read book after book and had plenty of opportunities to practice active listening. Real change, however, felt pretty elusive.

But as I’ve reflected on that podcast differentiating between communing and communication, I realize that I more often commune with God these days than ever before. It comes at the strangest times…

  • as I watch the critters in our back yard–a chipmunk, squirrels, and a bevy of birds–all gathered together on and under the birdfeeders to gather nuts and seeds
  • as I meander down to the garden to harvest peas or lettuce and am surprised to see another plant has burst its pod and pushed its way up through the dirt, opening itself to the sun
  • as I sit in my prayer garden in the early morning quiet and simply listen to the sounds around me–all sorts of birdsong, the splashing of a robin taking her bath, squirrels rustling in the bushes, the buzz of bees as they pollinate my flowers
  • as I marvel at the fireflies that light up the back yard as the sun goes down, to the accompaniment of a mourning dove’s soft coo

…and my heart feels so full of wonder that the God of the universe has created such beauty, and has given me eyes to see and ears to hear. And suddenly I’m intensely aware of his gentle, loving presence all around me and rising up within me all at the same time. That’s the moment when I know I’ve finally found my way from communication to communion, from talking at God to intimacy with God…when Love is so powerful that words are no longer necessary.

My prayer for you today is that you will slow down and create time and space to set aside communication in favor of communion with our Creator God, and in so doing you would know the intimacy of that Love which is deeper than words.

 

Listen, Lord

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
Bow our hearts beneath our knees
And our knees in the lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a new window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.
-James Weldon Johnson

The imagery in this poem is rich… What resonates within your soul this morning?

…the humble posture of prayer before God’s throne?
…the lonesome valley?
…the empty pitcher?
…the full fountain?

Imagine God opening his window and leaning far out, listening to every word of your prayer, whether it is full of thanksgiving or lament, anticipation or dread, confidence or fear…He listens intently, as though he has all the time in the world and you are the only person in the universe…because he does and, in this moment, you are…

Speak, child, for your Father is listening.

From discipline to practice to rhythm

Several years ago Richard Foster wrote a book titled Celebration of Discipline. It’s really a classic when it comes to Christian discipleship and I’ve often used it as a resource not only for my own growth, but when teaching and training others. But a few years ago I became aware of resistance to that word “discipline” as I work with younger generations. The word feels stern and slightly oppressive in this milieu, more like punishment than something desirable or helpful, and definitely not cause for celebration!

While it has seemingly developed a negative connotation for many, discipline really is not bad word. In fact, scripture has much good to say about the necessity of discipline for our healthy growth and development. Discipline doled out in excessively punitive measure is a reason for the word’s bad rep and, as we are often inclined to do, the good is thrown out with the bad as we delete the word from our vocabulary!

Spiritual disciplines, however, are not intended to be punitive. They are, and always will be, necessary for the Christian who desires spiritual maturity. Daily Bible reading, prayer, fasting, service, worship, and so on are essential nutrients for growing up into Christlikeness, which is God’s ultimate purpose for us (Romans 8:29). In the beginning of our faith journey, however, it can require a fair amount of effort to engage in these activities–hence the reference to “disciplines.” We must discipline ourselves to adopt these essential rituals.

After some time of consistent effort, however, we find that the disciplines have become practices. The word “practices” doesn’t carry the weight that “disciplines” does, and so we probably don’t think of these acts as quite so laborious.. While they may no longer require as self-discipline as they originally did, intentionality is still key to taking them to the next level: sacred rhythms.

Rhythm: a strong, regular, repeated pattern. What began as a discipline requiring much effort and intentionality eventually becomes a practice in which we more easily engage, then ultimately it becomes a rhythm that is so strong in our life of faith that is sacred–time and attention set apart regularly and repeatedly for the service and worship of God. We know its become a sacred rhythm when we can’t imagine going a day, week, month, or year without it…when we make sure it’s on our calendar (e.g., a day of silence and solitude or an annual retreat) or when it marks the time of day for us (e.g., praying the hours).

Can you identify disciplines in which you have engaged that no longer require heroic effort? Do they feel more like practices than disciplines? And are there practices that have become so essential to your spiritual maturation that you can’t imagine life without them? Those sacred rhythms are definitely worthy of celebration!

If you want to learn more about spiritual disciplines, practices, and/or sacred rhythms, here are three excellent resources

 

A Quiet Place

Once a month I slip away for a day of solitude.

If you are thinking, “Wow, that must be nice, but I could never afford that luxury,” read on.

When I first considered a day apart each month–a day to leave all the demands of life and ministry behind in favor of several hours of simply being in God’s presence–it seemed formidable. Could I make the time? Surely it would be impossible to incorporate this into the rhythm of my life. And even if I could, what would I do? Oh, wait…it’s about being, not doing. (That was enough to make my Martha personality hyperventilate!)

But, honestly, desperation is the true mother of invention…or at least of intention. A deep desire to simply be still before God was gnawing at my spirit like a hungry infant demanding to be fed. Eventually I gave in, reserving a day at my favorite retreat house. It was glorious! I came home refreshed and refilled. So I studied my calendar and chose one day I thought I could spare each month for the next three months. Then, at the end of that three months, I booked a day for the next three months–without carefully studying my calendar. It became no longer about a day I could spare. Now it is about putting the retreat day on my calendar and scheduling everything else around it. Who would have thought it would work? Not me! Yet I’ve integrated this into the rhythm of my life and, amazingly, have never felt the time was ill-spent. Everything has gotten done that needed doing.

 

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Yesterday was July’s retreat day. As I got on the road, I had an overwhelming sense of Father God welcoming me, inviting me to just come and be with him. After the flurry of throwing my “stuff” in a bag (more about that in a minute) and getting out the door, his invitation triggered a necessary slowing down. Funny how that aligned with the need to literally slow the car as I left the highway for a country road. As I made the last turn onto the narrow lane that leads to the retreat house, I smiled at the cows lolling in the shade, lazily chewing their cud, hardly noticing my noisy intrusion into their morning reverie. I pulled up to the house and disembarked to the hearty welcome of croaking bullfrogs who inhabit the pond. Again I smiled. Peace began to flood my soul.DSC_1622

As is my habit, I made some coffee and then went out to the porch swing with my prayer book to begin my day with God. Sipping coffee while praying the Morning Office in the midst of the frogs’ song with a gentle breeze wafting across the porch…peace that passes all understanding.

I always bring “stuff.” I’ve wondered if I do this because I’m afraid God won’t show up and I’ll need something to fill the time…something to do. But God has never failed to show up, and I have never felt the need to do anything on these retreat days. My bag of “stuff” usually includes my Bible, my journal, a coloring book and markers or colored pencils (don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!), a book or two of a spiritual nature, and my camera. What I have learned is that any or all of these things may be God’s “tools” for the day–things through which we connect more intimately. Yesterday it was the camera. (Truth be told, it often is.)

DSC_1733I wandered down one of the trails, snapping pictures of the flowers and a critter or two, marveling at a couple of brightly colored birds who were not willing to sit still for a photo shoot, taking in the glory of God’s creation.When I had my fill, I returned to the house and settled again on the swing in solitude, occasionally journaling a snippet of DSC_1772conversation with God, but mostly just basking in the slowness and simplicity of the day.

Later, back at home, I looked at the pictures I’d taken. I realized that many of them contained insects feasting on what God provided. I hadn’t necessarily seen them from behind the lens, perhaps because they were so small or because the sun’s glare washed them out of view. Yet there they were, getting their fill. And I realized that I, too, had gotten my fill of God today–enough to sustain me through another month of life and ministry.

A day of solitude will do that for me. I bet it will do it for you, too.

 

Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?

 

Believing Prayer

wisdom

There’s something exhilarating about a new Bible! Thumbing through my new ESV Study Bible, I found myself smiling with renewed interest and anticipation for digging into the scriptures, mining for God’s gold: wisdom.

I love the Psalms, and so I began there. Right away, I found a little nugget in the third Psalm. According to the study notes, in verses 1-2 the psalmist acknowledges what he sees. His enemies are many, and on the rise against him. They are taunting him, saying there is no hope that God will rescue his soul.

In verses 3-6 the psalmist acknowledges what he believes. He remembers that God has protected him, has answered his cries for help. He reflects on how he has been able to sleep peacefully, and he believes that it is God who has sustained him. And as he ponders his belief in God’s faithfulness, the psalmist’s courage and confidence are bolstered and he confronts his fear, refusing to let it deceive him.

Verses 7-8 are the psalmist’s prayer, calling again on God to save him, to crush his enemies, and to bless God’s people.

This pattern from the psalmist is one I need to practice consistently:

  1. Acknowledge what I see. Sticking my head in the sand is foolish. How can I effectively deal with something I refuse to see? Ignoring an issue doesn’t make it go away.
  2. Remember what I believe. Call to mind what God has already taught me, the wisdom I’ve already mined from God’s word. Reflect on God’s faithfulness, not just to me, but to all those who love him. There I will find the confidence I need to face the fear.
  3. Pray accordingly. I can either pray based on what I see or I can pray based on what I believe. 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds me which is the wiser choice: “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Imagine our fate if Jesus’ final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane had been based on what he saw coming–torture, abandonment, and a cruel death–rather than on his belief that God would resurrect Jesus, conquering death once and for all.

What do you believe? Your prayers may provide insight.

Surprised by Mystery

Several days ago I had the privilege of praying for healing for a woman with a kidney problem. She has been struggling with this for months, and at times it has been quite debilitating. As we began to pray, my prayer partner received a word of knowledge from the Lord that he–God–would heal that kidney. As we finished praying, the woman said that the pain was gone. Last night I received news that the woman had gone back to the doctor and had another ultrasound, which showed the kidney is completely healed.

I was surprised.

That probably sounds strange coming from someone who regularly prays for healing. It feels awkward to admit it! Until, that is, I recognize that the surprise I feel is not rooted in doubt, but in delight.

I do not have any idea why God heals some people and not others. It’s a mystery. I’ve certainly asked God about it, and I’ve read a lot on that subject. I’ve not found a definitive answer, and I don’t believe there is one to be found. (That is the definition of mystery, is it not?) The way I see it, to believe I should have an answer to everything I don’t understand is simply arrogant. Some say that I’m blessed to be at peace with the myteries of God, but I think it’s as simple as knowing about a particular woman in a garden long ago who was tempted by the notion that she could know the mind of God. She gave in to the temptation, and look where that got us!

Personally, I find a great deal of peace in knowing that someone who is bigger and smarter than me has everything under control–the good and the bad. God is not capricious. He is good and he does good. Always. The mysteries will someday be revealed and the very word “mystery” will become obsolete. I can wait.

I believe firmly in divine healing. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve even experienced it myself! Yet I am always surprised when God chooses to heal. Evidence of doubt? Not at all. It’s delightdancing-with-god in witnessing the mystery all over again. So I will continue praying for healing when the opportunities present themselves and joyfully embrace the surprise when I’m reminded of the mysteries of God!