Monday, August 10, 2009

Spiritual Formation Meets Prayer Ministry

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book cover
Seeking God Together: An Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction
Chapter 9

Sharing the Journey Of Prayer
Rebecca was scheduled to present one evening in our spiritual direction group at church . She began by saying, "Tonight I want to talk about my prayer life ." Then she told us how it was changing, what she liked and didn't like about it, and the questions she had about her own ways of praying . The group listened, affirmed and asked questions to help her process her experience . She seemed encouraged . But in all honesty, it was one of those experiences of group spiritual direction where I wondered if anything had "happened ."

Reflecting back on the time, I realized that something astounding had happened: Rebecca had been given the opportunity to talk with several other people about prayer--one of the most intimate and mysterious experiences of life . As she talked about how she prayed, her prayer life became more real and more alive for her . She was no longer alone in this deeply personal part of her relationship with God . Furthermore, as she shared about her experiences in prayer and received the companionship of others, she opened herself to more of the companionship of God .

Prayer is Love
St . Augustine said the "true, whole prayer is nothing but love ." The subtitle of Richard Foster's book on prayer is Finding the Heart's True Home. Praying, then, is like coming home to a loving God . In my own life, I like to think of prayer as the experience of running into the arms of God, who is waiting for me just as the father waited for the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24) . Michael Casey says that "prayer is not just dialogue; it is the first stage of surrender ." When I pray, I am surrendering myself to the love of God .

We often think of prayer as something we do or say . "I prayed," we tell our friends, "that God would heal [or help, or give me something] and God answered my prayers ." There is nothing wrong with praying that God will help us and heal us, but this description of prayer misses the point . It sounds like we're in charge, like we make something happen by praying . We give God instructions . This is not what prayer is really about . If, as Augustine said, prayer is nothing but love, then when we pray, we are allowing ourselves to be loved by God and we open ourselves to experience and to reflect that love in whatever way it's manifested . Prayer is not something we do to control life, just as love is not something we control . Love is something we receive and we give. Prayer, then, is a gift we receive from God that allows us to participate in the work of love which God is doing in our lives and in the world .

Spiritual direction is all about our relationship with God . Prayer is at the heart of that relationship . The more we can learn about prayer, the more equipped we'll be to companion others in their prayer experiences . In this chapter, then, we'll look at prayer in light of Scripture, our daily lives and our spiritual journey .

Prayer and Scripture
People who are experienced in prayer often notice that their prayers are deeply rooted in Scripture . When they pray, they pray Scripture .

Calvin Miller says that "the key in all of our Scripture praying is to let the Word become the mode of our transport . . . . When we are reading the Scripture, the border between Scripture and prayer becomes so thin that they meld into each other and we are united with God ." We do this when we read slowly, as in lectio divina . We do this when we stop our reading and muse on a truth we see in Scripture . We do this when we carry a verse or two in our minds and hearts throughout the day . And we do this when we use the words of Scripture to pray our own prayers .

I have found that praying the Scriptures is a very helpful way to express my inner desires when they are hidden by stress, defeat or anxiety . At one difficult time in my life, all I could do was pray the prayer of Job: "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him" (Job 13:15 niv) . That may have been a little dramatic, but praying those words helped me hope . Another time Psalm 23:4 became my prayer: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . ." As I prayed this, the operative word for me was through . I prayed that God would lead me through the valley of the death of my expectations for my life at that time, that I would make it through the changes which were happening in my circumstances, and that God would sustain me and strengthen me to do what needed to be done as I walked through the valley . On more ordinary days, I often pray that God will "carry me" as God promised through the prophet Isaiah that he would carry the Israelites (Isaiah 46:3) . When Scripture becomes my prayer, I am drawn closer to God, the author of all truth .

When we meet together in group spiritual direction, Scripture provides a foundation for our conversations about prayer, whether this foundation is verbalized or not . Most of the time we'll just listen, and hear how others have prayed and experienced Scripture in their own lives . Occasionally, we may suggest something from Scripture ourselves, but we do this tentatively and lovingly . In a recent group experience, during one of the times of silence, words of Scripture came to my mind with unusual clarity . After the silence, I mentioned the words to the person presenting . But I didn't elaborate or pontificate on them . I just offered them to her . If those words turned out to be a way for her to pray about what she had presented, I'm grateful . I didn't need to give her my application of the truth of that Scripture . That's the job of the Holy Spirit, who gives us truth, in love, at the moment we can hear it .

Examining our Daily lives
Ignatius, who was known for his advice on discernment, suggested a discipline which can also be a form of prayer: the daily examen . This is not, as I first thought, a time to think and pray about all of our sins . It is, rather, a way to reflect on our day, in dialogue with God . After we take a minute or two to quiet our hearts and focus our attention, we think back over the last day or two . Then, in the presence of God, we notice the times when we felt the closest to our loving Father . These may be times when we felt joy or freedom or a deep sense of God's presence . They may even be times when we felt conviction--the conviction that comes with the invitation to return to God's love . Then we notice the times when we felt most distant from God, such as times when we felt anxious or discouraged or tied up in knots . In these moments we might have felt that the weight of the world, or at least our own lives, sat squarely on our own shoulders .

This is not a prayer of request or commentary . In this prayer experience, we simply notice . It is a prayer of relationship . It is sharing our day with the Holy Spirit of Love . After we pray this way, we may want to move into confession, petition or intercession . But first of all we look "with the eyes of [our] heart" (Ephesians 1:18) to see our lives as God sees them .

Some people have found that this prayer of examen is a good way to begin group spiritual direction . This is especially helpful in a setting where people are not used to thinking of God intersecting their lives in intimate ways . When the group gathers, allowing a brief time for this reflective prayer can be a good way to quiet down before the presenter begins . This can remain a personal experience, or it could lead to a time of brief sharing .

Prayer on the Journey
Prayer is an integral part of our spiritual journey . It is the essence of our communion with God . Sometimes our prayers are verbal, sometimes they're silent . Sometimes we can describe our prayer life, sometimes it's beyond description . Sometimes we seem to initiate our prayers, and sometimes it seems as though God speaks to us first .

Brendan, the Celtic pilgrim, was known for his seafaring journeys, undertaken out of spiritual longing and obedience . Calvin Miller wrote this about Brendan:
When the wind died and the sail hung limp, the men rowed, though they knew not where . Finally Brendan ordered the fatigued rowers to stop . He cried, "God is our helper . He is our navigator and helmsman, and he shall guide us . Pull in the oars and the rudder . Spread the sail and let God do as he wishes with his servants and their boat ."

Sometimes as we pray, we sense that the Spirit is inviting us to stop our hard rowing, pull in the oars and let God guide the boat . We need to let go . Letting go of our own agenda does not mean that it won't happen, or that it is necessarily contrary to the will of God . It just means that we stop trying so hard . We receive, rather than make something happen . We let God guide the boat . This sense of letting go is at the heart of prayer .

Thomas Keating, well known for his teaching and writing about prayer, suggests that there are three desires we need to let go of: our desire for control and power; our desire for affection, esteem and approval; and our desire for security and survival . In all honesty, when I read that list, my first response was, "That will never happen!" And many times since then, as I have prayed "I let go of my desire for control, affection and security," I find myself having this one-way conversation with God:
  • "Well, actually, I don't let go at all ."
  • "But I want to ."
  • "Well, I sort of want to ."
  • "God, help me want to ."
The experience of letting go, I have found, is not something for the faint-hearted in prayer . It is not something we learn once and then live out of ever-after . It is, rather, the syntax of our ongoing spiritual journey . Over and over again we remember that God invites us to let go . Jesus, the God of the universe, is in our boat. (Remember the story in Mark 4:35-41 .) When we pray, sometimes God invites us to pull in the oars, spread the sails and let God take us where he wills .

Silent Prayer
When we "pull in our oars," we may find that we have nothing else to say . This reflects the experience of Paul that he described in his letter to the church at Rome . He wrote that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) . I like to think that when I am silent in prayer, the Holy Spirit is interceding for me "according to the will of God" (Romans 8:27) .

In writing about silent prayer, Thomas Keating describes centering prayer, which is the experience of being intentionally silent before God . Keating suggests that when we pray in silence, we use no words, we do not dwell on any thoughts, and we do not follow the wanderings of our minds . It is, as he says, like taking a vacation from ourselves . Keating recommends that we intentionally do this for twenty minutes twice a day . Many people have found that this discipline deepens their relationship with God immensely .

Other people are helped just by remembering that silence, as well as words, can be prayer . "For God alone my soul waits in silence," the psalmist wrote (Psalm 62:1) . If prayer is nothing but love, then that love can be expressed silently or with words .

Spiritual Direction as Prayer
When we meet in group spiritual direction, we want to encourage each other to grow in whatever ways the Spirit leads us to pray . In some literature, spiritual direction is actually called prayer, since it's a coming together in the presence of one another to listen to God, and then, as we talk with one another and sit in times of silence, it offers time to talk to God . Walter Wangerin says that in prayer, we talk and God listens . Then God talks and we listen . In group direction, we talk and we listen .

This is what happened when Elizabeth presented in her group . She chose to talk about how sad she was that a close friend, Lynn, was moving away, and that she feared she was too attached to Lynn . Elizabeth talked and God listened . Elizabeth's friends, in whom the Spirit dwells, also listened . Then they entered a brief time of silence for members of the group to listen to God . After that the group listened again to Elizabeth and affirmed her love for Lynn . Members of the group observed that God loved Lynn even more than Elizabeth did . The response of the group completed the circle of prayer because through their support, God talked and Elizabeth listened . In this way, the group experience was indeed prayer .

Becoming Pray-ers
Early in our experience of parenting, my husband and I were drawn to a quote we saw on a seminary bulletin board: "The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother ." Even as young parents, we had an inkling that this was true . In a similar way, one of the best things we can do to become better spiritual companions of others is to seek to deepen our own prayer lives and relationship with God . As we grow closer and more in love with our heavenly Father, we are more inclined and better equipped to love God's children . In group spiritual direction, we can do this by offering to one another what Rebecca and Elizabeth's groups offered to them: against the background of our own love for God, we listen, support and reflect back what we hear as someone describes his or her own prayer life .

Because we ourselves are pray-ers, we know the many questions prayer brings and can include in our group spiritual direction conversations gentle and nonjudgmental questions about prayer such as
  • What is it like for you when you pray about this situation you're presenting?
  • How has prayer been helpful to you in the past?
  • What are some new ways you might like to experience God in prayer?
As with many of the questions we ask, the words are not as important as asking the question in an inviting, compassionate way .

Prayer in Group Spiritual Direction
Sometimes groups can offer to pray for the person presenting at the end of their presentation, but it's important to ask the presenter if that sounds like a good idea . Also, some people in the group may not feel comfortable praying out loud, so it might be good to suggest silent prayer, with the group leader closing either with the Lord's Prayer or a simple "Amen ." Alternately, one person could volunteer to pray on behalf of the whole group .

If your group chooses to pray aloud, remember that the purpose of prayer is to bring your friend's needs to God, not to talk to your friend about what he or she needs to do . I have been in groups where people have prayed, "God help this friend do [or believe, or think] such-and-such ." When that happens, prayer can sound a lot like preaching--which is not part of spiritual direction . But even with that precaution, prayer can be a truly meaningful group experience . Every group will need to come to their own way of praying .

In his book The Path of Celtic Prayer, Calvin Miller tells another story about Brendan that gives some hints for us in approaching prayer in group direction . In this particular story, the monks who were with Brendan on his sea journey saw land in the distance .

Then the monks were filled with joy and began to row as quickly as they could . When [Brendan] saw this, he said: "Don't row so hard, or you will exhaust yourselves . Is almighty God not the helmsman and captain of our ship? Do not strain yourselves, since he guides us where he will ."

This is a metaphor for me of what can happen on our prayer journey . We can have a prayer experience that seems like we have "arrived," or at least come to some milestone that is meaningful to us . It is, metaphorically, as though we are in a ship and we see land . Naturally, we want to row hard and take everyone with us! But once again, Brendan reminds me that it may be better to pull in the oars and let God guide us all .

In meeting together for group spiritual direction, we have agreed to get into the same boat . But the landscape we are heading toward, especially in prayer, will look a little different for all of us . The invitation we give to one another is to be in the boat together, but not necessarily to row harder and harder . Instead of rowing we are invited to pray, alone or together, and see where God guides us .


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