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What is the difference between poem and prayer? The older I get, the more I think there is none. I was raised on both: My mother, a devout Catholic, read poetry to us kids from the time we were tiny. And I mean real poems — Wordsworth, Poe, Coleridge, Whitman. By the time I could read, these poems were as familiar and dear to me as any fairy tale or nursery rhyme.

When I started writing poetry (at age 6), it didn’t occur to me my own poems could be prayers, mostly because I wrote about nonspiritual stuff — my toys, Christmas, flights of fancy. It was only when I got a gig writing nondenominational prayers that I realized: If the intention is there, poem is prayer.

Word is word, whether
molded by mouth or hammered,
hewn, by hand. And all words rise,
sure as heat, the heavens
being the only landing strip
for such strange dirigibles.
Voices are louder, quicker
to pierce Paradise, but clumsy, too,
all diphthong and sibilant s’s.
Written, words fly graceful as doves,
land, preening, offer themselves
as white sacrifices. The God of Words
collects them, views their pulsing hearts
thanks them and sends them home.

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Tibetan prayer flags

In her last post, Lori asked if we still pray for the same reasons and in the same way that we did five years ago?

How I pray changes weekly. It depends on the time of the year and whether or not I need to move.  Sometimes I’m kneading bread. Sometimes I’m knitting.  Some days I walk or color.  It just depends.

Why I pray, on the other hand, hasn’t change all that much.  I pray in response to the world around me.

I pray for my family.  Five years ago, my father was recovering from a stroke.  Now, because of dementia and mobility issues, he’s living in a nursing home.  My son was in middle school, which he loathed.  Now he’s a senior in high school and loves some of his classes.  Some is quite an improvement.

I pray for our leaders.  I truly believe that most people who go into politics do so with the best of intentions.  They want to help and they think that public office is the way to do it, but power is a lot like alcohol.  A little bit goes a long way and some people handle it poorly.

I pray for our planet and the poor. I’m heavy into social justice but I’m betting you all know that. I pray for patience.  I actually pray for patience quite often.

I’m not discouraged because I’m praying for more or less the same things I prayed for 5 years ago. They’re broad categories. They’re life.  I know God is listening and I’m equally certain that he answers.  Some things just take a while to come together, and some of us learn very slowly (see me and patience above).

Some of the answers to my prayers?

Obama.

My son who had been talking about the military is now talking college.  No, the military isn’t bad but it wouldn’t be a good fit for him.  He’s too much like me.

My Dad is in a nursing home getting the help he needs.

Pastor Sean.  When we were looking for a minister, we knew what we wanted.  We went through over 200 applications.  This man was not what we wanted but as soon as we saw his resume, we knew.  He is what we need.

Choir Director Charlie.  She’s only been with us for a week and finding her was a long time coming. She’s heavy into “feeling the Spirit” and “feeling the music.” So looking forward to seeing where she takes us.

And, as we journey together, I’ll be praying.  It might be while I walk.  It might be in song, but it will be.

–SueBE

How did you learn to pray? I can’t honestly remember. I can recall my babyish list of people to bless, including “grandma, great-grandma and Auntie Myrt” — long since gone from this earth. Why did I pray for the elders on my father’s side but not for my mother’s father, alive until I was seven? At what age did I give up kneeling?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that my prayer life could use some radical change. I’ve been sticking to a formula for too long. Besides, any words I use seem minuscule and shabby compared to what I hope to convey. Maybe human language isn’t really built for prayer. And anyway, doesn’t God know our hearts better than we know them?

I’m not advocating that you cease praying. Prayer can lead to great self-knowledge. But maybe we need to consider whether our prayers are really for God…or for ourselves. What sort of prayer would please God? I’m not entirely sure, but if I had to listen to the human race in supplication day in and day out, I know what would please me: a little silence. Hence, the following poem:

I could, I suppose,
dispense with formalities:
words once bubbled from childish lips
no longer suit. Still.
How can I hope to bridge our mighty gap?
The words can’t come —
I haven’t learned the language.
I settle on syllables like unbuttered bread,
toddler words: “cat,” “dog,” “mama.”
I’d have to shed my heavy tongue
to speak the words I mean.
And there it is — revelation!
Perhaps my prayers are best silent.
Instead, I will throw open my heart;
You will read it.
I will not murmur, even when
You touch the painful places.

Recently, a friend told me that he is looking for a new job. Would I pray for him?

“Of course!” That’s what I said aloud, but that’s not what I wanted to say. No, no, no!

The chances that this friend will find a new job here are pretty slim. He is probably going to have to move far, far away. The reality is that what is best for him isn’t what I want.

The same day, joy oh joy, I found out that one of my son’s favorite teachers is leaving. He hadn’t told anyone, but his job was posted on the district web site. This teacher is also a friend and I knew I should pray for him. I knew that but at this point I was just in a mood.

Hint: When I say that I am in a mood, I do not mean a good mood. Honestly.

Still, I managed to pray. How do you pray when you want to pray for people to get it together and quit making you sad? You remember that you’re a grown up and that what you want may not be what’s best for other people.

Dear Lord,
I’m not sure what to say. Please help him grow into the person you would have him be and go where he can best do your work. And, God? Please give me the strength to not be a whiner about the whole thing. Thy will be done, Lord. Thy will be done.
–Amen

I have to admit, I’m always hesitant to tell God how to fix a problem. I tend to suspect that my instructions will be in my best interests and quite possibly not in the best interests of those for whom I pray.

As a Mom and a friend, sometimes I just have to get with it and pray for what is truly best for someone else even when it makes me a little blue. Thy will, not my will, Lord.

–SueBE

The Lord's PrayerI find myself yet again asking for a prayer.  A dear friend is facing her third battle with cancer.  When we were in our twenties, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer of a very rare, aggressive kind. She came through treatment wonderfully.  Then 5 years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Again, we prayed and yet again she came through the treatments better than we had dared hope. Recently, her energies ebbed. She was often short of breath. Again, she went to the doctor.  This time around it is a rare blood disorder that invariably leads to leukemia.

For those who love her, this is an especially difficult time and I don’t just mean her illness.

For the most part, we are a prayerful group but facing this battle yet again many of us are at a bit of a loss. What do we say?  How do we pray? “Hey, God. It’s me. Again. Look, I’m getting a little sick of this.”

Okay, that’s not it. But how do you pray when the words don’t come? When you’d rather just flop down on your face in the middle of the bed?

Here are three things that have worked for me in the past week.

  1. Ask for prayer. I know it sounds like a cop out, but ask friends for prayer.  Admit that you don’t know how to pray about this yourself because it is just too much.  Your friends will get it. They’ve been there themselves. They’ll hold up everyone involved.
  2. Resort to a time honored prayer. We all have prayer that we’ve memorized.  I love the Prayer of St. Francis. Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love . . .  Another favorite is the Jesus Prayer. Jesus, have mercy on me, the sinner.  At times like this, when someone is desperately ill, I turn to the Lord’s Prayer. May thy will be done.
  3. Pray through song. I know you expected this one from me and here it is. When I’m at a loss, I turn to music. So many of our hymns are also prayers.  In fact, my choir has sung several arrangements of the Prayer of St. Francis. Sing through some of your favorites. They speak to you for a reason.

There are times when it is all but impossible to pray.  Ironically, these are also the times in which prayer is vital. Maybe one of these ways will work for you.

–SueBE

shut up and prayI’ve blogged before about praying when you aren’t sure what to say, but I recently encountered a new issue.  This time I knew what to pray.  The problem was what I might say before I got around to the prayer.  To put it mildly, I was tempted to say something snotty.

I know a wide variety of people.  Some of them are Christian, some of them aren’t, and some of the people in each group of obnoxiously outspoken.  Among the non-Christians this often takes the form of how bigoted, narrow minded and scientifically impaired Christians are.

Do I need to point out just how much I love these comments?  Sure, they can point to Christians who are each of these things, but I can point to Christians who are anything but.

Then, about a week ago, one of these outspoken non-Christians posted a prayer request.  I skimmed past it before it registered and had to make my way back up the list of posts.  A friend was barely clinging onto life.  Please pray.

I’d love to say that my first reaction was “Yes, I’m praying.”  In all honesty, it took a minute to get there, because I never thought I would see this woman make a prayer request.  It took a minute for my brain to process that this wasn’t something else negative about religion or Christians, but I did eventually process it.

I’d love to say my second reaction was “Yes, I’m praying,” but I wasn’t there yet.  My second reaction was more like “wow, that’s nervy.”  And I so very badly wanted to point out the irony or this request.  My fingers hovered over the keyboard.

I’d love to say that I heard that still small voice telling me to behave myself.  Truthfully?  It may not have been there but it wasn’t all that small.

I’m sure I heard enamel pop off my teeth even as I put my fingers to the keyboard and typed, “I am praying…”

Even as I was processing all of this, I knew that pointing out how bizarre her request was would have only made her defensive.  There’s no chance she would have seen the error of her ways or been drawn to God.  And if there is no way a statement like that is going to help, I may as well admit that it would have been harmful.  It would have been one more bit of evidence about how intolerant and narrow-minded Christians are.

So I kept my mouth shut, although it was a struggle, and I prayed.

It’s been about a week and the man we were asked to pray for is much improved.  No, he’s not entirely well, but he’s off the ventilator and doing much better.  Prayer is, after all, a powerful thing.

And maybe, just maybe, this woman has now seen the power of God even if Christians still tick her off.

–SueBE

no teacher

Recently, I came across an amazing quote about prayer.

“Prayer needs no teacher.  It requires dialogue, effort, and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.”

–St. Meletius the Confessor.

Not sure how to pray?  The steps are very simple.

Talk to God.

Try to pray.

Love God.

God will teach you.

The thing is that God wants us to reach out.  He is the parent (Mom or Dad) who just wishes that their tween or teen would quit texting their friends and speak.

When you do make an attempt, he isn’t going to sit there and judge our efforts.  He will take your best or your worst.  He will listen.  He will reach out in love.

Many of us have been discouraged by someone whom we have looked to for instruction.  We have been put down and now we wonder if we can possibly get it right.

If you are trying to pray to God, then you are praying.  It is that simple.

Do it and you do it right.  Just be sure to listen for what He has to say in reply.  Hear and you will learn.

–SueBE

Prayer styleThis weekend, a friend and I start teaching a class on prayer at Florissant Presbyterian Church.  In my reading, I came across a chart showing learning styles and corresponding prayer styles.

Take a look and see what types of prayer correspond to your learning style.  You may discover you’ve lucked into what works best for your way of thinking, or you may find something new to try.

Linguistic Learning:  This type of learning is all about the various ways we use language.  You may be a linguistic learner if you have excellent recall, love to debate, write, tell or listen to stories.
Prayer Styles:  Lectio Divina, journaling, spiritual reading, or poetry.

Logical/Mathematical Learning:  If you easily recognize patterns, are good with numbers, like to compare ideas, analyze situations and solve problems, you may be a logical learner.
Prayer Styles:  Bible study, mandalas, labyrinth, or prayer beads.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Learning:  This is all about using your body and includes acting, dance, manipulating objects or athletics (strength, coordination, speed or endurance).
Prayer Styles:  Praying with your body, labyrinth, walking prayer, or prayer beads.

Spatial Learning:  If you are good at seeing the relationships between objects, visualizing things, picking up on patterns, drawing, painting or sculpting, you are probably a spatial learner.
Prayer Style:  Meditating on an icon or sacred image, drawing or painting, mandala.

Musical Learning:  This means that you are good at picking out patterns in sound.
Prayer Styles:  Singing, listening to music or playing an instrument.

Naturalist Learning:  Ability to sort and classify animals and plants.  Naturalist learners tend to be very aware of their environment and care for it deeply.
Prayer Styles:  Being in nature, gardening.

Interpersonal Learning:  Ease in knowing, understanding and interacting with other people which includes reading people’s moods and working with others.
Prayer Style:  Group prayer, corporate worship, spiritual direction, intercessory prayer.

Intrapersonal Learning:  Ability to understand self and our emotions.  Can mean spotting both your strengths and weaknesses and have a deep knowledge of your own boundaries.
Prayer Style:  Contemplative prayer, journaling, examen, spiritual friendship.

Existential Learning:  What does it mean to be human?  Why am I here?  This kind of intelligence is marked by an awareness of things that are bigger than we are.
Prayer Style:  Theological reflection.

Obviously, these types are not mutually exclusive.  I am a logical learner but also touch on spatial and musical learning. Take a look and see if there is a type of prayer you might want to try.  And if you don’t know what something is, just ask and I’ll write a blog post on it.

The information in this post is from the PCUSA Office of Spiritual Formation.

–SueBE

Early in my prayer journey, a friend gave me a set of prayer beads. Hers were on an elastic band and she wears them like a bracelet.

I took a set of pale green beads but for a while I didn’t use them. Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure how to use them. Its not like I grew up praying with a rosary or anything else in hand. I was going to have to wing it.

The first thing that I did was re-string the beads. I now have a longer set of green, onyx and brass that I can wear as a necklace or looped around my wrist. When I sit down to pray, just how I use these beads varies from one time to another.

Today, I needed a break from the worries running around in my head. I needed to focus on all that is Right and Good. I had to turn my gaze to God. At each green bead, I repeated the phrase “Holy God, You are the Creator of All.” Then for the black beads, I ran through bits and pieces of His Creation, naming one thing per bead.

For one set of beads I focused on large and mighty things – mountains, oceans, rivers, etc.

For another I focused on tiny things – the feather’s on a humming bird, the leaves on the new sprouts of mint in the garden, etc.

As I worked my way through the beads, I covered sounds (ocean waves, running water, wind in the leaves, etc.), scents (roses, a field in the sun, etc.) and even places I’ve been (Bandolier Canyon, the Davis Mountains, etc.).

For the last several sets of beads, I focused on simply breathing, slow and deep. I listened. No, I didn’t hear anything in particular but I hadn’t asked anything. I was just grateful for the quiet.

Not that this is always how I use my beads. Sometimes, I run through the Prayer of St. Francis, reciting a line of his prayer for one bead and then thinking of an application here and now for the next bead. Sometimes I pray for the families that I know who are in need. Each family gets a set of beads, with a specific request per bead.

The thing that I’ve come to realize is that the beads aren’t a grading system. There isn’t a single right way to pray with them. They simply help me to focus and slow down so that I spend some necessary time with the God who is more than I can wrap my mind around.

–SueBE

Recently, my thirteen year-old son went to Florida with his school choir. Along for the ride was his first cell phone. “So that you can stay in touch,” we told him. Maybe we should have elaborated a bit, because thus began a series of hilariously brief and uninformative phone calls.

“Hey, Mom. We just crossed into Florida.”

“Ok, anything happening?”

“No, just checking in. Bye.” Click.

“Hi Mom, Did you try to call me? Sorry I didn’t call back we’re really busy but we’re having loads of fun except (garbled something). Just checking in, bye!” Click.

“Hi, Dad. Did you guys give me money for tomorrow? There’s something I want to buy if you did. What? I can’t hear you. It’s really loud here but I’m having fun. Bye!” Click.

It didn’t seem to matter when he called or where he was, one reality remained consistent. Most of what we said was completely lost to him. He was just too busy and there was too much going on to listen.

Probably a lot like our prayer lives, don’t you think? After all, like my son, we know we need to check in. We don’t need a cell phone but we have the tools we need, but when we bother at all, the conversations are brief and one sided. We are simply too busy to make sure we hear the response, often times, even if there is something we want or need.

Why not try something new. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Seek Quiet.  Prayers on the fly are okay. Sometimes it’s the best way to fit in a prayer if someone we know needs help. But this isn’t true communication. For that, we need to listen. To do that, find a quiet place you can pray.
  • Invest in Time.  Again, if this is going to be true communication, its going to take more than seconds. You probably don’t have hours, but what about minutes? Ten minutes a day spent in focused prayer can bring serenity and ease into your life.
  • Don’t Just Talk.  Again, we are back to prayer as communication. Why do I keep mentioning that word – communication? Prayer is one of the most effective ways we have to communicate with God. Most of us are pretty good about telling God what we want, but to receive his guidance we also need to take time to listen.

After all, it we aren’t going to bother with the answer, what’s the point in asking the question?

–SueBE

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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