L. D. Turner
For many sincere followers of Jesus, the Master’s words about being with us always and about his love for us are little more than arid ideas with little emotional, experiential impact. This is due to the fact that so many times we are distracted by “busyness” and spend little time communing with the light and love that are the first emanations from Christ’s being. The only way to rectify this and turn God’s love for us into a living, life-changing reality is through regular periods of quiet communion. Contemporary spiritual director Jan Johnson speaks clearly to this issue, reminding us of the importance of our times of spiritual refreshing:
One of Jesus’ greatest promises was this: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20), but we may not experience this. Instead, we keep praying, “God be with us.” That’s because we are distracted by life’s thousand demands and by our habit of filling in empty time slots with entertainment. Our mind flashes from one thing to another, always occupied. A weekly visit to church can’t begin to penetrate this busyness. Contemplation reconnects us with God in the midst of this scatterdness. Life pulls me in so many directions – between the demands of my work, my husband’s plans, the kid’s needs…..I may say I am “thirsty for God as the deer is for water,” but at the moment I need to get my hair cut. However, when I pause to contemplate and be with God, I sense that this God who holds the universe together can also hold me together. In the quiet, I recall how God has helped me in the past. Without the clamor of demands around me, I remember that I am one God so loves.
Contemplative practice can be far more than a powerful mode of mystical prayer – it can also be an exercise in healing. This is especially true in relation to psycho-spiritual issues. Jan Johnson discusses a few of the ways in which contemplative practice can help with personal healing:
The simple practice of contemplation creates a bond with God in which God can heal the scatterdness of our lives and these other unhealthy spiritual states you may be experiencing:
Guilt and Shame
Lack of Direction and Purpose
I don’t know about you, but in my life, I can relate to all three of these negative psycho-spiritual states. And, like Sister Jan, I have found that contemplative prayer, in whatever form it might take, can be of immense value.
Evelyn Underhill, that master of the mystic life, vividly described the nature of her prayer life in its more negative aspects:
We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to want, to have, and to do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, we are kept in perpetual unrest. My jabbering prayers have been full of what I want, what I think I should have, and what I want God to do.
Johnson goes on to describe how our self-absorbed prayers have a tendency to lead us down the road of spiritual anguish and despair. In the end, it results in a sense of hopeless desperation and the irony of it all is that it stems from our own misguided notions of what prayer is to begin with:
Imagining He has let us down, we become estranged from Him. In a culture that teaches us to perform for rewards, prayer becomes one more place of defeat and God is one more disappointment. We may even keep going through the motions spiritually – going to church, helping others – but in our heart we wonder, “If God is good, wouldn’t He give me the good things I want? Because He doesn’t, either God is not good, or I’m hopeless….We come to a dismal place because we misunderstand prayer as a means to have our desires fulfilled instead of a place to encounter the compassionate, all-seeking God.
There are times, those special times when I sink deeply enough into the silence, when I come face to face with my own tendency to not pay close enough attention to what is going on in these “quiet times.” I love the way the writer closes out the paragraph with that stinging juxtaposition about whether we see prayer as a place where we have our desires filled or a venue where we encounter the compassionate, all-seeking God.
Sometimes I think we lose track of how incredible the whole concept and process of prayer is. I know I am guilty as charged. In my work at LifeBrook I once designed a two-day training, not on prayer as many people had asked, but on preparing for prayer. You see, I had come to the point of awareness where I saw that I had not been giving the practice of prayer the place of honor it deserved.
It is hard to express this in words, but I had a personal epiphany around this issue. It dawned on me, in my gut, that when I went into my prayer closet I was coming into the presence of that very being, that inexplicable intelligence responsible for putting together this incredible universe, with all its complexity, diversity, and finely-tuned balance. Friends, it literally took my breath away.
What made this prayer experience so profound for me was the reality that God, the divine being and creator of all that is and ever will be, not only wanted to spend time with me, but he actually loved me. And what is even more amazing was the fact that his love was not static, but instead, was dynamic – a genuine affection that provided me with provision, purpose, and passion for life. As I sat there in silence that blessed morning, the words of the prophet Jeremiah jumped off the page and penetrated my heart in a way both novel and life-changing:
For I know the plans I have for you…They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you…I will end your captivity and restore your fortune. (Jeremiah 29:11-14a)
As I said, this episode literally left me panting for breath, but it didn’t end there. As is my practice, I normally take a book of devotions with me into my prayer sanctuary, just in case the Spirit leads me to open and read, especially if my period of prayer seems do be without direction. I opened the book, a short collection of essays on scriptural themes. It was no coincidence that I opened the book to the page where I had placed book mark, totally at random, prior to beginning this period of prayer. You can imagine what I felt when I began to read these words by Lloyd Ogilvie:
Talk about a conversation opener! Imagine someone you love and admire and whose thoughts and opinions you cherish, saying to you, “You are constantly on my mind. And when I think of you they are wonderful thoughts of peace and future happiness for you. I’m pulling for the very best for you. What a joy it is to be your cheerleader!” I would not be difficult to find time for conversation with a person like that. Multiply the best of human care and concern for us a billion times and you’ve only begun to fathom God’s love for us as He calls us into conversation. That’s the whole point of time alone with God. It is to allow Him the opportunity to love us.
Rather than write more about this, let me issue you a challenge. Over the next week, spend a block of time each day, say 15-30 minutes, during which you reflect on just what prayer is and what it is not. Really spend time with this, keep a small journal of your thoughts, and especially consider just who and what it is you are encountering when you go into prayer.
Don’t approach this as an exercise in intellectual snobbery or any kind of effort at theological description. Instead, let your heart lead you into your response.
Be especially open and sensitive to meeting the incredible being that created all that is, even you, in all its incredible complexity.
If you persist with this exercise over a period of several weeks, I predict your prayer time will be forever transformed. Try it and see.
© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved