Thursday, November 15, 2007

on attaining to true prayer

One of the pastors I work with copied this chapter called "On Attaining to True Prayer" for me out of an old Quaker text on prayer, but I don't remember what the book is called so I'll have to edit this later after I ask him. Anyway, a couple things stood out to me as I was reading this chapter. It's talking about how to pray, in silent times and throughout the day.

First, I appreciated this line: "Those who have not learned to read are not...excluded from prayer; for the great Teacher who teacheth all things is Christ himself. They should learn this fundamental rule, that 'the kingdom of God is within them;' and that there only it must be sought." It's a good reminder that we don't have to be educated to know God, even though now (in the US anyway) it's likely that most of us know how to read.

Second and even more interesting: "Constant prayer is to keep the heart always right towards God. ... A son who loves his father does not always think distinctly of him; many objects draw away his mind, but these never interrupt the filial love; whenever his father returns into his thoughts, he loves him, and he feels, in the very inmost of his heart, that he has never discontinued one moment to love him, though he has ceased to think of him. In this manner should we love our heavenly Father."

The whole "pray without ceasing" thing has always seemed kind of daunting, but this makes it make sense. I don't think it's just excusing us from something difficult, but it explains how to pray in an unceasing manner--loving God fully at all times, even when we're not thinking about God directly. This makes a lot of sense to me.

And lastly, this sentence stood out to me: "The less we practise silent prayer, the less desire we have for it; for our minds being set upon outward things, we contract at last such a habit, that it is very hard to turn them inward." I think that's a very true and profound statement. I've found it to be true in my life that the less I "practise" silent prayer the less I desire it, and the more I practice it the more I miss it if I skip a day, or yearn for it if I have to put it off for a while. It's a great thing to be addicted to! I hope I can become more addicted every day!

Monday, November 12, 2007


Tonight in our Sunday night worship group we used one of the queries from Northwest Yearly Meeting's "Faith & Practice" to center and listen to God about. Bruce, who led the group tonight, asked about our experiences with the queries, and as we thought about that most of us realized we don't often use the queries for our own meditation or during group worship experiences. Some of us had read our own Yearly Meeting's queries, some of us had experienced using official queries at various Friends gatherings, and some of us have made up our own queries for leading worship experiences, but mostly we haven't used the "official" queries very often.

That's interesting, because the queries are basically our way of expressing our theology: we don't have a creed, but we use the queries to help us think about not just what we believe but whether we are living out our beliefs.

I noticed tonight that the queries were probably the Quaker version of catechism: whereas in Catholic and other churches' catechisms people memorize rote responses to specific doctrinal questions, Quakers ask open-ended questions whose responses should come out of intensely personal experiences of the Divine. I appreciate this approach immensely! It leaves room for so much more dialogue and spiritual growth. It reminded me why I have an aversion to creeds or credal "statements of faith."

It was good to use a query to center us and to share about tonight. We're going to keep doing that at least for a few more weeks with our Sunday night worship group. Anyone in the area is welcome to join us!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

where my spirit lives

I was reminded last weekend of where my spirit lives. I had forgotten about the physical space in my body that feels full when I'm connected with God--it's not that I hadn't felt that recently, I just hadn't been paying attention to when that happens. I said something to another person at the Youthworkers Training Conference last weekend about, "What, your spirit doesn't live in your intestines?" or something like that, just joking around, and she said, "No, my spirit lives here," pointing to her chest. "Mine, too," I said, remembering.

My spirit lives in a seed-shaped space in the center of my chest, which is interesting, because of course that is a place where many religions focus their spiritual energies. I didn't know that when I started noticing the spiritual sense of fullness there when I feel close to God.

It was a good reminder to pay attention to my body and my spirit together, because they work together, and give me clues about both their needs, and give me clues about when I am in the presence of God in an unusual way.

Tonight I was practicing centering prayer, which is a contemplative type of prayer where you don't do anything, you just try to be present to God. You don't try to discern anything or hear God or meet any expectations, you simply are. It took me a while to finally just become present in the moment, not thinking or planning or worrying or reminiscing, just being there. When I started focusing on my spirit's connection to the Spirit, my self fell away and I forgot all that other stuff and was able to simply be. It's an amazing feeling to just let everything I am fall away and just be in God's presence. I wonder why we don't do this more often? What's so hard about it? I don't know.

I hear that living the contemplative life will bring up all the bad stuff in myself--that I'll start noticing stuff about myself that I don't like, and that that will chase me away from being contemplative. I think this is definitely true--it's one of the main reasons I've gotten out of the habit of centering prayer, I'm pretty sure. Tonight I noticed how self-centered I am, all my thoughts and plans revolving around myself and unable to be stopped...but then they were stopped. It's that sweet sense of spaciousness when I can forget my self-centeredness and everything not so good about myself, and just's that experience that makes it beautiful and keeps me at this thing called the "contemplative life."

It seem significant to me that I just realized again where my spirit lives by chance, right as I was on the brink of heading back into this contemplative way of living. I think this is what Quakers call "the Inner Light," because it seems like the space in myself that is burning with a holy fire, that's connected to the Divine, that is at once both the space that is most intensely myself and most intensely not-myself. It's that space-between, that mediating world between thought and intuition, that space where God takes on human flesh and breaks through into the world. By attending (and tending) to this space I co-create with God a way for God to break through into the world, and all I have to do is just be.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

a tribute to my dad on his birthday

It's my dad's birthday, so I wanted to tell you all a bit about him, and a few of the things I've learned from him. So happy birthday, Dad!

When I was a kid I learned from my dad (among other things) an appreciation of art, nature, integrity and good thinking. I cherish my memories of going to art shows, galleries, and taking hikes. I appreciate my dad's encouragement of my questions, always trying to answer them and help me to think about the answers I might give.

One of the major things I appreciate about my dad is his integrity. He raised me a Christian Quaker, and I saw him and my mom working hard to intentionally live out their beliefs in social justice, equality, and love for all people.

My dad eventually decided he no longer believes in God/a supernatural (anything outside of or above the natural world), but he's kind of still a Quaker, although he sits with a Buddhist meditation group. I appreciate his integrity even in deciding he no longer has faith in a supernatural realm, because he wouldn't just lie to himself. It might have been easier for him to ignore his own doubts and to go on living as if he believed in God and Jesus and everything, to continue in his nice little church community, but he chose to have the courage and integrity to tell the truth about what he believed. I appreciate this courage and integrity immensely, and it has encouraged me to be honest about my own faith, doubts, and questions.

Even though my dad doesn't believe in a supernatural realm, he has come to recognize that spiritual stuff is still important. He knows his brain and whatever makes up his "self" needs meditation, needs community, needs to examine and analyze itself in order to change and grow into a better person. So my dad is more intentional about meditation than I am! I'm inspired by his tenacious practice of meditation, and by the amazing and beautiful changes I've seen in him over the years as he's practiced meditation and allowed himself to grow, confronting the things in himself that he thinks are negative and working to change those things.

I appreciate immensely the fact that in the last couple of years, we've learned to translate each other's language in our heads so we can truly hear each other and the truth and power of one another's experiences, even though we don't agree about their source. It's an amazing gift to be able to talk to my dad honestly about what I believe and what I'm working on in school or work (and he reads my blog), and for him to give me feedback and help me think more clearly about all those things. It's also an amazing gift to be able to listen to his spiritual journey and be challenged, inspired, and held accountable by it.

Thanks, Dad, for being true to who you are, and sharing yourself with me over the course of my life. You're a great dad, and I love you!

Monday, November 05, 2007

the contemplative life

This weekend I went to a retreat for youthworkers in our yearly meeting. I haven't done a lot of youth work this year, but my husband was helping out with music so I got to go, my father-in-law was in charge of the retreat and wanted me to hear what his friend, Daniel Wolpert, had to say. (You can find information about an organization he works with called Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing, and about his books, Creating a Life with God and Leading a Life with God.)

Daniel is a Presbyterian minister who wishes he was Quaker...OK, maybe not exactly, but he's spent time in Quaker meetings and says we're lucky to be Quaker because we already understand a lot of the contemplative stuff that other denominations just don't get right away.

He talked with us about the need to spend time in prayer/meditation often.

He talked about the need to take Sabbath, one day in seven and/or one hour in seven and/or one year in seven...not to be legalistic, but because we need to give ourselves space to rest, reflect, and be in the presence of God.

He talked about our culture's addiction to busyness, how it's like an addiction to a drug, that makes us think "everyone's doing it." He said when people say, "You're very busy," and he says, "No, actually--I'm not that busy," people get mad at him because a) they think he's lying, or b) they think he's lazy.

He also talked about our culture's addiction to money/materialism/buying stuff (especially on credit), and how this enslaves us to having to make a certain amount of money, but if we talk about not doing this people think we're destroying civilization because our society is completely built on people being enslaved to their debt, working to pay it off, and buying more than they can afford.

He talked about seeing our lives as a pilgrimage, where the intention is to follow God with no expectations. The destination isn't the important part--we don't have an agenda except to attend to God and do what God asks of us along the way. Spiritual practices are a huge part of this, because they are the vehicles by which we put ourselves in a space to intentionally focus on God and become better at hearing God's voice. He used the metaphor of practicing for sports--"Why is it that with something as unimportant as a sports game we expect players to practice often, but with something as important as our spiritual lives we think we don't need to practice? What if you showed up to play on a basketball team, but you told the coach you weren't going to practice?"

He talked about the fact that we get so caught up with "getting stuff done" that we don't allow ourselves to just be with God, and yet, over the course of history, it's the contemplatives who have "gotten the most done" for the Kingdom of God, even though they seemed a little bit (or a lot) nuts. He talked about Francis of Assisi, who took off all his clothes in the city square, said, "I'm going to follow Jesus, who's with me?" and ran off into the woods. Weird! "But how many other 14th century people have you heard of?" So if we choose to lead a contemplative life, it may feel like we'll never get anything done because we'll just sit around doing nothing. But if we're doing it "right," we'll be transformed by God and be invigorated to do all sorts of things that God wants us to do. People are attracted (in a strange way) to those who are putting themselves in this space to be transformed. The world doesn't like them because they challenge the world's basic assumptions, but the world recognizes something different about contemplatives, and respects them--like the early Friends, who acted after prayer and contemplation, who were thrown in jail, but who were respected and seen as people of integrity and goodness wherever they went.

In order to lead a contemplative life, we have to first be confronted with ourselves, and the not so good parts of ourselves. Daniel said this is one of the main reasons most people don't get past the beginning stages of contemplation. People think either 1) this is self-centered, 2) I don't want to get to know myself, I wanted to get to know God! Why isn't God showing up?, or 3) I don't want to face into that truth about myself so I'm going to run away as quickly as possible and find something else to keep me busy so I'll never have to learn that about myself.

It's #3 that I've been wrestling with lately, I think. I've been feeling for a few months now that God is nudging me to a deeper space spiritually, and I haven't been willing to jump off the ledge. I know the reason why--I'm scared to learn more about myself that I don't want to know. I want to skip that stage and get to the part about me going out and doing something radical for God. As some of you reminded me when I posted a week or two ago about Christian Peacemaker Teams, I can't just go do what sounds idealistically right, I have to instead do what I'm called to--and I can't find out what I'm called to unless I listen.

So...that's the hard part. I have some goals. I've been feeling like what I really need is accountability (my spiritual accountability partner recently moved to Texas...), so maybe posting this on here will be enough accountability to get me going. Goals:

1. start doing contemplative prayer (centering prayer, lectio divina, meditation, etc.) daily
2. take a Sabbath day each week
3. when I get back to school in late January, continue doing these things
4. pray with/for my husband often
5. when I get jobs in the future, have part of my contract include taking time for contemplative prayer

These seem like really basic things I should be doing already, but I don't. So I want to start now, and not just do them as dead rules I force myself to live by, but to use these forms (and whatever other ones come to me later) to put me in a space where I'm intentionally learning to hear the voice of God. I want to be as much a student of God as I am a student of my other professors!

A quote someone brought up this weekend, attributed to Martin Luther, struck a chord with me:

" I pray for 2 hours each day, and on days when I really have a lot to get done I pray for 4 hours."

That perspective is so opposite of our culture's idea of how to get things done--when we have a lot to get done we generally skip our prayer time so we can do all the other "important" things. But what is more important? Being in the presence of God, or getting our to-do list done?

Friday, November 02, 2007

quaker preaching

I'm not the biggest fan in the world of programmed meetings in Quaker-dom, but since they're there, and since they do serve a purpose (pulling people in who agree with Quaker testimonies for the most part but wouldn't come for an hour of silent waiting), and since I'm currently serving in a community with programmed worship meetings, I do my best to preach in the Spirit when I'm called to do so.

What does it look like to preach in the Spirit? Well, I think it's different for everyone. I've come quite a long ways since first really preaching in June 2006 (you can look it up in the archives...I don't want to find the link... =) The first time I preached I felt pretty nervous, I didn't know the community I was speaking to very well, and I had a really hard time coming up with any personal stories to share with them about the topic I spoke on. I think I did fine as far as presentation--I don't think I appeared nervous, and I didn't stumble over my words or anything. But I'm not sure I was exactly preaching in the Spirit. I was preaching a message I was passionate about and that I felt led to share, but that's different. I wrote out a manuscript and read it, which went fine because I'd practiced it several times. But I wasn't able to be vulnerable, to share my soul and not just some information that hopefully would make it to people's hearts.

The next time I preached there, about a month later, I preached from the heart and shared personal stories, but I had a hard time connecting it to anything that really had spiritual depth, I felt. People appreciated learning more about me and my journey, which is good to some degree, I think, but I don't know that God was able to speak to them through me per se.

Recently I think I've become more comfortable preaching. I no longer write out the manuscript--at least if I do, I don't take it up with me, I just take an outline to look at. I think having a manuscript is good if you can truly allow the Spirit to speak through you while reading it, and sometimes I think it's important for me to have a manuscript--when what I'm saying needs to be precise, or when I might water down the message if I don't put it into specific words beforehand (e.g. my Beacon Hill talk that I posted here in May 2007).

I've found the last two times I've preached that I do much better at connecting with people, and connecting the Spirit with people, when I'm not reading. I can listen better to the random ideas that occur to me on the spot--stories that come up, jokes, better ways to explain something, examples.

Preaching this way is good for me because I like to be in control, to have it all planned out, to know how long it will take, to say it all the "right" way. But to have spent time listening beforehand, to have spent time researching and practicing and mulling and contemplating and discussing and writing, and then to go up there and continue listening in that moment, is really quite powerful. There's a different spark, a different kind of energy, that I feel when I trust the Spirit to give me words in that moment. I think it's really important to have people who feel led to take the time to do research beforehand and think and listen about the message beforehand, as opposed to just receiving it in meeting and speaking it then and there, because I think God gave us our brains and ability to do good research for a reason. That stuff glorifies God just as much as it does when we spontaneously receive a message. I truly enjoy doing the research and stewing on a topic for a month or so and then sharing the fruits of my contemplation with my spiritual community.

Another good thing about programmed meeting messages is that we can bring up a challenge to the community that we're working on personally and sense the meeting is working on. That's what I did this last week. It's hard to know, though, what is something I'm working on personally and what is something I should bring before the meeting. It's also hard when using examples from my own life, because I feel really vulnerable--like I'm sharing a lot of myself, and I'm not sure how it will be received. It's a little bit scary. But I talk about the need to be truthful in our spiritual communities, to be able to share vulnerably, and so I guess the one preaching should be the one exemplifying that. It's just interesting because of our culture's insistence on "professional distance." In Quaker preaching, we don't have that professional distance--we're all equal, any of us could have brought this message, it's just that God happened to bring it through me and my experiences. We're not on a pedestal, we're just another traveler groping toward the Light.

It's been fun to learn my style and figure out how to get in the "flow," how to allow the Spirit to speak through me better and better when I preach. I don't think I'm perfect at this yet--I have a long way to go! But I think I'm getting better. And it's more fun this way, too, because I'm more relaxed and free to share what I'm called to in that moment, with the background of having done good preparation.