A Contemplative Approach to Christianity

I’ve been thinking about my style of praying.

It’s probably strange to hear the phrase, style of praying. I never would have identified one of my spiritual practices as a style. In my earlier years, I would have defended everything I did as the “right” way to do things. Now I’m learning that we all have styles in our spirituality. No single church or Christian encapsulates all that is Christ (that’s a good thing!). Praying is no different. Ah, that I could pray perfectly as Jesus did (John 17, anyone??) But I don’t–I pray like Chris Lazo. And my style of praying is partially influenced by my personality, friends, and church culture. I represent one strand of the universal Church. And as a representative strand–a fledgling one at that–I have a style to my prayer life. For example, I love boldly claiming the answer to prayers that I am confident are God’s will! I get a buzz from listening to authoritative prayers that are saturated with Scripture. I like intense words like travail. And unction. I have a habit of praying to persuade. And often, these prayers take their greatest shape when they have a goal in mind, e.g., tearing down walls, storming hell’s gates, etc. My church is heavily influenced by this type of praying. We often just call it intercession. And I love it. It has changed my small view of God into something I can sink my teeth into. It has shown me the encouraging power of a prayer answered. The friends who taught me how to pray this way opened me up to a world of praying that has left me with happy jitters. But it isn’t the only style of praying out there.

I had to remove myself from what was comfortable for me at the time to see the wealth of beautiful Christian expressions in the church today. It’s often when I observe the way God meets with other people that I learn the most about how to meet with God. Spirituality is so easy to exploit when everyone else behaves just like you. This has its strengths and weaknesses. First, it can surround you with people of like mind, vision, and tenacity. But other times, unfortunately, by remaining in a cultural bubble, your experience of God can become very myopic if you let it. In the same way, if we make prayer only about our particular style–whatever that may be–we might miss out on the panorama of communion with God. I’m learning this the hard way. I’ve grown in a particular strand of prayer that has intercession as its root, and I have so thoroughly benefitted from this. I will never stop participating in those fiery prayers of unction. But I also need to be refilled.

I guess you could say that I am restless.

I’m not always bold in prayer. I frequently struggle with doubts. Some of those doubts are so menial, it’s embarrassing how easily they tear me apart emotionally. Even in my loud, corporate prayers, I’ve felt the sting of spiritual dryness. I suppose much of this new soul-searching has been due to a very fiery season in life, replete with things I don’t feel capable of bearing. And it’s difficult to toss up words in those seasons where I am emotionally and spiritually spent. Sometimes I just need to change things up. Now, I don’t want to change for the sake of change, but for the sake of shaking up a rigid spiritual equilibrium. Sometimes all it takes is a slight diversion from old routines. Instead of always being heard, I need to listen. Instead of shouting, I need to whisper. Instead of having an agenda in prayer, I sometimes need to be ok with not having any other goal than just to be with Christ. Instead of bringing words, I bring silence. There come certain times in my life when I need to put away my loud “amens,” along with the calling down of fire, and trade it for a more contemplative approach. Of course, both of them are valuable! But recently, my soul has really needed the balm of the latter. I wonder if yours does too.

This is a blog series about contemplative spirituality.

The path of the mystics. These phrases used to trigger some ugly connotations for me in the past, when I was warned about those “Easterners” and their “Zen Meditation.” While there IS a dangerous side that exists (aren’t they everywhere?), traditional contemplatives trace their roots through a long strand of Christian history. And I don’t mean 1950’s Christian history. I mean ancient practices that have stood the test of time. The ancients were people just like us, in difficult situations like us, and often far worse. They clung to Christ just as we do. But they did it through tried spiritual disciplines like contemplative prayer, solitude, meditation, lectio divina, and many others.

The richness and breadth of some of these centuries-old church practices have been water to my soul.

There are probably a number of reasons why. Here’s one: It’s easy for me to pray in a corporate setting, when I feel the affirmation of others who are praying with me. I’m not saying that we do this, but it certainly is available to fall into if we want it to stimulate our self-esteem. The “mm-hmms,” the “amens,” and the “groans,” that accompany a Spirit-led prayer can easily tantalize me with using prayer to induce a response in my endless search for affirmation. Again, those corporate responses in prayer are good things! I love it when a group of people can pray in unison, and the “amens” often help cultivate that unity and create a wonderful momentum of vision and agreement when the church is knocking on the door of heaven. It is also very encouraging to experience. I’m also not saying that we should stop praying corporately, and only pray privately. Those are apples and oranges. Private prayer is different from corporate prayer, and we need both of them, not one to the exclusion of the other. So I’m not saying we do away with the “amens,” the corporate groans, or the loud prayers. I suppose I just want to identify, confess, and confront the wicked tendencies of my own heart in prayer. In that it is possible for me to pray for the wrong reasons, and I probably do this more than I imagine. Certainly, it is easier to do than I thought. There is an uncomfortable measure of productivity present in my normal routine of prayer. But that’s where these other spiritual disciplines come in.

The “quiet” prayers of the contemplatives are so haunting to me. There is no one to listen to me except God alone.

In fact, some ancient spiritual prayer disciplines involve no speaking whatsoever! This sometimes feels very counter-productive to me! Adele Calhoun empathizes with this on the practice of Centering Prayer, in her book, Spiritual Disciplines (which I can’t recommend more highly).

This prayer may seem mysterious to some because it depends so little on words. We do not give God information about all our needs, projects, ideas, programs, plans and agendas. We don’t suggest things we would like him to do. We sit in the presence of God and give them our undivided love and attention… Because centering prayer is a way of being with Jesus that doesn’t cover prayer concerns, some people wonder if it counts as real prayer. Furthermore, if it doesn’t make you feel or experience something particular, what does it do? It is never possible to judge the value of any prayer based on feeling or experience alone. Experiences are not the point.

I have often felt this way–like nothing was getting done unless I was saying something worthwhile (worthwhile could mean loud, wordy, catchy as far as my subjective feelings go). A lack of words left me feeling unproductive. Yet whenever I forced myself to sit in solitude, I ended up wrestling with myself. As it turns out, that was the obstacle getting in the way of my communion with God: myself. My self’s preoccupation with productivity, busyness, and “getting things done.” Calhoun confirms my conflict and the freedom that results from wrestling,

In centering prayer the goal is to so dwell in Christ that the fruit of this dwelling begins to show up in your life. Centering praying may “do” nothing at the moment. You sense no rapture, no mystical bliss. But later, as you move out to the busyness of life, you begin to notice that something has shifted. Your quiet center in Christ holds.

This is the trench that I continue to plow, without letting go of corporate prayer, or the unction-closet. I warn you, it has sometimes left me tattered, helpless, and hungry. But in my hunger, I’ve needed to step out of my normal routine, and receive again from others in our long history of shared faith. Out of this I’ve discovered a beautiful God in the wealth of His joy and beauty. A God who bids the sinner to come close in Christ. I would love to share in this with you as others have graciously shared with me. Not because I have all the answers to spirituality, prayer, or the dry seasons. But because I’m guessing that all of us hit those dry spots sooner or later. I’m also not the one giving anything. This series will be driven largely by other people. People who are also driven into the quiet places. Here’s how the series will look.

For the next six weeks, I’ve invited others to share specific ways that they connect with God in private, contemplative communion.

Many of these will be authentic disciplines that have been in use by Christians over many centuries. Others are more personal, and even quirky. But they all have something in common: the person practicing them has connected with God through that practice in a meaningful way. So here’s what I want us to do (myself included). I want all who are willing, to read from the experiences of these men and women, let them confront our own static routines, and learn a new spiritual discipline. Then…let’s DO them for that week. For example, if someone shares about solitude, learn from them, then practice solitude in a desire to connect with God. Same with reading the Word. And meditation. And listening.

My hope is that we will discover new plateaus to connect with God. In so doing, may our souls be ministered to by the fountain of God in Christ.

One last thing. It may not surprise you that spirituality is communal in nature, even when some of it remains private. So I welcome you to share your experiences during this series. Please comment on the posts, and interact with each author that participates. It will only be a blessing to us all. Until then, – Chris Lazo

About Lazo

Lazo is the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality SB where he is committed to challenging Santa Barbara's independence by calling the city to follow Jesus. You might like these blog posts, 5 Wrong Ways To Comfort Hurting Peoples, or Daisy Love and the Magic Eraser. You can follow Chris on twitter at @LazoChris.

Posted on June 23, 2014, in personal, realitysb, spiritual formation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Interesting post! I think the idea of meditation and focus is only dangerous when that mediation and focus is outside of Christ..as in, just focusing on us and our issues. I believe that when the mediation and focus is on Christ and who He is, that is simply “keeping our eyes fixed on the Author and Finisher of our faith.” As far as what I do for prayer and worship in personal time, I think I’ll just share what happened to me last year. Last year was no doubt, no exaggerations, the hardest year of my life. Without going into a sappy story, God had me in a place where I was so fully aware of my desperation for Him alone. One particular morning, I woke up so broken. I remember lots of times waking up with a cloud over my head and the only way of releasing the hurt inside was to gush out like a sponge tears into my pillow. That particular morning, the cloud no doubt was there when I woke up. I remember realizing how much I needed Jesus. I’ve been a believer for some time now, but at this point, I was so aware of my need for His comfort and inner peace. I grabbed my bible, as is my habit in the morning, and headed toward my usual spot on the couch to read. At that point the storm and tears were on the verge of coming out, and all I knew to do was to book it to the King. I remember the chorus,”Hallelujah, glory be to our great God” being in my head, so I put that song on my phone and opened my bible. I remember deciding that I needed to determine inside to shove all the problems and all the heartache inside to the side, and run to Jesus..I just remember thinking how I just wanted to go back in time, away from everything, and to be there as He spoke to the multitudes..to just be able to sit there and soak in His words, and let them flood into me. To not focus on anything else. So that is what I proceeded to do. After all, I did have His words right in front of me! So I opened to one of the gospels and shut everything out. As I read His words, I literally threw myself back in time, and pictured myself as one in the crowd. I soaked in His words, and fell in love with Jesus all over again, the one who alone can calm the storm inside. He is leading me to treasure Him. Of course, as an everyday practice I don’t just go through the gospels alone. But I think that the idea of being so desperate to hear from Him and for just Jesus Himself, is key to hearing from Him in His word, no matter where you’re reading. What I’m learning in prayer too, especially in praying for others, it is so awesome that Jesus knows what He is talking about. When asked how to pray, ideally, we’re to begin with worship and adoration of the Father..to just worship Him..I think that, at least for me, when my eyes are fixed on Him first, (His ability, His worthiness, His love, His strength, His holiness, His power, that absolutely nothing is too hard for Him) and I choose to believe this by faith, that prayer for others can flow from that..from His love for me, my love for Him, and His heart for others. I’m growing too, like we all are, praise God..thanks for the blog!

    • Oh also, my best friend and I have talked about this, and we’ve both done this without even discussing it, like it was just something we were both lead to do. Practically speaking, to sit on the floor in our rooms in the silence and just think about Jesus. To mediate as it were on Him and His goodness. It’s something I need to do more actually. Even though we can’t physically see Him, we can fix our spiritual eyes as it were on Him. To give attention to the unseen isn’t always easy..especially lately..been super distracted..but that inner stronghold after spending time in prayer and mediation is SO true. I read that and I was like AH! Yes! In the midst of life you can just retreat away into the awareness of Jesus and His love..to be satisfied in Him..it’s the best.

    • So so good.
      I love this: “being so desperate to hear from Him and for just Jesus Himself.”
      Thanks for sharing this, Lisah.

  2. Great article pastor Chris. A topic that has been hot on my mind recently.

    Within Barth’s Church Dogmatics, possibly volume three the section on historicity, but I do not have my copies with me, Barth mentions the necessity of how the word “god” is to be understood in a new way, or the proper way, with the historical event of the incarnation. Barth, along with a slew of other NT scholars, takes this proper understanding of the word “god” to mean many things. But perhaps one of the more shocking traits of the recorded incarnation is Matthew’s usage of the name “Immanuel.” The event that God Himself became close to humanity in a spatiotemporal way is astounding to think, especially because a deist view of a far away Jesus has been all too common. Reverberations of Genesis 1 and God walking with humanity tend to ring through my ears as I hear the nature of Jesus’ ministry. This is all very well in good on paper, yet the recognition of God not being a deist or epicurean god, far off and disconnected, is a bit difficult to accept these days. Jesus’ ascension and promise of his return leaves many to think, “well the glory days are gone. Of course Peter could stand and preach before those who had previously crucified Jesus, Jesus cooked him breakfast! But the spatiotemporal closeness of God is no longer there!”

    I confess this to be true in my times of prayer. Many of my thoughts tend to lean on frustration when I am in a silent space praying for a far away heavenly kingdom in the midst of painful realities. While I can say to myself that this is where MY faith and hope must come into play, I have found another reality to be a bit more economical. I have said very little thus far on the role of the Holy Spirit. The comfort the Spirit has brought, and the role the Spirit has had in my times of individual prayer. Yet if I look back to the means of how the spatiotemporal Jesus walked in his ministry and lived with those around him, I see why some people may have been so enthusiastic to follow him (I am using a historical past tense but this does not mean a restricting one, indeed he has risen!). The traits that I find so appealing are those that the apostle Paul presents as the “fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).” I have had people who occupy space and time around me during times of difficulty, yet these two traits do not insure communing or deep relationship. It is instead the action of those around me and my reflection upon those actions that harbor those deep relationship (there is obviously an aspect of my own agency, but such would be good for another time).

    It is always shocking to me that Corinthians portrays such a broken church. In light of Luke-Acts this seems a bit strange to think that the church is the means of how God will dissipate humanity’s separation from himself. Yet it is in my own life that I really cannot deny God’s choice of method. The simple acts of ordinary folk expressing these “fruits.” Those who act to a fine tuned remedy that the Spirit leads them in, have been terrifyingly consistent through my life (and I’m betting in many of ours). But in times alone, it is in fact the memory of these acts, or reflection, that I see, hear, and know God to be “Immanuel.” As terrific a day at the beach may be, often times the realization of how terrific that day is comes from a retrospective, perhaps on a stormy day. In a recount of my day, attempting to remember my encounters with the bearers of the imago dei, I often find that God was much closer than I had realized prior or in the moments of. I suppose my individual meditation is a bit of my recollection on the corporate. And at the end of the recollection, when the fears of life seem crashing down, I am indeed aware of Immanuel. And heaven does not seem so far anymore.

    • Jeff, I apologize for the delay in responding. I went into a pool with my phone right after writing this blog, and have not been able to keep track of comment updates until now. But here I am.

      It is interesting that you bring up “memory” as a way to connect with God: “In a recount of my day, attempting to remember my encounters with the bearers of the imago dei, I often find that God was much closer than I had realized prior or in the moments of.” I believe this is similar to a an ancient practice called “Examen,” in which the practitioner looks back on their day, and recounts how God was present in the seemingly mundane.

      Thanks for sharing this. And I hope all is well at Oxford, friend.

  1. Pingback: Practicing Contemplative Prayer, a guest post by Brittany Volpei | Doctrine On Tap

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