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Cultivating a Lifestyle of Listening, a guest post by Samantha Miller

This is the third post in our series, A Contemplative Approach To Christianity, dedicated to introducing the quieter side of Christian practice, through historical practices and personal testimony. The goal is to hear from different Christians ways they connect with God–these are very similar to ancient practices of the Christian church–and to share a few details about what that looks like for anyone who wants to dip their feet in a more quiet spirituality. We’ve already started with Contemplative PrayerNow let’s move on to listening.

Listening may sound repulsive to the ear at first. We are not much of a listening culture. But the pathway of Christ beckons us against the grain to a lifestyle that resembles Samuel’s innocent posture to the Lord: “Speak, for your servant hears.” (1 Sam. 3:10, ESV). There is no shortage of noise in our lives. But there is lacking a word from God in our ears. Perhaps there’s a connection between the noise of life and the shortage of God’s presence. Amos’ warning resonates with many of us,

The days are coming— this is the declaration of the Lord God — when I will send a famine through the land: not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11, HCSB)

Do you experience this famine? Then read on, friends.

My friend, Samantha Miller serves in our local gathering in the areas of prayer and biblical counseling. It is because of the inner joy that she so gracefully wields despite the heaviness that sometimes accompanies intercessory prayer and counseling that I believe Samantha has some worthwhile things to share. So I asked her to share about the practice and importance of listening to God. The rest of this post is in her own words…

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In my life with God, I have consistently encountered him in the secret place.

Christians often talk about “the secret place” like this magical land where all your problems go away and you experience perfectly undistracted unity with God. Honestly, my secret place is pretty messy! All it is, is placing a value on time with God and positioning myself to receive from Him. On some days I may need to deal with some heart issues before I can really connect with Him, or I need to plan a little extra time in my schedule cause I know its going to take a while to quiet my distracted mind. Yet whatever it looks like, I am simply setting aside a time and a space to sit in solitude, surrender my emotions, thoughts and needs, and let God show me who He is.

Jesus says in Matthew 6:6 “And when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret will reward you” (ESV). We find the Father in the secret place. When we separate ourselves, go into our room and close the door, he rewards us in secret. However, learning to sit in solitude and quiet is very counter-cultural, so it can be hard work to develop this type of lifestyle. But let me tell you, when you seek Him, you will find Him.

Spending time alone with God is a process. Read the rest of this entry

Practicing Contemplative Prayer, a guest post by Brittany Volpei

Christians have used the contemplative disciplines for centuries as a way of practicing (or discovering) a “quiet” form of spirituality.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about my own longing to feed my soul on Christ, and how contemplative practices have helped. That’s what this blog series is about: Christians sharing ways they’ve connected deeply with God. What I am inviting you to do with these upcoming blog posts is to try them during the week, and see if they resonate with the desires of your heart. It may surprise you what you find when you become intentional and available to God.

A good place for us to start is with contemplative prayer.

Ruth Haley Barton once described contemplative prayer as “primarily beyond words,” moving from communication to communion with God (Sacred Rhythms, 64-65). Unfortunately, it reminds some Christians of Eastern meditation. This has left a bad taste in their mouths before ever getting a chance to dine. I was once suspicious of such practices, and I understand the initial hesitation for someone with little knowledge of either Eastern meditation or contemplative prayer. But the differences between the two are monumental. Spiritual formation director, Adele Calhoun, points out that while Eastern mediation involves an “attempt to clear the mind of all thoughts,” the distinctively Christian practice of contemplative prayer “allows for the recognition of thoughts and gently releases them into the hands of God” (Spiritual Disciplines, 208). So, far from denying our thoughts, passions, and innermost desires, we are to “rest in God, depending on him to initiate communion” (212).

Some will cite Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 in their rejection of contemplative prayer, as though Jesus prohibited His followers from praying in any way except by reciting those five verses verbatim! (If we took this literally, we would all learn Aramaic). Yet the same Bible that Jesus affirms provides us a rich banquet of spiritual expression. The Bible says that Mary “treasured” what God spoke to her, “pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19); it tells us to meditate on Scripture day and night (Josh 1:8), and the Psalmist commands his own soul to “wait in silence” for God  (Ps 62:5). There is no bifurcation in the Bible between prayer and contemplation. Is it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a posture of silent meditation? I think so. Unlike the lower life expectancy of trendy self-help books available today, many Christian spiritual disciplines trace their roots through centuries of the storied history of the Church. I think they warrant our attention!

If you are struggling with the right words to say to God, yet need the peaceful power of his presence, maybe contemplative prayer is for you.

Though many agree that contemplative prayer is sometimes hard to explain perfectly–it lacks the formulaic nature that our Western mindset appreciates–there are certain steps you can take to posture yourself to receive from God. And I wanted someone who the practice has deeply affected to share it with you. Her name is Brittany Volpei.

I knew Brittany back when I started attending Reality, when, during the gatherings, she would go to the side where no one could see her, with her journal out, and her heart receptive to God.

Brittany has battled a pain disorder for the last 13 years. While the circumstances have been difficult, she is thankful for the opportunity to testify to God’s faithfulness. Below is her personal experience with the ancient art of contemplative prayer, how it’s connected her with God, and a few ways we all can take part in it. The rest of this post is in Brittany’s own words.

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I learned the discipline of contemplative prayer in counseling. 

For three years I struggled painfully with anger toward God. I felt abandoned, unloved, and confused. I was battling a disabling pain disorder and had dethroned God in my heart, replacing Him with healing. Because pain has been such a huge part of my life, I have done long seasons of counseling to learn how to cope. One counselor suggested I yell at God, another wanted me to journal about my feelings, but none of it worked. These failed tools left me suffocating under the weight of the heavy emotions. Then I met Karen.

I was a little skeptical of contemplative prayer because I was never taught that God is eager to answer very specific questions. Read the rest of this entry

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

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