Category Archives: prayer

Without a net

Sometimes, I start writing without knowing what I am going to say.

This isn’t exactly like speaking without thinking. That happens often enough in conversations. Someone asks a question and I start talking, and jumping from idea to idea. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve seen me face to face. Or, perhaps, you’ve looked in the mirror.

blankWriting without knowing what you are going to say is completely different. You know that you can delete your words. You can edit. This kind of writing happens when you pull up a white page and start to type. And you wait for clarity to show up.

In particular, for me, this happens when it’s time to write in one of my teaching or speaking or emailing or blogging settings. It’s time to write. And I start. But I wait for God’s Spirit to remind me of some question, some answer, some topic.

Nothing comes, regardless of how many words appear. I could go to the archives and take a day off. I could pick an argument. I could write an open letter to one person. But sometimes I just want to be present with the keyboard and the words and the white page, trusting that the presence, rather than the specific content of the interaction, matters.

I wonder if this process of discovering what I’m thinking by writing is one image of what praying is like sometimes. Sometimes we have specific things we want from God. Sometimes we have specific prayers we say because they are need to be said (See, for example, three prayers from Ruth Haley Barton). But sometimes we start into conversations with God without a net, knowing that the other conversationalist once told a thousand demons to leave (and they did), but trusting that he also was willing to sit for awhile and chat over supper.


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What I will do.

In my journal the other day I wrote, “runners run” It was October 9. I hadn’t run for a couple days. I was a little achy. I was hesitant. But I knew that what runners do is run. More than talking about it, more than reading about it, more than worrying about it. They run.

morning runA couple lines later in my journal, I wrote the words from a song: “In the morning, O Lord, you will hear my voice.

The writer has the same kind of resolve that I did about running. “Prayers pray,” is what it says.

The writer goes on: “In the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch.”

These words are from psalm 5, a song about lament and cries for justice. It is not a pleasant song to listen to, with its calls for divine punishment. Unless, I suppose, you are in ancient Israel being lied to ad betrayed, or ancient Babylon watching family members being attacked. Or not so ancient.

But what captures me? The writer addresses those cries and laments and calls to God. In the morning first thing, like me sitting in my chair with my coffee and Bible and journal. Like a runner lays out clothes and shoes the night before so that there are no excuses in the morning. Like a parent prepares the cereal and the bowl and the toaster the night before. Like a planner writes out the six things for the next day the night before. Like a praying person plans to pray.

I do want to make confession. A couple days later I said, “God, I don’t even know what to say. So what do you want me to ask about.”

But I think that’s the point. Regardless of our competence or speed, prayers pray.

What I mean when I say pray.

(first published September 12, 2007)

I have had some people ask me to pray for them recently. I’ve told some other people that I am praying for them. I realized that I probably better tell you what I am doing when I agree or offer to pray. After all, it could be dangerous.


Picture a conversation between a dad and a child, in kitchen of the house, early in the morning. The dad has been up for a long time and is on his second cup of coffee, the child not as long, but long enough to be sitting at the table with a glass of milk.

This is not a dysfunctional relationship, but a dad and a child who get along, a dad that actually shows up and cares and provides and loves.  And the child? A child that is probably 6 or 7, old enough to converse and to acknowledge the people around, young enough to get tired and pouty, young enough to forget, young enough to think that there are no boundaries and then to discover that there are, young enough to not have skills to do much that is beautiful or productive…unless you are looking through a loving dad’s eyes.

See the picture?

Now picture a friend of that child sitting on the back step, crying in the early morning mist. Something is lost, someone is hurt, something isn’t right.

The child and dad look out. The child waits for the dad to do something, the dad is watching the child. The child slips down from the table and walks to the sliding glass door.

“Come in.”

But the friend just shakes her head.

The child walks out and sits down next to the friend, just sitting, listening.

“You can come in and talk to my dad. He can do anything.”

“I can’t. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t care anyway.”

“Yes, he does. But I know. He doesn’t look very friendly at first. I’ll be right back.”

The child walks back into the house.

“Dad? What can I do? What can you do?”

The child walks back out and sits next to the friend. He gives her a hug.

“That’s from my dad.”

He hands her a glass of milk.

“That’s from my dad, too. He knew you liked chocolate in it.”

He sits quietly for a minute.

“My dad said you can sit here as long as you need to. He said I can sit here with you.”


That’s what I’m doing. I hope you don’t mind.


From strength to strength

The mom of my friend died the other afternoon. We talked together a few hours before.

He knew it was coming. He was anticipating the arrangements, the conversations, the travel. He was feeling weary. I knew the feeling. Some of you do, too.

A couple hours before we met, I had been reading a prayer. I came across it, I confess, by opening my Bible to Psalms. No reading pattern, no plan.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

That’s us, you and me, those of us who are on this journey, this pilgrimage, this process of learning about following Jesus. That’s us, you and me, driven by our weakness.

“As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”

It’s a valley near Jerusalem, a valley of dryness. People on pilgrimage bring water to dry places.

They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.

This is the sentence that stopped me, that made me reflect. Because on my pilgrimage there are many moments that don’t feel like strength. Moments like the one sitting with my friend.

But what if this is us, you and me, though we often don’t realize it. That’s us moving from oasis to oasis, with long stretches between. That’s us, moving from time of healing to time of healing, with need of healing between. What if the moments of strength are what sustains us in the in-between? What if the walk of faith is characterized, as Paul wrote by “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” What if the strength is a series of texts in the moments we need it for when we need it rather than the whole book, a drip rather than a reservoir.


Examining examen, part two

Back to examen.

Next, Barton says, look back through the day for evidence of God’s presence. In my rush to the next conversation or agenda item or project, I forget what happens in my day. And I’ve struggled with examen for this reason. I’m afraid to go back and look. But on this night, as I thought with my pen, I found unrecognized connections, unexpected delights.

Then she suggests giving thanks for the moments that we understand and for God’s presence even in the moments we don’t understand. This walks us from simply stopping, to noticing events, to attributing intention to the events. It’s an unfamiliar feeling. I confess.

Next Barton points us to the first part of confession, asking God to help us see our “attitudes, actions, or moments when you fell short of exhibiting the character of Christ.” This phrasing matters. It is radically different than saying, “God show me how much of a failure I know I am.” And rather than looking at being a failure, she says to look, with God, at what led to those moments.

This deliberate reflection helps us see patterns, gain perspective, find hope. And then, having seen our shortfall, we ask God for forgiveness, knowing that God is willing to give it. I know this to be true. I teach other often. But specifically, orally, asking is humbling. And freeing. Moving from the thoughts in our head to the words in our mouths doesn’t make God hear any better, but it does make us own specific words.

Finally, she suggests talking with a spiritual friend about what you see. This process of sharing feels invasive or time-consuming when you read about it. Coming at the end of the process, it feels like the necessary next step.  It completes things. Until tomorrow.