Clearing a Path to the Spring

When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” he could be talking about church leaders. In entirely different contexts over the past few days, I’ve happened upon articles and presentations about clergy burnout, and I know the same thing happens to lay leaders of the church. There’s something wrong with this picture, and the solution goes beyond recruiting more workers.

Photo by Laura C. Brown

The church is a busy place. There’s a lot of work to do, people to serve, and programs to fulfill. We do our best to educate the young, comfort the sick, and reach out to those in need. Hopefully we also find meaning and create community as we carry out the work.

But do we find God?

We need the sustenance provided by a spiritual life. It strengthens us for all this work we’re doing, but more importantly our spiritual life helps us gain perspective on what we most need to be doing. Prayer and discernment help us to see clearly, to respond effectively, and to spend our strength wisely. Individuals need the strength and stability of a deeply rooted spiritual life, and the church community needs it as well. Yet even though it’s the basis of health, we don’t spend much time on nurturing individual spiritual practice at church.

We act as if participation in a church constitutes a spiritual life. We assume that church members have their relationship with God covered. But is that true? When people show up at church looking for God, how can we help? We can put them to work and make them feel part of the community, but is that enough?

Participation in a loving community may be what many people are looking for. But how can we show those with a spiritual thirst the way to the spring they seek? And how can we refresh those who have grown weary?

The Christian tradition offers centuries of wisdom and experience from those earnestly seeking God. Yet many seekers never find their way to this richness of the Christian faith. Many feel they must carry on their search elsewhere.

As a church and as individuals within it, we need to know our way to the spring that waters our community, our ministries, and our lives. It’s the same spring that Jesus visited when he went out early in the morning to pray, and where he spent the hours before he was arrested.

The pathways to that spring become overgrown when we focus solely on ministry, cut off from the spirit that sustains it. We need help finding our way to the source and keeping it clear of debris. Something within us thirsts for the living water there that brings wholeness. It’s a spring we need to visit again and again, and the world will benefit if the church can show the way.

Is there something the church could do to help clear that path for you?

Moving Forward When We Don’t Know the Way

When my daughter was in elementary school, there was one year when math was more than a class—it was a foe that demanded months of wrestling before she could pin it to the mat. Those afternoon homework sessions required a lot from both of us; it took all the patience and humor, strength and courage we could muster.

But the most important breakthrough came when I finally realized that she believed she was supposed to already know how to work the new problems. She cut herself no slack for the process of learning a new skill. If she couldn’t master it immediately then it was too scary, too hard, and too far out of reach. The first thing she had to learn was that it’s ok if you don’t yet know how to solve a problem. You’re not supposed to already know everything. You’re learning. That’s your job.

After that, it was just a matter of learning to work the problems. She overcame her math anxiety—better than I did at her age. And I came to appreciate the importance of not being intimidated by problems we don’t yet know how to solve. Years later, it remains a good lesson to remember when I need to move forward and don’t know how.

We all face problems that we’ve never encountered before, requiring resources and abilities we have never used. People who have passed through a time of change often speak of finding strength they didn’t know they had. They look back and see the growth that occurred as they rose to meet the challenge. Life seems designed to foster our development in this way.

The issues we face have been there for others as well. Whether the challenge arises from a particular situation or in the larger context of the changes in our lives, we are not alone. There is a source of wisdom and clarity that far exceeds anything we can know on our own. That Source is at work, urging us toward where we need to be and helping us to get there. It’s ok to take one step at a time; it’s ok to only see one step at a time. God works through those steps, leading us to move in the right direction. People with insight and experience can also help, and often appear on our path as if placed there by a loving guide.

We can trust that we’re being led forward even when progress is hard to see. It’s easier to remember that when I know how to work the problem. But it’s even more important to remember it when I feel I’m not up to the task. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid,” are the words of Jesus in John. This deep reassurance is part of the gift of faith. Not knowing how to proceed doesn’t mean I can’t meet the challenge. It means relying on the abundant resources available. It means remembering to pray, and to open my eyes to how prayer is answered.

What helps you move forward when you don’t know the way?

Libations

I love the word libation. It suggests an experience set apart, invoking the spirits as well as mixing them. It acknowledges the fine complexity of ingredients from aged and distilled essences to juices squeezed fresh from the fruit. It captures the sense of ritual in measuring and pouring, selecting the particular gleaming glassware, and finishing with a fresh garnish.

The alchemy of a shaker is a powerful magic to wield, a container within which texture, temperature, and flavor combine to yield something altogether new, a frosted elixir poured from its mysterious depths. The visible process of a blender is more transparent, almost hypnotic, as colors and textures roil until they are transformed under its power. The musical swirl of a swizzle stick and ice mesmerizes in its own way, yielding the luxurious simplicity of a potion clear as crystal.

It’s one thing to pour a drink, but quite another to prepare a libation. It’s an offering for all the senses, an experience to savor, and a privilege to imbibe.

The word libation comes to us from the Greeks. It was originally a drink offering made to the gods, and came to mean both the drink and the act of offering it. It was poured out as a sacrifice—language that permeates Christianity through the description of Christ’s life as poured out for others.

To prepare a libation is to prepare an offering, even if we no longer make its presentation to a deity part of the ritual. For us, to partake of a libation is to participate in the goodness of life. To share a libation is to acknowledge together what has been poured out to create a world capable of yielding what is beautiful and good.

Alcohol may be an ingredient in a special drink, but not always. In ancient days a libation was sometimes water—especially in the desert where it was appreciated as a precious liquid necessary to sustain life. Today we may use sparkling water and add fresh juices, or blend our ingredients into a smoothie. But a beautiful drink in a sparkling glass retains a breath of awe.

Rituals of pouring an offering upon the ground are rare these days. But the loveliness of a drink specially prepared, and the privilege of sharing it with people we love, is a moment worth noticing. Even in these overfull days, centuries removed from the drink offerings to the gods, a libation still captures our attention. It leads us to pause, to appreciate, and perhaps even to pour out our thanks.

The drink in the photo is a Sea Breeze, a pleasure to have at the beach last week. What counts as a libation for you?

A Prayer at the Shore

God of power and mystery,

Long we have stood in awe on your shores—

the endless expanse of sea and sky—

humbled by vastness in which we are held

and grateful to belong.

Photo by Laura C. Brown

Ceaseless waves speak of eternity

with crashing surf, the pull of tides.

We walk through foam when the surge is spent,

restored in the refuge of the immense.

But now we are stricken

by our own reckless sovereignty.

The fathomless sea measures the reach of irreverence.

Oil-soaked wings and gasping mouths

indict our choices, our hubris, our sin.

Lost lives and wasted marshlands,

ruined livelihoods and filthy shores—

work of the small and sullied gods

that we have made,

who trade paradise for a golden calf,

untempered by humility,

risking life for the chance of gain.

We are caught in the spreading slick

of blindness and indifference.

We depend –

for food and shelter, travel and trade—

on a society in want of discernment.

We rely on patterns not of our making

and confess that we perpetuate

a culture in need of change.

Forgive us our thoughtlessness,

and foster in us the desire for wisdom

in those decisions that are ours to make.

Lord, we are not self-sufficient.

We need your help to be the stewards

you created us to be.

As we lament the carelessness

may we learn to care;

In our dismay at destruction

may we learn to protect.

Lord, hear our cry. We have sinned, we were wrong.

We have fouled our home and harmed your creation.

We confess, we repent. Please help us to change,

To heal, to cleanse, to learn, to pray.

Praying the Psalms

Part 3 in a series on Breath Prayers

The Psalms show us that any emotion offered to God is appropriate for prayer. Nothing is off-limits. Psalms express grief, despair, vengefulness, fear, rage, and desolation, as well as thankfulness, hope, faith, trust, celebration, and joy – to name a few. Every aspect of who we are is acceptable to bring to prayer.

Within the vessel of prayer, emotions that might feel overwhelming in another context are held within a relationship with God. We bring our emotions to God, and recognize God’s power to reach us through them. We allow the possibility of being transformed.

There are many ways to pray the Psalms, including finding lines within them that can serve as breath prayers. Many lines of the Psalms are paired, echoing a thought in different words that may suggest a slightly different meaning. Reading them is like looking at a sculpture, taking a step left or right, then looking again from a slightly different angle. Sometimes the shift in perspective shows something we didn’t see before.

A breath prayer can use one or both of the paired lines. A single line might be said in one breath, in and out. A pair of lines will probably require two breaths. To learn more about breath prayers, have a look at:

Part 1 of this series, “Breathing a Prayer”

Part 2 of this series, “Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives”

The Psalms hold a lifetime of possibilities for breath prayers. Here are a few lines taken from various Psalms, using the NRSV translation:

*

The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,

the world, and those who live in it.  (Psalm 24)

*

Be still and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46)

*

Create in me a clean heart, O God.

and put a new and right spirit within me.  (Psalm 51)

*

You show me the path of life;

in your presence there is fullness of joy.  (Psalm 17)

*

May God grant you your heart’s desire,

and fulfill all your plans.  (Psalm 20)

*

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.  (Psalm 22)

*

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 13)

*

Relieve the troubles of my heart,

and bring me out of my distress.  (Psalm 25)

*

O my God, do not be far from me.  (Psalm 38)

*

The LORD is the stronghold of my life,

of whom shall I be afraid?  (Psalm 27)

*

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God. (Psalm 42)

*

You desire truth in the inward being;

therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.  (Psalm 51)

*

Cast your burden on the LORD,

and God will sustain you.  (Psalm 55)

*

In God I trust; I am not afraid.  (Psalm 56)

*

O LORD, Make haste to help me!  (Psalm 70)

*

This is the day that the LORD has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.  (Psalm 118)

*

On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased the strength of my soul.  (Psalm 138)

*

Give heed to my cry,

for I am brought very low.  (Psalm 142)

*

Teach me the way I should go,

for to you I lift up my soul.  (Psalm 143)

*

Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!  (Psalm 150)

*

What are your favorite lines?

Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives

Part 2 in a series on Breath Prayers

It’s unfortunate that so little teaching about breath prayer is offered in today’s church. These prayers fit beautifully into the lives we lead in this time and culture. They’re brief and portable, a manageable doorway into a richer spiritual life. And they help to meet our great need for spiritual respite.

A breath prayer is connected with the body, offering a tangible experience of prayer. The life force that draws breath in and out of us through every moment of our lives, with or without our awareness, tells us something about the presence of God. Similarly, a breath prayer is a reminder of God’s presence.

There are many ways to center our prayers in our breathing, including simply becoming quiet and aware of the flow of the breath. Awareness of the breath is a good place to start in prayer; it helps us to relax. But adding words can help to keep a prayerful focus.

Words for a breath prayer can come from poetry, scripture, or prayers we write ourselves. It claims an attitude toward God, a longing, a request, a need, a hope, a confession—an opening of the heart to the divine. When we adopt a prayer to say in rhythm with our breathing throughout the day, we acknowledge something about ourselves, something about God, and something about that relationship. We allow the prayer to become part of us, to shape our thoughts and our heart.

The words to a breath prayer are brief and simple, like a mantra. It does not voice everything we think, and isn’t made to sum up all that we trust in, or hope for, or seek. It uses pared-down language that suggests more than it states. It points beyond us, toward the divine object of our longing.

For example, part of Psalm 13 reads, “Give light to my eyes.” I love the line and the wealth of meaning it implies. A breath prayer using that line might be, “God of all wisdom, give light to my eyes.”

The words to the prayer are said in rhythm with the breath, a phrase on inhalation and a phrase on exhalation. A single breath, in and out, might complete the prayer; a longer prayer might require two full breaths.

You might find words for a breath prayer written in scripture or penned by spiritual teachers or poets. The possibilities are everywhere. In the next post, I’ll offer more from the Psalms.

What words inspire you?

You might also be interested in Part  1 of this series, Breathing a Prayer, on wordless breath prayers. Or in Part 3, Praying the Psalms.

Breathing a Prayer

Part 1 in a series on Breath Prayers

Breath means life, an association so close that breath itself feels sacred. Watching the gentle rise and fall of a loved one’s chest, smelling the sweet breath of a baby, hearing the labored sound of a struggle to breathe—all are deeply felt experiences.

Breath also holds power. It carries the voice, in speech and song, into the world. A wind instrument filled by the breath becomes an extension of the body, magnifying its expression. We move into life by the strength of our breath.

Breath is an intimate mystery, distinctly personal yet not of our doing. Becoming aware of my breath connects me to what is within and what is beyond. In this way, breathing is connected to prayer. Breath also carries the prayers we voice. So it’s only natural that we have many traditions of praying in rhythm with the breath. The flow of air, in and out, is an ever-present stream of life and energy. Watching it, like observing a flowing river, helps focus and soothe the mind.

A breath prayer can be wordless. One possibility is to breathe in health and well-being, and to let go of dis-ease while breathing out. Another way to pray a wordless breath prayer is to focus on breathing in God’s love and care for me, then breathing out that love and care to the people around me and to all of creation. Both inhale and exhale, receiving and giving love, are essential; they complete each other.

These simple, rhythmic prayers are good to take along into the world. Repetition of a brief prayer that touches the heart can change how I see other people, my circumstances, and myself. It offers calmness in the midst of chaos. It offers some comfort when life is difficult. I can practice a breath prayer when walking or washing dishes, while waiting for a traffic light to change or a computer to reboot.

As I practice a breath prayer, it greets me of its own accord when I become quiet, or sometimes when I most need it. A breath prayer is a reminder that God is present. The prayer, and the presence, are available in every moment.

Is there a wordless prayer that you might want to pray with your breath?

You might also be interested in Part 2, Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives or Part 3, Praying the Psalms.

Responding to Beauty

Early in his life, Leonard Cohen prayed to be able to make some response to beauty. I’ve been dwelling in the richness of that statement for days.

To utter such a prayer is to already have the grace of appreciating beauty, of having one’s eyes open to its presence in the world. And to ask for a way to respond is an enlightened longing. It does not seek to possess what is beautiful, to claim beauty for oneself. It measures value according to something beyond what serves an individual life. It asks for the power not to claim creation, but to participate fully in it.

The power and complexity of Cohen’s work, the ability of his music and lyrics to break open the heart, is a testament to his answered prayer. He looks hard at life, all of it, and makes of it something mysteriously, achingly beautiful. His work makes me want to live in poetry, even though he says of poetry that when your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.

If his poetry is ash, then his life has burned like the bush Moses encountered.

The Holy Spirit moves in wonderful ways, including through friends who put amazing things into my hands. The film, I’m Your Man, is such a gift. It’s a moving film, featuring interviews with Leonard Cohen and performances of his music by various artists.

His breathtaking song, “Hallelujah,” has been performed by many talented people. Jeff Buckley’s rendition is wonderful. And there is nothing like its powerful performance by Cohen himself.

What shall we pray for? And how shall we respond to beauty?

You might be interested in reading my Love Letter to Leonard Cohen.

Asking for What We Want

I’ll soon be leading a class exploring different ways to pray, which brings up the question of how to begin—for both a class and a prayer. One possibility is to begin as Ignatius taught, by asking God for what we want our prayer to yield. Asking for what I want is not something I’m good at; maybe looking at that is a good place to start.

When Jesus teaches about prayer in the gospel of Luke, he gives us more than the model of the Lord’s Prayer. He also tells the story of a man who receives what he needs because of his persistence in asking for it.  Then Jesus offers this assurance to his followers:

Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.

I love this passage, its comfort and encouragement, but it raises questions, too. Earlier in my life I assumed there were limits on what I could ask for, and that the possibilities for asking were on the other side of a high wall. Janis Joplin’s song made me smile, but I didn’t want to be guilty of praying “Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz.” I didn’t know what to ask of God, and didn’t trust myself, or God, enough to find out.

It took me far too long to learn that it’s ok to ask for whatever I need. The mindset of not asking is a stew with many ingredients; and I simmered in it for a long time.

Now I don’t worry about asking too much; I wonder if I ask too little. There may be no limit to the possibilities if we trust that our asking, seeking, and knocking will all be answered. The potential for change is actually unnerving.

Now I think we can ask freely for what we deeply want. We can expect God to meet the longing beneath the things that we desire. And if our vision is not clear, and we pray for a surface need that we mistake for the deeper one, we may find our prayers answered in ways we didn’t expect. God will meet the hidden and genuine need beneath our wishes, even if we do not know how to ask.

The Kaleidoscope of Divine Names

Names for God: Part 3 of a Series

The dozens of names used for God in the bible include beautiful and imaginative ones, evidence of long history and deep relationship with the Holy One beyond names. Each name for God stretches to articulate a particular experience of the sacred: beautiful, bright hope in Morning Star, the source and end of all in Alpha and Omega, the object of longing in Desire of All Nations, ever-renewing strength and refreshment in a Fountain, the steady certainty of a Rock, just to name a few. It’s interesting to scan such lists as the biblical names for God here, and names for the different aspects of the trinity here.

Jesus names his relationship with the source of life, strength, and guidance by referring to the divine as Father, suggesting a closer and more intimate relationship than the traditional Lord. He is also naming a divine relationship when he refers to himself as the vine and his followers as the branches.

The names we use are necessarily metaphorical—suggestions for ways of thinking of God based on something we’ve experienced of God and of the world. Maybe it is tender love, or transforming power; it could be a light in the dark, or a stone rolled away; it might be a new way of seeing our circumstances, or a sense of connection to another person. We say God is love, strength, vision, light, renewal, unity—all describe God, none is the final word.

Any name or metaphor reflects a single flash of perspective—one bit of colored light in the kaleidoscope of names, one of myriad possibilities for describing an experience or relationship with God. None is complete, so any name used exclusively becomes false. If God is always Almighty, then we may miss the still, small voice. If God is always He, then our sense of God is not only limited to masculine traits and roles, but to human ones. If the divine is just another being, much like another person only magnified, we may not be prepared to encounter other expressions of the holy.

Learning to use a variety of names for God has enriched my faith. My spiritual life grew deeper when I began to think of God in new ways, with new names. Allowing my understanding of God to grow has helped me to grow.

May the faithful ever continue to conceive new names for the divine, and may those names be accepted into living, growing communities of faith.

Are there names for God that you resist? What names are most resonant for you?

You might also be interested in:

Part 1: Post Cards from the Divine

Part 2: Naming the Ineffable