It’s Not Too Late to Enter Lent

We’re a week into Lent, but it’s not too late to think about a Lenten observance if you haven’t already. At the service I attended on the evening of Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, the thing I heard that struck me most was, “At the end of Lent we will be different.”

It’s true. When we take up some kind of spiritual discipline for Lent, we will be changed. We can be sure that in knocking on that door, it will be opened to us. That’s the reason to enter into these forty days of spiritual focus—a period of time long enough to foster real growth yet limited enough keep from being too daunting.

Even a simple observance over the period of these weeks leading to Easter can make a difference. I’ve written about some ideas for that in the post, “Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent.”

I’m exploring different kinds of prayer this Lenten season. This week I’m immersed in the psalms. Simply reading a psalm every day, slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, can be a rich Lenten observance. Especially if you understand the enemies and foes mentioned there as being your own personal demons.

At my church we’re exploring the subject of prayer during Lent, in classes and in worship.  Our senior minister is talking about prayer during his sermons over the next few weeks; his first in the series is about the power of simple prayers and how there is no “right way” to pray. He mentions Anne Lamott’s writing about the two best prayers she knows: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  You can listen to his March 13 sermon, “Prayer: What’s the Point?” here.

Finding a way to pray, or perhaps even a new way to pray, over these weeks of Lent seems to me like a way of inviting transformation. But whatever we choose, taking on a Lenten discipline is not so much a matter of buckling down as a way of opening up.

It’s not too late. What would you like to find on this journey?

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.

Naming the Ineffable

Names for God: Part 2 of a Series

Woven into the fabric of Hebrew tradition is the wise teaching that the name of God is never to be uttered. The powerful and mysterious name, given in the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush, is usually translated “I Am What I Am.” It’s the designation of something more than we can grasp, not to be treated lightly. A reader of the Hebrew substitutes adonai, or “the Lord,” when reading scripture aloud.

Any other name denotes an individual we can know, someone with particular characteristics and habits, whose existence necessarily means limitations, a being among other beings. But this name is different, one that we cannot wield with understanding, a name beyond names.

I’m drawn to that mystery, but if God is beyond what can be named, it’s hard to know where to begin. How can I even think about, much less have a relationship with, the unfathomable source of life?

A sense of divine presence is somewhere to start, or the longing to experience it. The Psalms speak to that kind of knowing: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. We can’t claim the stream, or apprehend its course; but we know our need for it and the experience of being refreshed by its waters.

And we have not only our own individual experience to draw on, but that of countless generations who have gone before. Many left their mark on the world’s faith traditions. When we find a line of liturgy or scripture or interpretation that resonates, we have a guide who helps us prepare for our own experience of the divine. We have gifts of poetry, art, and music that can open our hearts and point the way. The earth itself speaks eloquently of divine beauty, renewal, and creativity.

The unutterable name of God is spelled out everywhere, if only we can learn to read.

I’d love to hear about your experience. What stirs in you a sense of divine presence, or longing? Is it something you seek out in the rituals and routines of your life, or something that takes you by surprise?

You might also be interested in:

Part 1: Post Cards from the Divine

Part 3: The Kaleidoscope of Divine Names

Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent

The forty days of Lent, a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter, begins next week on Ash Wednesday. So I’m considering a discipline to take up for the next few weeks, though I have to admit that the word “discipline” feels pretty oppressive right now.

Back when I observed Lent by giving up something, such as desserts, I was glad for the reprieve on Sundays—they aren’t counted in the forty days of fasting. One of the best results was that Sunday became particularly joyful. Maybe that’s reason enough to go the route of sacrifice.

But I approach the Lenten season differently now. I see it as a time for study, or service, or entering into a new spiritual practice.

There are many great ideas for Lenten practices available. John Arnold’s ideas for Lent at The Practical Disciple is a good place to start. I especially like his innovative approach of carrying out forty bags of excess stuff in forty days, literally making room for the movement of the spirit in our lives.

But this year, I need a tiny idea. I’m not sure I’m up to anything more. A new project or a new practice simply feels too daunting.

Reading a psalm a day is one possibility. I could keep my bible on the table and read while I have coffee in the morning. It’s simple, not intimidating, and the psalms are rich in imagery, language, and spirit.

Another possibility is a practice I’ve recently encountered in several different places. If you’ve ever heard about a wonderful book from three different friends in the same week, or encountered a new idea that immediately come up in another context, you’ll understand why metta has my attention.

It comes from the Buddhist tradition, and is translated into English as lovingkindness. It’s a simple meditation, connected to the breath.

Breathing in, I cherish myself.

Breathing out, I cherish all beings.

Its practitioners find that metta cultivates acceptance, openness, connection, and charity—lovingkindness. Mary Jaksch at Goodlife Zen teaches about this practice in her post, “Can We Learn to Be Happy?” Jan Lundy at Awake is Good offers encouragement for using this meditation in her Day 25 Meditation Challenge: “Why I Do Metta.”

It can be used at the beginning of prayer or meditation, or while waiting for the tea to brew, the light to change, or the elevator to arrive.

This year, I’m looking for something to slip unobtrusively into my life, as some people carry a pocket cross. How are you thinking of observing Lent?