Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Contemplative Prayer: Waiting for the Lord

Today is the third day in our 39th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures* today are:  Jeremiah 1-4; 2 Corinthians 9; Psalm 130.

Psalm 130 is a Pilgrim Song.  Travelers going to Jerusalem would sing this psalm, along with others, as they ascended the mountain of Zion to attend the feasts of Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost.  These pilgrim songs were published as a little booklet that contained Psalms 120-134, collectively called Psalms of Ascent.  For me, the Psalms of Ascent are beautiful to use as I center my heart for contemplative prayer, because when I practice this kind of prayer, I feel as if my spirit were ascending to God on Mount Zion itself.  My spirit soars within me as I engage in the ancient Christian practice of contemplation.  I hope you'll discover contemplative prayer for yourself.

"I wait for the Lord, my soul waits..."
Contemplative prayer is different from traditional prayer, which seeks to tell God everything that is on your mind.  In contemplative prayer, the praying person seeks to immerse herself in God's presence.  She wants to hear God, rather than being heard by God.  Simply put, contemplative prayer is resting in God's presence, without saying anything.  And, if possible, without thinking anything.  Because whatever you're thinking is distracting you from whatever God is thinking.  Slowly breathe in and out, resting in God and trusting in His love.  Whenever you find yourself distracted by your own thoughts, simply repeat a sacred word from the scripture text you've been reading (I call this sacred word a Logos Prayer).  Let this word bring you back to silence, where you wait on, and listen to God.  Try it for twenty minutes or so, and see the peace that it brings.

Psalm 130 prepares the heart for contemplative prayer.  It says:

130 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
    O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.
wait for the Lordmy soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

Psalm 130 notes three stages in contemplative prayer: confession, contemplation, and connection.

First, verses 1-4 prepare the praying person to enter the presence of God through prayers of confession.  It is impossible to enjoy contemplation if your heart is burdened by sin.  So begin your prayer time by confessing your sins to God, and allow His healing and forgiveness to flow through you.  Let the "grace that is greater than all our sin" nourish and restore you.  "Out of the depths (v.1)" might refer to the depths of guilt or the depths of sin, but it may simply indicate the depths of the heart.  During this initial time, it's okay to use words, tears, and body movements to indicate your contrition.  But once you feel the Holy Spirit's assurance of forgiveness, move on from confession to quiet contemplation.

Next, verses 5-6 move us into the heart of contemplative prayer--which is simply waiting on God, with all your heart and soul.  When you feel distracted, don't get discouraged.  Simply hope in God's word (Logos), which returns you to listening.  Breathe in deeply, and breathe out deeply.  Breathe in God's love, and breathe out any worry or fear you might have.  Inhale God's grace.  As you exhale, release any tension or unforgiveness you may have for someone else.  Listen to God's Spirit as you breathe.  God may speak, or He may not.  If not, don't worry about this.  It's just you and God, sitting together in silence like two people in love who don't need words.  Mutual listening is a beautiful thing.  Be attentive to God, even as a watchman is attentive to his surroundings.  Wait for God, even as the watchman waits for dawn.  If you're distracted, return to your Logos Prayer again.  (For me, today, in Psalm 130 it would be "mercy."  For you, it might be a different word entirely.)  Wait, watch, and listen.  Rest in God's presence.

Finally, verses 7-8 take us from an inward focus to an outward attention.  Connection to others is never forgotten, lest contemplative prayer become nothing more than navel-gazing.  As the praying person emerges from contemplation, he re-engages the world in a redemptive way.  "O Israel, hope in the Lord!"  If contemplative prayer is introverted, it is lived out daily in an extroverted way, testifying of God's steadfast love and redemption, and working to reconcile the world to God.  The person who practices real contemplative prayer does not remain cloistered behind inwardly-focused meditations.  Rather, he lets his prayer life shape the way he encounters the world around him.

Today, I invite you to contemplative prayer.  If you've never practiced it before, don't worry--it's among the easiest (and one of the most profound) forms of prayer you could practice.  Start with confession, then move into quiet contemplation.  Finally, emerge into a connection with the world that puts you to work as an ambassador of Christ's redemption.  I pray that your soul soars as you learn contemplative prayer--as your "soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning."  

*Scriptures taken from the ESV.

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