How to Begin Praying


Hole in a wine barrel.

[Excuse the male-centered language. It is a 50-year-old quotation]

“Let a man begin in prayer where he is, and that means anywhere, with any problem, with any desire. If what he asks for has him in its grip, that means that God can meet him there. If he has a ruling passion to be liked by others, to be selected to an important post, to be able to hold his marriage together, to recover the confidence of a son or daughter, why should this not come squarely into his prayer? We can begin anywhere in petitionary prayer.” (Steere, Douglas V. Dimensions of Prayer. New York: Women’s Division of Christian Service, 1962, p. 67.)

“How do I start praying?,” the question comes. I start praying exactly where I am. But I may have to begin by admitting that I’m not quite sure where I’m at. I may feel I’m standing in a fog as I begin to pray. I may have to acknowledge that I feel anxious, distracted and fearful as I come to an intended moment of prayer. This can be the starting point of my prayer. I get stuck when I try to start my prayer from a place where I am not, when I try to pray prayers I imagine God wants to hear rather than the actual things on my heart.

So here’s the quotation in my own words: “Let’s begin in prayer just where we find ourselves—anywhere, with any problem or any desire. If what we ask for has us in its grip, God can meet us right there. If we are overwhelmed by a craving for the approval of others, for an important position, healing in our marriages or reconciliation with a son or daughter, why wouldn’t we bring that right into our prayer? When it comes to prayer, it’s best to start right where we find ourselves.”

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What is a Saint?


I paraphrased a quotation from Douglas Steere on just what is a saint the other day. (I’ll include the original quotation at the end of this post):

“The saint is one who has become clear as to just what he wants of all there is in the world, and finds deep satisfaction with the love that lies at the heart of things. He travels light for that port. He prays, ‘Oh God, my Lord, do as You will; I will wait before You.’ He is doing what he wants to do now, not what he wants to do this minute and the next minute, and the next minute, but it is underneath all the minutes and days and years he would want to do if all of them should vanish and leave him forever at it. He is responding, answering back to the love of God in whatever setting he may be placed. He is a radical in the true sense of that word, for he has gone to the root of things and found the root good. He is holy in the sense of the totality of his abandonment to that Loving One.”

Beyond its New Testament use as a general term for each follower of Jesus as one of God’s people, what do we mean when we call someone “a saint”? He or she is a person doing exactly what they truly and deeply want to do, and find that this is just what God made them to do. I want to learn more fully to live the life I genuinely want tolive. I’m discovering that I what really is want God, His life and His love.

[Now, the original]

“The saint is rather a man or a woman who has become clear as to exactly what he wants of all there is in the world, and whom a love at the heart of things has so satisfied that he gaily reduces his cargo to make for that port. “Oh God, my Lord, do as thou wilt; I will be still.” He is one who is doing what he wants to do, not what he wants to do this minute and the next minute, and the next minute, but What beneath the minutes and the days and the years he would want to do if all of them should vanish and leave him forever at it. He is responding, answering back to the love of God in whatever setting he may be placed. He is a radical in the true sense of that word, for he has gone to the root of things and found the root good. He is holy in the sense of the totality of his abandonment to that Loving One.” (Steere, Douglas V. On Beginning from Within. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1943, p. 9-10.)

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How to Begin Praying


Hole in a wine barrel.

[Excuse the male-centered language. It is a 50-year-old quotation]

“Let a man begin in prayer where he is, and that means anywhere, with any problem, with any desire. If what he asks for has him in its grip, that means that God can meet him there. If he has a ruling passion to be liked by others, to be selected to an important post, to be able to hold his marriage together, to recover the confidence of a son or daughter, why should this not come squarely into his prayer? We can begin anywhere in petitionary prayer.” (Steere, Douglas V. Dimensions of Prayer. New York: Women’s Division of Christian Service, 1962, p. 67.)

“How do I start praying?,” the question comes. I start praying exactly where I am. But I may have to begin by admitting that I’m not quite sure where I’m at. I may feel I’m standing in a fog as I begin to pray. I may have to acknowledge that I feel anxious, distracted and fearful as I come to an intended moment of prayer. This can be the starting point of my prayer. I get stuck when I try to start my prayer from a place where I am not, when I try to pray prayers I imagine God wants to hear rather than the actual things on my heart.

So here’s the quotation in my own words: “Let’s begin in prayer just where we find ourselves—anywhere, with any problem or any desire. If what we ask for has us in its grip, God can meet us right there. If we are overwhelmed by a craving for the approval of others, for an important position, healing in our marriages or reconciliation with a son or daughter, why wouldn’t we bring that right into our prayer? When it comes to prayer, it’s best to start right where we find ourselves.”

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Why Prayer is Hard for Us: Part two


A couple of posts back, I shared a quotation from E. Herman’s Creative Prayer on the reality that coming into God’s presence is inevitably the death of our old self…and that to the degree I am still attached to that old me, to that same degree I will resist prayer.

A little further in that same section, I came across more wisdom along these lines that I paraphrased into my own words:

When it comes to prayer and the self that must die, we must realize that the pleasures of prayer can become a kind of hiding place for that self. It becomes absorbed and quite attached to this new object of desire to replace former, perhaps more crass ones. The rewards of prayer become the new power, pleasure, or possession by which it seeks an identity. This is why God will, in time, gently remove the feelings of ecstatic Presence, insurmountable power and surging confidence. He must make room for something deeper, more substantial and more restful. We must gain the kind of self-knowledge that is true spiritual power.

And here is the original:

“[from E. Herman’s Creative Prayer] “But self is not dead: it has merely lost consciousness of its existence for a season, in its absorption in a new object of desire. It clings to its spiritual treasure as it once clung to the goods of earth. It is only when God withdraws these spiritual possessions from us that we realize how largely self entered into our holding of them. One by one they leave us-the first joy and fervor, the first well-nigh intoxicating sense of God’s presence, the first inrush of unconquerable might and dauntless confidence. They are taken from us, not harshly, but to make room for something less vivid and joyous, yet even more solidly sustaining-a deep, calm peace, sense of perfect rest in God. We know why the first gifts have been withdrawn: it was that we might gain that self-knowledge which is power.” (Steere, Douglas V. Time to Spare. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1949, p. 111-12.)

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Why Prayer is Hard for Us


“[from E. Herman’s Creative Prayer] Three-fourths of our difficulties about prayer in its most spiritual aspect would disappear, if we realized the simple truth that prayer is a dying to self and becoming alive unto God, and that each stage of a progressive prayer life is a stage in the putting to death of the self that God may work and reign.” (Steere, Douglas V. Time to Spare. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1949, p. 111.)

So if I expect prayer to always feel good, I’m being unrealistic. God may give good feelings in prayer as an encouragement, but the work of prayer moves us in the direction of the false part of ourselves being put to death. We resist this to the degree that we are attached to this self-created version of ourselves that just isn’t God-given. This happens so that we might more fully abide in Jesus and become alive in Him.

My practical difficulties run along these lines: I resist prayer to the degree that I resist becoming detached from a false vision of who I am and what my life is about. I don’t want to let go of that vision, so I avoid the Presence. But God’s presence is the only place where I realize the reality of how life works. Only there am I truly alive. Only in Him am I myself.

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God’s Gift of Rest and Play


I probably talk and write a lot about rest and play because I find it such a challenging discipline. I’m grateful for ways that my wife, Gem, helps me learn to be a little more lighthearted and buoyant.

In that spirit, I’ve mentioned Douglas Steere’s Time to Spare in recent posts “How to Read a Spiritual Classic” and “A Good Retreat Leader.” Here’s my paraphrase of a good quotation on the theme of how we might invite God into our decisions about rest and play:

We would do well to seek God’s guidance as to recreational activities we choose to engage. Some of them leave us more drained and renewed, more scattered than recollected. We would do well to leave these behind. On the other hand, we must be open to times of genuine, life-giving play or leisure or we may find ourselves constantly close to the snapping point.

And here’s the original:

“The matter of the forms of recreation we choose should also be open to the Inward Guide, for there are those which when indulged in do not renew, but actually further disperse us, and those should be eliminated. On the other hand, an unwillingness to join in genuine times of joyful gaiety together, all too often indicates a bow so taut that it dares not risk being slacked off.” (Steere, Douglas V. Time to Spare. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1949, p. 78.)

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How to Read a Spiritual Classic


I recently re-read Time to Spare (1949) by Douglas Steere, which is “a practical manual for retreats.” There was a great insight into how to read a spiritual classic that I paraphrased for myself. (I’ve also included the original words for those who’d like to see that as well). Here you go…

When we decide to read a spiritual classic, it is good to think about how we will read. We are there to listen and be open to whatever God may have for us, whether expected or a surprise. We read with gentleness and patience if personal application of what is written isn’t immediately apparent. We read a classic as though it were a window into God’s presence, not allowing ourselves to get stuck in the writing itself. We read with a willingness to learn something for ourselves, not just to teach another. We are not reading to gather more spiritual formation insights, or to “kill some time,” or to find something with which to disagree. We are seeking God, and allowing the book to serve us in our intention. We allow it to be a spiritual mentor to us in our desire to grow more deeply in loving God back.

And the original:

“When these books are mentioned at the opening of the retreat, it is often helpful to point out how such devotional books should be read: the mood of openness to their insights that is called for, the charitableness that lays aside what is not spoken to the reader’s immediate need, the searching of self in the presence of this convicting witness, the stopping to meditate upon a passage that, windowlike, draws the reader to look beyond himself-these are all a part of the true approach to devotional reading. This is not, however, the mood of the acquisition of information, nor that of the whiling away of time, nor of the quarrelsome picking apart of the author’s thesis. It is rather the use of such a book as a holy instrument to help us on into life, as a preparation for prayer and meditation, as a voice that helps us examine ourselves in the presence of God.” (Steere, Douglas V. Time to Spare. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1949, p. 60.)

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Giving Up Too Soon


The caves of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first found.

“One of the greatest tragedies of a divorce is that just when the pain of the clarifying process is most acute, when both unconsciously know that they must mutate or perish, the work is stopped and the partnership breaks off. Instead of the painful breaking through to the deeper level of understanding and responsibility for each other which may be within reach, they make their escape and have to start all over again if they enter marriage with another.” (Steere, Douglas. Work & Contemplation. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, p. 139).

To the tragedy of divorce, one could add so many others—lost faith, abandoned ministry or mission, left churches. If we don’t learn to stay with hard things for at least a while, we’ll never grow past a rather juvenile view of the world that must always feel good to me. “It isn’t meeting my needs” is usually a precursor to a restart that takes us back to the starting line. I wonder how many times I’ve given up on something, not realizing a finish line was just around the next corner.

Suffering can be a means of gaining clearer, simpler perspective. Breaking through to deeper places of faithfulness and fruitfulness rarely occurs without some hard digging into deeper soil. Starting over at a new church, ministry, marriage (or fill in the blank) is exactly that—starting back at the beginning. There is no long and challenging obedience in the same direction that takes us far. We end up doing little loops around the same familiar little territory and wonder why we haven’t made much progress over time.

For Reflection:

  • Where is one hard place in your life where you are tempted to call it quits and start over elsewhere? How might God be encouraging you to stay a little longer?

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Thoughts on the Dark Night


Douglas Steere wrote some very helpful books in the last century. Below is a quotation from one of them on the theme of the dark night of the soul that I found helpful.

“Teresa of Avila and her great companion, John of the Cross, have both written of a stage on the mystic way known as the dark night of the soul, where all the light of warmth and joy in their spiritual lives seemed quenched, and where in their desolation they seemed destined to go on wearily plodding through the darkness, forsaken by every comfort and consolation, and despairing of ever finding light again. To those who flung themselves on God and went on, however, they give ardent testimony that this state passed away and a new sense of their utter reliance on Him and His bounty emerged. Now they were tested. Now they knew at first hand that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38, 39). Until this has taken place the estate of rapture is still young and [immature] and in a way is not yet theirs. Only as they work through it, incorporate it, lose it, and by faithfulness regain it again do the deeper stages of contemplation come to them.” (Steere, Douglas. Work & Contemplation. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, p. 133-34).

It seems absurd or at least self-congratulating to say that this resonates. So much of my recent journey for so long, probably mostly because of my own weakness and dullness, has felt dark to me. More recently, perhaps as a fruit of the level of personal and relational honesty that has come from the counseling process I’ve been in since April 2008, I have felt an occasional lightness, freedom, peacefulness, hopefulness and energy that most definitely does not feel sourced in myself. It feels like something rising up from deeper places within me where God has come to be more at home through Christ and by the Spirit. (I said this sounds a little arrogant, but it’s how I feel and what it seems like to me).

I feel like God had to prove, by experience, that nothing could separate me from His love by allowing them all to try to do just that. It hasn’t been much fun (which puts it in the mildest possible language). This sense of my experience of God being so easily lost has been a cause of humble longing for greater and simpler dependence on Him. There is a subtle shift from focusing on my experience of God towards my experience of God. The words are exactly the same but the emphasis is completely different.

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The Measure of Spiritual Experiences


The remains of the village of Capernaum in Israel.

“The greatest mystics like Teresa of Avila have always put little store by their experiences of rapture unless these left them more tender, loving, strengthened, and simplified and better able to live peaceably and encouragingly with those about them.” (Steere, Douglas. Work & Contemplation. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, p. 132).

This is an important word of caution to those who want to focus on dramatic spiritual experience as the measure of spiritual maturity. There is actually little if any correlation between them. Deep and profound experiences may cause us to become gentler, more compassionate, more courageous, more simple, but they also may make us self-important, demanding, proud and distracted. This is a heart issue. It is also about whether our focus is on God Himself, or on the experiences God gives us.

For Reflection:

  • Can you think of a dramatic experience with God in your story that marked you and changed you in a lasting way? Can you think of others that seemed to make little difference down the road?