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Is My Life Too Busy for Contemplation?

Is My Life Too Busy for Contemplation?
Can I live a contemplative life of prayer and devotion to God in the midst of life’s distractions? Is a professional career, raising a family, and engaging in social activism incompatible with the life of the Spirit?

For many, the answer may seem obvious – whether in the affirmative or the negative. Throughout history, there have been monastic communities that assumed a certain distance from the cares of “the World.” Such cloistered communities retreat from the demands of profession, family, and politics, to nurture a life completely focused on God.

On the other hand, there is a strain of Christianity that insists that the only true worship of God is through whole-hearted engagement with the culture around us. This is the evangelical doctrine of the Reformation, which sees work and worship, inward prayer and outward engagement with society, as cut from the same cloth.

So who is right? Is God best served by single-minded devotion to a narrow path without distractions? Or does God call us to sacrifice our private contemplation so that we can be of service to others?

These questions are very alive for me right now. My family and I are in a season of great transition. We’ve got a young child at home, and another is due any day. I’m in the early stages of a career as a web developer, and working very hard to develop my skill set. Between small children at home and both parents working full time, our plate is very full. There’s not much room for the activism of my twenties, nor for the long stretches of contemplation and prayer that I once took for granted. Life is very busy now, and it feels right to prioritize livelihood and family during this season.

I feel like I am where God has called me to be. There’s not another path that I can imagine for myself at this stage in our family’s development. Yet, as I focus on making it through this season of young children and providing for family, it would be easy to let go of the life of prayer and service entirely.

I don’t want that to happen. As full as my life is, I still yearn to make space for the life of the Spirit. I want to practice awareness of God’s presence. I want to hear Christ’s guidance and allow his will to actively shape my life. But the spiritual practices that served me well in less busy times are insufficient to guide me now. In the years ahead, I will need to cultivate what William R. Callahan called “noisy contemplation.”

If you’ve been following my latest blog posts, you know that I’m experimenting with the Episcopal liturgy, making it my own and incorporating it into a daily practice of prayer. I’m looking for ways to practice a contemplative, even “monastic” spirituality, in the midst of my life as a busy worker and father to young children. Rather than setting aside large chunks of time for prayer and worship, I’m seeking ways to allow prayer to permeate my life. Is it possible that all my activity, from playing with our children to developing web applications, could be directed as acts of devotion to God?

The apostle Paul enjoined the church in Thessaloniki to “pray without ceasing.” Since that time, many followers of Jesus have attempted to do just that. For some, it has taken the form of cloistered monasticism or the lifestyle of professional clergy. Yet many others have found their vocation to “pray without ceasing” in the midst of busy lives, engaged with the world. This is the society of discipleship that I wish to join.

I cannot produce such a life of prayer. I need the Spirit to pray in me, interceding in my heart with sighs too deep for words. I’ll do what I can to open myself to this gift. Through simple practices of daily prayer, intercession, and community worship, I am inviting God to fill my whole life.

What does this life of prayer look like for you? Have you found ways to invite God into the midst of your busy day? What does it mean for you to “pray without ceasing”?

Related Posts:

The Kingdom of God is Not A Meritocracy

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?
Last week, I shared about my experiments with the Episcopal liturgy. The liturgy comes as a liberation from the type of prayer that I was exposed to in Quaker circles. Quaker theology seemed to require that I either feel immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, or not pray at all. Through the daily repetition of a spoken liturgy, I’m invited to pray more consistently. Regardless of how I might happen to feel at any given moment, I just show up.

As I continue to explore this framework for regular prayer, I can stop worrying so much about my own emotional state. Instead, I return to God. I remember why I’m here. I rededicate myself to the love God calls me to. I am reminded of what a miracle it is to be alive.

The liturgy empowers me to pray alone. A challenge of the Quaker tradition, in my experience, is that there is a great emphasis on corporate worship and prayer. Oftentimes, I felt a lot of pressure to gather other people for worship simply to get my own spiritual needs met. I’ve found that Quaker worship often doesn’t work very well for me if the group gets too small (less than half a dozen). Doing Quaker waiting worship on my own can often feel more like merely sitting in silence and less like standing in the presence and power of the Lord.

What’s fantastic about praying the hours is how much freedom it gives me to go solo. While the liturgy is well-suited for corporate worship, it is equally effective for personal prayer. If others want to join me in praying the hours, all the better; but if not, I can pray alone. This takes a lot of pressure off. I can invite others to join me in this spiritual discipline, but whether or not they find it worthwhile doesn’t impact my ability to practice it on my own.

I do believe that corporate prayer and worship is essential. I’m not called to the life of a hermit, and I’d like to pray with others if given the opportunity. For the last few weeks, I’ve been praying the hours on my own. Now I’m pondering what might be the best ways to invite others to explore this practice with me.

During the rise of state-run Christianity, the desert fathers retreated to the Egyptian wilderness to practice a monastic faith deeply rooted in personal prayer, scripture reading, and the psalms. These early monastics withdrew from the co-opted Christianity of Empire and devoted themselves to personal transformation in the way of Jesus. They often lived alone, retreating into the desert to fast and pray. Yet even among the hermits, there was community. They joined together for corporate worship. They counseled and watched out for one another.

What might this kind of monasticism look like in the midst of the great imperial city, Washington, DC? Is it possible to bring the wilderness into the streets of the new Rome? Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness?

Despite the great individual freedom allowed by the liturgy, the need for corporate faithfulness does not go away. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – yet we cannot be any of these things if we refuse to reach out to one another in love.

How do I live into this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of love? For now, my best guess is to continue praying the hours, attending the Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, and encouraging the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I’m “play-testing” and refining my personal prayer book. I hope to make it available soon, in case others might find it useful. If you’re interested in receiving a copy, let me know. Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

Related Posts:

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?
Ten years ago, I lived as part of a “new monastic” community in Richmond, Indiana. It was a community steeped in prayer. We prayed together three or four times a day, using a liturgy based out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

As a Quaker, the Episcopal liturgy was a very different experience from the style of worship and prayer that I had been exposed to. Quakerism taught me that prayer should be spontaneous, “Spirit-led.” Anything I did should be rooted in a palpable sense of God’s guidance in that moment.

But as part of the Renaissance House community, I discovered that there is real power in a set liturgy. I prayed the same words, every day, in community, for months. I got to the point where I could speak through the prayers without really thinking about it. I memorized the words, and they became a part of me.

This was very different from the extemporaneous prayer and silent worship I was taught to seek in the Quaker tradition. Still, it was very effective and compelling in its own way. In the brief time that I practiced it, I found the liturgy molding me. I felt invited into a space of prayer and devotion to God in a way I had never experienced before.

I’ve recently begun praying the liturgy again. Using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a template and guide, I’ve put together my own prayer book. I’m experimenting, tweaking the liturgy, finding what works best for me. I’m using the liturgy four times a day – at waking, midday, evening, and before bed. The prayers includes psalms, prayers, music, creeds, and responsive readings.

The Quaker tradition has taught me to be skeptical of rote prayers. Empty words, spoken without conviction or understanding are dangerous. Rather than fostering devotion, such compulsive religious habits get in the way of relationship with God.

But at this time in my life, I’m finding the liturgy to be a welcome aid in my desire to seek after God, to live in his presence. Especially now, as I inhabit the life of a husband, father, and full-time tradesman. I am re-discovering the power of liturgy to shape my life and open a space for prayer. The liturgy serves as a default, a routine that I can rest in while I seek deeper inspiration. If I don’t feel particularly inspired today, this week, or this month – I can keep praying anyway.

I’m amazed by how often God shows up in the liturgy. Sometimes when I’m simply reading through the prayers, joy bubbles up within me. The liturgy allows for silence, or freestyle intercessory prayer and thanksgiving. I find myself opening up to God in ways that I simply wouldn’t have without the default script of the liturgy.

At this stage in my life, I’m far busier than I would like to be. In this context, the liturgy is amazing. It holds open space in my life where prayer is automatic, regardless of how tired I am or how uninspired I’m feeling. It provides opportunities each day to stand before God. If I’m not feeling enthusiastic, I can examine myself and ask why not. Or I can just accept it. I can thank God for the grace he gives me to keep praying, in season and out of season. The liturgy helps me show up for relationship with God, regardless of my subjective feelings.

To my Quaker friends, this may all sound crazy. Maybe even heretical. But for me, at this point in my journey, it’s the power of God. Thanks be to God.

Related Posts:

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

How My Faith Blew Up and I Learned to be Human Again

When We Pray, It Boils

Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and then does strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone. And then contentment comes. – from George Fox’s Epistle X

At our Fall Gathering this past weekend, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship had a pretty amazing experience of prayer. The quality of it was different from anything I had ever experienced before. It was as if we were sitting together in a frying pan, and the spiritual temperature was steadily rising. Simmering. Boiling.

The only way I knew how to describe it afterwards was to say, It felt like the lid was about to come off. The room was literally shaking with the prayers of those present, our bodies and voices trembling under the power of the Spirit.

As a Quaker, this intensity of feeling makes me suspicious. It’s hard to know sometimes whether our emotions are being stirred up for human reasons, or divine ones. Yet, from everything I witnessed, I believe that our time of fervent prayer bore the marks of the Holy Spirit. There was real healing taking place as hidden hurts and heartbreaks came to light.

It has taken me a while to begin processing what I saw and felt this weekend. It was an awesome thing to watch the Spirit of God reach down into our depths and dredge up mercy out of the darkness. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But also beautiful. Cleansing and healing.

I am so grateful for Christ’s presence in our midst this weekend. I am blessed to be part of this community where we approach God together, and receive a clear response. It’s a pure gift, and I’m thankful.

Living in the Power

If but one man or woman were raised by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round. – George Fox, Journal

For the kingdom of God depends not on talk, but on power. – 1 Corinthians 4:20

This weekend I’m headed out to Barnesville, Ohio for the spring gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’ll come together from across the country, listening for how the Holy Spirit wants to gather us, fill us, and send us into a world that is aching for God’s presence.

We will laugh together, and we’ll share our dreams. We will speak words meant to build us up for the mission that Jesus is calling us to. And we’ll be praying for the living Word of God to come and speak in our midst.

We yearn to be a part of a movement that transforms creation, redeeming the face of the earth. We long to shine out in the darkness. Could our lives blaze like the first apostles, the early Christian martyrs, and the Valiant Sixty of the original Quaker movement? As we gather in Barnesville, we cry out to be filled with the power of God that makes all things new.

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We cry out because, despite our highest aspirations, we know that we often get in the way of the change that the Spirit wants to make in our lives. We cling to the comfort of the known, even when life as we know it has grown too drab, stale and false to sustain the kingdom life.

The joy we have been called to in Christ explodes business as usual. The eye of the needle that we’re called to pass through is one that sifts out all smugness and certainty, all self-sufficiency and worldly confidence. The kingdom is revealed in the beautiful handiwork of God in our broken, out-of-control lives.

It is only when we are broken that we are ready to receive healing. Only those who are hungry can be filled. It is only when we surrender control of the future that we can wake up to the present-moment kingdom of God that is hidden in plain sight.

My prayer for this weekend is that God will prepare each one of us to be tender, awakened to our own brokenness and need of God’s grace. I pray that Jesus will be present among us, filling us with his own life and power, shining the light in us to convict us of sin and show us how to love one another as he first loved us.  

Stay Awake

Then [Jesus] came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:40-41

Jesus was praying for his life in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew that his time was at hand; the next day, he’d be tortured to death by the occupying Roman legion. Before that happened, he’d be mocked and beaten by the religious authorities of his own people. The next 24 hours were going to be rough, to say the least.

Sometimes, we emphasize Jesus’ divinity so much that we lose track of the fact that he was also a human being, just like us. Jesus was no invulnerable demigod. He wept. He got angry. He didn’t want to die. In the garden that night, he begged God to show him some other way – any way that didn’t mean being nailed to that cross.

Jesus faced temptation, hardship and suffering. He felt abandoned by his closest friends in his darkest moment. Jesus was facing a horrifying death, yet his inner circle – Peter, James and John – couldn’t even stay awake with him for an hour while he prayed!

How often do I fall asleep to the prayer of Jesus in those around me? How often do I tune out the suffering that I see? So many times, I yield to the temptation to fall asleep in my distractions. What would it look like for me to stay awake with Jesus in the lives of those who are facing the reality of the cross every day – the homeless, the outcast, the unloved?

What would it look like to live in the cross myself, allowing my own will to be submitted to God’s loving desire for my life? Like Jesus, how can I stay awake and alert in prayer, knowing that I need the love and presence of the Holy Spirit in each moment?

Love With Everything You’ve Got

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. – Mark 12:30

Growing up, I always assumed that my mind was the truest, most essential part of me. My thoughts, my memories, my conscious awareness – that’s who I always believed I was.

Many of my most basic understandings changed when I became a Christian, but this set of assumptions about my mind were left mostly unchallenged. Without really considering it too deeply, I continued to apply the logic of “mind over matter” to my relationship with God.

I assumed that a truly deep prayer life would be one in which I was constantly thinking about God, turning my conscious mind towards God. I figured that the point of a prayerful life was to remain mentally vigilant and, whenever I realized that my mind had slipped from awareness of God, to once again orient my mind towards God.

I still think that orienting the mind towards God is an important component of prayer, but lately I’m becoming convinced that this is only one part of being in relationship with God. Have you ever experienced the sensation of waking up from sleep with the feeling that you had been praying in your dreams? Times when your conscious mind was focused on other things, yet your body, your whole being was still somehow, mysteriously connected to God? Sometimes, although I am not mentally thinking about God, I am still loving God with all my heart, soul and strength.

For me, getting too fixated on the mental component can be a stumbling block to a deeper relationship with God. If I make the mistake of thinking that only my mental posture matters, I may miss the ways God wants to be in relationship with me through my heart, my strength, my entire being.

  • What are ways that you have shown love and devotion through parts of yourself other than your mind?
  • How do we show love through our heart, soul and strength, as well as through our mind?
  • Are we loving with everything we’ve got?