Embracing True Narratives: A Review of The Good and Beautiful God

What stands between you and a deeper spiritual life that makes you more like Jesus? For some, it’s a simple matter of not knowing how to pursue the spiritual life. For many of us, though, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about God and how he’s relating to us. James Bryan Smith explains and tackles this problem in his book, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009).

Smith is a theology professor, and a regular contributor to Renovaré, which is, in my opinion, one of the best sources today for finding books, events and other equipping resources for pursuing the spiritual life. The Good and Beautiful God is a Renovaré resource, and the first volume in their “Apprentice Series,” a sort of ‘curriculum for Christ-likeness” and means of making time-honored spiritual disciplines accessible to Christians today.

In The Good and Beautiful God, Smith addresses a number of the “false narratives” that we tend to tell ourselves about God. We might convince ourselves that we suffer because God is punishing us for our sins. We assume that the way to earn God’s favor is by doing good things, and if we don’t do enough God won’t bless us. Sometimes we tell ourselves narratives opposite of these but equally problematic – that God doesn’t care about our actions at all. Chapter by chapter, Smith dispels these and other false narratives we may tell ourselves, and replaces them with narratives that present God as the good, beautiful, generous and holy  God that he is. At the end of each chapter, Smith presents a “soul training” exercise for the reader to try out over the course of a week or so. The exercises range from different forms of engagement with Scripture (from lectio divina to reading the Gospel of John straight through) to practices as simple as getting enough sleep. The goal of the exercises is to embed more deeply the true narratives about God, and us that Smith lays out. They’re a way to embrace the true story, and in so doing also embrace the true, good and beautiful God made known to us in Christ.

I would recommend this book to any Christian who’s been hanging around the Church, sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, with little else to say about their faith, but wanting to set out into something deeper. This book provides a helpful introduction to a number of spiritual disciplines to get people started in pursuing the spiritual life. But plenty of books do that. The real genius of this book is that it presents these practices in the context of addressing the false narratives that usually keep us from pursing the spiritual life in the first place. The narratives we tell ourselves, after all, create the reality in which we live.

If you’ve already been practicing spiritual disciplines for some time, this may not be the book for you. You’ll likely read it, nod your head a lot in agreement, maybe find an explanation or illustration helpful, but mostly be thankful that this book exists as a resource for others. You may also wish it was available to you  years ago near the start of your spiritual journey. (I did.)

If you do choose to read this book, take heed to Smith’s advice. Go slowly, and read it in the company of a supportive group of others. Many, perhaps all, of the disciplines that this book will teach you are counter-cultural. They will make you less like the rest of the world even as they make you more like Jesus. That, can be lonely without a supportive community trying the disciplines with you. And when you’re done, don’t stop at the end of the last chapter. Skim the footnotes and make a note of the books Smith cites. There’s a gold mine of good literature to help you continue your journey.

Deeper Gratitude = Wider Mission

I recently started working my way through the book, The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. It’s a spiritual formation book (one of Renovare’s), and after each chapter, Smyth suggests a “Soul Training Exercise.” At the end of the chapter I read today, the exercise was titled “Counting Your Blessings.” It’s a cliche phrase. All I could think about was the cheesy hymn with the chorus: Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. I almost turned the page to skip right over the exercise and move on to the next chapter. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exercise was simple. Make a list of good things God has blessed you with for which you ought to be thankful. Try to make a list of 100 blessings. So, I pulled out my macbook, opened the word processor, and started my numbered list. The first few things on  my list were easy to think of because they were either obvious, very simple, or in my immediately memory: the beautiful, clear blue sky I got to look at while running yesterday afternoon; an encouraging message I received from a friend; a funny joke that made me laugh; my icon of Jesus that helps me focus when I pray; etc.  But then the exercise got a little challenging. Not because God isn’t good, but because making a list of 100 anything becomes daunting after the first 10 items or so.

I tried to keep growing my list by looking at what I had already included and identifying other blessings connected to them. My friend who sent the encouraging message is also a loving, compassionate person in general. The person who told the funny joke has a gift for adding humor to situations that would other wise be less pleasant. My icon was painted by an iconographer whose work has helped thousands of others worship Christ more intimately.

Then it occurred to me: Making this list of blessings was forcing me to go deeper with my gratitude, and the deeper I went the more outwardly focused I became. The first things on my list of blessings had to do almost exclusively with myself. I was thankful for the blue sky because I got to see it. My friend’s message encouraged me. The joke made me laugh. The icon helps me pray. But my deeper expressions of gratitude reflected things and people who are blessings to others. The beauty of creation is a gift God is always giving to everyone. My friend has a gift for encouraging a lot of people, and it’s a gift that God uses in her to build up our church. My joke-telling friend makes a lot of people laugh and diffuses a lot of tense situations for a lot of people. My icon is actually a reprint of an older, larger icon that’s been seen and used by many in the Church.

The deeper we go in our gratitude, the broader our outlook becomes. If we want our churches, or our own lives to be missional, outward-focused expressions of God’s love for the world, then we need to practice the discipline of gratitude. Count your blessings. You’ll be surprised what the Lord will do.

Two Tea Drinkers and a Pilgrim

I recently started reading The Way of a Pilgrim – the memoirs of an anonymous Russian peasant chronicling his quest to fulfill Scripture’s command to “pray without ceasing.” The Pilgrim eventually learns from a spiritual director to pray the Jesus Prayer constantly, making it one with his breathing. His unceasing prayer leads him into mystical and miraculous experiences. After his spiritual director dies, he still receives instruction from him in dreams. At one point, he encounters a big wolf jumping at him, but the wolf is fended off by… his rosary. (I won’t even try to explain concisely how that happened…)

I picked up The Way of the Pilgrim again today to read more. Reading a book by a wandering peasant in the comfort of my own home didn’t seem right. So I walked down the street to my favorite place to drink tea – Te Cafe. I ordered a pot of the green tea of the day, and sat down in the big comfy chair in the corner to read more of the Pilgrim’s journey. Shortly into my reading, I across this: “As I came inside the [inn], I saw two distinguished-looking men, one elderly and the other middle-aged and rather stout; they were sitting at a table in the far corner of the room drinking tea.”

I smiled at the connection between me and the book, and kind of wished I would have ordered a pot of Russian Caravan to make the connection even more obvious. I felt a spur of inspiration to imagine myself as one of the men drinking tea and encountering the pilgrim. “Which man am I?” I wondered, “Does it even matter?” As I continued to read, I learned that it matters a lot.

The two men, I read on to learn, were a school teacher and a court clerk. The clerk was immediately sarcastic with the Pilgrim. Upon hearing about the Pilgrim’s encounter with the wolf and how his rosary fended off the wolf, the clerk replied with a smile, “Really? Do wolves pray?” As the pilgrim shared the details of the story, the clerk disregards any sense of the miraculous. He only sees an animal getting frightened by a blunt object being thrown at it.

I wondered to myself, “Is that me? Am I the clerk? Am I only reading the story of a man on an earnest -even admirable – quest but failing to see the depths of mystery, wisdom and holiness at work in the Pilgrim’s story?”

The teacher, on the other hand, saw the miracle, even in ways that the Pilgrim had not yet seen. The teacher saw in wolf’s being tamed by the rosary evidence of the owner’s holiness. The teacher recalls that the animals submitted themselves before Adam, and Adam exercised God-given authority over the animals as he named them. Holiness, the teacher explains is a return to the innocence of Adam in the garden, and that nature still recognizes that innocence and responds as the wolf did.

“Is that me? Am I the teacher? Am I experiencing the depths of mystery, wisdom and holiness in the Pilgrim’s story?”

I know which character I want to be. And the truth is that I’m probably somewhere on a spectrum between the two. I haven’t yet responded to the Pilgrim with the sarcasm of the clerk. But I also haven’t had nearly the depth of insight that the teacher displayed. What I am finding is that I’m falling in love with the God of the Pilgrim. I want to learn from the Pilgrim how to experience God as deeply as he does.

And that’s why we need to look at the Pilgrim’s story – and the whole world – with the same eyes as the teacher. The Pilgrim responds to the teacher’s interpretation of his story by giving him encouragement and instruction in the faith. The Pilgrim disciples him. We can’t learn from the Pilgrim, or any other spiritual master, if we aren’t willing to receive their lives as examples of communion with Jesus Christ.

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, that we would have the eyes of faith to see the fruits of holiness in your saints.

My 2011 Lenten Disciplines

I’m about a week late in posting them, but here are my disciplines for Lent this year:

1.) Pray daily for two friends. This is a communal discipline that we’re doing at Upper Room. We’re all committing ourselves to two people who don’t yet know Jesus. There are two particular people I’m praying for. Since I don’t want to break any confidentialities, I won’t post their names here. Along with praying for them, I’m planning on taking intentional steps at deepening our friendships.

2.) Meditate daily on a passage from Mark the Ascetic. This is also a communal discipline that I”m doing with folks from the House of St. Michael the Archangel.

3.) Full fasts starting after dinner Thursday evening and ending at dinner Friday evening. This one’s pretty much self-explanatory, though I will say that I’m terrible at fasting. There have been multiple times in the past when I’ve remembered that I was fasting while placing a handful of potato chips in my mouth. With my marathon training schedule, Friday is really the only day I can fast, and even then I’ll need to eat dinner that night before going to bed since I’ll be running 5 miles every Saturday morning. At one point, I seriously considered just letting my marathon training be my Lenten discipline, but that felt like a copout.

4.) I anticipate that this will be the hardest one. It’s kind of complicated, and maybe more of an experiment than a discipline, but here it is: I’m giving up driving alone for distances less than 5 miles. About 2 or 3 months ago, I had the idea of giving up my car altogether for Lent after reading Shane Claiborne’s suggestion in Common Prayer to try going “fuel free” for 1 week. However, I soon decided that was unreasonable. I had completely forgotten about the idea until last week on Ash Wednesday when, due to some poor planning on my end, I found myself without a car at Quiet Storm in Garfield and needing to get to CMU and then back home. I didn’t have exact change for bus fare, so I had to walk. So, I decided maybe this was God’s way of telling me to take up this discipline. Here are the rules I’ve set:

– If I’m going somewhere that is less than 5 miles from my house, I have to either walk, bike or take public transportation.

– I’m allowed drive within that distance if I’m providing a ride to somebody else.

– I’m allowed to drive by myself if going somewhere more than 5 miles away. (I call this the “public transportation in Pittsburgh if awful” clause.)

– I’m not allowed to ask others for a ride if it takes them out of their way. But if they offer, I can accept.

My original purpose behind the discipline was environmental stewardship. Now that I’m a week into it, though, I’m discovering that the real blessing I’m experiencing behind it is a slower pace. Having to walk or take a bus means that I can’t rush from one meeting to another (as I’m prone to doing). Taking the time to walk or sit on the bus is giving me space to think, process conversations, let ideas digest, and pray. Several times now, I’ve found myself praying the Jesus Prayer while walking, modifying it to pray blessings on the people/places I see. (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on ________”) On Sunday evening, I took a prayer book with me and prayed evening vespers as I walked.

I’ll try to post more about these disciplines as Lent continues. God grant us all a Holy Lent!

Weeping Over Scripture

When the seventh month came – the people of Israel being settled in their towns – all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it face the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose… And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also… the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” Fall the people wept when they heard the words of the law.

– Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-9

Generally speaking, I’m not a very emotional person. I don’ t typically where my emotions on my sleeve. With the exceptions of close friends who read my non-verbal communication well, most people won’t know if I’m angry or upset or depressed. For better or for worse, I generally prefer to deal with my emotions internally.

Consequently, it usually takes a lot for me to cry. I can think of very few times that I’ve wept. I couldn’t tell you the last time I cried while watching a movie. I can, however, tell you the last time I cried while reading a book.

It’s happened to me only once. I was in college, and was working on an independent study during my senior year focusing on theologically significant themes in various dramas. I was reading the play Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. Towards the end of the play, which takes place during the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin is shot as she attempts to warn a nearby village of an impending attack by beating a large drum. The soldiers shoot her, but the town is saved. My description of the scene doesn’t give full justice to its beauty. I sat there with tears flowing down my face as I read this scene, and I realized that I was weeping in response to the gospel. Kattrin’s death was salvific for the nearby village.

What bothers me, though, is that I’ve never had an experience like this reading the actual story of Jesus in any of the gospel narratives, let alone in response to any portion of Scripture. In the passage above from Nehemiah, the people weep in response to hearing Ezra read the law and the Levites interpret it. Granted, the people are then told that weeping isn’t the correct response; they ought to be rejoicing. Nevertheless, the weeping is an indication that the law was cutting right into their hearts.

I can think of very few times when I’ve read Scripture and felt like weeping (or rejoicing, for that matter), and I’ve never actually wept. The same is true in most of my experiences hearing Scripture in corporate worship (a context closer to the one in Nehemiah). With some exceptions (most often in Charismatic congregations and non-White congregations), Christians rarely respond with any emotion to the reading of Scripture. In fact, there are times (and I speak firstly in reference to my own worship leadership and preaching) that our reading of Scripture feels only like a “transition” into the sermon.

Now, I realize that being concerned about emotional responses can be a slippery slope. Thinking about this too much can lead to manipulative attempts to elicit emotions for all the wrong reasons. But how do we create in our worship communities a culture of emotional openness? And what obstacles stand in the way of creating that culture?

Scripture: The “With-God” Book

The Bible is all about human life “with God.” It is about how God has made this “with-God” life possible and will bring it to pass. In fact, the name Immanuel, meaning in Hebrew “God is with us,” is the title given to the one and only redeemer, because it refers to God’s everlasting intent for human life – namely, that we should be in every aspect a dwelling place of God. Indeed, the unity of the Bible is discovered in the development of life “with God” as a reality on earth, centered in the person of Jesus…

– Introduction to The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible

In my personal spiritual development, I’ve begun to think more about Scripture. I’ve noticed lately that more often than not my times of personal reading and studying of Scripture have been dry. Many times I’ll read a passage of Scripture, finish, and then realize that I have no idea what I just read. Other times when I am actually making an effort to be fully present to the text, I more often find the curiosities of my brain being stimulated, rather than the desires of my heart.

I find this excerpt from the Intro to the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible to be really helpful, particularly because the emphasis on being “with God” challenges me to heighten my expectations when approaching Scripture. In my life, there are numerous people I would call “faith role-models” – people whom I look at  and think to myself, “God is with that person.” I admire and trust these people. I feel safe following them because I am confident that the path they are on is one toward God.

These people aren’t just friends whom I know personally, although I’m blessed to have many friends whom I count among these role-models. Within the communion of saints, there are men and women, living and dead, whom I’ve never met personally, and some who have lived long before I, who have had great influence on my faith. Brother Lawrence, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Augustine, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are some of the first to come to mind. Again, the theme among all these individuals is a particular “with-God-ness.”

Regardless of how well I know the individually personally, whether friend or stranger, I’m excited to follow these people. I look forward to learning from them, as they challenge me to a greater faithfulness. It’s this same eagerness, likely even a greater eagerness, that I think I need to cultivate in approaching Scripture. Scripture is a book about and written by “with-God” people. In fact, the writers of Scripture are so closely “with-God” that anyone seeking to be closer to God will need to follow them. And, of course, at the heart of Scripture is Christ Himself, God-with-us.

A fruitful reading of Scripture, then, begins with one’s desire for being with God, and seeking to meet that desire in the communion of the saints. The desire to be with God is met in following the writers of Scripture, the prophets and the apostles, as they follow Christ.

Prayer: Reflections from Matt Bell

In the formation of my own prayer life, seeing others pray and learning from them has played an integral role. In recent years, I’ve been blessed by numerous saints whose prayers and insights have both inspired and challenged me. One of those individuals is my friend, Matt Bell. Matt and I became friends in seminary, and also became colleagues in ministry at Korean United Presbyterian Church. I and the Upper Room are also blessed to have Matt and his wife Alyssa as a part of our worshipping community. Matt is currently pursuing a PhD in Patristics from the University of Durham, and is also one of the instructors and founders of the Ancient Christian Faith Initiative. Below are seven questions that I posed to Matt in an email, followed by Matt’s response – he chose to weave the answers to the questions into a larger narrative. Thanks, Matt for your wisdom and witness.

  1. When and how often do you pray?
  2. What do your times of prayer look like? How are they structured? Do you pray in a particular physical posture?
  3. Are there any particular prayers or Scriptures that you find yourself coming back to when you pray?
  4. Do you remain consisten in your prayer practices or do you change things up from time to time?
  5. How do you determine/discern who or what to pray for? How do you discern what specifically to ask for on behalf of those people/matters?
  6. What do you ask for when you pray for yourself?
  7. How long has it taken you to develop your current discipline of prayer?

I always feel a little cheeky answering questions about my prayer life as if it were something to be imitated or learned from.  Prayer and corporate worship are both struggles for me; I recall a cloud of difficulty, at times verging on pain, descending upon me around when I became a teenager.  The difficulty led me to different responses, sometimes to a weariness and unbelief that’s left me in stunned silence.  It may be that reflections on that would be most helpful to you and your readers, so I’ll post that as background to answering your numbered questions.  I’ll try to weave answers to the numbered ones in the larger narrative.

First of all, like most Christians, I was raised to expect God to answer prayer by speaking back, sometimes in words, in images, through signs, through other Christians in the Church…….Worship on Sunday mornings was especially passionate.  We tried to be emotionally open to the Holy Spirit, to have our hearts open.  Feelings were important, and outward response to God was important.  Worship of this kind was a sort of prayer, even the core discipline.  Since you ask about posture, upraised hands were our most common gesture.  We were told it represented sacrifice — that with one’s hand upraised, you were lifting stuff up to God.

At around age 13, maybe a little earlier, a couple changes happened.  First, I stopped “feeling” God in corporate worship, which experience I interpreted as divine displeasure.  Second, for whatever reason, I became extremely self-conscious about raising hands in worship.  It became difficult for me to do it.  My sister, Rebekah, became similarly affected about raising hands, but she articulated a different reason: it felt artificial.  She observed people raising hands to be visible to others, and was offended by the hypocrisy.  I can’t remember why I didn’t raise my hands — only that it was hard, and that God felt distant.  I remember around that time that I tried to start manipulating my emotions, to stir myself inwardly to passion towards God, all to no avail.  The effort simply increased my pain.  Around that time, the pastor even gave a word of knowledge that someone in worship was “working too hard”.  That was a very unhelpful word for me, because it simply led to frustration — I couldn’t stop working, or felt I couldn’t.  To work led to pain, to stop working felt like apathy.  Gradually, this experience grew until it covered everything, taking over my spiritual life bit by bit, like an advancing glacier.

Looking back at this time I sometimes find myself surprised, because although it felt like God was so absent, I now can see he was stunningly present.  It’s been that way a lot throughout the years — when I look at the present moment, all I see is confusion.  When I look at the past with gratitude, I see the Lord everywhere.  So it was with that time.  Three or four experiences related to the nature of prayer stand out very dramatically from that period.  The first happened as I was waking up, engaging in very mundane, early morning “get-ready-for-the-day” activity.  I was pitying myself over the lack of feelings of God’s presence as I got washed up, occasionally complaining to the Lord about it and asking why he was displeased with me.  The Spirit broke the silence and said, “Why do you need feelings from me?  Is it not enough goodness just to worship me, even without the feelings?”  The second was years later, when I was in college.  I was walking around the campus, struggling with prayer.  I was on the third floor of Corbett Center, the student union building at NMSU, standing nearby the payphones on one side of the building by the stairs.  I complained to God about the struggle, said that I could not pray, and he responded to the effect, “Your problem is not that you cannot pray, but that you will not.”  On another occasion he said, “You don’t believe.”  Through these experiences, I began to learn that prayer is not about feeling God respond, but acting in confidence that he is there and will respond.  A third experience occurred as I was trying to quiet myself to hear his voice on a particular request.  The Spirit interrupted and said, “I have no difficulty speaking to you.  I don’t need you to do that.”  Through experiences like this, I was slowly brought through to a place where I could again worship and pray not without difficulty, but in spite of not feeling things, not hearing things.

Perhaps because of the difficulty, though, I don’t really have set times of prayer or strict habits.  Having them might help; I’ve not set them, however.  I tend to try to pray throughout the day, to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence.  Since meeting Alyssa, who is more structured, I do now pray with her once a day about certain specific, “covenanted” requests — for the salvation of five people we have agreed to pray for daily, and for needs in our family.  We begin by going over our requests and debriefing about our day, then reading a psalm slowly, then alternating our requests.

I’ve found it very helpful to think of prayer as participation in the divine counsel.  I really believe this is the case.  Prayer is not just “me and God”.  Prayer is a priestly activity.  In addition to myself there are saints and angels, including some fallen powers, before the Throne.  The Lamb is on the throne and in the midst of the elders, and the Father is upon the throne.  The Lamb is the great high priest, and the saints and holy angels are lesser priests, and they all offer sacrifices of incense and intercession to the One on the Throne through the Lamb, who ever intercedes and whose intercessions will not be rejected.  It is a royal, as well as a liturgical, space.  The Lamb is the Son and Crown Prince, the One on the Throne is the Father and King.  The saints are adopted and beloved sons, royalty invited into the King’s secret councils.  The more one gets to know the Father and the Son and the Spirit, the more confidence one has in prayer, for your prayers cease to be the petitions of an individual.  They become participation in the governance of the kingdom, and the King is just and good and passionately interested in the wellbeing of the kingdom and everything that occurs within it.  Other councils are also being voiced before the throne, and not all of them intend well.  Some are subversive, hostile to the King and Crown Prince and the interests of the kingdom.  They persecute the saints and make war against the angels.  Thus, it is desperately important not simply that good “win”, but that the Victor appear good — that at the end of the day it be clear who is righteous and who is not.  Prayer and worship participate in this, too.  The saints ever keep in mind the reputation of the One on the throne and of the Lamb.  Their very identities are integrated with that of the King, for he is their father by adoption, the source of their own beatitude and ground of their rule in the kingdom.  They are jealous that he be honored, and pray with that in mind.  What they speak in the council they do so to honor the King and the Lamb and neutralize the enemies.  The more we get to know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more we can speak effectively to this end.  We come to know the love of God and enter more deeply into his counsel and life.  The more we know the love of God, the more confident grow our prayers, where love is not always or just a feeling, but an act of the will that becomes the fabric of one’s very being and identity.

The above effects how I pray, or perhaps the above view grew out of our I prayed — it’s difficult to tell.  I try to pray daily and as often as I think of it.  Periodically, I try to engage what Dave Hansen calls “long, wondering prayer” — walking a few miles, letting my distracted mind simply be distracted before God, treating life as something lived in the Presence.  I do use gestures, especially when out amongst people.  If I sense I’m being hypocritical or worried for my own appearance, I withdraw; otherwise, I try to worship and pray outwardly in a way to direct the attentions of those around me to what is going on in the Spirit’s realm.  Hands upraised in blessing and words such as “Blessed be…” or “Let it be….” are not simply requests (although they are), but participation in the life and rule of God over the creation.  When God himself is the One blessed, the creation is being offered back to Him in sacrifice, it’s transformation interceded for that He might properly be blessed by and within it, his just and loving character no longer obscured by the malice of demons and men.  Hands raised with palms up or resting on my knees symbolize openness to receive from him.  He doesn’t need the gestures, though.  (Invocation is not incantation.  Incantation is where an occultist tries to manipulate the divine; invocation operates out of the confidence that God is open to us and for us, and wills the best, and is active in the world, and so does not need to be manipulated!  In fact, he rather dislikes it…)

When doing the above, there are some bits and pieces of prayer I do find myself, personally, coming back to.  These are largely fragments of scripture and liturgy.  These days, I find myself using a lot phrases including the trishagion, the Jesus prayer, blessing upon the kingdom of the Trinity, affirmation that God is the source of all goodness and that we only offer to him out of his goodness (“All things come from you, and of your own do we give you”), pleading for mercy upon myself and the system of which I am a part, and sometimes appeals to his reputation a la the psalms.

In discerning how to pray and for whom, I find it helpful to keep a couple general guidelines in mind.  First, abstraction is frequently the devil’s realm, whereas the concrete and actually real is the Holy Spirit’s.  I think it was Oswald Chambers (but it may have been Bonhoeffer) who noted this with regards to the confession of sin and guilt — that Satan likes to stir up self-hatred along the lines of generalities (“you’re not pious enough”), but that the Holy Spirit is specific (“just now you were unreasonably angry with your brother”).  Tim Becker taught me that this applies over a vast range of matters.  Whenever a matter occurs to me, I try to think of some particular, specific request I can make about that matter, keeping in mind the just, loving character of God.  I then try to articulate that request in words.  If my request is too abstract, I try not to make it; if it has been corrupted with unbelief regarding the character of God, I confess it as brokenness and plead for mercy on myself and do not make it as a request.

On praying for myself, if I find myself falling into self-pity, I focus on gratitude and intercession.  If I am genuinely suffering, however, or am in real pain, I pray for myself.  C.S. Lewis notes that it is a trick of the enemy (temptation towards spiritual pride?) to convince us we should never pray for ourselves.  Sometimes we need mercy to strengthen us so that we can pray for others.  Here, I find it helpful to think of myself as like a ranger in a rough wilderness, responsible to help guide other pilgrims through treacherous land.  If my health or good judgment becomes compromised I risk the safety of everyone with me.  Of course, sometimes a ranger has to treck ahead despite pain.  There are no clear rules here, only guidelines.  Our success hinges not upon our genius to get it right, but on the faithfulness of Jesus, whose Spirit is the chief “ranger” who searches all things in this wilderness, even the infinite depths of God, and who will not get lost or tired.  If we get a bit wrong, we stumble, repent in His grace, then get up — and he is pleased with us doing so.

I hope this helps and isn’t either too general, on the one hand, or without sufficient explanation on the other!