September Growth Exercises

As far as guilt free definitions go, it’s hard to do better than this from Jim Houston: “Prayer is friendship with God.” Isn’t that a refreshingly simple and liberating way to think about it?

September Overview

As far as guilt free definitions go, it’s hard to do better than this from Jim Houston: “Prayer is friendship with God.” Isn’t that a refreshingly simple and liberating way to think about it? It’s also very similar to a description given by Clement of Alexandria, writing 1800 years earlier: “Prayer is keeping company with God.” Friendship. Keeping company. Such simple language does not, however, imply a casual attitude towards prayer. Rather it is the result of a life in which everything has been soaked in prayer. Prayer is only ‘simple’ because it is central. Christians are people who pray.

There are many valuable ways to pray, and many traditions of prayer: contemplative, conversational, intercessory, liturgical, scriptural— and many others beside. While they are all helpful, this month we will focus on some traditions which are perhaps less familiar to the contemporary church. These styles of prayer are the more reflective, listening styles of prayer which sit alongside Christian meditation. Note that prayer and meditation are not the same— even though they are complementary.

Meditation has something of a bad reputation. At best, it’s thought of as a practice for those hyper-devout contemplatives or ‘the slightly strange mystics!’ At worst, it’s condemned as a heresy better suited to eastern philosophy. But the goal of Christian meditation is not an erasing of our thoughts and emptying of our minds. Instead its goal is to fill our minds and re-train our hearts with biblical truth. This re-ordering, and the stillness that meditation generates, fosters the tranquillity of peace with God.  The practices of Christian meditation are very often a preparation and precursor to prayer.

Memorising scripture is form of meditation; repeating and absorbing the language, learning the tone and rhythms, internalising the word of God such that we are formed and ready to pray. More than the athlete’s warm up exercises, meditation is the long-jumper’s run up to the line, the discus thrower’s explosive pivot, or the gymnast’s approach to the vault. There is no definitive line between ‘preparation’ and ‘action’.  

When it comes to prayer, the book of James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). Sometimes, as a result, we can claim license to jump straight into prayer with our list of frustrations and requests— our vision of a combined ‘Suggestion Box’ and ‘To-Do-list’ for God! There’s nothing wrong with prayers of petition but we need to ensure that ours are not a product of greed or guilt, instead of grace. We sometimes forget that James goes on in the following verse to say, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3).

Now there are obviously some real complexities around not receiving, and I am not implying that our unanswered prayers are clear evidence of our improper motives. Instead my point is simply that preparing our hearts well enables our prayer to rise far above the transactional ‘getting of results’.  

Week One Exercise: Centring Down

Many of us find that the hardest part of prayer is getting started. Once we’re in the right place, with the time set apart, with our minds clear and focussed— then there’s a good chance we’ll pray. Christian Meditation is excellent preparation for prayer because it trains our minds to focus on God. It is like the runway for a plane at take off.  One of the simplest forms of meditation is an exercise called “Centring Down” or perhaps more accurately, “Re-centring Prayer.”

The goal is to re-focus our attention on Jesus Christ, instead of being pre-occupied with ourselves. Re-centring ourselves in this way provides an opportunity to move from feeling frantic and fragmented, to feeling more calm and centred.  

Try this exercise at least twice this week:

Find a quiet space which you do not regularly use for other purposes. If you use your office desk or the kitchen table it is likely that your prayer will be invaded by thoughts of the activities you customarily do in these places. Instead, perhaps you will place a comfortable chair in a sunny corner or you’ll find a special spot in your garden.  Adopt a relaxed and comfortable posture with your eyes closed. Feel the ground under the soles of your feet. Become aware of any sensory information coming to you— smells, sounds or the feelings at the ends of your fingers. Next, mentally hand over to God any concerns or distractions that invade your thoughts.

As each one arises, simply entrust it to God and move on. Don’t allow your mind to continue to dwell on it. You may very well return to these matters later in your prayers, but for now, make Jesus Christ your priority.  Move on from your own thought-world to make yourself present to God. He is always present to us. He never leaves us, but it is we who have set our attention on other matters. Now is the time to quietly lead our attention back to God. It is not yet time to address God with a specific prayer— the idea is not to say anything yet. Rather, we are simply recognising that God is present, and we are present with him. We draw near with expectancy and attentiveness.  

If your attention wanders, don’t become upset or bothered. Park that thought for now, and simply return your attention to God. Enjoy the reality that God knows your every thought— even before you think it— and that his thoughts toward you outnumber the grains of sand on the beach (Psalm 139:17-18). Rest in attentiveness to God for a full minute (or more!). Now you are ready to pray.

Week Two Exercise: Filling Up

In week 1, we practiced a ‘Re-centring Prayer’, which is an exercise in settling down with God and preparing the way for prayer. This week we want to build on that preparedness by beginning to fill our minds with God and his truth. Our most direct pathway to doing this is via the Scriptures. God has reliably and faithfully revealed himself to us in the bible so we dare not ignore that opportunity.

Because the scriptures declare the character of God and the works of God, the more we read, re-read and absorb the scriptures, the richer our grasp of God. So many of the apostles’ prayers recorded in the New Testament letters reflect that richness:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship  through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. (1 Peter 1:3-4)

If we are to fill our minds in this way then we are not mentally passive. Christian meditation calls on us to actively exert our mental energy. This is nowhere better stated than in Philippians 4:8. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. So there are some things that are to be the targets of our mental aim.

It isn’t enough merely to acknowledge that things and ideas of moral and mental excellence are important. Merely affirming such truths and virtues will not change us. We must energetically reckon, take into account, and give deliberative weight to these things. Our minds must be captivated by them in such a way that the fanciful fluff of the world loses its appeal. So this week’s exercise aims to train our minds to think about God’s word in conversation with God. Fill your mind with some verses of Scripture by reading them over and again, perhaps on consecutive days, and talk to God about what you find in those verses.  

Week Three Exercise:  Filling Up (more!)

In week 1, we practiced a ‘Re-centring Prayer’, which is an exercise in settling down with God and preparing the way for prayer. Last week, week 2, we built on that preparedness by beginning to fill our minds with God and his truth, via the Scriptures.  Christian Meditation may also reflect on God’s character and person as has he revealed it in nature.

In Psalm 19 we read: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. 3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. 4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. 5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. 6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.  

Jonathan Edwards describes the impact of one particular encounter with the power and wonder of creation: “And as I walking there [in his father’s pasture], and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express. . . . The appearance of everything was altered: there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the day time, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning. Formerly, nothing had been so terrible to me. I used to be a person uncommonly terrified with thunder: and it used to strike me with terror, when I saw a thunder-storm rising. But now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunder-storm. And used to take the opportunity at such times to fix myself to view the clouds, and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder: which often times was exceeding entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. And while I viewed, used to spend my time, as it always seemed natural to me, to sing or chant forth my meditations; to speak my thoughts in soliloquies, and speak with a singing voice”(Extractions from his Private Diary, 27-28).

So there is much that we might intentionally call to mind — and fill our minds with– such that we are strengthened and enriched. This disciplined thought is meditation. This is another form of prayer, particularly helpful for times of solitary prayer. It is an unhurried conversation with God about his works, his ways, or his word. Make time this week to consider what God has revealed of himself in the wonders of his creation. Then turn this ‘meditation’ into prayers of praise.

Week Four Exercises: Prayer is Corporate– don’t go it alone

There are important benefits and responsibilities of prayer that we can never experience alone. Other people have an essential role to play in our prayer life. Can you recall the first word of The Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father…” suggests that Jesus intended the prayer to be prayed collectively, not individually. Prayer is a corporate activity.

And so, from the very beginning, corporate prayer was the pattern of the New Testament church. Consider these descriptions from the book of Acts: Then (after Jesus’ ascension) the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:12-14) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God… (Acts 4:23-24) Find some people to pray with this month. This could be in a semi formal setting, like a small group; or informal setting, like pausing to pray together after the meal at a friend’s home. Praying over the phone or in a Zoom Meeting is another very flexible way of meeting with others to pray. This week, invite some others to join you in a time of prayer.

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