The scene is a familiar one. People spread out over the grounds of a retreat center carrying out the prayer assignment I have given–write a letter to God and then have God respond. To be specific, the instructions are as follows: Write in a free flow manner for ten minutes. Allow your heart to flow out on the paper. Write whatever is on your mind and heart. At the end of that segment of time, write God’s response for the next ten minutes. Don’t try to force it. Don’t write what you think God should say. Don’t even write an answer to what you wrote. Just let it pour out of you. We each have a history with God that deeply informs us. Just write and don’t get in the way of it. Begin the response with an endearing salutation; such as “my dear child,” ” my dear daughter,” “ dear Jackie” or something of that nature. You don’t have to write the entire time, but you might want to.
The group wrote and I kept the time. I watched as some cried and some just sat quietly looking at the paper before they wrote. We debriefed following the prayer and shared our experiences–experiences unique to each individual. What was common to this group is that it occurred in Ghana on the grounds of a resort where we were lodged. We were there representing the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at Lipscomb. Marriage and Family Therapy students were receiving course credit for two courses—the first was a course on Trauma, Resiliency, and Loss and the second a Research Practicum. We were there to work with and do research with children rescued from slavery by the Touch A Life organization www.touchalifeafrica.org.
Anyone who has been on a short-term trip overseas knows the intensity of the experience. There were fifteen of us. Ten were graduate students and five of us served as faculty and supervisors. I led morning prayers and my intent was to give us daily opportunities to listen to God. This practice is in contrast to what we as Christians do most often in our quiet time. We typically set the agenda with requests, praise, thanksgiving, confession, and lament—wonderful communication with God, but we miss part of the conversation. We leave little space for what God’s response. This may or may not be an audible communication, but God certainly is able to do what is needed. What we do in this time of listening is create the space to be available for what God may want to do with us. Scripture is filled with verses that testify to the need for stillness. The psalmist tells us“Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10” The prophet Habbakuk tells us that we do not need to be silent before idols of rock and stone because they are not alive—they cannot speak. “But the Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him. Habbakuk 2:10. Our God is a living God!
Jesus shows us a life of ministry that is regularly interspersed with times of solitude in prayer. I do not think the nights he devoted to prayer were spent with him talking the entire time. My image of Jesus is one of him leaning into the breast of his father to be loved and encouraged. In Matthew 14, Jesus was informed of the death of one his closest friends and cousins, John the Baptist. His first inclination was to go to a solitary place. Instead, the day turned into a full day of healing, teaching, and feeding the 5000. Immediately after he diminished the crowds and his disciples, he got his chance to be alone with his Father. This is an inclination that as followers of Christ, we incorporate into our lives. We look for times to spend alone with God. Another way to think about this practice is through the analogy of running through water. The resort in which we were lodged in Ghana was on a lake. When we waded, the silt at the bottom of the lake was stirred up and we could not see through the water. But when we were still, the silt settled and we could clearly see the small fish and whatever else was on the bottom of the lake. Thus it is with our busy lives. As long as we keep moving, the internal and external noise distracts us. When we are still, we can more easily be attuned to God’s work and the Spirit’s prompting.
We were there in Ghana to pour our love into the children. The fifty children living at the Touch A Life center ranged in age from eight to eighteen. We worked hard each day gathering the stories of the children and spending time with them. Their resiliency was inspiring. They will filled with joy and grateful for the opportunities they were receiving. We returned to the resort each day tired, happy, and emotionally drained from hearing of their life experiences. Each night we would debrief after our evening meal and then begin again early the next day. My intent for the morning prayers was to give us time with God and allow us a deepening experience of God’s love. That is the result of spending time listening to God. It may be that God brings something to our attention that we need to address or it may be that we experience God’s embrace–either way we come to know God as love. This understanding makes it more natural to serve as God’s love in this hurting world.
The prayers that I led each morning varied in form. The common factor in the prayers is the intent to create space for God to be with us in whatever way God chooses. One morning we had a time of lectio divina–being in scripture in a transforming rather than informing way. I read through the first ten verses of Psalm 139 four times and we listened in different ways each time. Another morning was “imaging prayer” where we entered into an event in scripture with our imaginations and spent time with Jesus. Other mornings were journaling prayer (mentioned previously) and the process of Examen–sharing what gives us life and what takes life from us. All are prayer forms that have been used throughout the history of the Church.
Spending time listening to God each morning helped us remember our purpose for being in Ghana. We were there to be instruments of God. About half way through our trip, emotions were raw. We were physically and emotionally drained and tensions ran high. It was easy to love the children at Touch A Life. They were hungry for love and so delightful. What was more difficult was remembering to love those close to us as differences in personality arose. But this is the love to which we are called to as followers of Christ. “They will know you are my disciples by the love you have for each other. John 13:35 “ This manner of love does not happen through sheer will power. Loving at this level necessitates allowing the God of the universe to have access to us. It requires recognizing that if I am to be who God wants me to be, I need to be silent before him.