August 14, 2007

At the heart of prayer

A culture escaping from silence

At no time in history have we had more to fill our time—more gadgets, more television shows, more Internet blogs, chat rooms, and search engines than we will ever need—all competing for our time with God and with our families. The news is filled with stories of how we are all multitasking, how our children are becoming “wired”—in short, how the entire world is busy from first light of dawn until the last dying flicker of every day.

In an article in Time magazine, Stanford professor Donald Roberts said of his students, “There’s almost a discomfort with not being stimulated—a kind of ‘I can’t stand the silence.’” Are we, as Christians, any different? Many environmental and cultural factors seem to be leading people, and even whole churches, away from an inviting, personal union with God.

Too often, the endless barrage of information and noise leaves little, if any, space for contemplation. Prayer either has been neglected or has become an item to check off the to-do list. When time is short, prayer can easily become ritualistic and empty. These factors are just a few of the reasons why contemplative prayer strikes a chord with many evangelicals today. What does this ancient form of prayer have to do with modern Christians? And how does it change how we regard the silence?

The value of contemplation

The practice of contemplative prayer—of drawing near to God, of listening for his voice, of practicing his presence—has filled books and inspired sermons for centuries. It often involves spiritual retreats, silence, and praying over passages of Scripture. Prayers of the heart, or the recitation of a biblical word or phrase, are often used in this form of prayer to help “create an inner stillness and thus to listen to the voice of God,” explains the contemplative writer, Henri Nouwen.

Wheaton Professor James Wilhoit, who teaches a class on the Dynamics of Spiritual Growth, explains: “Contemplative prayer is built around an expectation of hearing from God. There is a quiet waiting to enjoy friendship with God.” And while contemplative practices differ for each individual, at the heart of it all, Dr. Wilhoit says, “There is a sense of the need for divine perspective. There is a realization that despite all of your thinking and imagining, you don’t have a way to solve all of your problems—that you need the discernment and wisdom that comes from on high.”

Modern examples of contemplation

For Dr. Lon Allison, Director of the Billy Graham Center, the practice of contemplative prayer came at a critical life’s juncture. “I was the pastor of a brand new church and I was working my head off…. I was trying to win the world for Jesus…but I desperately needed to remember that Jesus was in charge.” He says that God brought him to the realization that “apart from Christ, I can do nothing. And even more, apart from Christ, I am nothing.”

Dr. Allison began setting aside time for spiritual retreats. “My goal is still to set aside one day a month to get into creation with my Bible and a journal and hang out with God for six to ten hours.” He says about these times, “We are never apart from God, but sometimes we get so busy that we don’t hear him knocking.”

The second practice he continues today is that of lectio divina, or divine reading. “For instance, this week, every day I’m reading slowly and praying through Psalm 19,” he explains. The purpose of divine reading is not to get through the Bible quickly, but to slow down and let each passage speak on a personal level. The practice consists of not just reading, but reflecting, responding, praying, and resting in God’s Word.

Historic examples of contemplation

Many find the examples of contemplative Christians who have gone before helpful. Brother Lawrence, for instance, was a 17th-century lay member of a monastery who sought to practice the presence of God while scrubbing pots and going about his kitchen duties. From his example, as well as the example of Job, who kept a conversation with God flowing no matter what the circumstances, Dr. Jerry Root, assistant professor at the Billy Graham Center’s Institute for Strategic Evangelism, draws application for living a prayer-filled life. He says, “As I speak to God in my joys with thanksgiving, and when I come to him with questions in the midst of adverse times, I am mindful of him and turning my thoughts to him. I am practicing his presence.”

But most instructive is the model of Jesus’ own life. “I think if we look at Jesus’ patterns, we see a person who practiced solitude and who practiced retreats. We see a model of intentional disengagement for spiritual purposes…a man in continual communion with God,” says Dr. Wilhoit. He says that for many students in our performance-oriented society, the notion of resting in their identity as children of God is not only refreshing—but life changing.

As the pace of our culture becomes increasingly frenetic and harried, the contemplative movement reminds us that perhaps what we as Christians need is not to join the mad rush—but to embrace the silence. Or, in the words of the Psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

KATHERIN HALBERSTADT-ANDERSON, adapted from “At the Heart of Prayer,” from the spring 2006 issue of Wheaton magazine.

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