I took this photo of a viewpoint sign in Rocky Mountain National Park.
I have visited the park during all seasons. In spring and summer the melodies of birds, squirrels, chipmunks rise and fall on the air. In late summer and early fall, elk calls bugle through the park. Then, on many winter days a soft, white layer of snow breathlessly quiets the scene. Would you think of this “utter, complete silence” as a sound, as Andre Kostelantez did—even “one of the greatest sounds of them all”?!
This brings questions to my mind:
Where/how do we find silence?
Why is silence important/needed?
What can we learn in silence?
Do we tend to avoid—maybe even fear—silence?
My curiosity piqued, I looked up Andre Kostelantez and learned that he was a Jewish/Russian immigrant to America who became one of the most successful conductors and arrangers of music in history. Among many accomplishments, he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
I personally knew an orchestra musician who spoke of silence as if it were a sound. She was my daughter’s violin teacher. She drilled into my daughter the concept that a “rest” in the music was an “important nothing.”
Music rests, seasons of silence, “important nothings”; these provide natural, satisfying rhythms to music and to our lives. This is a principle that God seems to have woven into creation. As physical, emotional, and spiritual beings, we need times of silence that can become “the greatest sound of all” to us.
Nancy Swiharthas learned to embrace this life-enhancing principle. In her memoir,On Kitten Creek, she describes the times of silence on Kitten Creek farm that have become to her, as Kostelantez expressed it, one of the greatest sounds of them all:
“On prayer walks I do most of the listening,” writes Nancy. “Up here in this sky-drenched pasture a comforting solitude is one of the greatest gifts the farm has provided—placing my body, soul, and spirit into the presence of God without distraction.”
Nancy has learned to seek and relish these important-nothing rest times that give meaning and lilt to the music of her life.
Have you found ways to incorporate regular seasons of silence into the flow of your days?
Take a little time during holiday activities and read something together: a story, a poem, an Advent devotional, a Psalm, Luke chapter 2, a children’s book. You’ll create closeness, meaningful traditions, and enrich your Christmas celebration.
“Prayer is like breathing.” “Prayer is asking.” “Prayer is relationship.”….A myriad of beliefs, teachings, and books about prayer….A lifetime of experiences of prayer….And we are still learning what prayer is and can be. Do you have questions about prayer? I’m sure we all do. This poem I wrote (below), which is included in my book, Glimpsing Glory, expresses many of those experiences, questions and what prayer has come to mean to me. Do these words resonate with you and your experience in some way?
WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO PRAY AS WE OUGHT
If I say ‘please,’
will my waiting heavenly Father give what I ask?
If we all hold hands in a circle,
will others’ faith make up for my lack?
Will it help if I tell God
every minute detail of what I need and want?
Will adding the words ‘In Jesus’ name’
make Sovereign God less resistant?
If we pray on our knees,
will the Almighty see and honor our humility?
If we acknowledge God’s feminine side,
will Our Mother have mercy?
If we pray in angelic languages,
will the Spirit understand us better?
Will loud and preacherly, or whispered prayers,
bend God’s ear closer?
Will candles or incense lift the sense
of my prayers to God’s holy nostrils?
Will my tears of regret, sorrow and repentance
make God’s heart thrill?
If we listen long enough to find and pray God’s will,
will it have to be done?
If I breathe my devotion all day long,
will I be favored to approach God’s throne?
Yes … maybe … and no.
Does the Spirit, Who searches hearts intimately
and knows the mysterious
mind of the Father,
intercede for us in groanings
both kind and efficacious,
all because of Jesus’ self-giving,
others-empowering love most gracious?
Can my will be transformed by God’s will,
my hands and feet join God’s actions,
my heart be energized by Father’s love,
my desires unite with Spirit’s intercessions,
my labors yoke with Jesus’ work,
and my prayers find fruition in co-creation?
Sample pages from BIBLE POEMS (with reader doodles)
The creativity of Donna Marie Merritt, poet and author of Bible Poems for Reflection and Responseextends even beyond her poetic word pictures. She had the idea of giving her readers the opportunity to not only reflect on her poems (which themselves are reflections on the Bible) but to allow space on the pages, including 17 blank pages, for readers to respond with their own poems, thoughts, prayers, drawings and doodles. The book released this month (September 1, 2020). What we’ve already heard from readers tells us this book is encouraging reflection:
“These jewels, these pearls each carry a small glimmer of truth, wisdom, stern instruction, and unconditional love.”
“I am delighted to take away thoughtful pieces … to meditate on further.”
“The questions raised throughout the book help me evaluate, repent, and respond with worship.”
One reader sent us photos of the reflective/responsive art she created on the book pages. You can view those colorful doodles in this short video:
As a publisher I love to bring authors and readers together, and especially I love it when they are reflecting together on God’s truth, creation, and the life of faith. In this way, writing—and reading—a book of poetry can lead to worship expressed in words, art and action.
Poetry for Praise, Worship, Devotion, Opening our Hearts to God
In our experience of God’s presence, poetry can help us focus and engage our senses and entire being. Poetry can help us process life and emotions—and see ourselves—in new ways, and thus be open to hearing God say fresh, new things to us. Scripture does this also, of course. And much of the Bible was written as poetry. I have long found soul nourishment and renewed perspective in the Psalms. And how can a person read Song of Solomon and not believe God woos and reaches us through the five senses he has given us? Isaiah, the prophet, wrote often in poetry. Sometimes poetic expression reaches straight to the heart more effectively than prose.
I believe God still speaks through poets today. Sometimes with a prophetic voice. Sometimes imparting wisdom. Sometimes bringing clarity. Sometimes lifting the soul to hope and love.
Even if you think you aren’t “into” poetry, you probably are more than you realize. Song lyrics are a type of poetry. Along with the music, songs can pierce or soothe our hearts as well as our minds.
I encourage you to include poetry in your devotional reading, meditative prayer, quiet times, and soul care. Here are some poetry collections in which readers are finding poems that help them focus on God’s presence and love:
“Luminous, Christian spiritual walk poetry that blends the daily journey with God and the beauty and glory of God’s created world.So many of the poems provided moments of prayer for me.” ~Jimmie Kepler, reader and reviewer
“I read a couple of your poems each morning.” ~Alice Scott-Ferguson, poet, author, reader
. . .
“In our own seasons of suffering, words to explain the pain, to cry out to God, or to get a grip on our faith…”
–Elaine Wright Colvin, WIN
“A journey of worship and creativity around pain.”
–Katherine Sanford, reviewer on Amazon
. . .
“Read the poems along with your current Bible study or dip in and savor one or a few each day when you pray or think or need the boost of God’s love and purpose and truth.”
–Janet Clare F., online reviewer
. . .
“This book is a steady and wise companion for those who read the Bible with real devotion and honest questions.” –Connie Wanek, poet
. . .
“[These] poems individually and collectively pour out love for who God is.”
–Glynn Young, blogger/reviewer
“I am reading them along with my daily Scripture and other devotional readings.”
–Bev Coons, reader
. . .
“To read this book is to … open one’s own heart in unexpected ways.”
On the first day of June we decided to get clear away from office, computers, books, and other projects. My husband and I felt a hankering for bird watching and wildflower viewing. So we drove out to the Pawnee National Grassland, bringing our dog, Jasper, with us. This mile-high, protected habitat on the prairie of Northern Colorado provides nesting ground to a colorful variety of migratory birds.
Some years the grassland—a vast solitude under changing skies—is hot and dry. This time. after a wet spring, we found it cool and green. Wildflowers dotted the native grasses. Prickly Pear had started opening their blooms. And the birds! They foraged in the grasses, perched on fence posts, did aerial gymnastics to catch flying insects, scratched in the sandy roadside, hunted from the sky, and paddled on small ponds.
We walked a little ways on a trail through the grasses. Larry took a picture of Jasper and me:
We identified 25 bird species, including Vesper Sparrow, Prairie Falcon, and Loggerhead Shrike. At one point along the gravel road we spotted a bird that looked like a miniature roadrunner. It ran on the ground with its tail held high. We watched it through binoculars and checked our bird guide (and the birding app on my cell phone, the only technology we used that day). It appeared to be a Sage Thrasher. Then the bird lifted into the air and we thought our chance to observe it was over. But it landed on a fence post just ahead of where we had stopped our car on the narrow road (The occasional approaching car or pickup could be seen miles away, in plenty of time to pull over).
As the breeze ruffled its feathers, the Sage Thrasher lifted its head and sang! And sang and sang. What a show. It felt like a gift to have this bird—uncommon in our area—perch and sing for us. I took a picture the best I could with my smart phone:
Here’s a clearer photo of a Sage Thrasher singing:
Used with permission of sagegrouseinitiative.com
In the wonder of this bird perching and singing so close to us, we felt even more connected with nature around us.
Connection is important. We connect with people, share ideas, express creativity, and conduct business through keyboard, screen, digital images and sounds, artificial light and wifi. This virtual world is full of potential and offers fascination. But experiencing life through technology can gradually drain our souls. One way I know this soul drain is happening is, when I go to bed, close my eyes and, instead of drifting to a peaceful sleep, I see images and text, web pages and video flashing across the screen of my mind. (This is why I generally turn off my computer by 9:30 p.m.)
King David said, “He leads me in green pastures and beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23).
Once in a while we need to unplug, go out into a world that engages all the senses, and let our souls be restored. Nature and the rediscovery of wonder offer a gateway to a restored soul.Carol O’Casey, author of Unwrapping Wonder, writes, “I escape expectations … and take a walk on the wild side. Whether exploring field or forest, marsh or meadow, or the edge of the sea, in the natural world I am transformed. There, in the solitude of nature I experience God’s presence.”
That night, after a day of birding on the prairie, when I lay my head on the pillow, I began to realize what a gift I had brought home with me from the grassland. When I closed my eyes, my mind wasn’t filled with a screen through which virtual images came atme. No. Instead, I was still among the Lark Buntings, Horned Larks, and Longspurs winging, swooping, twirling in the air. I was still surrounded by the songs of Meadow Larks, Brown Thrashers, and Mountain Plovers. I was still watching Swainson’s Hawks soar on high and kite in the breezes. I was still enjoying the yellow, blue, and red wildflowers and smelling the sweet grasses. With these images, sounds and smells came a peaceful, delighted and deep sense of Presence—the presence of our Creator, the Restorer of our souls.
Gifts are always better when shared. To my surprise, when Larry got in bed and turned off the light, after just a few moments he remarked, “I’m still seeing birds.” Lying side by side in the darkness, we compared notes and agreed that it had been a wonderful day.
A special sense of being attuned and restored has stayed with me—even as I type this at my computer.
A photo I took on one of my walks on the river trail not far from my office.
Stressed, working hard to prepare books for publication in the midst of several life adjustments, one morning I knew I had to attend to my soul. For me, soul care and renewal involve reading, meditating, praying / releasing, and experiencing nature / creation.
First I drank my coffee and read a devotional article that said: “Am I willing to continue yielding my life wholly to God? If so, there is power for me…. God promises help to accomplish the task toward which His Spirit points me.”
I wrote a list of the things on my heart that had become burdens, prayed over them and gave them to God, again.
Then I read: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph.3:20-21,NIV) I prayed this scripture, inserting my name and then the names of our family members. Assurance came.
Then, for the solace and renewal of nature, I drove down to the nearby river trail. There my senses were immediately overwhelmed and filled with the sights and sounds and smells and textures of that lush spot where grassy farmland meets the river that has flowed down from the Rocky Mountains. There, nature burgeons with life.
One thing my husband and I are learning as we live in this high place of Colorado where every season happens in every season—We are learning to appreciate and “seize” the moment. If we don’t come down to the river trail for a couple of weeks, we hardly recognize the place next time. All summer, layer upon layer of grasses and flowering plants keep coming up, replacing the previous layer, each a little higher than the last, reaching for the intense sunshine which often gives way to evening thunder clouds. In the early summer, wild roses were blooming under the giant cottonwoods. Later they had dried up and purple thistle had risen 5 to 6 feet tall, bright and stately. You might think them renegade weeds in your garden, but out here, they’re royalty. Clouds of foamy yellow flower heads grow here and there, and every shade of foliage.
Bird songs abound! I recognize the sounds of killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, and others. I see the orchard oriole that was here last time, and the bullock’s oriole, the eastern kingbird, and many others. A rabbit hops near the river’s edge. Farmers are irrigating today, obviously, because the wet river banks and shallow water indicate most of the river’s flow here has been diverted to the canals. I watch several huge river-bottom fish, and their backs often rise above the water’s surface and I can see the golden eye high on their foreheads. They glisten in the sunshine and are too big for the six snowy egrets nearby to tackle. But if a bald eagle happened by, they’d be easy prey, so visible in the shallow waters. In a clearing on the other side I see prairie dogs with their young. They stand up straight above their holes and suckle their little ones who then lick their mothers faces. They’re cute. And they supply food for the many hawks and owls around here.
In the shady places under the heavy cottonwoods, myriads of butterflies float and flutter. I see one group that fly this way and that and round and round in sync as if propelled by a little twister wind. How do they synchronize their flight in milliseconds like that? The hot sun intensifies the scents of grasses mingled with damp river smells. Several cyclists ride by me, calling out “on your left.” Two lark sparrows perch on the fence and stay there watching me, showing off their harlequin faces, feathers glowing like polished bronze in the sun.
I’m thankful for this day, and this place, and God’s glory all around.
Back at my car, I give thanks to God. As I walk into the house, a CD is playing and I hear the words of a gospel song, “Morning by morning new mercies I see….Great is thy faithfulness.” Tears smart my eyes. I “seize the moment” and find joy in it, and in knowing God is in it!
Are you listening, in prayer, to what the Lord may be asking you to do? Are you watching for His answers? Susan Roberts describes how saying “Yes” to the Lord led her on an adventure of devotional discoveries. I interviewed Susan to find out why and how she wrote Everywhere I Look, God Is There.
“We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as—by God’s grace alone!—one day it will be. And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the paradigm, first example, and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nails were not just visible on his hands and his feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.” –N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope (Harper Collins, 2008, p.224).
My husband and I have a bee hive in our backyard, and I have planted many nectar-producing flowers for the bees. We also grow vegetable and berry gardens. Since we welcomed bees into our gardens; the flowers, berries, and herbs have flourished noticeably more. I’m sure the salvia flower stalks and peppermint blossoms bloom longer than they used to before so many bees were relishing closeness with them. The flowers seem to respond and love the bees as much as the bees delight in the flowers and the nectar they produce. Of course we, also, enjoy seeing the well-being of our gardens and eating the honey that results!
Similarly, I believe our relational God longs to commune with us, to create well-being within us, and to influence the course of the future together with us, as we pray.
Our view of God and his providence affects how we pray. If the future is open to God, our prayers and petitions to him can also be open and answered by him in more possible and creative ways than we can begin to imagine. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord asserts that God has given creatures genuine free will to make choices and to respond to him in ways that affect the future. For that reason, though the future is not pre-determined and known conclusively by God, “the future is full of possibilities, and, being omniscient, God knows them all.” We can live and pray in hope and expectancy. The believer’s life of prayer can be a life of adventure.
This prayer relationship with God reminds me of the relationship I observe in my garden between the flowers and the bees. Deep calls to deep as God calls us to intimate prayer and contemplation with him. As we respond and allow him access, he searches our inner being and comes to know us more and more thoroughly. I believe that to be known by God is to be transformed.
If God is Spirit and omnipresent in every moment of time—all the time everywhere—we can and should pray in the spirit everywhere and all the time.
Because “God lovingly invites creatures and creation to cooperate to enact a future in which well-being is established in surprising and positive ways,” we can and should cooperate with him in faith: praying, trusting, and working toward goodness and his will and kingdom to come. We can be looking for shalom to blossom and grow.
If God’s essence is uncontrolling love, we can and should pray uncontrolling, loving prayers. According to scripture, God actually shares his nature with us. If this nature is essentially kenotic, “self-giving, others-empowering love,” we can pray self-giving, others-empowering prayers.
God is far beyond the comfortable boundaries we have set for him in the past. It’s overwhelming and unsettling at first to consider this, but God is so much bigger than we have believed. How can he also be personal, hearing our prayers, far bigger and far closer than we have imagined? God’s essential being is love and he relates to each of us intimately.
Our open and relational God is calling us to:
Confess to him our lack of faith, trust, hope, and loving action.
Give thanks to him for enlarging our hearts and vision.
Bring supplications to him, interceding on behalf of the people and places we see that are far from the well-being of shalom.
Listen to and commune with him. Receive and respond.
Be prayerful in the spirit always.
Say “yes” to what he is calling forth in and through us.
As we watch and pray that God will call forth cooperation from—and give shalom to—his people and all of creation, the prayers of a righteous person avail much! We are co-creators of the future with him! He delights in this.
It is much like the bees that seem to draw out more blooms and fruit from my garden. Through prayer we can work with God to see his kingdom grow. Each one who truly cooperates in prayer and action with the Spirit of God increases his kingdom, his will, his working for good and overcoming evil in this world.
“We know the whole creation has been groaning,” kind of like a garden longing to open its petals to sunshine and bees. Perhaps the world is waiting for us to respond to our almighty and ever-present God in open, obedient, watching-for-possibilities prayer. Perhaps the more people respond positively to him, the more grace is available, like a well-pollinated garden. We have been too passive-aggressive, lazily saying “But God is in control,” on one hand, while on the other hand complaining and becoming angry at the way the world is going. God calls us to be active in faith and prayer and love toward him and toward his needy world. I don’t think it’s irreverent to say he hovers over us like a buzzing bee seeking access to our hearts, waiting for them to open their closed petals to him, to give of the nectar of our lives to increase goodness and to sweeten the future.
If it were true that God sees one set future, determined since before time began, we would have a big God. But the open view of God describes a far bigger God! He sees every possibility. He sees how our ongoing, potential actions and choices in every instance may cause repercussions that affect those around us.
Note: I wrote this piece because I believe in prayer and I wanted to engage with Thomas Jay Oord’s teaching after reading his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God (NavPress, 2015). This entire post first appeared at http://uncontrollinglove.com (and later at http://thomasjayoord.com ). I agree with some, but not all, opinions and philosophies expressed by the writers there, but I’m thankful to have an opportunity to participate in the conversation.