Be still and know that I am God.
~ Psalm 46:10
If you want to have a healthy spiritual life, prayer must be a regular practice. Without prayer, there is no depth to one’s spiritual life. Without prayer, one cannot grow spiritual.
Now, let me make something clear here. What I call prayer could be called something else for those of another faith tradition. Some people call it meditation. Some call it mindfulness. Certainly, from a Christian perspective, I focus specifically on prayer to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the principles of prayer hold true regardless of one’s faith tradition. And that’s what I want to focus on today.
Setting the Environment
Do you have a place for prayer? Chances are, if you are like most people, you don’t have a designated place, and there’s no way that you could make one.
As much as I would like to have a quiet corner of the house to set up for prayer and devotions, I simply don’t right now. I have two small children, and no place is quiet in my house. In fact, I’m writing this from the breakfast bar in my kitchen while my oldest is watching television two feet to my left, and we’re waiting on some orange rolls to bake in the oven.
I could say that you need to start your day earlier in order to have a quiet space — get up before everybody else, and you’ll have a window of calm before the day starts. But that’s not always going to be the case either. This morning, I was awakened at 4:30, not by my alarm or by a desire to pray, meditate and write, but by a 4 year old that doesn’t want to go back to sleep. So, as you can imagine, setting a quiet environment is not something that comes easy in my day.
In fact, as strange as it sounds, if I want some focused, quiet time, I usually end up shutting the door in my office at the church. I can do that as a pastor. Not everybody can. So, what does all of this mean?
It means that setting the environment for prayer is going to look different for each person. But here’s what you really need to be able to do: find a quiet place, wherever and whenever that may be. Again, easier said than done, I realize, but it’s worth it.
As I said, for me, it’s in my office at the church. For you, it could be at home, at the local park or even in your place of worship (trust me, the people there will not have a problem with you coming in to find a quiet place to pray). I have spent a lot of time fishing at a nearby river this summer. It’s a great quiet place to think, reflect and pray — and given my luck with fishing, there’s not a whole lot of activity going on.
The key here is to set yourself up for the best results. We live in a very noisy world. If we really want to spend some time in the stillness, we have to find some quiet.
Getting Into the Flow
Have you ever had one of those times when you were so focused that the world around you seemed to disappear? It’s called flow, and there’s science that helps us understand it. (What?! Science in a spirituality post?!)
In a 2014 Time article by Steven Kotler entitled “The Science of Peak Human Performance” the author relates a 2008 study.
In 2008, for example, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of improv jazz musicians in flow. He found the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain best known for self-monitoring, deactivated. Self-monitoring is the voice of doubt, that defeatist nag, our inner critic. Since flow is a fluid state — where problem solving is nearly automatic — second guessing can only slow that process. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex goes quiet, those guesses are cut off at the source. The result is liberation. We act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip.
Everybody experiences “flow” at one point or another in life.
Maybe you get into a cleaning fit on a Saturday morning (usually brought on by some sweet ‘80’s jams and the knowledge that people are coming over in 3 hours).
Maybe there are times when you are at work, and everything just clicks into place. There are times when I have gotten into such a flow at work that I was able to write an entire sermon in 3 hours, a task that normally can take a day and a half.
Runner’s experience similar times of focus in the midst of their ̶i̶n̶s̶a̶n̶i̶t̶y̶ running.
What about having such an experience in your spiritual life? It’s entirely possible that we can become so focused on our time of prayer that we reach this state of flow. In such times, our hearts and minds are submerged in the awareness of God’s presence in our midst.
Inevitably, when you are trying to focus, particularly when it comes to a spiritual practice, distractions will rear their ugly heads like the tentacles of the Kraken before it strikes. Ok, maybe a bit much on the imagery there, but you get what I mean.
Something comes up. The phone rings. The notifications start dinging. Somebody knocks at the door. The neighbors start mowing. The kids who have been ignoring you for hours suddenly want to play. You need to add something to the grocery list. The sudden urge to go to the bathroom pops up. Distractions, distractions, distractions.
How do you handle these distractions? Some suggestions
- Keep a notepad nearby — Sometimes, we just need a way to get the distractions out of our minds. Writing down guarantees that you won’t forget about it, and frees you to get it out of your head and refocus your attentions.
- Put your phone in airplane mode — The modern smartphone era has its pros and cons. If you are looking to get away from distractions, then having your smartphone dinging or buzzing constantly is definitely on the negative side of the ledger. So, don’t let it. Put your phone in airplane mode if you can’t be more than 10 feet away from it.
- Background sounds, yes or no? — This is one that is going to be different for different people. Heck, it may even be different for the same person on a different day. There are times when I am trying to pray/meditate/study that I need absolute silence. There are times when I put in my headphones and listen to a thunderstorm, or other form of white noise. I’ve even had times when I write best while listening to a hard rock playlist. Find out what works best for you in that given moment, realizing that it may not be the same thing next week. Experiment and be adaptable.
- Give yourself some grace — It’s easy to become frustrated with ourselves if we can’t get our heads cleared up for meditation. And then we allow the frustration to take over and, the next thing we know, we are completely thrown off.
Hearing in the Stillness
There’s a story in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings about Elijah going off into the wilderness. It’s found in Chapter 19. He is coming off a great victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Well, “great victory” really depends on your point of view. I’m not so sure he made the best move by killing all of them after the showdown, but it led him to this point.
Queen Jezebel threatens his life, and Elijah flees into the wilderness, experiences a crippling depression, and has an interesting conversation with God at Mount Horeb (known in other places of Scripture as Mount Sinai, the mount of God).
He is complaining to God that he is the only one of the prophets left, and he really wants to just give up. At that moment, the Lord decides to speak with Elijah. A strong wind, an earthquake and a fire all pass by the entrance of the cave where Elijah is wallowing in self-pity, but God wasn’t in any of these. But then Elijah hears a whisper, and that’s when he covers his face and goes outside to stand before the Lord.
The voice of God was in the whisper. Not the wind, earthquake or fire. But in the whisper.
Sometimes, we have to be willing to hear the whisper. It’s not easy. We want the big sign, right? We want the heavens to split open and the booming voice to come down from on high. But sometimes, God is already speaking to us. We just need to quiet everything else down to hear it.
Give it a try. Take a few minutes right now. Turn down the noise, and listen for the whisper.
Be still and know I am God.
Be still and know I am.
Be still and know.