Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Thoughts on Prayer from a Dutch Priest

This week has been amazingly stressful and full of personal, spiritual warfare for me. So, for those who will, please pray. In fact, it is prayer that drives this blog. This won't be an original. Most of what is written here will come from Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who died in 1996. It's from his former years, they were known as books and were published on paper...very late-20th century.

Anyway, I'm not all that familiar with everything he wrote, but I know that, for the most part, it's pretty mystical. So, if you choose to follow this with some more reading of Nouwen's material, know that I am not giving a blanket endorsement by publishing this post. I find these words of his somewhat helpful, though, when it comes to being vulnerable in our prayer lives. As the children's song says, "Our God is a great big God," and He can take as much venting and unloading as we can give. My problem is that, typically, I don't cast my cares upon Him as I should...I want to work them out on my own. This kind of spiritual pride leads me So, I picked up Nouwen today to use some of his With Open Hands book as an illustration in tonight's Bible study. It is so convicting that I have to share it. Here it goes, and I'm going to replace some vague references with some clarity:

"Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow [the Lord] to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched...The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. [A clenched fist] shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which [portrays] fear. A story about an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fists and give up your last coin. But who wants to do that?...[Prayer], therefore, is often...painful...because you discover you don't want to let go. You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren't proud of it...

When you pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? Certainly not by violence. Nor by a forced decision. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: "Don't be afraid." Don't be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don't be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway. Don't be afraid to offer your hate, bitterness, and disappointment to the One who is love... Even if you know you have little to show, don't be afraid to let it be seen.

Often you will catch yourself wanting to receive your loving God by putting on a semblance of beauty, by holding back everything dirty and spoiled, by clearing just a little path that looks proper. But that is a fearful response - forced and artificial. Such a response exhausts you and turns your prayer into torment.

Each time you dare to let go and surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving...It is a long spiritual journey of trust, for behind each fist another one is hiding, and sometimes the process seems endless...

Maybe someone will say to you, 'You have to forgive yourself.' But that isn't possible. What is possible is to open your hands without fear, so that the One who loves you can blow your sins away...Then you feel a bit of new freedom, and praying becomes a joy, a spontaneous reaction to the world and the people around you. Praying then becomes effortless, inspired and lively, or peaceful and quiet. When you recognize the festive and the still moments as moments of prayer, then you gradually realize that to pray is to live."

That's all from the introduction...I don't remember much after that. You can see the mysticism come through, but the truth that letting go of all our cares and casting them on the Lord is a freeing experience is a strong one. Our hands were not meant to carry all that we attempt to carry in a given week, day, or hour. It's not so much that "God won't give you more than you can handle." It's that God intentionally gives us more than we can handle, so that we will look to him in faith, casting our cares on Him because He cares for us.

In your next time of prayer, try praying with your hands intentionally open in front of is a vulnerable position. Be vulnerable with the Lord...our God is a great big God...He made the heavens and the earth by His great power...nothing is too difficult for Him!