Posts in Communication
Tell God What’s On Your Mind

We sat in the car, driving along route 22 in Pennsylvania. It had been a long week and I wasn’t sure if my son had had a particularly good one. With a new school  and having to make new friends, I wondered how everything was going.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” I said.

And the rest just flowed. We talked about new friends and old, about navigating a new school building and about what kids were like. The conversation didn’t last long but it was just what the doctor ordered. The father-son “pulse check” was complete.

This is a strategy we can also use in prayer.

By starting our prayer time with a personal inventory, a sort of check-in, we are laying it all out there for the Lord. Sometimes we feel a certain way and that bleeds into our devotional time. I find that telling God what’s on our mind is just as valuable. 

The end-of-day Ignatian examen is a genius way to complete the day. Let’s not ignore the power of the start of our day and the many things on our minds at that time of the day.

When you take stock of your thoughts, you accomplish three things:

  1. You become aware. By sharing your thoughts with God, you are then more mindful of what’s bothering you, what preoccupies you and what is lingering in your head.

  2. You become grateful. We are so fortunate to have a God who wants to know us personally. He wants us to share what we are thinking and feeling. This produces gratefulness. We are not alone.

  3. You learn to surrender. Sometimes, our thoughts are quite strong. At other times, we can just let them go and move on. In either case, we learn to offer up to the Lord what we carry into prayer.

After all, what we are thinking is often what we are feeling.

As an example, I might say, “God I’m thinking about the day ahead and I have some anxiety...” Or, how about, “Lord I’m thinking of my mom’s friend who is very sick.” Both examples are on my heart (feelings) but also on my mind (thoughts).

The Bible isn’t absent on this point. Romans 12:2 speaks of this feeling-thought dynamic:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The process of renewing our thoughts takes practice. Many of us, I’m speaking from experience, can let thought patterns develop over decades. These are hard to change. What I’ve found, with years of practice, is that a daily sharing with God of what I’m thinking is the best remedy for unhealthy thoughts.

I realized in my late thirties that I had a very primitive view of God. He was the professor grading my life with a red pen. I could never measure up to His high standard. This thought pattern took years to unearth. Thankfully, it only took a few years to reshape.

Saint Teresa of Avila also speaks to this. She says, “It isn’t good to let our thoughts disturb us or worry us at all.”  St. Thomas More contributes this advice, “Occupy your minds with good thoughts, or the enemy will fill them with bad ones. Unoccupied, they cannot be.”

Our thoughts matter to God. Why not begin each day’s devotions with a sharing of them with the Lord?

If Your Prayer is Simple, That’s a Good Thing

How simple is your prayer? This question is particularly valuable for those starting out and for those highly mature in the spiritual life.

  • The “starter” just wants to be with the Lord, spending time simply with the One who they are falling in love with.

  • The “veteran” has a simple prayer life as if a grandfather is spending time with his grandchild- the time together is enough.

My graduate class this semester is dealing with this tension- how simple should prayer really be? It’s a fascinating topic and one that my students are (appropriately) wrestling with. It’s something I wrestle with too! At times, I want to engineer more feeling, more emotion and more clarity. At other times, it’s cool to just present myself to the Lord.

Be compassionate with yourself when it comes to this tension. Depending on the season of your life, the level of simplicity will correspond. The key, not surprisingly, is to keep showing up day after day. The Lord will do the rest.

Clearing out the Clutter: False Notions of Prayer

Last week I cleaned out my gardens. I should quote the word “gardens” as they are nothing more than 3x3 boxes of weeds. At least they were. Now, they are gleaming boxes of dirt, waiting for new flowers to be planted.

My son and I had to first pull the huge weeds followed by a ritual activity with a hoe. As you can imagine, this is hardly a popular call to arms for the helper. For me, it’s just something that needs to be done in order to let new things grow.

Think of your prayer life- is there clutter that can use cleaning? Are there weeds that need to be pulled?

Many of us, myself included, have incorrect notions about prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a rich resource for Christian teaching, says this about our misperceptions about prayer:

  • “In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures” (2726).

For some, prayer is thought to be nothing more than mindfulness, dwelling on our breath and being aware of our surroundings. While a good start, this isn’t prayer as the person of God is not involved in the activity.

For others, prayer is thought to be a process of clearing the mind until one thinks and feels nothing at all, a sort of psychological bliss. While St. John of the Cross hints at contemplative prayer as being beyond thoughts and feelings, he never abandons the fact that prayer involves two who are in love- God and the disciple.

Finally, as the Catechism states, some view prayer as merely a set of ritual hoops through which to jump. Think of the rapid-fire Rosary prayers... not bad but often missing the point of communing with God.

Each of us is susceptible to false notions of prayer. The key, like a garden, is to continually ask God to prune out what doesn’t belong. Then, new things can grow and God can do wonderful things in us.

Worried About a Boring Sermon or Homily?

Bad preaching is a real problem in the Christian church. Without understating the difficulty of delivering a message to a diverse audience, preaching is hard. Imagine giving a talk to both young children and senior citizens… at the same time. Not easy.

With that said, here’s a trick that I’ve learned when it comes to matching your prayer life with the routine of listening to a homily. During your morning prayer time, go over the readings of the day (for Catholics, this refers to the Bible readings that will be featured in the daily Mass). Read these slowly and let God show you what stands out. Then, imagine yourself delivering the homily or sermon. Imagine nodding heads as they listen to you and make meaning for themselves out of the readings.

I’ve used this technique for years, not because I see myself as a better preacher than the priests in my parish. Rather, envisioning a homily coming out of my mouth makes the readings come alive. New ideas form. Insights emerge. I see myself communicating God’s word to others.

 
 
After Twenty Years of Journaling, Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’m a journal guy. It started in college with those 99 cent notebooks you could get at any local grocery store. Then, after college, I graduated to the more expensive, $1.50 versions. Each morning, during my time of prayer, I would jot a few thoughts. Sometimes, these looked like prayers while on most days, I would just write whatever came to my mind.

This has continued for the better part of two decades. 

I’ve discarded most of my journals. Rarely do I go back and read them. I don’t care about them. I don’t want to relive the past.

What I value is the very act of journaling and after two decades, here is what I’ve learned: 

  1. Journaling has been the singular best way for me to measure progress in my spiritual life. By keeping to a daily discipline of journaling, I am reminded to pray. I only journal in the context of praying and in so doing, I take a mental note, “I prayed today”. This develops streaks which propel me closer to God. Momentum trumps willpower any day of the week as I’ve mentioned in The 5 Habits of Prayerful People.
  2. Journaling is a selfish endeavor.  When I journal as a form of communication with God, journaling is God-focused. Most of the time however, I’m journaling to get stuff out of my head and that’s fairly self-focused. If I’m honest, I journal for myself more than for anything or anyone else. I need to clear my mind. Some people jog. I journal.
  3. Journaling is a core component of my prayer life.  I use journaling as an essential part of my daily devotions. By practicing the ACTS method of prayer, my journal serves as the “container” for that routine. If you’re unfamiliar with ACTS, this video will help.
  4. Journaling helps to clarify thought.  The more you write, the more clear you think. The more clear are your thoughts, the better you will communicate with the rest of the world.
  5. My journals are 100% temporary and disposable.  I rarely go back and review what I’ve written. I don’t care if they are lost, destroyed or misplaced. It’s the act of writing that counts more than the final products. I journal to stay in mental and spiritual shape. The journaling is a blunt means to an end.
  6. My doctoral dissertation and book would not have been possible without journaling. I don’t think that I would have been able to write a book-length dissertation or The 5 Habits of Prayerful People without two decades of journaling. It’s partly about volume folks! Even a marathoner starts with a 5K race.
  7. Journaling can masquerade for prayer itself.  While journaling is a part of my morning devotional time, I can at times mistake journaling for prayer itself. It can be but it’s not necessarily the same thing. Just because I’m writing doesn’t mean that I’m automatically praying. 
  8. A digital journal app is the single most important app I use.  My calendar and email app are important but without my journaling app (I use DayOne) I’d be toast. It’s an anchor for daily prayer, intellectual growth and my interior life in general. 
  9. I’m only getting started.  Who knows where God will take my writing and prayer in the next two decades. One thing I know- I’m only getting started! Each day, I look forward to writing a few thoughts. 

If you are a journaler, I’d love to hear why you journal and what God has taught you through it.  Want to see how I use DayOne for daily prayer? This video explains much of it.

The Power of Being Specific When You Pray
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Science has affirmed what we already knew- gratitude is good for you. It cuts down on your stress and connects you with other people. “Practicing” gratitude, or listing 3-5 things each day for which you are thankful, is a healthy way to ensure that you are in touch with all that God is doing in your life.

I wonder though if, at times, we are too vague in our acts of gratitude.

Think of the last time you had a moment of prayer before a Thanksgiving meal. No doubt the things said were honest (“I’m thankful for our home”…”I’m thankful for my family”, etc.) but what if we infused our thanksgiving with more specificity?

Being specific with God does a number of things:

  1. It pushes the savor button all the more, turning over and over the bits of God’s goodness that we might otherwise miss.

  2. It accompanies a healthy examination of conscience.

  3. It cultivates resilience.

  4. It reminds us that God is doing so much more than we typically appreciate.

Henri Nouwen once said, “I am deeply convince that the necessity of prayer, and to pray unceasingly, is not as much based on our desire for God as on God’s desire for us. It is God’s passionate pursuit of us that calls us to prayer.” Specific gratitude is a gentle response to God’s pursuit of us. It’s a way of saying, “I see you God. I’m noticing you Lord.”

So how do you do this? It’s quite simple. Be as specific as you can be when you pray. Tell God how much you appreciate the smallest of things- a soothing nap, a person’s wide smile, a conversation that brightened your day.


Quick Win: How to be More Resilient

 
 

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