Cover image for Long wandering prayer : an invitation to walk with God
Long wandering prayer : an invitation to walk with God
Hansen, David, 1953-
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Publication Information:
Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, [2001]

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168 pages ; 21 cm
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BV215 .H345 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"Oh, how hard it is in praying to reach the Amen." Soren KierkegaardDo you feel guilty about your prayer life? Do you find yourself plagued by boredom when you pray? Does your mind wander off track--say, from your prayer list to your "to do" list? Is it hard for you to reach the Amen?Many Christians experience frustration and disappointment with prayer. You want to pray. You want to experience God's presence. Maybe your spirit is willing, but your body is weak. Or maybe your spirit is too easily distracted. Don't despair. In Long Wandering Prayer pastor David Hansen reminds us, quoting J. R. R. Tolkein, that "not all who wander are lost." Hansen himself writes,Long wandering prayer involves leaving our normal environment for the express purpose of spending several hours with God alone, but not secluded. It involves walking, or at least moving, so that we can stop at any time and consider a lily for an unpredictable length of time. Long wandering prayer uses the fact that our minds wander as an advantage to prayer rather than as a disadvantage.Hansen's helpful, insightful and encouraging book will cause you to take a fresh look at your prayer habits. As you practice long wandering prayer, turning your "weaknesses" into strengths, you'll find refreshment, peace and joy. And along the way, you'll deepen and strengthen your relationship with God.

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Easily distracted Christians who pray in fits and starts should abandon the misconception that prayer is only done on their knees, writes Hansen (The Art of Pastoring and A Little Handbook on Having a Soul). As a pastor who has engaged in "wandering prayer" for over 30 years, Hansen argues that most Christians do not understand the essential relationship between their physical bodies and their ability to pray over long periods of time. For Hansen, movement, action and even distraction are all vital components of wandering prayer. He admits that his best praying is done while fishing: Intermittent thoughts rise to God while a fish is reeled in, and prayers for his congregation reach the heavens as another line hits the water. After hours of such walking, fishing, thinking and praying, Hansen claims to gain fresh perspective, new peace and a ready sermon for Sunday. He discusses key aspects of wandering prayer, such as bringing down the barriers to long prayers, acknowledging the positive relationship between physical activity and mental wandering, recognizing that long prayer brings new introspective insight and learning how the Bible applauds the courage of persistent petitions. Each chapter also includes a lengthy prayer narrative written by men and women who have discovered the life-changing secret of wandering prayer. Hansen convincingly instructs fellow Christians on the spiritual joys they will encounter by embarking on wandering prayer journeys. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Long Prayer All Christians aspire to long prayer. Some feel it acutely, others barely at all. As sons and daughters of Adam and Eve there is latent in each of us the desire to walk with God in the cool of the evening. As children of Jacob we are required at critical points in our lives to wrestle all night with the angel of the Lord. As those whose spiritual parents trekked with Jesus around Judea, there exists in us the desire to do the same. (I dare say that if the prospect of spending a day wandering the shore of the Sea of Galilee with Jesus of Nazareth is abhorrent to you, you may not be a Christian.) Finally, we need not be children of Enoch to be impressed by the outcome of his life of long prayer: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him" (Gen 5:24).     Who among us does not long for the personal experience of the apostle Paul's gracious command: "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7). We would gladly unload our anxiety on God and walk away at peace, if we only knew how. It says "pray." Many Christians have tried releasing their worries to God in prayer, but frankly it just hasn't worked. That is, short prayers haven't worked. How can short prayer solve the problem of long worry? It took a long time for anxiety to grip our guts; only long prayer can release that power.     We ache for social justice, and we believe that prayer changes the world. What kind of prayer changes the world? The prophet Amos says, "Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:23-24). Religion that cranks adrenaline but creates no space for peace in life and society is trivial. We sense the need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. But we don't know where or how. The issues become more complex, not less. We feel the need to "strike while the iron is hot," but we don't know where to apply the blow. We need God's help to unravel layers of injustice that go back many generations. Can a one-minute prayer solve a hundred-year problem? Maybe, but not likely.     In his Gospel, Mark tells us that "In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed" (Mk 1:35). Jesus taught, healed and exorcised demons hour upon hour every day. Whenever he could, he slipped away to a solitary place to pray. He prayed short, and he prayed long. Could he have just prayed short? Would a prayer here and there have kept his compassion furnace stoked for the two-hundredth encounter on a normal day? Could momentary supplications have kept him on the road to the cross? If Jesus needed to leave and pray long to keep his ministry on track and powered up, is it possible that we require less? But what does it mean to leave home and go off to a solitary place to pray? He did it. Can we do it? We Feel Frustrated Most of us feel deeply frustrated. We have tried long prayer and have come up short. Our mind cannot scratch our soul's itch. It seems a sure bet that more discipline is the solution. But when discipline seems like the solution, our problem-solving skills have thrown the fight for dirty money. The Accuser bets his stake on the power of guilt to discourage us. Guilt crushes our imagination's power to show us new ways. Our aspirations heave, gasp, wheeze and go comatose.     We deal with our stymied yearning to be with God differently. For some, long prayer is a dream set in another life in which the demands of existence cannot interrupt the divine-human encounter. For others, long prayer is a desire shoved unconscious, a nightmare of unkept promises and hasty boasts. For others, the idea of long prayer is emblematic of the disappointment that nurses their doubt. A small but significant set possesses an aching thirst for God unquenchable by anything but complete possession by the divine host (Enoch types). Still others pray long when there is trouble (Jacob types), but when the crisis is past, the urge subsides.     I have belonged to these groups during my thirty years as a Christian. But I have spent most of my twenty years as a pastor in the crisis-management prayer group. The daily exigencies of my life have not precluded prayer; they have demanded it. My guilt over past failures at prayer never hurt as much as the crises requiring prayer. I have ignored prayer only to be reawakened by soul-wrenching circumstances. My burning desire to be with God has normally been the prayer desire: "O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest" (Ps 55:6).     For me, the high aspiration of spending long, unhurried time with God has nearly always been instigated by a simple cry for help. I leave my office to find a place where I can wander alone and pray long, to plead for an answer to a problem. Along the way my desire to be with God is satisfied whether or not prayer settles the initial irritant.     In fact, irritance may be the number one reason why Christians go out and pray for a long time. So be it. For myself, my best motives for prayer and my worst motives for prayer are never far apart. They are like positive one and negative one on a number line. The midpoint they share is zero. This book is not about "correct motives for prayer." We don't need better motives for prayer; we need better power for prayer. On that count, we don't need fuel; we need freedom. As P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921] observed: "We am never so active and so free as in prayer to an absolutely free God."     This book is an invitation to enter the school of hard knocks of long prayer. Be forewarned that you will experience failure on almost every step of this pilgrim road. If you cannot bear to fail, you cannot bear long prayer. If you must measure success, you won't need a long tape. (How can you measure the invisible soul communing with the omnipresent Spirit?) Human success at long prayer cannot be weighed, counted or marked. If you got good grades in school, long prayer may be difficult for you. Long prayer is simply not a human achievement. Praying Out of Doors Long wandering prayer is not normally indoor prayer. Elijah didn't hear the still small voice in a library. Jesus suggests that some kinds of prayer require the observation of nature firsthand. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you--you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Lk 12:22-31)     In this well-known and deeply admired passage Jesus portrays his vision of true happiness. It is a life of service in the kingdom of God in which the same Lord who clothes and feeds flowers and birds cares for us, freeing us from the crippling anxiety that destroys our lives. As wonderful as this picture is, many of us find it difficult to believe that this could become our operative vision for life. Another way to put it is that we cannot imagine not worrying. We know that worry hurts us and those around us. We drop worry off at a prayer meeting, but it stalks us home.     We know that worry dissipates our usefulness to the kingdom. We know that we would give more money to kingdom work if we weren't so worried about having enough money to face our uncertain future. We know that we waste a lot of mental energy in worry --it saps our strength to study the Word and seek fellowship. Worry leaves us with just enough energy to sit in front of the TV and watch newsmagazine shows that show us ever-new threats to our lives.     Some Christians ban worry rather easily (we sense it may be some kind of genetic advantage). For the rest of us, relax. Jesus does not teach that we can rid ourselves of worry with a wink. He teaches something far simpler and quite practical: consider the ravens ... consider the lilies ... and the grass of the field . What can it mean to consider the ravens? On the one hand it must mean more than just watch the ravens , and on the other hand it must mean more than just think abstractly about the ravens . Speaking personally, my imagination is vivid and my thinking is abstract, but just thinking about ravens doesn't help me. I need to go out and watch birds and think about what birds do and let God minister to me through what I see them doing. To get the full effect I must consider the ravens --in person.     Jesus spoke to an agrarian society, and he presupposed that his audience sees ravens, lilies and fields of grass nearly every day. However, he does not presuppose that his listeners will take time to think about ravens, lilies and God. Many rural people today don't think much about the natural world around them and presumably many rural people back then did not do so either. How about city folks? At the time the four Gospels were written, Christian faith was largely an urban phenomenon. It is highly significant that Luke and Matthew felt that their urban brothers and sisters--Christians whose daily encounter with nature amounted to donkey plop in streets--needed to consider ravens, lilies and fields, and presumably in person.     You live in a city. Does it have to be a raven? Why not a pigeon? Or a sea gull? Pigeons and sea gulls are urban ravens. Do your city parks have flowers? Lawns? Trees? Is it impossible for you to travel to the country for a walk? Most nursing home residents can sit in a courtyard where their chances of seeing a sparrow are quite good.     Should you bring a Bible or binoculars? Is this bird watching or is it prayer? Could it be both? Jesus implies that for this kind of prayer binoculars will be sufficient.     Suppose you are walking in a forest, talking with God, and you hear the tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker. You break off the trail and off your talk to God to look for the woodpecker--have you stopped praying? Not if by seeking the woodpecker you are "considering the ravens." If Jesus asks us to consider the ravens as a way of striving for the kingdom, isn't straining to see a woodpecker a kind of striving after the kingdom? Are there no birds in the kingdom?     If you sight the bird, identify it, watch it smash its beak into a tree for twenty minutes and come away more joyful. If your talk with God takes on a decidedly thankful turn, then I suggest that seeking the woodpecker and watching it closely was prayer.     The beauty of creation reflects the glory of God. It is more than spiritual. If Jesus wanted us to think of spiritual beauty, he might have asked us to consider a beautiful idea or a beautiful law or even a beautiful story. But Jesus asks us to consider the lilies--members of God's creation that cannot think, tell stories or do good deeds. They're pretty and smell good, and that's it. When Jesus wants us to calm our worries, he doesn't tell us to think about spiritual beauty. He bids us to consider the lilies.     We all want to look good. I take communion to a shut-in woman who is 110 years old. She is blind, cannot walk, weighs around eighty pounds and is nearly deaf in one ear. On a recent visit I asked her if she knew how old she was. She said, "I think I'm more than 100 years old." "Yes, you are more than 100 years old. In fact, you are 110 years old." "Oh! That is very old," she replied. "Yes, and for your 110th birthday your picture was in the paper." "Was it a good picture?" she asked. "Yes, it was a very nice picture." "That's good," she said. It is not vain to want to be beautiful because it is not prideful for God to reveal his glory.     Jesus wants us to be lily watchers not clothes hogs. Lilies don't complain to God about wearing the same color every day. Canyons don't complain to God that their rock formations change only every ten thousand years. And yet on my fiftieth walk up a particular canyon I see new things, just because the light is different than before. It isn't the clothing. It's the light.     So how is this prayer? Well, if you take your lunch to a botanical garden near where you work and walk along looking at the plants, and you thank God for the beauty of creation and for the grace he gives some people to collect and display plants, that is prayer. And I suspect that you will walk away feeling far less anxious about your life than if you had spent that hour in your office or even in a church, trying to pray the whole time, feeling anxious and guilty that your mind wandered.     Much of our anxiety comes from our loathing of death. In a discourse on inner peace we might not expect Jesus to ask us to meditate on dead stuff, but he does: "But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven ..." (Lk 12:28). That's a nice thought--meditate on the fact that all the pretty grass will burn. How can that help?     On a hike in a forest, climbing over downed trees, sinking a foot into a peat bog, considering shriveled up lilies, it occurs to us that stuff dies and so do we. Death comes from the Fall of humanity and is our enemy, but much worse things can happen to us than dying--like going to hell for instance. Our Savior tells us, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt 10:28). Watching fields grow and die teaches us that we can grow, though we will die. If fearing death precludes loving life, our fear of death may be worse than death; in fact, the fear of death may be the real enemy in death.     We go out to pray long for friends who are sick. We have a list. We pray for the people on the list but maybe not in the order we planned. Along the way our eyes may fix upon a symbol of death, a field of grass burning or an abandoned building, and without warning we feel sad or angry. If we allow our minds to wander through these thoughts in the presence of God with plenty of time, we will find that we are indeed quite concerned about our own mortality. We must bear this concern before the Lord along with our concern for our sick friends. When our prayers shift from what we wanted to talk about--our sick friends--to what we did not want to talk about-our dread of our own mortality--and then shift back to our sick friends, we pray with real hope because our prayers are born of compassion instead of our fear of death. But we went out to pray for our friends. Isn't it self-centered to pray about our own mortality? When our mind wandered from focusing on others to focusing upon ourselves, isn't that the definition of self-centeredness? Unless our mind wanders in the presence of God, we can never discover that really we went out to pray for ourselves as well as for our loved ones. We are praying for their healing, and we are praying for our grief and for our fear all at the same time. It needs to be that way. We cannot pray well for our loved ones unless we are also willing to pray well for ourselves. We aren't good at begging God to save the life of our loved ones until we have come to terms with our own death. Until we come to terms with our own death, we aren't just praying for our loved ones. We are praying for ourselves; we're praying for our own grief, our own anger, our own loss, our own fear. You can't pray for someone else to be healed until you yourself are unafraid to die. Your mind can only wander into this insight. You can never discover this praying down a list. You can only pray this way when God takes your mind from what you wanted to pray about to what really needs to be prayed about. Very often, when God takes our mind away from what we wanted to pray about to what we really need to pray about, it feels like our mind has wandered. If you quit praying when your mind begins to wander, perhaps you are quitting before you have even begun to know God in prayer.     I insist that long wandering prayer is not giving up control of your mind, rather it is not insisting upon tightening the screws on your mind, to insist on thinking about one thing when we pray. It isn't letting anything happen, but it is a refusal to control precisely what happens--as lovers talk as they wander.     Long wandering prayer is not like a meeting with your boss or your ruling board. It is like lovers wandering with one another, without a plan, without hiding thoughts, not knowing where the trip will lead--and not caring. Yes, such moments are risky. Disagreements surface and wrangling ensues, but not without a purpose and rarely without time to settle grievances. And because the Other is the Beloved, the desire to wander and speak will be renewed again and again. The following experience from one Montana woman illustrates how prayer reconnects us to God. A Prayer Narrative For eighteen years every Monday I hiked along the rivers and reservoirs, creeks and streams and in the hardwood forests of Maryland. Not knowing at the beginning what would evolve out of making this commitment, what riches of Spirit and Presence, I agreed to it. My husband and I had been hiking with our three young children for several years on our vacations each summer in the Rocky Mountains of northwestern Montana. I enjoyed it. I knew that our children were benefiting from watching my husband and me observing and learning ourselves as we identified the trees, the exquisite and abundant wildflowers with their similarities, their differences, their adaptations to crevices in rock facings along cascading mountain streams (that would never work if I tried planting them there). We learned the names of the creatures--the pika, the hoary marmot, which changes his coat color to white in the wintertime, the grizzly bear with his silver-tipped hump over his neck, the mountain goats with their foot pads that enable them to balance on high, rocky cliffs, the bighorn sheep, the weasel weaseling in and out of rock fissures. We studied the formations of rock and how they came to be--the Lewis Overthrust, the tectonic plates, glacial moraines, cirques, U-shaped glacial valleys, aretes, hanging valleys. And we observed the bird life--the pileated and Lewis's woodpeckers, the raucous Steller's jays and Clark's nutcrackers, the huge golden and bald eagles. And observing and unconsciously taking note of patterns, habits and traits at some point helped me realize deep within me how congruent the natural world is with my soul, unlike the world of technology that seems so grating and unnatural--incongruent--with that still, small voice of God within me. So when my husband suggested that the two of us start hiking on Mondays (our "day off" from parish work), it was familiar and so enjoyable from doing it in the summers that I was game to try it year round. Maryland, fall through spring; Montana, part of the summers. We bought all kinds of weather gear so we could go out regardless of the conditions because we knew we wouldn't go much of the time if left to week-by-week decision making. I don't think there were very many Mondays when I felt like going. I had just sent three children out the door to school with their home-packed lunches. Sunday had been demanding for me, as well as my pastor-husband, and I was tired. But the decision was in place, no question--go. And we did. Harder yet, for the extroverted, gregarious person that I am, after a year or so of our Monday hiking routine, my husband suggested that we enter Into silence at the trailhead and not come out of the silence until lunchtime. So each Monday after we parked at the trailhead, I read a psalm, prayed for us, and we then kept the silence. By the time we stopped for lunch at noon after finding a flat rock on the river or a log on the trail to sit on, nearly all we talked about was what we had observed on the trail, maybe some of our impressions of what we saw, perhaps how hard it had been to shed the things going on inside us. As we turned around to hike back to our car, it was strange to me that all I wanted to do by then was be quiet, observe and just be . I remember saying to my husband on the way home one day, "You know, I really didn't feel like going this morning, but God never disappoints me. It seems like he always meets me here. I always leave the trail feeling more whole, more put together. And I know it sounds a little strange, but today several times I just felt like hugging God." I didn't start out feeling this way. It began with feeling happy just to be with my husband. Pastoring can be very demanding much of the time, with little emotional energy left over for the dearest one in your life. So for much of one day each week--Monday on our hikes--I could have him all to myself. But I began to feel something else was going on too. After hiking for about nine months' worth of Mondays, we went to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania on a retreat with Douglas Steere, a Quaker. We didn't know it ahead of time, but when we got to the retreat center he called us into a silent retreat with talks by him interspersed through the weekend. One of the talks was about walking to Emmaus, recounting the story of the two disciples fleeing Jerusalem after the crucifixion, not knowing Christ had risen and was alive, and being met on the road, conversing, eating together with a fellow traveler, later realizing when they broke bread with the stranger and he disappeared that the one had been Jesus. Steere met with each of the people on the retreat individually during the weekend so we could have a personal conversation together. My husband and I went together for our appointed time, and as we shared with Steere about our Monday walks, "our eyes were opened" at the realization that we had been meeting Jesus on these walks and now recognized why they had become so meaningful to us. It felt a little electrifying to me to have that named for what it was. And our Monday hikes entered a new dimension for me. (Continues...) Excerpted from Long Wandering Prayer by David Hansen. Copyright © 2001 by David Hansen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Orientation to Wandering
1 Long Prayer
2 Wandering Prayer
3 Long Wandering Vision
4 Battering the Heart of God
5 Worthless Guilt About Things That Don't Apply
6 How Can Something I'm So Bad At Be God's Will for My Life?
7 The Good Stuff