I had a remarkable experience today helping lead an informal chapel service for a group of communicators from Africa. They were 12 clergy and lay from Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Zimbabwe. They were in the U.S. for a three-week training organized by Nancy Neelley, Program Manager for Central Conference Communications, UMCom. Stephen Bryant invited me to help lead singing in a morning prayer service in the chapel of The Upper Room.
The group has been together for a couple of weeks already and enjoy singing together. As soon as they found their seats in the chapel, they were ready to sing in that place. I was unprepared for what happened when I invited their informal song leader, Emmanuel, to lead us in an opening hymn. He started a song and all 12 pour out of the pews, gathered in the space in front of the altar, and began to sing, clap, dance, harmonize, praise God. Tears came to my eyes, it was so beautiful. As soon as one song wound down, someone in the back started another song. The energy was incredible.
Steven Bryant talked to the group about the mission of The Upper Room. And then, my colleague, Kathryn Kimball, the person who cares for the Chapel and Museum, gave a live interpretation of the carving. (Visitors to the chapel usually sit in the pews and listen to a recording that explains in great detail what is going on in the carving of the Last Supper. But Kathryn stood there and talked with no script.) She told about the story in the carving — the moment at The Last Supper right after Jesus has said, “One of you will betray me.” She described the different reaction of each disciple and invited us to ponder what we saw and where we might be in the story. Entering a time of reflection, I sang “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Finally, Stephen led the group in a short discussion of what was seen and where in the story persons might have seen themselves. We finished the service with more singing, led by our congregants.
I was moved by the experience, honored to have been present, incredibly blessed to have been given the gift of music by 12 young communicators from the continent of Africa. God speed, my new friends.
A few months ago, The Upper Room interviewed me for a prototype of a new magazine. The magazine didn’t launch, but I still have the interview. Here’s part two. (Back to part one.)
Upper Room: What are some of your earliest memories of praying or of seeing others pray?
Beth: My dad was a Methodist preacher, so seeing him pray was an early memory for me. We had prayers before meals and observed the church seasons (especially Advent!) in our family. I don’t remember this, but a family story is told that when I was about 3 or 4, my grandpa found me sitting in an old outhouse (“The Biltmore”) at our vacation cabin in Colorado. He asked me what I was doing. I said I was “just sitting here thinking about God.” So I guess my contemplative side started early. [Laughs.]
Upper Room: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pray but doesn’t quite know how to begin?
Beth: Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies that the two best prayers she knows are “‘Help me, Help me, Help me,’ and ‘Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.'” Prayer doesn’t have to be formal, fancy, or profound. Prayer is just connecting to God — by talking, by listening, by noticing where God is in our day. In a way, I think praying is just opening our eyes and seeing what’s already there. When I see the beautiful moon rising when I’m driving home, my feelings are a prayer. When I see or hear an ambulance driving by, the hitch in my breath is a prayer of compassion for the person who is in crisis. Think about people or situations that need God’s love and care. And ask God to walk with you through the day. Try that out for a month and then ask God what’s next. Then … Listen. I believe that God will help guide the process.
A few months ago, The Upper Room interviewed me for a prototype of a new magazine. The magazine didn’t launch, but I still have the interview. Here’s part one.
Upper Room: How do you pray?
Beth: I usually take some time for prayer each morning before I leave the house. It’s not a great lot of time — maybe ten minutes or less. Sometimes I read a daily reflections book like Openings by Larry Peacock. I have some set prayers that I say each day, helping me to get connected to God and asking God to guide me through the day. Currently I like to do this at the breakfast table — I like to look outside at the birds at the bird feeder. If the birds need food, I go out and fill up the feeder. Over the past year or so, seeing the birds makes me think of the scripture where Jesus talked about the birds and how they don’t store food, but trust in God to be fed every day (Luke 12:22-29). I’m sort of a worrier, and seeing the birds, feeding the birds, helps me have faith rather than fear.
During the day, I don’t have intentional times of prayer, but I’ll often find myself praying a breath prayer. I developed a breath prayer a couple of years ago when I was going through a stressful time. I used it so much back then that I find myself praying it unconsciously. The prayer is like this: inhaling, I say, “Loving God.” Exhaling, I say, “I am yours.” Sometimes, if there’s a specific need I have, I’ll consciously change the words of the breath prayer to address the situation I’m in. Like if I’m afraid, I could replace the second half with “I trust in you.”
I want to add a prayer time to the end of my day, but I haven’t found the right fit for me yet. I’m interested in doing an “examen” at the end of each day, looking back on my day and evaluating what had happened. I believe that when I find the right way to do it, it will fall into place. There are so many different ways to pray that there’s bound to be a pattern, a prayer method, etc., that will fit me. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “one-size-fits-all” way to pray.
This Spring marked the beginning of a year-long celebration of Penuel Ridge Retreat Center’s 25th anniversary. This special place is on 135 acres in Cheatham County, Tennessee. Backed up against a wildlife preserve, it’s a beautiful place. Two ridges frame the back edges of the center, and in the center is a beautiful lake. For 25 years, we’ve called it “the lake.” But at the first event celebrating the anniversary, the lake was named Lake Joyce. Joyce and Don Beisswenger were the founders of the retreat center. They had the vision, purchased the land, and called together a group of us who could help discern its direction. Joyce passed away several years ago. She lives on in our hearts and now in this beautiful lake, a companion to those who seek rest and solace through retreat.
Prayer of Blessing upon “Lake Joyce”
Gracious God, we come in remembrance of your child and servant Joyce Beisswenger. We recognize her love for you and all of your creation. We celebrate her devotion to life’s spiritual journey and her kindness to those who walk it. As a witness to the legacy of her love for Penuel Ridge and its purposes, we joyfully bestow upon this body of water the name “Lake Joyce.” To you be all honor and glory. Amen.
My favorite part was the description of how the brain changes when people engage in regular prayer and meditation. People become more connected, more compassionate. United Methodist minister, Scott McDermott, is featured in segment three. Researchers did a scan of his brain while he was engaged in intercessory prayer. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson said that after two weeks of meditation, there were distinct changes in the brain.
That’s what I want — for my spiritual practice to be such a regular part of my life that my brain actually changes. It takes “spiritual formation” or “participating in the mind of Christ” to a new level, doesn’t it?