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Palms Up, Palms Down

Without fail, C. S. Lewis gets me to thinking. I believe that Lewis, particularly through his book Screwtape Letters, got me into a more Biblical way of thinking about praying, as well as doing it.

Screwtape Letters is Lewis’ satirical novel written as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his young nephew, an apprentice “tempter,” named Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape advises Wormwood on various ways of damning the soul of a man who has become a Christian.

Screwtape counsels young Wormwood that he must employ all means to keep the man from praying. But if that fails, the man must be convinced that prayer is something “interior” and “mystical”, having nothing to do with his body or its posture. The man must be tempted to think that whether he slouches, stands, sits, or kneels, has nothing to do with how he prays to God. Screwtape writes in one letter:

At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.

I find that a most provoking thought…”that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” Yes, the Bible does teach that we are both physical and spiritual beings, and our posture does have an effect on our minds and spirits. We are embodied spirits. So when we pray, it is not only strong devotion that drives us to our knees, but kneeling can give rise to strong devotion as well.

As we look through the Bible we find different postures, gestures, and movements in prayer. No one physical act of prayer is big enough to encompass all prayers. Thus, in the Bible we see the following postures and physical gestures of prayer:

  • Kneeling (Mark 1:40)
  • Standing (Genesis 24:12-14)
  • Sitting (Judges 20:26)
  • Prostration — face to the ground with arms outstretched (Matthew 26:39
  • Looking up (John 17:1)
  • Placing head between knees (I Kings 18:42)
  • Pounding the breast (Luke 18:13)
  • Lifting the hands (I Timothy 2:8)
  • Fasting and lying on the ground (II Samuel 12:16)
  • Facing the temple (Daniel 6:10)
  • Clapping (Psalm 47:1) not applauding people, but God

It helps to get physical when we pray. It drives Screwtape and all the demons crazy.

If you have ever seen me teach or talk, you know that I am cannot talk without using my hands. Tie my hands behind my back and I am tongue-tied as well! And so, I find using my hands when I pray helps me both to express myself to God, as well as to receive from God.

Richard Foster, writing in Celebration of Discipline, teaches a way of physical prayer that he calls Palms Down, Palms Up. Many people have found it a helpful and meaningful way to pray. Our hands can be very expressive of what is going on in our souls.

Here are the steps to Palms Down, Palms Up:

  1. Begin by placing your palms down on your lap or desk as a symbolic expression of your desire to let go any of your worries, fears, and concerns to God. Inwardly you might pray: “Lord, with this gesture, I am letting go into your hands my worries about the meeting today. I am letting go into your hands my fears about the economy…”
  2. “Cast all your cares upon God, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7)
  3. “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22)
  4. After some moments of letting go your life into God’s hands, turn your palms up as an expression of your desire to receive from the Lord. You might silently pray, “Lord, with these open hands I receive your wisdom and guidance for the meeting today. I receive your promise to bless and care for me whatever happens…”
  5. Ask God to fill your open palms with whatever you are needing for the day: strength, blessing, courage, wisdom…
  6. End your time of being still with God by simply letting God be with you and love you. There is no need to rush. Like two good friends, take a few moments just to enjoy each other’s presence.

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