Experiential Sensory Prayer – Part 3 – Exploring experiential prayer

I remember as a young child, reading a book where the children made snowballs. Living in a temperate climate, we didn’t have snow and I had no idea what it would be like to experience making snowballs.  I formed an impression of snow; like ice-cream to taste, soft cotton wool to touch, dough to mould, a spongy ball to throw and sort of bouncy like a trampoline to walk across.

When I did get to experience real snow, it was nothing like the impression I’d created based on reading words in a book.  It was cold like ice-cream, but it just tasted like frozen water. It wasn’t soft like cotton wool but hard and crunchy, made up of tiny fragments of hard ice. Unlike play dough it was difficult to mould into balls and I had to wear gloves because my fingers got cold and wet. When I tried to throw snowballs, they were heavier to throw than a spongy ball, they didn’t bounce and when they hit you; they were hard and broke into cold lumps that melted and trickled down my back and into my boots. Walking on snow wasn’t like walking on a trampoline – it made a crunching noise like eating celery and it was solid and sometimes slippery and if you fell over you felt like you would be covered in bruises.

Now before you get the idea that I didn’t like the snow, let me tell you that I did have a good time on that day when I first experienced it! My parents, my brothers and I had a great snowball fight. We made a snowman. We slid down a small slope on our cardboard boxes and it was exhilarating and fun! It was like nothing I had expected. It was an experience I will never forget.

People say we learn from experience. Yet in my experience, the experiential isn’t always the first way we try to pass on or receive information.  My snow experience is a picture or metaphor of how it sometimes is for us in our churches.  We tend to strongly favour a word-based approach. We speak to our people and we expect them to listen. We sing songs with words projected on screens or walls or in hymn books. We read bible readings. We read prayers or speak our prayers and sometimes we use a lot of words to get our point across. We limit what we can experience when we limit our expectations to using words.  The main currency of our communication is word-based.

I do like words. I do think words are important. I do think we need to continue to use words. But I also think that our faith journey is more than words and our worship and prayer experiences should also be more than words. We lose something very special when we rely solely or strongly on words. How do words even begin to explain our Creator God, yet alone help us communicate with God?   Prayer should be more than an exercise of moving our lips or silently reading words on a page with our eyes.

I have a few early prayer memories. I don’t remember much specifically about prayers in church or Sunday School, but I do remember generally finding it very hard to concentrate when my eyes were shut, and I was supposed to be listening to someone up the front praying.  A great treat for me was to go to church with my grandmother. I adored my grandmother and I wanted to be like her in as many ways as possible. She went to a liturgical service each week.  I think I went quite a few times with her to church, enough times to know that I can’t remember them all, but I can particularly remember one occasion. I was about nine years old. I can go back to that memory as if it were yesterday. I can see myself sitting in the pew next to her. I can feel my knees bending as we knelt to pray. I was in awe of my Nana’s ability to recite prayers without looking at the prayer book. I can remember her rattling off the words and me being spellbound. The funny thing about that memory, is the reason I remember it so well, wasn’t actually because of her recitation skills, or anything to do with the church setting. I was wearing brand new shoes on that day and my mother had bought me my first pair of pantyhose. I can still remember the sensation of the slippery feel of my feet inside my shoes. It was nothing like wearing socks! I wonder if I’d have such a strong memory or impression of going to church with her, if I hadn’t the sensory memory acting as a prompt.

I remember memorising The Lord’s Prayer in a Sunday school class. I don’t particularly remember any of the other Sunday school lessons, but I remember that one. I thought the words in the prayer were so beautiful.  We were allowed to decorate a border around the outside and I can remember how I hung it in my room at home and would read it out at night. Shortly after that experience, I was staying overnight with a primary school friend. We went to different churches of different denominations and I think we must have wanted to outdo each other in climbing a spiritual ladder. We had a competition to see who could say the longest prayers. I can remember reciting The Lord’s Prayer over and over again until I was bored. Meanwhile from the next bed came a mumble, mumble, mumble, punctuated every so often by a loud ‘Amen’.  I remember doing the only thing that seemed logical at the time… “Mumble, mumble, mumble – AMEN!”  I think we fell asleep in the process of out-praying (aka mumble – Amening) each other.

My most significant prayer memory wasn’t in a religious setting. It was only years later that I recognised it for a prayer at all. I believed in God, but despite my prayers, I don’t think I’d ever communicated with God in a way that could be called a conversation!  I suspect it hadn’t even entered my mind that God would or could communicate back to me. God was a remote being, housed somewhere in space and time, away from me personally. We were holidaying at a remote spot in Northland, New Zealand, well before the days of mobile phones.

An accident occurred. It happened so fast. It was pandemonium. One of my brothers was badly hurt. As a result, my other two brothers and I were left at the camping ground in the care of relatives while our parents went with my injured brother to the hospital. I sat in the corner of my Auntie’s caravan for hours, looking out the window to the road where the car carrying my brother had disappeared hours earlier. The hours ticked by.  Night came. This was not the kind of night spent in a city surrounded by artificial lights. This was the black night of camping, miles from civilisation, no streetlights and no houses and the only artificial light is a soft glow created by the occasional torch or camping lantern.

The stars shone magnificently and brightly in the summer night sky. The night was cloudless. The sky was awesome. I looked up into that huge expanse of stars feeling small, scared, worried and very, very frightened. The utter loneliness I experienced in that moment, was the most alone I have ever felt before, or since, that experience. We had no idea of the severity of my brother’s injuries. Was he even alive?

As I looked out into the star filled sky, I said in my mind, “God if you’re out there…?”  It was only a few words in an unfinished sentence. Was it a prayer?  I just know that in a few seconds my life suddenly changed. God was there. Not in a crashing of symbols, lightning flash, fireworks and orchestral music kind of way, but a sudden feeling of warmth inside, with a new knowledge that I was not alone in myself. God was with me. If I had to name the date that God became real to me, it was that moment. Whenever I look out at the starry night sky now, I remember that prayer. The experience has stayed with me and is relived time and again by looking out at the night sky.

The senses are incredibly powerful.  Our senses jog our memories and remind us of things. Our senses cause us to react. Our senses cause us to respond. Our senses transport us to different places and times. Our senses can comfort, and they can alarm. Take our sense of smell. There are smells we like and other smells we don’t like, and they cause certain reactions. How do you react to the following smells; the smell of a roast chicken dinner cooking? Smelly socks? Rotting garbage? Bunch of roses? There are smells that make us remember things that we long to relive, and other smells that remind us of things we long to forget.  The smell of a strawberry reminds us of summer and carefree days, the smell of a certain perfume fragrance reminds us of a particular person and the disagreement we had the last time we saw them.

We underestimate the possibilities of our senses in connecting us with our creator God. We tend to put so much emphasis on words, we often neglect engaging all our other senses. Imagine trying to live your daily life praying in an experiential way. Let’s for example take one of those smells – one that we don’t like, such as a pair of smelly socks. What kind of prayer would you pray as you hold out your smelly socks with one hand? (Holding your nose with the other hand) Could your prayer be something like the following? “God I know something stinks in my life right now. This is how it is…”  What would you do with your socks next? Depending on your age, stage and general approach to cleanliness you might choose to push them further under the bed or you might prefer to put them in the washing pile.

Imagine that your smelly pair of socks was washed and dried and folded. As you come to put them away in your drawer, now freshly cleaned and ready to be worn again, what could you pray? “Thanks for being there for me God. I need your help to make my life clean and right again…”  That seems to me to be a very powerful and memorable way to pray as an individual. It also seems to be long-lasting. When you next wear that pair of socks, there’ll be a memory jogger to remind you that God is involved in cleaning up your life.

Using experiential prayer in a worship service requires pre-thinking and organisation to target and create specific prayer opportunities. It requires thinking of practical details for managing equipment. Depending on the size of the gathered group and the layout of the gathering area there will be different challenges to work through. But if there is the energy and enthusiasm to give it a go, it’s worth trying.

It’s very hard to write something that’s one size fits all, but see if you can imagine you are a worship leader of the kind of church where singing and a sermon are the backbone of each week’s service.  Imagine that the theme of the Sunday message is to get people to think about ‘life as a whole’ and how they need to make God part of every aspect of life. It’s a big topic and it’s a challenge to make it a reality. The worship time is great, never been better. Someone has a testimony about sharing their faith in their place of work, music is superb, singing is loud and tuneful and then it comes to the centrepiece of the church service – the sermon.

The preacher’s sermon challenges, inspires and use fantastic illustrations. An appropriate passage from the Bible is read and everyone is sitting up listening. The preacher is on fire. You know it’s been a well-received message. God’s word has been heard.  The sermon concludes with a prayer. Then in your role as worship leader, invite those present, to join you, as you pray that they would be challenged to take their faith into their daily lives. People shake the preacher’s hand at the door and say how much they appreciated what was said. You leave church, hoping that the next day at work they’re still thinking about it and maybe that they’re even living changed lives as a result.

Taking the same service, what happens when you add in an experiential prayer at the end of the sermon? At the end of each row, under the aisle seat, you’ve placed a bowl of mandarins and a plastic bag. At the conclusion, of the sermon message, you ask each of the people seated on the aisle to retrieve the mandarins, take one and pass the bowl on. Music is playing softly in the background and people are silently thinking about the sermon and what God is saying to tthem through the message.

When everyone has a mandarin, you pray the same prayer as in the previous example, asking that everyone would be challenged to take their faith into their daily life. Then you ask people to peel their mandarin. As they pull apart each segment of the mandarin you want them to think about one segment of their life; home, football club, catching the bus to work, talking on the phone, reading a book etc. As your people put the segment into their mouths you want them to pray silently or quietly, specifically asking for help to take their faith into that segment of their life. It’s a simple prayer, “Jesus, help me take my faith with me on the bus tomorrow.” “Jesus, help me take my faith with me when I go into the supermarket tomorrow.” “Jesus, help me take my faith with me when I am in the lunchroom tomorrow.” When everyone has finished their mandarin, the plastic bag is passed along the row for the skins, the fragrance of mandarin fills the air, the taste of mandarin is in everyone’s mouth, the pith from peeling the mandarin skin is still under their fingernails, the smell lingers on their skin and they stand to sing a song to conclude the service.

I would be very surprised if the next day at work they’re not thinking about the message. More surprising would be if they didn’t remember that prayer when they next eat a mandarin. Imagine it. They take a mandarin and pull apart the segments, the smell, the feel, the taste, the sight… they will be reminded of that prayer and how they asked Jesus to be with them taking their faith into every segment of their lives.  The power of the senses cannot be underestimated.

Have you ever been a leader of a smaller group where everyone is taking turns to pray out loud? You know some people will not pray out loud. Some feel that they do not have a contribution to make to the group, while others are embarrassed or too shy to talk out loud. It seems sad to me that only those confident speakers or those less brave but who feel ‘in’ enough to have a go are the ones who can pray in a group. How can you encourage everyone to have a chance to pray?  Let’s imagine you’ve been thinking about Jesus being the light of the world, and how we can bring light to the world around us. Get everyone to stand or sit in a circle. Turn off all the lights, and turn on the torch you’re holding. Pray for a situation that needs light, then turn off the torch and pass it on. The next person turns on the torch if they want to pray, and if they don’t they keep passing it around the circle. In my experience, people are a lot braver about praying when they have something in their hands to manipulate at the same time.  Taking attention off people looking at each other also helps – give them something else to look at, or give them darkness.

It doesn’t take long praying in this way in small groups and in worship services before the individual starts reliving and using some of these prayers in their daily lives. Anything that can be touched, smelled, tasted, looked at and heard can become a prayer. Instead of prayer being a words-based communication with God, prayer becomes a walk through the activities and events that make up the individual’s daily journey.

As soon as you start using experiential prayer, you realise it is a very powerful experience. The concept of experiential prayer encourages people to engage in conversation with God, developing their personal relationship with Jesus and exploring their Christian spiritual journey using their whole selves in a physically interactive environment. These are not passive prayers. This is prayer that needs activity. With experiential prayer we are involved in more than moving lips or reading words on a page.

By using dozens of everyday objects, experiential prayer brings the connection between God and us to a very ordinary, everyday, whole of life experience. Very soon we’ll be selling a whole range of resources to help individuals for personal or community use, find and practise prayers that use things from the kitchen, the bathroom, the garden, the recycling bin, the $2 shop, the supermarket, the toy box and other accessible, ordinary places.

My hope is that these prayers will bring richness to your journey of faith as you experience the look,  sound, flavour, fragrance and feel of Jesus Christ involved in your life.  The concept of experiential prayer gets you thinking, focusing and concentrating on Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit and your faith journey!

Watch this space for me on this journey to experiential sensory praying.

(Photo credit: Adobe Stock Footage)

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