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)

Experiential Sensory Prayer – Part 2 – Creating a Prayer Room for church and community use

A couple of years ago I spent a few unexpected weeks in a non-English speaking hospital in Germany after emergency surgery while on holiday.  It was a difficult and frightening time. Once I was able to walk, one of the staff showed me the little prayer room near my ward. Every evening, as the hospital quietened down for the night, I would go and sit in there for an hour before turning out my light and going to sleep.  It was a quiet, peaceful place. The walls were draped in a light yellow sheer fabric, the seats were comfortable, the lighting was dimmed, there were a couple of peaceful paintings on the wall, a wooden cross, and a Bible. Simple. Peaceful. Restful. Inviting. In the silence of every evening I sat there and talked to God. I was constantly in prayer during those days, but the quiet hour spent in a room set apart especially for such communion was particularly precious. In my mind I still go back into that room. It was a safe place and God met me there. (As an aside, I remember even then, when I really wasn’t very well, thinking about how much better it could have been if there were some interactive things in the room to help people pray.)

Hospitals often have prayer rooms, places where family and friends as well as patients can find some solace and comfort. These spaces are most often interfaith and they get used by both the faithful believer and those who wouldn’t call themselves religious. At times of trial, even those who do not claim to have a faith turn to God or a higher being for help and comfort. It’s less typical to find a similar prayer room in a church building. Churches generally focus on their meeting place as the central space for prayer. The purpose of the meeting space is to encourage meeting with God in a corporate way. Sometimes there’s a back room where the clergy and lay people might meet for a prayer meeting or prayer before a worship service.  But a small prayer room isn’t a typical space. I think it’s worth putting some effort into making one, no matter what style of corporate worship you enjoy.

We worked for a few years in a church which had an old chapel styled building with several small side rooms. My role was to work with the community and find ways to connect the community into the church.  We had a lot of different groups coming in and out of our buildings and so we turned one of the small rooms into a multi-sensory prayer room.  It was really interesting seeing how the room was used. Many of the church going regulars had keys to the church and would come in and use the room during the week. Other church going regulars would use it on a Sunday morning, before or after their worship service. It intrigued me to see the different responses the church going regulars had to the room. For some it was a highlight of their worship experience, and they enjoyed the quiet stillness the space afforded, for others, it was an unneccessary use of the room when there was already a lovely chapel in which to pray. Some enjoyed the hands-on approach and loved to take advantage of the tactile prayers, while others would tidy up what they perceived as mess.

What intrigued me even more was the reaction to the room by different people from the community who were in and out of the building for all kinds of classes and events, both church based and community based.  In particular our church run weekly preschool music and movement group had adults and kids regularly using the prayer room.  There were queues some mornings as people stopped in for their little weekly communion with God. This was by far more exciting to me than the use of the room by the regular churchgoers. This non-threatening space gave people a chance to interact at their own pace and level. There wasn’t anyone watching them. It was comfortable and safe. They didn’t have to act in a certain way or say a particular set of words. There was no church culture that they had to step into and imitate. It was a comfortable space in which they could be themselves. They could talk to their children about faith and experience something of God together. I’d never really know who was using it from day to day, but every so often someone would stop and chat to me about something they’d experienced as they sat or knelt or stood in the room and prayed.  God was at work in their lives.

So here’s some ideas for setting up a prayer room or space within your church building.

The Space

  1. The Room – Do you have a small room in your existing space you could repurpose as a prayer room? If you don’t have a room, you could set up a space using screens to create a defined area.
  2. Remove the clutter – Take everything out of the space. Churches are often the recipients of unwanted large furniture items and these items usually find their way into small seldom used rooms. Be a little ruthless. Find somewhere else for the excess furniture to sit, or even consider getting rid of it!
  3. Lighten the walls – White paint! With a bit of elbow grease and some basic white paint, you can brighten up a room quickly and cheaply. Paint the walls, ceilings and doors plain white. It’s light and you can then add in fabric and props as required for your various prayers.
  4. Seating – You may want to be flexible with your seating in your room and change it according to the types of prayers you have displayed. Different people will respond in different ways to the space. Some will pass through quickly and will only want to stand, while others will want to spend some time in the space so will prefer to sit. Depending on the needs of your potential prayer room users, may determined what kind of seating you supply. Whether floor cushions, bean bags, a rocking chair, an armchair or a wooden stool, the style of your seating and the position of it in the room will set the tone and provide an indication on how you expect people to interact in the space.
  5. Small tables – Use several smaller tables to arrange your prayers. Think about the height of the prayers and match the furniture to the type of prayer. Do you want participants to stand, kneel, sit? Rather than having fixed furniture, change it around depending on the prayers you’re using.
  6. Lighting – You may want to change this around depending on your prayers, but try to create soft lighting by using a lamp, fairy lights or battery candles. Make it easy for yourself and for those who will be using the room. Having all the lights plugged into a multi power box means there is only one switch your prayer room visitor may need to turn on when they enter and exit.
  7. Heating – If the room is likely to be cold, add in a small heater so that your participants can feel warm and cosy when they’re praying. Choose a heater which will have an automatic switch to turn off if left on too long. Alternatively, get the person who unlocks and locks up the building each day to turn the heater on and off.
  8. Draperies and wall coverings – You may want to use the walls to display visual image or  instructions for the prayers. You could also have sheer draped curtains or fabric which could be put up or pulled down depending on the prayers. The softness of the fabric helps soften the room and creates a softer feeling for the participant. Add a couple of cuddly throws or blankets. This gives an added sense of security and warmth to the room.
  9. Practical instructions – Tactile prayers are messy. Whether you’re picking up stones and putting them in water, cutting up small pieces of paper, peeling mandarins or pressing paper flags into a sand saucer, there is potential for mess. Have a general instruction to leave the room ready for the next person. You may want more specific instructions related to each prayer.

The Prayers

  1. Think in themes – I like to group three to five prayers together by theme. Generally this is related to seasons, both calendar and church calendar. Prayers on Spring, Autumn, Winter and Spring provide metaphors to build from in spiritual lives. The church calendar seasons of Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Advent all lend themselves to themed stations. Other themes could be topical; Elections, natural disasters, local social issues.
  2. Think across the senses – Use the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and feel when you plan your prayers. What physical ideas can you incorporate into your prayers? The use of the senses helps ground the prayers, taking the ordinary and connecting it to the sacred.
  3. Think in faith stages – The room will be used by a variety of different people who will be operating at varying levels of faith and understanding. Provide a range of starting points, so that someone new to the faith or even pre-faith can pray but also that someone who has a long faithful heritage can also pray. I’ve generally found, if you keep it simple, those who want to make their prayer more complex will do so, but if you make your prayer instructions too complicated, it just doesn’t get used.
  4. Think across developmental ages & stages – What appears interesting to a five year old, may not appeal to a fifty-five year old. Different people have different skills in physical manipulation. Include prayers which are easy to use. Simple prayers like placing a stone in a bowl is accessible to everyone whether old or young.
  5. Think of different types of prayer – I like to group my prayers by the following types and when I plan my prayer room content I select two or three types of prayer, with one prayer based on each type or on some occasions I’ll make the Prayer Room totally Intercession or Confession prayers.
    • Praise and thanksgiving
    • Petition and supplication
    • Confession
    • Intercession
    • Responsive
  6. Think of equipment – Go through the exercise of praying all of the prayers yourself in the room to make sure your equipment works. Do you need to add extra things such as paper towels or a basin of water, a small brush and shovel to sweep up bits, newspaper on the floor, a rubbish bin? All these practical details make the prayer room able to be used and reused.
  7. Think of instructions – Keep your instructions to the minimum reading required. Less is more. But usually instructions are required in some form. If you can put some of your instructions in visual form; photos showing the various steps, diagrams or cartoons, speech bubbles with each step.
  8. Think of the space and the people – Some people will want to stand to pray. They’ll want to have their flight plan in place in case they want to leave the room quickly. Others will feel more comfortable seated and will intend to stay for a while. Getting the space right takes some time. This is about knowing those who will use your prayer room and how they might interact with it. There’s a balance between creating a private space and not a trapped space. Experiment with the space and get feedback from a variety of people. Remember that there’ll be a mixture of reactions and no one perfect way to set up your room.

Experiential Sensory Prayer – Part 1 – Creating an ambient worship space for personal prayer and reflection

Confession. I pray with my eyes open. If I shut them, my mind dances off into fairyland. And I don’t very often bow my head. Or get on my knees. Praying at night in my bed is a great getting to sleep technique – not a good way to pray. Every time I start a morning routine of praying as the first thing to do before I get into my day  – it lasts three days at the most. I don’t really like praying out loud. Actually, I don’t always like praying with words. Mostly I need to look at something or touch something to stay focussed on praying. Yep, on paper this looks like I’m not going to pass any test on being a praying type!  But I pray. A lot.

I believe in prayer for lots of reasons. Firstly, prayer is my communication with God and God’s communication with me. How can I expect to have any relationship with Jesus if I’m not going to communicate? Secondly, prayer changes things. Prayer changes situations and it changes my approach to situations. Things happen when we pray. God intervenes. Thirdly, prayer gives hope. In the face of difficulties, hope is everything. When it feels like nothing we can do is going to help a situation, then prayer is the something that we can engage with to bring hope.

I will pray anywhere and at anytime. For me I find looking at a tree, the sky, the grass, the sea, a bowl of fruit, a bunch of flowers… these things make it easier for me to start talking to God. Instead of being distracted by what I’m seeing, they soothe my mind and bring me to a state of peaceful flow as I talk and sit with God.  Even better, if I have something to fidget with in my hands I’ll stay even more focussed on my prayer. A fidgety praying type came up with the idea of rosary beads I’m sure!

Increasingly in our world today as we are bombarded with noise and bustle, images and sounds, people are realising the importance of what is trendily called, “mindfulness”. Tools and tips to develop mindfulness are everywhere. Essentially, mindfulness is a state focussing on the present moment and calmly acknowledging and accepting without judgement what is going on in your thoughts, feelings and actions. There is hunger for this mindfulness and people are responding to needing it in their lives. There is also an increased awareness of spirituality in our culture, not neccessarily Christian, but an underlying acceptance of a creator, a powerful life force, something beyond ourselves.

Thanks to the age of technology we are also more visual than we’ve ever been before. Social media, particularly Instagram and Pinterest are full of beautiful images and millions of people all over the world share and participate in the visual experiences of others via these platforms. Souls hungry for being fed with visual image can feast on a daily stream.  There is an increasing openness to a ‘sabbath’ like approach to the week, taking some time out and resting and this is reflected in social media.

We’re also more tactile. We like things that have some hands on action to them. We hunger for experiences. I was interested to read last week that makeup sales in NZ have increased by 16% last year. I’m guessing that this is because people are being photographed more, out experiencing things, and subsequently sharing it on their social media. These experiences going out and about are not just about photo opportunities. Around us, we’re putting more effort into how things look and feel, and not just in relation to personal appearances Take a walk around any city and find the trendy cafe spots. They’re destinations as well as places which serve food. Fairy lights, funky art, rustic mismatched chairs and crockery, dog water bowls, colouring pencils, blankets, lanterns, heaters, ivy covered walls, hanging plants, eclectic ornaments… these are places where people want to hang out. To be. To live. To breathe. To engage. Possessions aren’t so important anymore. People want experiences.

What a great time we live in to experience prayer in new ways. I’m pretty sure I would have survived the prayer trappings of any other period of Christian history and retained my faith, but I sure am glad to be able to live out my faith in today’s world. It’s rich and varied and visual and tactile and responsive.

I’m going to blog about some of my multi-sensory prayer ideas over the next few weeks. But today I thought I’d blog about setting up a personal prayer and reflection space. I probably should start with a disclaimer. A pretty place to pray is not essential to prayer. We worship a God who comes right to where we are and understands us! We don’t need to gussy up ourselves or our surroundings for God to intervene in our lives. Omnipresent and all powerful, full of love and grace and forgiveness and acceptance – we worship a mighty and awesome God who loves and accepts us just the way we are.  So it’s not for God I’m suggesting these ideas – it’s for people like me, easily distracted if I shut my eyes, like to keep my hands busy, get inspired by visual surroundings, multi-tasker, appreciator of creativity and a strong believer in prayer being able to change things.

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So here’s my ideas on creating your own private prayer and reflection space.

  1. Finding the right spot – Where do you feel inspired and settled? Choose somewhere warm and light filled. It might be a chair on a porch or deck or in the garden, or maybe in a bedroom, a study or a lounge. If there’s not enough natural light, think of adding a lamp or a set of fairy lights or a candle.
  2. Set up a comfortable seat – What do you like to sit on? A deckchair, a beanbag, a rocking chair or a comfy armchair? Why not add a cushion? What about a cuddly rug to throw over your knees?
  3. Using your sense of smell – What smells make you feel refreshed and awake? I believe we totally underestimate the power of the sense of smell.  There are lots of ways you can add fragrance to your space such as a bunch of fresh flowers, a scented candle, a scented oil diffuser, a sliced lemon, a potted herb such as mint or a container of freshly ground coffee.
  4. Using your sense of touch – What could you do with your hands to maintain a prayerful state? Maybe you could keep a basket or box with some things to help you in your praying such as play-dough or silly putty, a stress ball, a fidget spinner, a smooth stone or pieces of different textured fabric to stroke.
  5. Using your sense of sight – What will your eyes see when you look around? You want to focus on things that will help you stay focussed on your prayer not distract you. A basket of shells or pieces of driftwood, a pretty plant, a painting or photograph, candles, fairy lights, a simple ornament.
  6. Using your sense of taste – What better way to sit companionably with someone than over a cup of tea or other favourite drink? So why not sit and sip your drink as you pray. Make yourself a jug of fruit infused iced water or a pot of coffee or tea. You might even like to pray with a glass of wine in your hand.
  7. Using your sense of hearing – What will fill your ears as you sit and pray? Maybe you’ve chosen a place where you can hear birds or insects or the sound of children playing or traffic or the sea. The setting might provide enough sound in itself. But if not, why not play tracks of background music or sounds of the sea or birds or water rushing. You can find all kinds of these things free on the internet or on apps for your phone or buy a CD.

So here’s the thing.  These ideas might not resonate with you at all.  And that’s okay. Because everyone is different and I totally respect that most people are not like me! But I know that there are people who are like me and that these ideas might just help, so if they do, and if you’ve never tried to create a prayer space for yourself but you think it might make a difference to your prayer life I’d encourage you to give it a go!  And message me and tell me how it’s working for you! I’d love to hear your stories.

Wallowing in the Light

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”  Matthew 5:14-16 The Message (MSG).

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Jesus used metaphors to explain hard to explain stuff. I like that. A metaphor is so much easier to understand. It gives me a picture I can relate to and understand.

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This has been a season for me of being a light-bearer, a holder of light in the darkness. Bringing out the God-colors in the landscape of daily living.

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I’ve always been both a words person and a visual person. But for most of the time, given a choice between my paintbrush or my pencil, I’ve picked up the pencil first. Right now words are hard.

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Where to begin? How to write? What words do justice to what I want to say? Sometimes, words just don’t cut it. My time for that is now.

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I’ve been wanting to share something of my journey in the last few months and it’s been hard to begin to know where to even start, let alone have the time to get organised to blog.

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I’ve been a ‘light holder’ for my daughter who has been battling major depression.

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It’s been a tough time and yet a time of privilege.

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Yet again, faced with difficulties my faith has been a comfort, a support and a guide.

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I don’t know how it goes for those without a faith who are coping with the darkness of depression and for those who are supporting a loved one through such an ordeal. I can only imagine how hard it must be.

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For the last seven months I’ve been living and breathing a daily neverending prayer conversation both spoken and unspoken to Jesus, Light of the World.

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And I’ve been so grateful for the presence of God.

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Hope…

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Stillness…

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Patience…

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Calm…

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Peace…

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Reslience…

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Love…

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Endurance…

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Presence….

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Encouragement…

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Faith…

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These are the names of the paints I have been using to show the light.

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Almost every day we go for a walk to our local beach and we enjoy the light reflecting on the water.

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It gives us hope and confidence in better times ahead.

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Even in the darkest moments The Light has been with us.

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The Light is always with us.

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I thought I’d share some of my light photos with you from our beautiful Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

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It’s interesting look back at these photos from the last six weeks. The most beautiful light photos are when there are clouds or rain… it’s almost as if God is reminding me right now that The Light is even more present and beautiful in the tough times.

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A picture really is worth a thousand words.

Time for Tactile Prayer

It’s been a roller coaster week.  Even down here at the bottom of the world, in little New Zealand, the topic on everyone’s lips is the US elections.  We might be far away but we’re not removed. Kiwis are global in our world view.  We like to keep up with international events.  Even so, there has never been a US election we’ve been more interested in following.   And we’ve followed it!   It’s on our news, in our papers, and discussed around the water cooler in every office around the country.  These elections are significant on a global scale and this week we’ve recognised that we’ve watched an historical global event.  What will our world look like in the weeks, months and years to come?

Some of us are devastated and worried.  Social media has gone crazy, particularly amongst the millenials. There is disbelief, hurt, frustration, fear …. and so much energy!! What do you do with that energy?   In our helplessness we reach out to our creator God.

An “OH GOD!” is the cry from so many.

I was thinking about prayer typically used in Christian circles and how it’s word based.  Sometimes words just don’t seem enough.

This is a time for prayer outside of words!  I’m thinking it’s a time for tactile prayer.  A time to release emotions, to pour out our fears and frustations and anguish.  To be physical and tactile as we express ourselves and cry out to our God for peace, hope and love.

This isn’t a gimmicky way to pray.  Look at the old testament and the sackcloth and ashes prayers.  There is relief in expressing ourselves physically as well as verbally.

Our booklet “All Over the World” has a host of prayer ideas using a shower curtain world map, but you could easily adapt these to use with a sheet and a roughly drawn map in permanent marker, or a paper map of the world, or forget the map altogether.   If you’re looking for ideas for corporate prayer this Sunday, this booklet has plenty of food for thought.   Only $5.95 (NZD)   About $4.29 USD

http://www.kererupublishing.com/our-books/our-resources/all-over-the-world

Paper towel Confession Prayer

Excerpt from “Five Senses to Prayer” by Caroline Bindon (Publication date 2017)

“Take a couple of paper towels and fold them into a pad.  Place the paper towel pad in in front of you.  Now dip your fingers into the bowl of water.  While your fingers are in the water, contemplate things that are not right in your life. Tell Jesus about the things that they’ve done wrong and are sorry about as a prayer of confession.  When you have finished praying take your hands out of the water.  Let your fingers drip water onto the paper towel. Watch as the paper absorbs the moisture and stops it from getting the table wet. This is like Jesus absorbing the things we do wrong. Our confession makes us clean again. Give thanks to Jesus for the grace and forgiveness he provides.”

Engaging in worship across the spectrum of ages and stages

The journey into creating a Church community that is All-Age and All-Stage has been an option for me, brought about by a combination of factors.  And it is truly an option that I’ve embraced and run with for some time.   I know it is not possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons.   I’ve had a few conversations in the last few months that remind me of this – and the last thing I want to do is to make anyone feel that they’re worshipping in the wrong place, while being powerless to change anything structurally.    This blog then is not about the structure of becoming an all-age, all-stage Church, but about some of the background thinking which could be included within your existing worship structures to engage more fully across the age and stage spectrum.   It’s also for families or those who are travelling with children, be they your own children, your grandchildren, nieces or nephews or young friends and ways you can interact meaningfully about your faith as your journey.

It makes it sound like a ‘how to’ kind of blog, but it’s not.  There is no secret recipe and no ’Five steps to running a successful all-age, all-stage Church’.   This is the story of my travels and the travels of some of the adults and children travelling with me.   I hope you’ll get some ideas on engaging with others across the age and stage spectrum in corporate worship.  I’m always happy to converse with anyone wanting to incorporate this kind of thinking into their own settings.

Journey not destination 

I’ve loved the metaphor of travelling along a road for as long as I can remember.  The road moves us. It takes us between milestones, stopping points, places we call home or tourist attractions, places to stay for a while and sleep, eat, drink and live.  While we might retrospectively be able to identify our starting point and memorable milestones, we don’t shift between these places and times instantly.   We don’t get teleported like Dr Who in the Tardis or touch a portkey like Harry Potter.  In these examples the characters move in time and space to a different place.  The journey is instant and apart from a strange feeling of moving at speed, there is no meandering between one place to the next.

My view of our Christian faith is that there is much that happens in the journey between each milestone, significant event, profound revelation, new knowledge or lightbulb moment.  There is the journey to be undertaken.  The path of life is not smooth or boring.  It is full of all kinds of things; opportunities, celebrations, mistakes, problems, emotional hiccups, some turning back and false starts, joys, sorrows, challenges and general mish-mash of human experiences.  And here’s the great thing with being a follower of Jesus.  We don’t walk alone.  Jesus is our faithful walking companion, as we traverse the ups and downs of ordinary life.

At Avenues Church we view our gathering together as part of the journey not the destination itself.  We don’t ‘come to Church’ to sit still because we’ve arrived.  An Avenues event isn’t a destination.  Our gathering is about helping us move along on our own journey and in the journey we are on together.  And we recognise that not everyone is at the same place on their journey.  So when we meet together at Avenues it’s like we’re at some intersecting crossroads, where everyone’s own journeys meet and for a while we travel together.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group encouraging each other no matter where we’re individually located on our own journey and helping each other to carry on along the roads of our own faith journeys and our shared faith journey as a consequence.

Show not tell

When I was nine I decided that one day I would be a published author.  There are degrees of achieving anything.  I was first published as a children’s book author when I was 19 and even though I’ve been published several more times since then, I still don’t feel that I’ve written my great work!  My goal isn’t so much achieved as underway.  There’s always a story or two percolating away in my brain and on my computer. Every so often I get a peer review or seek some advice on my fiction writing.  The number one area that I know I personally always need to work on is the ‘showing’ not ‘telling’.  Thinking up a story idea is only the first step to writing a fiction work.  Once I’ve thought up the plot line and characters and written the outline for my book, the work is only at the beginning stages.  The next step is to ‘show’ the reader my story.

Showing something is not the same as telling.  To tell the contents of a story, you can list the facts, in the order in which they happened, you can tell your opinions and conclusions.  You can explain what the story was about or why something was or wasn’t included.  Telling a story is a very linear delivery.  But to show the contents of the story means you take your reader with you as you tell your story and it appears that they discover things as if you’re discovering them for the first time too.  Showing means that they will feel things, think about things, form opinions, make judgements, laugh and cry and want others to experience the story too.  It will seem to them that they are part of what is happening in the story.  They’ll enter into the experience, as if they are in the story with you and the characters and plot.  After they’ve closed the book, they’ll still be remembering what it felt like to read the story, and if it’s a well-written shown story they’ll be remembering it for a long time afterward. Showing a story is non-linear and you don’t have as much control over where the story goes.

At Avenues Church we have an emphasis on showing not telling. Telling is something many Churches tend to focus on in their worship services.  Showing is not always considered in worship preparation.  For one thing, it takes much longer to prepare.  To plan Avenues we have a bible passage and a key theme as a starting point.  From there we develop some clear ideas as to what key learnings we want to bring out in our worship experience.  You could compare these to sermon points in a traditional setting.   Once we have that as the basis of our planning for our gathering, we build around these key ideas ways we can ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.  Because we’re interactive, we can use physical objects to help in showing a key idea.  Participants get to interact in an activity such as a science experiment to draw out the ‘show’ of the point.   In a sermon, a preacher will use a story or illustration to ‘show’ the point they’re trying to make.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group getting involved in stories and activities rather than words-based telling of the same point, connecting with real experiences and helping participants to engage, understand and remember as a consequence.

Process not product

For most crafters or artists or scientists or construction workers, the measure of success is in the finished product.  If you’re a builder and your job is to build a house, you don’t stop halfway and say you’ve finished.   If you’re an artist and you are creating a painting for an exhibition you don’t stop halfway and display your unfinished artwork as a completed exhibit.  If you’re a knitter and you’re making a beanie hat for your friend to wear in the snow you don’t hand them a half finished hat on some knitting needles and a ball of wool and expect that to keep their head warm.

One of the challenges of using hands-on activities, is that they inevitably have a start and finish.  A craft or science experiment has a logical flow from being a bunch of separate pieces of equipment to a completed product.   We use lots of activities in Avenues.  We draw, cut, glue, place, turn, twist, open, shut, build, paint, wipe, spray, tape, cover, staple, join, rip, bend, smell, taste, listen, see and touch.  (to name a few).   Unlike a builder building a house, or a painter exhibiting a finished piece of art, or a knitter giving away a warm hat, our focus is not on the finished product.  We aren’t making things for the things themselves.

At Avenues Church we’re about the process not the product.  Occasionally we’ll make something that exists for another use beyond our gathering, (such as a kite on Pentecost).   More often it’s the physical act of ‘doing’ that we focus on rather than the finished product.  Sometimes people when they see photos of our Church gatherings or hear stories or even watch from the side-lines, assume that we do ‘craft’ and that you have to be good at working with your hands.  But that’s not so.  Our emphasis is in the process of the doing, that in carrying out physical actions, we are engaging people actively.  As their bodies are involved in active participation, then we’re hopefully also engaging the mind.  The process is the important thing not the end product.   There’s no beginning skill level required.  If we have an activity that involves cutting with scissors, and one of our participants can’t use scissors, then someone else will do the cutting.  There’s no putting anyone on the spot for what they can or can’t achieve.  One of our traditional activities is ‘Drawing on the Tables’ where we set a topic near the start of our gathering and participants draw on newsprint covered tables.  The drawings are not for anyone to see other than the person drawing.  When we get visitors who are used to more traditional worship forms they’re always nervous and self-conscious about picking up a crayon.  But if they’re brave and give it a go, they’re often forthcoming on how surprised they are at how drawing helped channel their thinking.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group actively involved in the process of tasks, translating this to participants own faith life being a forever developing process as a consequence.

Participation not performance

We’ve just seen the end of the 2016 Olympics.  This year it seemed to me that the media in our country were big on the idea that winning was everything.  “We’re not just going to the Olympics to participate,” seemed to be the standard catchphrase.  A performance of an athlete’s personal best was acceptable, but anything less was ‘participation’ and our media weren’t into giving any participation bouquets.  I guess in the age where supporting sports costs money, the media representing the taxpayer, want the results.  And the reality is that most high achieving athletes have their own personal goals which are most likely little different to this view.  Of course they’re not making all these sacrifices to simply participate, competition by its definition is about performance.  The winner takes all!   This is performance.

But not everyone is an Olympic athlete.  The adult who runs daily for fitness and enjoyment was once a school kid who loved running.  He never placed high enough to get a certificate, a medal or a place on the school cross-country team.   This doesn’t mean that he’s not a runner, that he’s not able to participate in the daily ritual of morning exercise.  There are no financial gains for him to run, nothing is required from him in running which would result in him receiving a reward from someone else. The rewards of running are personal to him.  He gets fit, he starts the day energised, he keeps his weight down, he has fun.  This is participation.

At Avenues Church we value participation.  Participation means everyone can be involved. It’s kind of a given in an action packed event, and it’s more obvious if someone doesn’t take part than if they do participate.  Participation means contributions come from wherever an individual is currently situated in their own life.  Which means we get what we get!  We get the profound muddled in with the confused, the ‘on message’ with the ‘off message’, the funny, the sad, the complex, the simple, the extremist, the minimalist…  and it all blends together.  For those leading, the challenge is to pull all the components, the personalities and the contributions together in a way that shows we value every contribution and value the contributor.  Sometimes people outside of Avenues worry that ‘God’s truth’ will not stand out, in such an environment, but we’ve found that there is an amazing way of the ‘good stuff’ filtering to the top.  It also generates a genuine opportunity to contribute in a safe environment.  We’ve found that to encourage participation encourages tolerance, grace, generosity, honesty, openness, kindness and courage.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group creating opportuntiies for participation in a safe, comfortable and encouraging environment and growing together and individually in our own faith as a consequence.

Question not answer

If you’ve ever encountered the questioning three-year old, you’ll know that not every question has an easy answer!  Some things are just too difficult.  Why is that three year olds know how to ask tough questions?  It seems sometimes like the older we get, the more conservative our questioning can become and at Avenues we like to revert back to those great questions we used to be braver at asking.

My own children as three year olds, were able to tie me in knots with their insatiable appetite of asking questions and finding out answers.  “How does the moon stay in the sky?  Where does the sun go at night time?  Why do people get old?  Who made God?  Where is heaven?  How does the rain know when to fall?   Why are there puddles?  How will I learn to drive?   Why do people have to go to sleep at night?  How do you build a wall?   How does the dehumidifier work?  What is a rainbow?  Why is broccoli the name for a vegetable?  Where does pink come from?  How do you make pink?  Before the days of Google, were the days of, “we’ll ask Grandad, we’ll get a book out from the library, we’ll go to the observatory, we’ll test it out…”.  These strategies could also be called; ask an expert, look it up in a book, go on a field trip, conduct an experiment.  The search to find answers was an exciting prospect.  In our case this hunger for questioning, simply resulted in more questions!  I know I’ve talked to tired parents of pre-schoolers who just want the questions to stop, and I can relate to that feeling, particularly remembering when Miss Three who has never slept well, would wander in to our room in the middle of the night with a particularly thorny question which she felt required an immediate answer before she’d go back to sleep.

Overall, the questions were celebrations of a quest that has become life-long to each of the children.  It’s great to have a question!  They are in very different fields of study, have a different emphasis on their expressions of faith, but they each have a thirst for finding out things.  And they know that sometimes the answer to a question, is another question and that just because you have a question, it doesn’t mean you get either a partial or complete answer.

At Avenues Church we see this translates into our faith too because we’ve used questions a lot and we don’t necessarily have an answer to them.   We ask questions, we encourage others to ask questions and sometimes we end with questions.  I’ve blogged before about our youngest daughter’s interactions with some clipboard carrying Christians who interviewed her and who were mind blown by the idea that having questions and doubts was something she viewed as a strengthening of her faith rather than an unravelling.  Our congregation intriguingly has frequently contained a mixture of high achieving academically qualified adults as well as pre-schoolers and adults or young people with learning difficulties.  And a question is still a question!  There is no room for embarrassment or awkwardness in an environment where everyone is encouraged to question. There’s also no need for an answer to be provided because sometimes some things are just too difficult to answer.  Occasionally we’ll get a churched Christian visitor used to a traditional setting with a sermon, and they can’t resist trying to wrap up a discussion for us when they think we’ve left it too open-ended.  They can’t cope with the open-ended, or pass up an opportunity to ‘tell the answer’.  Too often people get trapped by their own questions and instead of enriching their faith it boxes them in and makes them walk away.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group asking questions together and growing and expanding in faith as a consequence.

Well that’s a random Saturday’s attempt at a few things that work for our faith community.   May you be encouraged in your own faith adventures and doing and being church in your own time and space.

 

The Puppet Message

Meet Holly.  She’s a close friend of mine.  We first met in about 2002, when she joined our ministry team for our Avenues Church.  From the first moment I met Holly, her personality was evident. She’s strong-minded, feisty, feminist and opinionated.  We got Holly on board as a creative way of introducing things that sometimes needed words and explanation.  She fitted with our All-Age Worship and added to the visual atmosphere.  What we didn’t anticipate was the way that she’d be received.  Right from the start she was a winning addition to our team.  And the enthusiasm surprisingly, was not just from the children.  She added a bit of humour and colour and energy to our worship.  She also, through her stark honesty, curiosity and contradictory nature, helped us to focus our thinking and ask more questions in a setting where interaction was encouraged.  People interacted with her.  They argued with her and asked her questions.  They laughed with her and told her jokes and stories.  She provoked reaction.  And she was never short of something to say.

Of course, despite the arguments that Holly and I frequently have, Holly is always on message.  The message I want to convey.  While she might challenge what I say at times, she always comes around to agreeing with the point that I want to raise.  This is hardly surprising.  Even though Holly has her own personality, she’s a part of me.  Holly is a puppet.  The only person who controls Holly is me.  I am the one who ‘thinks’ her, I ‘voice’ her, I ‘act’ her.  She’s a version of me and my thinking.  It is impossible for her to be anything different.  Without me breathing life into her, she is just like a rag doll.

I’ve been pondering lately about the way I hear people sometimes talk about Jesus.  Some people say they’re a Christian and then state their personal view on all the things that Jesus would and wouldn’t agree with.  They challenge individuals, they hurt and damage and cause unhappiness, they create rules and put up fences – all in the name of Jesus.  The things they say, don’t tally up with my view of Jesus at all. They sound to me like they are treating Jesus like their puppet.  His message becomes what they want it to be and his voice becomes theirs and not his own.  But Jesus is not like Holly.  He’s not a puppet.  And for any human to choose to be a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus is a brave and risky thing to do.

Of course anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus, a Christian, does become a mouthpiece for the person of Jesus. Whether they intend to or not, want to or not, inevitably others around them will immediately view them as such.  The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to take this responsibility seriously.   How can we really know Jesus?  How can we dare to act as if we know Jesus so closely it is as if we are actually Jesus himself?  How can we actually be qualified to be the mouthpiece of Jesus Christ?  What does this actually mean for us?  What does it mean for Jesus?

This is where the concept of ‘follower’ can make us breathe a sigh of relief.  If we call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ, then we acknowledge that we are on a journey following him.  We’re a ‘follower of Jesus’.  We’re not Jesus himself.  We’re on a journey toward Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus.  We’re following Jesus, moving towards him, being guided and supported and even carried by him, understanding him more and more as time passes.  He’s in our sight, he’s urging us on, he’s guiding us, letting us rest against him, sustaining us, rejuvenating us. The journey is always changing. When we want to be on it, it is never truly stopped. And the joy of being a follower of Jesus is found in the journey itself.  We’re not at the destination yet, we’re on the road towards it.

This is why groups of followers gather together to talk about Jesus, to share food and conversation, struggles and joys, to sing their praises to Jesus for the journey and to pray for their own needs and the needs of others around them.  This is why followers of Jesus read the Bible over and over again and talk about what they’ve discovered about the person of Jesus in the pages of the gospels.  This is why followers of Jesus after reading about his teachings, his miracles, his stories, look outward beyond themselves, to others around them, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, protecting the refugee, supporting the oppressed, advocating for the marginalised, healing the sick, grieving with the dying, crying with the ostracised. This is why followers of Jesus increasingly value the characteristics of grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, humility, kindness to name a few and incorporate these characteristics into their lives.  This is why followers of Jesus look eagerly for Jesus at work around them in God’s creation and actively engage in being part of that work and bringing it to fruitfulness.  This is why followers joining together share a memory meal of Jesus Christ.  This is why followers of Jesus see potential in the journey.

If we call ourselves followers of Jesus we need to be people of faith who constantly strive to understand Jesus’ message and allow ourselves to be internally changed by Jesus.  To keep travelling the Christian faith journey, constantly growing and changing and evolving in understanding.  To view our faith as a work in progress, a moving forward work in progress, a frail, human, underwhelming attempt to understand and reflect Jesus to others who may or may not be on the journey too.

And when we open our mouths to say words that represent Jesus, we need to be ever so aware that Jesus is not our puppet.

Unless you are like a child

Andrew and I lead Avenues Church, an all-age, all-stage worshipping community.  We’ve long since passed any need to justify this venture or prove anything to anyone.  Avenues works for the people who come.  It brings meaningful interaction into our participants’ lives and faith journey.  Invariably, when people hear ‘all-age’ they translate this to it being a children’s church and when people hear ‘all-stage’ they often translate this to being age-based.  If you’re young you’re at an earlier stage, the older you get the further up the stage stairway you progress.    That’s not quite how we see it and how we’ve experienced it in the last fourteen years with our Avenues church and prior to that when we were exploring all-age worship within the context of a regular worship service.

People come to our Avenues Church from all walks of life.  They have had different experiences, different upbringings, different faith experiences and they are all ages.   Together we journey, and try to create a place where no matter what stage of faith you are at, you are welcome to join us on the journey.   The structure created by our education system of age-based learning, and duplicated across most mainstream churches, is not engaged here.  It’s all mixed up.   It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your faith.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s no expectation that by a certain age you will be at a certain level and therefore ready to process a newer, harder faith concept.  No, it’s a full-on free for all!  It’s ‘come as you are’ church.

Sometimes when someone who is involved in a mainstream style church hears about Avenues they assume that it is a church especially for children. What can appear to make it a children’s church is that we are tactile.  We call our worship, “Discovery Worship” and it is hands on, colourful, interactive and fast moving.  This means while children can fit in with ease, it is also welcoming for adults with short attention spans, adults who struggle to learn by reading or listening, adults with no prior experience of the Christian faith, adults who have English as a second language, or have learning difficulties and so on.  What can be surprising to people when they ask, is that we also have highly educated people in our Avenues Church.  Right from the beginning we’ve had well qualified academics and professionals join us in our journey.  Perhaps from their own lives they know that just because an idea is presented simply, it does not make it a simple idea.

We don’t exist just to appeal to children.  If we didn’t have children attend, we’d still carry on the same way with our worship.  But I think our regular worshippers would agree that something would be missing if we didn’t have children on a regular basis.  The involvement of children just makes it so much more real, simpler, more challenging and more inspiring.

Here’s just a handful of reasons why I like to worship with all-ages together and have the wonder of a child’s voice in our worship experience.

Inquisitive – the art of asking a good question  

I’ve observed that something happens to our questioning ability the older we get.  Instead of focussing on a good question, we tend to focus on finding the right answer.  Perhaps this is why we appeal to academics as well as children.  Children are brilliant at asking questions and academics have learned that the more you find out about something, the more it shows you what you don’t know.  Children can cut right to the heart of things.  They pull no punches, and they persist.  “Where does God live?”, “Who made God?”, “Why did Jesus have to die?”, “What happens when we die?”…. are typical four year old questions, and any parent or grandparent who has experienced a full-on question asking pre-schooler will know that more often than not, these kind of questions can leave you flummoxed and embarrassed with your own inability to provide adequate answers.  Jesus disciples were great at asking questions, and you can hear Jesus gently guiding them, often by a return question.  Asking questions is a wonderful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Mystery and wonder– the art of appreciating something bigger than our understanding

There is a point somewhere in our faith stages where we appreciate the question to which we just can’t get answer.  That there is some mysterious explanation beyond our human understanding is in itself an answer.  Children have a sense of mystery and wonder.  Have you ever watched a child, out of bed as a special treat, on a dark night looking at the stars?  Their sense of mystery, wonder and delight at what they see is inspiring.  Children don’t have to know all the details about why and how and when and who… to appreciate that there is something going on that is bigger than their understanding.  A sense of mystery and wonder is a delightful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Honesty – the art of being frank with ourselves, with others and with God.

Children have an honesty that can be breath taking.   They haven’t yet learned all the social etiquette and rules about what should or shouldn’t be voiced.  They see things through a simpler lens than the lens through which an adult views the world.   An adult’s world has had far more experiences and voices.  While the wisdom and knowledge gained may help make a better, informed decision about appropriate action, a child’s view can often provide great clarity on the presenting issue.   A typical example is when children are hearing about poverty in two-thirds world countries.  Their response will often be starkly honest.  “There shouldn’t be hungry people. Can I give them some of my food?” says the child.  They’re disturbed that hunger should exist and see the fixing of it as a simple act of provision.  A sense of honesty is a refreshing part of our faith journeying because it moves us forward to be more genuinely honest with ourselves, with each other and with God.

Power – the art of destructing our stereotypical structures and giving voice to the powerless

It is almost impossible to have any people orientated system that does not have power.  It’s a natural way in which we organise ourselves.   Whether the power is in individuals or by committee, whether it’s in the local church, or in the group of churches, power is inevitable.  Giving a voice to the powerless is structurally challenging.  When I’ve talked to other pastors I can hear the struggle they are under in leading their church.  The idea that a child could contribute something of more value than a theologically qualified professional is not a popular thought.  On more than one occasion we’ve had an adult visiting Avenues who has some theological training.  When a child offers something that us Avenues regulars might view as a valuable contribution itself, our visiting adult wants to chip in to round it off, to clarify, to add some additional words.  A sense of lack of power is a significant part of our faith journeying because it allows us to see God at work in each other.

Generosity – the art of giving from your best

We seem to unlearn giving as we get older.   A baby will take their soggy biscuit out of their mouth to share with their mother, a toddler will give hugs to complete strangers, a pre-schooler will spontaneously pick a bunch of weeds to give to someone they like, a five or six year old will draw picture after picture and give these away to everyone around them.  The more we know about life, the more our generosity shrivels to be given from our excess, not from our all.  Children haven’t learned this yet, so whether in physical acts such as hugs or giving drawings or cards, or verbally by giving words that come straight from the heart, a child leads us to God’s heart and generosity.  In our worship, a child will often say out loud their generous feelings or response to a situation that makes the rest of us nod and take note.  A sense of generosity is a significant part of our faith journey because it allows us to interact with the people whom God loves.

Sorry – the art of confession for wrongs

Children learn right from wrong fairly early on in life.   A toddler who has just learned the word, “No” will be reduced to tears on hearing it.  When a child does something that they know is wrong they project their guilt and their need to be forgiven, getting very upset over their ‘wrong’.  Children have an enormous capacity for feeling sorry and an enormous capacity to forgive.  You have only to watch pre-schoolers playing in the sand to see this in action.  Watch the child get in a fight in the sand pit over sharing a toy with another child, they will be enemies one moment, then with some intervention, and a chance to say sorry, they’re friends the next moment.  At Avenues we often have confession prayers which are typically interactive.  The practice of confession is freeing and liberating and sadly often overlooked in our ‘smug goodness of being a Christian. We all do things wrong, whether deliberately or inadvertently.  So at Avenues we might be thinking out loud some examples that a child can relate to, such as “Was there anyone you said something horrible to this week?”  While it will likely relate to children who’ve been playing with other children, we find ourselves challenged. Did we offend someone this week?  Such wrongs can seem small and simple, but they are very real and they are blocking our way to be more like Jesus.  A sense of saying sorry is a significant part of our faith journey to become more like Jesus.

This is just a handful of thoughts that I’ve had over the last week about why I love to worship with children as an integral part of our worshipping faith community.  It’s almost selfish actually!  I’m trying to decide if I get more from the children than I give to them?  Life is a journey and faith is a journey.   For myself, my faith is strengthened by the presence of children and if that means I become like a child mysef….  well hey, that can’t be bad, it’s what Jesus told us to be!

About this time the disciples came to Jesus and asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called a child over and had the child stand near him. Then he said:  I promise you this. If you don’t change and become like a child, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. But if you are as humble as this child, you are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And when you welcome one of these children because of me, you welcome me. Matthew 18:1-5Contemporary English Version (CEV)

The language of a common meal

My friend Sylwia and I do not have a shared spoken language.  She has two languages, I have one… and between us we have three.  Not exactly a straightforward start to a friendship.  But here’s the thing…  we have shared food together.  There is something special about eating food with others.    We met  Sylwia for the first time across a table from each other and a couple of hours later Sylwia was entertaining Andrew and I in her home in Dresden, Germany, with more food!  We would never have met if it hadn’t been for a particular set of circumstances in our own century and because of the connection between the stories of other people in a different century and of a different culture to each of our own.   A complex recipe of religion, culture, academic study and being in the right place at the right time.

Sylwia is a very special person to us. Who could have guessed on the day in which we met, that less than 24 hours later I would be in hospital fighting for my life?  On that first day and in the days and weeks that followed, while we were still in Germany, Sylwia took us both into her heart and Andrew into her home and her family.  With our large and loving extended family hundreds of miles away, we were alone.  Sylwia was my mother, my sister and my friend.  A bond has been formed that is beyond words, so the fact we don’t have shared words to use probably doesn’t matter much!

Caroline and SylwiaIn person our communication has been conducted in gestures, smiles, laughs and the odd experimental word in one of our own languages.  Via the Internet we continue to communicate regularly in a way that is a constant wonder to me.  We actually manage to keep up to date with the news by the means of all kinds of things (in written form with the help of electronic apps and translators, and in spoken form with the help of Claudia who translates between English and German and Polish for us, and in visual form –  because a photo tells a thousand words!)

So where words fail we do have that first language that we did share… the food of an ordinary lunch across a table.  I’ve always been keen on the idea of sharing food as part of our gathered together worshipping community.  At our Avenues Church we always have food as part of our gathering.  As a child I grew up in a family with a round dining table, and an approach to dining that meant there was always room for one more person.  Around our family dinner table we caught up on the things that were happening in each other’s lives.  We debated, we encouraged, we argued, we shared, we ate, we challenged each other, we welcomed others and we grew.

The opportunity of sharing food together, as a part of our Christian journey is not new.  Jesus’ ministry begins at a feast.  He turns water into wine at a wedding feast.  The gospels record numerous other meals including the feeding of enormous crowds with a boy’s humble lunch, and smaller events like Jesus catching up with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.   Then there is that significant last meal shared with his closest friends and followers, his disciples.  Who would have guessed after the last supper that the pattern of this meal would be repeated across centuries, across countries, across cultures?

annabelenglishannabelpolish.jpgWhile I was in hospital in Germany I was trying to think of a way that we could thank Sylwia and her family.  What is the perfect gift that money does not buy?   I wanted to find a gift that said ‘New Zealand’ and ‘grateful thanks’.  I remembered that Annabel Langbein, Kiwi successful cook, cookbook writer and businesswoman had been to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the year New Zealand was guest country, and I was pretty sure her book, “The Free-Range Cook” (which I owned in English) had been translated into German.  It was a start – a way to signal to Sylwia in a language that she spoke, the ‘language of cooking food’, to tell her that we were grateful and thankful to God that she had been there, at that time, in our lives.  With the help of my tablet, I found that not only had Annabel Langbein’s  book been translated into German, it was also available in Polish.  Polish is Sylwia’s mother-tongue!  From what I already knew of Sylwia, I knew she’d love the ‘grow your own’, ‘feed everyone’, ‘simple food’, feel to Annabel’s approach.

It took some weeks longer before I actually managed to navigate my way through the possibilities of ordering a book in the polish language and getting it to Sylwia, but finally it arrived to its destination.

So now we speak a new shared communication language.  The language of ‘Annabel Langbein’ or maybe it is the ‘language of a common meal’ – across countries and time.  Our regular skype conversations are conducted with our recipe books at hand, and page numbers to explain and show what we made last.   It’s kind of like hospitality or the sharing of a common meal in the virtual world!

Chilli Jam.jpg

Last week at my work we had an international week.  I was on bringing food on the ‘German’ day.  a nod to my Polish-German friends that God had sent my way?   Thanks to google translator I was able to ask for and receive a recipe for ‘the best apple pie in the world’ – ‘Szarlotka’. It is such a great feeling to send a ‘help’ message across to the other side of the world and get a message straight back with recipe as well as further instructions on the tricks to make it even better!

Szarlotka

Simple entertaining as a daily part of life has been given a back seat in our culture today.  While the café and restaurant culture has grown in NZ, and the age of the dinner party or the more relaxed, but still elaborate barbeque are typical hospitality events, the regular and simple act of dropping in to a friend for a cuppa, a biscuit and a chat is less frequent.   Of necessity, our busy lives move even catching up for a coffee and a chat to the side-lines of daily life.  They become scheduled activities, events in their own right, booked into our jam-packed calendars between other busy activities.  They have to be arranged, rather than just happen.  We still drink our coffee, we just do it on our own, sandwiching it between our own busy activities.  We stand in queues, buy it in paper cups, drink it in our cars, on our own, in the traffic, listening to the radio, on the way to work.  Even ordinary daily family dinners are disrupted and staggered events, with nights where there is sports practice for one person, a meeting or other evening activity for someone else, another person being home late from work while someone else is watching the news on tv for homework. Our time is sliced, diced and cut up into tiny portions, and having the space in our programme to leisurely share food together is treated as a luxury.

Sylwias pg 67What would happen if we could find a way to strip all the frills and fancies of entertaining back, to just be ourselves, to keep things simple and uncluttered, casual and relaxed, to make the focus of the shared meal about ‘breaking bread together’, about the act of eating and drinking and talking together and about creating a common experience?   If we recognised the language of the common meal to be about something else happening as well as food, to see it has a God-given opportunity to make connection, meeting each other’s needs, sharing each other’s burdens and joys?   I think this might be an important part of living out our Christian life and faith.   And I think that it can be the start of some amazing opportunities to share God’s love with others.  It might be a way of listening to the voice of God, of receiving and giving, of bonding with each other and with Jesus Christ… something like communion.

(Photo credits: my Szarlotka, Sylwia & I, Annabel Langbein’s books in Polish & English, ‘my page 128’ and Sylwia’s page 67)