Multi-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.

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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.

And it was Good

All by myself, with no-one else at home, I worked from home one day and it was a peaceful environment.  I was working on an excel spreadsheet which required my full concentration.  It was for my ‘Construction Land’ week day job.  This was no simple excel worksheet. It’s a complex connective multi-dimensional spreadsheet. I’ve been working on variations of it for years now! And it has at various times worked… to a point!  But on this occasion … it more than worked – it did everything I wanted it to do… I actually got there!   As I typed in the last equation by excitement was rising.  I knew this was going in the right direction… my gut feeling was that it was good!  And it was.  It was good!  All I could do was look at my screen in complete wonder. There was a sense of awe.  I wanted to shout and cry and laugh.  I’d done it.  It worked.  I sat back from my computer and just looked.  And it was good!

The thrill didn’t leave me for hours. And the strange thing was, that there was no-one I could really tell about it.  I could tell my brothers who are my bosses, and they would be pleased to know that I’ve finally got it to work and we can get the level of reporting they’ve been wanting.  So they’d appreciate its results, but even they wouldn’t get the thrilled feeling that I had.  They wouldn’t see the formulas, and layering beyond the numbers, and if they did, they’d just take it at face value; a bunch of formulas and spreadsheets with numbers.  They would not appreciate the beauty that was in this creation.  I could tell my husband and children and they’d be happy for me.  (But they’d also groan about my love and obsession with excel!)  No, for all of them, creative types that they each are, they would appreciate that I’d done the hard work and that I was satisfied, and they would relate to the thrill by understanding from their own creative endeavours what that feels like, but they wouldn’t feel it about this particular thing as I did.  The thrill was mine alone.

We are a creative household.  I remarked on this to our 17 year old the other day.  He’s always making movies, creating props, designing things on the computer or composing music!  He is often prowling around the house in the wee small hours of the morning before going to bed!  Andrew is a night owl too, although not as much as he used to be, and these days he can get up quite early in the morning to make a start on writing his latest ‘Taking Flight’.  Our daughter is also a night owl and a composer and crafter and creative, and although she’s only at home half the week, she does her share of creating when she is at home and although she is an owl, she is also an early riser.  As for me, I have at least six creative projects on the go at any one time, and my own hours of sleep and sleep pattern is affected by my current health issues, so there’s no pattern at all to when I’m asleep or not.  It appears that almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is at least one person in our household being creative at any one time.   When I said this, our 17 year old agreed, although he does think we are probably lacking consistency in the 4am to 6am slot so we really need someone to take that slot for us to truly say we’re creative 24/7!

I put my head in the 17 year old’s door to say goodnight to him the other night.  He was facing his computer and had his noise cancelling headphones on.  He was editing the filming he’d done for the school show which had involved several different cameras filming at different angles over four night.  He had hours and hours of footage to edit.  When I spoke to him from the doorway he nodded his head.  I didn’t think he was nodding at me, I thought it was co-incidence, so I called to him again and he turned, surprised to see me there.  I laughed, and told him that the timing of his nodding was excellent.  An embarrassed look passed across his face. “No, I was nodding to myself because the transition between the two shots that I just made was really good!”  I could see he felt a bit foolish about this, but fresh from my thinking about my own creative success and the thrill it gave me, I told him that I could completely understand.  And then I told him the application I was making from my musings so that I could write this blog. (keep reading you’ll get there).  “I know exactly what you mean,” he said.  He completely understood “And it was good.”

I love the poetry in chapter one in the book of Genesis.  I love the creative feeling that underpins the words.  The words are so minimal, yet to me they convey and evoke the same sensations that I had when I looked at my completed spreadsheet.   The CEV uses the refrain, “And it was good.”  I love those words.  “And it was good.”  What other words can begin to explain that creative sense of satisfaction, that awareness of the combination of sheer creative brilliance and the hard work paying off with what has been made.  “And it was good” says everything and yet it is insufficient.  It is so understated, yet so punchy.  It says that words alone will not do justice to the situation.  To me “And it was good,” are the words of a creator, who is alone in their complex understanding of just what they’ve created.  To explain the detail is impossible, and would not be understood, to describe the feeling would take more words than have ever been invented, and so less is more, and rendered almost speechless the best way to describe the creative process and the result that has been achieved, is to say “And it was good.”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%201&version=CEV

As an aside, I probably need to say I’m amazed that anyone today would take the book of Genesis as some kind of scientific textbook understanding of how God created the world.  My blog isn’t about the arguments of creation vs evolution or to debate whether the bible is at odds with science or whether the world was indeed created in seven days.  Let me just say that I do not accept the bible as providing a scientific explanation.  This blog is about how when we are involved in our own creative processes and projects, we sometimes catch a glimpse of our Creator God in our own thrill at our creations.

It doesn’t always happen, this glimpse of the ‘and it was good’ sensation.  I am always creating things, but I don’t always get that same thrill.  I can be satisfied and pleased with my creative result without experiencing the, ‘and it was good’, glimpse of God.  It doesn’t take anything away from what I’ve created, but it does mean when I do get that rare glimpse, that satisfying thrill,  it is all the more special.

When I am saying creativity I am including two broad kinds of creating.  The completely original creation, coming out of someone’s head or the creation of something following a set of instructions or a pattern.   I always have several creative projects on the go of both types.  Some of my projects are original to me, I’m making them up as I go, like my half-finished manuscripts, an autumn quilt I’m hand sewing or a painting of Banks Peninsula which I’m doing for our dining room wall.  Other projects are still creative as in I am creating something, but it follows a pattern, a set of instructions or I’m replicating something I’ve picked up on Pinterest or something.  I’m not the person who created the idea, such as the incomplete knitting projects I have on the go.  Someone else designed the pattern and I’m following it, however, when I finally finish the baby cardigan which I started six years ago when my grandson was a baby it will still be one of a kind.  The variables of colour and type of wool I’ve chosen and my knitting tension will mark it out, then add to that the stitches I’ve dropped, the extra rows I added to the bands will still make it a one-off creation, even if the base design is not original to me.  But it will be unique.  It will still be a one of a kind, a bespoke, creation.

I do not know if people who aren’t creative ever get the ‘And it was good’ thrill.  I’ve grown up in a creative family as a child and my own family household today is creative.  Creativity is around me.  It is in the air that I breathe.  I can’t see the world in any other way.  Everything I view is through creative eyes.  I think that is why I love the beach so much, why I love to go for walks just after it has rained, why growing and picking strawberries is so much more fulfilling than buying them in a punnet, why my favourite Avenues church service of the year, is in the semi-darkness of an olive grove, remembering Jesus’ final hours with his disciples before he died, why being under Niagara falls as a tourist shoulder to shoulder with other tourists was a spiritual moment, why I love caring for people, why I am restless and frustrated if I can’t be making something with my hands.   I see the world through creative eyes.  I live in it creatively.

The other day at work, one of our site managers came in to the office at the end of the day.  On the wall next to my desk was a series of photos from a project where he’d been site manager.  He was looking at a photo that showed some a building with concrete panelling, and he said to me, “That’s a beautiful panel.”  I recognised in his voice the thrill of the creator.  He’d site cast the panel.  He’d been there every step of the way and he knew ‘that it was good.’   When the building is finished and inhabited with offices and shops, when the signage is in place and people are using it for its intended function, I do not think there will ever be another person in the whole world who would look at that project and say with a thrill in their voice, “That’s a beautiful concrete panel.”   For years to come people will talk about the building because of the food they ate at the restaurant, or the haircut they had, the accountant they visited in his office,  some might talk about the actual building and appreciate the complex design, the workmanship, the materials used or the colours the building has been painted.    But those involved creatively in the process will see beyond these things.  They will feel that remembered thrill of creativity.

What a privilege it is to catch a glimpse of our Creator God, to work together with our God to create a better world, to see and feel for a brief moment, the thrill of ‘And it was Good’.  What love we feel for our own creations, how we can understand albeit briefly and in a small way, God’s love for his creation.

God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die.  John 3:16Contemporary English Version (CEV)

(Photo credit:  A sunbeam taken on a trip north of Auckland, enjoying God’s creation)