Experiential Sensory Prayer – Part 4 – An experiential walk through John’s Gospel

The gospels tell the story of God’s son eating, drinking, walking, washing, socialising, crying, sleeping, laughing and living a human life. We read about a Jesus who can relate to our everyday experiences but at the same time we read about a Jesus who is no ordinary person. Reading the gospels is not a flat two dimensional collection of words. Instead it is a life and death and resurrection story which points the way to our own journeying story. It’s an experiential story and when we experience it, it changes our world.  Words are not enough for us to use in response to such a story.

This is the greatest story ever told and it requires a reaction from us. When we read it, focusing on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of this story, we are left with some of the sensory impressions that might have been experienced by those who were witnesses at the time. It’s more than a historical story. It’s a story that gives life for us today as we journey. If it’s our journey story too, then we have to pay more than lip service to the story. It has to be a whole-of-ourselves experience. Of course we can’t really walk through a story, but we can read it as if we were reliving the experiential moments in the story by using our understanding of our own sensory experiences.  Take a multi-sensory walk through John’s gospel.

Read each chapter in John’s gospel, considering the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch included in the story. There are several aspects to focus on by reading it from a multi-sensory perspective.

Jesus uses senses to live his ordinary daily life

The gospel tells of God’s son as a human. There are ordinary parts to the gospel where we see Jesus’ actions in his life journey being very similar to our own. We read about him walking, talking, eating, drinking and sleeping. We read about Jesus the man and we experience the Jesus who has a sense of smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing just as we do in our ordinary daily lives.

Jesus uses senses to teach and tell stories

Whether in telling stories or trying to make a point to explain something, Jesus uses a lot of images and metaphors. It’s as if he knows the points themselves are too complex and remote to understand and we need a sensory experience to aid our understanding. We read Jesus’ words about being born again as “Only God’s Spirit gives new life. The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.” John 3:8 CEV

Jesus uses senses to perform his signs and miracles

The miracles performed by Jesus are very multi-sensory. The water turns into wine. How would you know if you didn’t taste it? The royal official’s son is healed. The effects of the fever that could be seen can now no longer be seen.  The invalid man lying beside the pool picks up his mat and walks away. After 38 years that is some activity!  Jesus feeds five thousand. Imagine eating enough bread and fish until you’re full and then watching the leftovers being piled up. You can almost taste the moment.

There is a storm on the lake and Jesus walks on water.  A storm uses all our senses… smell the stirred-up water spraying, see the effect of the wind on the waves, listen to the haunting echo of the wind and the waves crashing, taste the rain drops on your lips, feel your wet hair clinging to your face, the water droplets running down your neck and into your clothes and feel that chill that seems to go right through you to your bones when you’re cold and wet.  Suddenly all is still. The senses are shocked into silence. Jesus walks on water. This is surely a visual experience never to be forgotten.

Then there is the blind man who is healed when Jesus spits on mud and puts it on his eyes. This sign involves both sight and touch.  As for the rising of Lazarus from the dead – a bad smell experience is averted. 39 Then he told the people to roll the stone away. But Martha said, “Lord, you know that Lazarus has been dead four days, and there will be a bad smell.” John 11:39 CEV

Jesus uses senses with his “I am…’ statements

The seven ‘I am’ statements in John’s gospel create experiential images for us to understand Jesus. When Jesus uses these metaphors to describe himself he also gives us clues as to how we can understand the metaphor. For instance, if we eat the bread of life Jesus says we will never go hungry again. It’s a very ordinary, practical example of a sensory experience to explain an aspect of our spiritual journey.

I am the bread of life (6:35)

I am the light of the world (8:12)

I am the gate (10:7)

I am the good shepherd (10:11)

I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)

I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6)

I am the true vine (15:1)

Jesus uses senses in his final days & at his resurrection

The story of Jesus’ final days is overwhelmingly full of sensory experiences. The shouts of jubilation from a palm waving crowd, the ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, the meal shared with bread and wine, the lonely vigil amongst the olive trees, the sword that Simon Peter uses to cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest, the tying and binding of Jesus, the way Peter is cold and warms himself in front of a fire only to hear the cock crowing, the beating of Jesus, the wearing of a crown of thorns and a purple robe, the shouts of the crowd calling ‘Crucify him’, the nailing of Jesus to a cross, the gambling over his garments, the wine held out to him on a soaked sponge, the spear stuck into Jesus’ side, the spices that Nicodemus took to the tomb, the stone that is rolled away, the weeping Mary, the resurrection of Jesus, the locked room with the disciples, the way Thomas had to put his hand into Jesus’ side, the net that was full of fish, the breakfast on the beach with the disciples …  this is a story where those that were there must have had their senses filled; the tastes, the sounds, the sights, the smells and the touch.

This is the story of Jesus.

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 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.

25 Stockings to Christmas – Community Fundraiser

Fundraiser Design Sign UpSign up your group, church or organisation for the “25 Stockings to Christmas” fundraiser on offer this year.   Minimum order of 10 copies.  You sell the books at $6.50 each and keep $2 for each book sold.  The book retails at $7.25 each so your buyers also get a saving.  Prices are all in NZD.