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 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.


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.

Prayer Stations at Kohekohe Church

Our first Refreshment at the Station book has just been published so I thought it timely to reflect on our recent Church event on Sunday with our Avenues Church.  We just held our annual Avenues Prayer and Pizza event at this beautiful little historic church on Awhitu Peninsula in Auckland.  It’s an idyllic setting and one of a handful of times our Church family meets in a church building during the year. It’s also one of the very few times we have a front for our meeting!  Our prayer event includes some responsive prayers led from the front and then a dozen stations that participants can move around at their leisure, followed with a guitar prayer and some final responsive prayers.

It is fascinating how everyone approaches the stations differently.  We provide plenty of room for people to make their own choices… and if taking part in the stations isn’t someone’s cup of tea there is an alternative reflection provided – with an amazing view to look out upon to aid in the reflection.

There are those that breeze through the stations quickly and others who only manage to fit in a third of the stations in the time provided.  Some of our regulars are very ‘Station Savvy’ and explore in great detail faith questions at each station, while at this event we also had some newcomers who hadn’t experienced Station worship before and enjoyed the different way of coming to worship. As usual there was a mixture of engagement and time spent at different stations.

It’s been ages since Andrew and I have gone around Stations together.  When our kids were little, it was one child each, or if there were visitors we’d usually split to make sure everyone was comfortable.  These days visitors are scooped up by our regulars and so on this Sunday we went around together.   Another thing which always surprises me about stations is my own reaction to them.  By the time I’ve planned the service, written the stations, gathered the bits and pieces… it is delightful to me that i still discover new things when I move around the stations.  Perhaps it’s the opportunity to interact with others, or the time and space to pause and reflect… whatever it is – it’s powerful and moving and very faith refreshing!   The whole idea of refreshment at the station really rang true for me this last Sunday!

Of course the senses were fully engaged at this event!  I’m a bit of a foodie too – and the additional part of the day with pizzas cooked on an outdoor pizza oven further down the peninsula at Graham’s Beach really made it all very special, refreshing, relaxing and invigorating.

There is a book coming of course on Five Senses to Prayer.  It’s been about 10 years in the writing!  I just need to get organised and get into some serious organising of all the material!

The great thing about writing this kind of book as an e-book is that it will be filled with cross referenced hyperlinks – so you can navigate around it to find prayers that suit your worship event.   To be amongst the first to hear about it make sure you join our Kereru Club and/or like us on www.facebook.com/Kereru.Publishing

To see more photos of our Prayer and Pizza event you can find them on the Avenues facebook page www.facebook.com/AvenuesChurch and the Avenues website www.avenues.org.nz has some older photos from previous events too.

In the Beginning

After experimenting with creative and all age worship in a variety of one-off worship events, in 2001 we had the opportunity to create a different style of worship service as a regular event.  One of the startling discoveries we made way back at the beginning of Avenues has stayed with us as we’ve journeyed.  That’s the beauty of experimenting… sometimes you stumble on something that really works and it surprises and delights.

What we found in catering for children and using tactile experiences and open-ended questions, was that as well as catering for children we provided opportunities for adults to grow and develop in their own faith journeys.   The use of Stations was an early introduction in our journey.  We use them in a variety of ways. Stations allow all participants to take part in a non-threatening way and be as little or as much involved as they’d like.  The relaxed environment allows room for exploration and discovery at the pace the participant wants or needs or can cope with.  They arrive at the Station with whatever baggage they’re carrying and hopefully leave refreshed and reinvigorated in their faith journey.

We’re launching our ‘Refreshment at the Station’ series with ‘Stations for Lent and Easter’.   What better season than the highlight of the Christian calendar to choose for our first book in this series.  There are plenty of different ideas in this book to inspire and use in a variety of settings.  We’re really delighted to be able to share these resources with others.