Miranda Threlfall-Holmes suggests three creative prayer experiments to try
Do you feel like a prayer expert? No, me neither. Luckily, God doesn’t call us to be prayer experts; “just practising” is good enough.
I’ve long believed that becoming a Christian isn’t something you can learn about purely on an academic level. Don’t get me wrong, I loved academia – I was converted at Cambridge University, and then became a historian – and I loved learning about theology. But Christianity isn’t just something you can learn about; it’s something you have to experience from the inside.
I didn’t become a Christian by reading about Christianity. I became a Christian because I was desperate
for God’s help even when I was an atheist. I prayed and experienced God’s presence. Then I read everything I could get my hands on to try to make sense of this strange experience!
It has always seemed to me that the way to encounter God and to find out about prayer is by giving it a try: “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, as the Bible puts it (Psalm 34:8). I believe that the living God always wants to encounter us and is just waiting for us to make a move – however small – in his direction.
It was with this in mind that I entered a Christian bookshop. I was looking for a gift for two of the young people in our church who were getting confirmed. There were plenty of books of prayers to share with babies and toddlers. There were also many books about “what every Christian should know”, designed for confirmation candidates, and a pretty wide selection of Bibles. There were even Celtic spirituality books for adults. But I found nothing on different ways to pray, or how a newly confirmed person can take their prayer life seriously. Neither was there anything that encouraged people to experiment with different types of prayer and see what might suit them as individuals. There was certainly nothing that even suggested that there might be ways of praying that wouldn’t suit them.
So, unable to find the book we wanted, my teenage son Noah and I ended up writing a blog, in which my son – and then other members of our church youth group, and then people from all over the country – began experimenting with different types of prayer and sharing their experiences. As a result, The Teenage Prayer Experiment Notebook (SPCK), and the adult version, The Little Book of Prayer Experiments (SPCK) were born.
The word ‘experiment’ is important. These are not books telling you how to pray properly. Think of them, perhaps, in a similar way to a recipe book: full of ideas to try, to put your own spin on, to taste and decide that you would prefer it like this. Don’t just read these ideas; there’s nothing to be gained by that. You’ve got to try them out!
COLOURING THE BIBLE
One of the oldest forms of Christian prayer is reading the Bible. That might not sound much like prayer if you’re more used to thinking of the Bible as something you read for information or instruction. But reading the Bible prayerfully is a very important strand of the Christian spiritual tradition.
One way to use the Bible in prayer is to focus on a short passage, staying with it for quite a long time. Sometimes people say that when they read a Bible passage once, or even twice, it just stays as words on a page. But when you’ve read it three, four or five times, suddenly something about it might jump out at you. This is what people mean when they say the Bible has ‘spoken’ to them.
Mindfulness colouring books have become a publishing phenomenon in recent years. Millions of people have found that there is something relaxing, calming and meditative about spending a long period of time concentrating on something beautiful. There is an increasing choice of Bible colouring books around, but why not try making your own?
Choose a short passage from the Bible. Take a sheet of paper (A4 is fine, A3 is even better) and fill it with the words. Try to think not so much about writing it out but of drawing each letter or word. Enjoy deciding the best way to lay the words out on the page and what style of writing fits it best. If you want to, illustrate it with doodles. Make the writing hollow (like bubble writing), so that you can first draw the outlines of the words and then colour them in. Use the whole page and decorate every centimetre. Make the words the stars of the show. Alternatively, you could combine the process of writing out the Bible passage with a design from a mindfulness colouring book by adding the words of the passage to the design.
Approach this activity deliberately as a prayer, not just as a decorative activity, and expect the words to become part of you and speak to you.
We often feel overwhelmed and confused by how much there is to pray for, and sometimes we don’t know what is needed. This can be especially tricky when we want to pray for a specific area: perhaps the area in which we live, or where our church is, or somewhere that has had a lot of problems recently. We won’t know who all the people we’re praying for are and the problems in the area may be very complicated.
Christianity isn't just something you can learn about; it's something you have to experience from the inside
Prayer walking is a great way to pray for a particular area when you don’t know exactly what the people who live there need, or even who they are. It combines two ancient traditions of prayer: intercession and pilgrimage.
In prayer walking, we aren’t just saying prayers, we are physically expressing our care for the place we are praying for. We are putting ourselves to some effort, not just sitting comfortably at home. And the action of walking occupies part of our conscious mind so that prayer can flow more freely without us worrying too much about the exact words we use.
So go for a walk!
As you walk, pray – not out loud, just in your head – for the places you pass. You might ask God to bless the people who live in the houses you walk past. If you pass a school or offices, you could pray for the people who work or study there. A particular business might inspire specific things to pray for. For example, passing a supermarket might spark off a thought about fair trade, or struggling farmers, or those who can’t afford food. A newsagent might make you think about people in the news. A florist might remind you to pray for people who will be buying flowers that week to celebrate or to mourn. Just let thoughts arise in your mind, and when you notice that you’re thinking about something, turn that thought into a prayer.
As you return home, ask God to bless the whole area and to show you how you can be a blessing to it. You might like to end by praying for your own home as you enter it.
TIPS ON PRAYING WITH CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
Keep it short. It’s better for them to be left hungry for more than thinking about how much the time dragged.
Mix it up. Avoid just doing intercessions. Include times of praise, thanksgiving and contemplation, and prayerful meditation on Bible passages…but not all at once! Pick one or two for each time you pray together or write on a dice and let them roll it to decide the type of prayer or the topic.
Model different types of prayer in what they see you do – on your own or in church – not just in what you put on especially for the kids.
Be honest about your own failures in prayer: the times you meant to pray but didn’t, the times God just didn’t seem to answer and the times you got bored.
Ask them what they heard from God or what they experienced during the prayer time, and listen respectfully to what they have to say.
Be prepared to learn from your children and young people. Why not ask them how they think you could pray better and then try whatever they suggest?
In prayer walking, we aren’t just saying prayers, we are physically expressing our care for the place we are praying for
JAR OF THANKSGIVING
“Say thank you!” we hiss at our children when they are given sweets by a doting aunt. Saying “please” and “thank you” is a basic element of the politeness that is hammered into us from childhood.
But strangely enough, having learned to be polite can be a problem when it comes to prayers of thankfulness. We don’t say thank you to God for quite the same reasons as we thank other people. We don’t say thank you to God just to be polite or to make God feel better. We say thank you to God mainly because of what doing so does to us. Saying thank you means we are doing two important things: choosing to look at the good things in our lives with gratitude rather than only focusing on the things that aren’t right; and acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.
But our prayers of thanks can become quite repetitive and boring. People often find that when it comes to saying thank you their minds go blank! Or we repeat ourselves, saying thank you to God for the same obvious things every time we pray.
Try making a Jar of Thankfulness. Get a clean, empty jar (a jam jar with the label removed would work well).
Cut some paper into strips. Coloured paper is good if you’re using a glass jar. On each piece of paper, write one thing you are thankful for and add each piece of paper to the jar. Keep a spare supply of paper strips next to the jar, and whenever you think of something new to say thanks for, add it.
Keep your jar somewhere you will see it regularly: perhaps on your windowsill or bedside table, or in a prayer corner. When you sit down to pray, take out a handful of the contents at random and say thank you for those, adding to the jar any new ones you have thought of that day. Doing this will mean you keep some variety in your prayers, while also slowly building up a collection of more and more things to be thankful for.
MIRANDA THRELFALL-HOLMES is an Anglican vicar and the author of The Teenage Prayer Experiment Notebook and The Little Book of Prayer Experiments (reviewed on page 67)