This is the last in a three-part series of Lenten articles written by Linda Woodson Stout, a graduate of the Iowa School for Lay Ministry, class of 2006. Click here to read the first article. Please click here for the second article.
I wonder if it is possible that when my ancestors first heard Matthew’s sixth chapter read aloud, fearing their own public prayers would be unacceptable, filled with “empty phrases,” seeking the attention of others, they became genetically altered to instinctively avoid praying publically. As widespread and basic as prayer is within churches, many people do not feel comfortable praying, especially aloud in a group. During my first year of School for Lay Ministry studies, I began to notice how often when a church meeting or function was held, people asked the available pastor to lead the group in prayer. Our SLM leadership studies were showing us how much potential is available to laity. I began to wonder “why can’t laity learn to pray for themselves?” as well as our prayer responsibilities as Christians. I reviewed my School for Lay Ministry curriculum and when I found no session specifically devoted to prayer, I assigned myself an independent study on prayer. As with many topics I studied in School for Lay Ministry, I came away with as many new questions as answers. My exploration of prayer and prayer practices has taken me on a fascinating journey that continues to amaze and delight me.
Developing a meaningful prayer life has often frustrated me. I need to constantly remind myself that God welcomes all genuine attempts at prayer, regardless of their form or eloquence. While on the one hand prayer seems as simple as “talking to God,” its process may not be naturally obvious. Talking to God also implies listening to God. Hearing God, for me, has been fraught with uncertainty.
I like silent prayer. Silent prayer does not rely on fully formed, articulate paragraphs, detailed data on those for whom we pray, nor specific time frames. I can offer praise for the beauty of nature around me, bless unknown people I encounter during my day, and pray whenever I think to do so. While seemingly the easiest prayer type, which can even be done invisibly in most situations, silent prayer offers its own challenges. Whether I begin by reading a written prayer, a memorized prayer, or using my own spontaneous words, my thoughts tumble along, taking numerous, non-prayerful sidetracks. I sometimes catch myself realizing that my intention began with prayer rather than composing a detailed to-do list.
Spoken prayer is merely taking silent prayer beyond our internal selves. Talking aloud to one person or a group also expands our audience beyond ourselves. Praying aloud may intimidate us even more because of the significant importance and seriousness we attach to prayer. I become much more conscious about using clear enunciation, good grammar, and understandable meaning. I am embarrassed by the number of times I have been asked to offer grace for a community meal and have forgotten to bless the food! Sometimes I experience a run of words that meander all around the purpose at hand and struggle to bring these thoughts coherently to an “amen.”
Writing during prayer allows me to process my thoughts and invite God’s “response.” Keeping a prayer journal helps revisit prayer topics that still require attention as well as track “answered” prayers.
Physical movements during prayer help many of us express thoughts beyond words and remain focused. Walking labyrinths offer a moving meditation for prayer. Hand and arm movements combined with postures help us pray comfortably. Dancing a prayer to a favorite piece of music, whether fast and lively or slow and soothing, may release tension. Handheld prayer beads and labyrinths combine movement with focus. Even online labyrinths offer a physical element to prayer.
Drawing during prayer offers a meditative element that has roots in the mandala designs. Freeform lines and shapes, or words of quotations, encouragement, or people in our thoughts can all be incorporated into drawings. A drawing prayer journal reminds us to repeat prayers for others and our own projects. Prayer drawings have become my most consistent prayer form.
Any of the prayer forms listed can be performed alone in a private moment, with God our only listener. Matthew 6:6 encourages us to pray in secret.
The call for group prayer may stem from Matthew 18:19-20, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Benefits abound from group prayer, including focus on purpose, support during challenges, and establishing a sense of community.
Prayer practiced as a meaningful ritual will impact our spiritual lives with further transformation and growth. Any prayer form that encourages us to pray is a good place to begin. The example in Matthew chapter six demonstrates there can be wrong attitudes in prayer. However, I haven’t found that there is a wrong form to pray.
Praise – express awe, wonder, and admiration regarding God’s nature, grace, and love.
Gratitude – express gratitude in all situations (not necessarily for everything). At our most joyous moments we overflow with thanks and at our lowest moments we can be thankful for God’s presence in these challenges.
Blessings and Forgiveness – Prayer should engage our relationships, our interactions with people in our daily lives, and our connection to people throughout the world, whether we know them by name, whether we are in harmony or in repeated conflict. Jesus implored us to pray even for our enemies.
Confession – If you can’t be honest with yourself in a private conversation with God, when can you reveal your true self? However, this is not a place to dwell, wallow, or otherwise succumb to self-importance. Once you understand that a past action or attitude was insufficient, the focus should shift to positive change for the future. Constantly reminding yourself of a past error will hinder your growth. If your actions impacted people’s lives and there is a way to make amends, work towards this. If there is no obvious opportunity because the person is unknown or no longer a part of your life, look for ways to make a positive difference in the lives of others in similar situations. Many people report it is more difficult to forgive themselves than to ask God for forgiveness. Remember that God is interested in spiritual growth.
Guidance – Being open to spiritual guidance allows us to become transformed spiritual beings who are not defined by our past experiences and practices. Requesting guidance and accepting those impulses can lead us to unexpectedly satisfying experiences and creative solutions.
Intercession – When praying for others, especially those close to us, it is sometimes challenging to step back from what we want to happen. As much as possible focus on the other person and ask for the best possible outcome, including healing and blessings for all parties. Our creative God may have something better in store for us even while we are focused on the moment’s disappointment.
Offering – Finding ways to put our individual resources to God’s use is often challenging, whether we’re discussing finances, time, or personal energy. Exodus 34:10 assures us we are in partnership with God. I believe asking God to “show me what can be done with this” is a respectful invitation, regardless of the situation or resource considered. In Spiritual Economics, author Eric Butterworth points out that God can do no more for us than God can do through us.¹ We must strive to make ourselves available to the full potential of partnership with God.
Written sources – Beyond the scriptures God has provided an abundance of written prayers to console and comfort us, to challenge and prod us in new directions, and often to express what we have been unable to express ourselves. The United Methodist Hymnal offers over 90 prayers from a variety of traditions. In the indices in the back of the hymnal, italic type is used to indicate poetry and prayer titles. The United Methodist Book of Worship includes a fabulous section of selected prayers.
Formulas – Many people find using mnemonic formulas useful to focus their thoughts and words during prayer. ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), among the shortest forms, offers a good beginning point that supplies a lifetime of meaningful service. Thanksgiving, petition, intercession, praise, and offering (TPIPO) provides a well-rounded exercise of expression.
Examen – The practice of the examen is deceptively simple with the potential to be powerfully transforming. In asking two questions, we can become aware of our growth and our continued need. The questions can be tailored to fit our circumstances.
Linn’s Sleeping with Bread (see the resource list) treats the examen so creatively that it can be used with children, teens, or adults in any life situation.
Lectio divina – Lectio divina, an ancient practice of “divine reading,” helps us immerse ourselves in scripture. Applying these four steps to a selected scripture passage opens us to deeper insights.
Whatever words we chose for our prayers, it is useful to remind ourselves that to invoke God’s presence connotes both asking and also accepting authority. We need to prepare our hearts and minds for transformation.
Beginning, middle, and end – There are no limits on potential times to pray. Many people begin their day with an opening of prayer that is not closed until the conclusion of that day. At a minimum I try to practice prayer at the beginning, sometime during the middle, and at the end of my activity – projects, work assignments, or decisions, as well as time periods such as days, weeks, or years.
Morning and/or evening – Most of the comments I hear are that prayer works best when time is set aside for it to begin the day. This regular prayer practice often sets the tone and brings the day’s activities into alignment. Evening prayer, especially bedtime prayer, can be a very soothing and satisfying way to conclude our day. Sometimes fatigue prevents us from completing our full prayer routine. Even the disciples struggled with staying awake for late evening prayers in Matthew 26:36-46.
Intermittent stimulus – Some people remember to pray while stopped for traffic signals, whenever they hear emergency sirens, or when they hear a regular sound during their daily activities. When I want to remember to repeatedly pray for someone, I use their name in my computer password. The reminder prompts me to pray for them several times a day.
Quarterly or annual review – Whether we have an active daily prayer practice or if we struggle with such a practice, it is still beneficial to set aside specific personal prayer time on a less frequent basis. Using the examen as a quarterly or annual review may give us the perspective of the broad overview of guidance or direction that may not be as obvious enmeshed with the daily details.
During stressful moments – During times of crisis we turn to ritual to guide us while our minds wrestle with the impact of events, when we can’t “think” of what to do. As pointed out in Leslie D. Weatherhead’s classic, The Will of God2, to be effective, the anchor must already be on board to be put into useful service during a storm. Prayer during times of stress will be more beneficial when we have practiced prayer during our more routine times.
If prayer can be understood as “talking” to God on some level, there should also be an inherent component of “listening” to God. The success of listening to God seems to be in identifying and formulating an individual practice that facilitates tuning in to God’s presence. While scripture is studded with accounts of stunning, light-filled insights, dreams with specific actions directed, and sudden interventions, the reality of ongoing prayer life is more akin to seeking the “still, small voice” of God’s guidance. Practices of reflection range widely to suit the circumstances and the individual. Quiet meditation can alternate with journaling or drawing.
I truly believe God broadcasts on all frequencies and our responsibility is to tune in. Yet there is no easy, step-by-step instruction for achieving discernment, confidently identifying the exact will of God in specific instances. Are obstacles to a goal interpreted as challenges to be overcome or guidance to seek a different path or even goal? In my own experience, identifying the right path in any given circumstances has varied greatly. The tools I typically use are:
Whatever methods employed, the result is often a sense of well-being, peace and right purpose.
Perhaps “listening” to God requires quiet time with stilled thoughts. Meditation can be improved with practice, yet many people struggle with sitting still and keeping their mind from wandering with seemingly counterproductive thoughts. Many find the physical use of prayer beads, drawing and following a labyrinth very helpful in keeping focus. Often giving our body a repetitive physical action frees our mind to deeper thinking. I repeatedly identify solutions to challenges large and small during my exercise routine. Julia Cameron’s Answered Prayers – Love Letters from the Divine provides a wonderful source for exploring what personal responses from God could be and learning to recognize them in your daily journey.
Linda Woodson Stout
Iowa School for Lay Ministry - Class of 2006
There are many excellent resources on prayer and the resources I have chosen to highlight are not intended to be an exhaustive list. These are starting points for exploration. The variety presented is an attempt to provide many styles to offer both comfort and challenge.
Sleeping with Bread – Holding What Gives You Life by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn (1995) Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-3579-5
Praying in Color – Drawing a New Path to God by Sylvia MacBeth (2007) Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press. ISBN 978-1-55725-512-9
Zentangle®– The Zentangle® art form and method was created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas. Zentangle® is a registered trademark of Zentangle, Inc. You can learn much more at www.zentangle.com and from taking a class with a Certified Zentangle Teacher (CZT).
Prayer for People Who Can’t Sit Still by Wiliam Tenny-Brittian (2005) St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.
A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Rueben Job (2003) Nashville: Upper Room books ISBN 0-8358-0999-4
Illuminata – Thoughts, Prayers, Rites of Passage by Marianne Williamson (1994) New York:
Answered Prayers – Love Letters from the Divine by Julia Cameron (2004) New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. ISBN I-58542-35I-3
¹ Butterworth, Eric (1989). Spiritual Economics – the prosperity process. Unity Village, MO: Unity School of Christianity, p. 100.
2 p.10, The Will of God, Leslie D. Weatherhead. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. © 1944 by Whitmore & Stone, copyright renewal © 1972 by Abingdon Pres.