Developing our prayer lives
Recently, I walked down into our village to visit our local café. Living in the Peak District of Derbyshire, I was not surprised to encounter a party of teenagers, fervently studying a map of the area, and falling out amongst themselves about which direction to take. I offered to help, and was soon giving an impromptu map reading lesson.
They knew the map symbols and had located their position from road signs and a satnav app on a smart-phone. To my alarm, they intended to go up Kinder Scout, our local mountain, where signals are weak and unreliable. One of them had a compass but little idea how to use it. So I showed them how to orientate the map, using the compass and then to interpret it using its symbols to locate landmarks and set a course to follow. Finally, I talked them through a safe route up.
They all returned safely later that day, but I suspect had little idea of the dangers they could have been be in.
Reflecting on this experience, I was reminded of advice I was once given about prayer and discipleship - understood as finding my way through life with God as my companion. I was advised to think of the Bible as a map, learn its symbolism and use it to identify landmarks in my life and to plot a course to find safe routes through. In short, I needed to learn how to orientate it to the landscape of my life. That is, I needed a spiritual compass to work with my Bible. I discovered that my prayers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can act as that compass.
In the particular evangelical fellowship to which I belonged, Bible study – was indeed just that i.e. “study” ,and prayers were largely verbal praising and pleadings. I am profoundly grateful for all that fellowship gave me and I recognise that this was considerable, but am left wondering about how my discipleship might have developed if I had not previously developed study skills, and was not reasonably articulate.
What was needed was both advice about, and practise in, the day to day, moment to moment, listening to and communicating with God, This is not to decry study for that is needed too, preferably before we get into a difficult situation. Faced with a young girl contemplating an abortion, for instance, is no time to embark on a series of studies to try to find what advice, if any, to give. For some purposes, we really do need to address issues in advance. But study has limitations.
What I had to learn was how to use silence and imagination in my prayer life, in a reflective, meditative contemplative sort of way. I suspect that there are many other Christians who need need help to do this, and as the Methodist Church becomes a discipleship movement then we need to seek to grow in our prayer life. One way of doing this is to re-examine and, in some cases rediscover, the many different ways of praying that have come down to us through the centuries, and to try them out in our daily lives.
This involved, in my case, to learn to trust my imagination and use it in a disciplined and prayerful way. I was greatly helped in this by the realisation that it was only through imagination that we have “Pilgrims Progress” , “The Shack” and Screwtape's letters. But most of all, I found myself constantly reminded by the scriptures that our Lord was constantly story telling and inviting us, to be inspired by the characters and their actions by imagining ourselves into the situations described in the stories.
I was particularly moved by Jesus words in Matthew 6:28 “Consider the lilies of the field...” where he is inviting us to imaginatively observe its beauty, and the carefree way in which it grows - and to learn from what we see and apply it to our lives.
From here I used other objects to start my imagining off, usually guided by relevant verses or passages. Here are a few of them.
- A lighted candle. - John 8:12, Matthew 5:14, Job 18:18
- Water – Psalm 1:3, Psalm 42:1, John 2:9, John 4;13, Rev 21:6
- A stone. Gen 31:16, 1 Sam 17:40, Is 60:17, Hos 10:2, Matt 4:3, Luke 19.40.
- A Wine.
I invite you to do the same and introduce this kind of practise to your fellowship or home group if it is not already there. Take your time. Stimulate imagination through questions such as- What words come to mind to describe these objects? How are they used? How will they change with time? What thoughts come to mind as we consider passages of scripture in which they appear?
This may seem like a shallow, word association game, and indeed I felt very silly and sceptical at first . But I began to see it as more than that. It was an invitation to the Lord to enter into my life in a different kind of way. For the first objects above I have indicated a few verses, which may be of help. A concordance or online searchable Bible will help with the rest, if needed.
Follow the thoughts, and see where they lead, and don’t expect too much at first. Then think of other things to try – but not too many at once. I find one at a time with along gaps between them works best for me. There are, of course many other ways of using imagination in prayer, but this kind of practise is a good starter.