Corporate Prayer

Prayer is the lifeblood of the church, and having discussed personal quiet times, it is worth thinking about corporate prayer – or prayer meetings. Sadly these can make the heart sink, at the thought of sitting in a cold, uncomfortable chair for 20 minutes in silence without 3 other people who are looking at their feet! However, there are many models of prayer that enable a group of people to pray in a way that is exciting, relevant, and powerful.

The nicknames of these models are not my own, they are how I have heard them referred to over the years.

I would say that the “ideal” prayer meeting blends together several of these different models, to keep things interesting, and would usually cover a variety of topics (even if there is a single theme for the meeting overall). An hour is a good starter – it sounds like a lot, but the time soon goes. You could run a schedule something like this:

  1. Welcome / Introduction (2 mins)
  2. Opening Worship (2 or 3 songs – 10 mins)
  3. Topic 1 – Introduction and Pray (6 mins)
  4. Topic 2 (6 mins)
  5. Worship Song (5 mins)
  6. Topic 3 (6 mins)
  7. Topic 4 (6 mins)
  8. Prayer Walk (10 mins)
  9. Worship Song (5 mins)
  10. Closing prayer (3 mins)
  11. Lord’s Prayer / Grace / Blessing (1 mins)

Topics can be specific items for your situation (Children’s work, local drug problems, upcoming mission event), bigger political issues (upcoming election, gay marriage), or global events/situations (e.g. Syria, persecuted Christians). It is good to have a mix of the global and local to help us remember we are part of a bigger body of believers.

I find that is always good to pray “for” something, rather than “against” it – so pray for peace and reconcilliation, rather than against war. Praying against has its place, particularly in the spiritual warfare domain, but we also want to foster an attitude of love and respect to those who are also made in God’s image.

Worship

Worship (by which I specifically mean singing worship songs to God) is a foundational part of prayer. Intercession and worship go very close together. Worship is a form of prayer, and if we are in tune with God’s spirit (which singing helps with), our praying is likely to be closer to his heart. I believe the first part in prayer is to seek God’s heart and agenda. I’m not sure how you can start interceding without first spending time focussing on and adoring God, although of course this doesn’t have to involve music – I just find it particularly helpful.

It is also worth mentioning that most of the songs we sing in church are extremely scriptural – in many cases entire passages set to music. The Word of God is an integral part of prayer, and singing it (or saying it, or reading it) can only be a good thing.

YWAM

Best suited to a larger group of people, the principle is to split into two halves – one half of the room pray out loud together for a specific issue, the other half worship, usually to an up-tempo and “spiritual warfare” type song (“There’s a burning in my heart”, “We want to see Jesus lifted high”, “Lord you are calling (let your kingdom come)”.

After a couple of verses, the two halves swap, and the half that was singing start praying out loud, and vice versa. It helps if each half has a “leader” they are following, so they know if they should be singing or praying! This can just be someone at the front, facing everyone else, or the meeting leader can always pray and physically change sides.

As with all corporate prayer, there should be guidance from the leader as to what the topic of prayer is. To some extent, if you are all going to pray for different things you may as well be praying alone, and we know from the bible there is power in Christians standing together and agreeing with one another. It is also helpful if the topic is fairly specific, so everyone knows what they are praying for.

Also out loud means out LOUD – while not necessarily shouting, it is awesome when everyone prayers in a raised voice. Of course it depends on the topic, and quiet speaking may be more appropriate, but generally the louder the better.

There are two particularly good things about this model – Firstly, and this is a practical reason, it’s great for people who may not be very comfortable praying out loud. With half the room (and the band) belting out a song, no-one (except God) can hear what you’re saying! Secondly, the music really helps to keep things moving – you know you’ve only got a minute or two to pray for the given topic then you really get on with it, and don’t have to stress about running out of things to pray.

A variation on this model is to intersperse singing and praying, so every sings (perhaps the chorus), and then everyone prays out loud (perhaps while the band plays through a verse).

Korean

Similar to the above, except this time everyone is just praying out loud together. Again this is better suited to a larger group, otherwise it’s easy to get a bit self-concious. That said, to be honest by the time there’s 5 or 6 of you, and everyone’s talking loudly, it becomes a blur and you can’t tell what anyone else is praying.

You probably only want a 5 minute slot maximum for this per topic, probably with some singing or silence thrown in between topics.

If you believe that the gift of tongues is still a gift for today (and I do), people who exercise this gift may find it easier to pour out their heart to God using words from their spirit rather than from their mind.

Silent Prayer

There is a strange power to a large run of people joining together in absolute silence to pray in their hearts, together. This model is best suited to repentence or sorrowful/awful situations, when words aren’t enough.

Prayer Walking

Some people find it really helpful to actually do something physical while praying. Getting up and walking about is a great way of keeping focussed and awake, and if you are praying for a particular neighbourhood, what better way then to so do walking around it?

This can either be inside your building (if it’s big enough) – either just wander around (e.g. praying for the activities that happen in each space, or groups that meet there), or have stations up with items, pictures, news clippings, stations of the cross, etc.

Prayer Tree/Stones/…

As a variation on the above, it can also be helpful to have some sort of craft activity associated with the prayer.

If you get hold of a small branch (that looks a bit like a tree), and “plant” it in a pot so it’s upright, then prayers can be written on “leaves” (leaf shapes cut out of paper), and attached to the branches of the tree. Alternatives are post-it notes on a board, ribbons tied a large cross, stones built into a cairn. The imagary is being used to paint a picture of how our individual prayers join together into a corporate whole, as well as providing an way to pray for those who like to do something a bit more tangible. Holy Communion is not a million miles away from this sor of prayer activity!

Another variation is a confessional exercise, where sins can be written on a piece of paper. The bits of paper are then burnt or shredded, as a sign of God’s forgiveness.

Hotseating

Slightly different form of prayer, and better suited to a small group setting.

Each person takes it in turn to sit (or stand) in the middle, while everyone else gathers around, ideally lays on hands, and prayers over the person in the middle. This often has prophetic elements to it, as people pray out loud and share any words or pictures they may feel are from God. Probably 5 minutes a person is plenty.

It’s worth considering having someone as a “scribe” too, to jot down the encourages and words each person receives, for their individual journals.

Football

Good for a youth group this one. The group sits in a circle, and the leader has a football (or cushion, or tennis ball, or …). The leader then throws the ball to a member of the group, who then prays a short prayer out loud, before throwing the ball on to someone else in the group.

If further guidance is needed, the “prayer on receipt” could be for

  • An issue the recipient is facing
  • General prayer for the sender
  • General prayer for the next recipient
  • A pre-determined topic

Psalms

The psalms are an amazing collection of prayers, adoration, lament, confession, repentence, and worship – and they lend themselves very well to being spoken (as you’d expect).

In particular, they can be spoken corporately as an antiphon. For example, one half of the group could say the odd verses, and the other the even. Or if there’s a natural response, like in Psalm 136, the split can be done in this way – maybe changing sides at each stanza. As with YWAM, it helps to have a designated “leader” for each half to follow.

The splits could be demographic too – so male/female, or young/old.

Out of the hat

Another smaller group one – everyone writes a prayer request on a slip of paper (anonymously or otherwise), and puts it in a “hat”. Each person then draws a slip out of that hat, and prays for that issue for a couple of minutes. Then the slips can back in, and everyone takes another.

The slips could also be pre-determined topics, or areas of ministry, or specific people, or even streets in the parish.

Finally…

The usual rules for prayer meetings apply – start on time and finish on time. Allow people to stay and pray/worship, but make it clear the meeting is over and everyone is free to go. It is always better to leave people wanting more – and however much they enjoyed it, if it over-runs then next time they will be more reticent about coming (“I really ebjoyed it, but it was a late night”).

Also try and end it well – saying the Lord’s Prayer together, or the Grace, or having a blessing, or even the Peace all bring the meeting to a natural conclusion.

Quiet times

If you attended a Christian Union (or equivalent) as a schoolchild or student, you will already be familiar with the concept – if not always the practice – of “Quiet Times”.

What is it?

For those who aren’t familiar, the “Quiet Time” is a (ideally) daily exercise of taking some time out, and spending it intentionally with God. It usually involves elements such as worship, bible reading, prayer, journalling, meditation, and so on. Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer (or compline) are very structured way of doing this, required of all Church of England clergy as a part of their Daily Office. Compline is a particularly gentle way to end the day.

Less structured approaches include sitting in the study with a bible and a notebook and a cup of coffee, perhaps with a worship CD.

How to do it

It’s very simple – all you need is a bible (and sometimes not even that), and a little bit of quiet.

A really good tip is to have a bit of paper and a pen, to jot down those really important (but oh so distracting) thoughts that do pop into your head. “Ooo – I must remember to put butter on the shopping list” – fine, write down “butter” on your bit of paper, and then forget about until after your quiet time.

So, for a 10 minute “unstructured” quiet time, you could try the following:

  • 1 minute in quiet settling down and clearing your mind. You could also use a worship song here.
  • 2 minutes reading a short passage. A gospel or psalm chunks are good choices.
  • 1 minute thinking about it – perhaps asking God if he wants to say anything, or just “being”
  • 3 minutes praying to God. A good model is ACTS:
    • A – Adoration. “God you’re great”
    • C – Confession. “God, I did this, and I’m sorry. please forgive me.”
    • T – Thanksgiving. “Thank you that I got on ok with a difficult colleague today”
    • S – Supplication. “Please help the situation in Syria”
  • 2 minutes writing down in your Journal anything that struck you about the passage, or particular prayers you prayed, or actions you need to take.
  • 1 minute saying a short prayer of thanks, and ending.

Obviously any of these elements can be extended. You may be able to spend 10 or 15 minutes in worship if you have a CD that you particularly like. Or if you are halfway up a mountain you may spend much longer in the “being” phase, enjoying God’s wonderful creation.

The Daily Office liturgies mentioned above are a far formal setting (although can be done in 10 or 15 minutes), and broadly have this structure:

  • Preparation
  • Word of God (set readings from Psalms, OT and NT)
  • Prayers (including set collect)
  • Conclusion

The advantage is that all the work is done for you, and the lectionary (set readings) cover the whole bible over time.

In between these two approaches are “daily devotionals”. These are typically booklets lasting between a month and a quarter that have a usually have a short reading, a reflection/commentary, and a prayer every day (usually dated, e.g. “1st March 2013″). There are also masses and masses of these (e.g. at Eden Christian bookshop), and you are more or less gauranteed to find a flavour that suits your palate. I can particularly recommend Topz for 7-11 year olds.

Finally, you might like to consider setting 12 months aside to read the Bible in a year. My Bible in a year has readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Psalms every day, and in chronological (as opposed to canonical) order.

If you have a dated resource, you should decide in advance what you will do if you miss a day. You may decide to read every entry (and hence get “behind” – it’s pointless trying to catch up by doing 2 a day), or you may decide to always do “today’s” entry (and hence sometimes miss entries). I would generally recommend the latter, as it gets very disheartening to always be 2 weeks behind!

Why do it?

There is an awful lot of guilt about this practice, especially in evangelical circles, where it can sometimes seem like if you spend less than an hour in your QT each day then you’re somehow a failure. However my experience is that even 5 or 10 minutes makes a tangible difference to my mental state, attitudes, and holiness.

To misquote a famous saying, if I miss one quiet time then I notice, two and my family notices, three and the whole world notices.

If we are seriously about being followers of Jesus, and being transformed into his likeness, then we kind of need to know what he looks like!

Confession

“If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” – 1 John 1:9

At Spring Harvest I was struck by something the speaker (Ness Wilson) said in the context of the above verse at the main Bible reading. She said that at her church they use this verse as a sort of general confession, but that there was a danger here that we would never confess specific sins, and therefore not really confess them at all. In her words (as I remember them), you can’t disown something until you’ve first owned it. We also can’t experience the freedom of being forgiven our sins until we have confessed them to God.

Without wanting to get into the whole area of confession, I think the protestant/reformed church has lost something important in its rejection of regular confession to the priest.

The truth is that sin is powerful and addictive. The truth is also that we don’t face up to our sin, look it square in the eye, and “own up”, we can’t truly repent and turn from it, and “disown” it. And it can feel very humiliating and painful to own up to our sins, but I believe this is the what the bible calls us to.

Ness Wilson has a particularly approach that I think sounds good, and obviously works well for her – which is in her daily devotion she writes down in her journal the specific sins she has committed as an act of confession. The times she has failed to be the human being God has made her to be, or fallen short of his image.

For instance (and these are my words):

“I have been short-tempered with the children today”
“I promised a friend I’d ring, but was too tired and busy to fit in the call”

By writing them down, we own up to them, admit to ourselves and God that we have not made the mark, and from that position we can confess them, and truly know the fogiveness and freedom of God’s grace. There’s no justification, or excuses. We just admit to ourselves and to God that we did bad (if you excuse the English!).

The only thing I would add is I would say that on-going, addicive or deep rooted sin needs a firmer hand. If, every day, we write “I looked at pornographic websites again last night” (or whatever), this needs dealing with. This needs confessing to another person who you trust and can meet with regularly – perhaps a church leader – who will hold you to account, suggest external sources of help, and if necessary remove you from public ministry while you seek healing. While we all are sinners, and will continue to be until glory, no Christian should be a slave to sin.

Progressive Psalm

Another activity that’s good for youth group, but also cell group meetings, is the progressive psalm. It requires no significant extra preparation, but is a nice act of corporate worship.

It’s a bit like the game “Consequences“, except that a poem of worship to God is built, instead of a silly story.

As with everything else on this site, this isn’t my idea, and I take no credit for it – it is an exercise I have taken part in that I found to be a source of blessing and enjoyment. I struggle to identify where I first came across it as well! The Fresh Expressions website has a good explanation, and a original credit.

Progressive Psalms

It works best in a group of at least 5-8 people – if there’s more than this is it’s probably worth doing it in two groups. Each person will need a pen.

I think it’s always worth explaining to the group how the activity works – what the purpose is, what the steps are along the way (in overview), and what the result is.

Hand each person a sheet of A4 paper. These need to be divided into 8 horizontal sections, starting at the top – one way to do this is to hold the paper in portrait, then fold it in half taking the top to the bottom, and repeat twice. When unfolded again, there will be 8 sections separated by the creases.

  1. In the top section, each person writes write a short sentence of praise to God, e.g “Lord, I want to praise you”
  2. The paper is then folded backwards along the crease, so that what was written can’t be seen, and the paper passed to the person to the left.
  3. On their new piece of paper, each person writes something about God starting with ‘because’, e.g. “because you are holy beyond measure”
    Fold and pass to the left again.
  4. Write something else about God’s character, begining with ‘and’, e.g “and you are worthy of all praise”. Fold and pass it on.
  5. Now write 2 things involving how wonderful God’s creation is. e.g. “Galaxies thousands of light years long are but a speck to you, you know the smallest ant by name” Fold and pass on.
  6. Next write something God does for you personally. e.g. “You fill me with your spirit.” Fold and pass.
  7. Last but one – write a personal message to Jesus with ‘because’ in the middle. e.g. “I thank you Jesus because you died for me”. Fold and pass.
  8. Finally, write a resolution – “therefore I give my life you every day.” Fold and pass last time

Now it’s the good bit – each person unfolds the bit of paper in front of them, and takes turns to read out loud their constructed psalm, while the rest of the groups listens, and hopefully worships and prays.

They can be collected at the end, and typed up to be e-mailed round the group, or individuals can just take them home.

Journalling

Journalling is, I think, one of the more misunderstood spiritual disciplines. There’s a sense that you have to be super spiritual to keep one, or write 5 sides of A4 a day. Certainly if you were to read the journals of spiritual “heavyweights”, it could be quite a daunting and demoralising experience.

It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece though, and the simple act of writing down your thoughts, and occasionally going back to reflect on them is extremely valuable, as well as being an interesting and enjoyable exercise. The first rule is to ditch the guilt. It doesn’t matter if you do it three times a day, once a week, or once a year at Easter (or whatever). That said, the more you use it, the more valuable it is, and I’d suggest that less than once a year is probably too infrequent to make it worthwhile. Of course life ebbs and flows, I’ve certainly gone for more than a year between entries once or twice over the 16 years I’ve been keeping one.

So what is a journal? Well, I would describe it as record of thoughts and feelings, particuarly of a spiritual nature. I also include significant events in my journal, as I believe we are holistic beings, and occurances like getting married, having a child, losing a parent, changing jobs, moving house, taking on or dropping responsibilities, and so on will affect us spiritually as well as emotionally and physically.

Personally, I use a filofax (I’m actually on my second now), because I find it useful to be able to write entries on loose-leaf filofax paper and insert them later if I’m away without my journal. Many people use a hardback notebook that’s solely for that purpose. Whatever you choose, it should be a book that is special in some way, and only used for journalling – it needs to hold up to decades of use. At its best, it’s an extremely personal, intimate, cherished thing, and a dog-eared A4 refill pad is unlikely to be helpful to the process!! I would encourage you not to use a computer in this instance – the enforced slowness and personalisation (and permanence) of hand-writing is valuable. You should use a pen that is, at the very least, comfortable and writes well (I don’t actually use a fountain pen, by the way.)

You should find a way that’s most the helpful the easiest for you to actually do. Here’s how I write mine; Firstly, I find a quiet spot, ideally with a cup of coffee. I open up to a new page, and write the date, and usually some form of heading. My headings are often where I physically am at that point in time (e.g. “Willersely Castle”) – although this is more a reflection of the fact I tend to write it more when I’m out and about than when I’m at home! They can also be an indication of whatever has prompted me to write an entry.

I then just write as little or as much as I feel like, or have time for. I have entries that are literally one or two words – often a picture or word that someone has had for me. Other times I will write at length about what’s going on with me – things that are great, things that aren’t so good, things that I’m confused about and trying to work out. I often find little thoughts pop in to my head about things I’d been intending to journal, but hadn’t got around to (e.g. “That reminds me – a few weeks ago in Church, there was a sermon all about that, and I’d never really thought before how Jesus did so and so and his disciples reacted by doing this and that!”).

I also usually try and intentionally finish an entry – even if it’s as simple as “That’s all for now.” Otherwise it can feel a bit disconcerting when you come back to reading them in the future, and an entry stops what feels like halfway through.

If you exercise spritual disciplines like Lectio Divino or the Awareness Examen, journalling is the ideal medium to make a note of it. Similarly if you worship in a more charistmatic/prophectic tradition, words and pictures should absolutely go in the journal.

In case it isn’t already clear, you should read it back to yourself from time to time! Maybe not the whole thing cover to cover, although I try and do this once a year – and of course when you’ve just started journalling it doesn’t take long to read it all back. I also find that when I’m writing an entry I will sometimes want to refer back to something I’ve written on the subject previously.

Finally, don’t let anyone else read it. By all means read passages out to someone if it’s appropriate – say a mentor or prayer partner – and perhaps even let them view a specific entry. But in general it has to be sacrosant and private, a place where you can write down the deepest and darkest truths. Somewhere you can admit to yourself your sin, struggles and fears; perhaps as a first step to admitting them to someone else. If you allow other people to read it, you will (subconciosly or others) start write for them, or for your image, and not for you.

If you need further convincing, here are some of the benefits I’ve experienced over the years:

  • The very act of stopping and writing reflectively has slowed me down and deepened me as a person.
  • Having to actually put thoughts and feelings into words on paper crystalises them, and sometimes helps you realise that you don’t actually think what you thought you thought!
  • It becomes a record of what God has done, over time, which builds faith and worship. Sometimes it is only years later that an answer to prayer can be recognised, but this is only really possible if the prayer has been recorded in the first place.
  • It’s a key part of my decision making process. Both as a way to martial my thoughts, and also to reflect on any similarities with situations I’ve faced in the past.
  • You can’t argue with pen and ink (or edit it) in 10 years time! It’s a “warts’n'all” record of what you were thinking and feeling at a point in time.

As to the spiritual “heavyweights”? Perhaps an analogy is helpful; If you visit a top-notch restaurant, and are served the most exquisite food, you don’t expect to be able to go home and re-create the dish the next day. It takes skill, equipment, experience, ingredients, and a whole lot of practice to create something that amazing. What you can do is cook something, and perhaps try and learn some of the techniques, keep improving as a chef. You may never create a meal as wonderful as the professional, but I can guarantee that you can make something delicious and unique.

Awareness Examen

ReflectionSome years ago, I read a book called “Contemplative Youth Ministry”, by Mark Yaconelli. This was while I was a youth group leader, and it is a book that has changed my life and my spirituality. I mentioned it already in the context of Lectio Divino.

It’s a book about understanding God’s role, and our role. About moving away from anxiety driven ministry to Spirit lead (and equipped) ministry. It’s about saying “actually, these young people have a deep relationship with God, and maybe I’m here because God wants me to learn from them, and not the other way around. Or maybe this is the only way God can get my attention.”

At my best, I can hand the keys over to God. Usually, however, I still find it oh so easy to slip back into an anxiety driven mode of operation, and try to take the initiative where it should be left in the hands of the Lord. As a wise person once said; The problem with living sacrifices is that they tend to crawl off the altar.

The antidote to this anxiety and activity is, in my experience, contemplation and reflection. Slowing down. Stopping even. Waiting and listening. Being, not doing.

One of the exercises that really helps me do this is Lectio Divino, as I already mentioned. The other is the Awareness Examen. At this point I must mention another book – “Sleeping With Bread – Holding what gives you life” by Dennis Linn et al. This book revealed and released the Examen to me in a very helpful way – it’s not a big book, and doesn’t take long to read, but I whole-heartedly recommend it.

What is it?

As it’s most simple, it is a reflection on a given event or time-period (say the last 24 hours), that involves two questions:

  • What did I like about it?
  • What didn’t I like about it?

There are a million and one ways to phrase these questions – “favourite thing / least favourite thing”, “high point / low point”, “what gave me energy / sapped my energy” – but they all come down to moments of consolation and moments of desolation.

Consolation involves things that lift us, energise us, give us wings. Things that we feel we could do forever. Things that bring peace and rest to our souls and spirits. Times when we are who we are made to me. Desolation is just the opposite – things that drag us down, wear us out, leave us feeling run down. Our heart sinks at the thought of them, and they rob us of our energy. Times when we are a square peg in a round hole, feeling lost and confused.

How to do it

The Examen itself need only take 5 or 10 minutes. Start (as such) by stopping. Just stop. Put everything down. Find a quiet corner. Relax, and try to settle your mind – if anything important comes to mind, jot it down (so you don’t forget it), then move on. If you like, say a short prayer to God, asking for his wisdom and voice. When you are settled, cast your mind back to this time yesterday, and replay the events between then and now. Don’t analyse them or regret them – just bring them to mind, and remember how they felt. What went well? What was a disaster? What was neutral? What points particularly stand out, if any? Remember, you are just identifying them; not evaluating them, not trying to understand them, not working out what to do about them – just recognising them.

Once you have reached “now”, try to narrow down the events to one or two points of consolation and desolation. These may be events or great importance and significance, or events of little or no consequence what-so-ever. As always, I would strongly recommend you write it down in a journal, even just in note form (as long as you will still understand the notes in 5 or 10 years time!)

If you like you can now reflect upon these – although the first few times through there is likely to be little value in trying to get too deep. As you start to build up a history, however, you can start to reflect on whether any patterns are emerging. Ask God if there is something about the way He’s made you that He would like to draw your attention to. Write down any thoughts or insights or feelings the exercise or reflection brings.

It is worth highlighting that neither consolation nor desolation is inherently good or bad, in and of itself. It’s not automatically right to do consolation activities and automatically wrong to do desolation activities. It’s not necessarily good that certain activities are consolation and some are desolation. It’s not necessarily bad to have desolation (even though it may feel that way).

Why do it?

So what is the point? Well, as I understand it there are three benefits of the Examen. Firstly, it increases our self-awareness in specific situations. If negative thoughts and feelings start to bring us down, this may just be down to being in the middle of a desolation. This knowledge in itself gives us the opportunity to step outside ourselves (as such), and to perhaps respond in a more positive manner. Conversely we may recognise ourselves in a consolation, and fully immerse ourselves in the moment, enjoying it to the full. This is perhaps an incidental benefit, however.

Secondly, and more importantly for me, it paints a picture over time. It paints a picture of who I am, and how I’ve been made. It helps me see the things that give me life and joy, and the things which take them away. It helps me makes decisions about how I use my time, about my work, my ministry, my relationships. No one can avoid desolation – and it wouldn’t be healthy to try to – but equally no one can survive without consolation. You can’t give all the time without receiving. In fact, I would say you need more consolation than desolation, otherwise things are going to go south.

I’ve a friend who does the Examen every day with his family, and who writes down his own personal points of consolation and desolation in his journal. Through this activity he has gained a deeper appreciation of the things that provide support and comfort in his life, as well as a greater awareness of the things that drag him down. It hasn’t radically changed his life, but it has made him realise how precious certain things are.

The final benefit is as a contemplative exercise. The very act of stopping, and thinking and reflecting is hugely beneficial. As another wise person said once; we will quite happily sit at a bus stop for 5, 10, or even 15 minutes, waiting for a bus, yet how long we will sit and wait for God? I recognise in myself that a lot of my activity is fuelled by anxiety, and that at times I’m almost scared of being alone with myself, for fear of what I might discover – that I might discover that actually underneath all the activity there isn’t anything?

I’ll end with a quick test: When you find yourself with a couple of minutes spare, do you immediately get out your phone and check Facebook/Twitter/E-mail? Do you get your book out and snatch a page or two? Do you strike up a conversation? Do you start mentally reviewing your “to-do” list? These things aren’t bad, but my experience is that trying to fill every second of every day is an unhealthy way to live, and may be a indication of being driven by anxiety and the need to feel busy all the time.

So, could you commit to spending 5 minutes of time every night this week, perhaps just before going to sleep, to ‘replay’ the previous 24 hours and reflect upon the highs and lows?

All Hallow’s Eve

October 31st is an interesting day for the Church. How to engage positively with modern culture while still celebrating the Light? One approach is to subvert the festival to point in another direction altogether (i.e to Jesus).

One possibility is to run a Light Party – a celebration of all that is light, with music, games, and sweets. The idea being it’s even better than dressing up as a zombie and going trick or treating!

Another approach is to carve a ‘Christian’ pumpkin – as illustrated here. There is a little poem that goes with it that is a sort of prayer, but also explains the symbolism. I take no credit at all for this! (And apologies if your browser renders it in Comic Sans; I’ve just said “cursive”).

I am a Jack O’ Lantern my light will shine so bright
For I am a Christian pumpkin my symbols tell what’s right.

My nose is like the cross on which our Savior died
To set us free from sin we need no longer hide.

My mouth is like a fish the whole wide world to show
That Christians live in this house and love their Savior so!

The story starts at Christmas my eyes are like the star
That shone on Baby Jesus and wise men saw from far

My color it is orange just like the big bright sun
That rose on Easter Day along with Gods’ own Son.

And so on Halloween Let’s set our pumpkins out
And tell the trick or treaters What Gods’ love is all about!

(via http://www.dltk-bible.com/a_christian_pumpkin.htm)

Write it on your Doorposts

DoorpostOne of the aspects of being a Christian that can be tricky is remembering it! Not in the big sense, but in the everyday hustle and bustle of working life. It’s easy to go a whole day without any particular reference to God, while on other days you can be “tuned in”, and keep firing up short little “arrow” prayers, and know just the right things to say.

Why does it matter if you remember God or not? I think that there are a couple of reaons… First is that (most) Christians believe we have a daily intimate relationship with God. If you were to ignore your spouse except for 5 minutes in the morning (when you delivered a monolog on what you were thinking and feeling) the marriage would soon fall apart.

Secondly, prayer changes the pray-er. If our thoughts are on God and Jesus, our actions and choices will be influenced. It helps take us outside ourselves and our self-centredness. We become more Christ-like, if you like (which is, after all, the ultimate goal).

This principle was recognised in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 6 (my emphasis):

6 These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Isn’t that a great image? Everytime you come in or go out of your house, there is the word of the Lord, reminding you of Him.

With this in mind, you might like to consider some contemporary equivalents of “writing it on the doorposts”. This list is with due acknowledgement to Holy Trinity, Brompton, where I once heard a sermon on this topic. This has also previously been posted on my personal blog.

  • Post-it Notes
    It’s a great habit to write verses on a post-it note, and stick it somewhere you’ll come across it. Bathroom mirror, inside a cupboard, wallet. I used to stick them in my diary, so when I opened it I’d come across a promise of God, or something I felt he’d said to me. You can also collect them up into one place – such as a journal – as a sort of corpus of communication.
  • Bracelets
    I have a friendship bracelet that is made up of little white fishes on a blue background (as a personal icthus). When I wear it, each time I feel it or spot it on my wrist, it reminds me of whose I am. The WWJD/PUSH/… bracelets are a similar idea.
  • Crosses / jewelery
    I have a wooden cross on a leather necklace which I wear sometimes. This has the advantage of being hidden under clothes so doesn’t undermine professionalness or dress-codes. Necklaces are good because you can feel them against your chest. You can also finger them through clothes.
  • Computer Passwords
    Possibly my favourite. Choose a password which is based on a bible passage or verse. A good way to create passwords (IMO) is to make them mnemonic based, with a heathly dose of numbers, punctuation, and mixed case. A secular example; you might choose “Strawberry fields for ever” as your mnemonic, which would make the password “SF4ever!”. It needs to be a memorable verse, and I obviously don’t want to publish really good examples – but a few random passages password-ized (don’t use these yourself!!):

    • Rev 22 v 21 “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.” might become “Rev2221-TgotLJ” (quite a long one that one!)
    • From Psalm 23 “The Lord’s my shepherd” might be “TL’smyS(Ps23)
    • Or some liturgy “For you alone are the Holy One, You alone are the Lord” goes to “4UaatH1,UaatL

    This is an excellent approach because the resulting passwords are easible memorable, but difficult for automatic programs to crack. Best of all, every day the very first thing you do at work (and each time you have to unlock your screen) is to mentally recite a verse of scripture. The same approach can be used with Hotmail, Facebook, etc (as long as you choose different passwords for each!!)

    Some common password substitutions are:

    • For – 4
    • One – 1
    • O (Oh) – 0 (zero)
    • You – U or u
    • S – $ or 5
  • Rituals / habits / Liturgy
    Probably the principle way we remember God is through ritual, specifically thinking about the Last Supper. But you can build little “God slots” into your day. For instance, every time I get into the car, before I start the engine I will say a prayer. Or everytime I put on the kettle. If you’re at work, going to the loo is a good chance to refocus. Sounds a bit weird, but it’s something that happens everyday, and is usually away from clamour and watching eyes. Shut the door, close your eyes and go “Thank God”, and then go about your business.

    Like it or not, we are all creatures of habits, and we all have our little liturgies for how we go about things (whether spiritual or not).

  • Fasting
    Probably any of the spiritual discipline would do, but I personally find fasting the most immediate, when I do it. You get an on and off reminder all day, whenever there’s a little pang of hunger. “Why am I hungry? Oh yes, that’s right”.

By all means add your own ideas – but why not try “writing it on your doorposts”.

Life Verses

I think Life Verses are probably a bit of a marmite thing – you either love the idea, or hate it/don’t see the point. I must confess that I haven’t read any direct explanation of what they are, so I’ve inferred it from some of the youthwork books I’ve read and my own personal experience. As a concept, they perhaps grab youth a bit more readily, but I think there may be value whatever your age.

In essence, and as I understand it, a Life Verse is a particularly verse from the Bible that you feel God has given you as a ongoing guide and ‘touchstone’. It is a verse to keep coming back to again and again, when times are good and when times are bad. It’s a verse to memorise, and read again when facing life’s decisions. It may be because the content of the verse is particularly relevant, or because it was a verse that was given you to at an important or special place or time, and revisiting the verse takes you back there.

Either way, it’s a particular verse that speaks to you of God and His goodness, and His plan for your life, that is special to you. Probably worth mentioning that I don’t think it’s set in stone either, and your verse(s) may change as you time goes by.

How do you choose a life verse? Well, at the risk of going all Harry Potter, I think it chooses you; you just have to be open to God speaking. I certainly wouldn’t suggest starting at Genesis 1 and reading through until you find one! Keeping a journal is a good starting point – write it down when something strikes you or especially speaks to you (perhaps during a Lectio Divino?). Write it down when someone has a word/passage for you. I intend to write about journalling in a future post, but it’s a discipline I highly recommend.

It may be this increased awareness/intentionally is enough – that you find a verse that immediately says “Life Verse” to you. It may take some deeper reflection and thought, and looking back through your journal. I would probably recommend avoiding the ‘obvious’/general ones, like I know the plans I have for you in Jeremiah, or For God so loved the world in John 3, unless these are promises that seem particularly relevant and personal to your circumstances or background. A Life Verse is a verse that is tailor-made for you.

I have two life verses at present. The first is the title and reason for this website, from Ephesians 4, as you may have already guessed. The second is from Jeremiah 3:15 – Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

How did I choose these? Well, Ephesians 4 was a no-brainer. It was immediately clear to me as my calling when I started my serious walk with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit some 18 years ago. Jeremiah came a little later in the course of my ‘daily’ scripture reading. Again when I read it is leapt out at me as a twofold promise, (a) that God will provide shepherds, and (b) that they will be after God’s own heart, and lead with knowledge and understanding. The logical conclusion is that if God were to provide me as a shepherd, I will be after His own heart, and lead his people with knowledge and understanding. This is and has been an enormous comfort and encouragement to me as a potential leader.

I received both these verses before I knew anything about Life Verses. When I set out to discern my own Life Verse, the approach I took was to set aside an afternoon to write down all the verses I’d felt God had spoken to me through specifically. This included all the verses I’ve underlined or highlighted in my Bible, and any I’d written in my journal. This in itself was an interesting exercise, as I’d anticipated there would be perhaps 5 or 10 – instead of which I filled 3 sides of A4!! I knew Eph 4 would be one before I started, and as soon as I re-read Jer 3 I knew this was one as well. Nevertheless I completed the exercise, and decided to allow a couple of weeks to pray and reflect on which specific verses I should choose. This didn’t change the outcome, and actually the process of writing them all out was potentially more of a hindrance than a help – just revisiting them all was enough as it turned out.

So I guess the message is don’t sweat it. If the concept resonates with you, then you are probably already pretty close to having a Life Verse. It may be not a way God wants to speak to you/guide you at present, and it is certainly no substitute for time spent getting to know the Lord, His ways, and His voice. However it just may be something that you find helpful…

Swedish Bible Study

Lightbulb(Download PDF template)

Sometimes a little bit of structure can make a huge difference, especially when trying to do a Bible study.

I must confess that I find it very hard to engage with the ‘standard’ sort of Bible study, where you start off with a list of comprehension questions (“Where was Peter when he first saw Jesus?” “Who else was in the boat?”), and then move onto discussion and application. I don’t want to be negative about this approach – which can be very helpful and appropriate, particularly for complex or less familiar passages – but I often struggle with them.

They also require a significant investment from the “setter” or leader – who needs to have studied the passage in depth, identified the key discussion points, and tried to discern God’s agenda for application to the particular group. Again this is an entirely helpful and appropriate approach, and when preparing a talk or sermon I would say is essential.

However, for a week by week Bible study in a small group, I believe there are other approaches which have a lower ‘barrier to entry’ and facilitate both discussion and deep engagement with the text – and with no real preparation required by the group or leader!

The principle is simple: Choose a passage. Pray. Split into small groups (2 or 3) and read the passage. Answer 4 questions. Reconvene and feedback/discuss your answers as the whole group.
It can also be done individually rather than in small groups.

The 4 questions are:

  1. What did I learn, or what struck me in a new way?
  2. What does the passage tell me about God?
  3. What does the passage tell me about people?
  4. What did I find difficult about the passage, or what questions does it raise?

These 4 questions can be on a piece of A4 paper, split into quadrants, and each group or individual has a copy. The four quandrants are marked with an icon symbolising the question: a candle (what was new), an up arrow (about God), a down arrow (about others), and a question mark (questions/difficulties). You can download a PDF version of the Swedish Bible Study for your own printing out.

The excerise can take as long as you like, but 20-30 mins is probably a good length of time for a typical study passage (15-20 verses) with 10-12 people, in groups of four – so 15-20 minutes answering the questions, then 5-10 minutes feeding back. If you opt for a discussion, prayer, and/or response time, then the sky’s the limit (but don’t let it drag!)

You may also want to include a response/application element – what action do a need to take as a result of this study? What changes do I need to make?

My thanks to the Growing Leaders course for introducing me to this study technique.