The next three chapters look at ways to help you creatively change your prayer life.
In this chapter I will look at reviewing your life with a view to changing the way you structure it, in the next I will explore ways of finding your unique way of praying and in the third I will provide some resources to help you find new ways of praying and thinking about prayer.
Creative change is at the heart of the message of Jesus. This change can be of external circumstances, life style or in the way we feel, think or act in circumstances that cannot be changed. First a few issues that nearly always arise when attempting to help people into or along the change process.
We all make ‘new resolutions’ but sometimes fail so we need to learn from the resolutions that have worked. We are often intimidated by a ‘large step’ so when this happens we should look for a ‘small step’. Where has a small change (even a very, very small change) made a difference and how was it achieved? Congratulate yourself on the things you can do and have done. This can help motivate you for future change.
Life experiences, both good and bad, can be the catalyst for the motivation to institute change but sometimes just feeling good about yourself is sufficient. If you have been trying to change for a long time but it has not worked maybe it is worth trying something new as an experiment. Maybe doing something that you have never done before just to see whether it works or gives you clues for what could.
Being accountable to others can often help. When we look at change it can be a daunting task so if we can involve others by talking to friends, colleagues, spiritual directors, support groups, etc this can all help. ‘Weight Watches’ groups are good examples of this process where members report-in and are weighed each week and are part of a group. The details might be completely different but the principle of support and accountability might be transferred to your situation and changing your prayer and spiritual life in some way.
You will often find that the keys and strategies for change are already in your life and it is a matter of identifying and using them. For example a person might say that they have a problem with discipline in their lives so can’t pray, but regularly go to the gym. It is worth considering whether the problem is not self discipline but motivation. What other ways are there to pray that are more in tune with your interest, personality, circumstances, etc? How could you transfer the discipline of going to the gym to structuring a prayer life? The changes need to be realistic and something you really believe you can do so that you structure success into your prayer life. We believe that is what God wants.
Review of Life
A review of your current life can be the start of the change process. This can be tied in with a holiday, or a retreat, a day’s walk or just a short ‘time out’, which gives you an opportunity to:
STOP and look at your life
LOOK at what you see and ponder on it
LISTEN to what this might say to you.
A way to start is just to think about or write down facts about your life without trying to make any sense of them to see what has happen over a period of time. You could do this chronologically and divide this up into various aspects such as work, social, leisure, learning, family, relationship with God, etc. You could do this in a linear fashion by putting down dates and columns or in a non-linear fashion by writing headings randomly on a page and seeing how they might join together. You could do the review by drawing a picture or by using photographs or any other way that helps to give an overall view of your life. You can also do it by just thinking but writing it down can help you to step back when the point comes to reflect and see if there are any patterns and clues to the future.
Although this can be a quick exercise there is value in returning to it a number of times to let your memory work and give time for things to ‘bubble to the surface’. This allows for your unconscious to work on the material you have produced and see what it might be saying to you. Some questions you might ask yourself are:
What is prominent?
Does anything surprise you?
Does it look like a pattern or chaotic?
Does it encourage or discourage?
Where are the things that have been easy?
Where are the things that have been difficult?
What has touched me?
What has made me feel alive?
Are there links to be made?
Are there problems which could be spring-boards?
Are there gifts I have not noticed before?
Are there transferable skills to be used?
Are there painful things that still hurt?
Are there things that bring joy?
Are there challenges that I have forgotten about?
What has changed in my life during a given period?
Are there new things that could be followed up?
What positive or negative feelings are evoked and what can I learn from them?
In the end this is a spiritual exercise although it is often useful not to try too hard to make something ‘spiritual’ when it is not. We are just looking for ‘clues’ as to what might be there for us. It could take a while to see anything and so you need to stay with it and have the faith that there is something there that God wants to communicate.
Thinking in a more focused way about God can also be useful. Being aware that God has been in charge of your life over a given period you might then ask yourself, “What sort of God have I experienced?”
A God who has cared for you and made everything easy?
A God who has been giving you a hard time?
A God who wants to shake you up?
A God who wants you to rest and be still?
What sort of God has been in charge of your life these past months (weeks, days)?
What words might describe this God?
What name might be appropriate for this God?
What might this God’s name be for you?
Suppose that the God who has been directing your life is a good and loving God, and that what has happened has in fact contained a gift (however unlikely that may seem!). If one assumed just for the moment there has been such a gift then what might this gift have been? Do you want it? What might God be hoping that you will do with this gift? What might nurture it?
Perhaps you could end this type of self questioning by saying a simple prayer to God expressing the thoughts and feelings which have been evoked in you.
Changing the Structure of your Life
Your review might result in wanting to change the way you structure your life in big ways or small ways. There are Christian traditions that find putting this structure into words helpful and using such a ‘Rule of Life’ might help you.
A ‘Rule of Life’ can sound quite intimidating and the type of thing that only monks and nuns have. It is, in fact, something we all produce when we attempt to plan our life to achieve our goals. Here we are looking at goals related to your prayer and spiritual life but, of course, they all interconnect with the rest. An example of this type of structure is St Benedict’s Rule which is about spiritual growth in an atmosphere of prayer and work within a monastic setting. The structure of Benedictine monasteries would attempt to order their life to achieve these things by periods of work, prayer, worship, study and silence.
The lay Third Order of Franciscans ask that each person produce their own rule (based on a common framework, see http://orders.anglican.org/tssf/About/The_Rule.html) which is reviewed annually. As a lay order this is for people engaged in everyday life and could be helpful to you.
The Third Order Rule of Life consists of a list of areas to consider which each person is then asked to make specific in their own life. The list might be appropriate for you or could be modified for your particular tradition and put into your own words. It might then form the basis of a review and commitment towards a spiritually healthier and more sustainable way of life. An example of how one person modified this ‘Rule of Life’ framework is given below:
God’s presence – to find opportunities to experience God’s presence.
Review – to review my life in the light of my calling to follow God.
Lifestyle – to practice temperance in all things and have regular times of study, reading, service, fasting, and rest.
Retreat – to arrange to have regular times of contemplation and meditation.
Thinking – to study, think, and discuss God’s Word and its applications to the world.
Work – to engage in honest open-hearted work compatible with my faith.
Simplicity – to use my possessions as a trustee and to care for God’s world.
Obedience – to obey God’s Word and be accountable to other Christians.
Community – to participate wholeheartedly in the church community.
Witness – to live and speak in a way that gives witness to my faith.
Giving – setting aside resources to serve God and others, and to practice hospitality.
Worship – to seek opportunities to worship and praise God.
Prayer – to seek opportunities to pray.
Some of these categories might be difficult or inappropriate in your particular circumstances but some might be helpful and challenging. For example in today’s society obedience might be particularly challenging and require considerable thought as to what areas of authority (written, institutions, people, etc) you could submit yourself to.
The methods described above might help you to think, review, evaluate and structure your life to bring God and prayer more into focus. You could also sketch out a diagram like the one below to help you see whether you think that you life is in balance in the way you want it to be.
You could add other categories or change the ones suggested until you feel it represents your life. You could then possibly evaluate the balance in terms such as time or energy that you spend on the various aspects and whether you think you need to make changes. You could use smaller and larger ‘balloons’ to represent the quantity of time and/or energy spent on each area and compare that with another set representing how important each area is to you. Comparing the two might be an ‘eye opener’!
A more contemporary and focused example of a review is in Susan Jeffers’ book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway where she encourages us to think in a similar diagrammatic way about all the areas of our life and focus on the way the spiritual influences them. Susan Jeffers says of this process:
If we do not consciously and consistently focus on the spiritual part of ourselves, we will never experience the kind of joy, satisfaction and connections we are all seeking.
(Susan Jeffers, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway)
In considering the balance of life it is worth thinking about the Biblical concept of ‘rest’ and the way this was incorporated into Jewish life by the Sabbath and its rituals. Where is the place of rest in your life?
Henry describes (Chapter 14, p….) the way he incorporated this into his life by taking a three month Sabbatical from his work. You might like to skip to that passage and read his experience.
Finding Your Faith Community
When we are considering life changes it is important to consider the communities to which we naturally belong. These can give us support and a place to relate to others and share our lives. They can both help and/or hinder us in the change process.
We all belong to groups such as families, clubs, institutions and many others but most of us also need a place where we can go for challenge, support, encouragement, and growth of our faith. Such a place has been described as a ‘Faith Community’ to distinguish it from all the other valuable communities to which we belong. Where is yours and will it, and the people in it, help or hinder change?
The early disciples gathered together as described in the Acts of the Apostles as a natural part of their new found faith to hear the apostles’ teaching, , to have fellowship, to break bread together (Communion or Eucharist) and to pray (Acts 2: 42). A community of faith is, at its best, unlike many other groups, in that it has shared values which cut across race, class, professions, and age with the group members being linked by faith in Christ.
Church and its ancillary groups are types of faith communities but are also social institutions made up of fallible human beings. The gatherings together can be uplifting and give us fresh energy and courage to go back into life and follow Christ in our chosen way. But the reverse can also be true and this is not restricted to any denomination or tradition. Church can be a place of restriction and boredom providing social control and can eat up our life in endless committees and small-time politics. I often meet people who need to leave church for their personal faith to survive as well as people who say ‘I don’t know what I would do without my church’. The important thing is knowing for yourself what church is for you at the moment!
The ‘Spirited Exchanges’ network was founded a number of years ago in New Zealand and is now in the United Kingdom to help people who can’t find a church that works for them and/or find they must leave to survive. A common experience is that these people still feel the need for a community of faith and that they then seek creative ways to achieve this. Some people find like minded friends, others start groups that might just meet for breakfast and discussion. For others it could be an internet interest group that keeps them going or perhaps meeting with a spiritual director. We all seem to need some human contact to help us along the way.
For the vast majority Christianity is both individual and corporate in its expressions. This inevitably creates tension in attempting to be yourself and yet belong and many need to find creative solutions for this. For example, I know of one person who was helped to stay in her church when she admitted to herself that going there was for her just about meeting her friends and so she needed to find other ways of expressing the other spiritual aspects of her life.
The experience of the authors of this book is that relationships with others of faith are important and it is worth seeking radical and creative solutions to meeting that need. If you are in this situation of struggling to find a faith community that works for you, then how about:
- Giving yourself a break from church to see how it feels and maybe identify the bits you miss and the bits you don’t – this might help you choose a more appropriate community
- Trying other churches and groups to see what they feel like – sometimes in doing this you can find that with all its problems you like your own tradition best and decide to stay
- Get in touch with Spirited Exchanges UK to seek out others who may also be struggling (http://www.spiritedexchanges.org.nz/)
- Maybe leave church for a while and find friends individually or in groups that you can discuss your faith and pray with – many return to church from choice after a while
- Find a spiritual director or good friend(s) who will help you in your walk with God
- Just trying something different that is none of the above.