Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Colouring In: More Feedback

The book is being designed, proofed and prepared for publication as we speak! 
The best thing about putting all this together to be an actual book (a very interactive prayer journal for teenagers to have a go), has been getting feedback from a much wider group of teens than we had first imagined. We thought this would just be Noah and I doing this on our own, but youth groups around the country have been getting involved, as well as individual teenagers.

So I thought you might like to see some of the comments from this wider group, that are going into the book.
Here, for example, is some more people's views having tried the Colour In Your Prayers experiment .

8/10    I found that doing this really made the passage speak to me. It made me feel that God could really speak to me through his word, and it was a good way to help me focus on what God was saying. It might be an improvement next time to have a small space on the page to just draw anything God gave to you. (Jonny, 14)

8/10       I coloured in the Lord's Prayer. I would give it 8 out of 10 because it really helped me concentrate on what each word meant as I coloured them and it also helps to link the Lord's Prayer into my own life.
(Samantha, 16)

7/10    When I tried this experiment I found that it was very fun, but I still felt that the prayer was sinking in and it made me think of it in a new way. It made me feel relaxed. The thing I liked best was the simpleness of it. Next time I would try using a more memorable quotation, with less of the background image and more focus on just the words.
(Rachel, 15)

5/10     I found I often stopped paying attention to the task at hand, and I didn't feel anything. I liked the colouring, but didn't find it very engaging.
(Luke, 16)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Noah's Review of Breathing Meditation


This was definitely not as easy as some of the other experiments but it was a very nice experience.

I did get distracted and kept finding myself being sidetracked. For the first few minutes, I was just sitting there concentrating on my breathing. That was probably the most relaxing bit. Then coming out of that I started thinking about God, because thinking about breathing made me think about God designing us and making us, and how complicated a process even breathing is. Then I found myself thinking about other stuff - like school and so on and then when I realised that I’d got distracted I started using the Jesus prayer. That was very helpful, because saying the prayer did help come back to focusing on the breathing. Then for a while I started actually praying even though I wasn’t meant to, but all through I was concentrating on inhaling and exhaling, and that started affecting what I was praying for. So I prayed for all the usual stuff like friends, family and conflicts, and then I prayed for people who sometimes found it hard to breath, who had lung diseases and so on, and that led me on to praying for sick people in general.

I didn’t have an alarm handy, so I stopped when I thought I’d done 10 minutes but I think it was more like 7 or 8 minutes actually!

I will probably do this again, because at the end of the time I felt so peaceful and refreshed, like I’d just woken up from a really good sleep. After I got up I felt really relaxed and invigorated.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Breathing Meditation

What is meditation?

This is about setting time aside to be calm and at peace. It is very different from most other types of prayer in that it is not about talking to God, or even listening to God, but simply being there. The aim is simply to sit there, trying to free your mind from thinking about anything in particular. You are not trying to achieve anything, or say anything, or do anything: you are just taking time to be.

In the Christian tradition, this tends to be called Contemplative Prayer rather than Meditation, but the technique or discipline is very similar. In Christian contemplation, the underlying assumption is that when you spend time just being, you are being with God. You don’t even have to busy yourself thinking good thoughts about God: just be, and let yourself become aware of yourself in God’s presence.

Meditative techniques

When you try it, you may well find that it is surprisingly hard to simply sit still in silence, even for a few minutes. Because people tend to find this very difficult, various different practices have developed to help you focus. The two main ones are concentrating on your breathing, and repeating the same word or phrase over and over - usually either in silence, or just under your breath. These are well known techniques in virtually every spiritual tradition. They are often combined, so that you say a word, or part of a phrase, on the in breath, and repeat it, or say the other part of the phrase, on the out breath.

The actual word or phrase (known as a ‘mantra’ in some spiritual traditions) isn’t important. It is simply there to help you meditate, rather than saying it being the point of the exercise (and it certainly doesn’t have any sort of magical power). The most common phrase used in the Christian tradition is a very old, short prayer known as the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, A Sinner’. Other people use a favourite bible verse, or simply the word ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’. Don’t worry about choosing the ‘right’ word. For now, I suggest that you use the Jesus Prayer if you want to use words.

Some people also find visualisation helpful. You can begin your meditation by imagining going into a secluded, beautiful place - somewhere where you are alone and safe, and can leave whenever you want. Imagine yourself walking across a threshold into that place: going through a gateway or door, or down some steps, and then sitting there. For example, you could imagine walking down some steps into a sunken garden, or through a gate into a meadow, or along a path through sand dunes to a beach.

Physically, concentrating on your breathing calms you down and makes you more aware of your own body. Mentally, it helps you to free your mind from distractions, and it gives you something to focus on while you deliberately choose to take time out of your busy life to spend that time on prayer or meditation. Spiritually, taking time to just be with God helps us to focus on who we really are in relation to God, and helps counter-act the tendency for us to want to ‘get really good’ at prayer. It helps us to become aware of our true selves, with all the things that we do and say to try to give a good impression to other people stripped away. It also gives us space to listen to God, and to receive any image or suggestion that God may be trying to give us but that we are normally too busy to hear: but don’t let ‘trying to hear God’ become the point of the exercise! The aim is simply to be: don’t expect any particular results.

The Experiment

First, find somewhere where you can be comfortable, still and undisturbed. Most people sit, but find a position that is most comfortable for you: what matters is that you can stay there for the time you have set aside.

Now set an alarm on your phone etc., to set the amount of time you are going to set aside. I suggest that you start with 10 minutes - you may want to build up to 20 minutes or half an hour over time.

Then shut your eyes, and begin to concentrate on your breathing. Be aware of each breath in - and out. If you are saying the Jesus Prayer, say a phrase on each breath, in and out. You will probably find that your breathing begins to slow down.

After a while, become conscious of your body: of the weight of your limbs, how it feels to be sitting. You might find that you begin to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. You might also find yourself disturbed by noises from outside your room. Just notice what you are feeling or hearing. Notice it kindly, don’t tell yourself off for being distracted by it. Mentally acknowledge what is there, then focus on your breathing again.

It is completely normal to find that all sorts of thoughts and worries come rushing in - from big important things that you must remember to do, to all sorts of trivialities. It is also normal to find that you suddenly realise your mind has wandered. Again, don’t worry. When you notice a thought, a worry, or a feeling, or realise that your mind has wandered, just notice it kindly, and then consciously return your focus to your breathing. It is when you are distracted like this that repeating something like the Jesus Prayer can be particularly helpful, as it gives you somethign to focus on when you need to bring your attention back.

Doing this may well feel really weird. We are very rarely still, silent, and have nothing to keep our minds occupied. So when we do, it can feel very uncomfortable. Even those who make a habit of doing this for half an hour or more a day find it difficult at times. You may find yourself getting very annoyed. Just accept any weirdness and discomfort, notice it, and keep concentrating on your breathing.

If you are using the Jesus Prayer, you may want to drop parts of it as you go, so that it gets shorter. In the end, you may be left with only one or two words, just repeating those on the in and out breaths.

Keep at it until your alarm sounds. If you visualised going somewhere, now visualise leaving it: walking back out through that threshold, knowing you can return whenever you want. If you were using the Jesus Prayer, say it one last time and then say ‘Amen’, out loud.

Monday, 28 July 2014

ACTS 4: Supplication (aSking): Prayer tree.

Supplication (also known as Asking, or Intercession) is the final element of the ACTS four-part balanced diet of prayer. This is probably the kind of prayer that you are most familiar with. For many people, praying mainly means asking God to do things, to look after people, and to intervene in situations.

In most church services, there is a time of Intercessory Prayer when the concerns of the congregation are lifted up to God. Typically these include prayers for the church, the world, the suffering, and those who have died or are dying and their families. These prayers are often referred to simply as ‘The Prayers’, when they are in fact just one of the many kinds of prayer that are used in the service.

Is it OK to ask God for things?

Sometimes, this kind of praying is criticised or looked down on, as if it was just about sending a wish list to a kind of cosmic Father Christmas. But although just asking God for things would be a very limited kind of praying, asking God is something that Jesus told people to do. For example, one of the parables (stories with a message) that Jesus told was the parable of the persistent widow:

‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about people. And there was a widow in the town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary’. For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so the she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming’! And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to God day and night?’ (Luke 18:2-7).

Jesus also included the line ‘give us today our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer he taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray.

So, far from being embarrased to ask God for the things we need and desire, we should make sure we regularly include an element of asking in our prayers.

As with thanksgiving, asking God to help means a lot more than just what it seems on the surface. In no particular order:

  • It means admitting that we can’t achieve everything we want to happen by ourselves. Very often there are situations around the world, and closer to home, that make us feel helpless. We feel powerless to make a difference, and yet we feel very strongly that something must be done. In asking God’s help, we are acknowledging the limits of our own influence.

  • We are also, though, opening ourselves up to the possibility that we may have to do something to be part of the solution. In asking God to help in a situation, it is always worth listening for a while after asking, in case you hear something that you can do. In this kind of prayer we consciously volunteer ourselves as God’s assistants or co-workers in bringing about change.

  • Supplication is also a confession of faith in God. By asking God to intervene in a situation, we are saying we believe that God has the power to do so. This doesn’t mean we expect miracles to happen every time we pray, but it does mean we are opening our minds to the possibility of God’s transforming power making a difference in the world. Regularly asking for God’s help cultivates an attitude of hopeful expectancy in us.

What should we ask for?

The short answer is, anything that is on your mind! The Bible is full of examples of people asking for what they most want, from good things like food, water, and justice, to bad things like revenge.

Basically, the rule of thumb is to be honest. Tell God what you are really feeling, what you are desparate about, what you want more than anything in the world. The Christian belief is that God knows what you are thinking anyway, of course, so you might as well be honest! God isn’t going to think any better of you for trying to hide your true feelings and desires.

The Experiment: A Prayer Tree

Gather some twigs, and put them in a vase or empty jam jar; or you could use a fairly substantial potted plant for this, or even a jewellery tree.

Now get some little notes to hang on the twigs. The easiest thing is to use gift tags with a hanging loop of thread already attached. Or just use pieces of paper, either plain or cut out to look like leaves. Use a hole punch or a sharp pencil to make a hole in each one, and a loop of thread, wool or gift ribbon so it can be hung on the tree.

Write each person or situation that you want to ask God’s help for on one of the tags, and hang it on the tree, consciously giving that person or situation to God and handing over your worry about it to God as you do so.

Then place the tree somewhere in your room. You might want to sit and pray through each of the tags each day, or once a week, and you can add new ones whenever you like. When one no longer needs praying for, you can remove it from the tree. You might want to keep any prayers that you feel have been answered in a box: if you keep adding to the tree regularly, then this box could become a lovely record of answered prayers.

Monday, 21 July 2014

ACTS 3: Thanksgiving. Making a Jar of Thanksgiving!

Why say thank you to God?

Do you remember being given things when you were a child? Being given birthday and Christmas presents by family and friends? Being given a share in someone else’s sweets, or someone else’s game, at school? If so, you can probably also remember parents or teachers hissing ‘say thank you!’ to you! Saying plese and thank you - ‘minding your Ps and Qs’ - is a basic element of the politeness that is dinned into us as children.

But strangely enough, having learnt to be polite can be a problem when it comes to praying! Because we don’t say thank you to God for quite the same reasons as we thank other people. So if you have been used to thinking of saying thank you as simply being polite, that can get in the way of prayers of thanksgiving. So it is worth taking a step back, and asking why thanksgiving is included in this ‘ACTS’ idea of a balanced diet of prayer.

First of all, it is worth repeating: 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 that does to us. Saying thank you means that we doing two important things:

  • We are choosing to look at the good things in our lives with gratitude, not just focus on things that aren’t right; and
  • We are acknowledging that everything we have comes from God.

Let’s look at what each of those means in a bit more detail.

First, we are choosing to concentrate on the good. There is an old saying, ‘Count your blessings’, and it is generally true that if we focus on the good things in life rather than the bad, we are likely to be much happier. We all know people who can find something to moan about in every situation, and they are not usually very pleasant to be around! Focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the bad things in life - after all, sometimes things are seriously wrong and need to be challenged. But even in some of the worst situations there are likely to be good things that we can give thanks to God for.

Secondly, when we thank God for all the good things we have received, we are acknowledging that everything comes from God. This means at least two things. First, it means we are recognising God as the Creator, the basic source of everything, from the Big Bang onward. So thanking God is a statement of faith. Secondly, it means recognising that all the good things we have are not ours by right, but are gifts. Even the things that we ourselves have achieved or have earned, we are only able to do because of the gifts of character, talent and aptitude that we are born with, and because of the circumstances in which we are born. How much would we be able to achieve if we had been born several hundred years ago, not had an education, had parents who were unable or unwilling to look after us, or if we had been born into extreme poverty, or had caught a serious illness and died early in life? So thanking God means both recognising ourselves as gifted people, and cultivating a sense of humility. In thanking God for our gifts we gradually come to see ourselves both as someone that God loves and showers with gifts, but also as no more special or loved by God than anyone else!

The Problems

Because it means all this, saying thank you to God is an important part of the Christian tradition of prayer. But it can often become quite repetitive and boring. People often find that when it comes to saying thank you, their mind goes blank! Or we repeat ourselves, saying thank you to God for the same, obvious things every time we pray - maybe family, friends, good weather, good marks at school, and so on.

Sometimes, too, people find that they tangle themselves in knots wondering whether they should thank God for something - from good weather to a cure for an illness - because if God sent that, does that mean God also decided not to do the same for other people? In a world where people die from illnesses and natural disasters every day, it can be hard to be sure whether God is directly intervening as a result of our prayers, or whether that is something we should expect. We’ll look at this problem in more detail in the next experiment (Supplication, or Asking). Foor now, the important thing to remember is that the purpose of giving thanks is mainly about us cultivating a thankful and appropriately humble attitude to life.

The Experiment

To help focus your prayers of thanksgiving, try making a Jar of Thankfulness. There are two ways you could do this, depending on what materials you have available.

1. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to use paper, and some kind of pot: an empty, clean jam jar with the label removed works well. (If you do use a jar, this works particularly well if you use coloured paper, as you will be able to see the colour through the glass sides). Cut the paper into strips or patches (about the size of a book of stamps works well). On each one, write something that you are thankful for, and add them to the jar. Keep a spare supply of pieces of paper next to the jar, and whenever you think of something new to say thanks for, add it to the jar.

2. If you would like to make this more personal and more involved, and can get hold of some air-drying clay, first make a clay jar or pot. Then also make a series of tokens, or coins, each one representing something that you are thankful for. You could either make each token in the shape of something that represents that gift, or you could make them all coin-shaped and scratch words onto them with a sharp pencil or cocktail stick. When they have all dried (this usually takes 1-2 days), put the tokens into the jar. Make a selection of spare, blank tokens too, to keep next to the jar for adding new things later: you will be able to write on these with a felt tip pen or marker when they are dry.

Once you have your Jar of Thankfulness, keep it somewhere safe where you will see it regularly - perhaps on your windowsill, bedside table, or in a prayer corner with any other prayer items that you have made. When you sit down to pray, take a handful of the contents out and say thank you for those, adding any new ones that you have thought of that day to the jar. Doing this will mean you keep some variety in your prayers, and also slowly build up more and more things to be thankful for.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Review of Nerf Gun Confession

This is Noah's review of Target practice: Nerf Gun Confession.


The idea of praying with a weapon is quite strange, but it's quite appealing too! It felt an odd thing to do at first, but I actually really enjoyed it. Like the posture and labyrinth ones, since you were doing something with your body while you were praying it was involving, immersive. It felt quite passionate, if that's the right word.

Starting off facing in the wrong direction felt really weird. I wasn't shooting the right way at all and didn't have any chance of hitting the target! Turning round felt good. It did make me think a bit about the idea of conversion, there was a real sense of relief to have turned round.

Then I got on with shooting. I used a tree in my back garden as the target, and I'm quite good at shooting nerf guns, so I totally destroyed that tree!  The only problem was, the tree was a big target, so it wasn't so much a case of walking back until I missed, more walking back until the gun didn't have that range.

Personally, since in the last few months I've been having quite a rough time, this really worked very well for me. The idea of hitting the mark and missing the mark made a lot sense to me. And actually doing the shooting, not just reading about the idea, really helped bring it to life and made it seem much more real.

The idea of praying for things that had gone well when I hit and for things that had gone badly missed worked really well too. In fact, I think this was one of the best ideas.
The only thing I'd change if I did it again would be to use a smaller target next time!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Taste and See

‘Oh taste and see that the Lord is good!’ exclaims the writer of Psalm 34. And in quite a few places in the Bible, praying, or reading or hearing the Scriptures, is imagined as being like eating something sweet and lovely.

When we eat, there are lots of things going on. First, there is taste - things we like or dislike, things that are sweet or sour or bitter. Secondly, there is hunger and nutrition: the food we eat nourishes our bodies, and becomes part of us. Thirdly, when we eat with other people that experience helps create a community - whether that's a family Christmas lunch, who you choose to sit with for lunch at school, or having the neighbours round for a barbecue.

All around the world, people have rituals and celebrations which involve eating special foods, from the Thanksgiving turkey to the Spanish tradition of eating 'The Twelve Grapes of Luck' as the clocks strike twelve on New Year's Eve. Sometimes this involves a sequence of particular symbolic foodstuffs to remind the community of important events in the past, as in the Jewish tradition of the Seder meal.

In the Christian tradition, eating the bread and wine of Holy Communion is the central religious observance. Communion (which has different names in different traditions - you may know it as Mass, or the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist) does all sorts of different things. The bread and wine, and the words used in the Eucharistic prayer, remind us of Jesus's last supper with his disciples, and remind us that Jesus died for us. Eating and drinking from the same plate and cup binds us together symbolically - and this is reinforced by the words we often say together, 'though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread'. And eating real food which symbolises and becomes Jesus for us, means that we are choosing to invite God into our lives not just in a vague spiritual sense, but literally into our bodies. By eating something that represents God for us, we can become aware in a very literal way of God becoming an inseparable part of us.

You may already be used to taking communion at your Church, or you may be thinking about preparing for it. In this experiment we're not going to attempt to recreate that, because communion isn't a private thing but is something that should be done by the whole church community gathering together. But here, we're going to try experimenting with eating and drinking different symbolic foods to help you reflect on what they represent, and on the act of eating and drinking as a type of prayer.

This is one of the few experiments that I think may work better as a group activity, because it involves a certain amount of shopping and preparation, not to mention washing up! But don't be put off trying this if you would prefer to just do it on your own.

First, you will need to get your ingredients together. You will need at least four or five of the following. Don't worry if you can't get them all, just use what you can most easily find. I would recommend that you do include the first and the last ones on the list, though, and these are starred.

Arrange them in a line on a table, in the order above. Now eat each one slowly, really concentrating on the taste. As you eat it, read the Bible verse or short note below that goes with each one. When you have swallowed, while the taste is still in your mouth, say a short prayer in your head asking God to help you really take in that idea.

1. Honey/sugar.
'How sweet are your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!' (Psalm 119:103).

Pray for enjoyment in reading the Bible and for wisdom in finding pleasure in good things.

2. Apple/pear/banana/peach.
In the story of the beginning of the world in Genesis, the writer imagines a garden full of fruit trees, all of which people can eat from except one. But of course, the first people are tempted to eat the fruit of the one tree they have been told not to touch.

'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not was a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise....' (from Genesis 2:16-17 and 3:6. Read the whole story: Genesis 2:4-3:24).

Pray for wisdom in knowing good from evil, and for forgiveness when we ignore God.

3. Cucumber/melon.
After the people of Israel had been rescued from slavery in Egypt by Moses, and fed them miraculously with manna in the desert, they started complaining about being in the desert, and having only manna to eat, and remembering only the good things about their old life.

'the Israelites wept, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.' (Numbers 11:4-5. To read the story of the Exodus from Egypt, see Exodus chapters 1-14).

Pray that you may be thankful for what you have, rather than complaining about what you don't have. Pray for wisdom to let the past go, and not worry about what might have been.

4. A glass of water.
Most of the Bible stories come from a desert context, where finding a spring of water can literally mean the difference between life and death. One day when Jesus was thirsty, he asked a foreign woman to get him a drink from a well.

'Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life'. (John 4: 13-14. Read the whole story: John 4:1-42).

Pray for those who don't have clean water to drink, and thank God for our good fortune in having water on tap. Think about what it might mean to never be thirsty for God.

5. A tuna sandwich (or other bread and fish).
Jesus's miraculous feeding of several thousand people with a small amount of bread and fish is the only miracle (apart from his resurrection) which is recorded in all four gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

'When it was evening, the disciples came to Jesus and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves....we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.' (From Matthew 14:15-20. You can also find this story in Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:1-14.)

Pray for all those without food today, for charities, for farmers and for scientists who are working to feed the world. Think about what it must have been like to be in that crowd, and what you would have thought about Jesus at that moment.

6. Party food (a chocolate mini roll, posh biscuit, paper cup of lemonade etc).

'Then Levi gave a great banquet for Jesus in his house...The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered, "Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Then they said to him, 'John's disciples, and the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?" (Luke 5:29-34).

Imagine being at a party with Jesus. Pray that churches will welcome everyone, not just those who seem holy enough already.

7. Vinegar.

When Jesus was crucified, one detail that both Luke and John include is that he was given sour wine - vinegar - to drink as he was dying. In Luke's account, this is cruel teasing:

'The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" (Luke 23:36-7).

In John's version, it is Jesus's deliberate last act before dying:

'when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said "I am thirsty". A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of wine on a branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.' (From John 19:28-30).

Imagine seeing this happen. Pray for those who tease or persecute Christians. Pray for strength and courage for those who are suffering in any way, and for those who are dying.

8. Nine Grapes/Berries/Pineapple chunks.

'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.' (Galatians 5:22).
Pray for each of these gifts as you eat each piece of fruit.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Target Practice: Nerf Gun Confession

Imagine that you are standing with a Nerf gun (or a bow and arrows) in front of a target. It is only a metre or so in front of you. Close your eyes and picture it. Or if you have a suitable gun and space, go outside and choose a target - perhaps a certain patch of wall, or a tree - and try this in real life.

Now turn away from the target, raise your gun, and shoot in the opposite direction.
How far away from the target did you get?

Now turn around and face the target, still only a metre away, and try again.
How many out of ten do you get when you try to shoot from close up?

Now you move back, to maybe five metres away, and try again. Then you move back to 10 metres away, 20 metres away, and so on, until you are lucky if any of your shots go anywhere near the target.
How far away did you have to be before you missed more often than you hit the target? And how did it feel to be shooting from so far away that you had little or no chance of success?

One of the words in the Bible that is normally translated as 'sinning' literally means something more like 'missing the mark'. It is a term from archery, about aiming for the target - aiming for a bullseye, perfection - but more often than not, falling short or going wildly off course.

Target practice can help us to think about what this really means, and how it feels to miss the mark. We want to hit it; we are aiming at it; but when we are a long way from the target, to our frustration, we find it very difficult to get that elusive bullseye.

Christian tradition tells us that we are so far from God that it is inevitable that we will miss the mark most of the time. But the good news is that God isn't keeping score. God is happy so long as we are trying to aim in the right direction.

At the beginning, when you shot facing away from the target, it didn't matter how good a shot you were. You were only going to get further away from the target if you shot further. Just as in target shooting, in living as a Christian the most important thing to get right first is to be facing in the right direction.

That's why, in the baptism service, when someone becomes a Christian, they are asked a series of questions about turning from all that denies God, and turning to God. In many churches, people will actually be asked to turn around at that point, as a sign of their commitment to going through life facing in the right direction. What matters in being a Christian is not how far on you are, but what direction you are facing in.

Its also why Christians confess their sins to God very regularly. In the Anglican and many other traditions, this happens in the main weekly church service, and Christians often also confess to God as part of their own regular private prayers. By confessing - naming where we have missed the mark - we are acknowledging that we have missed the target of living like Jesus (which of course we will!), we remind ourselves to make sure we are still facing in the right direction, and we commit ourselves to not give up bothering to hit the target, but to keep practicing.

And just as with target shooting, we will get better with practice. Missing the mark in target practice isn't failure. In fact, if you are seriously trying to improve your shooting,  then when you have got so good that you are hitting the target every time from a particular distance you would move further back to give yourself a new challenge. When you are trying to improve at any sport, you keep pushing yourself. Missing the mark if you are practicing hard enough is an inevitable and good part of learning.

The very best target shooters practice loads. And someone who becomes an Olympic gold medallist at shooting doesn't stop practicing just because they have got good enough - if they did, they would quickly lose their touch. Similarly, confession is something we keep doing as Christians, and even the most experienced Christians, even the holiest saints, keep doing it. In fact, just like with sports, the people who are the very best are the ones who practice most! Maybe thats what we mean when we call someone a 'practising christian'?

So if you didn't actually try shooting at the beginning of this, have a go now. Choose a target, and grab your gun or bow - something like a Nerf gun that shoots foam darts is ideal.
First try shooting in the wrong direction.
Then turn, and try shooting from 1 metre away, then from further and further away until you are mainly missing the target (how far you will have to go will depend how good a shot you are!).

Each time you hit the target, think of one thing you did today or this week that was right on the mark, and thank God for that.

Each time you miss, think of one thing you did today or this week that missed the mark - a word that hurt someone, an opportunity for kindness missed, a rush that meant you didn't give someone your full attention, or maybe deliberate rudeness or wrongdoing. Admit that was a missing of the mark, and then try shooting again.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Build a Prayer Den

The idea of building a prayer den came from two teenage girls I know, Rachel and Anna. They were trying some of the experiments in this book, and decided to also try praying in the den they had made in the corner of one of their bedrooms. They absolutely loved the experience, so they suggested I include it here.

Many people find it easier to pray in church, or in a chapel, than at home. There seems to be something helpful about deliberately going to a place that is set aside for prayer. In the past, wealthy Christians with grand houses would often have a chapel in their home, or a small room that was set aside for reading the Bible and praying.

Few of us have space for a chapel in our homes, but you could make a prayer corner in your room. As you go through this book trying the various experiments, why not keep some of the things you make and put them together on a shelf or windowsill in your room? Then you will build up your own personal collection of prayer objects and reminders, and create a prayer corner of your own.

This experiment takes that idea a step further. The idea is to make a small enclosed space to pray in - just big enough for one or maybe two people.

First, you’ll need to decide where to build the den. Could you make it in the corner of your bedroom? Or maybe in a family room, shed or garage? If it is summer, you might want to build one outside. This could either be something that just stays up for an afternoon, or a semi-permanent den, whatever suits the space you have available.

The easiest way to build it is to pitch a tent! You may have a tent for the garden, or do you have a younger brother or sister who has a pop-up play tent that you could borrow?

If you don’t have a tent, think about what you could use to give your den some strength and stability. You want to make sure you feel safe inside, so you don’t want to be worrying about whether it is going to collapse on you.

Here are some other ideas: a bottom bunk bed, with sheets or blankets clipped to the bunk above; a clothes airer; rearranging some pieces of furniture (chests of drawers, chairs, etc); a large cardboard box from something like a fridge or washing machine; underneath a table (inside or outside); underneath a rotary washing line or garden parasol outside.

Then cover your chosen framework with sheets, blankets, duvets etc, to make a completely enclosed space. You want it to be comfortable to sit in for a reasonable length of time, so cover the floor with pillows, cushions, beanbags etc.

Now you get to decide how to decorate your den inside! People that have tried this have particularly liked having fairy lights, or a lava lamp in the den. Or you could take a torch in with you. Just be careful only to use a low wattage lamp that doesn’t get hot, to avoid any risk of fire.

You may also want to add other things - maybe items from your prayer corner, bunting, or a rug. Make a space that feels snug and secure, somewhere you will enjoy sitting in and that feels very personal to you.

Once you have built the den, it is time to start using it to pray in. Just go in, sit down, and imagine that God is in there with you. You can either just sit quietly imagining yourself in God’s presence, or talk with him, or say prayers that you know such as the Lord’s prayer. Or why not try combining this experiment with others, and doing one or two of the other prayer activities suggested here in the den? 

Here is what Anna and Rachel had to say about trying this:

When I tried this, a friend and I had already built a den in my room, that we’d filled it with all our favourite things - soft toys, pillows, duvets. So we decided to use that to pray in together. It was quite a small space, so we were quite bunched up! It was very calming and atmospheric, and felt very warm, safe and enclosed. It was a really good environment for prayer. Praying in there with my friend, it felt like God was in there with us.

I really enjoyed praying in the den, this was definitely my favourite activity!
(Rachel, 15)

I loved praying in the den. It was much more comfortable than more formal ways of praying: I felt really safe, comfortable and enclosed in there. Also, being there with a friend made me think more about God as a friend, and that helped me feel a stronger bond of friendship with God. It felt very safe: God with us, the walls around us. Having fairy lights in the den was quite important too. They made it feel safer, as even the dark corners were lit up, and the fairy lights twinkling all around felt like they were symbolising God being in the den with us.
(Anna, 16)

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review of prayer beads

Nearly a year ago, we posted an experiment involving making a set of prayer beads: You can find it here.
For some reason it took us until now to get around to trying this one out! Here, finally, is Noah's review of it.

It was interesting making the bracelet - quite fun and interactive. It was easy to make just following the instructions, and finding the different kinds of beads. Making it didn't really feel like a prayer, though, just a fun craft activity, but the whole experience of making and using it was good.

It was quite easy to remember which bead was which because they were all different - for example, I'd chosen the biggest, shiniest one to represent God.

When it came to praying with it, I went round holding each bead in turn, and then praying about the thing that bead was for. I usually found I spent about the same amount of time on each one, except I spent more time on one of the mystery beads, which I'd decided was representing places in particular conflict and need.

At the God bead, I found I mainly prayed for the big things, the big topics that I thought God should do something about - world peace, natural disasters, that sort of thing. At the silence beads,  I just sat in silence for a while, but I did find that my mind tended to wander to other things.

At the bead for me, I prayed for myself, asking for good test results at school, help through life and so on. Then at the baptism one, I didn't really know what to pray for, so I tended to leave that one out. I wondered if I should pray for other people to be baptised, but that's their choice so it didn't seem right to pray for that.

The desert bead was a chance to pray for the rough times in my life, times when I've been bullied or felt a failure. I don't normally think of praying for those things because they are in the past, prayer isn't going to reverse time and change the fact they've happened. It was good to have the bead to tell me to pray for those things.

For the blue carefree bead I just sat there in carefree mode and prayed for peace for me, and others, and the world. I wonder if  I should have done that for the silence beads?

At the two red ones, for God's love and Jesus's death, I was confused - because praying for Gods love was kind of what I'd been doing all the time. So I prayed that God would have more love and look after the world better! Then at the second one I prayed - well, you know how Jesus died to save us from our sins? Well, I prayed that that contract hadn't run out, so to speak, and that that still was the case for everyone nowadays.

I decided that for me, the first mystery bead was for my friends and family, the second one was for places experiencing bad things and conflicts, and the third one represented nature and the environment. They stayed the same each time.

I was really confused about the Night one - it seems odd to pray a 'Dark Prayer', it sounds like something from a fantasy or sorcery TV show! So I had to think for a while about what to do there the first time I used it. In the end, because it was black I prayed for people in dark times to 'see the light'.

For the Resurrection bead, I found myself not thinking so much about the resurrection itself but more about Jesus ascending into heaven after the resurrection appearances. I prayed that everyone could get into heaven and that God would forgive them - I was thinking a bit about myself, but mainly praying for atheists and other people who aren't Christians.

Overall, I liked using the beads. It was really interactive because I'd made it myself, I was wearing it, and I could use it whenever I wanted. It was really good that it was something you could wear in public without looking stupid. Because the God bead was the biggest, I had to wear it with that on top of my wrist (or it was uncomfortable when I put my hand down), and I found that every time I glanced down and saw it, it reminded me of God.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Review of Prayer Walking

Noah writes:


For my first prayer walk, I decided to go somewhere different. Instead of walking where I live I went with a friend around the area where he lives. As I walked around I discovered places I hadn’t been to before. 

It was a very run down area and I spent most of my walk praying for the area and the people who lived there. I didn’t just pray for the town and the people in the houses but also for maybe stressed and troubled people. And for a bit of my walk I prayed for the people waiting at the bus stop in the pouring rain. 

It was kind of weird doing it with a friend: in a way it felt slightly awkward because I wanted to talk with him but he was praying, and he probably wanted to talk to me but knew I was praying. But it was nice too, because I knew someone else was praying for people and he was right there with me.

Then a few weeks later I tried this again in the area where I live, on my own. I got lost in a housing estate, which I guess was good, because there were places I hadn’t seen before and I realised there was a lot of the town I didn’t know about. 

There were some old people sitting reading so I prayed for them as I went past, that they have a happy life, and some children playing outside with a ball, so I prayed for them as well. There were also some builders who looked like they were having a rough time doing some building work, so I prayed that they were safe in their job and that God would look over them. At points where there weren’t individual people I prayed for the street or the houses I was passing - just saying ‘I pray for this street’.

It was quite nice: it felt much less selfish than praying sometimes does. I often pray for myself and for other people in countries that are in conflict or in times of need, but it was much nicer praying for people closer to home who probably still needed praying for.

 I would recommend doing it by yourself or with one other person, but probably not with a large group - thinking about doing it with my church youth group I think that would be weird, as we’d be walking round in a big group but not speaking to each other, which wouldn’t feel very sociable. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Prayer Walking

Prayer walking is a way of praying for a particular area, when we might not know exactly what the people who live there need, or even who they are.

In prayer walking, two ancient traditions of prayer are combined: intercession and pilgrimage. The first thing you might think of when you think about prayer is praying for God to help other people. This is called 'intercession', asking God to act on behalf of people or situations which we believe need God's help.

But we can often feel overwhelmed and confused by how much there is to pray for. And sometimes we don't know what is needed, so it is hard to know how to put it into words. This can be especially tricky when we want to pray for an area, perhaps the area around where we live, or around our church, or an area which has had a lot of problems recently. We won't always know who all the people are that we are praying for, and the problems an area has may be very complicated.

As in the ancient tradition of pilgrimage, the very fact of walking means that we are 'walking the walk not just talking the talk'. We aren't just saying prayers, we are expressing our care for the place we are praying for physically, by walking around it. We are putting ourselves to some effort, not just sitting comfortably at home. And the action of walking takes up some of our conscious mind, so that prayer can flow more freely without us worrying too much about our exact words.

The main difference with pilgrimage is that there doesn't need to be a particular destination in mind. Instead of walking to get somewhere, in this kind of prayer walk the walking around an area is the point: the walk itself, up and down the local streets, park or shops, is itself the destination. You could of course choose to walk to a particular place, maybe a park, viewpoint or church, but the point of this exercise is not getting there, but praying for the places you pass through and think about on the way.

Before setting off, plan your route and tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back (a basic safety precaution). You can do this walk either alone or in a small group, maybe with a friend from church.

As you walk, pray – not out loud, just in your head – for the places you are passing. You might ask for God to bless the people who live in the houses you pass. If you pass a school, or shops, or offices, you could pray for the people who work there, and for all that they do. A particular business might make you think of things to pray for: a supermarket might spark off a thought about fair trade, or struggling farmers, or those who can't afford food easily. A newsagent might make you think about people in the news, or about the people reading their papers at home and what they are worrying about. A florist might remind you to pray for people who will be buying flowers this week to celebrate, or to mourn.

If you pass churches or other places of worship, pray for the people who meet there: depending on your local situation you might also want to pray for particular community tensions, or church projects.

Just let thoughts arise in your mind, and when you notice that you are thinking about something, pray for it.

There will probably be people passing you, on foot, car, bicycle or bus. You might pray for God's Holy Spirit to fill the lady who passes you walking their dog, or for the man just leaving the shop across the road to be aware of God's presence with him as he goes. If an ambulance goes past, pray for the paramedics and whoever they are going to help. A delivery van might make you think of praying for anyone whose birthday it is today, or for those who are lonely and never get letters or parcels.

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.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Minecraft Place of Worship

Many people associate praying with going to Church or another special place where they can feel at peace. Although we can pray to God anywhere, you might find going somewhere that is set aside as being 'for prayer' helpful in focusing your mind.

But where do you spend most time? It could be a good idea to think about how you can make that into a place for prayer.

My son spends large amounts of time on the computer game Minecraft. So we wondered - could Minecraft be somewhere you can pray?

So this experiment involves creating a prayer space on Minecraft (or another world building game).
Think about what your ideal place for prayer would be. Where would it be? What would it look like? How big would it be? What would you do there?

Now go online and have a go! Once you've built it, try spending there praying. Is it any different to being in a chapel, church, or prayer space in the real world? If so, how?

Noah's Review:

I didn't want to build a massive cathedral but I wanted something fairly big. I made it look like a traditional church, because that is what my church looks like: I was sort of trying to create my version of our local church. Because its a nice church and makes me think about God, because its got the right kind of atmosphere.
So I made a church building, with a nave and the altar, choir stalls, at least 50 pews, a bell tower and stained glass windows. I built it facing East-West, so the sun would come up through the big window over the altar.
During the build dad and I were more thinking about what to build, but towards the end I was thinking about the stuff in the church when I was putting in the details - the pews, and the pulpit, and so on. I was thinking about how it is all designed to face the front and wondering whether that is a good thing or not. It makes you focus on what the vicar has to say, but because it makes everyone focus on the front they might miss some of the other lovely bits of the church that people put lots of effort into building.
At the end I had a little bit of pray. I got a vicar skin (costume) for my character, and did a short service in the church as the vicar. It was just me and my younger brother, with him being the congregation. First, we sang one verse of 'Nearer my God to thee' (which we remembered from the film Titanic). Then I went up into the pulpit and told the story of Jesus asking the Samaritan woman for water at the well (we'd done that reading in Junior Church that morning), and I ended by asking my brother a question about the reading. He answered, and then he left and I went and stood in front of the altar looking at the big window. Then I took my hands off the keyboard and said a few prayers. When I was praying I wasn't looking at the Minecraft screen, I was praying in real life.

Ease of use: 2/10 It took me two hours to build it even with help from my dad!
Spiritual value: 7.5/10 It did make me pray, but during the building I wasn't thinking about god but about the details of the building.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

9. ACTS 2: Confession

TPE 7: ACTS 2 - Confession, or 'Owning up'

'Confession' has two distinct meanings. The first is the one you are probably most familiar with - owning up to what you've done wrong. Normally, this includes saying sorry, and promising to try not to do it again - though we all know that is a promise we often don't keep! Most church services include a 'confession'. This is a time when the whole church congregation says sorry to God for not living up to the standard of human life that the Bible and Jesus' life set out for us.

The second meaning is again 'owning up', but this time to our faith. Standing up for what we believe in. We often literally stand up for what we believe in, as everyone stands to say a Creed (from the Latin 'credo', meaning 'I believe'), or other statement of faith: a short summary of what the church believes about God.

Confession is the second element of the ACTS pattern of prayer. In our personal prayers, the very fact that we are praying is a 'confession' of sorts. We are 'confessing' that there is a God who hears and answers prayers, just by praying at all. So in our personal prayers we don't very often say a formal 'statement of faith'. But for as long as people have been praying, owning up to what we've done wrong has been an important part of prayer.

I wonder what you think this owning up achieves? God, of course, already knows everything that we have done. So by owning up, we aren't letting God into a secret that we could otherwise keep to ourselves. It's not like telling your mum that it was you that broke that plate, when she thought it was probably the cat! But God seems to like us to admit what we are doing wrong. (Even if your mum knew perfectly well it was you that broke the plate, she is likely to be pleased with your honesty if you own up). Why?

Well, if we don't own up to what we are doing wrong, we can't change it. If we pretend that there is nothing at all wrong with how we are living our lives, then we are saying we don't intend to change anything. Sometimes we don't want to own up to things that are wrong because we are ashamed or embarrassed. But if we make a practice of regularly admitting that everything isn't perfect, we can help ourselves to focus on what changes we'd like to see.

This isn't because Christians are miserable, but the opposite! Even for those who wouldn't call themselves Christian, it is a really important part of any spirituality or self-improvement programme. No athlete gets to the top of their game by deciding they are so good there is nothing they need to work on, and the same applies to all of our lives.

The Experiment:
Get some stones (gravel, stones from the garden, or even twigs or leaves, or maybe coins). Have at least 3, and up to say 6 or 7. Put a bowl of water in front of you, and the stones in a pile. Sit down, and pick up the first stone. As you hold it, think about one thing that is not as good as it could be in your life. Own up to it. Then put the stone into the water: you are giving it to God, not holding its weight any longer. And it is being washed clean. Pick up the next stone and think of something else, and repeat as many times as seems right. When you have finished, you might like to end by simply saying 'Amen', or you could repeat this traditional prayer: 'Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.'

[A health warning: It is really important, when you confess as part of your private prayers, to remember that confession and God's forgiveness go together. One of the things Christians believe about Jesus's death on the cross is that as he died, he took all the blame for anything we might do wrong. So we don't confess because otherwise God won't like us: God has already forgiven us. If, when you pray, you find that you still feel guilty after confessing, and you can't shake off a feeling that God didn't mean to forgive you, then please go and talk about this to someone you trust from church, perhaps your vicar or youth worker.]