What is Prayer?

By April 11, 2019

Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2019 Lent Edition

CONNECT Magazine is your source for the stories of our FUMCFW Faith Community — and how each fits in with our Healthy Plate Discipleship. Pick up your copy in the Main Office and Welcome Center or read it online.
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What is your prayer story? How do you practice prayer? What do you know about prayer? What would you like to know?

“We’ve got a lot of different notions about prayer,” says Rev. Carol Roberts, Associate Pastor. “But the truth is you don’t have to always pray in any certain way.” Referring to the iconic, “fold your hands, bow your head and close your eyes” kind of prayer, Carol laughs. “God is not going to strike you down if you’re not in this posture for prayer.”

Carol says that prayer comes in all kinds of forms, from the classic forms such as Centering Prayer, Lectio Divinia, and Intercessory Prayer, which have been taught at First Church for years by Dr. Len Delony. To these practices Carol adds Praying the Scriptures, Prayers for Self-examination and Confession, Praying for Others, Praying with Others, and something she calls “Ever-ready Prayers.” To these more structured prayer practices, Carol also adds what she calls “Sensory Prayers,” including Meditation, Contemplative Practices such as walking a labyrinth, and “Body Prayers” such as yoga and dance. “In other cultures, there are many different kinds of postures for prayer,” she explains. She raises her hands and turns her face upward and smiles, eyes wide open. “How can you not be joyful when you’re in a posture like this?” she asks. “When you’re walking in nature and noticing the beauty of God’s creation around you, why isn’t that also a prayer?”

Do we have to pray in words? “I don’t think you have to use words, Carol notes. “Sometimes it’s just our presence in a situation — paying attention to the warmth of the sunshine, for example.” She relates that several people she talked to on a recent winter day that surprised everyone with warm sunshine and clear blue skies with just the right amount of nip in the air (hello, Texas!) had remarked, ‘I just stopped and felt the warmth of the sun on my face and smiled.’ Carol, remembering doing that very thing herself on a short walk downtown that day, adds, “That can be a prayer!” 

By familiarizing ourselves with some of these prayer practices, we’ll be able to call upon what we need most in any situation. God is always listening, Carol reminds us, and God doesn’t care what form of prayer we choose. What matters most is that we choose a way to pray that helps us feel closer to God — and that brings us to a greater awareness of God’s presence in that moment.

Dr. Bill Longsworth, who literally wrote the book on prayer, agrees. “Most of my individual praying is when I drive the car,” he confides. “Praying, for me, is oftentimes as simple as thinking about a person who is having a hard time.”

Referring to Søren Kierkegaard, a famous 19th Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author whose theological work focuses on Christian faith, ethics and love, Bill says that Kierkegaard teaches that there are three kinds of prayer:

  1. Ask for what you want.
  2. When you don’t get it, ask for understanding.
  3. When that doesn’t come, you’re reduced to silence, in which case you listen.

“That’s the most profound kind of prayer of all,” Bill (and Kierkegaard) say. “Listening.”

Saying that he doesn’t ever pray out loud when he’s alone, Bill adds, “My individual prayer practice consists mostly of thoughts — thoughts that I’m sharing with God.”

Bill’s personal prayer practice clearly underscores the idea that prayer has no specific form or ritual in order to be accepted and heard by God. “In fact,” he adds, “because of God’s presence, whether we know it or not our whole life is a conversation with God — and sometimes we’re aware of it.”

Join The Healthy Plate “Pray” Buffet

Each Wednesday during Lent, Carol will lead a special prayer class with Healthy Plate Discipleship in mind, with identical morning and evening sessions to accommodate different schedules. “It will be kind of a buffet,” she quips, “of prayer practices and methods.”

In addition to exploring types, methods and practices of prayer, another topic of Carol’s prayer class will include praying out loud. For those of you who secretly cringe when called on the pray out loud, from family gatherings to Sunday School classes to other gatherings where group prayer is called for, Carol assures us that this need not be as intimidating as we may think it is. “It’s like anything else,” she adds. “It just takes some practice!”

In addition to her Wednesday prayer class, Carol will also lead a special, come-and-go time of prayer in the Chapel on Wednesdays from 11:45 – 1:30, with a short prayer service at 12:15.

The Labyrinth Is A Place For Listening

What does your True Self really need right now? What would feed and nurture your soul most? Do you even know? Here’s an opportunity to listen for your deepest yearnings, to find that place of trust, opening, and listening to God.

Have you ever been curious about the Labyrinth? Why do we have one? How does it work as a prayer practice? What can you possibly get from walking slowly in your socks along this tangled yet concentric circular path around a center shaped like petals of a flower? Here’s your opportunity to learn more about this ancient practice of contemplative prayer.

The labyrinth is a special prayer path the church has used for many centuries (ours is based on the one built in the 1200s at Chartres Cathedral in France) to help deepen one’s awareness of God’s presence and guidance. Today, in our fast-paced, “hurry-up,” and “do more” culture, this ancient practice is being rediscovered as a powerful way to slow down, quiet the mind, heart, and soul — and to prayerfully listen for God’s guiding presence.

Dr. Len Delony, FUMCFW Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation, whose own career path has been one of learning and teaching others about listening, contemplative practices, spiritual discernment, and healing the soul, remembers a pivotal moment of walking the labyrinth many years ago at University Christian Church with his family. “Beka and I walked with her mom, JoAnn,” he remembers. “I had Anna in my backpack, and Beka carried Katherine in the womb.”

Len says that this powerful experience was the main reason his family felt called to donate the FUMCFW Labyrinth on the day Katherine was baptized on December 31, 2000 so that other families could share this experience. “It has been nice to see so many families — even across three generations,” he adds, “who have walked together on our prayer labyrinth.”

Mark Burrows, Director of Children’s Ministries, admits that the first few times he walked the labyrinth he didn’t take it very seriously. In fact, he remembers that his goal was to run the labyrinth in less than a minute. He laughs. “And that’s really hard to do in socks!”

Then on Ash Wednesday 2010 Mark was at a crossroads, having just been offered the position as Director of Children’s Ministries and was still unsure of his answer. So he decided to give his labyrinth walk a real chance. “Slow down. Settle down. See what happens,” he told himself as he began his walk. “I walked the labyrinth,” he relates. “And then, in the center there were small tiles with words painted on them. The one I picked had one simple word: ‘Yes.’ That was the answer I needed, even wanted, to hear,” he adds. “So I just sat there in the middle of the labyrinth — in my socks — with tears rolling down my face. I knew without question what to do.”

How To Walk The Labyrinth

“I suspect there are as many ways to walk the labyrinth as there are people on this planet.”

— Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress

Walking the labyrinth is nothing mysterious or complicated. You don’t have to have a burning question. Or any question at all. Before you begin your walk, you may wish to take a moment to reflect on your life, including accomplishments, difficult situations, new directions, family relationships, or whatever concerns you most at this moment. Or you may just want to see what bubbles up on its own.

Take a few deep breaths and allow your mind to let go of your active thoughts.

As you begin to walk, turn your attention to your breathing, six counts in through your nose, six counts out through your mouth.

Follow the path and simply allow your body to move at the pace it wants to go.

While allowing your attention to flow through you, notice without judgment where it tends to settle.

As new thoughts appear, let them go by returning your attention to your breathing.

If you have a question, burden, or decision you’d like to contemplate, try to hold it lightly in the back of your mind, beyond conscious thought as you walk. This is a time for listening.

If your mind doesn’t seem to want to settle, you may wish to repeat a word or phrase, or even a passage of Scripture.

Learning to work with your own mind, body, tendencies, and preferences is the key to finding what works best for you for walking the labyrinth as a prayer practice. Or, in the words of Mark Burrows once he found his own way, the most important thing to remember is, “Slow down. Settle down. See what happens.”

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