My wife is a contemplative. I watch her pray and I have to wonder how she does it. Her eyes close, her face gets a serene, contended look on it, and she sits there. And sits there.
She doesn’t move.
She doesn’t speak.
She just sits there listening and communing with God.
Then there’s me. I don’t think I’ve sat still to pray for more than five or ten minutes before something distracts me. I hear a door shut and I’m jolted out of my prayers and wonder who came home. The distant sound of an airplane sets me to fantasizing about vacationing. And whenever I get distracted I know my prayer time is over—it’s difficult, if not impossible, to reengage.
I thought I wasn’t spiritual enough. I felt guilty because I wasn’t disciplined enough. So my prayer life was left to short conversations with God throughout the day—a better compromise than quitting prayer altogether. But through it all, I yearned to spend extended times with God. It was something I knew I needed, but I didn’t have any idea how to bring it to fruition. So, I pretty much gave up.
Medical research has suggested that North Americans are suffering from decreasing attention spans. They blame television, information overload, less-than-optimal parenting, and a host of other reasons; however, it may be less important for most of us to wonder why attention spans are dwindling and more important that we face reality. So, if you’re one of us—or if you know someone who is—let me offer a few ideas about prayer that have worked for me and for others who either can’t sit still, or would rather not.
When you can’t sit still, quiet time prayer can be challenging, so I’ve discovered by putting some action into my prayer time allows me to achieve a measure of reflection and introspection.
One of the most powerful prayer experiences I’ve ever witnessed was an action prayer offered by a twelve-year-old boy during summer camp. The camp was by a lake and the shore was covered by thousands of flat smooth stones—perfect for skipping on the water. Each child choose three stones and found a place along the shore. We gave each a Sharpie marker and asked them to think and pray about what it was in their lives they wanted God to throw out—things like anger, shame, or sickness. Then they wrote on the stone a one- or two-word description. After a few minutes we asked the children to project what they were getting rid of onto the rock and then to throw it into the lake as far as they could.
The scene that unfolded was truly inspirational. Some of the children teared up, others expressed relief. And then there was Teddy. Teddy was from a troubled family and he was a troubled child. He didn’t respond well to direction, and he didn’t often sit still. He gathered his stones with some care and he took seriously the bid to write something he wanted to rid from his life. One of the counselors was near him as he began to write and to hear him cry, “I don’t want to treat my mama like I have been. I want to love my mama.” And then he threw the stone as far into the lake as his twelve-year-old arm could muster. When Teddy finished, he left the prayer time with a new determination to love his mother with his actions, not just his words.
The practice of prayer in action has served me well in exploring and expressing my inner spirit. I walk to a nearby spot where I can throw a rock or two and spend time with God, reflecting on what I need to let go of. If you don’t live near a handy throwing field, there are a number of variations on this theme. For instance, if you’re a golfer, add prayer to your swing next time you’re hitting a bucket of balls on the driving range. And don’t forget the local batting cages where you can step into the batter’s box with a Louisville Slugger for a few prayerful pop-flies.
About twenty years ago, if you asked somebody what a labyrinth was, you’d most likely hear something mumbled about David Bowie as the Goblin King in some fantasy movie by that name. However, today you can find a labyrinth in nearly every metropolitan area if you’re willing to look—and most of them you’ll find in churches.
Walking a labyrinth is unlike any other experience I’ve encountered. I heard about labyrinths at a conference and my imagination was fired up. As the pastor of a church with a round sanctuary, I thought a labyrinth would be a perfect addition. It didn’t take much to convince the congregation and we designed and installed the labyrinth with excitement. After nine hours of carpet dying the labyrinth was ready. We dimmed the lights, put on an instrumental CD, and began to pray and walk.
I noticed something almost right away—my mind was quiet and I could walk the labyrinth without having to think about it. I just put one foot in front of the other and followed the path. The more circuits I completed, the more clarity I had in my prayer. By the time I reached the center of the labyrinth I was able to sit on the floor and pray without fidgeting for longer than ever before. I felt centered, at peace, and focused. For the first time in my life I experienced what I could only describe as a contemplative prayer.
Since then, I’ve become addicted to labyrinth walking. When my feet find the path of prayer, my spirit resonates deep within me. However, I no longer have access to a church with a labyrinth, so I did the next best thing. I built my own. Though my yard is nearly postage stamp sized, I designed a ten foot square labyrinth and when the weather cooperates I “build” it using four nails, a roll of twine, a tape measure, and a can of marking paint (see my book Prayer for People Who Can’t Sit Still for specific directions). From start to finish, it takes me less than forty-five minutes to go from grassy yard to sacred labyrinth. And though here in Seattle we “officially” get 210 precipitation free days, when I’m willing to wear a jacket and wait for the rains to subside, I can walk my labyrinth almost year round. Regardless of the weather, when I put my feet into prayer, I find myself enfolded in the warmth of the Spirit.
Pray in Print
Whenever I attend worship and the pastor says, “Let us pray,” I know as I bow my head and close my eyes I’ll be zoned out from the prayer in short order. I’ve found the solution to the problem is choosing not to sit still—at least, not completely still. Today, whenever I attend worship, I take a pen and my journal with me. Then, when the pastoral prayer time comes, I know it’s my cue to open my journal and begin to pray in print.
When I use my journal to pray, I use it as if it were stationary and I’m writing a letter. Journaling a letter to God is like writing a letter to a friend, except it doesn’t take a stamp or an email address. To journal a letter to God, begin as if you were writing any other letter: “Dear God.” Now, most of the time when we write a letter, we spend an inordinate amount of space on small talk. However, if you’re going to write a letter to God during the pastoral prayer, get right to the point—you don’t have that much time! Whether you’re going to God for a favor, a blessing, or some request, don’t spend a lot of time mincing words.
When I write my prayers, I’m brutally honest with God. When my life is in a dark place, I get real with my feelings and fears—it’s not like God doesn’t already know what’s on my heart. I’ve learned that whenever my prayers aren’t absolutely honest they ring hollow and I’m left unsatisfied, as if my prayer time was empty. However, when I’m willing to be completely honest, even if when my honesty seems not-so-nice (see Psalm 109 for an example), God honors my time and I go away thoughtful and fulfilled.
If you have trouble sitting still for prayer, you’re not alone. There are millions of us here in North America. Though this is but a small sample of the opportunities for praying in motion, hopefully there are enough to whet your appetite and get you started. So whether you’re like me and can’t sit still, or if you just want to bolster your prayer time, you can have the prayer life you desire if you’re willing to get up and move.