Spirit Lab: Experimenting with Ancient Practices for Engaging with Prayer and Scripture
Amy Janssen, Pastoral Intern, Sierra Evangelical Lutheran Church, Sierra Vista, AZ. Sept 2018 – Aug 2019
Why was this project subject of interest to you?
One of my goals for internship was to explore and nourish my own prayer and devotional life. I have often been drawn more to the logistical, busy, and measurable parts of ministry and I wanted to learn more about different ways to enrich my relationship with God through prayer and scripture. My interest in these ancient Christian and Jewish practices was sparked when I listened to a podcast called, “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” which asks the question, “What if we read the books we love as if they were sacred texts?” In this podcast, the hosts discuss one chapter from the Harry Potter series and discuss how it could inform and enrich their lives. They are careful to point out that “The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement.” In each episode, the hosts (who were divinity school students themselves) employ one traditional form of sacred reading chosen from a variety of ancient practices.
Why was your context a good fit for this project?
The congregation had shown great interest in and enthusiasm for some contemplative prayer practices which I implemented during our Advent Wednesday evening worships. There is also a vibrant tradition of intercessory prayer during the Prayers of the People in worship where people relish the opportunity to name aloud those whom they wish to raise up during the petition for those who are ill or in need of extra care. There is also a well-attended weekly adult bible study which is more academic, but rarely engages intentionally with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, I thought this would fulfill a need for more and different methods of prayer and scripture engagement.
Why might this project be of interest to your fellow interns?
Christians need more support in nurturing their prayer and devotional practices. Leading a “workshop” or “lab” to experiment with these unfamiliar or “lost” practices helps people open up to the leading of the Holy Spirit in their prayer and scripture engagement rather than simply seeing it as listing needs or names or just an academic exercise of “bible study”. The leader enables people to learn something new and be encouraged in its use by giving guidance and positive feedback so they know they’re not doing it “wrong”.
What: Each time we met, we learned about a new practice – its history, its intention, its procedure – and then tried it out together. These practices were: the Ignatian practice of Gospel Contemplation (Spiritual Imagination); the Jewish practices of Havruta and PaRDeS; the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina, the Latin-based practice of Floralegia; the Christian contemplative practice of Centering Prayer; and Praying in Color (praying through artistic expression/doodling).
Each session ended with a time to process our experience, discussion on what was life-giving and what was uncomfortable, and sharing about whether participants would choose to engage with the practice more frequently or on their own. I also challenged participants to try the practice regularly for the next week. Each week when we returned, we briefly discussed how our experimentation went and what we learned from it.
Who: The majority of the sessions were attended by only adults, however, the Praying in Color session was expanded on Sunday morning as one of our monthly GIFT (Generations in Faith Together) events. In this event, people of all ages experimented with this new method of creative prayer. It was a hit!
Where/When: This project involved a weekly group that met to study and experiment with various prayer and scripture practices for 7 weeks beginning in mid-February. Sessions were held both on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings (same content at different times) for about one hour at round tables in our church’s fellowship hall.
Purpose: To enrich the prayer and devotional lives of the participants (and the leader!) and provide a safe space to experiment with new practices with guidance.
Outcomes and Transformations at your Context:
Offering an opportunity for folks to try out a new prayer or devotional discipline during Lent is a meaningful endeavor. Participants expressed joy in trying out new practices with guidance, citing times when they had tried to change their prayer or devotional routine on their own and “it didn’t stick”. Several members expressed that they have adopted one or more of the practices we studied and tried in their personal devotional and prayer lives. There was no single practice that everyone thought was a waste of time. Even the people who didn’t like certain practices could see the value in utilizing it every so often. Many are also open to gathering semi-regularly in the future to practice some of the group/partner disciplines together. I count that as a WIN!
Outcomes and Transformations you experienced:
I also enjoyed learning more about the practices I presented. As a teacher, I have always felt joy in learning so that I might teach and that joy only multiplies when I see others benefitting from that learning. As I continue in ministry, I hope to engage in some of these practices as Lenten disciplines or even as regular weekly or daily practices to enrich my own prayer and devotional life.
How might this project influence your ministry in a settled ministry call?
One of the participants made a point to let me know that during a time of prayer he received a clear message from the Holy Spirit that he should encourage me to do this type of “lab” with my future congregations. Christians, in our ever more secularized society, need ways of engaging with the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and intentionally engaging with prayer practices is one way to do that.