Moving Prayers: Teach Us To Pray
A child sings and prays at Kholosi United Methodist Church, part of the Ngabu Circuit in Malawi.
COURTESY KARA OLIVER
After living in Malawi for two years, Kara Oliver returned home to Nashville, Tenn., and began to incorporate some of the passion and movement she saw in the prayers of the people of Africa into her own life.
Watching her Christian brothers and sisters from other cultures gave Oliver, the publications coordinator for Discipleship Resources International at the General Board of Discipleship, new understanding about how posture and body position can influence the prayer experience.
"Prayer necessarily includes movement in the cultures that I've been in, in Africa," she said. "Whether it's clapping or dancing or kneeling, the posture of your body demonstrates what kind of prayer you're engaged in."
Oliver thinks being willing to move in prayer creates vulnerability. "The connection between the body and mind does help you get in touch with your feelings, the groans of your spirit," she said
The Rev. Dwight Judy, professor emeritus of spiritual formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, combines movement and prayer in his daily life.
"I used to jog very faithfully; now I walk very faithfully," he said. A few years ago, he decided to use his daily exercise time for prayer. "My foot hits the pavement, and I say a morning prayer and then begin my intercessions.
Praying in the center marks the mid-point of walking the labyrinth at First United Methodist Church in San Diego. The church has both an outdoor labyrinth and this one that can be used indoors and taken to other sites.
COURTESY GARY KRUEGER
"When you're doing your physical exercise, your mind is also engaged. When we're out by ourselves, moving, we tend to be geared to think about things and sort them through and get fresh inspiration."
Judy, the author of A Quiet Pentecost: Inviting the Spirit into Congregational Life (Upper Room) described some people he knows who include movement in their prayer practices.
One woman leads guided nature walks. She has the group walk, pause, absorb what is around them, then walk some more. Sometimes she has the people write a poem at the end. "Sort of solitude in group," he said.
Some swimmers integrate their laps with a prayer phrase or with the Jesus prayer.
A man who lives in a retirement home carries Psalms with him on his daily walk. When he tires of walking, he takes a break, reads and thinks about a psalm and then resumes his walk.
Any actions "where we pause from our very busy lives, we pause from the addiction to our media gadgets—our computers and all the rest—and (get) back in touch just with ourselves and with God, is good for us," Judy said.
Labyrinths enhance focus
Another way many United Methodists are finding inspiration through movement is by using labyrinths. Unlike mazes, which create confusion, labyrinths are designed to take the walker on a journey toward clarity. While labyrinths are traditionally walked, hand-held labyrinths, on which the pattern is traced with a finger or stylus, are making the practice more widely available.
Gary Krueger, coordinator of the labyrinth for First United Methodist Church of San Diego, Calif., said labyrinths give people an opportunity "for prayer, meditation and to reflect upon your life's journey."
He thinks having an open mind, relaxing, listening and focusing on one's feelings while walking the labyrinth works better than having a specific prayer in mind.
"It's a meditation tool," he said. "Each time you walk a labyrinth, it can be different."
Judy said labyrinths typically involve a journey with three stages—purification, illumination and union.
"Walking in is —where am I, what's on my mind, what's troubling me?" he said. "Illumination (is) at the center—getting inspiration for that day. People pause for a while, ruminate, ponder, invite God's inspiration for them. Then walking out, you really kind of reintegrate—union with life."
Oliver has found walking a labyrinth while praying "occupies me enough that I'm not distracted by the outside world."
No longer rote
Dance and yoga can also help those who practice them focus their prayers and listen to God.
Marcia Miller, a dance teacher in Connecticut, leads the Jubilation Dancers at United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry. She believes dance—in public or private—can "definitely" be a form of prayer.
Dancing in church is completely different from dancing to entertain, she said. "You are performing for God. You are dancing to praise God and not yourself or your teacher or anyone else."
Miller's group has danced to written works like "The Lord's Prayer" and Psalm 23."When you dance it, you interpret those feelings, it's a whole different experience," she said. "It's not then that rote message or something you've done 100 times. It speaks to you in a whole different way."
Oliver practices "yoga as part of my meditation and prayer." She finds it connects her body with her spirit.
Before moving to Malawi, Oliver practiced yoga solely for physical health benefits. After returning home, she "found my emotions were flowing much stronger during my practice and after my practice. I would have sermons come to me during yoga practice. Clarity about things comes to me during yoga practice because it slows me down to hear and listen."
Many ways to pray
Regardless of the types of physical movement people incorporate into their prayers, Judy thinks it relates to a larger discussion of the way most Americans view prayer.
"Most of us grew up and prayer was one way—hands folded and head bowed... but there are lots of different ways to pray," he said. "I think all of that [movement] is very educational for us, and it enables us to be fresh. 'Wow, I haven't tried this before so I come to it with an openness to experience what God has to share with me in a new way.'"
Judy also thinks developing an open mind about how to pray will be inviting to those outside of the Christian faith.
"In my mind, it's a very powerful way of evangelism," he said. "As our congregations learn about these methods, (sharing) them with the community can be a form of outreach and helping the community."
Emily Snell is a blogger and freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
Kara Oliver learned the joy of "dancing with Jesus" during prayer at Kholosi United Methodist Church on the Ngabu Circuit in Malawi.
COURTESY KARA OLIVER
Focus on your interaction with God, not those around you. In Malawi, she experienced worship where "you can be so happy that you want to dance, you can be so sad that you fall to your knees." She now kneels in church and remains at the Communion rail "longer than the allotted 20 seconds."
Start with simple gestures. Pray with open eyes and open palms. Physically kneel at your bedside. Walk and pray out loud.
Dance can be private and simple movements. Lift your arms to the heavens or lower your head and bend your knees. Swirl your arms over your head, thinking of the Holy Spirit.
Stand still, relaxed but alert and move as the Spirit leads you.
The attitude matters more than the movement. Prayer is about "putting ourselves in postures where we can listen to God as well as voice our needs."
The Jubilation Dancers at United Methodist Church of Gales Ferry in Connecticut often lead the congregation in prayer.
COURTESY MARCIA MILLER
Labyrinths: http://veriditas.org/ (includes a worldwide labyrinth locator).
A Quiet Pentecost, Dwight Judy, Upper Room (The Upper Room, www.upperroom.org/bookstore, 800-972-0433)
Companions in Christ—The Way of Prayer, Jane Vennard, Upper Room.
Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, Daniel Wolpert, Upper Room.
Paths to Prayer, Patricia D. Brown, Jossey Bass (Cokesbury, www.cokesbury.com, 800-672-1789).
Walking a Sacred Path, Lauren Artress, Riverhead (Cokesbury).
'Teach Us to Pray' webinars
Webinars sponsored by Interpreter and The Upper Room will resume in September. See details in August at www.umc.org/pray.