Have you ever run a discipleship experiment? When was the last time you tried something new related to following Jesus or being shaped by him?
I think a spirit of adventure and discovery goes a long way in the life of a follower. Not everything you try will be right for you, or right for this season of your life; but the willingness to try something even if you don’t know it will work is a real benefit for people who are led by the Spirit and want to keep in step with the Spirit.
Whether you like trying new things, or you would like to get better at trying new things, I’ve got just the thing for you! The stakes are super low; if it fails, who cares? And if it works, the benefit is real.
Not long ago, I got to sit down with my friend Valerie, the Educational Development Consultant at Visual Faith Ministry. I wanted to ask her for some experiments I could run in my life of prayer. I know her and trust her stuff. I’ve even worked with her before, so it was easy for me to ask for help.
I think that is already the first takeaway: find help. You don’t have to wait until you are in crisis to seek support or encouragement or training or just another tool in your discipleship bag. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. Ask someone you trust for one idea, one thing they do that helps them take a next step following Jesus.
Then try it out; run an experiment. It will probably seem uncomfortable the first couple of times. Give it a chance. And then, if it’s not for you, no harm done; stick it in a file to pull out some time when you are desperate. Sometimes a different season will make a specific method more helpful than at other times.
If you try it and love it, however, find a way to integrate that practice into your following Jesus toolbox; then ask for something new to try. The adventure of discovering new things the Spirit is giving you has no end; not here, not even in eternity. Ask. Seek. Knock. Experiment, and it will be given unto you…
So I was asking and seeking and knocking because I wanted a new experiment or two, and my friend Valerie came through; no surprise there. Am I glad I asked for help!
The Secret Code Prayer
The first tool we tried out is called “The Secret Code Prayer.” She gave me a couple of others, as well, but I started my mad scientist discipleship experiments with this one.
The Secret Code Prayer uses a 4 x 6 card of graph paper. (The first time I tried it, I just drew my own, but later experiments showed that graph paper does actually help. After a little looking, I discovered you can even get a pack of 4×6 graph paper index cards at your local office supply store!)
The directions for the Secret Code Prayer are simple:
1) set a timer for five minutes, and then
2) proceed to write out a prayer as you pray, one letter at a time.
Choose all UPPER CASE or all lower case, don’t add spaces between words or punctuation, and don’t worry about spelling. It’s not a race, and in five minutes, you should not expect to get all the way through the card, and that’s OK.
When the timer goes off,
3) finish your thought, add an amen and stop.
(I found it helpful to go back and pray through the whole prayer again from the beginning a couple of times, but that’s extra credit and not part of the original instructions. Bringing a spirit of innovation to your faith walk means trying new things, and then modifying those new things as you go.)
I later learned an elementary school student dubbed this faith experiment “The Secret Code Prayer” because of the way the letters all flow together and the words wrap to the next line: the effect looks like a garbled code you would have to break to understand. When Valerie was coaching me in this experiment, she noted that, because the prayer is so hard to read at a glance, you gain a certain amount of privacy, even in a group, so it works well with a class or a staff team. But the practice of the Secret Code Prayer is designed to be an individual exercise, even when someone is sitting next to you and filling out their own Secret Code 4 x 6 card.
In my own Secret Code Prayer experiments, I noticed a couple of the same things other people have found helpful. Try it yourself and see what you think.
A. I found that writing the letters one by one made my mind slow down.
That seems to be one of Visual Faith’s primary goals in all the resources they develop: they want to slow our active brains down and help focus our thoughts.
Instead of jumping ahead to the next petition in my head or getting distracted by my list of Things I Should Really Be Doing Right Now Instead of Wasting Time Like This (I hate that list), I found it was easy to stay focused on what I was saying to God. Even when I went back and reread the prayer a second time, it was difficult enough to piece the words and sentences together that I couldn’t rush through it like I so naturally do with prayers that are easy to read out loud.
Your mind works faster than you can possibly talk or even read silently, so it’s natural for your thinking to outpace the words you pray. But when my brain had to worry about one letter at a time, I had to focus my thoughts and move slowly.
In prayer, focusing your thoughts and moving slowly are both an advantage. But in a culture that thrives on speed and distraction, we are not trained to value moving slowly or being focused. I think the natural habits encouraged by our culture make a tool like the Secret Code Prayer really important. We need help to overcome the speed and distraction that permeates our daily lives.
B. In my own experiment, I also discovered that my prayer vocabulary changed when I used the Secret Code Prayer.
I am not typically flowery or effusive in prayer, but there are some churchy kind of vocabulary words that sneak into your prayer life unnoticed, even if you know a polished prayer with fancy vocab doesn’t get you any extra credit.
Now, I appreciate both polished prayers and fancy vocab, but it also felt right and natural and real to pray in words that were short (and that I could spell). It’s amazing how fast you start filtering out pious phrases or complex sentences!
This thing is taking forever, man! I’m not going to waste effort on a complicated thought with high scoring Scrabble words! Short, sweet, and honest; that’s the way to go! And I’m not going to “implore” or “entreat” or “beseech;” I’m just gonna say “please”…
So using The Secret Code Prayer, I found my prayers were more focused as I took more time actually thinking about (and meaning) what I was praying. (The five minutes went by quickly, and I had plenty to say in that time.) What’s more, my prayers were noticeably more straightforward with God, simple in a good way, and direct.
All in all, I think the experiment was a success, and The Secret Code Prayer will be one of the tools I use to help other people delight in taking a next step following Jesus. But more importantly, I have put that tool into my regular rotation of prayer.
OK; hold on one second. “Regular rotation of prayer” kind of sounds like I have an awesome and diverse system of intentional methods for experiencing variety, energy, and excitement in my walk with Jesus. I don’t.
But I want to.
So while my “regular rotation” is feeble and inconsistent and awkward, I am still adding The Secret Code Prayer to the short list of things I am trying to collect to help me figure out how not to be such an incompetent follower.
This discipleship walk is marked by ups and downs and seasons of growth and seasons of lying fallow. I don’t want you to feel pressure to have an awesome and diverse system of intentional methods for your walk with Jesus; and I do think Jesus is extending you and me both an invitation to experience variety, energy, and excitement in our walk with Him; and having a diverse system of intentional methods will help with that.
The task of running an experiment is not supposed to be a burden or a guilt trip; this is supposed to be fun! So take a deep breath. You aren’t alone in having a really feeble prayer life. You are loved and forgiven and valued, already now, just as you are. And the Spirit invites you to come play!
What new prayer life playground equipment will you try out to see if it adds delight to your relationship with God? I’m going to spend some more time with The Secret Code Prayer, over by the swings. It was a real help, though it took some getting used to. And I would never have discovered this new tool for my faith journey if I hadn’t asked for help even when I wasn’t in crisis.
Thanks, Valerie! I follow Jesus a little more closely, and I receive from the Spirit a little more fully, and I trust the Father a little more securely because I know you.
Who can you ask for help, before you need it? What experiment can you run to add depth to your faith experience? What next step is Jesus shaping in you?
Try the Secret Code Prayer; maybe you’ll find it helpful! Or maybe you won’t. And that’s OK, too; find something else and try that. Delight is one of the marks of a disciple; find something fun to do in prayer, and see what happens next!
The Secret Code Prayer is just one of the Visual Faith Experiments you will find in the book When from Death I’m Free: A Hymn Journal for Holy Week.
Valerie Matyas and Justin Rossow will be joined by Pat Maier for the “When from Death I’m Free Hymn Journal Experience” on Sunday, March 15, 2020 from 1-3:30 p.m. at Shepherd of the Lakes, Brighton. For more information or to register, click here.
Cover photo by Elisa Schulz Photography