I grew up experiencing prayer in a few different situations: before meals, before bed, and at church. I was taught that prayer was how we communicated with God, and so when we prayed, we simply asked God for whatever we needed, told Him how we felt, and asked Him to watch over those who were sick. It was all a very simplistic view, and as a child, I probably would not and could not have understood much more.
At my college ministry, however, prayer was treated as a very real and very tangible thing. As a community we would pray over someone and lay hands on them. If I ever went and discussed anything with my pastor, he would end the meeting with prayer. All our leadership meetings began and ended with prayer. We had entire worship services dedicated to prayer! It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, but I instantly enjoyed it.
However, I still struggled with prayer on my own. I kept a prayer journal at the suggestion of one of my small group leaders, but I had trouble hearing God speak in return. I would spend lots of time listening for God's word for me, but I never know if what I hear is simply my own thoughts or God speaking to me. In my discipleship group, we discussed prayer at length one night and I expressed my concerns.
My leader encouraged me to test what I heard. If God is speaking, then the message will align with scripture (in other words, it can be actual scripture passages, or it can simply mean that the message in no way contradicts the character of God as shown in scripture.) Another way to test the message is to share it with other people you trust in spiritual matters and ask them to pray about it. Do they feel confirmation with your message? If not, you might need to continue to pray about the message or disregard it altogether.
Now, what exactly is this message? Well, I've come to understand that God communicates differently with differently people. For me, He mostly speaks in thoughts. He gives me ideas, like the one for this blog, or he strongly encourages me to do something-- sometimes to the point where it's impossible to resist! Once when I was younger, I was on a camping trip with my family, and we were finishing lunch and a group of uniformed soldiers sat down at the picnic table next to us. Something inside of me told me to go speak to the soldiers and tell them thanks for their sacrifices. I can be shy sometimes, and since my family was leaving, I just shrugged off the feeling and tried to ignore it. No good. The feeling became so intense and strong that I had to fight off tears! So, I ran back to the soldiers, said "Thanks-so-much-for-serving-I-appreciate-your-sacrifice" very quickly and ran back to my parents.
For others though, God speaks in pictures. One friend keeps a sketch pad by her bed to record any pictures or visions she has from God. Another finds inspiration from scripture, another through music. I believe God has wired you with a special way of communicating with Him, and if you have patience (something that was really hard for me!) He'll break through whatever distractions are going on in your life to speak directly to your heart.
If you're looking for new ways to pray or experience God, there's a couple suggestions I'd like to make. First, find a good quiet spot to pray. I've found that I enjoy being outside, but high up on a balcony so I'm "invisible" to the rest of the world. Find something that works for you-- a quiet room, a special chair, beautiful music, or an easel. Try different things until you find one that really works for you. Second, don't think that your prayers have to look like anything specific. Sure, it's great to be thankful and ask forgiveness, but listening is also key. A friend once told me "Just go BE with God." I think of that often when I'm praying and I feel like I've run out of things to say. I try to relax and just enjoy His presence. God just wants to spend time with you!
So, let me know if any of these ideas work for you. And tell me, what have you experienced in the past? What do you want to try? If you're struggling, let me know and we can discuss what's going on. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I'd love to work it out with you.