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Garden is haven for peace and prayer at Annual Conference

Garden is haven for peace and prayer at Annual Conference

Part of the 2012 Annual Conference prayer garden design.

As United Methodists from across Florida come together to conduct the business of the Church at the Annual Conference in Lakeland, you might think there would be plenty of prayer going on in the sessions scheduled for June 14-16.

And you would be right.

Since the late 1990s, though, thousands of Annual Conference attendees have sought refuge from the hustle and bustle of meetings by heading to the Prayer Garden, an artistic and quiet haven that has become a mainstay for contemplation and conversation with God.

“It’s easy to start a meeting with prayer and end with prayer, but you can get tied down in the business part of it,” said Lucy Wray, one of several spiritual formation directors responsible for the garden.
“The Prayer Garden is a quiet place to slip away from the business and lunches and other things going on.
“People come into the prayer room for a lot of different reasons. It might be personal reasons or something that’s going on at the conference,” Wray added. “It undergirds [the conference] and covers it all with prayer, so people will involve God in the discernment process when looking at issues.”
The Prayer Garden will be set up for Annual Conference at The Lakeland Center much as it was at the recent General Conference in Tampa.

In a well-marked room in the center’s Sikes Hall, away from the exhibits, four prayer booths will be encircled by curtains. Each is graced with a theme: Loaves and Fishes, Communion of Saints, Tree of Life and the Gates of Jerusalem.

“All are biblical and all tie into the theme of prayer and discipleship,” said Frances Jennings, another spiritual formation director who has long coordinated the event. “It offers much more personal prayer.”

And it is interactive. The Tree of Life booth will have a “literal tree” with silk leaves on which to write, Jennings said. “The question asked is ‘Which fruit would you like to see grow in your own life?’ There are nine fruits:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control, goodness.”
By the end of the conference, there will be many, many leaves on the tree, she said.

There also will be a large fisherman’s net on one wall of the room, with paper fish on which people can write prayer requests and place them in the net. Members of the spiritual team will pray as requested by each individual at least three times.

Other visitors may prefer traversing the 42-foot labyrinth.

Based on the design of the inlaid floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France, the labyrinth has 11 concentric circles and a 12th circle, or rosette, in the center. There are no dead ends, just a winding path that leads into the center and out again.

“It is a walking prayer-meditation experience, which is different for many people,” Wray said.

“You don’t have to make a decision to go left or right, just follow the path. It is a shedding, a letting go of things you might be worried about,” she said. “Going back out is like going back out into the world.”

The artistic force behind the Prayer Garden, Joyce Estes, created the large banner symbolizing the baptisms of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, which will occupy a prominent place in the room. It is one of many liturgical pieces, including the banners for the themed booths, that she has created over the years in the ancient art of dyed silk.

“When I say God gives me a vision, He really does give me a vision,” she said of the designs. “If you are open to doing things, then God will make a way.”

“The Prayer Garden is so Florida,” Estes said. “I was amazed by the number of people (at General Conference) who had never been in touch with a prayer garden like we do. We are unique in what we do.”

Fish prayer cards, like those of General Conference, will be part of the prayer garden in Lakeland.

Estes also designed the wall net and fish prayer cards, which various churches’ members cut out. She was key in producing the 2,400 silk prayer scarves, or mantles, distributed at the General Conference, holding workshops and teaching people in all five jurisdictions how to make them.

“I did a very simple design that anyone could do,” said Estes. “We did it on faith and frequent flyer miles.”

While Estes drives the design of the Prayer Garden, Wray and Jennings focus on the people.
“The spiritual formation team we have at our conference is an important lay-driven activity,” Wray said. “Its purpose is to heighten everybody’s awareness of spiritual formation, which is being conformed in the image of Christ for the sake of others.”

Spiritual Formation Team members will be available during the Annual Conference to pray with those who request it.

Jennings, outgoing chair of the Conference Spiritual Formation Team for Florida, said hundreds of people from all around the world visited the Prayer Garden during the General Conference. “It was a very meaningful addition to the entire conference.”

For Wray, the best part of the Prayer Garden is having people in it. “It makes you joyful to see people come in and take a few minutes to be with God. It is comforting to me to know there is a sacred place where people can be worshipful.”

Dyson is a freelance writer for the Florida Conference Connection.