I was sitting in a coffee shop, and was talking to a friend about prayer. No, this was not some random church nerd conversation...it was actually pretty provocative. We talked about the fact that a lot of our friends now, when they are asked about how they "feel" about praying, it seems "boring" or "useless," like nothing really happens when we try to talk and listen to God.
That's a hard pill to swallow on something that seems so much apart of the Christian life. A man that makes his living thinking and writing about God, Karl Barth, said this: "To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." So much of the experience of our generation considering prayer surely doesn't seem to reflect that--and it's a scary thing.
I have problems or hard times in prayer just like everyone else. There are some days where I feel like the wall between me and God is so high, I can never see the other side, and am tempted to just give up on it all together. But just like in a relationship, there are always barriers to communication. I always have to remind myself that there may be something deeper that I'm not paying attention to that makes me and the one I love "miss the mark" on some days--whether it be one of us is having a hard time at work and it spills over into afterhours relationships, or one of us doesn't feel like the other is "listening..." These are problems, but small struggles that, with a little honesty and a good bit of time, can be easily healed and overcome.
So going back to my conversation about prayer, we were talking about walls we experienced in our own spiritual lives. We thought, among many, two of the big barriers to prayer are 1) feeling distracted so much so that you can't focus and 2) not knowing what to say. Starting to see these patterns between the two of us, we were almost sure that we are not alone, and that there are a lot of us out there that have some major soul searching to do.
So over the past couple weeks, I've been "trying again." One thing that has helped recently is something I learned about a few years ago and tucked away in my mind file, just bringing it out again to try something fresh and new. It is breath prayer, a way of praying that provides a helpful antidote to those two barriers. It's basically a short, simple petition (request) that can be prayed in one breath (either aloud or silently). As you pray it over and over, like a mantra, you internalize the prayer and become more and more open to God.
One of the ancient breath prayers of the Church is the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God (inhale), have mercy on me, a sinner (exhale)." You may want to try that one. Or, "Gracious God, remove my fear." Or, "Kind Friend, show me how to love." Lately, I've been praying my own breath prayer on the lakeshore running path-a wonderful place to pray and be awake to God's creation. I invite you to create your own breath prayer this summer (see the instructions below). Practice it and see what happens. You may find the Scriptural invitation to "pray without ceasing" a little more possible.
Breath Prayer Exercise, adapted from Prayer by Richard Foster
•Find some uninterrupted time and a quite place and sit in silence, opening yourself to be held in God's presence
•After a few moments, allow God to call you by name. Hear God call your name.
•Next, allow this question to surface from God to you: "Child, what do you want?"
•Answer this question simply and directly. Maybe a single word will come to your conscious mind-Peace, Courage, Faith, Strength-or a phrase-to understand your desire for me, to feel your love.
•Next, connect this phrase with the most comfortable way you have of speaking about God: Jesus, Holy One, Kind Friend, Holy Spirit, Abba, Father, Mother, Gracious Lord.
•Finally, write out your breath prayer, sewing together all of the parts into one phrase, such as: Help me feel your love, Gracious Lord. Or, Help me cast out my fear, Holy Spirit.
•Practice this prayer and amend it as you go...you may find that your first thoughts are just cover for what you really need/are looking for.
•With the breath prayer, you can pretty much use it anywhere...on the train, before the meeting, in traffic, before an exam