Prayer as breath

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full (Matthew 6:5)

Occasionally, I break out of Westminster on Sunday mornings to preach or lead worship at another congregation who is in need of a sub. Sometimes, when I’m out at other churches, I hear someone offering a long winded, verbose, convoluted prayer in the midst of the worship service. Has this ever happened to you? And when it happens, nearly every single time, the same thought pops into my head. “They don’t mean that.” I mean sure, it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from the heart. It sounds like it is performance.

This is, I think, one of the reasons that so many people are afraid to pray out loud. Next time you are together with a group of people, ask if someone wants to pray and behold the immediate shoe inspection. Everyone will look down, hopeful beyond all hope that they won’t be noticed/called on. If we can’t match up to those verbose and magnificent prayers, then we don’t want to be a part of it. We’d rather stay quiet.

I think Jesus is on to this here in the passage above. He goes on to tell us that prayer is a private matter, something that happens between us and God. And so I want to introduce you today to one of the simplest, and also most private prayers I know. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it goes like this:

Lord Jesus Christ//Son of God//Have mercy on me//A sinner.

Now I’ve broken it up like that because this prayer is an embodied prayer. Each section above corresponds to a breath. Breathe in (Lord Jesus Christ) Breathe out (Son of God) Breathe in (Have mercy on me) Breathe out (a sinner). The last two phrases in this prayer are especially powerful for me. We breathe in mercy and we breathe out our sins.

This prayer has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is as portable as can be. If you are allowed to breathe in a particular space, you are allowed to do this prayer. School. Work. Shopping. Driving. Siting in traffic. This prayer works everywhere. For me, it especially works in the Labyrinth (more on this later). Something about combining that embodied breathing prayer with my steps through that maze just makes sense to me.

But it also has the effect of centering me. Lets face it, for a lot of us our minds are a squirrel’s nest of thought. What am I doing about dinner tonight? When was that paper due? Did I remember to turn off the coffee pot? As you repeat this prayer over and over again, it has the habit of centering you on Christ. You focus your thoughts on the mercy of our loving God, because that’s all you mind has room to work on. It’s a beautiful gift when you get to this place, when calendars and to-do lists fade into the background, and all that is left is Jesus.

So maybe it’s time to trade in those big, long-winded prayers in favor of something a little smaller. Maybe length and ornamentation aren’t as powerful as simply centering ourselves on the miraculous grace of Christ.

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