Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lenten Meditation: Praying in the Midst of Life's Messiness

There are some pretty heavy sounding commands in our reading from Deuteronomy. This is Moses’ last will and testament, and he is giving the Israelites everything he possibly can, so that he can say, “I did what I could.” Listen to what he is commanding them:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. ~ Deuteronomy 6:4-9

What I want to know is, when does the laundry get done? Or how do I slip out to the Deacons’ meeting, if I’m supposed to be involved in all kinds of recitations and remodeling projects and the creation of unique bodily adornments all in the name of trying to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might? It’s puzzling.

Here’s the bad news. We are talking about prayer, and the first thing I think we have to confront about it is: we don’t have time to do it. Not to really do it the right way, the way the books tell us… you know, where you set aside an hour or so first thing in the morning… a time when your house is completely quiet…and pray the scriptures and the psalms and commune with God. Who has time to do that? I am here to testify: to find time to do that is hard. And so, before we even start, we are left feeling like failures.

And now, here’s the good news. We can all completely let go of that particular understanding of prayer. Just let it go. Let go of the idea that there is a “right way” to pray. There is no right way. Let go of the idea that we need to commit at least an hour a day to prayer in order to pray authentically. We do not have to do that. Let go of the need for the quiet house. Prayer is not so fragile a thing that we need incredibly specific conditions or we can forget about it. Prayer is no hothouse orchid. God is neither that harsh nor that arbitrary, so as to require of all of us the exact same unvarying scheme, so that we might truly pray. So, let’s just let all of that go. Instead, let’s start right where we are, in the midst of our busy, messy lives. Let’s start with something we can do, no matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter what we are doing. Some of you will have heard this from me before. It’s ok. It’s worth repeating. We are all, right now, going to create our own breath prayers.

The breath prayer* is an ancient way of practicing an awareness of the presence of God. We believe that God is always present, but we often lose sight of that fact. It doesn’t spring to mind when we are compiling the annual reports or packing the college care packages or chipping ice off our windshields. The breath prayer is a way of re-tuning ourselves to that simple fact: God is here, right now. A breath prayer can be a phrase from scripture, or our faith tradition. It can be a line from a beloved hymn or psalm. The most famous breath prayer is also a very ancient one, culled from scripture. It’s called the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The reason it’s called a “breath prayer” is that you pray it on the breath. You break the prayer up into little bits that are prayed on the inhalation and the exhalation. So, for example: as you inhale, you would think “Lord Jesus Christ;” as you exhale you would think, “Son of the Living God;” inhale, “have mercy on me;” exhale, “a sinner.” The beauty of this way of praying is that you can do it anywhere, while doing anything that doesn’t require intense mental concentration. You are driving in your car: you can say your breath prayer. You are folding laundry or filing papers or doing dishes or shoveling snow: you can say your breath prayer. You can say your breath prayer while walking or running or riding your bike or swimming. It’s the most portable prayer going. So let’s do it.

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, with your posture in an upright and supported stance. Quiet yourself by breathing in and out several times. Let your tension go. Remind yourself that you are in the presence of God who loves you. Be still, and know that I am God, says the Lord.

Step 2: With your eyes still closed, imagine that God is calling you by name. Hear God asking you, “(Your name), what do you want?”

Step 3: Answer God with whatever comes directly from your heart. Your answer might be a single word, such as “peace,” “love,” or “forgiveness.” It might be more complicated than that. Try to boil it down to a word or brief phrase.

Step 4: Choose your favorite name or image for God. What’s the name your heart calls out? What name makes your heart sing? It might be God, Jesus, Spirit, Teacher, Creator, Light, Lord, Shepherd, Rock, Redeemer. Find that name that your heart wants to call God.

Step 5: Combine your name for God with your answer to God’s question “What do you want?” The most effective breath prayers are short enough that you can remember them and repeat them with ease.

Now you have a breath prayer. You can pray this when you are in bed, falling asleep, or when you awake, before you rise. You can pray your breath prayer any time you are engaged in activities that are mostly physical or automatic or repetitive. And… should you have a few moments when you can be quiet… when you can sit still… in a waiting room, for example… before church begins… you can pray your breath prayer then too, and see what that’s like.

You can create a new breath prayer tomorrow, if this one isn’t working for you. The point is this: we can practice an awareness of the presence of God, in the midst of whatever it is our lives hand to us. It is enough to start where we are and build from there. We can let go of whatever ideas of perfection hold us back, and we can begin, right where we are, with the deepest longings of our hearts, and the name of God that sings to us. It’s as simple as breathing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

* Breath Prayer from Ron BelBene, The Breath of Life: A Workbook (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1996), 12-13.


Choralgirl said...

That's fantastic. :-)

Reminds me of the Rumi poem that InVocation is singing right now:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Jane R said...

Beautiful. And very helpful. Thank you.

Chris said...

I enjoyed this post. It reminded me of the simplicity of prayer. Peace to you today.