Guest Author: Brandon L. Fredenburg
Since I believe confession is good for the soul, I have a confession to make. I’ve attended just about every worship service, prayer meeting, Bible study, summer camp, VBS, gospel meeting, singing, and potluck possible from before the time of my first childhood memories. My days number just beyond 49 years. I’ve been blessed to preach, teach, and minister in congregations in at least 11 states and one foreign country. For most of the past 25 years, I have taught biblical studies and spiritual formation at the university level. None of that is meant to brag; it is background for my confession. You might want to sit down for this. Here it is: I am still learning how to pray.
My childhood prayers repeated words fed to me by adults intent on teaching me well. I am so grateful for their efforts. As an adolescent, I mimicked the phrases common in worship, especially those I heard around the communion table and in closing prayers. In college, the psalms proved an inexhaustible resource for expanding my language and outlook. As I took up local work, along with additional study, my prayers changed form again—turning more into a laundry list of “to do” and “don’t forget” reminders. In hindsight, these were all good in their season and helped me develop rhythms that still beat deeply in my heart.
Despite the blessings these ways of praying provided (and they were and remain many), Paul’s admonition to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17) perplexed me for years. Actually, it irritated me as an impossible ideal. Who could do that!? Did Jesus, or even Paul for that matter, pray non-stop? Surely not! Or did they? My mind would revisit this problem often; over time, I concluded it was probably possible and that I had no idea how to do it. I wanted unceasing prayer to be my experience; instead, it became an almost constant burden. Perhaps you have shared my frustration and sense of failure at this most basic Christian practice.
I am grateful to report that my frustration is over. I’ve learned (or, better, I have been taught) one way of how to pray without ceasing — though there are probably several. If I may, I would like to share part of my experience with you. Perhaps you can benefit from it as I have. The practice that has helped the most is known as “breath prayer.”
A simple description
Before any words are said, breath prayer begins with our recognition that “in God we live and move and have our being” (cf. Acts 17:26-28); that is to say, God is always with us and sustains our very breathing. Since the best learning comes from doing, let’s experiment. In this moment, right now, sit calmly, and as you breathe let this idea settle in: (in) / God sustains (out) \ our very breath. Or, / God is with us; \ God sustains us.
Since breath prayer may be unfamiliar, it is helpful to clarify what it is not. Breath prayer is not a way to “clear our mind” as in some forms of Eastern religious meditation. Breath prayer is not the “vain repetition” that Jesus warns about. Neither is it an incantation or repeated syllable that creates an altered state of consciousness. Instead, breath prayer, as your own experiment shows, is prayer that occurs with the rhythm of our breathing. Using short phrases of Christian truth or blessings, breath prayer reminds us that we inhabit a divine milieu of love, peace, and goodness even as we encounter pain, suffering, trials, and death in an alternate world around us. Breath prayer is a short, simple way of lifting our minds and hearts to God in every kind of moment.
As a spiritual discipline
I’m convinced that breath prayer is the easiest and most versatile of the spiritual disciplines. It is the easiest because it is tied to a noticeable, automatic body function. Just try not breathing and see how long it takes to notice it! Our breathing has a cadence, a rhythm, that adjusts to our body’s need for oxygen intake and CO2 output. Connecting prayers to the patterns of our breathing is nearly effortless. Over time, it also convinces us that prayer is as essential to real life with God as breathing is to life in our bodies.
Breath prayer is also versatile; it can be adapted immediately. I was once driving to work, mentally beginning my day with “/ As the deer \ pants for water, / my soul longs \ for you, O God.” At an intersection, an ambulance loudly sped by. My prayer switched to “/ Lord, bless them \ and keep them; / shine your face \ upon them.” No doubt, I returned to that prayer each time I recalled the siren that day, but I probably also prayed a dozen other breath prayers that day.
This spontaneous adaptability keeps breath prayers from being vainly repetitive or putting us into a mild-altered state. Instead, not only are we fully present (with God!) each moment, we are consciously responding to our changing, present moments with words and ideas drawn from scripture.
Although prayer is quite personal, I’d like to offer a few ideas to get you started, if I may. These are structured for one breath in (/) and one breath out (\). The best source is scripture, slightly adapted. As you try these, bring their rhythm into harmony with your breathing. Of course, the best ones are those you devise.
/ You meant to harm \ God means to bless (cf. Gen 50:20)
/ Speak, Lord \ your servant hears (1 Sam 3:9–10)
/ Give thanks to the Lord \ for he is good (1 Chron 16:34)
/ The Lord is my Shepherd \ I shall not want (Ps 23:1)
/ Taste and see \ the Lord is good (Ps 34:8)
/ Be still and know \ that I am God (Ps 46:10)
/ The Lord will be \ my confidence (Prov 3:26)
/ The joy of the Lord \ will be my strength (Neh 8:10)
/ Let it be to me \ as you have said (Luke 1:38)
/ Father of mercies \ glorify your name (John 12:28)
/ Into your hands \ I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)
/ Live by the Spirit \ Keep step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25)
/ To live is Christ \ to die is gain (Phil 1:21)
/ I want to know Christ \ and the power of his rising (Phil 3:10)
/ My God will meet \ all your needs (Phil 4:19)
Here are three longer ones. Perhaps you will recognize their sources.
/ The Lord, the Lord \ compassionate and kind
/ The Lord, the Lord \ not easily angered
/ The Lord, the Lord \ abounding in love
/ The Lord, the Lord \ to thousands on thousands
/ The Lord, the Lord \ forgiving all sin
/ To hatred \ bring love
/ To offence \ bring pardon
/ To strife \ bring unity
/ To error \ bring truth
/ To doubt \ bring faith
/ To despair \ bring hope
/ To darkness \ bring light
/ To sadness \ bring joy
/ Lord Jesus Christ \ Son of God
/ Have mercy on me \ a sinner
Breath prayer is as simple as, well . . . breathing. The “method” is highly adaptable to your current circumstances and the benefits over time are the delicious fruit of the Spirit. Engaging in breath prayer redeems time that could otherwise be used poorly or unthinkingly and, like all spiritual disciplines, trains us “godward.” With it, we cooperate with the Spirit in the renewing of our minds and experience what it means to pray without ceasing.
Peace and all good to you all.
Brandon L. Fredenburg serves as a professor and the assistant dean for the College of Biblical Studies and Behavioral Sciences at Lubbock Christian University. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in first year NT Greek, Romans, and spiritual formation. He has served churches in TN, AL, CO, and TX and currently attends Broadway Church of Christ with his wife Beverly and their three teenage children. He respects youth ministers–a lot.
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