I remember praying for a motorcycle. I know you all reading this are more spiritual than me and would never pray for something so petty, but I actually prayed for a motorcycle. And what’s even more crazy is the fact that God answered that prayer. Of course I had to be patient, but it wasn’t too long before I had a nice motorcycle. I also prayed for my sister to get saved and get off drugs and alcohol. And what’s crazy about that is within about 5 years my sister died an alcoholic with liver disease and, at least to my knowledge never surrendered her life to Jesus. Why did God answer my selfish prayer for a motorcycle and not my genuinely God-honoring prayer for my sister? Why do some prayers get answered and some do not? This is one of the great dilemmas of this world.
I am not going to try and answer that question here in this article. Even if I could, I do not think it would be very helpful to you. I will say this; I struggle to pray sometimes. Yes, I am a pastor and I have serious difficulties with prayer.
About 8 or 9 years ago I began meeting with a spiritual director. Many in my particular Christian tradition may not be familiar with the ministry of spiritual direction. A spiritual director is a unique ministry. The name is a bit misleading. It is not a spiritual person who gives you direction. It is not some kind of guru or life coach or therapist. The spiritual director is practiced in the art of listening. Yeah, you read that correctly. The spiritual director is a professional listener. As Christians we should all be trained in this art. We need more listeners in this world, especially the church world. I definitely needed someone who could listen to my questions and doubts and fears about prayer.
Most of my meetings with Sr. Myra was spent with me talking and her listening. Sr. Myra is a Catholic nun trained in Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius was a 13th century saint who developed a long spiritual retreat called the Exercises of St. Ignatius. This retreat is, in my mind one of the greatest discipleship programs ever developed. I digress. Sr. Myra’s listening was a gift to me. She listened in a way that invited me to talk, and in a way that enabled my talking to become prayer. She did not give advice. She did not attempt to fix my problems or correct me when I got honest about my struggle to pray. She did not judge. What she gave me was a gift. I believe that in our sessions she listened me into prayer. She would occasionally ask very simple, but very powerful questions that caused me to go deeper into the soil of my heart where true God-planted desires were planted and germinating.
It was through those monthly sessions with a spiritual director that I began to learn how to pray. I also learned how to listen. I soon discovered that in prayer I am not looking for some specific outcome to my specific problem; I am not looking to God to fix all my problems and all the problems of those who were around me. In prayer God is drawing me deeper into Himself. I discovered that the true outcome of prayer for me was greater intimacy with the Lord, through His Holy Spirit within me. I also learned how to be honest with God and I discovered that He did not chastise me for my doubts and fears.
I discovered that prayer is not calling out to some external genie in the sky, but discovering the God who comes to dwell within. Because of Jesus Christ; His death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the Father, I now have the privilege to the greatest relationship with God any human can have. He lives inside me; He is as close as my very breath.
I still pray. I still talk to God. It’s just that now He talks to me more in the silence; in the listening. I no longer limit the success of my prayers to some kind of desired outcome. I do not limit my prayers to some fixed time of day where I go through a litany of needs and wants for myself or other people. My prayers are not so much about changing external circumstances. My prayers are an ongoing communication that begins in the morning and continues into the day as an awareness and a mindfulness of God’s presence within me. And consequently, I am changed. In the awareness of his presence, I come to realize that there is a power in me; St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians calls it the power of the resurrection. It is this power that enables me to become a “participant in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). Prayer is no longer about getting God to do stuff for me; but about experiencing the God who is already doing stuff in me.
Let me leave you with one little spiritual practice you can engage throughout the day that will enable you to become more aware and mindful of God’s presence and work within you. It’s called a breath prayer. I hope you believe, as I do, that God is as close as your very breath. In fact the word for breath in Hebrew is often translated as “spirit.” If God is as close as your very breath than one way to be mindful of his presence is to become aware of your breath.
One of the names used for God in the Hebrew Scriptures is Yahweh. This very word lends itself to the single breath. “Yah”- breathing in; “weh”- breathing out. Go ahead, try it. The Jewish people still use this particular breath prayer today. Isn’t it wonder how the very name of God is written on our breath?
There is a great verse in Colossians where St. Paul reminds the church of the reality of the interior presence of Christ by saying, it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27). I personally use this phrase as a breath prayer. It goes like this; in breath, “Christ in me,” out breath, “the hope of glory.”
There you go; a couple breath prayers that you can start practicing right now. I encourage you to practice these little breath prayers throughout the day today and see what it does for your prayer life. In this way you will come to realize that the very presence of the Spirit of God is within you. Over time you’ll realize the very power of God that works within will enable you to be the answer to your prayers as you walk in the Spirit moment by moment, day by day.