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Category: Youth Ministry

Breath Prayer


On a Sunday night in October, the regular worship leaders for high school youth group both had other plans, so I took advantage of the opportunity created by their absence to try something new. I asked students to choose one of about 60 different “breath prayers” I’d created by taking short phrases from Psalm 119. Students worked for 45 minutes on collages of photos, words, colors, and other images cut from magazines while focused on the breath prayers they had selected. My plan was for the collages to give us something to do with our hands in order to cut down on distractions during the time of worship, but many of the finished pieces were complex and beautiful representations of the prayers themselves.

During the exercise, I encouraged students to experience the time of prayer as a time of freedom; so even though I wanted them to have an experience akin to what Alonius called “only myself and God,” I made it clear that getting up for a snack, answering the door for trick-or-treaters, conversation, laughter, simply being together were all completely appropriate activities during our worship experience. Even so, our time together was a time of almost complete silence. Students were completely absorbed in their prayers and their creations. In fact, as parents arrived to pick up their children, many students had trouble finding a clear stopping point. They wanted to continue, longed for completion. Most left in silence.

The next afternoon, I had coffee with one of the students who’d been part of our worship experiment. We discussed homework and parents, music and poetry, philosophy and the Church, all of the usual topics. But we also touched on the proximity of God, the experience of Christ, the power of a phrase both breathed and lived, an experiment with prayer that had changed us both.

the power of a phrase both breathed and lived, an experiment with prayer that had changed us both

Success in Prayer


Nearly a dozen years ago, I made a serious mistake in my position as a youth pastor in a small Idaho church. In spite of my carelessness (and stupidity), I had not been fired; but I faced painful truths about my character, questions about my place in the community, confusion about my future calling. I took a week away from work and drove to Oregon for a spiritual retreat at a primitive cabin near a private lake in the Willamette Valley.

And I prayed.

Or at least I tried to pray. One morning, I read Psalm 119 over more than a dozen times. Then I waited in silence. I wrote out a question for God. And another. And another. But each time, as I waited in silence, I had no peace, no sense of God’s presence. I went for a walk. I climbed a tree. I ate. I slept. On the next morning, I tried again. And the next morning. And the next.

At the end of the week, I felt just as confused as at the start. But I was convinced that God had been present, that God was waiting for me to work through the problem I’d been given, that God trusted me to learn and grow from the struggle.

In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster recounts a similar situation from his own life: his attempt to solve a long-standing problem at the university where he taught. And I recognize my experience in his claim that “we often pray in struggling, halting ways. . . . We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.”

Roberta Bondi builds on this truth in To Pray and to Love with the story of a friend who discovered that “‘Success’ in prayer finally has nothing to do with how we feel, not even whether we feel the presence of God.”

That week I spent in prayer was the beginning of a journey that led me out of ministry (I resigned my position a year later) out of church (I stopped attending another year after resigning) and then back. And even though the journey was painful and lonely, it was a process that led to both perspective and maturity. It was a journey that brought me closer to God through hardship, heart-ache, and humility.

We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.



In much of the Church, there’s a cultural divide, a kind of gap between adults and adolescents. Psychologists suggest that adolescents are undergoing a process of identity formation — figuring out who they are and what they’ll stand for — that causes them to question their parents, their friends, themselves. Sociologists suggest that these questions — something we often label “doubt” — make us uncomfortable, that they can create conflict.

Here’s the issue; doubt is dangerous. First, because it’s disconcerting. The right question in the wrong place can throw everything and everyone off rhythm. Second, it’s deviant. People who challenge the status quo identify themselves as not fitting in. They’re outsiders. They’re weird. They don’t belong.

But these questions — these doubts — reveal something important about the young among us. Many of them simply want a first-hand experience of Christ. Their faith isn’t going to be (can’t be) based on someone else’s beliefs.

What, then, might happen if church were a different kind of place, a place where questions could be asked openly, a place shaped by freedom not fear, a place with plenty of room for doubt?

My sense is that God has been shaping us into just that kind of community for a long time now. My sense is that it’s not just the young who have questions. My sense is that we’re in this together.

People who challenge the status quo identify themselves as not fitting in.

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