By Todd Minturn

Prayer and the Short Term Missionary

Simeon stepped out of his mom’s car onto the searing pavement of an unfamiliar church parking lot in downtown Fresno.  He was welcomed by a refreshing lime paleta, the perfect greeting as his thoughts began to race and his head started swimming.  He had signed up for a summer mission trip to bring the light of Christ into the dark corners of urban poverty and to learn what life is like for those living in the inner city, but now he began to question his sanity in deciding to come.

Esther slowly descended the steep steps of the plane under the cool overcast afternoon in Sarajevo.  She was excited for her first international travel experience and eager to engage with Bosnian students in conversations about Jesus.  She wanted to grow deeper in her faith and stronger in her commitment to Jesus and she was eager to begin.

Through their summer mission experiences Esther and Simeon were introduced to new perspectives on prayer that profoundly impacted their summer and brought even greater light and transformation than they had anticipated, but not always in the ways they had expected.

How Prayer Helped Them Face Struggle

For Simeon the pain and brokenness of his relationship with his Dad became a centerpiece of his mission experience and in order to love and serve those around him, including the other students on his team, this meant seeking God in silence and opening himself up to God’s love and presence in the deepest reaches of his heart.  He came to bring love to people in the inner city of Fresno not expecting that God would be inviting him to open up more deeply and receive this love himself.

For Esther her greatest struggle was in getting along with the other students on her team.  She connected well with the Bosnian students and loved hanging out with them, much more than she loved hanging out with her teammates.  There seemed to be constant conflict, not to mention the persistent pushing of her friend, Rachelle, telling her that God is not pleased with her unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend back home and that she needs to break up with him.  She was having a great time talking about the love of Jesus with Bosnians, but finding it very difficult to love those she came with and she was surprised by her anger and impatience with them.  Where was she able to go; how was she able to pray in ways that connected her more deeply with the Spirit and love of God within her and helped her release her anger to God?

The Experience of Silent Prayer

Simeon and Esther prayed a lot while on their short term mission trips.  They prayed for hearts to be open and receptive to the gospel in Fresno and in Bosnia.  They prayed for healing for teammates and people they met who were sick or injured.  They prayed for God to bring peace to the conflict on their teams.  They practiced “Listening Prayer” 1 with their teams around the conflict they were experiencing for the people they were working with and serving.  And they learned to go to their inner rooms, into their hearts, and pray in silence, without words or with very few words, but with intent to open their minds and hearts to the love and presence of God that is already within them, of which they are not always aware.

Praying in silence, with little to no words, doesn’t mean that we give up our other forms and practices of prayer, but it provides us with perhaps a new way to open ourselves up to a deeper experience of God’s love and total acceptance of us.  Which we are; totally loved and accepted by God, forgiven (as in for-given – given ahead of time) of anything and everything that causes us to pull away from God in shame or guilt.  God has not pulled away . . . God will never pull away, but is always right here, right now, closer to you than your breath.  If that is God . . . if that is God’s presence with us then the task for us is to cultivate our awareness of and openness to this divine indwelling presence of God.  In the prayer of Saint Patrick, “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise . . .”.  In silent prayer, our prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us.  It is meeting reality in its most simple and immediate form.  

Our growing connection with and openness to Love within us becomes the source and capacity for us to love others.  It is as we grow, rooted and anchored in this love that we grow in our ability to bring this love to others, to people in Fresno, to students in Bosnia, to our teammates and roommates, to our parents.

Jesus commands us to love.  We are to love one another (John 13:34); we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40); we are to even love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44).  This is no small task and it is in seeking to fulfill this commandment that we come up against our inability to love, time and time again!  In John 15:1-17 Jesus connects his commandment to love with the commandment to abide in his love, just as he abides in God’s love.

There are many ways in which we can seek to grow in our capacity to abide in God’s love.  Scripture study and prayer are time tested disciplines for doing so.  And prayer in silence, without words or with very few words is a particularly helpful and time tested path for opening our minds and hearts to deeper experiences of abiding in this love.

Esther learned the “Breath Prayer” in her team’s preparations for going to Bosnia.  Through her regular practice of this prayer during the summer, especially when the conflict was most intense, she found herself growing in patience with her teammates and with her friend who was encouraging her to break up with her boyfriend.  She also found the courage to ask her staff worker to mediate the conflict she was having with her teammates and a newfound creativity in being able to express herself and the pain she was experiencing because of the conflict.  She grew in joy and delight at the new experience she was having of God’s love in her and with her as she shared the gospel with her Bosnian friends.  She also grew in confidence to engage the conflict on her team and the reality of her feelings for her boyfriend and the ways he was influencing her.  The “Breath Prayer” was a spiritual practice she learned as she prepared to go to Bosnia for the summer and she was excited to bring it back with her to her life on campus.

Simeon learned “Centering Prayer” as a contemplative practice, a way to experience God’s love and presence and open his mind and his heart to inner transformation.  It was hard to commit to practicing this discipline twice a day, especially during the busy-ness of a short term mission trip, but as he was confronted with the realities of his broken relationship with his Dad and the wounds he carried from that he grew in his conviction to give Centering Prayer a try.  And, as he was confronted with the reality that God was present and active in the inner city before he even got there, he grew in his conviction that a prayer practice that helped him open his awareness to God’s presence was what needed to develop while he was in Fresno.

The reality is that you will experience conflict on your short term mission trip, whether you remain in denial about it or not!  There is a very good likelihood that you will be confronted with some of your own pain, woundedness and brokenness.  And it is guaranteed that you will not be able to be as loving as you would want or have hoped during your trip.  Prayer is what you will want and need to sustain you and carry you through the challenges and conflict you will experience, and prayer is what you must have to experience the potential of your short term mission trip to be one of the most transformative opportunities of your life. 

Listen to Jesus’s invitation to find a form of silent prayer will work for you and begin to include it in your spiritual practices now to deepen your experience of God’s ever-present presence and love and to serve as an anchor for you as you serve through a short term mission trip.


Silent Prayer Practices:

There are three silent prayer practices described below.  You are encouraged and invited to pick the one you feel most drawn to or interested in and try it two or three times before STIM and to take it with as a spiritual discipline anchor for you on your mission trip.  The descriptions are abbreviated so talk with your staff worker, see the web links in the footnotes or conduct a Google search to find resources online for more information.

Breath Prayer2

his is an abbreviated description of this prayer practice.  A more thorough description of this and other similar prayer practices can be found online.

A "Breath Prayer" is a primarily a short prayer (literally a prayer phrase) that captures our deep yearning for intimacy, wholeness and a sense of peace with God. When spoken out-loud, a breath prayer has a rhythm allowing us to be increasingly conscious of our breathing – inhaling as we pray a short phrase, and then exhaling as we pray a short phrase. This increased consciousness of our breathing is a reminder of our physical and spiritual dependence on God.

A breath prayer is prayed slowly using our natural rhythm of breathing to set the pace of our prayer, often as a way of entering into silence and solitude. As a centering prayer, a breath-prayer can bring our mind back to a God-focus when it wanders, help focus our full attention on God. And a frequently used breath prayer can become an unconsciously prayed prayer throughout our day.

There are many different breath prayers. Many are based on Scripture. They are short — seven to eight syllables long; 3-4 syllables to inhale; 3-4 syllables to exhale. They normally include a name for God: Holy Lord, Lord Jesus, Holy Spirit, etc. And, they involve a short request: give peace, bring joy, have mercy, etc.

While in reality, the number of potential breath prayers is limitless, some of the better known ones include:

"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:10)
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want" (Psalm 23:1)
"Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me" (Mark 10:47)
"Come, Lord Jesus, come" (The Maranatha Prayer; Revelation 22:20)
"Jesus, let me feel your love" (or power, strength, etc.)
"Show me your way, Lord Jesus"

And finally, use it:

  • Sit quietly, listen to your body breath. Sense the tension. Feel the rhythm.
  • Begin to identify with your petition.
  • Become increasingly aware of God's presence.
  • Release (exhale) the things you are burdened about; release the things you care about as best you can.
  • Invite (inhale) God in. Remain conscious of your desire to be with God...
  • Enjoy the peace and security that come from simply resting in God’s arms

You may find over time that you want to change the phrase you use for your breath prayer.  This is fine and can help you renew your intent to open your mind and heart to God.

You may want to use the Breath Prayer during the day when your find yourself feeling anxious or stressed.  This prayer can be very helpful in drawing your attention and focus back to God throughout your day.

Yahweh prayer3

This is a prayer practice similar to the Breath Prayer.

The Jews did not speak God’s name, but breathed it:  inhale—Yah; exhale—weh.  God’s name was the first and last word to pass their lips. In its simplicity, this prayer harkens to that first moment of life outside the womb when the doctor spanked your bum and you drew in your first breath of Earth’s air, from which came your first cry.  Let this time be again your first breath of longing and surrender.  Breathe the syllables with open mouth and lips, relaxed tongue:

Inhale — Yah

Exhale — weh

Remember that you do this—speak the name of Divine Reality—all the time, consciously or unconsciously. By your very breathing you are praying, participating in God’s grace.  You can never get so good at breathing that you never need to do it again!  You have to keep practicing or die.  It is the same with prayer—our soul’s life depends on it.

Centering Prayer4

This is an abbreviated description of this prayer practice.  A more thorough description of this and other similar prayer practices can be found online.

To get started, find a quiet place where you are most likely to be undisturbed and undistracted for a 20 minute period (when starting to practice Centering Prayer it is fine to start with 10, 15 or even 5 minutes if that is helpful for you—over time it is good to try to increase your practice to 20 minutes); bring a watch or other time keeper, so you don’t have to be mindful of how long you are praying; use a basic chair that allows you to sit upright with your feet flat and comfortably on the floor beneath you, or sit on the floor or on a pillow on the floor against a back support.  It is generally helpful to sit so that your back will be straight and you are not slumped over or slouched down.

It is typically helpful to choose a “sacred” word that you will use while praying to help you focus and draw you back into prayer when your mind starts to wander or you find yourself engaged with your thoughts.  You may want to ask God to help bring a sacred word to mind.  Examples are:  God, Jesus, Father, Mother, Abba, Amen, Love, Peace, Mercy, Listen, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Yes.  Or, instead of a sacred word, you may find that noticing the rhythm of your breathing may be more helpful.

As you sit and get settled, close your eyes (we close our eyes as a symbol of letting go of what is going on within and around us).  Introduce your sacred word inwardly and as gently as laying a feather on a piece of cotton. 

“Centering prayer familiarizes us with God’s first language, which is silence”.  Our desire is to be connected with the indwelling presence of God at the center of our being, but this is not something that we accomplish by our thoughts or effort, it comes through letting go of our thoughts and effort and letting God open our hearts and minds to the presence of God at the core of our being.

During this prayer (and even afterwards) we want to avoid analyzing our experience, harboring expectations, or aiming at some specific goal such as:

a. Repeating the sacred word continuously.

b. Having no thoughts.

c. Making the mind a blank.

d. Feeling peaceful or consoled.

e. Achieving a spiritual experience.

 

It is normal to have distracting thoughts, feelings and perceptions, whether from an internal or external source.  These distractions are not bad and should be considered a part of the prayer experienceWhen you find yourself engaged with your thoughts or a distraction, return ever-so-gently to your sacred word.

1. Thoughts are an inevitable, integral and normal part of Centering Prayer.

2. “Thoughts” is an umbrella term for every perception, including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concepts, commentaries, and spiritual experiences.

3. By “returning ever-so-gently to the sacred word” a minimum of effort is required. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of Centering Prayer.

4. During the course of Centering Prayer, the sacred word may become vague or disappear.

It can be helpful to remain in silence and with your eyes closed for another minute or two after the centering prayer time ends as we slowly re-engage our inner and outer worlds and bring the atmosphere and experience of silence with us into our everyday life.

There is no right way to practice centering prayerDon’t get hung up on whether you are doing it right or not.  Keep practicing and remember that Centering Prayer is an exercise in ‘letting go’ of our thoughts, again and again.  And also remember that “the principal fruits of (centering) prayer are experienced in daily life and not during the prayer period.”

If silence and solitude are new to you, or if you are someone who is used to constant sensory stimulation or mental activity you may find the practice of centering prayer challenging for a while.  I encourage you to stick with it as it is such a countercultural practice (often even in evangelical Christian circles), but something that, when developed over time, can be such a source of life-giving connection with God’s presence within us.  We so often long to “experience” more of God’s presence and work in our lives and centering prayer offers a very helpful means of opening up our minds and hearts so that we may, over time, cultivate our relationship with God and experiencing God’s transforming presence and work in us.


1Ask your staff worker about Listening Prayer or find resources online by “Googling” Listening Prayer.

2Adapted from Christian Reformed Home Missions webpage:  http://www2.crcna.org/pages/crhm_breath_prayer.cfm

3Adapted from Richard Rohr’s teaching on prayer.  https://cac.org/

4Adapted from the “Method of Centering Prayer” brochure downloaded from the Contemplative Outreach webpage:  http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/ and adapted for students use by Todd Minturn in “Centering Prayer Guide” document produced for the Fresno Urban Internship.

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