Breathing prayer

Last Sunday I introduced a Bible study called Connections that I think can help you get through the anxious days we live in. I hope you’ve at least taken that out for a test drive. Today I’m going to show you a couple of ways of praying that I also think you will find helpful in this stressful time.

The beauty of these ways of praying is that you can do them almost anytime and anywhere, even in the most demanding circumstances. These are prayers that you make in coordination with your breathing.

In these days of pandemic, when we wear masks in public to protect ourselves and others from our breath, it may seem odd to talk about breathing as a form of prayer. But it can be a powerful way of communicating with God.

We’re going to practice several breathing prayers this morning, so let’s get warmed up. First, make yourself comfortable. Relax. Roll your neck to get some kinks out. Let your arms go limp in your lap or at your side. Take a deep breath in. Let it out slowly. Inhale again, a good deep breath. Now let it out. Let it all out.

Breathing such as this is a kind of prayer. That’s the assertion of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. He calls it “spiritual respiration.” He describes it as “the life of God in the soul of a believer.”

It’s “the continual inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit,” he says – “God breathing into the soul, and the soul breathing back what it receives from God.”

It’s about God continually breathing into us the breath of life, and us breathing back to God the fruits of life renewed through Christ.

Let’s practice it again. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in God’s grace. Breathe out praise and prayer. Breathe in God’s grace. Breathe out love and thanksgiving. Breathe in grace to you. Breathe out grace to others

Breathing in and breathing out, we move from the experience of God’s grace to the sharing of God’s grace, from the receiving of grace to the giving away of grace we have received.

Spiritual respiration, then, is kind of an enacted parable of our life in grace. It is sometimes called the “prayer of the heart,” because words are not necessary. But you can add words, in an ancient practice called Breath Prayer. As the name implies, it’s a short prayer that’s intended to be said in one breath – one part while inhaling and one part while exhaling.

Any short prayer will work, but a popular form is called the Jesus Prayer. It’s based on the prayer of Bartimaeus, the blind man whom Jesus heals in Jericho on his last trip to Jerusalem.

The Jesus Prayer goes like this: (inhale) “Jesus, Son of God, (exhale) have mercy on me.”

Practice that with me. (inhale) “Jesus, Son of God, (exhale) have mercy on me.” And again…

There’s a longer form, if you have the breath for it: (inhale) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, (exhale) have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Again: (inhale) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, (exhale) have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Jesus Prayer is just one of many Breath Prayers you can make.

Here are some other popular ones, some longer than others.

Lord, have mercy.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Not my will, but yours.

When I trust in you, I am not afraid.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.

Jesus loves me, this I know.

I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.

The joy of the Lord is my strength.

This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Breath prayers have a calming effect because you have to regulate your breathing to say them. But sometimes you don’t have the leisure to do that. In times of crisis, you may have to just blurt something out to keep you properly centered.

That’s when another kind of prayer comes in. It’s saying a word or phrase over and over again as fast or as slow as you need to. Call this a prayer word, or mantra. It’s something that helps you focus on a positive thought.

Remember the story of The Little Engine That Could? “I think I can, I think I can.”

When you’re stressed, feeling overwhelmed, facing uncertain days ahead, repeating a mantra or prayer word can help you keep on track with positive thinking.

At this point, I need to confess that almost everything I know about mantras I learned from Ginger Rothhass. Ginger is a graduate of Saint Paul School of Theology. Like my wife Linda, she once served as a pastoral care intern at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood. She now lives in Kansas City, in Brookside, and acts as a soul coach.

You can find her at two websites: and You can sign up for a weekly email message from her. I look forward to receiving one every Tuesday morning.

Back to mantras and prayer words.

Here’s what Ginger says: “Repeating a phrase or word to yourself has been shown to have a physiological effect on our bodies. It can create a feeling of calm, bring reassurance, help us to feel safe, lower stress, increase optimism, and positively impact outcomes. By repeating a phrase to yourself, you are creating a neural pathway that not only creates a habit of positive thinking but becomes your default mindset.”

Here are some examples of mantras that she lists:

I can do this.

I choose to be happy.

I am loved.

Done beats perfect.

It’s good enough.

I’ve come so far.

Do the right thing.

Go slow.

Don’t force it.

Let it go.

Family first.

It will get better.

All is well.

I am not alone.

This too shall pass.


You can also create your own mantra. What advice do you want to give yourself? When do you need encouragement the most? Write some mantras and test them out. If they are true and positive and encouraging, keep using them.

Practice using them every day. The more often you repeat them, the more likely you are to remember the thought when you need it most. It’s similar to memorizing Bible verses. They’re there when you need them.

Using mantras of your own creation, you can become your own life coach, and you can coach yourself through bad times.

Spiritual respiration, Breath Prayer, mantra. These are ways you can stay in touch with God anytime of day, anytime of need, anywhere you are physically, mentally, or spiritually.

Remember that God is as close as your breath. God was there for your first breath and will be there for your last breath and is there for every breath in between. You can pray without ceasing and rejoice always with every breath you take. May you breathe, and pray, well.

This message was delivered September 27, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from      Mark 10:64-69 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17.

Rule of life

I have a restless and inquisitive mind, so I read voraciously in several areas: theology, the practice of ministry, history and, of course, fiction – though I’m fairly picky about what fiction I read. One of the reasons I read so widely is that I love following rabbit trails.

I can be reading a book or a blog, and the writer will mention something that tickles my fancy, and off I go, googling a book title or a name or an idea I never heard of before. Half an hour later, I may have satisfied my curiosity, or maybe only whet my appetite for more.

You can get seriously lost on rabbit trails, or you they can become journeys of wonder.

A couple of weeks ago, after I did a message on doing good, Jean Reynolds pointed me to a song that I had never heard before. Turns out, it was slyly hidden in our green hymnal supplement all the time, and I’d never noticed it.

The lyrics were from that saying attributed to John Wesley, though he probably never said it quite this way:

Do all the good you can

by all the means you can

in all the ways you can

in all the places you can

at all the times you can

to all the people you can

as long as ever you can.

What intrigued me most about it, though, was the title: Rule of Life. I’d heard a little about it before but decided I needed to know more.

I started with United Methodist resources. Sure enough, I found a brochure with a cover much like the one you see on the screen. The brochure said that the United Methodist Rule of Life consisted of those Three Simple Rules that we discussed the previous three Sundays.

I wanted to know more, so I kept digging, and I found many resources for devising a personal rule of life. A brief but very helpful summation originates not far from here, in Independence, at the headquarters of the Community of Christ, what used to be known as the RLDS church. The Episcopal Church calls its rule The Way of Love. Elaborate and comprehensive instructions also can be found at the website of Bridgetown Church in Portland.

Turns out, you can make this as easy or as difficult as you like. I’m going to show you an easy way this morning – and all the result of me following a rabbit trail.

Let’s begin with the basics. What is a rule of life?

First, it is not a rigid list of laws or regulations that you have to follow – or else. A rule of life is a voluntary and loving way of relating to God, self and neighbor. It’s a pattern for intentional living, a plan for holiness of heart and life.

The word “rule” comes from the Latin regula, from which we get the words “regulate” and “regular.” Regula means a straight edge, like a ruler, or a pattern for growth, like a trellis for flowers or a grapevine.

Some rules of life are corporate, such as the Rule of St. Benedict used for centuries by monasteries around the world. We’re going to talk about a personal rule, devised by you just for you. It’s simply a pattern of practices that helps you grow.

Right now, right before your eyes, we’re going to build one, using a handout that came out in the Weekly Update. If you didn’t get it, email me or the church office, and we’ll send one out to you. (A copy follows.)

We’ll start with five basic categories, and then add certain practices in each category. One of the first things you’ll notice is that some practices fit in multiple categories, so you can put the emphasis wherever you want.

The first category is Body. Here are some practices you might include here.

Adequate sleep: Seven to eight hours a day is often suggested. Some people think they can get by with less. Some need more. What’s best for you?

Regular exercise: That’s what your doctor nags you about all the time, right?

Walking or running: Run, if you can. Walk, if you can’t run. It’s good exercise, and you might meet some new people on the way, especially these days when so many people are out walking.

Participating in sports: Notice that it doesn’t say “watching sports on TV.” You may get worked up watching the Chiefs play, but it’s just not the same.

Healthy diet: Hey, you know what’s good for you and what’s not.

Practice self care: Some of us are really good at caring for others and really bad at caring for ourselves. Remember that Jesus says we should love others as we love ourselves. You can’t help others if you’re sick all the time because you don’t take care of yourself.

Eliminate hurry: Slow down! Save energy and reduce stress.

Adequate water: Eight glasses of water a day is usually cited as a goal. If you’ve ever gotten seriously dehydrated, you know why it’s important.

Limited alcohol: No lectures here. You get the hint.

Recreation and hobby: You don’t have to collect knick-knacks or run model trains. Do what most appeals to you.

Play with children and Play with pets: Both may wear you out, and it’s sure good for you.

That’s a dozen things in only one category! Don’t think that you have to do them all. Choose a few to start. You’re on your way to a rule of life.

The next category is Mind.

Adequate “down time”: Do you ever just sit or lie down for a few moments to rest?

Silence & solitude, retreat: These are longer forms of down time. They also can be a spiritual discipline.

Periodic fasting & self denial: Most of us have an unhealthy relationship with food. Fasting from food can help identify the problem. You also can fast from social media – especially Facebook – and digital devices. My iPad is really annoying about telling my how much screen time I’ve had in the last week, but the hint is helpful.

Weekly Sabbath: It’s not just a commandment, it’s a necessity for your mental, physical, and spiritual health. Your Sabbath may not be Saturday or Sunday, as long as it’s one of those seven days. Mine is usually Monday. This is another form of down time and retreat.

Listen to music: You can do this most anytime, often while doing other things.

Listen to podcasts: I’ve done this sometimes while digging out weeds in the garden.

Fiction and non-fiction reading: If you don’t know what to read, ask somebody in our Roses & Thorns Reading Group.

Maintain a rainy day fund: You really do need to be ready for that impossible-to-foresee emergency that quickly drains your resources.

Have deep conversations: Most of the time, most of us major in the minors. Deeper conversation is good for your spirit, too.

We move on then to our third category, Spirit.

Weekly worship: Ought to be obvious. So should Daily prayer all ways. We’ll talk more in the future about the many ways you can pray. One way is the Daily examen. This is a way of winding up the day with a sort of spiritual scorecard. How’d I do today, Lord?

Another way of prayer is Contemplation & reflection. This is a deep discipline I would love to know more about personally.

Daily scripture reading also is important. Next week I’ll introduce you to a Bible study plan I think could be helpful for you. You can dig deeper into what you’ve learned in a small group, or what John Wesley called Christian Conference.

Holy Communion is a sacrament you should try to partake in at least monthly. Maybe we can talk someday about making it a weekly practice.

Sharing your faith: It’s not just how you live but also how you explain why you live the way you do. Be prepared, as it says in 2 Peter chapter 3, and you’ll be surprised how often the opportunity arises.

Church activities: Many of these will resume, one of these days.

Special ministry fund: Besides saving for a rainy day for yourself, you might save a little for a special ministry’s rainy day so you can give whenever you learn about it.

Visit the sick & imprisoned: Neither are viable activities at this time, but even now if you know that someone is sick, maybe you could call ahead and pull into the drive and honk your horn to let them know you care.

Feed the hungry: We still do this through the Community Food Bank, though it’s still not safe yet to re-open Grace Café.

Resist evil, speak out against wrong: You don’t have to march in the streets to make your opinion known. The two Kansas senators stopped replying to my emails years ago. But they know where I stand.

Work is our fourth category.

Work can be a real grind, or it can be something that gives your life pleasure and meaning as well as income. Embrace work as a ministry to others, because that’s what it can be. But try to Maintain work boundaries. Don’t work too much, and don’t bring it home. If you work from home, know when to quit.

Know why you do what you do – especially if you consider it a vocation so, as we said above, you can share your faith with others. Whatever you do, work hard – give it your best effort within a reasonable time – but always remember to play harder.

Our fifth and final category is Relations. This is all about maintaining your all-important relationships.

Many couples have learned to cherish a Date night with your spouse, though that may be hard to do right now. Dinner and a movie might not be safe yet. Meeting with friends and Making new friends can be hard now, too, but it’s also rewarding. You might make some new friends when you Visit neighbors, including people you barely know who live right down the street.

Maybe what you really need is a “Do nothing” night when you try not to accomplish anything. Or maybe you’ve had your fill of those in the last six months.

Finally, there’s Generous giving of self and resources. That’s kind of a miscellaneous gathering of some things we’ve already mentioned and some we haven’t. Fill in the blanks on your own.

That’s all there is to it. You can add more categories and activities as you like. Probably many of you are saying, “I already do half these things!” If so, that’s great! That means you already have a rule of life, or at least the start of one.

Now, go down the handout and put a check by all the things you already do. Then choose a couple more to add to your routine. See how that works for you. Add or subtract activities as you grow and your needs change.

My personal rule, of course, includes following rabbit trails. Yours may not. That’s how this thing works.

This is a simple way of charting a course for your future. And it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late to make some improvements in your life or to ditch some bad old habits.

“I am the vine. You are the branches,” Jesus says. “Abide in me.” (John 15:4-5). Use your personal Rule of Life as a trellis on which you can grow and bear fruit with your life.

This is another way, as the Apostle Paul says, of taking “your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life” and placing it before God as an offering (Romans 12:1).

Take this thing out for a spin and see how well it works for you. Let me know how you’re doing. Most of all, embrace your whole life as a gift to God and others – and give it everything you’ve got!


This message was delivered September 13, 2020 at Egerton United Methodist Church, from John 15:4-5, Romans 12:1-2.

Here’s the text of the handout:

A rule of life is a commitment to live your life a certain way guided by love of God and neighbor. It’s a pattern for intentional living, a plan for holiness of heart and life.

Our English word “rule” comes from the Latin “regula,” meaning a straight edge or ruler, or a support system such as a trellis. Consider it a framework for abiding in Christ. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said (John 15.5).

Your rule can be as complicated – or as simple – as you make it. Here are some ideas for activities in several categories. It helps if you flesh each out with the amount of time invested: daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, always. Choose some from each category to start. Add or subtract as you go.


Adequate sleep (7-8 hours a day)

Regular exercise

Walking or running

Participating in sports

Healthy diet

Practice self care

Eliminate hurry

Adequate water

Limited alcohol

Recreation & hobby

Play with children

Play with pets


Adequate “down time”

Silence & solitude

Periodic fasting & self-denial – from food, social media, digital devices

Weekly Sabbath

Listen to music

Listen to podcasts

Reading, fiction and non-fiction

Rainy day fund

Deep conversations


Weekly worship

Daily prayer all ways

Daily examen

Contemplation & reflection

Daily scripture reading

Christian Conference

Holy Communion

Sharing your faith

Church activities

Special ministry fund

Visit sick & imprisoned

Feed the hungry

Resist evil, speak out against wrong


Embrace work as a ministry

Maintain work boundaries

Know why you do what you do

Work hard, play harder


Date night with spouse

Meet with friends

Make new friends

Visit neighbors

“Do nothing” night

Generous giving

Here are resources mentioned in the message:

United Methodist Church

Episcopal Church

Community of Christ

Bridgetown Church, Portland

Three simple rules – No. 3: Love God

For five or six years in a row, I spent a week every summer as a volunteer counselor at Camp Chippewa. Sleeping at night was much more comfortable the last couple of years, because by then the cabins were air conditioned.

Every week with campers began basically the same way. Start with introductions all around the cabin – first name only. Then, a brief rundown of the rules. Boys, stay out of the girls’ bunkroom. Girls, stay out of the boys’ bunkroom. Always travel in groups of three or more. And so on.

Inevitably, some 10-year-old boy would whine, “So many rules! It’s just like school!”

We all know how restrictive and even life-stifling some regulations can be. But most of the time we appreciate the need for boundaries to keep us from bumping into each other. Even with such boundaries, we often transgress, so it’s good that we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In the last few weeks, we have been talking about the Three Simple Rules that John and Charles Wesley drafted 280 years ago, based on three words that God gave to the prophet Micah 2,500 years before that.

Today we express them as: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.

These are not laws or regulations that we have follow to avoid being prosecuted or punished. These are relational guidelines for how to live together. They are statements of intent that express a personal obligation to a loved one. These rules are intensely personal, and they imply a personal obligation to God and to other people.

Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” Just three things, God says. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.

Three Hebrew words are used here that are key to understanding not only this passage in Micah but actually the whole Bible.

The first key word is mishpat. It means justice. This is the way things ought to be. Justice is what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the way things would be if God’s will were done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s the way things will be when God’s kingdom has come.

The second key word is hesed. It means kindness and mercy of a special type – the type of steadfast love that God shows to us and that God wants us to show to others.

The third key word is halakah. It means right steps or right walk. We ought to walk humbly with God, Micah says. That is, we ought to walk in right relationship with God.

That’s our focus this morning. I want to stress from the start that loving God is more than humming sweet Jesus songs throughout the day. Loving God is about what you doi while you’re humming sweet Jesus songs. If you are inflicting harm and not doing good, you can’t hum loud enough to cover the screams of those you hurt. God’s ears are attuned more to the cries of the oppressed than to the praise songs of the oppressor.

Loving God is a matter of mishpat and hesed, right relationship with God and others. In their general rules of discipleship, the Wesleys put a particular spin on it. Walking humbly with God, they say, means “attending to the means of grace.”

Means of grace are pipelines of God’s grace. I’ve spoken of them several times before. They are activities that open us to God’s grace so that God’s grace flows into us and through us to others.

First on their list, and probably foremost in our minds right now, is public worship. If worship is giving your heart to God, then public worship is giving your heart to God in communion with others who are giving their hearts to God. Virtual, online, worship is an acceptable substitute, when necessary, as it still is for so many people in many circumstances right now. But we all feel instinctively that it’s second best to in-person worship – and that’s why we are gathered here this morning.

Next is the ministry of God’s written word, read or expounded. Listening to a scripture-based message is fine, because it may help you understand the scripture, but reading the scripture for yourself may be even more important. You can listen to only so many sermons before your brain turns to mush, but every time you read scripture, you give God another opportunity to speak to you personally through it.

Two weeks from today I plan to introduce you to a kind of Bible study that I think you will find helpful in these days of pandemic. The covid-19 outbreak has fragmented our lives spiritually and mentally as well as physically. It has left us feeling weak and defenseless and vulnerable in ways that most of us have never felt before.

Reading scripture daily is one way you can combat this sense of fragmentation and helplessness. The Connections Bible Study that I’ll show you is a way to discover the heart of the Bible reading only 20 minutes a day.

Once every couple of weeks, you can meet with others to share insights from what you’ve read. This kind of small-group discussion is another of the means of grace, one that the Wesleys call “Christian conference.” Chris Kerr will lead these discussions, though you’re free to start your own group as well, meeting whenever and however often you like.

Another means of grace is one that we will participate in later this morning. Through the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, we take the very life of Christ into our bodies. Though this sacrament, God communicates with us in a way that is so direct that it’s beyond the limits of our understanding.

Equally beyond our understanding is the mechanism of prayer. That’s the means of grace through which we converse with God. We do most of the talking most of the time, but sometimes, when we pause to listen, we also can hear.

There are other means of grace, including fasting and faith sharing, that I will skip over this morning. John Wesley lumps all of them under the rubric “acts of piety.” Alongside these he sets “acts of mercy,” which are the ways we love God through our love of other people. Together, these are acts of justice – mishpat – and acts of kindness – hesed – and they add up to a halakah – a way of walking with God.

Acts of piety and acts of mercy are ways of loving God and neighbor, as Jesus instructs us in the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with every fiber of your being, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.29‑31).

Loving God and neighbor is how we worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4.24). It’s interesting, though, that when they speak of it, two prominent early Christian teachers don’t mention God at all.

Twice in his letters to young churches, in Galatians and in Romans, the Apostle Paul says: “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Galatians 5.14; see also Romans 13.9).

James the brother of Jesus says the same thing in the letter that carries his name. He says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (James 2.8).

Have they left God out of the equation altogether? Not at all! Because love of God finds its expression in love of neighbor. Love of God is fulfilled in love of neighbor. Love of God is actualized in love of neighbor. Love of God is made real in love of neighbor.

That’s why God doesn’t seem to care nearly as much about what we do here in church as about what we do outside church, because we’re here only an hour or so every week. It’s what we do out there the rest of the time that shows God’s love to the world and gives God the most glory.

This is what God wants of us, Micah says. Mishpat. Hesed. Halakah. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. From these three words the Wesley brothers draw their Three Simple Rules to guide the Methodist movement. Do no harm. Do good. Love God.

The whole thing is a halakah, a walk of life, a way of being, a pathway that leads us to holiness of heart and life. It’s a guideline like the straight edge of a ruler. It’s a way of keeping your life in line. The rule shows the straight way God wants you to walk because that’s how God created you to walk – not stumbling from side or side but walking in right relationship with all.

I’ll talk more about this next week when I introduce you to a United Methodist Rule of Life. It is not, as I mentioned earlier, a matter of legalism, of following laws and regulations. It’s a way of behaving because you love someone.

This is the rule that guides your behavior with your spouse, your children, your parents and your friends. Doing harm to one you love is unthinkable. No, you always want to do what is good for them. You want to do what is best for them. It’s not a matter of law, of being required to act this way. You want to act this way because it’s the loving way to be.

“Way to go!” we tell people when they’ve done well. “Way to be!”

This message was delivered live at Edgerton United Methodist Church on September 6, 2020, from Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 9:23-24.