By Sarah Walker Cleaveland, MDiv ’07
In our family, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season has begun early as Adam and I each struggle to prepare for Advent in new ways without the benefit of much advance preparation. The church I’m serving just called a new Senior Pastor, so the church staff is running headlong into Advent trying to both keep ongoing ministries afloat, learn how to work with one another, and also create meaningful worship and formation opportunities for Advent, in the course of three weeks—as if the first Christmas season in my first call were not crazy-making enough!
Meanwhile, Adam is finding his way as a “tent-making” pastor and artist—balancing multiple part-time jobs while also creating a new Advent resource for churches and families. (The illustration above is from his Illustrated Children’s Moments Advent series!) And, of course, we’re still adjusting to what our lives look like in this season. Plus, you know, a three-year-old.
In the midst of feeling completely overwhelmed by it all, I was writing devotions for Adam and found myself writing, of course, what I most needed to hear – and practice. And so, just in case your Advent, or Advent preparations, looks anything like ours, I offer you this (pre-)Advent devotion on creating moments of peace and calm through the practice of breath prayers.
“Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” –Unknown
The practice of breath prayers is one way we can try to create calm or peace in our hearts, even when the world around us is full of noise and expectations. This week, try creating and practicing breath prayers, either individually or as a family.
To create your own breath prayer, pick two or three words that name God (e.g. Loving Creator, Holy Savior, Sustaining Spirit) and two to three words that express what you need most in this moment (e.g. be with me, show me life, give me strength). The practice of creating breath prayers is, in and of itself, a spiritual discipline. By identifying what it is that we most need at this moment, we are discerning (or identifying) the spaces into which we are inviting God. In doing so, we begin the process of shedding the defensive barriers we use to protect ourselves—opening the door to let God’s light and presence shine into the dark and empty places in our lives.
To practice breath prayers, take your two phrases and silently say the first (e.g. Gracious God) as you take a deep breath in, and the second (e.g. show me how) as you breathe out. It is often helpful to remain still and close your eyes while practicing breath prayers, but they can also be done while walking or driving, and thus with your eyes open! Repeat the process for five to ten slow breaths if you only have a moment, or for a set period of time if you have longer (setting an alarm on your phone is a good way to keep track of time without having to worry about it). This is a particularly good prayer for young children, who will appreciate being able to do it by themselves after only a little help, and they may even be able to create their own.
As a family, take turns creating a prayer that everyone practices for the day and then check-in each evening to see how the prayer might have shaped, or intersected with, your day.
Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a pastor and spiritual director living and working outside of Chicago where she is Acting Associate Pastor at Winnetka Congregational Church. She loves spending time with her almost four-year-old son and indulging her introverted nature by listening to audiobooks and building things in her garage. Learn more about Sarah at sarahwalkercleaveland.com.