Chaotic, complex and beautiful

Two weeks ago, in a reflection on one of the books we carry, I wrote about my struggle with prayer, and then, this last week, tired from a long weekend (and a little bit congested), I didn’t write. Many of you wrote to me to remind me that you were praying for me. And at least one of you noticed that I hadn’t sent out a newsletter. 

The email was short: “Did you think I wouldn’t notice if there wasn’t a Long Story Short this week?”

It made me smile. It reminded me of the importance of community – a place where we pray for and show up for one another. And it brought up another memory of prayer that seemed good for sharing this week.

I used to work with the youth at a church here in town and on a Sunday night when the regular worship leaders for high school youth group had other plans, 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 chaotic, 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 of “just me and God,” I made it clear that whatever activities happened—getting up for a snack, answering the door, conversation, laughter, simply being together – would be completely appropriate during our worship experience. Even so, our time together was a time of silence. Students were absorbed in their prayers and in 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.

For two years after that night, those collages covered the walls of the kitchen corner where I drink my first cup of coffee each morning. I was surrounded by the prayers of high school students who had connected with God while sprawled out on the floor of the church youth room making art. And it was beautiful the way – each morning – that it helped me to breathe.

This morning, I’m already halfway into my first cup of coffee, and I’m thinking about the way your life is kind of like one of those collages – a thing of chaotic, complex beauty reflecting the very image of God, a kind of embodied prayer. And I’m thankful for you.

For the way you help me to breathe.

Eric Muhr