On the days when I get really fearful, I say a tiny prayer. It’s called a breath prayer. During a series my pastor in Connecticut taught on the Beatitudes, he taught us how to say breath prayers — short, gritty prayers that get right to the point. You can say them anywhere and in any posture. You simply pick a sentence, something that looks like a prayer, and repeat it under your breath over and over again, as the song of your heart, a battle refrain. Not long after, the breath prayer makes a little space in your heart and stays there.
I love the idea of breath prayers. There are plenty of times when I can’t find the words or don’t have the energy to get on my knees and pray. There are even times when I feel like my prayers aren’t good enough, as if God won’t meet me in my mess. There are days when I feel like every word that comes out of my mouth is fake or forced. Breath prayers help me bridge the gap between praying sometimes and praying without ceasing.
My breath prayer for when fear tries to take back the lead role is simple: Reduce me to love.
I can’t take credit for making this prayer up. I hear it one morning as I pray with a group of volunteers at my church. I had signed up to work at a conference for worship leaders who came from all over the country to rest, refuel, and get inspired.
Before the doors open on the second morning, our group huddles close and links arms. The woman in the center begins to pray. At one point, she says it. “Reduce me to love. God, reduce me to love.”
After we say amen, we get into place at the doors. Our job is to welcome the worship leaders and get them pumped for the full day ahead. I’m still not certain why anyone would think to give me this sort of job. I only make things more awkward when I am left to greet strangers. I’m that person who welcomes someone into the building and asks, “Is this your first time at church?” They give me the stink eye when they tell me they’ve been attending for four years. I’ve since retired from greeting people and now deliver coffee and bagels to the other people serving on a Sunday. It’s easier to talk to bagels than to people.
I start saying hello to people as they come in the doors. Some look tired. Some look caffeinated. Some look like members of the band One Direction, and some look like Jesus.
A man walks toward me with stringy gray hair. He has his arms stretched out as if he has known me for years, as if this is our family reunion and he’s my uncle. I looked at his name tag: Gino.
Gino and I hug like it’s second nature. He pulls out his harmonica and begins playing “Amazing Grace” in the middle of the lobby as if no one else were there.
“What’ll you have me play?” he asks.
I request the song “Danny Boy.” He plays it, and I close my eyes for a minute. The song makes me think of my grandmother. It was one of her favorites. I can still hear her exclaiming over how much she loved that song.
Gino finishes his song. He places his hand on my shoulder and looks at me.
“Just remember to look beneath the surface,” he says, his voice low. “Beneath the surface, we all just want to be seen. Every single one of us just wants to be seen.”
As he says those words and slips past me into the crowd, that simple prayer comes back to me: Reduce me to love. When fear is leading, I miss these moments.
My prayer expands and gets bigger as I say it more: Reduce me to love. Help me to see beneath the surface. Help me to be a familiar face in a crowd, a light in a dark room. Turn me into love and wipe out all the excess fear.
The prayer is not asking that I’ll be propelled into something bigger for this world. The prayer is “reduce.” Make me smaller. Help me get out of my own way.
It’s a classic John 3 kind of prayer. In John 3, John the Baptist says flat-out, “I’m not it. I’m not meant to be the center of attention.” He tells his disciples that he was sent ahead to prepare the way for the bridegroom. “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).
My heart needs this reminder constantly: You are not the center of the universe. You are not the most important. That’s God. If I want to be open to what God has for me, I also must be open to decreasing, to becoming less. I stick close to writer Flannery O’Connor’s words in her prayer journal: “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon . . . Please help me to push myself aside.”2
The world doesn’t tell us a story about reduction. It tells us to be front and center, always impressive. The gospel is a different story. Gospel-living requires us to get smaller as we go, so that God can be amplified. Smallness is where the real work happens.
Smallness is where we learn what we’re made of. Smallness is where our actions trump our words.
Reduce me to love. It’s me saying, “I can’t actually do this reduction thing on my own, so come in and do the work. Have your way. I trust you.”
It’s beautiful because I went a really long time without ever trusting God. My prayers were prayers that I could handle things and that I could see with my own strength. Now I like to pray for impossible things because I want to get to the end of my life and be able to say, “I saw impossible things, and the fear didn’t win.”