Some of the most powerful experiences in my ministry have involved prayer. More specifically, they have involved other people praying or forcing me to pray. This is because I am Lutheran, and public and partnered prayer make me wicked uncomfortable (more on that later). When I was a youth director, my mission trips were insane. Ask anyone. They were awesome, but they were totally insane. One summer, my youth, a brave volunteer, and myself headed CLE –> CHI –> MPLS. We were going to be really late getting to Redeemer Lutheran in MPLS, but that said that would be fine. They had a prayer service at six pm and they could let us in. We weren’t getting in until at least nine pm, so I was nervous. No way would a Lutheran prayer service still be happening after three hours. We arrived a little after nine and the church was unlocked. In the sanctuary there was a group of people drumming and praying. They prayed for us and our journey, for the lives of our youth and their families back home. We were all flabbergasted. Lutherans praying for hours? My kids couldn’t stop talking about it. They loved it. They wanted more.
A few summers later, we went from a coal town in WV –> Asheville –> Charleston. In WV, we were participating in a YouthWorks trip. At the end of the trip, there was a worship service during which the leaders were asked to lay hands on the kids and pray (yes, I know how wrong that sounds. Minds out of the gutter, please). I was TERRIFIED. I was going to have to be really, really intimate with these kids. Some of them I knew way better than others. I hate praying out loud with others. Too much intimacy, too much pressure, too many eyes on me (yes, I know that it’s not about me. But it is). All of those eyes on me meant I had to do it. So I went around and prayed for my kids and my volunteers, one by one. I was totally panicking inside, asking God for words. Please, God, give me words. And God did provide. None of the kids ever said anything to me about it, but I heard from parents afterward that the experience was incredibly powerful for my kids. It was one of the things they talked about most. And me? I discovered (again) the power of prayer.
This past Tuesday, in my Indigenous Ways of Knowing class, our teacher (a Lakota chief) opened up the class in song and prayer (as he always does). I realized that this has NEVER happened during my time in seminary. Maybe at my last seminary; that was a long time ago. But certainly not in the past semester (and if it happened at all at my last seminary, I venture a guess that it was not often). This seemed weird to me. Does it seem weird to you? I asked a professor about it and she said that there are some people who don’t think it is appropriate, that prayer is not what we are here to do. We are here for intellectual pursuits. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!!! For real? I’m learning to be a pastor. I will spend a shit ton of my time praying (that is a mathematical term, btw. The vulgar system of measurement). Apparently, this is another thing we are already supposed to know how to do and/or will learn during teaching parish/CPE/internship. We pray before meals, giving thanks for the food and the hands that have prepared it, asking that it nourish our bodies. Shouldn’t we do the same with the information that goes into our heads? A little giving thanks for the people who have gone before us and shaped out theology and a request that it shape our brains for good gospel witness to the world?
This isn’t just about prayer in seminary. This is about prayer in our lives. Most mainline protestants I know are as terrified of one-on-one prayer as I am. We do it because we have to, and we generally only do it when someone is sick or dying or otherwise really needs our help. Often, we wait until we are asked. I am in this boat too. A few weeks back, a student from another denomination started class with an activity that involved one-on-one prayer. My partner was the professor. We nervously chatted the whole time. What is it about praying with another person that is so frightening?
When we pray, we are naked. We are needy. We are vulnerable. Most people, particularly most leaders, don’t want to be seen that way. We don’t want to bring our open wounds into the public arena. We don’t want to ask for help from someone else (many of us have a hard enough time asking for help from God), we don’t want to open ourselves up that much. We want to be strong, perfect leader-types. But we aren’t perfect. We are just as broken as our parishioners, just as broken as the rest of the body of Christ.
Prayer, more than almost anything else we do, forces us to give up power. In prayer, the power is God’s. We have to let go of ourself and let God come through. We have to stop making it about us and make it about God and the other person/people in the room. Are we afraid our prayer will reveal how weak our own prayer life is? How tenuous our own relationship with God is? Many of us are afraid we might say the wrong thing. This is where depending on God comes in. And, if I say the wrong thing, chances are no one will notice. If I say a really wrong thing, I’ll apologize. It will happen. It is a part of our brokenness. That’s ok.
Whatever our problems with prayer might be, whatever it is that makes so many of us react to a mention of prayer with resignation, internal panic or the sudden desire to run away (or any combination thereof), we have to get over it. Because prayer has a profound effect on those with whom we pray and on our own damaged souls.
Sometime in the next few days, ask someone to pray with you. I dare you. Be careful: if you ask me, I just might take you up on it. I gotta get over myself. True story. Maybe you do too.
A lesson from Rev. Hammer: