Deepening prayer

There is always a sense of ambiguity about prayer, for we never master the practice. 

By Molly T. Marshall

Christians know that we are supposed to pray. From earliest childhood, that is our instruction, often getting more practice in Sunday school than at home. Families who pray together are an endangered species these days; spiritual practices are intimate, and loss of intimacy characterizes many households. I fear that both clergy and congregations are suffering from lack of prayer.

Sarah Coakley, professor at Cambridge University, puts it this way: “Without the daily public witness of a clergy engaged, manifestly and accountably, alongside their people, in the disciplined long-haul life of prayer, of ongoing person and often painful transformation, the church at large runs the danger of losing its fundamental direction and meaning.”

Twice a year I spend time with other leaders of theological schools — all women — for professional development and fellowship. We call ourselves the WiTS (Women in Theological Schools), and we pray that we will always have our WiTS about us as we lean into our vocations. Wits are often in short supply as we juggle the relentless requests that come across our desks!

When together we present case studies, reflect on the challenges of our institutions and share our personal struggles, all under the code of silence or “seal of the confessional.” I am helped immensely by this collegial gathering, gaining perspective I would not otherwise have.

A focal topic this past weekend was to think about our spiritual practices. One seminary president remarked, “The longer I am in this work, the longer I need to pray.” She sounds like Martin Luther, who had so much to do that he just had to pray two hours a day in order to get the rest of it done!

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday includes Jesus’ bold instruction about prayer. “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14:14) The sense the reader gets from this passage is that Jesus is inviting his followers into the same sort of conversation he had regularly with his Abba. Later in the Gospel, we learn that this kind of prayer is only possible because the Spirit will remind us of his teaching.

There is always a sense of ambiguity about prayer, for we never master the practice. We have Jesus’ encouragement to pray as he prayed, and we hear Paul’s poignant insight, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” What we do know is that “deep prayer” (Coakley’s description) is transformative to the one praying and the circumstances for which he or she intercedes.

Yet, prayer is not simply about expressing our needs to God. It is about listening. Rather than attempting to grasp God, it is a “sense of being grasped, of the Spirit’s simultaneous erasure of human idolatry and subtle reconstitution of human selfhood in God,” again Coakley’s words. This is surely a long-haul process — seeking God through attentive waiting in the holy presence.

Moving beyond the theoretical problematic of how prayer “works” is necessary. It is the practice of showing up, regularly, which presses one to relinquish “efficiencies” and control. Darkness and unknowing will always be a part of this experience, and the stripping away of pretense leaves one vulnerable before God.

Yet, we cannot but intercede for those we love, as my teacher Glenn Hinson taught us. Not to pray for those beset with suffering and grief would demonstrate callous disregard. We add the energies of our love to that of God’s outpouring love, as Hinson wrote in A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle. Together we craft a future that God does not impose, but waits with openness for human participation.

For what do I need to pray as the spiritual leader of Central Baptist Theological Seminary? Each morning I pray for wisdom, compassion and patience. These seem to be essential ingredients to leadership, and keeping these in balance can temper judgment. There are many ways to mess up in my position.

At this time in the seminary’s life, I pray for those who are graduating in a few short days. Many are already in significant places of ministry; others will be seeking new positions. I pray for our board as it gathers on Thursday and Friday. Trustees function as wise stewards of the seminary’s mission and resources. I pray for our leadership team as it works closely with the board. I pray for our faculty as they complete the long haul of the semester’s work. Their labor in forming students serves the church and larger community in essential ways. I pray for the staff, also. Without their attentiveness to details, the celebrations surrounding commencement would not happen!

Faithful Christian witness through congregations and in public life requires deep grounding in prayer. And it can become the centering reality of our lives as we respond to God’s desire to be near us.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.