September 17, 2016
A common religious conceit is that people turn to prayer only in times of difficulty and despair. In my time as a hospice chaplain, I have found that idea to be untrue. Often pain and grief seem to stifle one’s ability to connect with God in prayer. Prayer can seem both insufficient and overwhelming when trauma has pierced the soul. I am often called in to assist people in these times of spiritual disconnect.
As a new chaplain, I was daunted by the request to pray at a hospice bedside. I was afraid that my feeble attempts at prayer would not rise to the occasion and properly honor the life-changing circumstances. While I grew up in a nondenominational tradition that valued spontaneous and fervent prayer, my PC(USA) seminary experiences privileged a more scripted and measured approach to prayer. Most of the prayers I saw delivered in chapel services and convocations were beautifully prepared; carefully written out prior to the occasion. My prayers at the bedside did not sound like the well-crafted ones of my professors and colleagues. I couldn’t recall the structure and poetic movements of the prayers and liturgies I learned in my courses. I only knew how to request God’s wisdom and grace in these heartbreaking situations. As I continued in my chaplain role, I began to understand that my prayers did not need to be beautiful. In fact, I realized that it was dangerous and hypocritical to think in those terms. Those prayers were not about me at all. Our prayers are about God and God’s work in the world; work that often happens through our connection with one another.
But it was not until I had my own health crisis that I understood the true power of these bedside, unscripted prayers. As I lay in my own hospital bed, I couldn’t gather my own thoughts enough to pray for myself. My own fears and anxieties rendered me unable to articulate my prayers to God. My soul thirsted for God, but I had lost trust in my own ability to cry out. And then a member of my congregation came to visit. Armed with anointing oil, she held her steady hand on my head, anointed my head, and then prayed for me. I don’t remember the words she prayed, but I remember that her words opened up sacred space for me. Her prayer helped give me the language to reconnect to God in an intimate way. The silent prayers of those in my faith community were essential to my physical recovery, yet it was her spoken prayer, while holding my hand, that sparked a spiritual recovery.
We ruling elders take ordination vows that commit us to prayer for one another. The relatively recent change in the ordination vows explicitly asks, “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?” This is a call to prayer and also an invitation to move from a sincere but vague “You are in our prayers” to a more active posture of “Would you like for me to pray with you right now?” This can cause a powerful denominational culture shift. We can move our collective prayers from worship services and church meetings into our intimate spaces. Our homes, hospital rooms, and telephone lines become holy spaces when we come together and pray. As we pray with another, remember that our prayer is not performance, but it is connection. It is a humbling but ultimately freeing opportunity to connect with God and one another with our hearts and deeds.
This story was originally published in Regarding Ruling Elders, a resource of the Office of the General Assembly, http://oga.pcusa.org/section/mid-council-ministries/ruling-elders/
Zeena Regis, Ruling Elder, Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, Decatur, Georgia
Today’s Focus: Synod of South Atlantic
Let us join in prayer for:
Rev. Dr. Heahwan Rim, Synod Executive and Stated Clerk
Lisa Lovelady, Synod Administrator
Rev. Dr. Joe W. Rigsby, African-American Consultant
Rev. Jonier Adrian Orozco, Hispanic-American Consultant
Rev. Mun-Gye Lee, Korean-American Consultant
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Heavenly Father, we pray for the ministries as they grow and continue to reach out to their communities. Grant them wisdom, creativity, and the courage to embrace prophetic opportunities. Amen.