What’s prayer all about?
What’s a pastor good for, anyway? When all else fails, when sermons bomb and creativity falters and pandemics hinder worship and patience with people wanes…we pray. This is possibly our very highest calling, but it still begs the follow-up question: what is prayer all about?
Whatever Reformed, Calvinistic bones are in my body (there are both less and more than I once thought), they want to cry out– “you’re not praying anything God doesn’t already know!” What is prayer all about, anyway? There are so many difficulties. We don’t know how to pray. We pray for things that never happen. We waffle between asking specifically for miracles and praying so vaguely we will never be disappointed. How could God hear us anyway, when our prayers are surely dwarfed by the millions of others going up simultaneously? Even Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty struggled with this one. In his brief stint as God in the movie, prayer requests are first put in file cabinets, then switched to post-its and finally to emails– 1,527,503 of them. And after a feverish day of Bruce answering them at superhuman speed…the backlog had increased to over 3 million. Sometimes human beings don’t even know why they pray. But they keep doing it.
What is prayer all about? This has happened to you, right? You told someone you would pray for them, totally forgot about it, and then had them return and thank you for praying. Or perhaps you keep a prayer list and have found yourself praying down it but noticing how difficult it is to lift up much more than a name or a dry, generic prayer…because you need to get onto more important things.
During this pandemic…many of us have prayed and prayed. Still, there are 550,000 fewer people alive in our country because of Covid-19. The number of people suffering in hospital beds is still very significant. The economy is still struggling. And the vitriol that accompanies the inconceivable crime of making a pandemic (masks, social distancing, vaccinations) into a divisive political issue continues louder than ever. Keep praying. Lord, have mercy.
What is prayer all about? I brushed up against a hint of an answer back in 2008 when I attended a seminar at St. John’s University in Minnesota. It’s also the location of a fully functioning Benedictine abbey. Each day we were there, the 50 monks filed into the huge Abbey Church to pray. Three times a day, every single day since…1866. During peace and war, in depressions and recessions and boom times, through industrial revolutions, space launchings, racial crises, and the explosion of technology there has been one community on one hill in one Abbey Church that is praying. Always praying. What is prayer all about? With all that has gone wrong in the world over these centuries, it’s easy to think that prayer has been impotent. But what intrigued me at St. John’s, and still does is–what might the world be like now if the consistent prayers from many such communities had NOT entered into the complicated formula of God’s dealings with the world? Would the world have gone up in smoke years ago? Let my prayers rise before you as incense, O Lord, the Psalmist writes (Psalm 141).
In June of 2020, the pandemic was locking everyone down in disorienting ways. Out of a need to do SOMETHING, our little church in Santa Rosa invited people to write short prayers on tags and then tie them onto three small “prayer trees” on the front lawn. Church members, visitors, neighborhood folks, kids, families, believers, unbelievers…dozens and dozens of prayers appeared like fruit on the branches. “Oh God of hope–we need You!” “I have cancer.” “Praying for this virus to end soon!” “For children in unsafe homes.” “Bless you, Lord.” One tag even contained the individual names of 43 people. December’s rain and wind gradually stripped the trees bare. I kept picking the wet prayer tags off the ground and saving them because…I don’t know why, exactly. They still seemed to be speaking, praying, wafting up to the Lord. Even now, piled into a big wicker basket in my office, they remind me every day that God invites us, commands us, pleads with us to communicate. To pray. Constantly. Baskets of prayers. Let my prayers rise before you as incense, O Lord.
What’s a pastor good for? I don’t always know the answer. Some days, maybe a bit. But I do know this–a pastor that prays…is good for something.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.