When it comes right down to it, there are basically two reasons why I pray: I’m asked to as a professional, or I’m desperate. As a Presbyterian Minister, I’m regularly called upon to lead corporate prayer: before meals with friends or family, at church meetings, with Student groups, at bible studies, and, of course, during Sunday worship.
This is something all clergy get used to being asked to do. One of my friends got this clergy-to- clergy advice as she left for seminary: “Whenever anyone says, ‘Pastor, would you pray?’ the answer is always, ‘I would love to.’”
Sometimes when I join non-religious friends for a meal, there is an awkward pause before we all pick up our forks. I can hear them wondering, “Is Aimee-the-minister going to want us to pray before we eat?” Even dyed-in-the- wool Presbyterians seem to defer to the religious professional when it comes to saying grace before a potluck supper. There is always a quiet moment after the tables are set but before everyone lines up to fill empty plates...and all eyes turn toward the pastor.
“I would love to,” I respond.
Don’t get me wrong; I am happy to lead a table grace or offer a closing prayer. But I wonder about this phenomenon. When everyone turns to the pastor for prayer, is it because the community perceives prayer as something the minister thinks is necessary? Do prayers feel perfunctory, sort of like being polite to God by offering “please” and “thank you” to the Divine under the watchful eye of the minister?
As a child, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, I remember kids on the playground avoiding bad words and dirty jokes in my presence because, said one in a stage whisper, “Aimee’s dad is a minister.” The implication was that my dad had a direct line to God that could, if needed, get the other kids in trouble. Having heard my dad swear under his breath after hitting
I wonder if Jesus got called upon to pray at every gathering with the disciples. Perhaps that’s why he taught them some all-purpose, all occasion words everyone could memorize: “Our Father, who art in heaven...”
his thumb with a hammer, I didn’t have a clue what my classmates were talking about.
I often find that people seem to think prayer offered by a pastor has some kind of authority that is not present in the words of a lay person. Various churches and denominations may come to different conclusions on this point, but in Presbyterianism the people are the church. The pastor has no more power to talk to or influence God than anyone else. Still, there’s something about the minister that seems to carry weight.
As an ordained, professionally-trained Christian minister, should I have some special insight into how to pray or how to say what God wants to hear? Perhaps, by virtue of spending time studying many faithful who have come before, I have resources from and knowledge of the myriad ways people have called upon God in times of celebration and need. Mostly, though, I just have more practice stringing words of prayer together in a way that sounds nice, or even just appropriate, in diverse situations.
But this can also be a problem. I am susceptible to the idea that, as a minister, I need to sound “professional” when I lead prayer. It is not uncommon for me to be thinking more about how my words of prayer sound and than about whether I feel and mean them in the moment. This is, perhaps, the other side of “praying because it’s expected of you”: you can start to believe that the beauty or elegance you give a prayer is more important than its sincerity.
I wonder if Jesus got called upon to pray at every gathering with the disciples. Perhaps that’s why he taught them some all-purpose, all- occasion words everyone could memorize: “Our Father, who art in heaven...”
I have a small clergy group with whom I meet monthly for conversation, prayer, and Mexican food. The awkward pause before we dig into our burritos is usually rooted in the silent question, “Whose turn is it to pray?” While all of us are amenable to the task, each is also aware that we are all “professionals” and are regularly asked to pray “professionally.” I won’t speak for my colleagues, but in my head I’m often thinking, “Oh, I hope it’s not my turn—it’s nice to not have to lead.”
Fortunately, in this particular group we often drop all pretense and pray the words that are truest: “God, I don’t know.” “God, I’m angry.” “God, I don’t understand.” “God, I have sinned.” “God, help.” It’s nice to express these words around other ministers, because they are sometimes hard sentiments for parishioners to hear. Clergy are supposed to be strong in their faith and connected to God, not scared, confused and in doubt. But such three- or four-word prayers are still the ones I pray when I’m desperate, and, even as a minister, they are the most common and most honest prayers I pray.
The time in my life when I was most consistent about personal prayer was while my mom was sick with cancer. I had a regular group with whom I prayed weekly for my mom’s recovery, and I led something of a life of constant prayer myself: prayers for miracles of healing, prayers that God would use my family as an example of the power of prayer, prayers that the next phone call from home would be good news rather than bad, prayers that the tumors would shrink and vanish, prayers to awaken from the nightmare of waiting for your mom to die. I sent these prayers to the heavens as often as I thought about it, which was about every three or four seconds. Mostly, I prayed because I didn’t know what else to do.
All of my prayers of desperation are like that, because they come at the moments I slow down enough to remember I’m not in control. We all know our illusions of control—over our lives, our jobs, our health, our security—are just that: illusions. But we exist in a world where every day we get ready for work, brush our teeth, and lock our front doors anyway, and it is easy to start thinking that we’re in charge.
Watching my mom die in an easy chair in our living room was probably the moment when I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not in control of my life or anyone else’s. That day, I stopped believing God would protect me or my loved ones from pain and grief, and my prayer life (such as it was) changed forever. I still pray boldly for healing of mind, soul, and body, but I don’t have the same hope those prayers will be answered. Even as I ask God for healing, I’m actually looking for strength and wisdom to deal with what is, and whatever is to come.
And so I pray desperation prayers all day long, even now. Sometimes these prayers start early in the day, like as I’m in the shower thinking about all that is on my plate. Usually, that prayer is, “How am I going to deal with this?” Sometimes, the desperation prayers come at night as I rest my head on the pillow. Those prayers sound more like, “How could I have done that?” or “Tell me it’s not true” or, simply, “I don’t know what to do.” These prayers come from my lips unbidden, raw, and unvarnished, and totally aware of mortality and vulnerability and frailty. I pray them in the face of utter powerlessness, when there is nothing else I can do but hope someone is listening who has more power than I do.
I used to beat myself up about not having a more rigorous, regular prayer life. I know that for many people, the discipline of daily prayer time is a source of strength and centering in their life of faith. Perhaps it could be that for me, too.
But for now, I take comfort in the fact that prayers of desperation keep me honest and focus me on the realities around me today: the hundreds of thousands dead after the earthquake in Haiti (“God, have mercy”), interesting and perhaps unsettling changes happening in the office (“Be with us”), conversations—both promising and difficult—with students (“Thanks” and “Forgive me”), and successes and failures and unknowns all around (“Grant me love”).
In the end, desperation prayers are bridges for me: between the professional realities of serving as a minister and the lived experience of being merely human; between modeling a life of faithfulness and honestly acknowledging my brokenness; between pretty, poetic prayers that lift the heart, and gritty, dirty ones that reveal both my faith and my doubt.
And I pray them all—sometimes because I’m asked to, and just about all the time because I’m desperate.