This week we asked our bloggers to describe a failure or difficulty encountered in ministry.
From the hardest time in my life, I learned how to pray. After college, I spent six months developing a mission partnership between my home congregation, Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, and our friends in Malawi. The folks who had preceded me in this initiative had a grand time during their stay and returned home with glowing reports about the “warm heart of Africa,” as Malawi is known. Their reports about the kindhearted people were right. But I never got acquainted with the grand time they found there. For me, Malawi was a struggle every day. I took seriously my role as a representative of my congregation and wanted all my actions to reflect the church’s deep love and commitment to the partnership. But I could never figure out what it meant to be Christ-like in a place where there were so many needs. On my morning walk to school, small children would call out, “Give me money.” Some of my Peace Corps friends assured me that the right answer was always “no.” Though I knew the wisdom of that response, it never felt faithful to me. And yet I couldn’t possibly say “yes” to everyone, either.
Malawi was also a lonely place for me. Caring people surrounded me and we bemoaned together the lack of water flowing from faucets and the dangers of mini-bus rides. But I could not transform those friendships into a feeling of ease. Mail that connected me to my family got lost, Internet connections were slow and expensive, and safety was never a sure thing. Everything about my experience there felt intense: the spots of joy, the periods of sadness and the moral questions it raised.
It was in the midst of those feelings that I came to understand prayer. I had obviously prayed before. But never so intensely, never so frequently, and never so helplessly. I needed God’s support to get through each day. I trusted that I would overcome the challenges only because of God’s presence. Each day, I opened the psalms and searched for words the reflected my feelings. I took solace in the knowledge that those same words had been prayed over and over, generations before me. In letters home to my church, I asked openly for prayers to sustain me. In Malawi, I understood what it meant to depend on God. I almost prayed without ceasing. Seven years later when I transferred presbyteries and was interviewed by the Commission on Ministry, I shared this story. The chair asked if I still prayed this way. The answer was a somewhat guilty “no.” My daily life today usually doesn’t feel like it demands that level of intense prayer. And I’m grateful that everyday is not a battle. But with that easiness, my prayer practices have become more mundane. There are lots of times when I yearn to regain the passion for and connection with God that I felt those years ago. Recalling my feelings from that time though, it seems laughable that I would wish to relive it. But I realize now that, although my body and mind struggled in Malawi, it was a place where my spirit was right.
EMMA NICKEL serves as stated supply pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, Kentucky. She is passionate about small church ministry, cooking and playing with her cat, Scout.