Recently, following worship, a congregant had a seizure before leaving the church. I was still in the sanctuary talking with some folks when news of this reached me. Thankfully, we have a couple people in the congregation who are medically knowledgeable and skilled and they were nearby when this went down. An ambulance was called, he was taken to the local ER, the local ER forwarded him to a larger hospital with a neurologist on call, and he returned home that evening (with the inevitable and necessary follow-ups scheduled).
As the squad pulled away from the church, the collection of congregants who were still there just stood still, unsure of what to do. I was amongst them. Finally, someone more spiritually mature than me said, “Pastor, maybe you could say a prayer?”
I prayed. Prayed that Grant would be all right. Prayed that Jean would be comforted as she rushed from church to meet her husband at the ER. Prayed for the physicians and nurses that would be taking care of Grant. Prayed for all of us – that we’d feel a peace that surpasses all understanding and that we’d keep praying.
Here’s my dirty little confession: I didn’t really trust those prayers to do or mean much. My mind was whirling, even as my body stood still. I was thinking about the doctors he’d need to see, whether this was related to some of his past health problems, whether our little, local hospital would be able to serve him, how scared I was, how frightened everyone else was. At that moment, if you could peek inside my heart you would’ve found two-thirds anxiety and one-third trust in modern medicine. Prayer just wasn’t there.
I hope you can understand how scary it is to confess this in writing. Even as I type the words, I can feel my pulse quicken and my nerves start to tremble. Gosh, my congregants might read this. What will they think? Geez, my pastor friends are apt to peruse this. Will they judge me? I feel this way about what my mind categorizes as “back-up plan prayers” often.
Let me offer a little context. I’m not so impious as to think prayer is meaningless. Jesus instructed us to pray and this alone is sufficient warrant for my prayers. It’s just that my most robust prayer life happens within the worship of the community. I spend quiet time in prayer, but find the process of writing prayers and of leading prayers in worship to be much more meaningful. As such, the vast majority of my prayer time is in public settings. Indeed, one of the reasons I embrace the church is because it keeps me praying – at every meal, before and after every committee meeting, at staff meetings, in private discussions with congregants, and so on.
It’s not that I distrust those who spend ample time in prayer each day or those who can spontaneously pray long, stream-of-consciousness prayers. I write my prayers out in advance under the assumption that anything that deserves to be done well deserves some amount of planning and preparation. I don’t distrust those who pray differently from me; I distrust me to pray like that authentically.
It is likely a certain degree of hubris on my part that whenever a problem arises – anything from youth ministry to seizures to global hunger – my first inclination is to figure out how to solve the problem… not to pray. Again I should be clear, I’m not recommending myself or my methods as advisable for all or even any other Christians. I’m just confessing my instincts and inclinations.
At the root of all this, then, is my feeling like prayer is a back-up plan. It’s what we turn to when the doctors don’t have any more treatments and the problem of hunger isn’t going away in Africa and America’s inner cities. And yet here’s the rub: I feel terribly guilty that I behave this way.
On one level, that guilt may be completely warranted. There is more than enough biblical warrant to pray (and pray unceasingly!) in the face of every life circumstance. The problems of life deserve God’s advanced prayers, not just johnny-come-lately petitions. I know this, but my instincts are still my instincts.
On another level, though, I’m grateful for prayer as a “back-up plan.” I’m grateful that when my wits have been expended (which doesn’t take that much time, if I’m being honest), God loves you and me enough to leave us yet another recourse. Those back-up prayers do not go unheeded, unheard and unappreciated.
Indeed, I feel worse for those for whom there are no back-up prayers. I cannot imagine a life that is lived (and dies!) based upon one’s own wits and instincts, based upon this medical advancement and that technological improvement. Reason, problem-solving, wrestling out tough details is great, but I am genuinely grateful to God that when these run their course and the problems are still looming that God is there, that God was always there.
Ultimately, I know I would do well to get better at praying for health when all are healthy, at praying for grace even when sin isn’t abounding, at praying for peace even when sword and shield are resting in the corner. I know that “up-front” prayers are good and holy, are a sign that I’m trusting God’s providence all of the time. And I’ll work on this. But while I’m working on it, I’m grateful that I still have prayer in my back pocket, always ready and waiting, always effective and meaningful, even if its practitioner is as wanting as I.
So, in defense of the back-up prayer, let us pray:
Lord, I’m coming to you a little late on this. I’ve been working hard to see “your Kingdom come, your will be done,” but I probably haven’t been talking to you about this Kingdom and will as much as I should. Forgive me. Yet my yearning for this is still earnest. Do not think my negligence in coming to you in prayer is a sign of my reticence to hope in this. So here I am now, Jeffy-come-lately that I am, asking that my yearning for mine and other’s continued health be granted by you, that my desire for peace that surpasses all understanding can come true, that the homeless in my community can find the security our mission committee has been working on, that our youth will come to love you as much as we’ve been working to have them do so, that our worship brings you the glory we’ve been seeking to give, that the church grows full of those whose lives are filled with you. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church to Marysville, Ohio, where he really does pray in earnest for his congregation, his community and the world… even if his timeliness typically sucks. He covets your prayers and can be reached at [email protected].