In January I went to New Orleans with the Protestant Cooperative Ministry of Cornell University to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. My wife, Jeanene, and I drove from San Antonio through Houston and on to New Orleans. As it turned out, our journey through Houston helped us to understand the work we were about to do. I grew up on the west side of Houston, 15 miles out Interstate 10, near Katy, Texas. Our exit had nothing more than a Shell station, a small grocery store and a few shops. There wasn’t much between Katy and Houston either, mostly open country and a few familiar roads. In the late '70s I drove into Houston regularly to visit friends and sack groceries in a little store near Kirkwood Street.
People have asked me to pray for them or for their loved ones all my adult life. I practice intercessory prayer very seriously, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering what I’m doing. Is intercession magical thinking? Does something actually change somewhere else when I pray? Doesn’t God know our needs before we ask? What’s the use of praying when I can’t actually go actively help?
For many African churches, the all-night vigil is a centerpiece of devotion and is not limited to any particular season. The event commonly begins at 9 or 10 p.m., usually on a Friday, and runs until four or five the following morning. Particularly among the independent or African-instituted churches, prayer is accompanied by acts of healing and exorcism. These services commonly draw thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people. Night vigils also flourish among the booming evangelical and Pentecostal churches of South Korea, where hundreds of thousands pass their Friday nights in prayer and praise. In terms of timing, endurance and mass appeal, the closest Western parallels to these Christian celebrations would be found in dance clubs and rave parties in major cities.
I’m not a great fan of limericks. By a curious accident, however, we have on our living room wall an original autograph letter—itself a limerick, answering a request for a limerick—by one of the great limerick makers of the last century, the English priest and writer Ronald Knox:
One day when he was nearly 40 years old, Robert Benson stumbled onto the prayer cycle known as the daily office, and since then his life has never been the same. The daily office, he has written, is “the one true thing that has come to matter to me the most.”
When A Banjara Indian woman named Mary came to our church to talk to us, nine-year-old Chloe was there. Chloe had to be there. We could not let Chloe miss a chance to meet a Banjara woman, because Chloe had been praying for the Banjara for four years.
Prayer serves many functions: it brings our attention to the fact that God is present. It makes the spot of ground on which we stand holy ground. It quiets and focuses the mind, clarifies intention and awakens the imagination, opening up the heart and lungs as we breathe more deeply and relax into this most intimate of encounters. As a communal practice, praying creates consensus and convergence of focus, teaching us how to be the body of Christ, and how to speak with one voice and one hope.
Prayer can be taught. Indeed, learning to pray is the quintessential means of learning how to be Christ’s disciples. It is no coincidence that Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer appears in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ manual for godly living.
One of the buzz phrases in the United Methodist Church appointment process these days is “seasons of ministry.” As our bishops and cabinets try to encourage longer-term ministry appointments, this phrase helps us expand our imaginations. For too long in our tradition, clergy lived year to year, and so did congregations.
This year in Great Britain we marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. The media have been full of documentaries and reflections, books have been published, plays performed and the movie Amazing Grace released.