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When my daughter was seven months, I took her to the local aquatic center. She loved the splash zone so much that she lunged for the water when I finally carried her out. We proceeded to the locker room to put on our dry clothes. I set her down on a bench and reached for her diaper bag. In that split second, she rolled over and flopped onto the hard concrete floor. I heard her skin smack and saw her cheek hit as I speedily scooped her up and pressed her to my own body. She cried hard and stress hormones flooded my body. I raced out of the locker room with a naked crying baby in my arms, and shouted for my husband. I was panicked, and I’m sure I looked a fright.
Three well-intentioned people stopped to offer assistance. Two of them would not have passed my pastoral care class. The first woman, as she walked by on the way out of the locker room, rambled advice about putting a rice pack on Eleanor’s cheek. I couldn’t take in her story, and I couldn’t wait for her to stop talking. A second woman calmly introduced herself to me as a doctor, looked at Eleanor’s face and skin, and explained the signs of concussion. This helped somewhat. My daughter didn’t have a brain injury. Plus by the time she finished connecting with me (and “connecting” is the key word here), Eleanor was no longer crying. As I waited for my husband to appear from the men’s locker room, a man approached me and asked if he could pray for us. I blurted out, “No! I’m a pastor,” and clutched my daughter even more tightly.
Days later, when the stress hormones subsided, a good friend and I laughed uproariously at my response to the third well-wisher: “I’m a pastor. I can pray for myself, thank you. Now, bug off!” This panicky response was clearly related to being a first-time, older, sleep-deprived mother of a baby who had spent weeks in the NICU. Which is to say, this was not typical.
Yet, truth be told, it was the response I’ve sometimes fantasized about giving when people ask to pray for me: “No, thank you, keep your prayers to yourself.” Perhaps this sounds scandalous coming from an ordained minister and seminary professor, in fact, one who prays at the beginning of every class and tries to introduce students to a variety of meaningful prayer practices. But it’s true; I’d often like to say something along these very lines. In fact, at times, I have avoided telling people about situations in my life precisely because I did not want their prayers. Why? Because, in my experience, too often Christians use prayer in such a way that it becomes something other than prayer. For the origin and telos of prayer is communion with God; together we commune with God in prayer, and therefore, we commune with one another.
This topic often comes up in my pastoral care classes: when and how to pray with and for people in situations of grief, loss, crisis, perplexity, and vulnerability. I ask my students to consider these questions: Are you praying because you feel awkward, uncomfortable, or anxious in the moment? Are you praying in order to escape the other’s sorrow? Are you distancing yourself from relationship with them by appealing to God to just fix them? Or worse yet, are you trying to demonstrate that God heals through you, and thereby making yourself the center of attention?
I recently listened to someone’s story of acute illness and consequent loss. It was shared in a small group setting. The story was beautiful in all its poignancy, a testimony to living by grace, to being sustained by God’s promises in the midst of their apparent absence. It was imbued with a faithful acceptance of the illness, not hopelessness. At the end, someone offered to pray. It was a fervent plea for complete healing, but one that seemed to lack any internalization of what had just been shared. It seemed to be born of and push toward something other than communion with God. It did not invite us into communion with the one suffering in our midst. It pulled us away from relationship. And that is precisely the crux of the problem.
I suppose I’d like Christians to be bold enough to say something like this to one another whenever prayer gets used in this way: “Please do not pray for me until you have first walked with me. Know me. Hear the depths of my fear or anguish or whatever it might be and let it affect you. Then let us bring our (not just my) most profound needs vulnerably before God. Please do not try to escape that vulnerability. Because if you do, you have left me, and that is not prayer. Nor is it communion with God through Christ by the Spirit. And if you have no words, that is okay, more than okay, in fact. It’s an invitation to sit with me in the awfulness of my predicament and to silently wait upon God together.”