Learning the Praying Culture (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)

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 “Deborah, it’s your turn to pray.”  More silence.  “Deborah, come on.  Even just say one line.”  More silence.  Finally, I mumbled some type of awkward prayer and left it at that.  I was thankful when the youth pastor had moved on to the next person – my sweating had stopped.  As funny as it sounds, I didn’t learn how to pray until I was 17.  I didn’t learn how to be part of the “Praying culture” until I was 18, and I was 20 by the time prayer became breathing to me.  I grew up in a Christian family with two very devout Christian parents.  I went to Sunday school and joined the ranks of “good little church girl” early on.  I also rarely shut up, but I never did know how to pray.  When left with my friends I could carry on a conversation for quite some time, which has both its blessings and curses (more on this later), but praying never was something I felt comfortable doing.  In fact, when I was about 12 my parents and other family friends began suggesting that as the “future pastor” I should be the one to lead the graces over meals.  I disliked this very much and I used to dread having people over for that reason.  As the buttered beans, red fried potatoes, and chicken were getting cold, here I was bumbling over the words.  It seemed like an eternity.

Fast forward to over 5 years later when I sit here and have soaked in prayer.  One may wonder: how did this happen?  It was a process.  It began with a gentle encouragement from our leader at the !Explore program (a summer theological camp for high school students in grades 11 and 12 at AMBS in Elkhart, IN).  We were working through the Anabaptist Prayer Book (a liturgical collection of prayers centering around the olden day version of prayerful worship – Scripture, hymns, silent reflection, and prayers).   At the beginning of the week I never prayed out loud.  Ever.  Like I said, I’m an extrovert, but it just wasn’t my thing.  Eventually I challenged myself to say one line in the prayer and it just took off from there.  Within a few days I challenged myself to lead the evening prayer and then before you know it I was participating like everyone else.  That was my first experience of prayer and I am truly grateful for it.

When I started attending Tyndale University College I was introduced to a whole new type of prayer culture.  The Tyndale culture was one that embraced prayer as the most important spiritual discipline one could have.  We prayed together in small groups during chapel, we prayed together in our Formation class, our professors prayed before every single class – that one really caught me off guard!  Eventually, a challenge was issued in our formation class: get together with a small group of men or women and start praying on a regular basis.  I took that call seriously.  Although I often admitted how nervous I felt leading such a group – how unqualified I really was (yes, my heart did flutter each and every time), God really used my simple Facebook post, “I’m interested in getting together with a group of young women on Monday nights for prayer and testimonies – who wants to join?” to create a network of some of the best friends I have ever made.  Our prayer times were so Spirit filled because many of the women had such a deep faith.  We rejoiced with each other when we saw prayers answered right before our eyes.  We grieved with each other over the difficult things that life sometimes throws at us.  It was a humbling time.  At first our group remained open to any woman at Tyndale, but eventually we found our rhythm and created strong bonds with each other where we could truly be vulnerable and we left it at that.  One of my favourite things about this group was that if at any time (whether or not it was a Monday) someone in our group had an urgent prayer request they would stop us in the hall and say, “I could really use prayer for  ____” and someone would offer  “would you like me to pray about that right now?”  It truly inspired me.  So often I’ve told people I would pray for them and my prayer list gets so “bogged down” that I just forget about it.  I’ve also been very self-centered in my prayers at times only asking God for things that I need, but to truly stop what you’re doing an offer a prayer for a wounded sister right then and there has extreme power. 

So strong was this praying culture at Tyndale that it extended to a 6am prayer meeting in the student lounge where I met my mentor who I chose because the more I listened to her prayers the more I saw a woman of God in her.  If no one came we would still pray, if more people came then hallelujah!  One time I was very sick and was not able to get out of bed.  My mentor took that morning to intercede on my behalf!  Although still sick I managed to come to class around 2:30pm, my mentor hugged me – God had answered prayers!  My first year roomate and I also decided to pray together every morning.  We called this time our “communion”.  Although as a Mennonite I might have a few problems with this, theology aside, it was an incredible time.  When my roomate moved out in my second year we still had times of praying over the phone early in the morning before her job started.

When I went to AMBS, I found a completely different prayer culture in my midst.  AMBS uses the Anabaptist Prayer Book (APB) and also prays the Psalms.  Personally, I have found the Psalms to be the best prayer book and they offer great comfort during some of my darkest hours, but I didn’t find this to be enough.  After Tyndale, it seemed strange to me to have to use guided prayers (because at Tyndale we just listened to the Holy Spirit directing us).  Also, I found the prayers to be “too tame” because at Tyndale at any moment someone could start praying in tongues and sometimes we would all pray in tongues together.  Although I struggled at first to be part of the APB experience, it eventually seeped deep into my soul and became a huge part of who I am (I will talk about this in my second post). 

Throughout my year at AMBS I learned that there are different types of “praying cultures” and that one is not better than the other.  Sometimes I crave the free prayers we had at Tyndale, other times I embrace the solitude that the APB affords me.  The important thing to me is simply that we are praying WITH and FOR each other.  I know that prayer changes situations and it also changes people.  I’ve heard very theological prayers from my friends at Tyndale and at AMBS, I have also heard the earnest prayers of people with down syndrome and autism during my overnight stays at L’Arche.  God sees our heart.  He knows our motivations.  He promises that before a word is on our tongue He knows it already.

This is such an encouragement for us.  We serve a God of miracles.  God is more than willing to give us what we need – all we simply need to do is ask.

James 5:15, “Now the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.  The Lord will raise him up and he will be healed.  If he has sinned he will be forgiven.  Confess your sins then to each other and pray for each other that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective!”

** Note: As I have said, each praying culture (although unique) can be spirit filled and an important time.  Studies have actually shown that people who are suffering from mental and physical illnesses have improved when they (and others) were praying for them despite which god they were praying to or in what way they were praying.  That’s why I’m a huge believer in ecumenicity and inter-faith!  At the same time, my time at Tyndale and at AMBS has taught me that what works in one praying culture may not work in another.  At L’Arche each house prays slightly differently because the needs of residents and staff are so varied.  At Tyndale when I tried to pray the APB with my friends they simply didn’t like it at all.  They asked on the first try if we could simply offer free prayers instead.  At AMBS I tried to lead a free prayer morning one time and only our campus pastor showed up.  I have learned that rather than take this personally we need to realize that the needs of those we are serving are more important than our own needs and preferences.  In fact, you may even learn after a while that there is something to be said about the spiritual disciplines and prayer practices you dislike doing.

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2 thoughts on “Learning the Praying Culture (Part 1 of a 2 Part Series)

  1. Great to hear of this journey for you. Thanks!

    I also have trouble praying, particularly out loud in a group (but I’m an introvert with a speech impediment so that may not be as unusual). Sometimes I get pegged to do it since I have an M.Div. – although am not a pastor or any other role where I lead in spoken prayer – and panic each time. Last Thanksgiving my uncle who was hosting gave me two hours warning and I spent the whole time trying to figure out what to say.

    Even despite that, though, I still oddly prefer free prayers. I went to a mainline seminary where prayers were almost always scripted and it did give me an appreciation for their value, but I would usually still go free on the rare occasion that I led a prayer. In my church community now we pride ourselves are being “irreligious” and sometimes people make jabs at scripted prayers and I always end up defending them as important even if I don’t often get as much out of them myself.

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