I grew up attending a tiny country church numbering only a few families. Church was not just a place to visit for coffee and a sermon on Sunday morning. There were no large screens, no light shows, no bands, no padded theater seats. What we didn’t have in the way of amenities, we made up for with fellowship– pot lucks, church-wide outings, bake sales to raise money for missionaries, and community-wide Christmas caroling every December. We didn’t have a big budget or slick publications. There was no website or gym; no trendy decor in the entryway, or sound system. But there was prayer– lots of it! Prayer to open Sunday School; prayer to open the service; prayer at the end of Sunday service; and Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting. This was, for the children, an evening of games, singing, stories, and socializing with our friends, all in the church basement (painted cinder block walls, industrial fluorescent lights hanging down from beams to light up folding tables and metal folding chairs on the bare cement floor, which was sometimes home to spiders, toads and even the occasional salamander). But upstairs, it was all business. An hour of adults in the community coming together to pour their hearts out to God.
As I became a teen, I “graduated” to the upstairs–to a young teen it seemed an interminably long and slow process of sharing requests, sharing praises, and taking turns mumbling and rambling and regurgitating all that had come before, this time with eyes closed, and some of the old-timers on their knees instead sitting in the un-padded and creaky wooden pews. Sometimes, there would be two or three hymns or a short devotional to round out the hour-long service.
I know there are churches that still have mid-week (usually Wednesday night) services, and some of them are devoted to corporate prayer (my current church has one, in fact). But most of these services have died out– due, I suspect, to the view I described above. Very few of us are devoted to getting out one night every week to spend an hour kneeling on a hard floor “sharing” needs with others, only to repeat them to God. But I think somewhere we missed the point, and the value, of these gatherings. In going to Prayer Meeting, I got to hear the hearts of three generations of people across our community– farmers, construction workers, teachers, retired grandfathers, teens like me, pastors, recovering alcoholics, homemakers, business men and women–people with wildly different struggles, triumphs, and needs, and in different stages of their Christian walk. I heard the exuberance of new converts, and the steady faith of aging saints; the struggles of the brokenhearted widower, and the needs of new parents.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson from Prayer Meeting was about persistent prayer. Week after week we reported answered prayers, but other requests seemed to linger. Some who desired healing never found it (in this life). Some relationships were never restored. Some faced the same struggles with anger, or job loss, or loneliness over a period of months. Was our prayer ineffective, or our faith deficient? Did God not hear? Didn’t he care?
I believe God heard every word; every groan, every sigh. I believe he ached with every burden we brought before his throne. I believe he was (and is) in the midst of every gathering. And I believe that prayer is often like those conversations we have with our oldest and dearest friends about those same persistent problems. God has the power to deliver us without the struggle, without the wait. We don’t know why he allows some struggles to play out over years while others end in timely triumph. But I believe that for every situation that challenges our faith and endurance, he is there for every tear, every question, every ‘SMH’ moment, every stumbling step forward. And when we come together to share the burden with our neighbors, family, friends in fervent prayer– God is present, not just as the Father on his throne, but as the Son who cried out on his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Spirit who interprets our groaning when words are not enough.
I say a lot of quick prayers; sometimes urgent, and often simplistic and even easy prayers. I am slowly rediscovering the value of persistent and corporate prayer.