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Standing on Holy Ground

Pastoral Prayer as Pastoral Care

Pastors know that one of the most significant things they do in their ministry is pray for and with their parishioners. When the sorrow of a recent loss, or the fear of what a cancer may do, or the joy of two lives joined together compel people to ask their pastor (or anyone else!) to pray for them, the one sitting in the living room chair or beside the hospital bed is, in fact, standing on holy ground.

Prayers in situations like these can be occasions not of pastoral care but of abuse: think of the pray-er who arouses guilt by blocking or denying negative feelings (“We know, Lord, that with you we have nothing to fear”), or who escapes from serious issues by running to moralistic explanations, pious platitudes, or empty God-talk. Most folks know that genuine prayer, because it is a genuine encounter with another, is risky. It risks saying what is true and what is hoped, even when that is hard to hear or difficult to say. So praying for one who has a terminal illness will be false and flimsy if it does not risk both expressing despair and hope for healing. The wise prayer emulates both Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” and Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? . . . Come quickly to help me.”

Like the prayer modeled in so many psalms, good pastoral prayer is priestly and incarnational; it expresses the real stuff of life—discouragement and delight, despair and frustration, anxiety and relief—knowing that God accepts and welcomes and seeks by the power of the Holy Spirit to transform and heal our whole selves.

Head and Heart

Those whole selves include, of course, our emotions. The Reformed tradition has often been lauded for its emphasis on rigorous theology—and just as often criticized for its correlative lack of attention to feelings. A good pastoral prayer then, whether offered in a moment of one-on-one ministry or as the “prayers of the people” in corporate worship, gives expression not only to what we know and believe about God, but what in life causes us to feel fear, anger, sorrow, joy, and hope. For those accustomed to squelching feelings because of their perceived inappropriateness, it can be a powerful exercise of grace for the pastor or other designated prayer—in God’s house and on their behalf—to say words like sad, shame, afraid, angry, and safe.

Words like these also work to engage people fully in prayer. So, for example, when we pray in general terms for “those who are experiencing transition,” the congregant in a stable place in life may have difficulty imagining, in the few seconds allotted to this topic during prayer, what that feels like, or to know what to pray for or how to do so. It is hard to carry one another’s burdens when our prayers simply describe the load and not what it is like to carry it.

In contrast, when we pray with emotional specificity “for those who are anxious about the beginning of the school year, or who are afraid of losing their job, or who are worried about medical tests coming back from the lab this week,” the emotion-expressing words (anxious, afraid, worried) help anyone who has experienced those feelings to empathize and enter into the prayer, whether or not they are experiencing these transition moments themselves.

The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.faithaliveresources.org) offers a list of petition topics to help those leading pastoral prayers remember concerns too easily forgotten (see p. 182). These topics are facts in the world (such as injustice, coming harvest, national leaders, poverty) that require an interpretive framework to pray for them meaningfully. That framework should be both theologically rich and emotionally honest.

Thus, in addition to attending carefully to “emotion words” in my spoken prayers, I have supplemented the good list of prayer structures provided in The Worship Sourcebook (TWS) with another that invites explicit pastoral attention to the articulation of and contextualization of emotion.

Starting off Right

Such a prayer begins with a statement about who God is and an offering of praise and thanksgiving. This grounds petitions and hope in a remembrance of what God has done in the past and is doing in the present (see TWS, p. 180 for a list of some sample attributes and actions of God).

So, for example, on a week where the Scripture and sermon theme focused on Christian community, the prayer might begin as follows:

Loving, triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit—in your common life you are the source and life of our community and all communities. We give you thanks for those who lead and empower in our life together as a congregation. For all our staff members, for all those who inspire us, for those whose faithful prayers uphold us, for . . . [room for extemporizing] . . . we give you thanks.

Basic Emotions

The prayer then identifies in turn the three primary emotions humans experience—grief, fear, and joy—and names those who, in various circumstances, are feeling sorrow or anxiety or delight. Of course, humans feel more emotions than these three. (Many psychologists and therapists believe that other emotions arise in consequence to or as complex combinations of basic ones. So for example, frustration is understood to be a mixture of sorrow and anger. There is some disagreement in the more specialized psychological field of emotion theory about which are the most basic emotions, and why they are to be considered basic; but I have found for the purposes of prayer that these three cover the ground pretty well. For a more detailed look at this topic, including a long list of helpful “emotion words,” visit the website http://www.gatewaypsychiatric.com and search for “mood and emotion”

The list of petition topics from TWS mentioned above can still be used to provide a balanced range of concerns, but those concerns are now organized not by topic areas (creation, world, nation, neighborhood, church) but areas of emotional sympathy.

So, for example, sections on grief, fear, and joy might look like this:

We pray today for those who grieve losses: for [name], remembering _______________, for fading friendships and the diminishment of aging, for those mourning broken promises and lost hopes. We pray for the comfort of your Spirit.

We pray today for those who live in fear. For [name] who ______________. For those who are anxious about the beginning of the school year, afraid of losing their job, or worried about the results of medical tests; for those who do not know, or are afraid to embrace, the work you have given them to do; for those who never feel safe; for those threatened by violence, cruelty, illness, poverty. We pray for rescue and for peace.

We pray today for those who know joy—for [name] who _____________; for all those who are given healing and good health; for [names], celebrating sixty years of love and promise-keeping, and for all those with friends and families, for satisfying work and consoling rest. We bless you as the source of all good things and pray that you will use us to sow and reap joy in the world.

Concluding Notes

  • Note that in this prayer there is room for the specificity of a particular congregation (“we pray for [name] who ___________”). Pray with concreteness but without betraying pastoral confidences.
  • Each section ends with an explicit petition. It is not enough simply to express emotion, but to pray boldly for the good we believe God wills for us.
  • It is also possible, perhaps advisable, to conclude each section with a hospitable period of silence so that those named in the prayer in a general way (“those mourning broken promises”) have the time and space to fully enter into it.

The prayer concludes with a section that returns to the theme of the service and wraps the prayers together in the eschatological hope of God’s final plan for the world’s redemption:

Finally, we pray for the unity of the church. May our differences be a source of strength and blessing; may we not become conceited or envious of one another, but work for the good of all until the day when Christ returns and our life in you and our life together become one eternal song. We pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.