Getting into Prayer: Pastor Tony gets past the jargon

Janeen Simmons is—or so she’d told him—into prayer. Strange way of saying it, he thought. Like some kids are into Legos. Or some couples are into snorkeling. His friend Tom Branderhorst, a perfectly ordinary guy in seminary, was now into Christian yoga.

When he’d started preaching in those very first years, people were into Family Dynamics, intense three-day weekend conferences complete with expensive three-ring binders jam-packed with answers to life’s most vexing problems. When they weren’t being lectured, conferees would sing passionately for hours, then hole up in small-group “sniper nests” for the war against the devil. Back then lots of folks were into Hal Lindsay—The Late Great Planet Earth, its x-ray readings of the minor prophets, Russia as the bear. Of course, today Russia was almost out of it, wasn’t it?

And now Janeen Simmons was “into” prayer. In the last year she’d been to four workshops as far away as Little Rock, all of them devoted to a topic a prayer guru named Maxwell Sparks called “Prayer Without Ceasing,” three-day, weekend workshops (What’s with the three days? Is that biblical or what?) on intensifying prayer, learning to understand that prayer expects results.

“The problem is, most people don’t expect results when they pray, but read the Bible for yourself,” Janeen said the first time she’d come into his study, on fire. “Just read the Bible—read King David.” Then she’d listed fourteen “Scriptures” to verify what the three-day prayer extravaganza had taught her. “Expectation is what’s missing from all of our prayers,” she’d said (meaning yours for sure, Pastor Tony—and ours, the whole congregation’s).

What Janeen wanted was to do was bring Maxwell Sparks to Franklin Park Church for a fervent, three-day weekend warrior workshop and get the whole congregation praying “expectantly,” praying “unceasingly,” praying “defiantly,” she said, although she didn’t explain exactly what she meant by “defiantly.” He hadn’t asked.

That was the first time she’d visited. He told her he’d consider the possibilities, but the truth is he’d never presented it to the council, never really thought about it seriously. He’d done what he could do to forget the whole thing the moment she’d left his study, in part because right then Franklin Park Church didn’t need any more Janeens, any more members being into “defiant” prayer, whatever that was.

The second time she’d visited, she’d demanded prayer teams. He’d brought that idea before the council, supported it, then even helped Janeen recruit her warriors. He’d been more than a little skeptical of her idea of having four or five of them seated in a Sunday school room actually praying for what was going on inside the sanctuary; but, after all, lots of churches were into that kind of thing today, and what could it hurt anyway, he figured. For a while at least, Janeen was satisfied, leading the warriors (several lines of them, like a hockey team) while the rest of the congregation were worshiping.

He’d even sat still when Janeen told him the warriors came to church early every Sunday to pray the devil out of the building before worship started—a kind of exorcism. Sometimes he wondered what Janeen would have thought had he told her that he actually wrote sermons in that same church without trying to scour out Satan first. Perhaps some things were better left unsaid.

Now Janeen wanted a new strategic position. She and her warriors had supplicated Satan out of the sanctuary and prayed the Lord into worshipers. So it came as no surprise that the time had come for her to take the war directly into worship itself. She wanted more individual prayer time, she said, within worship, because if Franklin Park wasn’t a praying church, how could they call themselves a church at all? It was biblical, she said. But then everything Janeen ever proposed was “biblical.” “I’m coming this afternoon to talk about this,” she told him.

It was now the afternoon.

“Gladstone Church has a full hour of prayer,” she said, approximately six seconds after taking the chair across the desk. “You’ve heard of it?”

If he were deaf he’d have heard of Gladstone Church. Lots of people were into Gladstone these days.

“A full hour,” she said, “and what do we have? Ten minutes?”

“Plus the warriors,” he told her, meaning the Sunday school room teams.

“They don’t count,” she said. “They’re not praying in the actual service. They’re like batteries.”

He had no idea if the metaphor were electronic or military.

“Seriously, Tony,” she said. “I’m thinking twenty minutes, maybe a half hour of nothing but solid prayer, all of us joining in, each in our own way. I’m thinking that putting us in touch with God for that long of a time has to bring great rewards,” she told him. “Besides,” she said, “isn’t it just right? I mean, isn’t it just the right thing to do in worship—pray? What can be more right? Is it better to talk to God or talk to ourselves? Answer me that, Tony—answer me that.”

Just to get her off his back, he was tempted to tell her to take her request to the worship committee, but that would virtually insure a half-hour prayer time since the worship committee these days rarely met a fad they didn’t like.

“I think it will bring revival here,” she told him. “I can’t help but think that if we learn to pray, God himself will do great things at Franklin Park.”

“It’s an if/then kind of thing, Janeen?” he said. “‘If we do this, then God will bless us?’”

“Isn’t that how the covenant works?” she told him. “Look, we’re not growing, Tony—that’s clear.” She looked at him as if he were a mangy cur. “What we need is something to revitalize our worship, something to sell what it is we offer here, something to bring in the lost. Think of it this way—‘Franklin Park, the praying church.’” She held up her hands as if there were a marquee between them.

“Others don’t?” he said.

“I’m sure they do,” she told him. “But at Franklin Park, we make prayer something real, something big,” she said. “How about this: ‘Franklin Park, where prayer is a sacrament.’”

“But prayer isn’t a sacrament,” he told her.

“Why can’t we make it one?” she said. “Besides, it should be. What’s so vital to the life of believers as prayer?”

“Work,” he told her. “Ora et labora.”

That didn’t seem to register.

“You know, at Gladstone, worship sometimes goes two, two-and-a-half hours,” she told him.

“You’re thinking Franklin Park should too?”

“People come by the hundreds, by the thousands almost,” she said. “What’s two-and-a-half hours out of a forty-hour week? Answer me that.”

“An hour of solid prayer?” he said.

“Without ceasing,” she told him.

When she left, he was shaking, not because she’d scared him but because it had taken every bit of his strength to stay calm, to reassure her that he’d give her proposal some consideration. It had taken a ton of strength to restrain himself from throwing her right out of the study, right out of the church, to remove her as unceremoniously as she and her super pious warriors dreamed they were tossing out the Prince of Lies come Sabbath morn.

The phone rang. He was in no mood to talk. He watched it ring—three times. Secretary must be out, he thought. “Franklin Park Church,” he said, finally giving in. “This is Pastor Tony.”

Air. Dead Space. Silence. Either a new credit card or someone asking for contributions for the March of Dimes.

“Hello?” he said.

“Rev. Halloway,” the voice said, aged. “I’m thinking you should probably know about this even though my Alfred didn’t always get to church like he would have wanted to if he didn’t have that bad back most of his life.”

“Mrs. Bartosik?” he said.

“I just now called 911, but it seems to me that there’s not much anybody can do. I come in from the tomatoes—you know, he put a couple plants in along the house on the south side because he knew I liked to see things grow. You know he did that for me, even with his bad back.”

“Your husband—he’s not well?” he said.

“He’s gone, Reverend,” she told him. “I come back inside here and I found him on the rocker, like always, except his face is turned hard to the left as if suddenly he seen someone come in off the porch. Even a little smile—like maybe it was the Lord.” She had to giggle a bit. It was a kind of joke.

“I’m coming,” he said. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“I was thinking maybe we could read 103 maybe—kind of long, but he liked that one special,” she told him. “You don’t have to lug that Bible along—we got one here.”

“Ten minutes, Margaret,” he said. “Put on the coffee.”

“It’s on, Reverend,” she told him. “Always is.” And then a pause.

“You OK?”

“It’s not too much to ask of you now, is it? I mean, you’re not busy with something?”

“Never too busy to pray,” he told her. “Ten minutes—no more,” he said.

“I wished you’d’a known him better, Reverend,” she said. “Wasn’t always an easy man to live with, but I learned to love him—isn’t that the way it sometimes goes?”

“I’ll be there, Margaret, you hear?” he told her.

“Don’t have to speed,” she said. “Nobody here’s going anywhere.”

He left his Bible behind, purposely, pulled on his jacket, and headed out the side door. He jumped into his car, felt in his pockets for the keys, pushed them into the ignition, and the engine popped.

Just for a moment—three seconds maybe—he looked at the brick and mortar in front of him, saw a line of upturned rumps in a Sunday school room, Janeen Simmons, her hands raised like set of goalposts in the middle of the service, and Margaret Bartosik, a little old woman in the back, far right, always alone, her husband?—well, don’t go there, people said. A man who was into 103.

He slammed the Toyota into reverse, squealed the tires, then shifted into first, and wiped tears from his eyes.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.