by Julie A. Kanarr—
I was leading a new small group class on prayer, and—truth be told—it wasn’t going well.
Two of the participants were turning the discussion about types of prayer into a debate about the effectiveness of prayer. The disagreement escalated into an argument about how much information one needed to have about someone in order to “pray effectively.” One person asserted that whenever we prayed for someone using only their first name, she didn’t always know who was being prayed for. She felt this made it difficult to pray meaningfully.
A second person countered that sharing too much information about someone under the guise of praying for them amounted to religiously sanctioned gossip. She described her embarrassment when her aunt
had added her to a prayer chain without her permission. She felt like her privacy had been invaded. She lamented that she was now hesitant to share any personal medical information with others in her family.
A third participant chimed in, adding that there was a big difference between sharing concerns, which is about helping, and gossiping, which is about hurting. She insisted that the aunt must have meant well, even if that wasn’t how it had turned out. Another retorted that God already knows our needs, even before we ask, and that, as Christians, we have a duty to honor one another’s privacy.
I saw various individuals nodding or shaking their heads, depending on whose side they were on. I also noticed that one participant had a pained expression on her face. I sensed that this fledging group was, so far, not serving as the source of spiritual support she was hoping for as she struggled with a stressful home life and challenging career. Could this group ever become a safe space for her to share her story? Another participant stared intently at the Bible in her lap. She had recently joined the church and was wanting to learn more about prayer so she could teach her young children how to pray. I had offered this class as a small-group study in prayer, with opportunities to learn new ways of praying and to grow in discipleship. Now I wondered what she might actually be learning from all this. I looked over toward another member of the group who was listening quietly, as she usually did. Knowing that she had mild dementia, I wondered what, if anything, I could do to make the class more accessible for her.
While I had hoped that leading this class would help me deepen my own prayer life, I had also thought that those prayers would be more than just my asking God for help, wisdom, and patience in leading this well-intentioned, but hard-to-manage group.
With some trepidation, I jumped into the conversation, attempting to put an end to the argument. I affirmed that asking questions, expressing doubts, reflecting on personal experiences and naming one’s own concerns was good. I also suggested that arguing about right and wrong ways to pray was unhelpful. Seeking to guide the conversation toward a more reflective tone, I said, “In the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed with and for his disciples. How do you think Jesus is praying for you—for us—right now?” I wanted to shift the group’s focus from arguing about prayer to engaging in prayer. Jesus had prayed that his followers would be one, as he and the Father were one (John 17:11). Could the same happen for us?
TEACH US TO PRAY
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is set as part of his “farewell address” to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another as he had loved them (John 13:34).
I thought about the various disciples and how they were portrayed, especially within the Gospel of John. Judas had criticized Mary, Lazarus’ sister, because she had poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet instead of selling it to benefit the poor (John 12:1-8). Peter had repeatedly denied knowing Jesus (John 18:17, 25-27). And did Jesus like the Beloved Disciple more than the others? Although never referred to by name, John’s Gospel describes him as describes him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20). Did that make the other disciples jealous? Jesus prayed not only for the disciples of his generation, but also for generations to come (John 17:20). Jesus prays for us and invites us to pray for one another as fellow disciples. Prayer is deeply relational; it draws us together in the presence of God.
When our group met a second time, we focused on our interpersonal relationships and building community within the group. We committed to following Jesus’ model of praying for the disciples by praying for one another and for others. We promised not to share personal information outside the group. We promised to encourage one another to grow more confident and comfortable in praying. We committed to listening more deeply, with the intent to honor one another’s perspectives without debate. We acknowledged that though changing well-established patterns of interaction was hard, we would try.
The Rev. Julie A. Kanarr serves as pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Belfair, Washington. In addition to writing, she enjoys sea kayaking, bicycling and camping. In 2020 she celebrates the 30th anniversary of her ordination.
This article is from the May 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.