Expectant Prayer Through Loneliness

May 12, 2022

William D. Shiell 

Based on our recent survey, most pastors are facing four challenges: loneliness, failure, grief, and fear. They learned from seminary to expect them, but the pandemic has magnified these challenges. Churches and pastors get stuck waiting for conditions to improve. As we look at Jesus’ ministry before and after the resurrection, he prepared the disciples to go through these issues rather than wait for things to change. He gave them practices to journey into resilient and effective ministry: prayer, vulnerability, friendship, and evangelism. This post will discuss the first of these practices, expectant prayer from those who receive our ministry.  

Mark’s account of the transfiguration provides the template for this kind of prayer (Mark 9:1-29). Jesus takes a sabbath walk with Peter, James, and John. They are “by themselves with Jesus,” but they are not alone. Jesus is transfigured, and Elijah and Moses appear, pointing apocalyptically to the end. Peter is so afraid he wants to take shelter. But the apocalyptic moment reveals that the disciples have walked into a liminal space, a threshold from one chapter in their ministry to the next. Jesus shares a vision that disrupts their lives and points them in a new direction. As they walk down the mountain, they learn the kind of prayer they will need for this part of the journey. They encounter a father whose son was demon-possessed. The disciples, who did not yet pray to Jesus as God, learn what to do when facing loneliness, disruption, and evil. The helpless father shows them how. He prays to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” The transfiguration reveals three ways to pray when we feel “by ourselves with Jesus.”  

     1. Take a Sabbath Walk 

In apocalyptic times, when ministry can be so isolating, Jesus invites us to take a sabbath walk up a mountain, literally. Prayer walking slows the pace, focuses our attention, and gives us time for the awe and wonder that only a transfiguration can bring. We are changing our ministry vision and anticipating Jesus’ return. Do you remember the walks you took during quarantine? When we walk, we have time to see the beauty of nature, the joy of a child playing, or a beautiful sunset which leads us to the second step.  

    2. Experience Radical Amazement 

When the disciples saw Jesus transfigured, they were awe-inspired. While walking, we see beauty again in all its splendor. This reaction is a part of prayer that Howard Thurman calls, “radical amazement.” Thurman writes; 

We are most alive when we are brought face to face with the response of the deepest thing in us to the deepest thing in life…This we know in prayer at its best and highest. Then we pass through all the external aspects of our situation and need, then the walls of our pretensions are swept away and we are literally catapulted out of the narrow walls that shut us in.[1] 

The splendor of a sunset intersects with the deep yearning in our lives for Jesus to return. He reminds us that we are not alone; we are together with Jesus and other disciples. Yet, despite the forces of evil around us, God is revealing to us that Jesus will return one day. Until he does, we have new kinds of ministries to accomplish in the next stage of the journey.  

    3. Invite People to Pray for Us 

The third step is to invite those we serve to pray for us. In Mark 9, the disciples meet a father who prays better than they do. In fact, Jesus tells them, “This kind [of demon] can only come out by prayer.” (Mark 9:29). When facing the forces of darkness, much like the demons who possessed this child, ask people in our ministry circle to pray for us. This might seem odd for clergy who are normally called upon to pray at meals and at the bedside of hurting people. As we do, we know that Jesus is revealing his power in our midst. We don’t need to be the only ones praying; we need to ask others to pray for us: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This prayer connects us with those to whom we minister and provides a level of engagement with Jesus that replaces our loneliness with his presence.  

On the other side of the resurrection is resilient ministry. When we take a sabbath walk, we discover that many people really are praying for us. Ask them; you’ll be amazed.  

In my next post, we’ll address failure and learn that the path through failure is vulnerability.

[1] Howard Thurman, The Inward Journey (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1961), 19-20.

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