I’m not very good at corporate prayer. I do okay during the pastoral prayer at church, but when I’m sitting in a circle hearing the earnest prayers of others, I always have to fight down my inner skeptic: the critical, resistant, sometimes sarcastic voice that raises obscure theological objections or simply urges me to flee. If prayer were like a Ouija board, I’d be the nonbeliever who prevented it from working.
This is a problem each Thursday when I go to the parenting class I helped start up last year. Hosted at a church, the program requires an army of volunteers: one woman comes early and stays late to set up and take down tables, two women supervise the children’s program, four act as mentors, and many others take turns teaching classes on meal preparation and crafts (topics I’m too chicken to take on myself). I teach classes on housekeeping routines, budgeting, and parenting: last week was books, toys, and music so everyone took turns playing with shape sorters and blocks while I pointed out the learning opportunities for children in these simple toys and demonstrated how not to play with a child (a demo that involved snatching toys out of people's hands and yelling “No, no, no, you’re doing it wrong, here let me show you...”).
All the volunteers believe fervently in the power of prayer. They arrive early so they can pray for every aspect of the class, and each week they close the evening by asking for prayer requests. I’m often desperately uncomfortable during these times, keenly aware of the appearance of manipulation, the implicit suggestion that in exchange for a few free board books and a bucket of cleaning supplies these single moms and moms-to-be are required to surrender their souls.
I can’t help noticing, though, that nothing I say or do in the practical instruction hour has nearly the value of this final act of prayer.
Many of the participants in the program are teenagers, fifteen or sixteen years old. They are restless: I can compel their attention for forty-five minutes at most, and then only if I build in plenty of activities. They won’t answer my discussion questions, though they will occasionally – surprisingly – raise a hand to interject a comment when they feel they have something to add. They fidget, they suppress giggles, they talk on their cellphones.
But when we ask for prayer requests, a sudden stillness descends. One woman talks about the difficulty of maintaining friendly relations with her baby’s father; another fights tears as she describes the measures she’s taking to regain custody of her three-month-old son. Our prayers for these women are circumspect: we ask for wisdom, patience, and comfort, without necessarily specifying a particular outcome.
Last week, though, we prayed for a woman whose due date is fast approaching, and one of the volunteers offered this prayer:
“Lord, I pray that Kyra would go into labour soon. We know that she is done being pregnant, so I pray that this baby would come quickly. Let her labour be easy with very little pain. I pray for a healthy baby and for such success in breastfeeding, that the milk supply would be abundant and healthy and that breastfeeding would be pain-free. And Lord, I pray that this baby will be such a good sleeper, a mellow, easy-going, happy baby who sleeps through the night.”
I have to say, I’ve really never heard a prayer like that before. Giggles started to ripple through the room about halfway through and by the time she got to the line about “such a good sleeper” many of us were laughing out loud. It wasn’t mocking or uncomfortable laughter – just involuntary, startled hilarity.
I don’t know what to think about this set of petitions. It seems unlikely that all these pleas will be answered (and rather unfair if they are). Is it wise to regard sleepless nights or pain during labour and breastfeeding as ills requiring divine intervention? Would it not be healthier to accept these discomforts in advance and be grateful to avoid even one of them?
And yet there was something so generous and loving about that prayer – about simply asking for blessings to rain down upon a sixteen-year-old girl who has made a choice to bring this baby into the world and who knows that for the rest of her life she will bear a burden of proof to the official and unofficial naysayers who insist that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a mother. If an easy labour and pain-free breastfeeding can smooth her path just a little, then I pray these things for her too.