I was given Father Al by a mystical force, it seemed at the time, wiser than myself. Father Al was a lover of the human race and a believer in the efficacy of prayer. He also believed in taking all the time he and God needed—as it turned out, all the time I needed. Father Al was a one man assault force against my dubious attitude toward prayer.
The Seminar was called “Training in the Arts of Spiritual Counseling and Healing Prayer.” The year was 1985. I had barely even begun to invite prayer to be a force for healing in my life and it had not been a resource in my ministry for the healing of others. Prayer was expected in places like hospitals, so I met expectations, but I had begun realizing that this was a deception.
Still, when in Rome do as the Romans do. So, at the seminar I began to try on healing prayer, like I might try on a suit of clothes at a department store. And sometimes it was, more or less, forced on me as we paired up with a prayer partner for spiritual exercises designed by Dr. Kenneth Bakken or Dr. Morton Kelsey. The final exercise one evening was simple. Dr. Bakken finished talking to us about how he practices medicine and prayer at the same time. “You have to claim, in a ministry of healing, the power of both medicine and prayer. You have to choose the most powerful form of each on behalf of your patient. “Imagine,” he said, “I am visiting a patient the night before surgery. I pray saying, ‘Tomorrow morning Jim and I and the God of all Healing will go into surgery together. Each of us, with all the love and power available, will strive for healing. As the surgeon, I will know God’s guidance and as the patient, Jim will know God’s peace’.” Dr. Bakken told us that our prayers needed to be overflowing with confidence and needed to affirm the Doctor’s skill, the patient’s faith and God’s powerful promise of presence.
When Dr. Bakken finished his presentation, he asked us to share with our prayer-partner the reasons each of us needed healing prayer. After sharing our needs we were to take turns praying for our partner with confidence and power.
Father Al reached out and took hold of my elbow like he was preventing me from falling into the path of an oncoming subway train. I was his prayer-partner, as if by Divine command. We both shared our needs for healing and then he immediately began praying for me with insights that suggested that he possessed secret information from a spy network; he knew the content of my mistrust. He kept praying with power until even I was convinced that God had specifically commissioned Father Al to indoctrinate me into the undeniable fact of God’s love for me. “I’m listening, I get it, God loves me!” I finally consented to this infinite truth.
By this time no one was still praying except Father Al and me, but everyone had chosen to form a circle around us and to join their silent prayers of power to those of my prayer-partner. Noticing the great gathering of faith, Father Al began to shout, “God loves Candace! God loves Phillip. God loves John. God loves Francis.” I think he included everyone in the circle and when he had finished the community raised its collective voice, “God loves Ken. God loves Father Al.”
The next morning Dr. Bakken asked us for a report on the previous evening’s prayers and then he concluded with, “Remember, prayer is powerful, so choose words that are powerful and speak with confidence and imagination.”
I spent the remaining days of the seminar practicing powerful prayer at any and all opportunities. I was beginning to get the feel for the difference this prayer practice can make.
Then it was time to return home. I still remember the enthusiasm with which I approached my first hospital call as a graduate of the school of praying with power. I had begun to believe that I had something unique to contribute to the healing of patients in the hospital. Let the experiment begin! And, I had church members and friends who would be very interested in the results of this experiment. They too longed to experience the power of prayer.
I also returned with the requirement that I create and implement a ministry project and then write a project paper related to what I learned at the seminar. My doctor of ministry program required six such project papers. I figured that in addition to trying to integrate new ideas from the seminar into my prayer practice, I had better begin to do some serious reading, including Morton Kelsey’s, Healing and Christianity. I was quickly able to figure out that the core message of my project and paper would be:
Prayer, offered with confidence and authority, is the most important tool given to Christians in their ministries of healing, compassion and justice. Prayer is the distinctive contribution of the spiritual leader to those seeking wholeness, peace and love.
However, what do “confidence and authority” look like when it comes to prayer? What if I wanted to be as sure as possible that my prayers—after all, I love these people I am praying for–– are powerful? What if others were to say to me, “Teach us how to pray?”
As I continued to reflect on what I had learned at the seminar and was continuing to learn from books and from practicing prayer, I began to imagine the possibility that I could identify the elements of mighty prayer. Eventually, I found myself defining a model I called “Five Characteristics of the Powerful Language of Prayer.” Spiritual leaders desperately need to learn to speak this language.
Many pastors and seminaries have decided that preparation for ministry is vastly enriched by the study of the Hebrew and Greek languages, languages of the Bible. It is a tragedy that the language of prayer, also being the language of the Bible, is not a vital and required subject in the seminary curriculum. I need to be unmistakably clear. For me, and for many clergy who have traveled a similar spiritual road, when we lift up the critical value of powerful prayer, we are inviting nothing less than a radical reinvention in how we do ministry. Many of us have never truly believed, nor practiced, in prayer as the fundamental source of healing and transformation in our vocation. Morton Kelsey asserts that pastors are often left powerless by both their theology and their training. He fears that too often all a pastor can do is to hold someone’s hand and hope for something else or someone else to resolve the crisis. In John MacQuarrie’s book, “Twentieth Century Religious Thought”, not a single theologian emphasizes the power of prayer for healing. (“Encounter With God”, p. 33).
I compare this void of instruction in healing prayer in the 21st century to the compassionate presence of healing in the 1st century ministry of Jesus. I see a gaping chasm separating the mission of Jesus then and the mission of clergy now, which means that we have surrendered our power and denied our call.
CORRECTION: In last week’s lead article, the number given for the estimated years homo-sapiens have dwelled on the planet earth was 2,000,000. The number should have been 200,000, or about 4,000 generations.