This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The mystery and power of prayer.” For more stories on this theme, see the March issue of The Mennonite.
My great grandma’s rocker had a cover on it once—blue blocks in several shades, circled by a dark blue ruffle—but I thought it ugly, so I threw it way. The wood of the rocker is worn. On the outer edge of its seat and spindles, and on the lower parts of the armrest, where skin seldom touched, the varnish is almost black, the finish grown rough and bumpy. The seat and top of the armrests, though, where Grandma Sylvia rested the weight of her body, are slippery-smooth and honey golden.
“She probably sat on this rocker to pray,” my dad tells me. The rocker now sits in my living room, in the home my young husband and I have just begun to create, a constant reminder of the unusual power my grandmother carried.
Early this year, I considered prayer. “One of my resolutions, though it will not all happen in a year, is to become a woman of prayer,” I wrote. I was thinking of my grandma when I wrote it, remembering the stories my dad told me only recently of this woman I never knew.
She grew up in the Old Order Amish community but left with her young lover—the man known as “Coon Jonny” because he loved a good hunt—before they ever married. They may have always attended church, I do not know, but it was the death of their year and a half year old daughter that turned Grandma’s heart to the Lord.
In later years, Great Grandpa also turned to the Lord, but through the growing-up years of their children, he was never a spiritual leader in their home. He stopped going to church when someone jokingly remarked at a fellowship meal: “John, do you really think you need that?” Great Grandpa always was plump. Besides, he said, “Es nempt mi oftum.” (It makes my breath tight.) My dad never heard him pray.
Great Grandpa smoked, chewed and drank. He kept his tobacco above the coal stove and his beer in the extra refrigerator out in the garage. Once, when my dad was 10 or so, he and a cousin dumped the beer and scattered the tobacco in the lane. Full of proud accomplishment, they went to Grandma Sylvia to tell her how they had gotten rid of Grandpa’s “bad stuff.”
“Well, was it yours to take?” she asked. Dad never forgot that.
Grandma Sylvia’s method was not to coerce, but to pray. Her greatest desire was to see her children follow the Lord, and when my grandpa was a boy, she read the Bible and prayed with him. When he ran wild with the Limpytown gang in his teenage years, she stayed up long nights, praying for him while he was out. He, as well as many of his friends, attribute their conversion to her prayers. One of those converted young men spent 25 years in the Australian outback under Wycliffe Bible Translators. Another became a bishop in a New Order Amish church. Another gave years of his life to the people of the Philippines and Nepal.
My grandpa became a minister and then a bishop in a Mennonite church and also became known for his prayers. He kept a prayer list that was pages long and prayed every day for each of his grandchildren and great grandchildren by name. When he was old and unable to get around, he sat in his armchair and prayed, considering it a work he could still do for God. “If there’s a legacy she left,” he wrote many years after Grandma Sylvia was gone, “it’s intercessory prayer and that faith changes lives.”
I want to pray like that.
Sometime late last year I created a prayer list on my phone. Using an idea I read in a devotional book called Mothers’ Studies, from Northern Youth Ministries, I listed the numbers one to 31 for each day of the month, and beside each number, I listed several requests. On the first day of the month, I pray for List 1, on the second day List 2, and so on until the month is done and it’s time to start over. At the top of my prayer list I keep a category called “Special Requests,” for needs that are more pressing or urgent. I like this method. It doesn’t overwhelm me, but at the same time keeps me from forgetting. So many times, without a list, I promise prayer and then forget.
I find, though, that while a list helps keep me faithful, it is easy for my prayers to become mechanical. In the busyness of days, if I remember to check the list at all, I often brush across the names hurriedly, anxious to rush back to things I need to do. Prayers, on days like these, seem an unnecessary bother, something I do for form’s sake with no purpose in mind other than to be done.
How does one find a remedy for a mind that runs from God? How can I compel myself to flee the side of Martha and sit with Mary at the feet of Jesus?
Purposing to become a woman of prayer and stumbling against my own inadequacy, I asked God to show me how. On a recent morning, my husband and I listened to Galatians together, and a phrase caught my attention: “Walk in the Spirit.” It seemed to be God’s answer.
Prayer, I remembered that morning, is a partnership. “We know not what we should pray for as we ought,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). In the partnership model, I do not merely bring my requests to God, but God and I pray together. When I approach prayer time in that way, it changes the way I pray.
Jesus talked about this model as well. “Abide in me,” he said. The words, uttered so near his death, hang crimson and luscious as grapes from a vine. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7).
Our needs and our hurts, as my Grandma Sylvia found, are often the impetus that bring us to God. As we mature in prayer, we stretch from our own needs to care about the needs of others. And as the Spirit is born within us, we come to that place of grace and acceptance my Grandma Sylvia found, a place where our prayers and our Father’s are one. My grandma’s prayer chair, I call that place. Some call it holy ground.
Lucinda J. Kinsinger lives in Oakland, Maryland, with Ivan, the love of her life. She is author of Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite and blogs at lucindajmiller.com.