“When I could go no further, when news became overwhelming, when I had no answers, sighs became my prayer.”
I am a theologian and a biblical scholar. I teach courses on spiritual formation, Pentecostal history and theology, and New Testament theology, with a special interest in the Gospels and Acts. In these courses I teach that prayer is a foundational discipline. I stress Pentecostal emphasis upon prayer and intimacy with God. I underscore how Jesus and His first followers practised prayer, taught about prayer, and expected us to follow suit.
I’m an expert, right?
I have a confession: when it comes to prayer, I’m a novice. I’m not very good at it. It’s been a lifelong struggle. In sharing this confession, I’m not looking for pity. I have long ago stopped beating myself up over how well I perform or fail to perform certain spiritual practices. I genuinely want to draw close to God. I want to know God. I crave God’s wisdom and guidance, and I think I am growing in prayer. What follows is my encounter with two forms of prayer, both of which came out of extended seasons of anxiety, pain and doubt.
On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts marched into an Amish schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and shot eight of ten young girls, killing five of them, before taking his own life. In the days that followed, the response of the Amish community sparked a global media frenzy. Reports of forgiveness and acts of reconciliation by the Amish baffled reporters, their readers, and their listeners. Amish families attended the funeral of the killer and believed that the grief of the killer’s widow and children compelled them to participate in collective suffering. Amish families supported Charles Roberts’ family by setting up a scholarship fund for his children. As the acts of kindness continued, various media groups suggested that the Amish response was a result of shock, denial and inferior grief management skills, even though numerous Amish families accepted professional grief counselling.
One Amish business owner reacted to a reporter by turning to the Lord’s Prayer. He explained: “We don’t think we can improve on Jesus’ prayer. Why would we need to? We think it’s a pretty good, well-rounded prayer. It has all the key points in it.” The Amish man then pointed out Jesus’ words: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12, NLT).
The Amish practice of prayer includes the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. It is included in every service. The Amish do not pray spontaneous prayers. For the Amish, such spontaneity may lead to hochmut (pride) and thereby diminish the pursuit of a cardinal Amish virtue, damut (humility).
I heard this story at a point in my life when I was perpetually at a loss for words to pray. The more I reflected on the concept that you can’t improve on Jesus’ prayer, the more it made sense. So, on New Year’s Day 2009, I resolved that for one year I would pray only the Lord’s Prayer, except when called upon to pray in public settings. I told no one outside of my immediate family. Early on, my wife and children wondered about my sanity, though they eventually came to understand and occasionally share in my practice.
During that year, I found comfort in the simple yet profound words of Jesus. When someone requested prayer for healing, I prayed, “Thy kingdom come.” When I heard of a financial need, I prayed, “Give him his daily bread.” When I was confronted with stories of personal failure, I prayed, “Deliver her from the evil one” and so on. I meant these prayers. I found them assuring. These simple prayers also relieved my struggle to find the appropriate theological and emotional responses to prayer.
The second form of prayer came out of a trying season in the summer of 2014. Over the span of a few months, an extended family member drowned, a dear colleague lost his wife to a sudden heart attack, and a close friend received news of stage four prostate cancer. I shared in their terrible grief and pain, and once again struggled for words to pray. The news that summer was filled with stories of terrorist attacks around the world, and in my typically safe, quiet city in the Midwest there was an onslaught of murders. My workplace was also in transition. Fear of job loss and institutional instability made life very stressful. Then there was family. I was watching my children transition from their late teens to young adulthood and, I’m sure, worried more about their futures than they did.
The cumulative effect of all these events led me into a fresh encounter with God in prayer.
In this season of my prayer journey, I found it difficult to form rational prayers to God. I experienced the ongoing curse of a theologian, wondering if my prayers were theologically sound. I was unable to articulate my pain. I didn’t know how to pray. I dreaded public prayer. All I could do was sigh. My recurring response to daily news became a deep sigh.
Then I reread an essay that I regularly assign to my students. It tells the following story:
“About a hundred years ago, Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter of Ger pondered over the question of what a certain shoemaker of his acquaintance should do about his morning prayer. His customers were poor men who owned only one pair of shoes. The shoemaker used to pick up their shoes at a late evening hour, work on them all night and part of the morning, in order to deliver them before their owners had to go to work. When should the shoemaker say his morning prayer? Should he pray quickly the first thing in the morning, and then go back to work? Or should he let the appointed hour of prayer go by and, every once in a while, raising his hammer from the shoes, utter a sigh: ‘Woe unto me, I haven’t prayed yet!’? Perhaps that sigh is worth more than prayer itself.”
Can sighs be prayers? Do prayers have to be rational, articulated conversations with God? Many Christians, including Pentecostals, pray in ways that transcend rational verbal communication, not the least of which is tongues. Given the historic affirmation of the church to encounter God through poetry, song, dance, tears and silence, why not sighing prayers? Such prayer may be what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Roman 8:26).
I began experiencing the presence of God, not through the literal words of Jesus, but through groans too deep for words. Sighs of frustration, lament, pain and anxiety became symbolic of God’s presence. When I could go no further, when news became overwhelming, when I had no answers, sighs became my prayer. And though the tough questions didn’t always receive answers and the stories of violence and pain continued, God was there. God is always there!
Wherever you may be on the spectrum of prayer, I offer these musings in the hope that they will prove helpful. I also offer them as my prayerful and reflective response to the sudden passing of my brother. Andy Mittelstadt died of a heart attack on January 6, 2016, at the tender age of 49. I have found God’s peace and courage through both of these forms of prayer. I dedicate this narrative to Andy.
Martin (Marty) Mittelstadt grew up in Winnipeg, Man., and currently serves as professor of New Testament at Evangel University in Springfield, MO. In his spare time, Marty hunts for rare books and enjoys hockey, bird watching, and photography.
. Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 94.
. Abraham J. Heschel, Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1954), 3-4.
. I am indebted to Frank Macchia for these illustrations. See his “Sighs Too Deep for Words: Toward a Theology of Glossolalia” in Journal of Pentecostal Theology 1 (1992): 47-73, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1177/096673699200100105; and “Groans Too Deep for Words: Towards a Theology of Tongues as Initial Evidence” in Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (July 1998), http://www.apts.edu/aeimages//File/AJPS_PDF/98-2-macchia.pdf.