Sighing with the Spirit

Prayer is not always about stringing words together.

By Molly T. Marshall

In the weeks following Pentecost, the epistle readings in Romans have focused on what it means to live in the Spirit. For three Sundays in a row, passages from chapter 8 have revealed rich insight. Arguably there is no more expansive teaching about the Spirit of God, particularly as it relates to prayer.

Clearly the Apostle states the reality: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit, who searches the heart, intercedes according to the will of God for those so intimately known. God the Spirit is closer to us than our very breath, according to St. Augustine, “closer than I am to myself.”

This past Sunday I had the privilege of being the guest proclaimer at a wonderful church in the Sand Hills, just east of the High Plains in Nebraska. If ever the phrase “salt of the earth” was apt, it surely fits the good folk of this American Baptist expression of the Body of Christ.

It was Heritage Sunday, which included recognition of members who have been members for 50 years or more. A delegation from the Episcopal congregation arrived with a resolution honoring the storied history of the congregation. It seems that the Baptists granted them space in the 1870s to have services of baptism. I really wanted to know how much water was used and whether some had become Baptists unwittingly.

As new members of this 50-year club were recognized, I noticed that several had come from the Christian Church, having married Baptist women. Evidently they had rather be Baptists than Christians, and these women must have been keen evangelists.

It is a tender time in the life of the congregation as interim pastoral leadership has served it for about 18 months. The labor-intensive work of the pastor search committee continues, and they seek to stay encouraged.

At the beginning of morning worship, the chair of this committee announced that a promising candidate had informed the committee that week that he had decided not to come. He spoke of the significant commitment of the committee and their desire to be faithful in their work on behalf of the congregation, but his sense of disappointment was palpable. Interim periods in churches can be very constructive; however, for those entrusted with the charge to find a new leader, the longer the period, the greater the frustration.

Then the chair of the deacons came forward, summoned the rest of the committee to come to the front, and offered prayer on their behalf. It was a holy moment. By this action, the church was affirming that they stood with their representatives; even more important, they were turning to the source of provision, One who knows what the church most needs. The Spirit helps in our weakness, even in the process of waiting for a new pastor.

I could not resist saying that it was providential that I was there this particular Sunday as it could be God’s way of getting them ready for their new pastor when she arrives. A good chuckle as well as receptivity to that possibility ensued. Like every congregation, they want a shepherd who will lead and tend them. He or she does not have to be perfect, for many mature Christians are within the church, and they can strengthen the pastor’s work.

I had the sense that the next pastoral leader will be the “most prayed for” as she or he prepares to take up the mantle there. Yet, as weeks go by, pastor search committee members wonder what else can be voiced in prayer. Words fail.

Thankfully, prayer is not always about stringing words together. At times it is stillness that allows us to hear the prayer the Spirit is already praying within us. It is listening for the deep sigh that transcends our fumbling theological rhetoric. As a spiritual practice, prayer draws us into the life of God. True prayer begins with God and returns to God. It is a circular movement that welcomes our participation.

We do not pray to persuade God to do the right thing. We pray so as to add our energy and love to divine purposes. As we pray, we learn of God’s dream for our broken world, and we become agents of healing ministry. The deep sigh of the Spirit is for the Body of Christ to fulfill its mission. So it is a wise congregation that seeks the divine assistance through prayer.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.