An idea conceived by teaching and ruling elders bound together by prayer is beginning to transform the prayer lives of Presbyterians throughout Yellowstone Presbytery, one of the nation’s largest by square miles and, at about 2,000 people, smallest by membership.
About 40 members of nine of the presbytery’s 25 churches gathered Saturday, Aug. 23, at First Presbyterian Church in Lewistown ― the geographic center of the Treasure State ― for a day-long prayer retreat. Co-general presbyters George and Kathy Goodrich made presentations that included praying the scriptures and exploring St. Teresa of Avila’s spirituality.
But it was the rest of those in attendance who did the really hard work ― listening to people who may pray and think a little differently and celebrating the privilege of sharing one another’s burdens.
Throughout the day, life events provided opportunities for the laying on of hands. A man had just been taken off life support, and the group supported his relatives present during the retreat with spontaneous prayer. A woman suffering from rheumatoid arthritis had braved spending the whole workshop wracked with pain ― by the day’s close, she too was lovingly prayed over.
Charlie Brown, a ruling elder at the host church and one of the event organizers, said he spent some of his prayer time thinking about what Peter must have heard while walking on the Sea of Galilee toward Jesus ― “the waves, the guys on the boat talking about what an idiot he is” ― and said he resonated with the reason Peter sank like a stone.
“He loses his focus,” Brown said, adding, “What’s causing me to sink? I’m learning to be still and to drop all this arguing and questioning and to keep my eyes focused. Jesus sticks out his hand and Peter is lifted up. We need to grab that hand, quiet ourselves and get a grip.”
“The Spirit of God can work in ossified people and structures,” Kathy Goodrich assured the group. “Most of us can easily pray during the good times, but how do we pray during the tough times?”
To illustrate, she first read John 15:1-17 ― God as vinegrower and pruner ― and then watched a skit as First Church members used increasingly larger and sharper tools, culminating with a chain saw, to “prune” their pastor, Jed Cauffman, who dutifully stood holding out his arms and legs.
“That didn’t feel like love,” Cauffman joked following the skit. Then, more seriously, he distinguished “pruning pain from my own kind of ‘woundedness’ pain. There is a purpose to pruning pain.”
George Goodrich took the group through St. Teresa of Avila’s seven rooms of spiritual growth, which he labeled “one of our maps for Christian spirituality.” He said that St. Teresa “was not just sitting in some closet somewhere,” pointing out that she lived during the religious persecution of the Spanish Inquisition, a time when Conquistadores explored the New World “for God and for gold.”
Goodrich talked about Teresa’s ability “to look at a soul and see beauty. We need to start there, because God makes souls God wants to dwell in.”
He also spent time talking about “the wall,” the “dark night of the soul” many Christians bump up against ― some of them more than once ― as they progress through Teresa’s figurative mansion.
Jesus, of course, hit the wall himself at Gethsemane. When we hit the wall, God can seem “dim, deaf and distant,” Goodrich said. “Sometimes God makes God’s presence known by God’s absence.” But what’s really afoot is that “God is preparing us to release ourselves into God’s love and service,” he said.
At the wall, we must pray honestly, as Jesus did ― “Not my will, but your will be done.” We can pray to release our dreams to God’s dreams, becoming what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “a [person] for others.” We can also pray for embracing ― embracing God’s silence, God’s will and God’s character.
“It is up to God to bring down the wall, in God’s way and God’s time,” he said.
Participants then spent several minutes in silence, meditating on what God had been saying to them during the day.
Paul Cannon, a teaching elder at Community Presbyterian Church of Treasure County in Hysham, said he appreciated working on prayer together as a presbytery.
“It’s nice,” he said, “to have the words to describe all this.”
Mike Ferguson, a reporter for the Billings Gazette, is a ruling elder at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings, Mont., and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.