The most important thing we do at seminary?

Published: March 31, 2020

By Michelle Christian Curtis and Rachel Miller Jacobs

The voices rise, overlapping each other as we pray aloud and simultaneously. “O God, how good you are … We join our prayers to … bring the healing needed here. Lay your hands on …” It is a cacophony of longing, petitions and trust that takes some getting used to, yet after many weeks of praying this way it has, indeed, become for us “encouragement,” the name given to it by fellow participant Sungbin Kim (Master of Divinity 2019) of Seoul, Gyeonggi, South Korea.

This intercessory prayer group meets weekly during the school year on the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Started four years ago by Sungbin, with assistance from AMBS Professor Emeritus of Church History and Mission Alan Kreider, Ph.D., its pattern has remained essentially unchanged, though the group composition fluctuates from week to week and semester to semester. In his writing, teaching, and living, Kreider taught us about habitus, the practices we do over and over that form the kind of people we are in the mundane parts of life and prepare us to be those kind of people in the face of challenge or crisis. Part of Kreider’s legacy to us is this group, which continues to form in us a habitus of persistent, communal prayer that sustains in both the ordinary and the extraordinary times of life.

We begin by singing “I am weak, and I need thy strength and power,” and then pray silently for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, for forgiveness of sins and for God’s forgiveness to others through us. We speak a prayer of confession and words of assurance from the back of Hymnal: A Worship Book in unison. We pray the Lord’s Prayer aloud, in our heart language. We pray aloud for “common issues”: for our community, our city, the world.

Following this, we go around the circle, sharing our prayer requests for ourselves and those dear to us. We stand and raise our hands (“As Alan has taught us the early Christians did,” Sungbin used to say) and pray aloud simultaneously for all we have heard. When these prayers die down, we each pray for the person to our right. The last person to be prayed for closes our time of prayer.

Over the years, we have prayed for children and siblings, writing projects and sermons, persistence in studying biblical languages, and driver’s licenses. We have prayed for AMBS students and staff and alumni, for the church around the world, for good nights of rest. We have become experts in praying for God’s guidance in discerning next steps as people prepare to graduate. We’ve prayed aloud and silently, standing with our arms raised and seated in a circle and kneeling on the floor, huddled in coats during the dead of winter and fanning ourselves in fall and spring heat. We’ve prayed in thanksgiving, in longing, in sadness, in confidence, in trust, in desperation, in joy. We’ve prayed together long enough to notice both the slow and fast ways our prayers have been answered or reshaped.

Mara Weaver Boshart, Master of Divinity student from Archbold, Ohio: “When I began attending this prayer group my first semester as an AMBS student, I must admit it was mostly out of a sense of obligation. I heard the announcement and thought, ‘Well, if there’s a prayer group, I should probably go.’ Over the last three school years, that ‘should’ has turned into a ‘must.’ Praying with these people — being attentive to and trusting God’s work in the world alongside them — has made AMBS my spiritual home in ways unanticipated. This weekly rhythm of group prayer has formed my faith in a way I am only beginning to understand.”

Rachel Miller JacobsRachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., Associate Professor of Congregational Formation: “Looking back, I can see my slow but steady growth in boldness in prayer. I learned a lot from Sungbin: He prayed as if our prayers were already answered, and he prayed in what my mother calls an outside voice. This is utterly different from the reserved, not-asking-too-much-in-case-you-get-it-wrong praying I learned as a child. In fact, it is the way healthy children actually ask for things from their good father: by saying directly what they want and need without apology. Praying this way is building my trust in God and especially growing my awareness that God is actually present and really wants to hear from us.”

Michelle Christian Curtis, 2018 Master of Divinity graduate from Lansdale, Pennsylvania: “When you study full time, you’re supposed to be at seminary for three years. I am in my fifth year on campus. My husband and I expected to start pastoring in September, but things didn’t work out as we had anticipated. I began this unexpected fifth year at AMBS wondering what in the world I was still doing here. Every week I asked the group to thank God for the gift of more time in this community I love and to pray that God will show us where to go next, because searching for a pastorate can be brutal. Every single week I get to hear them pray aloud: ‘God, we are so grateful to have Michelle here. Thank you for the gift she is to this community. We trust you are at work in her life. We trust this extra time will not be wasted. We ask you to bring her a pastoral assignment in your good time.” Their prayers helped me believe that it is, indeed, very good for me to be here, that God is still working, that God is still calling me, that this time is not wasted.”

Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, Ph.D., Dean of Lifelong Learning: “I used to think I couldn’t possibly make time for an hour of prayer in the middle of my work day every week, but since joining this group last semester I am quickly becoming convinced it is probably the most important thing I do at the seminary. I treasure the way we lift up the whole community, the deep care I experience personally and the sense of God’s closeness I feel with this group. I’ve come to really look forward to it, often longing for it to come sooner than it does, and finding myself savoring it for days afterward.”

Over four years, this group has learned a lot. We find ourselves praying for one another more often outside of our prayer time — because we put all that energy into remembering one another’s prayer requests while together. We’ve learned to be persistent like the widow in Luke 18, praying for the same requests week after week. Seeing our companions stick with us and not grow weary of repeated prayer requests helps us experience God’s faithfulness and generosity as we pray the same things over and over. We’ve learned to ask for help, from God and one another, especially in the things we tend to think of as “small.” Through the practice of sharing requests every week, we’ve helped one another recognize answers to prayer that might have escaped our notice. Most of all, we’ve learned that shoulds turn into musts, that God doesn’t waste anything, that God really does answer prayer. We are becoming convinced that praying is the most important thing we do at AMBS.

— Michelle Christian Curtis earned a Master of Divinity degree from AMBS in 2018 and is pursuing a ministry position with her husband, Jacob. Rachel Miller Jacobs is Associate Professor of Congregational Formation at AMBS.

This article was originally a web-exclusive article on the theme “The mystery and power of prayer” and first appeared at The Mennonite. It is reposted here with permission. For more stories on this theme, see the March issue of The Mennonite.

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