Rev. Bobbie McKay, Ph.D., is a UCC minister, author, and licensed psychologist. Rev. McKay co-created The Spiritual Health Center, NFP and conducted a research study on Spiritual Life in the United Church of Christ. Based on the findings of this study, “Spiritual Life Teams” were born and the study has been extended into the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Church and the Reform Jewish Community in the greater Chicago area, as well as to Islamic populations in New York, Illinois, and Florida. Rev. McKay currently works as Pastoral Associate in Spiritual Life at the Glenview Community Church in Glenview, Illinois.
At most churches, prayer is a pretty standard experience. We have certain prayers we say at different times in the worship service. We generally pray before and sometimes after a meeting. We pray when someone is ill and needs our prayers. We pray when there is an emergency and we know that prayer is our most direct line to God’s Presence.
We pray in time of joy and happiness. We pray when life is hard and we’re desperate to solve a problem that has confronted us with our helplessness. We pray when all other options have failed. We pray because prayer touches the very center of our being where God’s Spirit resides.
We had a situation at my church when my husband, Lew, became quite ill with stage four lung cancer. His chances of survival were non-existent when the cancer was discovered. I was shocked, overwhelmed and terrified. The cancer had appeared without any symptoms.
One of the members of my church, whose name was Kerry, decided that prayer was the only chance Lew had to survive. In order to multiply his chances for survival, Kerry made a radical move. “Let’s ask people to pray for Lew (and any others in need) every day (7 days a week) at 5:30. They can pray wherever they are, alone or with anyone else. All they have to do is to stop what they’re doing and pray for healing for those who needed healing at 5:30 every day for an indefinite period of time.”
In the first week of our 5:30 prayer vigil, at least 20% of our church reported they were praying wherever they were at 5:30 without prompting or reminders. Some people set their watches for 5:30; others adjusted their schedules to be free for five to ten minutes each day at 5:30. The idea of a prayer vigil at 5:30 p.m. every day caught on with breathless speed.
In the second week of our 5:30 prayer vigil, the word spread to other churches in the community and across the country to friends and relatives in other places. Prayers became opportunities to contact God on a daily basis. Five thirty became a promise to stop what I was doing and concentrate on being with God in prayer.
But the prayer was not a programmed experience that followed a standard religious formula. In a radical change of prayer agenda, these 5:30 prayers became a time of intimacy with God. It didn’t matter if our prayers were spoken or silent, filled with agendas or empty “containers” for God to fill. What mattered was that we were engaging in a time of spiritual intimacy with God on a daily basis. God was a partner in my life and we had set aside time each day to enact our relationship.
Quickly, we shifted away from an outcome agenda, e.g. “Please God heal my husband, Lew.” Instead, we became a fluid community of people praying simply for God to be present with Lew and with any others in need of prayer. It was a message that reinforced our understanding that prayer is a way to connect with God and be open to whatever outcome unfolds. Our relationship with God was the critical agenda and not the results being prayed for.
Lew died on September 9th, 2019. No one reported feeling that our 5:30 prayer program had failed. Instead, we felt the power of the 24 hour, seven days a week presence of God, leading us and guiding us into a spiritual reality that was new and which blessed our lives with the knowledge that God WAS with us. God WAS a constant we could always experience, wherever we were, whenever we chose. Our 5:30 prayer time was the container that carried the reality of God into our lives.
Released from the limitations of outcomes, we entered into the freedom of God’s love and Presence for everyone. In our world of unknown futures and unexpected events, we had experienced God in actions of love and connection that had transformed our spirits.