“Will you pray?” Everyone’s eyes shift downward. We squirm, hoping somebody else starts. It gets awkward. We know prayer is an essential part of faith, yet when asked to pray in public, many of us cringe. Prayer comes from our inner life and we want it to be just that: inner. Like John the Baptist, someone praying out loud can be snubbed as an outsider who has leaped beyond normal spiritual categories.
I spent a long while as the person searching for her feet when the opportunity to pray out loud came up. Prayer and praying aloud changed for me—and changed me—while living and serving in Guatemala. Initially, I didn’t consider prayer something that could disrupt my comfort while I was out of the country. Hopelessness, violence, malnutrition, intractable corruption, dirty water, environmental degradation—these forces troubled me. But prayer? Within days of being in Guatemala, I learned that my prayer life needed awakening.
All Together Now
We first traveled to Guatemala on a short-term mission trip in 2013. Prayer infiltrated our team immediately. We gathered on the airport exit ramp, breathing gritty diesel exhaust in the cool night air. The director said we’d travel for two hours west to Chimaltenango, but first, we’d pray about the drive. “We pray Guatemalan style,” the director explained, guiding us into a circle. “Everyone. All at once.”
Most of the two dozen people had volunteered with this ministry before, so they prayed out loud. No one waited their turn or worried about what to say. My focus shifted in and out as phrases echoed around the circle like a kaleidoscope twirling with sounds. I couldn’t track my thoughts. I had never heard anyone—let alone everyone—pray like that. I jumped in not thinking about what I said or how. I just prayed. As amens drew the huddle into silence, I felt a new vitality emerge within me.
Prayers integrated seamlessly into each day. A traffic jam, a flat tire, an ambulance passing by, nice weather, rain, a good meal, sunburn, a productive work session, an unexpected treat or disaster—every occasion merited divine conversation. Add evening worship, devotions, and our individual prayers, it was more prayer than I’d ever experienced in my life.
Over the weekend, we held medical clinics, kids activities, and worship in two villages. The townspeople spoke Kaqchikel, a regional Mayan language that mesmerized me with its clicks and consonants. Translators converted our English into Spanish, and then passed that version to local speakers. These tri-lingual conversations slowed our concentration to such a delicate pace that we might as well have tossed a hat-full of baby turtles between us.
After worship, the pastors gathered everyone for prayer at dusk. My ears and heart throbbed while several hundred people called out to God in three languages for half an hour. It was as if a wind had blown through, stirring up a mosh-pit of wailing, whimpering, fainting, alleluias, and defiant shrieks meant to rout the enemy.
Witnessing others’ rapport with God shifted my awareness of kinship in the kingdom of God. I could see blank spaces in my Christian life where I just hadn’t thought about prayer. I hadn’t been considering how, why, or when I prayed. My relationship with Jesus was conceptual until I stepped into the place reserved for me. Intentional prayer offered me the tangible opportunities God promises those who obey him.
Eventually we spent months at a time serving with this ministry throughout central Guatemala. Consecrating ourselves and our work to God shaped my days and who I was becoming. At a house church crammed with thirty people, during an altar call after a medical clinic, on the airport parking lot, wherever we went and whatever we did, Jesus shared more of the inner life I had once guarded.
Connecting my inner life to the inner lives of strangers in public in foreign languages added to my transformation. Hearing others pray for me, my faith prospered in ways that silent prayer alone did not teach me. I learned that to be welcomed as a fellow believer in other languages, addressed intimately by strangers as “beloved” and “dear sister,” declares the mysterious unity of our faith. Even when we can’t understand each other’s words, the Spirit speaks clearly through us. We recognize one another as co-heirs with Christ, cherished children of God.
This new lifestyle of prayer prepared me for the other side of authenticity—reaching into my own despondency. When I forget what it’s like to be holy, I picture myself alongside one of several friends, discerning stewards who will invoke the presence of the living God on my behalf. I stand awash in prayer, raw and bathed in blessing, speechless in the shared presence of the Almighty, mumbling, “Thank you,” and, “Alleluia.” Prayer always brings us closer to God.
My Living Classroom
In 2016, we became full-time missionaries and began daily language school. I listened to coworkers pray in Spanish and thrived in multicultural and multilingual Christian community settings. My ears tuned to the idiomatic forms of expressing desires and wishes, the tender litanies of expectation and lament.
God took me into the living world beyond my classroom worksheets. My heart broke while listening to people plead for themselves and their families in public witness before God. In villages, at cafes, in workrooms, waiting in lines, crying in church, telling me their story in the car on the way to the city. Finally I understood.
Their petitions told me truths that international news headlines miss: how to suffer with your own little children, to feel exhausted and parasitic and hungry, to survive outside hope, to cope when you’re irretrievably lost. I didn’t know anyone besides Jesus who had anything meaningful to offer these people.
When my turn came to speak, I cared about my response. My pleas would perish as empty words, no matter what language I used, if I didn’t really believe what I said or who I addressed. But my bumbling Spanish conveys sincere conviction when I draw on divine authority. So I prayed that the Holy Spirit would steer us safely into the presence of a righteous God. Occasions like these show the authoritative power of Emmanuel, God with us.
An Infusion of Humility
Recently a missionary friend took us along to visit Aracely, a pastor working in a village in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. She needed supplies and encouragement. A slight woman with a melancholy manner, Aracely welcomed us into her home. Her family lives on a shelf carved off a mountainside, 8,500-feet up. Prayer taught me to notice when we had a divine appointment and this was one of those times.
Aracely introduced us to her mother and son, Carlitos, as she pulled out chairs for us around the cooking fire in her dark kitchen. While boiling some fresh quail eggs on a conventional stove, she shared honestly as if we—like our missionary friend—were long-time confidants who lived far away and couldn’t visit often. She told us about the burden of caring for her elderly mother. Her mother’s behaviors had become unpredictable and dangerous with the onset of dementia. Then Aracely asked about our families and ministry activities, commenting wisely on the conflicts all missionaries face.
We sipped a hot, sweet corn drink Aracely made, and talked while she and Carlitos peeled the tiny freckled eggs—their first harvest from a trial flock. When she offered us a palm-full of these first fruits, I realized we were essentially receiving her tithe. I turned away to hide my tears. I looked into the firebox where the burning bush itself was her kindling, alight with the eternal flame of a loving God. Aracely had given us everything she had, including a communion of hope.
We prayed earnestly for each other before departing, joining hands and languages in a unified faith. In my prayer I mentioned her family’s concerns, their plans for the community children’s programs, and our gratitude for the serene blessing of her company. Aracely held the quiet incarnation of the divine presence elegantly. And in the name of Jesus Christ, she affirmed a dignity in us that I forget is there.
I stood silently at the end, surrendered to the peace brought through her attentive spirit. We acknowledged that Jesus stood right there, praying with us. My heart opened wider; my capacity to believe expanded. I experienced true grace that day. When good people like Aracely take on my burdens and ask God to bless me, I feel replenished by an infusion of deep humility. It was as if Almighty God tied the ends of the rainbow in a circle around us, sealing us in his covenant of light.
When I choose to take someone’s life into my heart and hands, what I say matters. I used to feel only the awkwardness of praying out loud. Now I’ve become one of those people who loves to pray the way some people love to dance. My version is dancing with Jesus in the gilded throne room of Almighty God.
Cover image by Deb Dowd.