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We have been talking quite a bit at seminary about what prayer is and why it’s important and prayer means many things to many people, but I had such an incredible experience of prayer this week that really opened my eyes to the art and the beauty of what prayer can be …

As part of my field work training I am spending the next few months visiting Town Hill Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. Town Hill is a government hospital, with a specialization in psychiatric patients. The men we visit specifically are in various stages of dementia and/or some kind of post traumatic stress. For example, one man lost his wife 5 years ago and he hasn’t really gotten over her death and so our conversations happen on a loop, he chats happily and then comes back to the point that 5 years ago his wife died and his life just stopped, he can remember very little of his life prior to that event. He is a real hoot though, a total character who tells us he was a minister in the Baptist Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Methodist Church and … a few others. I know he worked for the railways for most of his life, because his file says so, so his ministry is a bit of a mystery, but what he can do is pray! Boy can he pray. He prays the most unbelievably powerful and confident prayers, he was obviously involved in a church, but at what level is hard to know and so we go along with the life he has created for himself now and its awesome, we’re colleagues, travelers on the same road.

Another absolute sweetheart grew up in Zimbabwe, although it wasn’t called Zimbabwe when he was there. He tells us he really likes the new CEO, he thinks he’s quite a nice man and in fact is confident that when it’s time to go back there, if he ever decides to, that the nice CEO of Zimbabwe will probably pay his airfare – bless his heart. He is such a gentle soul and his stories are fantastic, literally, fantasy, Town Hill throws some great parties with really interesting people in his experience. Then there are those who are too old/catatonic/traumatised to speak or join in but who let us love them and who sit on the outskirts of our conversations and listen (or not, as the case may be).

There was a new patient this week, a retired pastor (and I believe this one was a pastor, but who really knows), he is there because he got beaten to within an inch of his life. He is 71, toothless and slightly built, but so full of fire and fun it’s just a joy to behold. His arms look like there are plums under the skin from the beatings he has received and I believe he is in real, real pain – right down into the depth of his being he aches, in his bones he aches. He aches emotionally and physically … but what a smile and what a pray’er!

So, Valentines day, my colleague Thobeka and I tootle off to Town Hill to spend some time with ‘our’ men, sharing some love.

We gathered around a table to do what we do best which is chat and we invited all those who wanted to join us to do so also. We of course opened with a prayer, not on our instigation but on Pastor S’s insistence. He grabbed hold of my hand and looking right into my eyes he said, ‘I knew you the minute you walked in, I recognised in you the Spirit, I knew who you were, I want to pray God’s blessing into your ministry’, so we closed our eyes and he spoke life into me and into Thobeka, anointing us both with the Spirit and giving thanks to God. I was touched, really, really touched and I can’t help but think God spoke through this man that morning. And then we chatted some more and then Pastor D, said ‘let’s pray’, so we closed our eyes again and HE prayed for Thobeka and me and he prayed for the staff and he gave thanks and we celebrated the joy that is Town Hill (you actually need to see the place to understand just how incredible this prayer was).

Pastor S then started telling us some of his life, how he found his wife of 40 years in the arms of another man, about the beating he received from some young girl and her friends and the tears came, so we prayed again, we prayed for the Spirit to replace the pains in his body, for him to know the comfort of God, for liquid gold to run through his veins rather than bruised and blackened blood.

We chatted some more and then Dennis ambled over to join the party – Dennis’ eyes are closed more than they are open, he’s old and tired – but he shuffled over from across the room and so … we prayed!!  We prayed for joy, for strength, for love, for our families, for each other, for forgiveness… we just prayed and prayed, in fact it’s hard to distinguish between what was prayer and what was conversation, they run into one another, lines all blurry and beautiful and as I reflected that evening on our morning together, I was struck by the realisation that prayer is something everyone knows how to do – no matter how confused or muddled your brain might be, prayer can be a spontaneous expression of your soul unhindered by the mind. Even those who don’t articulate their prayers out loud, closed their eyes and basked in the beauty and the love and the mystery that is ours for the taking when we surrender into prayer, into Gods presence. Prayer does not have to follow a set format, prayer can just be the spontaneous recognition of those things that are in our hearts, the pains, the joys, the celebrations and the anxieties, knowing somewhere deep down in our being that God is listening … prayer for me on this day was the spontaneous burst of consciousness, of awareness of where we were in that moment, the true expression of what we were feeling and what we were thinking, vulnerable and authentic.

At the end of each prayer we said the words, ‘in Jesus name we pray these things…’, and I was struck again at the meaning behind that phrase. Our connection that morning was not Christianity, not all of us at the table were Christian, our connection on that day was love and who embodies love more than Jesus? Invoking the name of Jesus in our prayers, to me, means invoking the truth of love. ‘If you ask for it in my name’ says Jesus ‘it will be granted to you’, if you ask for it in the name of sacrificial, selfless love it will be given to you, peace and love are ours for the taking.

Thobeka and I walked out of our ministry experience that morning having been profoundly ministered to because in those few hours 5 gentle men let us see their hearts, they let us see their love and they so joyfully and willingly shared themselves with us, ego’s unattached, love abounding, speaking life into our ministries … that was my true valentine gift on Tuesday and in Jesus name I pray that you too would receive that kind of blessing in your life.

Amen …