In my second year of college, I decided to attend church off-campus with some friends. Our weekly drive downtown took us past run-down storefronts, and one of them in particular caught my attention. The sign over the top of one of the stores announced it as a school, but it looked to me like it could be a church. "School of Love and Prayer" read the large white letters of the hand-painted sign. As a double major in Philosophy and Greek, I snickered at the school. I wondered aloud if most people majored in love or in prayer, or if perhaps there were some double majors. One of my fellow passengers suggested that I could use some schooling in love, and I'm sure that I still could. No one, however, seemed inclined to even consider schooling in prayer. Who needed that? Prayer was simple and we already knew how to pray, before meals, in church, and when desperate situations called for it.
One of my acquaintances once remarked that Christian Reformed people only pray when they run out of ideas, and even today we seldom run out of ideas. Consequently, I came out of seminary twenty-five years ago not fully realizing the importance of prayer. I knew how to crack open a biblical text and coax it into a sermon. I remembered how to run a council meeting and felt marginally competent to diagnose spiritual problems when they appeared in my study, but I only learned the importance of prayer over time. I suppose that if I had attended chapel more regularly, or accepted an invitation to a weekly prayer group, I might not have left seminary so clueless. But leave I did, not realizing how much prayer was part of what a pastor did day to day.
Now that I am back here teaching where I once studied, I've noticed how much we continue to value ideas. These— on balance—are a good thing, and it doesn't look like we will run out of them anytime soon. But I like to think that prayer no longer takes a back seat to ideas. Prayer seems to have become a greater part of the place, and this place sometimes almost has the feel of a church. Each weekday morning a small group of faculty, staff, and students meets for prayer at 7:45. Matins (a Latin name for one of the ancient offices of prayer), they call it. Prayer in matins follows a set pattern of responsive liturgy, psalm, silence, and Scripture. In addition, most Tuesdays at 7:30 a.m. a group of faculty and staff meet together for prayer— prayer for personal matters, prayer for the school, and prayers for the world.
We continue to have chapel mid-morning on Wednesday and Friday too. Those who lead characteristically gather up concerns of the seminary community and present them in prayer— thanks for a new child, concern for a sick professor, comfort for a grieving friend— prayers for each other and for those across the world. On Mondays prayer groups organized by our Dean of Students meet to pray for one another and the seminary community, and a student-organized group meets weekly to pray for each person in the seminary community over a period of time. They meet in a prayer room that was redecorated by students to create a quiet place for prayer and meditation. And this spring the seminary chapel was decorated for Lent in a way that intentionally encouraged prayer and meditation.
Prayer also happens in less formal ways. When a student and professor meet to discuss some academic or personal matter it is not unusual for the meeting to end with or even begin with prayer. I've concluded discussions with colleagues in prayer, and have had the same done for me. Years ago I had never prayed with my professors at the seminary, which may say more about me than about the faculty back then; but to see and foster this impulse to prayer strikes me as both healthy and right.
Unlike when I was a student, prayer now also comes as a conscious part of the seminary curriculum. The new Formation for Ministry mentoring groups have upped the prayer quotient here at the seminary. In these groups, M.Div. students gather weekly for their entire three years of study at the seminary to talk, think, and pray together. M.A. students meet together over two years. The extended time with the same professor or local pastor and group of students allows God to develop deepening relationships with and among them. As someone who has had the opportunity to lead and participate in one of these groups, I see them as a huge step forward in making Calvin Seminary into a school of love and prayer.
In addition to participating in these ongoing formation groups, early in their education students take a course that introduces them to prayer and other prayer-enhancing disciplines. Students read about lectio divina and then get an opportunity to put this meditative approach to reading Scripture into practice. A rhythm of study and practice encompassing such disciplines as fasting and prayer, silence and solitude, meditation and memorization, keeping a journal, and writing a personal rule of life, attempts to provide a variety of personal pathways into a deeper relationship with God. This course underscores our conviction that ministry flows out of a relationship with God in Jesus Christ energized and mediated by the power of the Holy Spirit. This conviction also characterizes the essence of prayer—fostering, maintaining, and luxuriating in a growing and attentive relationship with God, our senior partner in ministry.
I don't suppose that we are ready to tear down the signs announcing the location of Calvin Theological Seminary and replace them with hand-painted signs announcing a "School of Love and Prayer." But my prayer for the seminary—and I hope it is yours as well—is that we will become more and more a school that has the feel of a church, a place where people turn to God in prayer way before they run out of ideas, a place where prayer becomes almost an instinctive impulse. Calvin Theological Seminary: A School of Love and Prayer—I think God would like the idea.