Prayer by Text Message?

By Anna Pinckney Straight

text message

photo credit: IntelFreePress via photopin cc

There was hesitation before hitting the “send” key. Was I really about to become “that kind of pastor?” The kind of pastor who would send a prayer by text?

It’s not like I woke up one day and it happened. The move to that place was a slippery slope. It happened bit by bit.

In 1997 I was called to my first church. A little church in rural West Virginia. I could count on one hand those who had cell phones, and I wasn’t among them. The church didn’t even have a functioning answering machine or email address. Pastoral Care meant on-the-ground, in-the-home, sitting-in-the-hospital-room visit.

Seventeen years later, there I was, getting ready to text a prayer to a parishioner in the hospital.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

In 2014, it’s not so clear. I’ve had more than one person tell me that my invitation to meet with them in their home caused them concern—what had they done wrong?

Hospital stays aren’t the same, either. You can argue whether shorter hospital stays increase or decrease the efficacy of that stay, but you can’t argue that hospital stays are shorter than they used to be. And in my experience, they’re busier, too. I can’t remember the last time I visited someone in the hospital and just sat for an extended visit.

I also find that people are hungry for their pastoral care to have a longer spiritual half-life. How will something that is said in prayer, or a scripture that is read, be recalled when they are awake at 2:00 A.M. in the morning?

Visits are always accompanied with a piece of card stock, now. I have stacks of prayer cards and psalm cards that not only contain helpful/comforting/challenging words (I have enough that I can choose one that speaks to the situation in which I am visiting), they also include my name and the church’s information.  Good for that 2:00 A.M. blood pressure check that leaves them wondering (aka: not sleeping).

And while it was a huge advance in technology to buy my first church a modern answering machine and get them an email address, I hardly use voice messaging anymore. It’s mainly a way to make sure people have my cell phone number, so they can call, or text me, with updates or questions or concerns. Logistics, that’s what texts have mainly been about.

Or at least they were until I texted that prayer. A parishioner was in the hospital, being prepped for surgery. It was unlikely I would get there before he went in, and even if I did, he was already surrounded by family. Maybe too much family. There was enough commotion and busy-ness around him. What he needed was a connection to something bigger, deeper, and quieter that transcended the moment. I could have called, but would he have heard me? Would he have been able to talk?

I typed the prayer, heartfelt words for this beloved child of God, and after pausing for a moment’s hesitation, hit “send.”

He told me later that he read the prayer then, had his wife read it after surgery, and then read it again in the middle of the night, when he awoke, afraid.

The prayer wasn’t a work of art or genius, it was a doorway to the Holy Spirit that, once open, allowed for grace to arrive and then to arrive again.

Is texting the same as face-to-face visiting? No. But it does leave a trail. And sometimes it’s not only an acceptable choice, it’s the better, more faithful, choice.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

The 21st century is more fluid. It requires more energy to connect and more attention to discern what is a hunger and what is a desire. But if what is expected is to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” then the door is open. I feel a little bit (a lot) like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but hold fast to Romans 12:15 and the belief that it’s the water that matters, not the cup that serves it.

This month, we’re thinking a bit about pastoral care and what it means in the twenty-first century. Proactive or reactive? Postmodern or traditional? Would you like a dash of tabasco with that? Join us for the conversation here, or on Facebook.

APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.