Editorial: Pray for me: The night I learned how to S.H.O.P.

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For those who don’t know, S.H.O.P. stands for Sweet Hour of Prayer and is to many black churches what Fifth Sunday Sing is to many white churches.

When I was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Covington, we joined two other churches whenever there was a fifth Sunday in a month to sing hymns together. We called out hymn numbers from whatever hymnal the host church had and sang our best to a piano accompaniment. I even led at least one hymn sing.

S.H.O.P., as I learned, is even better than Fifth Sunday Sing because S.H.O.P. includes singing and music throughout the hour of prayer. Prayer and music are woven together as a whole cloth with some unexpected stitches.

The sacredness of confession

Prayer in church often is rushed and squeezed between announcements and other important parts of the service, as though what is said during announcements is so much more important than prayer that it requires more space in the service.

When prayer is rushed, confession is shrunk into a few words thrown in somewhere before the Amen: “Lord, forgive us for our sins,” or “Forgive us for our failings.”

Not during S.H.O.P.

Confession involved several minutes right at the beginning of the hour. The leader, Pastor Louis Rosenthal of The McKinney First Baptist Church, reminded us of Psalm 66:18, in which the psalmist proclaims, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” However you view that psalm or any psalm, beginning prayer with the exhortation to confess sin is a sobering way to spend several minutes, but only if you take it seriously.

After leading us in corporate prayer, Pastor Rosenthal opened the floor for anyone in the room to voice an individual prayer. As you might expect, this is where things got interesting.

Prayer for law enforcement

“Heal our land. Touch our leaders. Touch and anoint all our police chiefs. Grant every police officer split-second wisdom,” one participant prayed. His prayer struck me enough that, of all the prayers, I remember his word-for-word.

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The words of a person’s prayers tell you what is most important to that person, his or her thoughts. The syntax—the words chosen and how they are put together—conveys the heart of the person praying.

You’d have to be Rip Van Winkle just waking up not to know about the tense relationship between African Americans and law enforcement throughout our country. Certainly, African Americans long for the day they don’t have to train up their children in the way to interact with police officers.

The people praying during S.H.O.P. were in a place where they could pray whatever they wanted, whatever was on their hearts. What they chose to pray regarding the police was: “Touch and anoint all our police chiefs. Grant every police officer split-second wisdom.” And I heard amens.

They did not pray imprecatory prayers. They did not ask God to bring justice down upon people like Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer facing murder charges for the shooting of Botham Jean on Sept. 6, 2018. Instead, they prayed for God’s hand, God’s anointing and God’s wisdom.

Prayer for Trump

You may not have just awoken from a 20-year slumber, but you might have been born yesterday if you don’t know about the tension between the African American community and Donald Trump, who has been challenged for saying things like there being “very fine people, on both sides” involved in the violent clash of protestors in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.

While Barack Obama was president, I heard people pray mournfully asking God, in essence, to undo all the wrong for which they blamed Obama. I did not hear many prayers for grace and wisdom for our president, though I did hear some.

Yet, during S.H.O.P.—again, in a place where people were free to pray whatever they wanted, to speak their hearts and minds—participants who prayed out loud for Trump prayed for him without a perceivable ounce of malice. They asked God to lead and guide him.

Prayer for brothers and sisters

A particularly moving prayer was voiced for the pastors who couldn’t afford to come to the African American Fellowship Conference in Waco, the event kicked off by S.H.O.P.

I pastored a small, country church. We didn’t always have enough money for me to attend conferences. That’s the way it is in small churches.

But in all the places I’ve been where pastors gather to meet, I don’t ever remember hearing a prayer for pastors who couldn’t afford to attend. Not until S.H.O.P.

Maybe my culture assumes a pastor’s absence is due to his disinterest or busyness. Maybe the pastors in my culture are too proud to admit they can’t afford to attend every meeting and conference, and so people don’t know to pray for that. Or maybe my culture simply doesn’t recognize how privileged it is.

Remembering fellow Christians who—all things being equal—would be present but who can’t be there because they can’t afford it speaks of the ubiquity of doing with less. The one who offered the prayer and those who affirmed it with their “Amen” weren’t particularly moved—like I was. They were simply stating the facts and asking God not to forget those who couldn’t be with them.

Grateful and worshipful prayer

Expressions of gratitude and adoration were profound and profuse throughout S.H.O.P. What a contrast to the rushed prayers I’ve heard countless times in church, prayers in which thanking and praising God are almost as hurried and truncated as confession.

Might our thanksgiving and adoration be anemic because we’ve enjoyed too much?

I don’t know exactly how long I’ve been working on this editorial, but I do know it’s been another sweet time of prayer as I recount the hour of my learning how to pray.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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