In fact, as far back as she remembers, prayer has been deeply a part of her life. “As a child, I prayed long and frequently,” said Swenson. Photos from her childhood depict her reading scripture at her kindergarten commencement—and again at a commencement in sixth grade.
“Sometimes when I prayed long at the dinner table, my cousins would tease me and say it was just for show,” Swenson recalled. “My parents prayed with me by the bed when I was very young.”
She loved when her father prayed with her. “As I got older I would read the Bible, memorize scripture, and pray before sleep,” she said. “And, of course, I was very active in church my whole life.”
Even as a child, her prayers were not bargains with God. “Rather, they were ‘Dear God, show me what you want me to do,’ ” she said. “And I put my dolls on the couch and preached to them.”
Her dolls were an attentive audience as Swenson unfolded a TV tray, opened a Bible on it, and practiced her earliest sermons.
“Naturally, I would pray hardest in times of difficulty,” she said. “But primarily my prayers have always been ones of thanksgiving.”
Sharing her sense of gratitude
Swenson, who currently serves as the vice moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee, says her heart is full of gratitude for God’s blessings in creation. As a leader, it’s a gratitude she helps others cultivate as well.
Behind the scenes at the WCC, Swenson serves as the chaplain for the WCC Leadership of the Central Committee, and often uplifts the fellowship —particularly during the past two difficult years—with prayers and what seems to be a never-ending supply of hope.
Does Swenson get the equivalent of writer’s block in her prayer life—a sort of “prayer block?”
Not often, she said. When she wants to go deeper in prayer, she reads the stories and prayers from others for inspiration.
Early on, as a student, she began reading the prayers of others—and she continues that practice today.
Swenson has traveled around the world both through her work with the WCC and through her leadership role in the United Methodist Church. Along the way, she comes across prayers that resonate with her—and those are the ones she often shares with others.
But, she reflected, she doesn’t pray the same way publicly that she does privately.
“Last Sunday I offered the pastoral prayer in our worship service at Hollywood United Methodist Church,” she said. “I am often called upon for that. It requires me to think about how praying aloud for a community is different from praying alone in a quiet place."
As an ecumenical officer a few years ago, Swenson attended the British Methodist Conference four years in a row. “They would annually publish prayers of the people in the conference and, one year, the booklet was titled ‘Hope and Light.’ ”
She often refers to “Hope and Light” when preparing prayers for the WCC and other venues.
“I also read from the Moravian Daily Prayers and Armenian prayer books and the Book of Common Prayer from the Anglican/Episcopal communion,” Swenson said. “I used to study the saints and read their prayers.”
Swenson finds herself grateful for the volumes of resources she has collected over the years. “And the amazing thing is, that the resources sustain me in the difficult times and I hope they are helpful to others,” she said.
A prayer to share
Swenson shared the following prayer, a combination from a variety of sources, she said, including prayers she has read, and her own ideas as well. “Never are they purely mine,” she said. “I draw on the wisdom of others and absorb whatever touches me deeply.”
Loving God, Good Teacher,
Help us to hear Your clear call in our lives. Come quietly and still our noisy boisterous stormy selves; come with power and cast out those spirits that divide us and torment us with fears and contradictions, come with grace and exalt our dreams and deeds with knowledge of Your ever present companionship.
For the desert places in which we walk, the streets we roam, the paths we cross,
Guide our feet, take us to place where You would go, give us words that You would use, and grant us inner strength so that we might confront our times with clear and un-evasive mind.
Come now spirit of integrity, of tenderness, judgment, dance, touch our speechlessness, kindle our longing, reach into our silence, embrace us with your compassion.
We thank you for Your Presence, for giving a human touch to grace.
We only ask that we will know You with us through every minute of every day and every week of every year through all the years of all our lives. Amen.