This post was also in today's newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
A few weeks ago during a midweek service, I offered an intercession for “those who have no one to pray for them.” Someone in the congregation found that prayer particularly moving, and her response has stayed with me ever since. I do not always say that prayer, but, whenever it comes to my heart and mind, I feel a need to say it. Fifteen years ago, when I worked at a church in Birmingham, a wise and gentle man prayed those words every week at our staff meeting, and, as I heard them over and over, they began to shape my own prayers—not only my intercession for those who have no one to pray for them but, more generally, how I pray and how I understand prayer to work.
If I ask God to bless those who have no one else to pray for them, does that mean that everyone in the world is covered by that prayer and that only one of us needs to say it? Similarly, if I walk into a restaurant with a buffet and see another family saying a blessing, do I need to bother saying my own, or will their prayer cover my food as well? Is that true only if it is an all-you-can-eat buffet and the family intends to go back for seconds, and, if not, should they say a blessing after each course? More generally, does God wait for us to say our prayers before showering us with his blessings, and, if not, why do I need to ask for them at all? If you are praying for our sick friend, do my prayers for that same friend become superfluous, or is God more likely to respond when several of us ask for the same thing? Is it fair to say that my role as clergyperson is to pray for everyone and everything so that all of you can get on with the more important, more pressing parts of life?
Although it has taken me years to appreciate it, one of the gifts that my wise, gentle friend gave me though his persistent prayer for the otherwise-forgotten is to detach the joy of praying from the outcome of those prayers. What does it mean to pray for those who have no one to pray for them except to bring to mind and hold before God those whom neither I nor anyone else remembers? And is that act of remembering not an opportunity to give identity and value and love to those whom the world has abandoned? By definition, I will never know who those people are and what God might be doing for them, but, by letting them and their anonymous condition into my heart, I am asking God to shape me into one who refuses to forget the forgotten. God is not waiting on me or my prayers in order that they might be touched by his blessing, but a part of my soul is waiting for the opportunity to remember them and connect with them, and prayer gives it to me.
More and more, I say my prayers not because I need or desire a particular outcome but because it gives me great joy to enter God’s presence and bring others along with me. Often they are people I know and love—family, close friends, colleagues, parishioners. Almost as often they are people whose names I know but whom I have never met—friends on our parish prayer list, political and religious leaders, individuals or communities that have been featured in the news because of a tragedy. Occasionally, they are people I do not know at all—the homeless, the hungry, the forgotten. Why do I bother praying for any of them? Because prayer opens up an opportunity for action.
I wrote an e-mail to a colleague a week or so ago and told him that I was praying for him. He is facing some challenges in his work, and I wanted him to know that I love him and am thinking about him. As I wrote that e-mail, however, another thought about prayer came to me: if I believe that prayer opens up an opportunity for action, might I offer my friend more than words of comfort? I wrote to him that I did not know how I might help but that my prayers for him came with an earnest desire that I might be of service to him. Although I recognize that often prayers are enough, sometimes the door for action that they open is a door within us.
I pray for my friends and family because I love them and because I want to be a part of God’s saving work and love in their lives. I pray for our political leaders because I want what is best for our country and also because those prayers help direct my attention and energy toward the further establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth. I pray for the poor and the forgotten because I know that God has not forgotten them and because my prayers help me have the courage to speak and act on their behalf.
Sometimes prayer opens up a window for God to reach down and change the course of human affairs, but more often that window is opened up in our hearts so that we might, in turn, open that door and walk through it as the hands and feet and voice of God in this world. There is power in prayer, and, as we pray, that power becomes manifest in us.