Originally published Jan. 19, 2015, at “faith in community.” Republished with the author’s permission.
A little over a week ago, I had gone home for the day when I got a phone call that a parish member was near death. It was snowing like crazy, and from the traffic reports I knew that it was likely that I would not make it to their home in time. So I called his daughter, who was staying with her parents, and talked to his wife for a little while. We remembered together some of the memories we shared, and I asked her how she was doing. “Not good,” she said, in a small voice.
“Would you like to pray?” I asked. She said she would. So, over the phone, we prayed for her husband and remembered God’s promises and prayed for their family, too.
For a long time I never thought of praying with someone over the phone. I don’t know why, exactly. When I think about praying with another person, I suppose I think about really being with them, and I didn’t think the phone really counted. Or maybe prayer is an ancient discipline and a phone is a modern convenience, as if ancient practices and modern conveniences don’t go together. Or maybe it is something else entirely. Maybe it seems like such a hard cut on the phone: One moment you are having a conversation and then, suddenly, you are doing something else, a different sort of connection.
Then, on Sunday, after church, I was shaking hands and talking to people on my way out of church, having those small conversations and being introduced to visitors. One man asked me about the setting for my sermon story: What was the name of that creek I had referred to? Then a woman came up to me and said that an acquaintance of hers had lost their home in a fire the night before. She was quite distraught, and I found myself blurting out, “Do you want to pray about it, right now?”
We prayed, right there in the narthex.
It was so not like me.
A few minutes later, I was introduced to two students, visiting from India. They belonged to the Assemblies of God congregation but happened to come to our worship service on Sunday. We do have a handful of Indian immigrants who attend our worship service.
“Will you pray for us?” they asked me.
What was this, a prayer epidemic? On Sunday morning, of all things, after worship, people wanted me to pray. I prayed for them, that God would bless and guide them in their journeys, send them to the people who need them, help them to learn and to teach.
When I was a child, I said my prayers in the dark. I worried about God taking my soul before I woke, and I wondered about what it meant to pray. I prayed out loud because I prayed with my parents. Later I just said the prayers in my head.
When I got older, I thought for awhile that prayer was magic and that if I believed hard enough I would see miracles. I had heard of miracles, and I believed the stories. I still think that sometimes they do happen.
A little later, I often forgot to pray. Or I thought that my prayers were my good thoughts. Sometimes my prayers were the questions I asked God. I thought those were prayers too, good or not. Often I just thought them or said them under my breath, not aloud.
Then I tried to keep a discipline, to pray at certain times every day, although I was, or am, very bad at being disciplined.
Finally, now, my thought about prayer is not so complicated. It is: Just do it. Someone asks me, will you pray for me? And I say, “Yes, I will pray for you” because I can’t imagine saying “no.” That is what prayer is. It’s not for me; it’s for someone else.
Prayer is saying “yes” because I can’t imagine saying “no.”
Just do it. Perhaps this is the secret, not just of prayer but of the Christian life in general. It’s not for you: it’s for someone else. And, as with prayer, you might be afraid at first or feel awkward and not know what to do. And of course you can’t say “yes” to everything, but when you do, it’s for the child, or the lonely widow, or the African American teenager who is profiled, or the hungry person. You just do it. The reflection can come afterwards.
Just do it. Jump into the deep end. Pray. Serve. Hold a hand. Go. Trust that God will catch you.
God will catch you.
Say “yes.” It’s not for you, it’s for someone else.
But as it turns out, it’s for you, too.