“Thoughts and prayers” have become a byword for ineffective action in the face of overwhelming suffering. “Save your ‘thoughts and prayers’ if that’s all you have to counter gun violence” is one example of a response, and quite an understandable reaction to frustration, anger and feelings of helplessness. I’ve also seen “I’ll pray for you” used as a weapon, and perhaps you have also. By those lights, there’s not much difference between pray and prey. Or much sense in praying at all.
But when I ask for someone’s prayers (leaving the idea of thoughts, or meditation, for another time) I really do want those prayers, and when requested, I gladly accept. I also pray for those in time of need, even if not asked, and very often will not report that prayer back to the one I’ve prayed for. A prayer isn’t a favor, or something to flatter another person. It is a gift, so far that it is a gift from God to meet us in a way where time, space, personal condition or background has no meaning.
What, then, do we accomplish when we pray for others? And how do we fulfill our commitment to pray for others?
What do we accomplish when we pray for others?
I suppose prayer’s usefulness depends on what you believe to be true of the direction of your prayer. If you don’t believe you meet God in your inner life, if you don’t believe that God cares about what’s there, or that there is no God, the effect is the same: that prayer is only meant to inspire and direct personal action. Surely that’s where that “thoughts and” construction comes from; it’s a broad approach to sidestep theological claims. But Jesus taught his disciples to pray. He said “the kingdom of God is within you” and that a Comforter will come for us. I do not believe we have been stranded without God’s presence. Even the wise seek guidance, and the strong seek help.
If you believe that God dwells with you and understands you, then accept that God will also hear your prayer. And if you are unsure that God dwells with you, prayer — and reflecting on prayer, and why and whom you pray for — might give you the confidence that God understands and loves you. A “successful” prayer isn’t one where we get what we ask for, but one which is freely and lovingly given. The eventual answer may be ambiguous, and may be long in coming. Prayer is a subtle business, and does change you. Being open to God, and attending to that subtlety will change you. Consider that, if you wonder how many good and brave acts have come from prayer.
How do we fulfill our prayers for others?
Now, a practical note: how do we fulfill our pledge to pray for others?
In the past, I kept a palm-sized notebook to jot down whom I was praying for and why. Not a ledger as such, but brief notes to prompt memory. But I would keep misplacing it, or worse, not pray from it. Now, when someone asks me for prayer, I do this. First, I stop what I’m doing and pause to distinguish this spiritual work from ordinary activity. Prayer is no time for multi-tasking. Then I put the person in mind, or a name or a situation. If there’s a prayerbook handy, I’ll find a suitable collect and read it, breaking at a suitable point to dwell on the person or situation I’m praying for. Then I finish the prayer and often say the Lord’s Prayer. If I’m unavoidably occupied, I’ll write down the name or type it into my phone for later attention. If there’s no handy prayerbook and time is tight, I’ll simply pray “Please: thy will be done” then think of the person, pause and say the Lord’s Prayer. And of course I bring my prayers to church, and say them quietly in the breaks of the pastoral prayer, whether I’m at the pulpit or in the pews.
Prayer takes practice.
Friends, let us pray for one another.
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells