“I Pray For You Every Day”
I’ve written a number of times here before about some the difficulties I have with prayer (here, for example). I am convinced that prayer is a crucial part of how God works in and through us for the salvation of the world. And yet the questions abound. How does prayer work? Does prayer work? How can we tell? Is God influence-able? Is God reactive? Does God need prayer? How can God “listen” to so many different (often wildly contradictory) prayers at once? What does it even mean to say that the God of the universe “listens?” And then, of course, there are more personal questions. “Why does God seem so remote and absent sometimes?” “Why wouldn’t God help person x who is in such desperate need?” “Why do our prayers for peace and justice seem so hollow?” “Why, despite all our praying and lamenting and petitioning and longing, does evil seem to flourish in our lives, our communities, our world?”
I have discovered that all of the questions above (and many more) can very easily degenerate into little more than elaborate excuses for not praying. When I was younger, I would rise early each morning to pray. This was when I had to be at work earlier and had a day of manual labour to look forward to. I would fill notebooks with my prayers. Looking back at these prayers now, they seem naïve, idealistic, and very selfish. But still. I prayed. Regularly. Enthusiastically. Passionately, even (much as I hate that word). Now, when part of my job description is praying, I find it more difficult. I have many more impressive words and categories to employ, a head full of knowledge of the history of prayer, the prayer lives of the saints, the theology of prayer. I have people regularly imploring me to pray for them. And I do. But it’s just, I don’t know. Harder.
I’ve been rereading Richard Foster’s classic work, Prayer over the last few days and one thing that has struck me again and again about this mysterious discipline is the simplicity of it all. We pray because we have need. We pray because we are naked and poor and mostly clueless most of the time. We pray because we are profoundly limited. We pray because there is so much that we cannot do for ourselves. We pray because we care about stuff. A lot of stuff. We pray because we have a hunger for love and for relationship. And we pray to a God who is not a genie in a bottle who is bound to leap to our summons, but to the radically free Creator of the Universe who shapes us both by the experience of his presence and his absence.
I spent part of yesterday morning with a dear old man who now finds himself in his tenth decade on planet earth. He has seen many things in these ten decades. Grinding poverty, lack of educational opportunities, hard labour, and, of course, plenty of death. He has a dry sense of humour and a ready smile. He doesn’t hear very well, so I always feel like I’m yelling at him when I visit. We talk about the weather, about his family, about the past. We talk about road trips that he has taken, about what the farmers’ fields are like this year, about what he made back when he could still do wood work. He asks about my kids. Sometimes we’ll talk about “religious” things, but not very often.
But we always pray before I leave. Yesterday, after I prayed, this dear old man looked at me and asked, “Is everything going ok for you? Are you happy?” I thought about this for a bit, and then offered my usual mixture of yes and no and this and that and “some days are better than others” and “I don’t always feel very ‘pastor-y’” and endless wordy qualifications. Eventually I was starting to bore and frustrate even myself, so I just stopped talking. He smiled and said, “You know, I pray for you every day. I don’t always know what to say, but I pray for you and for your wife and your kids.” And all of a sudden I had no more words. Except “thank you.” And then a big hug.
And so maybe at the end of it all, what else can we say about prayer? We cling to God. We cling to each other. We cling to God on behalf of each other. We don’t always know what we’re doing or what we’re supposed to say, but we know that whatever prayer is and whatever it might accomplish in this world, that it depends far more upon God than it does on us. And that this is a very good thing.