What does prayer do?

Who do you pray for? Who do you think about and ask God to bless, lead, guide, strengthen, or nurture?

Someone called me this week to ask me if it was all right to pray for me. She said she felt led to lift me up in her prayers.

            My reaction was one of gratitude.  “Thank you,” I said, “I need all the prayers I can get.” And then, more seriously, I told her that I appreciated her concern and that I am thankful for her prayers. In this time of isolation, caution, and distancing, I love to think of someone remembering me in their prayers. It means so much to know that love, concern, and care are being offered on my behalf.

            What happens when someone prays for you? I don’t know. I don’t have concrete results or any tangible proof to offer. I’m not sure I write better sermons or lead more interesting Bible stories because of someone’s prayers. But their prayers hearten me. They lift my spirits. And in this discouraging, overwhelming time we are living in, that is a powerful gift. Those prayers make me feel like I am receiving encouragement, compassion, and caring. We live in a world where those qualities are often lacking. It is a humbling and wonderful thing to know that someone is thinking about me and asking God to surround me with blessings and strength.  

            My best advice would be – do not underestimate the power of prayer. We don’t have to understand it to participate in it. We don’t have to scientifically prove its effectiveness to trust it. During this pandemic, which has left so many of us feeling isolated, tired, and helpless, here is something we can do.

We can pray.

            Pray for people you know. Go ahead and pour out your love and concern, your worry and your gratitude, your hopes and your fears. Dare to pray your wildest dreams and deepest desires for them. Trust that God loves those people you keep in your heart even more than you do.

Pray for people you don’t know but you hear about in the news. People whose lives have been torn apart by the virus or by wildfires. Pray for the helpers – doctors, nurses, firefighters, paramedics. Pray for our schools and for the vast web of people connected to them – teachers, administrators, students, parents, and grandparents.  Pray for those who are belittled or put down every day because of their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. If you’re not sure what to pray, just ask God to be with them.  Prayer isn’t about giving God directions – we can trust that God knows what God’s beloved people need.

I believe prayer changes things. I believe it helps the “pray-er” and the “pray-ee.” Even if I can’t explain it, it’s one of those things I have experienced and now take on faith.               And let us promise to pray for one another.  Amen.

Fill-in-the-blank Prayers

It is not always easy to pray, even when we really want to. Even when we need it most. When we are stressed or anxious, prayer can be even more challenging.

So here are some “fill in the blank” prayers for you to try. Think of them as “prayer prompts” – you can fill in the blanks and personalize them with whatever is on your heart and mind today. Use the ones that speak to you, skip the ones that don’t.

            Your prayers may change day by day or even moment by moment, so fill in the blanks as often as necessary.

Loving and holy God, thank you for your promise to be with us always. Today I am finding that very __________ to believe. Thank you for loving me just as I am.

Compassionate God, you meet us wherever we are.

Holy God, today I am feeling ______________.

I’m alone in my house and I feel ___________.

I’m usually alone in my house but now it’s full of people not in school or at work. That makes me feel _____________.

Creator God, thank you for the glory of this earth and the mystery and miracle of spring. Today when I look outside, I see you in ________________.

Generous God, thank you for the gift of music, art, and poetry that comfort my spirit. Thank you for artists of all kinds. Today I rejoice in this song/image/expression: ____________.

Thank you for the helpers in the world. Please bless first responders, doctors, nurses, and health care workers who are facing extra challenges. Give them strength and resilience. Today I especially pray for _______.

God of all people, across the globe, everyone is impacted by this virus, no matter their culture, language, sexual orientation, economic status, or beliefs. Surround all of us with your healing presence. Please bless _______.

Loving God, you care about our worries big and small. So many people are affected by workplace closing and loss of income. I lift up prayers for _____.

Even before the pandemic began, many already had concerns and worries. Help us not forget those who are mourning, sick, or struggling. God of compassion, I ask you especially to be with _________.

You told us to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. Knowing that you love me today and always, I lift up a prayer for myself. You who created me in your holy image and you call me your beloved child, I ask you to be with me. Please help me ________________.

And God who knows my heart, I add these prayers: _________.

To you be the honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Pray boldly!

John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?”’ (John 1: 35-38)

You might expect Jesus’ first recorded words to be preaching or teaching or expounding on some ancient text.  But in the Gospel of John, none of that happens. The first thing Jesus says is a question. He turns to his would-be disciples and asks them, “What are you looking for?”

            Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of God, the Light of the world – wants to know what is on their minds. What are you looking for? It’s another way of saying, “What are you seeking? What do you lack?”

            Jesus looks his potential followers in the eye and wonders, “What do you really, really want?”

            It is an invitation to powerful prayer. And yet how often do we hesitate to say out loud what is on our hearts and minds? We are so good at praying polite prayers that list the needs of others, never ourselves. We pray tentative prayers couched with caveats like “If it’s possible…”. Yet Jesus demands, “What are you looking for?” What do you want?

            When I hear this invitation to honest, from-the-heart prayer, I think about the good work my congregation with our local homeless shelter. Like so many congregations, we provide food, clothing, toiletries, gift cards, vouchers, and holiday gifts to the residents. That is a good thing to do. But if I were to pray an honest prayer – if I were to state what I really want – I would say, “I want affordable housing. I want job coaching. I want abundant access to mental health care.”

            But I often hesitate to offer that prayer because those things cost money and I don’t know how to make any of them happen. The complicated situation causes my heart-felt desire to die on my lips. But Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to come up with solutions. He wasn’t asking them if they deserved anything or if their requests were logical or even possible. Jesus simply asks, “What are you looking for?” What do you want?

            If we can’t name what we want, we can’t visualize it. If we can’t name what we are lacking, we might miss opportunities God is offering to us.

            “Pray boldly,” Martin Luther declared in 1517.

            “I have a dream,” Martin Luther King celebrated in 1963.

            Those are both invitations to trust God with our needs, our lacks, and our dreams. Saying it out loud is not a guarantee that it will come true. But offering our deepest needs to God is a step of faith. It is offering our hands, our hearts, and ourselves to the work of God all around us. It is trusting that God will hear our prayer and do marvelous things.

            And that is what I am looking for.

Praying for strangers

Who do you pray for? Would you pray for someone you don’t know?

 On October 6th we celebrated World Communion Sunday. It is interesting that this celebration was originated in 1936, which was another time in history when countries and individuals needed to be reminded that we are all beloved children of God. World Communion Sunday celebrates our inter-connectedness as we remember that our actions (or lack of action) has an impact on others.

World Communion Sunday is, by definition, a Christian commemoration but our worship lifts up countries, religions, and people across the globe to ask for God’s blessing.

            One of our practices on this special Sunday is to use a variety of breads during communion. Instead of the usual white bread that symbolizes the Body of Christ, the congregation was invited to choose from breads representing different parts of the world. South American tortillas, Asian rice cakes, and Israeli matzos graced our communion table. Breads of different colors and textures like pumpernickel, rye, corn, and Italian represented the diversity of God’s people and the richness of our unique cultures and heritage.

            As people entered our sanctuary, everyone received a slip of paper with the name of a country. In the days ahead, we are all encouraged to learn a little bit about that country and offer prayers on behalf of the people who live there.

            “My” country is the Maldives. While I recognized the name enough to know that they are islands, I couldn’t have told you much more than that.  I have since learned that the Maldives are a collection of 1,190 islands and atolls (my new vocabulary word: a reef made out of coral) southwest of India in the Indian Ocean.

 After watching a number of travel videos, I was tempted to put a trip to the Maldives on my bucket list but I suspect the expense will prevent any first-hand exploration of this beautiful country. My first impression of this country was “island paradise.” However, when I learned that their highest point of elevation is a mere 8 feet, my second thought was “island on the brink of disaster.” Rising sea levels cannot bode well for this fragile environment.

So I will pray for the people of the Maldives. Why might we pray for people we don’t know? These prayers are not so much to nag an already compassionate God to care about God’s people, but are much more a celebration of our connection to one another. They are also a much-needed reminder that when I am personally powerless to lend a hand (in the Maldives or elsewhere), I can trust that God’s Spirit of love, peace, and comfort is with those in need.

These prayers ward off feelings of despair and helplessness and may well nudge me to take action where I can.

So go ahead and pray. Pray for your loved ones and pray for those you’ll never meet. And trust that the God of yesterday, today, and forever is moving in and through the lives of God’s people.  

Praying for tail lights

As my busy family comes and goes, I find myself praying for them…

He inches down our icy driveway while it’s still dark, heading off to work. It’s an hour drive, back roads and highways. Will other drivers be distracted? Has someone been drinking? Will they be careful of the precious (to me) cargo contained in that ancient car? As I see the tail lights pull away, I pray for God’s protection and comfort.

She’s off to her new job, dressed to impress, and eager to make a difference. This baby adult, I’m not sure she realizes just how many dangers are out there. Brimming with confidence, certain she can meet the challenges of the day, she drives off; I watch the tail lights disappear into the dark. Peace, I pray, safety and love travel with her.

I pray for headlights, as well. Waiting for the late-night arrival after a long restaurant shift, never knowing exactly when he will get home. I only half-sleep as I wait for the headlights to flash across the ceiling, announcing his arrival. Will he be tired after work? Will he stay awake as he drives? What about the deer that dart across the road? As I wait to see the headlights, I pray that he be filled with alertness and the reassurance that a warm, loving home is waiting.

headlights

I pray for the headlights that drive across the state as a long school semester ends. A long drive across crowded busy highways, filled with people intent on arriving first and fastest.  I consider all the activities that await his arrival – choosing the Christmas tree, baking cookies, making apple sauce. All of that is on “hold” until the headlights appear, making our family complete again. I look out the window – again – waiting. Send my love to him, I pray, and surround him with your guardian angels.

It’s all we can do, sometimes. Just pray. Wait and watch.

And pray some more.

While they are out of my sight, I entrust them to God’s loving care.