We were at a staff meeting recently, praying (one associate of ours calls our staff the, “prayin’est bunch of people I’ve ever seen”) when someone asked, “What does it really mean to tell someone you will pray for them?” It’s a fair question. It can sound so glib (“do you actually pray for that person every time you say the phrase?” was the pertinent follow-up question). It can also be a substitute for actually doing something that might help the situation. The phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with you” have come under deserved skepticism in the wake of the latest mass shooting in the absence of public will to reduce this kind of violence. Prayer is not a substitute for action that can be taken as part of God’s answer to our prayers. James reminds, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘God in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” What good, indeed.
But there are times, and you and I both know this, when our prayers are the only and the most potent gift we have to offer. And I know this because people have prayed for me. One such person was Paul David Sholin, the founding pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian, in Tucson, Arizona where I served for nearly fourteen years. Dave was named Pastor Emeritus in the first few years of my time there and we became friends, spending many a late Friday afternoon in his home study, him smoking his pipe, contemplating faith, the church, God, the Universe, and everything. Dave kept a prayer list. So serious was he about praying for the people on his list that I had known him to turn down people’s requests for prayer because “my list is full at the moment.” I was on Dave’s prayer list. And I felt it. I drew palpable comfort and strength from prayers being offered, not by me, but for me. Occasionally, when I felt my spirits lagging, I would joke with him, “Did I fall off your prayer list, Dave?” To which he would typically reply, taking a long drag on his pipe and peering at me over the rim of his glasses, “I do the praying, Sue. You have to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Dave faithfully prayed for me for nearly 15 years until his death and I am sensing that he is still praying for me from the heavenly heights.
How to describe what this feels like? During one particularly difficult stretch in my life many people told me they were praying for me. I likened the experience to an air hockey game. And I was the puck. Yes, I was getting knocked around quite a bit by powerful forces beyond my control yet those prayers were like the cushion of air that kept me from scraping bottom. I felt literally borne up on the prayers of others.
I have heard this same sentiment from other people. I have followed a number of friends on Caring Bridge – that web product that allows a person who is going through illness to keep their family and friends updated. One woman, whose husband was facing what turned out to be a fatal illness wrote many times on her posts, “I thank God for you and for your prayers. We are being carried along by them.”
When someone tells me they are praying for me, I believe them and can feel the support of their loving concern. I trust that even their loving intention to pray sends good vibes to God which bends the fabric of the Universe. It is a contribution to the sacred web of our life together in God. So, thank you to all of you who have told me they are praying for me. I feel it and am grateful. And, friends, I am praying for you.