We always mention you in our prayers and thank God for you all, and constantly remember before God our Father how you have shown your faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ. We know, brothers and sisters, that God loves you and that you have been chosen.
So said S. Paul to his friends and converts at the Church of the Thessalonians. And so say all of us (or at least we should do)! In these days of Covid and semi-isolation, lockdown or at least reduced socialization and meeting, praying for each other is perhaps the most important ‘easy’ thing we can do.
How should we do it though? Some people are great with lists – the little black book or a variation thereon. This is the safest system if you happen to believe that God needs you to specify precisely who exactly it is that He should be looking out for (in the old days this could be with love or alternatively with thunderbolts but now we tend not to curse our neighbour —at least not in prayer). So we need to make sure God realises it is George, Mavis’ second husband we are praying for, and not George her son by her first husband (deceased). The black book might also divide people into days so that God can get the hang of our system and say to Himself, ‘Ah yes, it’s the tennis and Bridge club members on Thursdays and all the teachers and helpers at the local schools on Tuesdays, and the people he hates on Fridays’. Obviously this will help everything become more efficient all round and indeed God could even sort out one’s relations Himself (on a Sunday) in advance even of us reciting the list, if He wanted.
The trouble is not all of us are a) as efficient as this and b) as convinced that God needs us to be so specific. Ah, you say, but the list is not for God, it’s for us! We need to remember Aunt Hilda’s birthday and the date of her bunion operation so we call her to mind and remind ourselves that we care about her (even if —or rather especially if — we don’t care that much). This seems a good idea. Prayer is more about changing us than to remind God about something he knows already. And thus the detailed list can be helpful. On the other hand it can be faintly ridiculous and I am sure there are occasions where we have been somewhere and prayer seems to blur into either a news bulletin or a detailed instruction to God about what He should do — ‘and we do pray that Martin may be guided in his decision to move house at this very bad time, so crucial for the school’s future, and despite, it appears, the concerns of his family who are such a valued part of our local life and would be so much missed ….’ sort of prayer. As I have often said before, prayer is as much, and surely more, about listening than it is about speaking.
So can we just allow our mind to range over people and places in prayer without words or dates or specific ailments or issues? I don’t see why not. We can call things to mind in this way providing it is a prayerful call, in other words we have framed the reflection by putting ourselves and all our concerns in God’s hands to begin with — and as long as we discipline ourselves to keep to the prayerful point and not slip into ‘…and I must remember to send that book back to John too’ type of thought. Indeed sometimes looking at a map or even a newspaper in prayer is helpful. Gabriel Hebert who founded the Anglican community Society of the Sacred Mission said reading a newspaper prayerfully was a godly practice. You can see how holding an issue, or a cause, or even a group of people, none of whom we may know personally — maybe those in hospitals with Covid, or their over-stretched carers we are reading about at that moment — holding these groups up to God ‘in prayer’ is both a reminder to us to extend and expand our concerns for our neighbour and a way of concentrating the power of prayer for their, or its, good.
Nonetheless — and this is so to speak the bottom line: ultimately our prayerfulness and our perseverance in prayer will be related to how strongly we actually believe in its efficacy. Of course it is useful for us. Of course it calls people to mind and shows we care. But do we believe in the supernatural power of prayer? In God’s mercy and love and His power to change, transform and save? If not, all the black books in the world are not really facilitating anything divinely transformational. They are keeping the expectation of prayer’s power with us and not with God Himself. True prayer must have as its aim the absolute trust that everything is in God’s hands. We are simply offering up whatever it is, however we can, to Him and to His mercy. Ultimately it is in His hands and His will shall decide — whatever it is we are rightly or indeed wrongly concerned about. Mostly we will ever know if our prayer is, or indeed our prayers are, answered. (Unless we are asking silly things in a silly way when we may well notice we have not passed that exam, got that job, or recovered our fortune on the horses!) Thy Will be Done must surely be the ending to any and every prayer. Otherwise what is God — simply our desires and our demands writ large in the sky? Prayer is like being a teacher or a priest (well this is how I see it). Maybe if you are lucky in 40 year’s time you discover that something you said or did helped, inspired, changed, alerted or excited someone for, and to, good. You cannot even recall saying anything in all probability, but they do.
So with our prayers. Who knows what exactly it does or affects or changes or supports or helps. God knows of course. And maybe one day someone will say something which makes us feel we did indeed do some good. But that is not really why we should pray. It is not about us getting answers. We should pray first because Jesus taught us how and told us to. Secondly, because God wants our hearts and minds to be on Him and with Him and for others. It makes us part of Him and His will for the world. It is the way we are transformed and made new in Christ. OK, yes, thirdly, it helps make us more prayerful and God-centred and love-of-our neighbour focused.
I wish I had a little-black-book sort of mind and mentality but I don’t. And so I just have to make sure whether by kneeling down (knees permitting) before going to bed or when taking the cross in my hands (the lovely olive wood cross, soft as velvet, brought back from the Holy Land for me by a church warden) as I sit at my desk, that my mind turns to God and that I pray for the world, for my community of friends and acquaintances and for all those who have asked my prayers — or who may be in need of God’s mercy and blessing, which when you think of it, covers pretty well everyone!