“But remember: if prayer be anything at all, it is a thing to be done.” George MacDonald
Sooner or later even the most reluctant among us finds a use for prayer. Scrooge found his knees at the end of a fitful “night of the soul.”
Spirit! hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope? …Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life?”
Most of us are not quite so reluctant as Scrooge when it comes to prayer. If you’re like me, you can’t imagine a day or remember a time when you didn’t pray. It’s become a habit, a reflex, a genuine source of strength, discernment, a vital connection to a loving Father. I’ve never heard audible words but I have come to recognize the voice of my Father as clearly as I could recognize the sound of my child’s cry in a nursery full of crying babies. It’s like that.
I suspect most people have a similar relationship to prayer. Whether or not it is a daily habit or a well-developed discipline it is part of how we connect with God, how we look for guidance and how we make our longings and wants known. I don’t know how it all works, I just know it matters.
So it feels a little awkward when I read and hear the current backlash toward the often used phrase, “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” as a condolence in the aftermath of disasters of all kinds. Nevertheless, I get it. While I realize there are some who object to the phrase on the basis that they don’t believe in God at all, I don’t think that’s the case for most. I, for one, am sympathetic to the backlash not because I don’t believe in prayer but because I do.
Prayer is like so many good things in life; it’s a great place to start but a horrible place to end. I think that, more than anything, is at the heart of the objection. We live in a world of problems crying out for solutions and our “thoughts and prayers”, either as platitude or practice, are not enough! Pope Francis speaking to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square said it this way, “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer.” He added, “prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”
All of this is good news for any church willing to make prayer, “a thing to be done.” But the idea that doing something…anything…is better than doing nothing has also run its course. It’s not enough to simply combine prayer and action and pat ourselves on the back for being compassionate and caring churches. The unintended consequences of a lot of our concrete action has also come under fire as “helping that hurts.” So here we are, somewhere between the backlash of “thoughts and prayers” (do something) and “helping that hurts” (stop doing something)! Seems like the church finds itself in a lot of these dilemmas.
I was encouraged thinking about these kinds of things as I read the book, “Church, Faith, Future, What We Can Do” by Louis J Cameli recently. In writing about the future of the church in our culture he wrote, “The future is not assured in any particular form. We must leave room for the unexpected. As people of faith, we believe that we can be by God’s grace and, indeed are protagonists of our own history.”
I share his optimism and his conviction that we are indeed “protagonists of our own history.” We get to write the next chapter of what the church will look like and how it will engage our world. At Significant Matters, our particular interest is in how the church can engage the world specifically through missions, especially to the poor and marginalized in ways that lead to sustainable solutions.
Almost on a daily basis I meet with or talk with another person from a church or a faith-based ministry who is actively writing the next chapter in church missions. I hope you will take a few minutes and look at the videos on our website www.SATtalks.org. There’s over 50 stories of churches and ministries that are championing models that make prayer a thing to be done and are doing it in ways that move beyond simple charity and short-term fixes.
There are no easy answers or sure solutions but, to quote Louis J Cameli again, “If we cannot be confident about the results of our efforts, we can be confident in God who has entrusted his word, his Son, and his life to us. The point—to echo the thoughts of Saint Teresa of Calcutta—is not to develop a formula for our success but rather to find a path that keeps us faithful to what God wants. In our complicated and challenging secular age, we can begin to take steps in that direction.”
We believe a big part of what God wants in this world has to do with human flourishing and that it is His intention for the church to be an integral part of that ongoing work. The purpose behind SATtalks, our Mission 3.0 Workshops and Peer Learning Communities is to help the church find and develop those paths for missions in the 21st century.