Martha McMarthason (not her real name) was the queen of prayer in my small hometown. “I’ll pray for you,” was her answer for everything. I don’t know whether she did–although I always suspected she didn’t. Instead, she wielded these words like a weapon, shutting down everyone who said or did something she didn’t approve of.
“I haven’t seen you in church in a while. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw you eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw your child eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”
I tried it out myself for a while (mostly on my siblings) and am both exhilarated and ashamed to report that “I’ll pray for you” is the most effective way to end an argument.
“You borrowed my red sweater without asking!”
“You should learn to be more generous. I’ll pray for you.”
There is a tremendous amount of power that goes along with this phrase. However, even my adolescent self recognized that it was a low-down move, the ultimate in unfair fighting, a way of co-opting God to prove your holier-than-thou status.
Uneasy with this power–and the implied judgement–I stopped sharing my prayers with people. The phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” simply had too much baggage. Even as a chaplain and then in my first church, I choked over the words. “I’m thinking of you,” was so much easier to say.
I could, after all, pray for someone without necessarily telling them about it–thereby sparing myself and them the embarrassment of wrestling with this loaded phrase. Better still, I could quote the Bible while I did it.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, shut your door and pray to the Father who is unseen.
It was only later that I realized that boldly proclaiming our prayers can be an act of comfort and love, not just an act of superiority. Naturally, I learned this the same way I learned the first lesson–through personal experience.
If you’ve ever had someone pray for you–really, truly pray for you–you know what I mean. There are some people who say “I’ll pray for you” and this simple utterance feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket. The words themselves become a prayer, a promise that they value you enough to use precious time with God talking about you.
Rather than the sense of certainty that Martha McMarthason imposed with her judgemental prayers, real prayer is laden with risk. When I dare to say to someone now, “I’ll pray for you,” the power comes not from my superiority as a praying person but from my vulnerability as a person of faith. Every time I dare to offer prayer, I am reminded that ultimately I don’t know if the prayers will be answered, if the person I’m speaking to will want my prayers or even if God exists. These are all questions that touch on the great mysteries of life and faith–which is why offering to pray for another is such a powerful act of love. When we do it sincerely, we put our whole selves on the line.
And when someone takes you seriously enough to risk an act of faith on your behalf, that’s great love indeed.
I spend a lot of time talking with folks who have been wounded by church and the topic of prayer is a hot one. It seems I’m not the only person who had a Martha McMarthason in their life–someone who wielded prayer like a sword instead of a balm. Those wounds cut deep. And often, it seems, our response is to distance ourselves from the entire act. We stop sharing our prayers with each other because we associate it with judgement, not love.
But I believe this is precisely why we need to reclaim all this prayer business. We need to reclaim it as an act of faith: risky, vulnerable and built on love. I know, the idea makes some of you shudder. Acts of faith are that way. And I don’t really have anything riding on whether you pray or not, I’m just offering this invitation: once I experienced real prayer, in real praying communities, I discovered a new depth of faith and relationship.
I still feel that old hesitancy every time I offer prayers for someone but now I take it as a good sign. After all, prayer shouldn’t be flippant, or easy or–least of all–judgmental. Those of us who know this may be the best people to take on the task after all.