The message came in a flurry of emails on a day that was no busier than usual. It was bad news. An old friend was letting me know that her long-time babysitter had just been diagnosed with colon cancer and was going into the hospital soon for surgery.
"Prayers!" I typed. "I'll keep her in our prayers." What else do you say? How else do you respond to really bad new? The thing is: do you really mean it, and are you really going to do it?
In this case, of course, I meant it and I was indeed going to do it. I'd pray for the babysitter that night or the next morning for sure when I had my usual quiet time on the subway. (Hey, this shouldn't surprise you -- lots of people can be found praying on their way to work.) But you know what? Good intentions, that usual slippery slope, got delayed. There were lots of pressing matters and other people who needed to be prayed for: my sister-in-law's cancer treatments, my kids at loose in the world, my dad's shaky health, the ballooning home equity loan, the mess in the Middle East...
A day or two later I did remember my promise and scribbled her name on a Post-It note and put it as a marker in my tattered pocket Bible so that I'd remember in the morning when I turned to a Psalm.
I don't believe for a minute that God didn't get the message when I typed my email "Prayers!" and anyway, if God cared about this lovely faith-filled woman, he would be on top of it. (Leave alone for a minute the whys of her illness.) But I needed to say that prayer for me as much as for her. Praying for others is at the heart of prayer. As has been often pointed out, the Lord's Prayer is in the first-person plural, not singular. Praying -- and I don't think I'm any better at it than anybody else -- is a joint effort. Faith is about compassion, and how compassionate can you be if you don't pray for others?
Prayer is also where you go when you have nowhere else to turn. I don't care if someone accuses me of being a fox-hole believer; that place of desperation can be a spiritual sweet spot.
Do I know how it works? Haven't a clue. Do I believe it works? Of course I do or I wouldn't prevail. There have been times when I've depended on it. Scared out of my wits in a hospital room before open-heart surgery, I took comfort in a print-out of emails from friends and family promising their prayers. And when I couldn't pray at all, I was grateful to a pair of old friends who called and prayed some sense into me on the other end of the line. What I couldn't do, they could do for me.
There's a lot of goodness in this broken world, and prayer feels like a way of shaking it loose. I have no problems praying for dear friends who think it's a bunch of malarkey. They love me and have to accept that this is some endearing idiosyncrasy of mine like making dopey toasts or breaking into song. When you pray for someone, you learn to love them, and you think of them all day long.
To remember people on my list, sometimes I go through letters of the alphabet. Or at night, when I can't sleep, I'll mentally wander through the office and recall plenty I need to pray for (a colleague's ailing parent, an email in my inbox). And once a week I go through a pile of prayer requests from perfect strangers who've posted on our website at http://www.guideposts.org/prayer.
That babysitter is getting out of the hospital soon and going into rehabilitation. I've been checking in and am attuned because she's on my badly maintained list. "You're so nice to ask," my friend says. But I'm not being nice. I'm doing what I think is essential and will keep trying. "You're in my prayers" is a powerful thing to say and even more powerful when you show how you mean it.