I’d like to share two stories.
The first is this: years ago, my father had a heart attack. The doctors soon told him that he needed quintuple bypass surgery. I, living five hours away from my parents and from home, threw things into a bag and hustled out a quick e-mail to a group of Christian friends at the church I’d been a member of for almost a year: “My dad is having quintuple bypass surgery at x date, at x time. We’re all very worried and scared. Please pray he comes through it safely and that God helps the procedure to go well.”
I received a slew of brief replies to the email five or ten minutes later: “Praying!” or “Keeping you in prayers” or “praying for your Dad.” Comforted, I took off to the hospital with my husband, where God blessed and the surgery went off without a hitch. After he was on his feet and recovering, I returned home to find that those early “praying!” emails were the only ones I had received. Despite me being away and everyone knowing where I was, despite no one knowing how my father’s surgery had turned out or if he was alive or what the results had been, despite me confessing my fear and worry, nothing. It was another week of silence before I encountered any of my friends; when I informed them that my father’s surgery had, indeed gone well and that he was, indeed, alive, they smiled. “Great,” one remarked.
And that was that. There are few times, in the company of other believers, I’ve felt so small or sad.
The second story is this: The morning of my father’s surgery, I and my husband and my mother stood crammed wall-to-wall in my father’s tiny room. Dad pretended not to be nervous, and my mom pretended not to see all the tubes, and I joked with Dad and pretended everything was fine. Nurses and doctors came in. And eventually a broad-shouldered intern came to roll my dad into surgery. He let us walk with the bed while he rolled it through the corridor, and then he stopped in the middle of the hall. “Hey,” he said, “if you don’t want to, that’s fine, but I’d love to pray with you all here for a minute.” I noticed for the first time he had a Bible tucked into the back pocket of his scrubs. We all held hands and prayed. I don’t even remember the prayer now, but I remember that at the time it was exactly what all of us needed to hear. He smiled at us. And then we said goodbye to Dad before he was rolled away into the OR.
I still don’t know that man’s name. But his prayer was an act of care that left us all feeling warm, that reassured us that we were cared for, that God was present with us. It carried us through a dark time.
It’s good to pray. It’s good to pray for others. And there are times when there is literally nothing to do but pray. Yet as believers, I think it’s imperative that we remember prayer is not solely an act of language transmission. Prayer is not God’s great dropbox in the sky where we leave slips with requests and suggestions for improvement and then wander off, freed from our burden of concern, never to return to them again. Prayer is a ministry; prayer is an act. The intern at the hospital understood this. As Philip Yancey points out in Where is God When It Hurts?, one of God’s answers to suffering is His church on earth; we’re the ones who are meant to remedy the broken places and soothe the pain.
In Luke 6:27-28, the command for believers to “pray for those who mistreat you” comes with a slew of other requirements attached: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. The prayer has feet – it’s not enough to say, “God, I hope you take care of those people I don’t much like.” God requires us to do that and then also to be the vessel of that exact grace. How much more so when we pray for other believers! Can we honestly pray about a friend “God, supply their need” and walk away when we have the resources to do just that? Can we tilt our face shamelessly to heaven and say, “God, give this person comfort” without making a call to do the same?
Prayer can’t become a believer’s band-aid. It can’t become that thing we do so that we don’t have to do anything else. In the times that it’s possible to do more than shoot a wish skyward, we are obligated to do so – for those to whom much is given, much is required. Follow up. Give. Care. Our role in grace-giving does not end the moment the words leave our lips.
Love does not stop at the foot of the throne.