I used to hate it when people said they would pray for me. I didn’t grow up in church, so usually, when folks said, “I’ll pray for you,” what I heard was “You are completely wrong and I will use my divine wish-granter to make you agree with me.”
I call this combat prayer – praying to God for God to make happen what we want to happen – or, in other words, making our agenda God’s agenda.
Now, after following God’s call into pastoral ministry and serving alongside some very beautiful souls in various churches and organizations, I realize that some people mean something very different when they say, “I’ll pray for you.” And, more shocking still, I’ve become a person who says “I’ll pray for you” with every intent of offering hope, comfort, and peace.
So, with election day just eight weeks away, when things seem more polarized and downright disrespectful than I can remember, how do we pray with and for one another without just praying our own will be done?
1) Recognize your own agenda.
One of my favorite football movies is Rudy. In one scene, Father Cavanaugh finds the title underdog in a pew in a big, empty church:
Father Cavanaugh: Taking your appeal to a higher authority?
Rudy: I'm desperate. If I don't get in next semester, it's over. Notre Dame doesn't accept senior transfers.
Father Cavanaugh: Well, you've done a hell of a job, kid, chasing down your dream.
Rudy: Who cares what kind of job I did if it doesn't produce results? It doesn't mean anything.
Father Cavanaugh: I think you'll find that it will.
Rudy: Maybe I haven't prayed enough.
Father Cavanaugh: I don't think that's the problem. Praying is something we do in our time, the answers come in God's time.
Rudy: If I've done everything I possibly can, can you help me?
Father Cavanaugh: Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I've come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: there is a God and I'm not Him.
Rudy has an agenda. We all have agendas. We have ideas of the way life is supposed to go, what we want, and how it should all work out. And sometimes we feel like if we just share our perfect plans with “a higher authority,” we’ll get it. We just need to pray harder or more often or use the right words.
But here’s the things, folks, prayer is not a magic incantation. There’s not a formula to how we should pray that guarantees we get exactly what we think we need or want.
Recognizing our agenda as we come before God is a big first step. It’s a moment to practice a self-awareness that sees virtues and faults, triumphs and mistakes. It’s a time to recognize that, in Father Cavanaugh’s words, “There is a God and I’m not him.”
2) Pray for the other.
Being human and being American, I’ll tell you that I do have an opinion in this upcoming presidential election. I paid close attention to the primaries, I watch the news, I talk about the platforms and policies with my family and friends. And, after lots of thoughtful consideration and maybe just a bit of gut feeling, I’ve selected the candidate I will vote for in November.
And, being human and being American and being fully honest, I’ll tell you that a lot of times, when I see a bumper sticker or a yard sign for the other candidate, the first thought that comes to mind is something like, “How could they vote for ______? I mean, come on!”
The next step in praying in this presidential election year is this – pray for the people on the other side. Not a combat prayer – do not pray that those blankety-blank Trump/Clinton supporters will suddenly see the light and change their vote.
No. That’s not the point of this step. The point of this part of the prayer is to practice compassion. Try to imagine yourself in the place of the other. Try to understand their experiences, their struggles and hopes, and why the things they are hearing from one camp or the other are resonating with them.
Pray for the other as you would pray for yourself.
3) Pray for the whole.
Now, after all this focus on the other, remember that there’s really no such things as the “other side.” Divisions and competition are often human inventions that create “us” and “them.” God sees creation and loves it all, from the best of us to the worst. Human beings, created in the image of God, have been given free will to make choices and exercise power, for better or worse. I’m sure God would like it to be for the better, but there’s nothing we can do that puts us beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.
After we’ve felt compassion for people on the “other side,” hopefully we recognize our common humanity and the core values that so many of us share – the longing for safety and security, the hope of providing a better future for our children, etc.
We have much more in common than the things that we allow to drive us apart. We are one common humanity, not just in the United States, but around the world. As you move through this practice, recognize your brothers and sisters and pray for the whole.
Much of what comes to mind when we think about prayer revolves around us. We’re terribly self-centered that way sometimes – what should I say, what do I want, where do I begin?
Remember that you have a conversation partner when you pray – that God really is listening to you and may have something to say to you in response. It may not be an audible message that you could repeat verbatim. It may be a feeling or a sense. It may be a stirring or a new insight.
Whatever the case, when you show up to pray, know that God shows up, too.
I know I’m terrible about having a case of monkey mind when I enter into prayer. My thoughts tumble over one another – one part of my mind going over my to-do list, another thinking about what time it is or what I might make for dinner, another apologizing to God that I can’t seem to stay focused.
Instead of mentally castigating myself and giving up on the whole prayer thing, I try to follow the advice of a meditation leader I knew – I recognize the thoughts jockeying for position. I acknowledge the anxiety in myself that struggles to find peace. And I let those thoughts go, gently returning myself to the conversation with my friend, my Creator, my God.
However it works best for you, make room in your prayer for listening. You may be surprised by what you hear.
Finally, friends, remember this – God works through and in spite of us. None of us are perfect and no matter who is in the White House next year, there is a lot of good we can do for one another and the world. Be the redeemed, beloved people God calls you to be and love one another, as God loves us. I’ll be praying for you.