The Jesuit Priest Anthony de Mello tells a great story about a very pious old man who prayed to God five times a day while his business associate never set foot in a church.
And yet while the pious man lived a meager and poor existence, his business partner was prosperous and wealthy beyond imagination. And so on his 80th birthday the pious old man finally prayed this way to God:
“Oh Lord our God! Since I was a youth, not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church to say my prayers at the five specified times. Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling, did I make without first invoking your Name.
And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner. He drinks and gambles and, even at his advanced age, consorts with woman of questionable character, yet he’s rolling in wealth.
I wonder if a single prayer has ever crossed his lips. Now, Lord, I do not ask that he be punished, for that would be unchristian. But please tell me: Why, why, why have you let him prosper and why do you treat me thus?”
“Because” said God in reply after a long moment, “you are such a monumental bore!”
And while the story is certainly a warning about being overly pious (something many Christians these days could benefit from remembering), it’s also a cautionary tale of sorts about how to pray, isn’t it? After all, it can be easy and even natural for our prayers to be, well, a tad self-interested. And while we’re certainly right to pray for ourselves, such inward, heartfelt whisperings should hardly be the extent of our prayers.
“Let’s be honest,” writes one man, “most of our prayers on Sunday morning and at other times are mostly for ourselves. We pray for healing or for a sense of peace and assurance or for help with our children or for some decision we face.”
Jesus, however, clearly spent a good deal of his time praying not only for himself, but for others as well. So presumably, then, so should we.
One huge benefit in praying for others, of course, is that we’re reminded of our shared existence. Yep, start praying for others, start turning our eyes to the world around us so we can lift up the concerns and problems that plague it, and it’s darn near impossible to ignore the common threads of experience that bind us together. Start praying for others and the interconnectedness of our lives just sort of organically bubbles to the surface, doesn’t it?
For all around us are people in need of the exact same prayers we are. Begin mumbling prayers for the needs of others and you quickly realize there are people in this world who are sick and ill, just like us; you realize that there are people in this world who are lonely, just like us; that there are people who are strapped for cash, just like us; and that there are people who are depressed, grieving, and just like us, bone tired.
And while such an insight might seem a tad mundane and even trite, in an era when the concepts of individuality and individual liberties have become unduly sacrosanct, well, it’s good to be reminded that there is also a communal quality to our lives as well.
Not too long ago a distinguished biblical scholar was giving a lecture to a group of preachers. During the question and answer time after his lecture, a preacher asked the scholar what he considered to be the major source of biblical misinterpretation today.
The scholar replied, “We read the Bible individualistically these days whereas through most of its history, scripture was read communally, collectively.”
Well the man has point, doesn’t he? For our tendency to read the Bible individualistically just seems to be an expression of our larger habit these days of living that way.
So pray, brothers and sisters. In faith and devotion, lift your prayers up to the Lord our God. Pray for the needs and hurts of your life and for the strength and endurance to withstand whatever might be ailing you.
But just like Jesus, don’t forget to also pray for others. For the earth is full of people who are also sick, dying, hurting, grieving, and just like us, desperate for a better world.
The Rev. Stephen Yates is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Destin.