Despite feelings, words can fail us; Spirit will stand in for you
Christian people pray. They love to pray, or at least they work toward feeling that love. Most of us find our spiritual lives gaining their best traction when we think about a world larger than the one we create through dallying over our reputation, latest wardrobe or hefty to-do list. We pray for the needs and circumstances that ripple through other peoples' lives.
In Christian lingo, we refer to this petitionary practice as intercessory prayer. We intercede for people - that is, we carry their sadness, distress or fear down the next immediate stretch of road. The apostle Paul speaks of "bear[ing] one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2). In my mind, it's like wearing the heaviest clothes of someone whose journey is weighed down and void of real life.
Your bulletin or worship folder may read "Prayers of the People" or simply "Prayers." But no matter who wrote these prayers, or who has the courage to speak them on behalf of the community, they reveal the abundance of your congregational heart. They tell anyone who happens to be eavesdropping on the moment exactly what counts for faith in your church.
I don't know if you consider the public prayers in your congregation to be rich or anemic. Only you can know if those prayers are talking to the center of God, or if they are busier talking to and at yourselves.
Ideally, prayers of the people in your house of worship amount to more than a heavenly supermarket list. God seems to have a pretty good grasp of our needs. Spelling out request lists can't compare with words that express human hearts longing to love God. Good intercessory prayer has this yearning quality.
The late South African pastor Gonville ffrench-Beytagh used to think of intercessory-minded people as taps or spigots. They can't wait to release the reservoir of God's love, peace and power dammed up behind a dike. Although ffrench-Beytagh considered every human being a tap, most of these taps, he reasoned, are usually turned off. They're not bad; they're simply turned off or indifferent to care. Not so with a church where there is an eagerness for the love of God to flow through often-constricted lives.
If you find yourself distracted during the prayers of the people, it may be that they sometimes get mumbled. You can't make them out. More often than not, though, what's missing is a particularity - a concrete quality. For example, instead of praying for "the poor," as if poverty were a category instead of a human condition, imagine a better way. We would write or hear prayers that were all about people who are not in anyone's email contact list or address book. Those whose lives are invisible, whose work is drudgery, and whose joy is fragile would start showing up in our prayers. Wouldn't that be beautiful?
I once heard someone refer to intercessory prayer as "loving your neighbor on your knees." That's good. Never mind if your knees don't bend well, or if your church lacks those fancy fold-down kneelers. You get the idea.
Incidentally, "neighbor" in the Christian tradition has never meant only those people we like or whom we can stand. Intercessory prayer deserves to include all people. It's relatively easy to pray for others. It's far tougher to pray for all others. This demand is the calling of those who believe in the power of intercessory prayer.
One other prayer feature that is part mystery to me and part bother: Our congregation can't be the only one where obsession over physical health sometimes seems the fundamental premise for prayer. If you listen closely to the prayers some weeks, it's as if sickness is the most interesting thing that happens to us. It's almost as if we see illness as an injustice and mortality as an offense. Our "fix-it" mentality wants the No. 1 priority of God to be leading our health-care management team.
Intercessory prayer is not easy. Even when the feelings for other people come naturally, the words don't always follow. When you don't have the words, or the courage, or the sturdiness to pray as you wish, just remember Romans 8:26. The Spirit will stand in for you, if not with speech, then with a good sigh.