Recently I had the pleasure of worshipping in two small churches whose members took seriously the matter of praying for/about each other. These congregations were comprised mostly of older adults, good folks who genuinely loved each other in word and in deed.
What I observed in both cases, though, gave me some pause. At the invitation of the pastor congregants offered prayer requests that included only problems, difficulties or misfortunes. Granted, the prayer requests also functioned as a way of announcing the current situation of members, friends, community leaders—a good thing. And the prayers sometimes also served as implicit motivation for further care to be extended. But what was missing were prayers that could also have brought to the throne of grace the joys, excitements, opportunities, privileges and blessings that must also have been part of the lives of the congregants.
Something was missing here. If prayer is only about problems, it doesn’t take too long for worshippers to limit their personal and shared prayer lives to cover only overwhelming circumstances—the negative parts of life that can draw God’s people towards despair or defeat.
What occurred to me is that these faithful folks may have also fallen into a mindset about their older adult lives—to think of public petitions as only a catalog of problem-solving requests to God. This way of thinking about prayer may put God in a difficult position: “Did these folks not notice all the blessings I sent their way?” This characterization of prayer subtly suggests that faithful elders are primarily victims of circumstance and bearers of bad/sad news. Neither of these identities seems like a complete description of older adulthood, fullness of years or gratitude for life itself.
Again, let me be clear: These elderly folks love each other, and there certainly are many difficulties in their individual and shared lives. This kind of praying together may serve as a way of sharing each other’s burdens, and a bonding of wills for the good of all. All good things that characterize “community in Christ.”
What might change? Expanding prayer to its full power and promise. Gentle prompts or reminders could call forth other possibilities for prayer. (For example, Asking for “joys and sorrows that we can pray about”.) Before offering prayer requests, worshippers can be given a few quiet moments to reflect on their past and coming days, remembering or anticipating moments when the prayers of fellow worshippers would be helpful. The prayer leader can ask worshippers to let their eyes and minds wander out into the rest of the worlds around them, finding current situations that invite prayers. Another time-honored practice: the ancient form of a “bidding prayer”—short, focused prompts are followed by silence, during which time worshippers offer the quiet or spoken prayers that are suggested by the invitations (or “bids”).
Prayer is too valuable and profound to be confined inside the boundaries of problems-to-be-solved-by-God. So it makes good sense to enrich prayer time during worship to include all the directions from which prayers can be gathered, and all the directions in which prayers can fly to God’s holy and loving ears!