This is the second post of seven in Faith Bites’ 2017 Lenten blog series. If you need to catch up check out Repent.

We’ve all said it. I’ll pray for you.

It comes out quickly. The only words we can think of when someone shares something big that should spark our compassion. But the words are failing and so all we can do is shout out this well-rehearsed cliché.  And for a moment the world is all right. We’ve acted on our compassion. We’ve, to some extent, made the other person feel a bit better.

And then slowly, another feeling creeps up. That small twinge of regret because we realize that what we’ve just said is oh so not true. We offer up a quick prayer before the empathy dissipates and gets lost in the tumult of our own daily lives. Because we want to, at least on the surface, honor the promise we’ve made. And we do know that God takes even half-hearted efforts.

But the twinge of guilt is still there because ultimately we know that offering half-hearted efforts on the things that really matter to someone else is significantly less than what God has called us to be in this world.

It’s not that we have bad intentions. We really are sorry for what the other person is going through. But deep in our hearts we know that life is just so busy and intentionality takes so much work. So there is absolutely no way we’re going to pray for this person beyond today…except maybe when some random thing reminds us of it. And isn’t it sad that only random things could help us remember the deep pain of another human being? We start to beat ourselves up over our unfaithfulness in prayer. And this is where we take the turn down the road of no return—the road of pity-partying guilt. Then all of a sudden what was a compassionate attempt to empathize with someone else’s pain becomes ALL ABOUT US.

Ya ever been there? I have.

So what went wrong?

To put it simply, we’ve put the wrong punctuation on a very good intention.

What we’re trying to do when we say “I’ll pray for you” is to empathize, offer comfort. And in some ways we really, really do. But at the same time, we’re cutting the conversation short. We’re stopping the conversation before it even gets started—so that we’re the ones who have the final word. And when we’re the ones who have the final word, we shut out the possibility that either our neighbor or God might have something more to say… to them… to us.

Yeah, that feels pretty icky when you put it that way.

But I think we need to let ourselves off the hook a bit. Part of this problem is caused by incomplete training in prayer.

We’ve been trained to think about our prayer time as “me and God.” And that makes sense because, for real, we are drawing closer to God during times of prayer. What is incomplete is that we often forget that when God is trying to draw us in, God is also trying to draw us into closer relationship with others. That’s why the whole “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself” are said without missing a beat. This is the ultimate goal of humanity. And this is what God is trying to do every time we offer ourselves over to God in love, service, and prayer.

Ain’t that intense!?!

Now let me just say I’ve said “I’ll pray for you” so many times. I’m almost ashamed it took me this long to realize that I was not only trying to comfort them, but I was also trying to make myself feel way less awkward. I was trying to put the kibosh on all the uncomfortable feelings that get stirred up when someone has opened themselves up and shared their vulnerability in ways I just wasn’t ready to handle. I’ve even said the more flippant version that judgingly throws their concern back in their face by saying, “Well…you should pray about that.”

On the flip side, I have been comforted by people who have said “I’ll pray for you” and have truly meant it—whether that was praying once in the moment, or praying for me long term. God does real things with small acts of faith even when done half-heartedly (eesh…think where we’d be otherwise).

But the fact remains that when you say “I’ll pray for you [PERIOD]” you’ve often limited what conversation might happen next.

(Side note: prayer is not just for the sad stuff in life, but the joyful as well. The equivalent response to joy is “Oh that’s wonderful [PERIOD]” without joining in the joy and praising it up to God.)

The reason I’m reflecting on this now is because we’ve recently been using a training method for our newly developed Greensboro/Guilford Chapter of A Movable Feast called a “Mission Retreat.” If you’re in the Greensboro area, you may have had the good fortune of participating in these with The Rev. Audra Abt. The Rev. Chantal McKinney is using a similar concept out in Winston-Salem. I’m looking at how these will be used for new chapters and young adult ministry church partnerships. (In A Movable Feast, we avoid the solo-church model unless it makes good geographical sense…like you’re the only church in town with a compatible ethos. It’s just too much work for too few people…unless of course, God says/does otherwise).

An integral part of these mission retreats are going out and asking people (strangers!) “How can I pray for you?” (eep!)

Now we’re Episcopalians. So we do this sensitively by saying who we are, what we’re doing in the neighborhood, and explaining that to properly take the prayers of the people back to our Sunday worship we want to know the needs and celebrations of our community…ie you. We’ve got a prayer formula in our back pocket in case, dear God(!), they actually ask us to pray WITH them.

I have to tell you, even with prayer in the back pocket, it’s one of the most gut-wrenchingly difficult things I’ve ever done. Because you never know how folks will react. You never know what you’re opening yourself up to when you walk out in faith with God. But as with most gut-wrenchingly difficult things, it leads to some absolutely amazing results.

What do I mean by amazing?

Well…people are actually opening up to us about some of their deepest life concerns and greatest life moments. They’re sharing with us some of their joys and pains. They’re sharing with us some of their deepest passions and most intimate life stories. And in these extremely brief encounters, we’re getting a glimpse of how they view the world and who they are and how wonderful God has made them. We have the blessing of seeing a glimpse of how God is working in their lives before we’ve personally had the chance to screw up what God is doing. And we’re learning so much about ourselves and our missteps as a community of faith. Each person we meet is truly a blessing to us, and we hope that we might also somehow bless them.

But that’s not the only amazing thing. We open ourselves up to them, as well. (An Episcopalian! Naw!) At the right moment in the conversation, we heartily thank them for sharing what was on their mind. Then we share our deepest concerns and joys, and we ask them, “Will you pray for me too?”

And that’s the key right there. We are sharing the good news without trying to control the outcome—actually sharing.

Instead of being the heavy handed “bringers of God” with our pamphlets and memorized scriptures that we’re ready to rapid fire, we’ve laid the foundation for the evangelism of reciprocity. The good news that God has created us as equals and that the way towards our salvation is necessarily through mutual respect and loving-kindness. What other evangelism could really be “good news” after Jesus has laid down such a high path?

What other evangelism could really be “good news” after Jesus has laid down such a high path?

Now you might be thinking…well that’s great and all…but is it actually getting them into church? And if not, how do you plan to maintain a relationship with these folks?

These are all very good questions. And for right now the answer is twofold: 1) Maybe they’ll attend an Episcopal Church. Maybe we’ll see them again and maintain a relationship. I don’t know. 2) But that’s not the point. Not yet.

The point of asking “How can I pray for you?” and “Will you pray for me?” is to NOT put a period on the conversation.

It’s to open us up to the question.

+++ Brittany Love is the Young Adult Missioner for the Diocese of North Carolina and the Director of A Movable Feast. She is also a web designer, printer, and somewhat-unintentional world traveller. All of this makes her very, very tired and sometimes scattered. But occasionally it helps her to put things together in unexpected and good ways. As you may have guessed, her favorite poet is e. e. cummings +++