all of the selves we Have ever been
It is the 2022 National Day of Prayer. The President has offered this proclamation:
Throughout our history, prayer has been an anchor for countless Americans searching for strength and wisdom in times of struggle and sharing hope and gratitude in seasons of joy. In public reflections on life’s many blessings and in quiet moments during life’s most difficult trials, Americans of nearly every background and faith have turned to prayer for comfort and inspiration. Prayer is a sacred right protected by free speech and religious liberty enshrined in our Constitution, and it continues to lift our spirits as we navigate the challenges of our time.
On this day, we recognize the healing power of prayer, especially as we recover from the trauma and loss of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Today we find ourselves in a moment of renewal — of lives saved, of new jobs created, and of new hope for rebuilding America. Today is also a moment of reflection when we are called to address some of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced — saving our planet from the existential threat of climate change; responding to attacks on democracy at home and abroad; and living up to our Nation’s promise of liberty, justice, and equality for all.
As the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “There is a need we all have in these days and times for some help which comes from outside ourselves.” Across our diverse and cherished beliefs, on this National Day of Prayer, no matter how or whether we pray, we are all called to look outside ourselves. Let us find in our hearts and prayers the determination to put aside our differences, come together, and truly see one another as fellow Americans.
For me, prayer is more than just my daily bread; it is my glue, a time for mending and strengthening. And in this frightening time of disease, war, political unrest, and incivility, I find myself praying continuously.
Most days, it is all I can do to face the problems in the world, but I ask myself: What is it that is my responsibility to do? I feel too small for the size of the task, but too fearful to do nothing. I reflect on the words of Jon Acuff:
“God found Gideon in a hole, Joseph in a prison, Daniel in a lion’s den. Next time you feel unqualified to be used by God, remember: He tends to recruit from the pit, not the pedestal.”
I await my orders.
And as I do, I further reflect on the wisdom of the poet, Kahlil Gibran:
And if you cannot but weep when your soul summons you to prayers, she should spur you again and yet again, though weeping, until you shall come laughing.
When you pray you rise to meet in the air those who are praying at that very hour, and whom save in prayer you may not meet.
I know that I have met you there in that invisible temple. We will find our way. Together.
I awaken to brilliant sunshine in a clear blue sky. Arriving a day early, a cool March wind blows through my open window causing the blinds to sway. Birds land on a nearby tree branch and sing of their return. I step outside where the air smells fresh. Bright green buds peek out from the wet black earth. Throughout the long COVID winter, I longed for these signs of spring, but this morning, I am not interested.
My heart is in Ukraine.
Restless, I run some errands. Open-toed shoes line up in a store window. They have their marching orders: scream, “summer!” I stop in a book store, my usual remedy for whatever ails me. Fresh new books with smooth pages fill the shelves. A table of intriguing titles is readied for spring break and sandy beaches.
I wander the aisles, only to find my mood worsening.
History, geography, biography...shouldn’t we know better by now?
I feel the need to keep moving, but I can’t stop praying, begging, really. Please God. Please! Protect the people of Ukraine. I think of Abraham Lincoln who said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
Insufficient? Yes, that is how I feel.
There is a breed of monster on the loose, and their numbers are growing. These beasts do not lurk in the dark. They prefer the limelight. You will recognize the fiends by their big heads, strong arms, and fragile egos. They thirst for power, feed on revenge, and vomit lies. They manufacture grievances and spread distrust through a gospel of hate. Adulation may calm them but only for a moment. Unable to be socialized, they frequently turn on the hands that feed them. They would rather burn the house down than learn to live within in it.
Will we all perish because of such a beast?
In 1624, the clergyman and poet, John Donne, wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
We hear the bell Ukraine, may God hear our prayers for you.
The first lacey snowflakes drift past my window. They are the delicate advance men for a fierce nor’easter on its way.
The anticipating world is already subdued.
A forecast of snow brings with it a universally shared sense of caution. Go slow. Take your time. Tardiness will be excused. Don’t go out if you don’t have to.
The snow provides a buffer against sound and activity. All is surreal. We watch the world, but are we in it? On such a day, the snow-covered earth is like an innocent bride in a gown of white while home is the church where children give thanks for snow-prayers answered.
Staring out my window this morning, I feel the way I once did as a child living in the hilly suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was a time when the world had no problem sheltering in place. It was the average lifestyle. During the day, neighborhoods were devoid of traffic. Dads had the only cars with them at work. At home, Moms were busy with all of the hard labor of keeping house and maintaining large families. Kids went only where their feet could take them. Most businesses were closed on Sundays and there were blue laws. For school-age children, the lights went out by 9:00 PM, and the three television networks stopped broadcasting after the nightly news. Depending on the location, a ten or eleven o’clock public service announcement adjourned the day by asking parents, “Do you know where your children are?”
We had a large bay window in our living room. On a snow day, that window was our weather channel. We were all budding Al Rokers, shouting weather updates from the sofa and providing special reports of kids sledding or cars skidding down our steep hill.
When the snow accumulation became deep enough, we bundled up and went outside to play in the yard, throw snowballs, sled, or build snowmen. We might also shovel the area around the mailbox to make way for the postman or sweep the walkway to the front door for the paperboy and the milkman.
My little brother, a budding entrepreneur by age 8, was quick to mow a lawn or shovel snow. He was born knowing how to make a buck. One winter, HB got his hands on a used snow blower. He made up little business cards offering services to the neighbors. He cranked out the cards on a small hand-held device that contained an ink-filled roller. In addition to my brother’s name and our home phone number, the cards listed his services including lawn mowing and blow jobs. We didn’t understand our father’s reaction to the cards, but they were confiscated and a new batch prepared with parental supervision.
After hours spent outdoors playing, shoveling, and giving blow jobs, we came back inside through the basement, stripping off our ice-crusted boots and top layer of clothing. Clothing was hung on a makeshift clothesline where it could drip dry into the floor drain instead of all over the hardwood floors upstairs. We made hot chocolate from Nestle’s Quick which we all agreed would have been much better if only we had marshmallows. We spent hours playing Monopoly, and when that got old, we sleuthed with Nancy Drew, or helped to fold laundry.
Snow days had the pace of a day one might expect in heaven. By nightfall, we were exhausted but happy. We paused in our home chapels to pray for more snow. Sometimes God heard us. More often, he took mercy on our mothers and gave priority to their prayers. He sent sunshine.
In search of some old, important documents,
I stand on a metal chair, and stretch on tip-toes to reach the boxes on the highest shelf of the cavernous storage closet. I struggle with boxes of many sizes and different weights. They are topped by old pieces of construction paper art work created by my children many years ago. I carefully slide the art work out of harm’s way. The box I need is here somewhere, squeezed between a library of old photo albums and a pile of small keepsakes that rest loosely on the shelf. I fear the entire contents of the shelf will come down on my head, but I have no taller ladder, and the documents must be found.
Pulling the larger boxes down, one at a time, I finally lift the corner of a lid and know for sure I have found the right carton. A small white prayer book peeks out at me. The binding is cracked and the picture of Jesus surrounded by children is faded, but it is still beautiful. Inside I recognize the wobbly cursive of the second grader that was me. I remember how proud I was the day I received this little book. Something momentous happened in the conveyance, and I became a member of the special forces.
I carefully turn the pages that contain a few short prayers and many beautiful illustrations. Young children can’t read a lot of big words, but the pictures tell the stories. They spoke to me then. They speak to me now.
When I think about other pray-ers, President Abraham Lincoln always comes to mind. I admire him for his conscience and his moral courage, for rising to the occasion whether in his struggles to maintain his mental health, coping with the death of a child, facing the issue of slavery, or commanding a country at war with itself. I recall that Lincoln said he was not so much worried about God being on his side, but whether he was on God’s side. Lincoln reported that he was often driven to his knees because he knew he had nowhere else to go.
In 1999 the talk show host, Larry King, wrote a book called Powerful Prayers. King used his interviewing skills to have deep conversations about faith, hope and prayer with the powerful and famous. It was interesting to see where thoughts turn in the lives of people who carry big responsibilities and much influence. In many ways, they were so much like me.
During my years as a hospice social worker, I listened to the prayers of the dying. Sometimes I was asked to pray with them. Occasionally, some who had reported being atheist or agnostic, found themselves urgently requesting a chaplain in their final days. There were times when I would arrive at a patient’s home and be moved by an invisible Presence, and I would think, “God is here.” Other times at a bedside, I would study the movements of devoted caregivers and realize their entire lives were action prayers.
I recently went to see the Mr. Rogers movie, a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In the film, Mrs. Rogers shares that her husband worked at becoming who he was. One of the things he did each day was pray for people by name. How lovely to think that someone whispers your name to God each day. It reminded me of research studies on intercessory prayer where the subjects being prayed for improved more than the control group. Hmm.
The Irish-born writer and atheist who later became a well-known theologian, C. S. Lewis, said of prayer, “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.”
When my son was little, he did not care much for going to church. He tried to shore up his argument in favor of not going to church by saying that he did not believe in God. At a later time when his mind was troubled, and working on a problem, he said, “Mom, maybe God…” Then he caught himself, and quite puzzled said, “Hmm. Maybe I do believe in God...” It was both a question and an answer.
Not everyone is a believer. Not all who believe share the same beliefs. But I’ve learned that most of us are talking—sometimes silently, sometimes out loud, sometimes it is quick words of thanks, other times, lengthy and desperate pleas, and often, we are engaged in rambling conversations. Some call it prayer. Some call it therapy. Some call it thinking. Call it what you may, but I have learned that it changes things, and it changes me.