On my way home one day this past winter, I saw a woman standing at an intersection, holding a cardboard sign saying she had nothing to eat. Her face was red from the chilling wind. She looked forlorn.
I stopped for the red light and grabbed my wallet to get a few dollars for her. Oops, all I had was a $20 bill. That’s more than I’d intended to give her.
She looked forlorn. I couldn’t just drive past.
I lowered my window and handed her the bill. Her eyes brightened. She grabbed my hand tightly with both of hers — she wore knit gloves that left her cold fingers unprotected. She squeezed hard.
“Thank you,” she said, pumping my hand. “God bless you! Thank you! Thank you!”
As I raised the window, I watched her step back, go to one knee, clasp her hands, look up to the sky and mouth the words, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Then she made the sign of the cross.
At that moment, it struck me: I’d become the answer to her prayer.
I’m not telling this story to pat myself on the back. Truth is, I’ve passed by someone in need far more times than I’ve stopped to help. Instead, I’m sharing what was an illuminating moment about how prayer works.
It reminded me that we have to be willing to be the answer to someone else’s prayers, and to our own prayers, too.
Many of us were raised to think of prayer differently. Say some nice words, ask for something to happen, wait for God to respond by waving a divine magic wand and making everything better without any real work on our part.
Leave it all up to God. Put everything in God’s hands.
But that’s not prayer.
Prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s participatory. If we don’t listen for an answer, then we’re not really praying. Often, we hear an answer that requires some action on our part.
Things are in our hands, too.
As author Keri Wyatt Kent puts it, “We sometimes avoid listening to God because we know that if, for example, we pray a prayer of intercession for someone, God may prompt us to actually do something for that person, and it may cost us time, effort, money, or convenience.”
Prayer often brings us inconvenient answers.
To pray is to commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to help fix a certain problem. Praying for someone means asking God to show us what we can do to help them, and then trying to do it.
Anything less isn’t really praying. It’s passing the buck.
The prayer that changes — changes us, changes our world — is the one that accepts a role in the answer. Here’s my concern; show me what I can do to help. Here’s someone I love; show me how I can love them. Provide a little guidance and inspiration, please.
And it will come. We just have to listen.
Prayer is dangerous stuff. And amazing stuff. It gets us deeply involved. It makes us co-creators. It transforms us and our world in some significant ways. It shakes things up and takes us to uncharted places. It leaves us unsettled in many good ways.
But only so long as we’re willing to be an answer. Maybe only a partial answer or an incomplete answer or a confused answer, but an answer nonetheless.
An answer to some prayer.
Joe Kay is a professional writer living in the Midwest.
Image: Close-up of woman, Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com