I’m a Presbyterian so it pretty much goes without saying that I am not one to foist my religion on anyone else. Even so, about six years ago following a challenge by my friend Reggie McNeal, I started praying for people in public places. For instance, before his challenge my typical prayer in a restaurant was head up, eyes open, hands open and maybe slightly (ever so slightly) outstretched. Definitely discreet and unobtrusive. But after that challenge I tried something new. Once the waiter has brought the food I say, “My friends and I were just getting ready to pray, is there anything we can pray for you?”
Only one person has ever turned me down and she did it nicely. The first time I did this, the waitress – middle-aged, weary-looking – straightened for a moment and then sat down at the table! Her aunt who had raised her was in surgery at that very moment and the waitress was agonizing that she couldn’t be at the hospital because she’d had to work her shift to keep her job which provided for her and her two children. She asked if I would pray for her aunt right then while she was still at the table. We did. She wept. Then smiled. Then returned to work.
One brusque young man – tattoos, piercings – grew suddenly very still and in a soft voice said, “Could you pray for me and my mom? We haven’t talked in years. I miss her.”
Another middle-aged woman lit up when I asked and exclaimed, “Oh, yes. Pray for me and my husband-to-be! We’re getting married in a week. I never thought I would find love again. Just tell God thank you from Beth!”
A young man – willowy with delicate hands and deep-set eyes – paused and then tears suddenly spilled down his check and when he could finally speak he looked right at me with eyes so full of anguish I felt I should look away and said, “No one has ever offered to do that. Yes, please. My name is Todd. Please pray for Todd.”
I shared the story of this practice at a church where I was preaching recently and afterwards a number of us went out to lunch. Of course, as soon as we sat down they chorused, “Oh, do that prayer thing!” So when our perky, efficient young waitress brought the food I said, “We’re just getting ready to pray, is there anything we could pray for for you?” “No I don’t think so,” she said breezily. (“Darn,” I thought to myself.) But before she’d gone four steps she turned, came back and said, “Well, yes, there is something. Her eyes were shining. “I’m fine,” she sniffed, hastily wiping her cheek, “just fine. But could you pray for my little sister? Our mother died two months ago and she’s having a really hard time. Afterwards, as I left the parking lot, I saw the waitress talking with the pastor of the church and his teenage daughter.
I don’t know if she nor any of the other waiters I have prayed for have joined a local church. I’m not sure the “church” has reaped any benefits at all. And, honestly, it’s a pretty small thing to offer. But I have been astounded by how eagerly people have responded to the simple offer to pray for them. Hungry for even that glancing encounter with the God of Love. And I have come to believe that even that small gesture is one more way God can use the church to touch and bless the world.
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.