Many years ago, I was while serving as Rector of All Saints Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to preach on the occasion of his granddaughter’s baptism (whose family were members of the congregation). Bishop Tutu began by thanking us, which was a bit unexpected – given that the packed church was filled with gratitude for his being there – and for his spirit, witness and passion. Bishop Tutu said our prayers – and those of the rest of the world, ended apartheid in South Africa. He thanked us for that.
He went on to tell of a letter he received from a cloistered nun in northern California who told him that she rose every day at 3 am to pray for an hour – to end apartheid. “They didn’t stand a chance,” Bishop Tutu thundered, referring to the agents of apartheid, “dealing with a nun praying for an hour every day – in the woods of northern California.”
He believed that the power of prayer had the capacity to bring about an end to what was then the world’s most egregious institutional sin. And because it was Bishop Tutu, I believed him – and ever since have taken the discipline of prayer even more seriously. This has been particularly the case when it seems that prayer is the only thing we can do.
For the past several weeks many of us have been asked to pray for the 276 kidnapped girls in northern Nigeria. It is perhaps the only thing we can do. Unlike other tragedies, sending money is not what is needed. Some have made phone calls and written letters, but for the most part the calls and letters are directed to people who want the same outcome.
Prayer has a power. Bishop Tutu gave witness to that power. That power is enhanced when millions of prayers are directed to a similar purpose. And while I would hope that the power of all the world’s prayers will bring the girls back to safety, I realize we may be faced with another, less felicitous outcome. But I do believe that prayer will bring me – will bring us, closer to the heart of God. To a divine heart that groans when children are kidnapped by terrorists, or by prejudice or poverty – or by an educational system that is rife with inequity. And as we draw closer to the heart of God in prayer, we can come away with the power of conviction that there are God-driven actions we can take closer to home.
That there is indeed something else that we can do to help set people free.