"Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast."
- James Montgomery
Once again, as has happened from the seating of America's First Continental Congress in 1775 to May 4 of this year, our nation recently observed a "National Day of Prayer."
Why? What's the use? The things we've prayed for before don't seem to be improving. War still rages on in Iraq, Afghanistan and in smaller pockets across the globe. The genocide we thought we eradicated with the demise of Adolf Hitler, the Cambodian "Killing Fields" and the Balkan civil wars of a decade ago resurfaced in Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere. And now, as we struggle to spread peace and democracy to those war-torn nations, rising despots in North Korea and Iran are threatening to replace our progress with deadly means we fear they might already have at their disposal.
So, why pray? Why, in the words of the sage, do we practice the insanity of repeating, over and over again, what hasn't worked before?
But how do we know "it hasn't worked before"? How can we be certain the wars, the killings and the increasing instability in the world wouldn't have been even worse without the counterattacks of prayer whispered, shouted and offered sincerely by thousands if not millions of still-hopeful people in this country and around the world? How can we neglect to be grateful that such optimism and persistence still exists?
Though I have my pessimistic moments, most of the time I'd like to think I'm still part of that optimistic and persistent band of believers in the power of prayer. Which is why, on this year's National Day of Prayer, I participated in the noon-time prayer service at our church, and joined the national Presidential Prayer Team's virtual prayer rally later that night.
Whether I see immediate improvements in any of the things I prayed for or not, uppermost in my thoughts that day, and often, is the wonder that such an opportunity exists. And one thing that always happens, especially when praying with a group of people who share my belief, is the strengthening of the bonds between praying partners, and between ourselves and God. The greatest blessing, perhaps, for those who believe in prayer, is that we believe in something - or "Someone" - who is more able to right the wrongs of the world than we are. What an enormous relief it is to know that the weight of the world doesn't rest on our shoulders alone.
Hardly since the days of George Washington has a president of the United States failed to express and foster prayer for our nation. We could fill pages with their words, the anxieties they cast on a "higher power" and their optimism that, only with help from God, can this country endure. I was especially touched by the following words - and warning - expressed by President Ronald Reagan on the National Day of Prayer, May 6, 1982:
"Today, prayer is still a powerful force in America, and our faith in God is a mighty source of strength. Our Pledge of Allegiance states that we are 'one nation under God,' and our currency bears the motto, 'In God We Trust.' The morality and values such a faith implies are deeply embedded in our national character. Our country embraces those principles by design, and we abandon them at our peril. Yet in recent years, well-meaning Americans in the name of freedom have taken freedom away. For the sake of religious tolerance, they've forbidden religious practice in the classrooms... How can we hope to retain our freedom through the generations if we fail to teach our young that our liberty springs from an abiding faith in our Creator?"
It sounds like President Reagan and other leaders past and present were echoing the words Jesus gave his disciples and, in turn, to us near the close of his earthly ministry, that "men ought always to pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1).
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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