My favourite thing about our city flat is its south facing balcony. I love the expanse of sky you can see sitting out here. I love that you can see the distant line of woodland-topped hills beyond the edge of the city to the west. I love that in the winter the sun rises behind the little copse of trees in the east so that they look like they are on fire. I love that in the early autumn, the birds gather here in their thousands, circling and calling, before flying south for the winter.
There’s one thing I am less fond of though—the ugly apartment building opposite us. The tiny north facing balconies are empty and devoid of colour or interest—just the odd rubbish bin or pair of trainers to break up the monotony.
Except for one apartment. Here there is a bold flurry of colour and lines of flags—blue, white, red, green, yellow—dance in the breeze. Those flags stretch from one end of their little balcony to the other, covering the door, the window. They cheer me up every time I see them.
I don’t know these neighbours. I’ve never once seen them on the balcony and it’s a little too far for a shouted-conversation even if they did venture out.
But I know one thing about them – they are Tibetan Buddhists. And this is how they pray.
I had to look it up when I first saw those flags. I knew they were prayer flags but I didn’t know much more about them. Wikipedia quickly informed me: “The Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.”
I love that symbolism of the wind carrying their prayers out into the world. I love that confidence that these prayers will have an impact. I see them floating in the breeze and I can picture the words of their hopes and dreams for the world being blown out towards me.
My own prayers for the world are less sure, and I wonder some days if they get carried much beyond me at all. Prayer that is just between me and God? That I can understand. I try to put myself into that space, that attitude, that frame of mind, where the Spirit can speak to me, form me, make me more like our beloved Jesus.
But I struggle with intercessory prayer. How does it work? What effect do my own small words really have on the huge problems of the world? How can what I whisper here on my balcony this morning impact anyone but me?
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s life altering book on Spiritual Practices, she writes of a conversation she had with a friend whose partner was dying, about his raw prayers:
“You want to know whether I really believe God will intervene like that?” I think he asked me. “You wonder if I am really that naive?… Honestly, I don’t think it through, not now. I tell God what I want. I’m not smart enough or strong enough to do anything else, and besides, there’s no time. So I tell God what I want and I trust God to sort it out.”
I wonder whether what saddens God most is when my questions keep me from praying anyway. When they keep me from pausing in what I’m doing to look up at that big blue sky and plead with him for the health of my friend lying in a hospital halfway round the world. When they keep me from whispering as I knead the pizza dough in the kitchen, my grief and pain for the woman whose heart is broken. When they keep me from claiming wisdom, as I vacuum under my dustball-collecting bed, for my parent-friends struggling to know how to best love their difficult child.
This past Sunday, I led the intercessory prayers at church. As I prepared them that morning at our dining table, I struggled with what to say. Could a few words in a service that morning really impact the fate of 200 school girls in Nigeria, or a conflict in South Sudan, or devastating flooding in Serbia?
An hour later, I stood before the congregation and began to pray. And as I did, I felt my chest tighten with grief and anger, and my hands shake and I felt those prayers go out from my heart in a way that was real and true.
I don’t have a degree in theology. I can’t find the time to read all the fascinating-sounding books that others around me and online seem to devour. There’s so much I don’t understand about prayer. There is so much I don’t understand.
And I want to prayer, Oh Lord, hear my prayer, and trust that it is heard.
This post originally appeared over at She Loves Magazine.
Image credit: Daniel Parks, via She Loves.