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If Only One Prayer

In their book, Prayers for the Writer, Gary Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney relate an old Hasidic tale of a rabbi – whose name we don’t know – who lives alone – in a place we don’t know – and who prays one prayer and only one prayer each morning. This we know. He prays: Lord, let the world continue to be for one more day.

According to the tale, if the rabbi should fail to utter this exact prayer, even just one morning, then the world will cease to exist.

Maybe this seems nonsense to you; perhaps even blasphemous, as it once did to me. I mean, God is in control! Not a person! I still believe this to be true. Upon reflection, however, I have come to believe something in this tale is a finger pointing towards something like truth.

As Schmidt and Stickney point out, it is first of all very true that the world is tenuous. Wake up each morning and scan the headlines. From Iran to Syria, Russia to North Korea, it seems we are always on the brink of yet another war capable of ending the world as we know it. But you don’t have to look overseas. Down the street, there is a person being evicted from her house, tossed out like a bag of garbage on the corner; there is a marriage crumbling apart, piece-by-piece, mistrust setting in like mold devours food. On both a social and individual scale, it seems that, any moment, things could utterly fall apart.

How, then, should we react? Some build underground bunkers and stockpile nonperishable food. Some turn to drugs or start a new affair, looking for love and acceptance from something or someone else. Others face the reality – as scary, heartbreaking, and mystifying as it can be – and do their best to hold things together. Even for just one more day.

And I think that such people are praying, whether they bow their heads or not, whether they kneel or not, whether they evoke the Holy One or not. Because I think that prayer is an active way of existing in the world. If you pay attention to what goes on around you, then you are keeping the darkness and chaos at bay. You refuse to yield to nihilism and, therefore, keep hope alive, however faintly it flickers. And if hope exists in you, then you are trusting in something greater than yourself. I ask you, what can such trust be if not a prayer?

Likewise it seems to me that the true genius of the Hasidic tale is that it asks questions. Who is this rabbi? Where does he live? How does God keep the world in existence through prayer? Perhaps these questions are designed to have a rhetorical effect. Instead of wondering who and where, maybe the idea is that you, gentle reader, are the rabbi right where you are this morning.

Lord, let the world continue for one more day.

If you could conceive of this prayer as a hopeful act, then perhaps by uttering this prayer on a regular basis you, too, will discover some measure of truth to which you can then offer a grateful, amen.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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