The following poem appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on July 2, 2015.
The Word That Is a Prayer
by Ellery Akers
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
Who hasn’t experienced what Ellery Akers so poignantly describes in her poem “The Word That Is a Prayer”? Our prayers may be as simple as that one word please. Yet it feels so small, so powerless against the pain, the sorrow, the guilt, the loneliness, the monotony of our existence. Worse yet are those times when our fragile, feather-like prayers seem to have fallen back to earth—heaven unmoved, our circumstances unchanged.
We are right to feel that our prayers are small and powerless, for in fact that is what they are. They are the broken expressions of people undergoing transformation. We may love the Giver, but we often love His gifts more. We may ask for God to be glorified in our lives, but we want it happen on the path of prosperity and comfort and ease, not on the road marked by suffering and contempt and death. Like a soaring melody played on the bagpipe, our best deeds are darkened by the everpresent drone of our own brokenness. How could prayers so small, so powerless, so broken, reach heaven?
Only if Heaven comes to us.
The hope of the gospel is not: if you have enough faith, God will grant you admission to heaven. That is not good news at all, for we do not have enough faith. The hope of the gospel is that Heaven came down to us in the Person of His Son—to those like His disciples, weak in faith and broken by sin. You don’t have to have much faith to be heard; you need only put your trust in the right Person. That’s why the nineteenth-century Presbyterian pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote, “My only safety is to know, feel, and confess my helplessness, that I may hang upon the arm of Omnipotence.”
And when you believe the gospel, the Holy Spirit unites you to Jesus so that you become daughters and sons of the Most High. No parent says Yes to every request their child makes, and the child doesn’t always understand why. But if she knows her parent is good and wise, her confidence in them will grow. So too our Heavenly Father. We may not always know why He says No, or Not now, but we know Him. And because of our union with Jesus we know that none of our prayers, small and powerless though they are, goes unheard.
This week’s Prayer Guide is available here.