When I was becoming a member at Reservoir about ten years ago, I remember hearing a pastor talk about a commitment the church asked of every member. He asked us all to always have six people in mind who were local and who – best as we could tell – were not churchgoers and maybe not experiencing much connection to God. And he asked us to pray for them every day.
I thought that was an interesting habit to prioritize. It seemed a little quirky – why the number six, I wondered? And it didn’t sound especially strategic – weren’t there more significant things we could do that would grow the church or benefit the world more dramatically?
Despite my questions, I liked the church enough and figured I’d give it a shot.
One of the first six I chose was a student where I taught in the Boston Public Schools. I had him for high school English, but had met him several years earlier as a quiet seventh grader who seemed more interested in computers and construction than he did in his schoolwork. We had gotten to know each other over the years, and I had even hired him a couple of times to help me do some work on my home with me, and I thought I’d enjoy praying for him every day as he tried to graduate from high school and find his way forward.
We had our ups and downs that year in our teacher-student relationship, he moved out of town, and I replaced him on my prayer list. It was a rather undramatic end of story.
Until it wasn’t.
A couple of years later, a local pastor I knew reached out and said she had connected to a former student of mine, who was now active in their church. It turns out that the whole year I was praying for my student, he was stopping by church on occasion, especially when I would fill in and preach. He’d sit in the back row where no one would see him, and he’d leave before the service would end, so I wouldn’t know he was there. And that was the beginning of a circuitous journey to the faith he credits for changing his life for the better.
How about that?
I’ve been praying for my 6, more or less daily, for the last decade now. I’ve enjoyed praying for neighbors and colleagues and parents of my kids’ friends and sometimes an acquaintance I meet through a chance encounter. Usually, I let people know I’m praying for them, and sometimes they tell me how I can do that. One friend wants prayer for their child with special needs, another wants prayer to move past a recent tragedy, and another says (awkwardly) that he’d love to not get hit by a truck, or have some other accident befall him. So I pray for those things.
Sometimes I see answers to my prayers, sometimes not. Usually, though not always, the friendship or connection grows a little warmer. Nothing bad ever happens. And I like knowing that sometimes I’ve been the only person to ever pray for someone, and other times, I might be the twenty-eighth person to be praying for someone, and I almost never know.
I think this is actually one of the most important things our church ever started doing. Over the past 18 years, many, many hundreds of us have prayed for many, many thousands of folks in Greater Boston. We just pray that God would be good to our friends and acquaintances, that life would go well for them, and that they would enjoy the best possible connection they could have to themselves and their lives and their friends, and perhaps even to God.
This is one our habits I really hope to continue long into the future. By praying for our six, we take our cue from a faith community from over 2,500 years ago. Jewish exiles in Babylonia were living very different lives than we are, but they were asking questions people of faith might ask today.
-How do we relate to the majority of people around us who don’t share our faith?
-Should we withdraw from our surrounding culture, or should we try to fight and change it?
-And when the present looks bleak sometimes, do we live in a romanticized past, or a fantasized future?
To all this, these exiles are told to settle down, make themselves at home, and, “And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
Love the people around you, and seek their good. Live in the present, and make the best of the moment you’re living in. And pray for your city’s welfare, for it will determine your welfare.
Let’s pray for the people that rent us our apartments and educate our kids. Let’s pray for our bosses and colleagues, for the neighbor we love to chat with and one whose too-loud music gives us grief. One by one, or actually six by six, a church can ask God to remember and bless whole swaths of our city. And as that happens, we’ll have a win-win on our hands: good for them, good for us, and maybe even good for God as well.