A friend was joyously sharing good news: Though her brother’s protracted troubles had seemed hopeless, suddenly there was a profound answer to prayer. She had prayed for him for years, but the problem was so big that she hadn’t really expected anything to change. It was like praying for world peace, she said with a laugh that conveyed her wonder and gratitude.
I knew what she meant. The world has plenty of big needs that beg for prayer. We pray because we should, but sometimes the size of those needs makes prayer perplexing. When we pray, what can we expect?
One person who lived as if prayer and action were inseparable was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died just recently. He prayed fervently for an end to apartheid in South Africa, and he also worked every day to make it happen. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine that such a powerful, intractable system could ever be dismantled. Now it is difficult to imagine how that evil was allowed to exist.
When I read today’s newspaper headlines, the solutions seem as elusive as world peace—that perennial prayer list request. But then I remember the example of Archbishop Tutu, who could see beyond the present reality. He never lost heart, so why should I?
For him, liberation was a key theme of both the Old and New Testaments. In the midst of apartheid, he preached, “People are set free from bondage to the world, the Devil and sin, in order to be free for God. . . He has set us free from all that has made us less than God intended us to be, so that we could have a humanity measured by nothing less than the humanity of Christ Himself” (Hope and Suffering, p. 58). Tutu’s life showed that he wanted that humanity for all people, including those who despised him.
I encountered Desmond Tutu three times—in South Africa, New York, and Elgin, Illinois. What I especially remember was his lively presence and infectious laugh. He embodied joy. Perhaps what kept him tireless for 90 years was his immersion in God’s love, which fueled both his private prayers and his public actions. As he wrote in the first line of the first story of his Children of God Storybook Bible, “In the very beginning, God’s love bubbled over when there was nothing else. . . .”
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.