“I will be praying for you.” How many times did I read or hear that since I suffered a heart attack last month? In fact, how many times have I said those very words in response to difficult and even traumatic things which have happened to friends since I left the hospital after my open heart surgery? The answer to both is ‘a lot’, and add to that the times that I have prayed for the dissipation of the light headedness which has plagued me since my surgery and the very low blood pressure which sent me back to the hospital for a night, and the constipation right after my return home which had me wracked with pain for over seven hours. And to all of this add praying for peace in Gaza, peace in Iraq, peace in Ukraine, a return of the stolen girls of Nigeria, etc. And yet, my light headedness and health issues affecting close friends and all of that other nightmare stuff that I mentioned goes on and on. It’s enough to make a guy wonder “Why am I doing all of this praying? It just doesn’t seem to work.”
Let me say from the beginning that I am not a theologian. I am only a Christian believer who has prayed for years for things and received either no answer or an answer of ‘No’. And this has led me to think a little bit about prayer and why I should bother to pray at all. I have arrived at some conclusions, or at least have seen some conclusions beginning to coalesce, and I propose to share those now with any who will read them, and look forward to the thoughts of any who might be inclined to share them with me.
Let me begin with what I think I have discovered about what prayer is not. Prayer is not a magic formula, or a set of sacred words or phrases which, when spoken in the right order or the right cadence or in the right (probably King James English) language, will be the starter button which jump starts God into action. That picture reminds me of the image on Dennis Nedry’s computer screen in the film “Jurassic Park” in which, as Chief Programmer Ray Arnold tries to override Nedry’s sabotage of the park’s computer systems, says “Uh uh uh, you didn’t say the magic word”. The picture of a Dennis Nedry-like God withholding His blessings until the desperate petitioner stumbles upon the “magic prayer” is idiotic to me, and I would not respect or worship such a God.
Another image of God which does not make sense to me is of a cosmic sugar daddy. We sometimes feel like we should just be able to pray and get our prayers answered in a prompt and satisfying manner. Whether I’m praying for peace in the Middle East or an end to the ringing in my ears (tinnitus) that has plagued me for the last quarter century or just that my favorite baseball team would finally win the World Series, if I pray fervently, just sort of believe that it will happen, and then finish it off with “In Jesus’ name, amen”, shouldn’t I see my prayer positively answered? It’s God we’re talking about after all. God can do anything, and it’s no skin off of God’s nose if he quiets my head sounds or lets the Padres win one.
The third thing that I believe prayer isn’t is in vain. I don’t believe that God is resting on His or Her (come on now, do we really believe that God is gendered? Aren’t men and women both created in God’s image? She said so after all, didn’t He?) laurels in some galaxy on the other side of the universe. I do not believe that our prayers go out from us and into a vacuum, noticed by nobody, acknowledged by nobody and having an effect on nobody. An atheist would dispute with me on this but I see overwhelming evidence of God and His presence in every aspect of creation. Even if the Devil might have created one or two things, like mosquitos, God created bats to eat them. OK, that was a poor joke. God has created everything, and everything works together perfectly on this ball of rock spinning through the universe unless we humans gum things up, and the God who is so evidently real and present promises to fix up even that in the end.
So OK, God’s not a game playing Dennis Nedry, a cosmic sugar daddy or an absentee landlord. Well then, what is He? How does God interact with His creation down here? God seemed to expend a lot of effort showing us through a sacred text that took almost two thousand years to write, which was written in at least three languages by kings and exiles and fig pickers and tax collectors, that He is involved with us, invites us to speak with Him through prayer, and promises to answer. why is it then that when I pray for some things they don’t turn out the way I prayed for?
Heck, I don’t know. What? You’re disappointed with me? I told you earlier that I am not a theologian. I’m not a prophet either, although some of the real prophets probably didn’t know the answer to my question any more than I do. So why am I writing this nonsense?
Well, I don’t believe that it is nonsense. God has not informed me as to why my tinnitus won’t go away or why two relatively young cats died on me even though I prayed for their health, but one thing God has shown me very clearly; God has experienced every pain that I have. He knows exactly what I am going through. It would be God’s wish that people didn’t get heart attacks or that cat’s wouldn’t sicken and die, or that His creation wouldn’t butcher each other over wildly inaccurate versions of He Himself which were created by us ourselves. God knows my pain and promises to walk through it with me, and when He says “It’s alright, I know just what you’re feeling and I’ll be beside you” I can believe it because the truth of it is obvious, to me at least. God knows what it’s like to see his children rebel and become heartless murderers (I haven’t had to endure that one!). He knows what it’s like to be lied to, betrayed, rejected, cursed, spit upon, beaten, tortured and finally murdered. And God knows what it is like to lose a son, or a daughter for that matter. Just as a six year old girl was recently abducted and killed a couple of hours’ drive north of where I live, God’s son was abducted and killed, and He was even more innocent that that poor little girl. No, God’s not a stranger to anything that any of us could go through, so when He says “Talk to me. I’m listening and I understand,” I can trust that message to be true.
So, does this mean that doodoo should no longer happen on the face of the Earth because God understands it and doesn’t want it? Obviously not. Then does this mean that prayer is useless and not worth the effort since god will do what god wants to do regardless of my prayers? Again, not at all. Sometimes, when we least expect it, prayers are answered just the way that we would like. The patient in a coma recovers, the hiker lost in a snowstorm is found alive, the Padres get to the World Series. They don’t win, but that would be more in the ‘miracle’ category than just answered prayer.
I have found that prayer accomplishes exactly what God promised it would. Prayer connects me with God, and when I tell Him all that I’m feeling, even when I’m simply feeling pissed off about my circumstances, I can sometimes sense what He is feeling. It is in those times that I understand best that the sacrifice of His son Jesus was the answer to all of my prayers. The heavy lifting has been done and the battle is won. Now God is going to walk with me step by step through the last tough times so that I can reach the end where I want to be; with Him where there is no pain or disappointment or tears. I have discovered that that is enough for me.