Many years ago, I had a friend whom I adored. She was vivacious, lively, often funny, a bit self-centered, comfortable with everyone she met, and devoutly Christian. I gladly accepted her frequent proselytizing because of her sincerity and joie de vivre. She had a remarkable ability to gather people around her and even make strangers comfortable within moments of meeting her. Although she was not inordinately physically attractive, most men seemed to fall in love with her within moments of meeting her. In the 2 years that I knew her, she received gifts and notes from admirers (including a diamond and topaz necklace), 2 marriage proposals, and so many date invitations that she occasionally forgot who she was seeing on which night. She gracefully rejected the marriage proposals but kept the gifts.
A favorite activity of ours was to go out for lunch to a café that offered our favorite foods and a flirty waiter. This café was in the heart of downtown, so finding a parking place was most always a challenge. One particular day found us circling the same 2-block radius for almost 10 minutes. As she was the driver, I would pay for parking and this time I offered to pay for a spot in a nearby lot, but she declined – “We’ll find a place soon” she insisted. And sure enough, we turned the corner just as a car pulled away from a perfectly placed parking spot. “Praise Jesus!” she laughed. So, I laughed, too. She turned to me in noticeable irritation and asked, “Why are you so cynical about Jesus?” I was surprised and confused – I honestly thought she had been joking. I mumbled out an explanation and an apology. She explained that she had asked Jesus to find a perfect parking place for us just before we found one, and that she knew Jesus would answer her prayer. I didn’t pursue the matter. Although we remained friends for a while after that incident, as she explained her belief in prayer to me I sensed that our friendship would not last much longer.
In my late 30’s, I had the opportunity to return to college after an absence of many years. The experience – challenging and rewarding – was enhanced by a mentor-like relationship I developed with a young woman from Korea. We sat next to each other in a literature class. I took the class as an elective; it was a requirement for her. Although English was her second language and she struggled with some of the material, her understanding of the themes of the books we read was sophisticated and insightful. A few weeks into the quarter, she asked if I would be willing to help her translate a few words and phrases, and some concepts she was unsure of. Noticing how much work and effort she put into the class, I was happy to help. As we came to know each other, I discovered she had a deep Christian faith from which she received daily guidance. When she politely asked if I was Christian, I said no, and briefly, cautiously, explained my belief in god – an impersonal, vague deity. She seemed genuinely interested, and most impressive to me, she did not proselytize. During one of our study sessions (for an important test), she asked me if and how I prayed. She shared that her prayers were of gratitude, and for guidance. She pointed out that she did not believe in praying for “things” – she said that praying for help with a test or other situations was a misuse of prayer. She believed that God guided her work and studies, but she was responsible for the outcome. As the quarter progressed I felt safe with and accepted by her; she did not judge, quarrel with, or belittle my beliefs. (This was an unusual experience for me – so much so that I began to view Christianity differently than in the past.) And her hard work paid off – she passed the test with a high score. On the last day of our class, she gave me a hand-painted thank you card which I still have. She signed the card, “God bless you for your kindness.”
An experience from approximately 30 years ago that I remember vividly occurred when I worked in a hospital pharmacy in a rural town. I was the IV Admixture tech – the person who mixed various medications in solutions to be administered to the patient over many hours. Late on a Saturday afternoon, a teenage girl was brought into the Emergency Department with severe injuries to both legs. Somehow, she had fallen into a large machine with an auger being run by her father and farmhands. Damage to both legs was extensive. As this was a small hospital, and weekends were slow, the information – both accurate and gossipy – flew around employees in every department with amazing speed. But what I remember most vividly was a report from the nurse who started the patient’s IV. She had come to the pharmacy to pick up the STAT admixture I made and had a short wait while the pharmacist checked my work. The nurse gave us an update on the girl’s progress – not good – and of the condition of the parents. Both were praying fervently. As the afternoon progressed, we learned that she might lose a foot. The parents had asked all staff to pray that their beautiful daughter would remain whole.
Days turned into weeks. Often, we saw the girl’s family members in the cafeteria looking haggard and exhausted. Hospital staff reported that her family was deeply religious (this was a Catholic hospital) and that their prayers were working. But as her stay lengthened and the surgeries increased, the patient eventually lost both legs – one below the knee and one above the knee. Infection had set in and spread. After almost one month in hospital, she was discharged home.
What is prayer? Is it nothing more than our species’ attempts to exert control over the haphazard and unpredictable events of life? I have read anecdotal stories of people with no belief in God or gods who, when faced with crisis, find themselves praying. Often, these crises involve a sick or injured child. Any parent knows, or can commiserate with, the panic experienced when faced with a child’s illness or injury that we are unable to heal. That panic, fear, and helplessness can at times disable an adult to such an extent that the only response is prayer.
Is prayer a genetically driven reaction, much like a reflex? We Thank our Lucky Stars when life goes our way; we resort to superstitious beliefs and practices when we want a specific outcome; we often look up in a beseeching manner when we experience great need. Is it fear that motivates prayer?
And what of prayers of gratitude? No doubt you have experienced at some point in your life a moment of overwhelming appreciation and joy without any immediate cause – joy at simply being alive. What do you do with that surge of emotion? If you have a belief in a higher being/power, you will attribute this experience to that being and you will be compelled to give a prayer of thanks. But, what if you do not believe in a higher being or power? That urge to thank something or someone remains. Why? What is its source? Is it simply a free-floating, archaic emotion? Is it the random firing of synapses in the nervous system? A result of the evolution of our species? Or is it a sincere realization of the immense gift of life?
Of course, some individuals use prayer as a weapon. Specifically, the phrases “I’ll pray for your wisdom” or “I’ll pray for you”, when expressed during an argument or when people don’t see a situation in the same way, are cruel, sanctimonious, and deeply self-centered uses of prayer. This type of prayer reveals a selfish motivation behind the act and signifies a profound misunderstanding of the use of prayer. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence.
All the above suggests the problem of unanswered prayers, or prayers that seem to be answered No. The New Testament, specifically the Book of Matthew 21:22, states “Whatever you pray for in (with) faith you will receive.” But when a sincere, altruistic prayer is refused? How can we understand the response? We know of tragic situations where young children die of illness or injury while surrounded by love, prayer, and medical expertise; or in wars and conflicts in which they play no part. We know of lives with promise ended too soon; mistakes young people make that follow them for the remainder of their life – sincere prayers built on love, yet denied? Has God abdicated his responsibility to human kind in situations such as the above? Can an answer, an understanding, be found months or years later? Do we create our own answers and understanding?
Or do we misunderstand the nature of prayer? There is a possibility that prayer is not for our own advantage; not a means by which we satisfy desires or needs beyond our ability. Altruistic or uncharitable; eloquent or barely thought-out; long-lived or immediate – prayer may be a form of communication that we do not fully understand. Prayer may be the most important form of communication we can engage in. The true recipient of prayer may never be knowable to us, but the act of prayer may be of benefit far beyond our own life.