Confession time and you can join me if you’ve done this too.
- I admit it: I’ve forgotten to pray for people before. I’ll hear someone’s troubles on the street or at lunch or at the bank and I say “I’ll pray for you” and I’ve forgotten. It won’t be until I see the person again and remember their grievance or trouble and ask about them that I realize I didn’t pray for them the previous day. I do remember (thankful for a good memory), and the person appreciates that I remember, but I feel bad when I say I will pray and then don’t. I say “I’ll pray for you” and what then does it mean?
- I’ll admit it: I find some prayers to be ridiculous and I don’t pray for them. A child wants prayer for a classmate to be nice to them, a youth prays to pass a quiz on Tuesday, an adult prays that their sports team wins the Super Bowl. I have said I would pray for these insignificant things and I don’t. Sure I’ll say “God, hear all our prayers today” but I really mean the important ones. I say “I’ll pray for you” and what then does it mean?
- Finally, I’ll admit it: I wonder about the efficacy of prayer. There, I said it. From a youth’s parent dying of cancer, to a young man dying too young, to a friends’ parent dying of resurgent breast cancer, all of which were prayed for by ridiculous amount of people, and none of whose prayers were answered. In all those situations, I can safely say that more love would exist in the world if they lived, and yet our prayers seem to be unanswered. I say “I’ll pray for you” and what then does it mean?
Yes, I’m a pastor and I feel bad about the above doubts and lapses in pastoral judgment. But perhaps my lack of prayer didn’t mean as much as the promise to pray itself.
A part of me wanted to laugh. Another part of me wanted to blurt out, “That’s absurd! Don’t you think God has better things to do?” Another part–the budding philosopher–wanted to trot out the problem of evil, and ask why this guy expected God to miraculously intervene to heal a bruised thumb when He doesn’t intervene to save starving children, to prevent rapes and murders, to save people buried alive during earthquakes, and on and on. In fact, I wanted to say, a God who did respond to the thumb prayer would be despicable, given that He doesn’t respond to the anguished cries of so many others whose need is so much greater.
I still have trouble making sense of a theology in which God responds to human prayer requests in cases where, in the absence of such prayer requests, He would let those prayed for rot. It seems to me there is a strong argument for the view that either petitionary prayer is needless or it is useless. Either God cares enough to intervene and has the power to do so, or He does not. If the former, petitionary prayer is needless. If the latter, it is useless.
But in the end, Reitan unearths what two people who said “I’ll pray for you” really meant to his ailing agnostic father who is preparing for a difficult surgery.
As is so often the case–the point is about love.
Luigi is far away, and he loves my father, and love expresses itself in tangible ways. As Simone Weil put it (I don’t have the text here in Buffalo, so this is just a paraphrase), “The only way we can really show love for that which is eternal in persons is by caring for their tangible needs here below.” Luigi cannot perform the surgery. He cannot do much to heal my father’s diseased bladder or promote his body’s recovery from the trauma of surgery. He cannot even bring a casserole to the house.
But he can pray. He can pray for healing. He can will that powers greater than he is might reach into this mortal coil, nudge the quantum forces that underlie my father’s flesh, steady the surgeon’s hand, and so move him back towards health.
The neighbor who came by this morning cannot do much for my father’s health. But he loves my father and wants to show how much he cares for my father’s health. A visit is nice, but it isn’t directed towards healing, which is what my father needs. And love responds to needs. The neighbor can’t remove the cancer. Be he can light a candle and say a prayer.
And tomorrow, when I sit for hours in the surgical waiting area, unable to do anything else for my father, I will pray. And if any of you want to do the same, I won’t laugh or call your gesture absurd.
To me, it doesn’t really matter what you think about the efficacy of petitionary or intercessory prayer, whether God chooses to heal people, whether God doesn’t notice things unless we pray for them, whether God will bring peace to Egypt if we pray. What matters is that you love a person, you love peace, you love God’s children, then you pray for them. When we are helpless to do anything else to help someone we love, then we pray. It’s an expression of love, a necessary component of our relationship with one another and with God. Referencing the Simone Weil quote above, when we can do nothing else to provide for a person’s needs, we can pray as not only an affirmation of our faith in God, but as a expression of our love for God’s creation.
Is it efficacious? Will it make a difference? I don’t know and I don’t think I’m disrespecting God in my doubts. But if I love a person, persons, or a common good, then I pray as a component of my other expressions of love, trusting in God to do the rest.
To the people who I say I will pray for you and forget, or don’t, or won’t…I am sorry. I will try harder to remember that I pray not out of belief in what the prayer does or means, but I pray because that’s what love looks like when I cannot do anything else.
We pray to love not for the results. There, that’s what I wanted to say and it came right at the end of this blog post. Wow. Is it really that simple?
Thoughts? Anyone out there?