One of my closest friends called me the other day. He and his wife moved to Nashville about 6 or 7 years ago so we rarely get to see each other. We only talk on the phone about once a month, but each time it’s like we just picked up from the day before. This time he called to tell me that he has cancer.
The doctor’s are still running tests but the initial prognosis is good. They caught it pretty early. Nevertheless surgery, chemo and radiation are on his immediate horizon. He’s a brave guy, a pretty tough character and very realistic.
After we hung up, something struck me, not about what was said but about what was not said. I never told him that I would pray for him. Nor did he ask for prayers.
Of course I would have been surprised if he had asked for prayers. I don’t know what he believes, even after having known him for the past 20 years. We never got into any discussions about faith, deep or otherwise, even during those awkward years when I was a zealous born-again fundamentalist.
The thing is, during all those times I would tell people that I was praying for them, it never sounded quite right to me. I was (usually) sincere and did (usually) pray for those that I told. I’m certainly praying for my friend. But I have a vested interest there. I love him and don’t want to lose him. I wonder how important it is that I tell him that I’m praying for him. I’m afraid it might sound trite, and for some good reasons.
I’ve been a little conflicted about prayer ever since I was a kid. Whenever my family would be “Gowne downy ocean” and we would pray for blue skies and warm weather, I often wondered if, at that precise moment, there was a farmer’s family praying for rain instead. When we pray for personal good fortune we often forget that this can mean misfortune for others.
Does God love the prosperous more? Whenever someone died we would light a votive candle and buy mass cards in their name, to help them reach heaven. Or we would buy prayer cards for those who were sick. What about all those people who had no one to pray for them, or those families that couldn’t afford to buy mass cards?
Not too long ago I attended a very conservative evangelical congregation. At every service we would invite people to pray openly, either asking for intercession or giving thanks. I remember some very moving moments as people asked for help with their addictions, sensitive psychological problems, severe health issues, bankruptcies, marital concerns and spiritual struggles. Then others would stand and ask God for bigger raises or better cars or more vacation time. And of course, the ubiquitous travelling mercies for the aforementioned vacations.
I began to feel that there was a faintly discernible line being drawn between ‘meaningful’ prayer and ‘frivolous’ prayer. But who was I to make such a distinction? Even I had prayed to St. Anthony for help in finding my car keys. Yet I think it might be helpful to discuss the possibility that there are such distinctions. Prayer takes many forms. When we tell people that we are going to pray for them, what exactly do we mean?
Even in the more progressive church that I now attend there is a little bit of what I see as ‘magical prayer’. Recently our leadership exhorted the congregation to stop what they were doing at precisely 5:00 pm on Wednesday afternoon and pray for peace in the MIddle East. I did not to participate. Perhaps a lack consensual prayer is preventing a solution to that problem. Or maybe others are praying for the advent of Armageddon at the same time.
Do numbers really matter to God? Apparently many people think so. Here are some well meaning people at Counting Prayers.org who think they have a solution for poverty – a billion prayers. Once this number is reached….who knows? Anyway, they even have some helpful hints for those churches who want to participate:
Please consider further pledging that at least two persons before, after, but preferably during each worship service will briefly go out-of-doors and offer the Counting Prayer at least ten times. Then we all will be at least twenty prayers further along on the Billion Prayer March to end extreme poverty.
When a congregation of 100 goes out-of-doors, and says the prayer 50 times, we are all 5000 prayers further along on the Billion Prayer March, to praise the progress made, and bear witness to what is still left to be done to end extreme poverty.
And then of course there is the National Day of Prayer, something that I always seemed to just miss, even when I thought it was a good idea. Now I’m not so sure. I am reminded of Jesus’ injunction in Matthew to not make a big deal out of our prayers yet I can’t envision a bigger deal than this. I am not so sure that it does much to unite Americans either, as it is expressly a Christian day of prayer (in spite of a few words to the contrary on their web page). http://www.ndptf.org/about/index.cfm
There is even a fellow right here in Maryland, Rocky Twyman, who is encouraging folks to ask God for some relief at the pump. According to Twyman;
“We had a really big all night prayer vigil in Toledo, Ohio, one of the car capitals of the United States. It was a tremendous gathering of Baptists, Methodists and Anglicans. After that gathering, the press called me from Toledo and said that the prices had gone down 30 cents.”
And even though prayer is often said to be the personal heartfelt communication between us and God, I am constantly being bombarded with prayers that I am supposed to say and then send on to others. Sorry, but if you’ve ever sent me one of these e-mails I invariably delete them without reading them. The prayers don’t seem to be very… personal. And just a tad superstitious.
Apparently some people even have proprietary rights to certain prayers, as can be seen by the recent furor over the “Serenity Prayer” and others.
In May the Religion News Services ran a similar article about the devotional poem “Footprints” (“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord…”). The RNS recorded that the son of a woman named Mary Stevenson brought suit in May against two women he claimed were inappropriately claiming authorship of the poem, which he said his mother had written in the 1930s and copyrighted in 1984. He asserted that the women had each received more than a million dollars in royalties for its use.
As I suggested earlier, so much of prayer seems to be either about money or requires the use of it. For many, prayer is big business. Bill Keller, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland – there are millions to be made in the name of prayer.
Hopefully God will understand why I am hesitant to let people know that I am praying for them. Perhaps it is encouraging for some of my friends to hear me tell them, I don’t know. Some may believe that my prayers would be lacking in sufficient faith or perhaps even be going to the ‘wrong’ place. But for many I think it would only further confuse an already bewildering subject and perhaps give the wrong impression about my faith.