On Prayer

(Prayer square and blanket made by the NDPC Knit Wits)

It’s pretty much impossible to say anything definitive about living through this time of global pandemic. It’s all such a moving target.  On Good Friday–nearly three weeks ago–I wrote a post that I didn’t end up publishing. It was about coronavirus and the privilege gap. As in, essential workers and people living in crowded spaces (those in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, overcrowded apartments) are at grave risk, and those of us who can work at home (and aren’t crammed into too small a space with too many others) are significantly less vulnerable.

I was trying to make the point that contrary to optimistic memes and sweet signs taped to the windows of many of the houses I walk by daily, we aren’t all in this together. Some are in much leakier boats. And I was trying to connect this grim reality to the grim reality of Good Friday, when humanity’s sadism and brutality was on full display.

I still stand by all that. Of course. But the day after I wrote that post, I found out that one of my brothers, who lives in Minnesota, was very sick and showing symptoms of Covid-19. After finding out he was ill, I called him, and learned that he had just called for an ambulance. I was still on the phone with him when the ambulance arrived. I overheard the EMT help him gather his things. My brother was very disoriented, and the EMT was patient and kind.

I was calling from Atlanta, where the bulk of our family lives. I was struck by how very far away he was, how very far away most of those closest to him were–in particular, my sister, with whom he is exceptionally close, and his mother. (He is my half-brother. We have the same father but not the same mother.)

Soon after we hung up, I learned that he did indeed have Covid-19. Later that evening, the doctors determined that he needed to be on a ventilator.

So far, he is doing remarkably well, all things considered. But being on a ventilator is a lot to consider.

My day-to-day situation remains the same,  and it remains one of privilege–nesting at home with my husband and son, taking a daily walk with my mask on, observing the flowers bloom in the front yard (it’s peony season, and God, are they lovely and fragrant), cooking good meals. But my experience of the virus has changed. The stakes are much higher. The danger, suddenly, quite real.

I’ve always had what I like to think of as “the God gene,” meaning I’ve always both believed in God and actively sought to feel close to God. (I know some deeply moral people who do not seem to possess this gene, which makes me think that some of us are inclined to religious life, others find grounding elsewhere.) But for much of my life, I’ve been skeptical of certain kinds of prayer — that is, the kind where you ask God for something specific, and if you ask in the right way, you get it. There’s a whole subset of Christianity based on this model–sometimes called “the prosperity gospel”–and I’ve always found it troubling. What about those whose prayers AREN’T answered? What about those who pray for financial wellbeing and don’t find it, who are stuck in a cycle of poverty? Is their financial situation their own fault, and not, at least in part, the result of a terribly inequitable economic system that is deeply rooted in racism? Did they simply not pray with enough sincerity or faith?

Several years ago, I knew of a woman who got very sick, very suddenly. I didn’t know her personally; she was a friend of a friend. By all accounts, she was a wonderful human being: a mother and wife and high-powered business woman who was adored by pretty much everyone she encountered. Upon her diagnoses, her deeply devoted friends and family surrounded her with healing prayer. This core group of ceaseless prayer warriors believed that because of their faithful and relentless pleas to God, she would not die. She was too faithful a woman to die so young.

She died.

My guess is that there was no reason for her illness and death, other than the simple truth that we humans are mortal, and therefore vulnerable to disease. But does that mean her friends and families prayers were for naught? I don’t think so. Perhaps, the faith and loyalty of her tribe buoyed her family during her illness. Perhaps, she felt so loved and cherished and tenderly cared for, that she was not as scared as she might otherwise have been in the face of death. Perhaps, her death changed those who prayed for her–perhaps it opened up the possibility of less certainty,  and a wilder and more difficult God to comprehend, a God that cannot be captured by our limited, finite brains. A terrible reality, but perhaps closer to the truth.

Her death certainly made me question an assumption I had always taken for granted, that a shortened life is a ruined life. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps it’s just…shorter.  After all, we are all going to die. Do we not allow someone to have had a “good life” if it is not also a long one?

This is not to try and short-circuit the necessary grief and anger and despair that her friends and family–and God, her children–felt. One thing I feel pretty certain about is that faith in God is not meant to short-circuit necessary grief. And that her friends who prayed so earnestly for her healing had a right to be furious when she died anyway.

One of the reasons that I’ve spent so much of my life wary of the idea that God will grant our prayer requests–assuming we ourselves have the proper amount of faith–is because I grew up in a world of tremendous wealth and privilege, where people seemed to believe that God INTENDED for themselves and their families to live in multi-million dollar houses and belong to private clubs, just so long as the parents tithed, and were “fiscally responsible,” and the children made good grades, and didn’t have sex before marriage. In that world, it seemed Christ was personally invested in every tiny poop taken by white children in smocked clothing, but didn’t give much thought to, say, brown bodies being warehoused in American prisons, or, more currently, migrant kids at the border separated from their parents and kept, in some cases, in cages.

But if God is worth anything at all, God cares about all–whether we are outfitted in smocked dresses or prison garb. And in the Christian tradition, God came to this earth the dark-skinned child of a disempowered woman, came to this earth a child who was soon made a refugee, as his family fled to Egypt shortly after his birth in order to protect their newborn child from Herod. And so it can be plausibly argued that while God loves us all, if we want to feel close to God, to feel God’s presence, we need to go to the margins, because that is where God showed up when God came to earth.

A metaphor that helps explain this concept: God loves us all–from mouse to elephant–but God’s heart is with the mouse being stepped on by the elephant.

But the thing is–the mouse prays. People on the margins pray. The man I used to visit in a detention center (he was an undocumented immigrant awaiting a court hearing to determine if he could stay in our country), prayed all of the time, and asked me to pray for him. And I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in praying. It was more that I saw prayer as a way to tap into God’s presence, to feel accompanied by God, in sorrow and in joy. I did not believe that prayer was supposed to shield us from our experience of being human on this earth. I did not believe that prayer could change outcomes.

I say this, and yet, there have been times in my life when I have heard the voice of God–and whether that was simply deep intuition or a voice outside of myself, I’m not sure really matters. And listening to that voice DID help me chart my life in a way that brought me joy and connection. Listening to that voice did change the outcome. And what of the civil rights movement of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s? Was it not girded by prayer? Did Fannie Lou Hamer’s bedrock faith not allow her to face the beast of white supremacy and not back down?

Perhaps my resistance to the efficacy of prayer is, in itself, a form of buffered, white privilege.

I’m thinking about all of this, of course, because of my brother. So many members of my church have reached out to tell me they are praying for him. And so many people from his life and his family’s life are praying, too. And this isn’t a, “he’s in my prayers,” sort of empty assurance, where that statement serves as the prayer itself, where once you say it, you promptly forget whoever it is you said you would pray for.  (See: politicians “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting.) These folks are ACTIVELY praying for my brother, every day. Lifting him up. Focusing loving attention on him. Asking God for help.

I’ve been praying, too, asking God to be with my brother, to help him heal, to bathe him in light, to let him know he is loved, even in his sedated state. To let him feel a sense of steady and infinite love, regardless of outcome.

I believe my brother can feel this divine energy directed at him. But do I believe it is helping him heal?

Well, here’s the thing. He’s doing remarkably well. The doctors thought they were going to lose him, and now they think he has a shot at recovery.

And yet, someone else’s beloved brother, or mother, or aunt, or grandmother has died from this disease, and my religion insists that their life was as worthy and important as anyone else’s. So, why would God save one of many?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

I only have a wisp of understanding of this massive, infinite thing I think of as God. Recognizing the limits of my comprehension, it seems to me that it’s both arrogant to think prayer DEFINITELY works in the way you want it to work, and it’s arrogant to think it DEFINITELY doesn’t work. I suppose I’m having a Job (as in the Book of Job) moment, because mostly I’m just in awe of how much I don’t understand. But this is what I currently know:

1) Praying helps loosen me from the bonds of my own anxiety and overthinking.

2) Praying makes me feel closer to the person I am praying for. Even though I am not physically near my brother, I FEEL near him when I pray for him.

3) Knowing that people are praying for my brother brings me great comfort and peace, and I believe it brings him comfort and peace as well.

4) There is something to be said about letting God know what you want. Surely God or the universe knows anyway. But there is something honest and humbling about just stating what you desire, knowing that it is not within your power to make it happen. There is something distinctly vulnerable about stating your needs. It kind of goes against all of the training I had growing up in a competitive, status-oriented world, in which I was taught that to be vulnerable or earnest or faithful was to be subject to ridicule. But God loves our vulnerable, tender hearts.

5) I feel less anxious in general when I allow myself to be in conversation with a spirit greater than myself. Sometimes this spirit feels “out there,” as in as big as the sky. Other times it feels deeply internal, as in getting in touch with my innermost intuition. But always, I feel in conversation. Whether I’m listening to a “still, small voice” from inside myself, or I’m outside on a walk, conversing with God as if God is lurking in the clouds.

6) Certainty is the opposite of faith.

Which is all to say, my relationship to prayer is changing. Some might say evolving. I would even go so far as to say I’m certain that prayer helps. I just don’t know how or why.