Wednesday, April 1, 2009

PRAYER. What is it GOOD For?

(My sister Rachel sent this card to me when I was experiencing loss upon loss, grief upon grief. The caption says, "Just when it seems we will never smile again, life comes back." It was the card that meant the most to me during that season of pain. And its message proved true.)

I'm blogging earlier than I thought I would be because I was ushered into a place of Very Deep Thoughts, when in spite of weeks of prayers for Ron, my friend's husband who had open heart surgery on Monday, he died.

It's one thing to know the right theological answers about such things, its another to feel so terribly alone and even abandoned by God, as Jesus must have felt in his most agonizing moments in Gethsemene. Still another to hear the gut-wrenching cries of a newly widowed and dear friend.

So, in a week where my fervent prayers – along with family, friends, noted prayer warriors and facebook friends and strangers -- for my friend’s husband to recover from heart surgery went "unanswered" -- how could I possibly say prayer does any good?

Last month I had a late night email conversation with close friend Lindsey O’Connor who, after being on the receiving end of a multitude of prayers, miraculously lived after having slipped into a coma and barely surviving on life support for months. Many times we were told she might not live through the night, and today she’s a brilliant journalist, loving mom, beautiful friend. In our professional circles we had just heard about a young mother, with young children, who had just slipped from a coma (following a car accident) into heaven. “Why was I healed,” Lindsey asked, “and not her?”

Things neither of us could understand or answer. One airplane full of people whom God loved made a miraculous landing in the Hudson River. Not long after, another plane full of people whom God loved equally, left no survivors.

Last week I was having lunch with Greg and Carol Cromartie, longtime friends from Texas, the sort I can totally “exhale” with about things shallow and deep. Carol spoke of the prayers that had been answered when she survived breast cancer; then shared that a dear friend, also a mother, had just died from cancer. “We prayed like crazy for her. I loved her so much. Why did she die so quickly and I live?”

“Carol,” I said, “I have NO idea. Those answers won’t come until heaven. But I will tell you this, my concept of prayer has changed remarkably in the last few years. I think we put too much pressure on prayer to be what it was never meant to be.”

A few years ago I read a beautiful prayer-memoir by Patricia Raybon (who has since become a friend) called I Told that Mountain to Move. In it she described all the unanswered prayers around her – an angry ill husband, daughters who did not follow her religious path, a mother who drove her crazy. And then she decided to dig in and really learn about prayer, study it, practice it…. and it eventually dawned on her that prayer was about 1) softening her heart until it became more like God’s heart and 2) sending God’s love, via the spiritual mystery of prayer, to others. It was totally not what she’d assumed it was, but once she got it, she watched the miracle of her prayer-soaked, changed heart provoke miracles of redemption around her.

Some of the brain research on prayer is astounding. Prayer changes things and some scientists believe it even changes cells both inside the person praying and also the person prayed for, even if the people are unaware of the prayers aimed their direction. Patients who were anonymously prayed for rested better, needed less pain medication, were more at peace. Not all were physically healed. Some, in fact, died. But, they died a little more peacefully, a little less painfully. Prayers, especially prayers of loving-kindness or for blessing others calm, center and soothe the brain. Prayer allows our bodies and minds a better chance of healing. It seems God wired us to pray and to be prayed for.

God, however, never promised a sparrow would not fall to the ground. Just that He would be with the sparrow when it fell. We are not promised a perfect life free of pain. But we are promised access to perfect peace, which often comes through simple, centered prayer. Sometimes the best prayers are simple, childlike, repetitive. I love some of the old Celtic prayers because of they tend to be simple, lyrical , soothing, uplifting. “Christ above me; Christ below me; Christ before me; Christ behind me….” is such a line in one of St. Patrick’s prayers, a particular go-to favorite of mine.

Does this mean that I, in saint-like calm, only pray for perfect peace when someone I love is hurt or sick and I am frightened and desperate? No. Like all humans, I beg, “Lord, please let this person live! Heal him!” ….but somewhere deeper than my fear there is the knowledge that healing could be deeper than my human eyes can see. That I am not all-wise, or all-loving and I do not see the upper part of the human tapestry from God’s eye view… I am limited, finite, desperate.

I have lots of Bad Prayer Days, trust me. Days, even, where I refuse to talk to God. He must smile at that.

Eventually, no matter the outcome of the circumstances, my prayers evolve into praying for peace and well-being in spite of disappointment, grief or shock of what has happened.

Prayer. What is it GOOD for? Absolutely everything …..that really matters. As long as we don’t expect prayer to be what it was never intended to be.

Even those who died, I believe, at some level felt our prayers as angels ushered them away. Those who mourn, feel our prayers as intangible hugs of love. Our prayers matter, they are felt, they give peace and life. Even in situations where God calls the loved one Home and we are left to ponder the gifts the beloved husband or child or good friend left in their passing. Our prayers matter as we to learn to be grateful for what we had in our time with them, and still have in our remaining earth-time with each other, and as we ask God to change us inside for the better – through the lessons in the wake of loss -- even as we weep.

Joy always comes in the morning.

And sometimes, surprisingly, it also comes in the mourning.



  1. Becky, thanks for this. Ironically, today I'm writing about the human spirit's need to rise again--to have life come back. And it's a day I'm mourning,too. Thanks for being honest about how life "really works."

  2. Judith, I am so sorry... I remember Catherine Marshall's book for a hundred years ago, because I love the title: To Live Again!

    We'll do a cup of comfort coffee time soon.. Next week?

  3. Good stuff, Becky. Stuff I've been thinking on a lot, as well. I have been on the receiving end of prayer of recent, as you know, and it has been one of the most beautiful, humbling things I have experienced. I know that I have been carried along by the prayers of my friends and family. Otherwise I have no idea how I got from cancer to here, through the chemo fog. I hope this has really changed me. It has been a steady, I think, lifting me up to my Constant.

    It has been surreal observing the fervency, and even desperation, of people who love me praying over me. It has humbled me as a pray-er. Undone me. Helped me pray.

    I think prayer has also affected those who have prayed for me. My kids have all grown so much in their faith, and in boldness and courage in their faith, and in trust in, even closeness to, God. And if that is the reason for everything, then that is enough for me.

    Thankfully, God has been pleased so far to answer all these prayers concerning me. There is a weight of gratitude that I am dealing with, trying to figure out how to pay it forward. For me, the cancer part happened so fast I was spinning so, that it didn't occur to ask why me then. But now, I find myself asking that question, not why did I get cancer, but why did He choose to spare me? It all has to mean something, right?

    Of course, you know me well enough to probably already know all these thoughts, Becky.

    Anyway, I LOVE St. Patrick's Breastplate, that you mention in your post. It is hanging in my kitchen.

    Cheers and love,

  4. Joules,

    I just now came across your comment and it is so beautiful....

    It is an amazing thing to feel "carried" by the prayers of others. I would not be the least bit surprised if someday God opens our eyes and shows us how our bodies and spirits were literally being caressed and tended to by the prayers given on our behalf.

    For whatever reason you get to stay on earth with the rest of us humans for awhile longer, I am just personally so very grateful!