Struggling with Prayer?
For our Tuesday morning book study, we have been doing a strange new thing: we are reading a novel. Usually we swallow up theological treaties by Bork and Crossan and Bell and Rohr, but for the summer we have decided to try a novel…and believe it or not a science fiction novel (well kind of). I must admit I’m loving the study. I mean people are getting into this thing! (By the way, the reason I picked this novel was that my son, Ben, told me it made him want to become a Christian. I mean who wouldn’t want to read this book, right?!) What makes this book interesting, you see, is that it’s about a missionary who is being called to bring the “good news” to people?/aliens?/freak say (I apologize for the words used here but these are the words that these intelligent beings from another planet are called in the book) from another planet! The book, called “The Book of Strange New Things” (just a side note here…this is actually what these ‘aliens’ call the Bible…don’t you love it?) has some amazing encounters of faith in it.
One of the wrestling points in the book is prayer. At one of the key moments in the book, one of the main characters in the book, Grainger, a sarcastic, broken, cynical pharmacist on the home base of the planet Oasis, shares with the missionary (whose named Peter) the story about how the planet Oasis is named. There was a contest back on earth and this little girl, who had quite a few problems in her life, came up with the name Oasis. After she shares the story and shares some of the struggles little Olivia is having back on earth, Peter asks again for her name and says that he will keep her in his prayers.
Well at the mention of prayer Grainger goes ballistic. This is the very thing that bothers her about Christians…of whom she is very skeptical in the first place. “All you Christians keep believing that prayer works, when in actuality it doesn’t prevent anything. You pray and people still die of cancer, people still get shot in school shootings. Parents still abandon their children. Why do you keep praying for people, even though it makes no difference to the shaper of galaxies, huh?” Prayer doesn’t change a damn thing!’
Later though, after earning Grainger’s trust, Grainger reluctantly asks Peter to pray for her father, whom she hasn’t seen in 25 years, but of whom she still cares about. They then have a conversation about prayer. (I apologize here for the length but please give it a read it is vital to what I want to say). To set this up, the only thing you need to know is that Grainger has come into Peter’s room in tears and as they talk Grainger, the skeptic, challenges him about his belief in prayer:
Excerpt from “The Book of Strange New Things” by Michel Farber.
Peter: “I pray for Charlie Grainger every day. How is he?”
Grainger snorted and, because she’d just been crying, sprayed some snot onto her lips. With a grunt of irritation, she wiped her face on her sleeve.
Grainger: “God doesn’t tell you?”
Peter: “tell me what?”
Grainger: “Tell you if the people you’re praying for are OK.”
Peter: “God isn’t…my employee, he’s not obliged to send me progress reports. Also, He’s well aware that I don’t actually know your dad. Let’s be honest: Charlie Grainger is just a name to me, until you tell me more.”
Grainger: “Are you saying God needs more data before he can…?”
Peter: “No, no, I mean that God doesn’t need me to tell Him who Charlie Grainger is. God knows and understands your father, right down to…to the molecules in his eyelashes. The purpose of my prayer is not to bring your dad to God’s attention. It’s to express…it’s to convey to God my love for another person. It’s my opportunity to solemnly voice my concern for the people I care about.
Grainger: “But you just said my dad is just a name to you.”
Peter: “I mean you. I care about you.”
At this point Grainger breaks down in tears again. Later the conversation continues:
Grainger: “If prayer is just a way of voicing concern, what’s the point of it? It’s like politicians expressing their concern about wars and human rights abuses and all that other bad stuff they’re gonna sit back and let happen anyway. It’s just empty words, it doesn’t change a damn thing.”
Peter shook his head.
Peter: “I understand how you feel, But God isn’t a politician. Or a policeman. God is the creator of the universe. God is an unimaginably huge force, a trillion times bigger than the solar system. And of course, when things go wrong in our lives, it’s natural to be angry, and to want to hold someone responsible. Someone who isn’t us. But blaming God…It’s like blaming the laws of physics for allowing suffering or blaming the principle of gravity for a war.”
Grainger: “I never used the word ‘blame,’ and your distorting the issue. I wouldn’t get down on my knees and pray to the laws of physics, ‘cause the laws of physics can’t hear me. God is supposed to be on the case.”
Peter: “You make Him sound….”
Grainger: “I just wish,” she said, “that this magnificent, stupendous God of yours could give a damn!”
Peter: “I didn’t say He didn’t care; he cares about us very much. So much that He became one of us. He took human form. Can you imagine that? The creator of everything, the shaper of galaxies, got Himself born as a human baby, and grew up in a lower-class family in a small village in the Middle East.”
Grainger wipes a tear off and then laughs and says, “You don’t really believe that.”
Peter: “Believe me, I do”
She laughed again.
Grainger: “You are such a nutcase.”
Peter: “No more than anyone else here, surely.”
Peter sensed she was finished with the encounter. She had got from it, or failed to get from it, whatever she’d come for. He only wished he’d had the chance to explain more fully how prayer worked. That it wasn’t a matter of asking for things and being accepted or rejected, it was a matter of adding one’s energy---insignificant in itself---to the vastly greater energy that was God’s love. In fact, it was an affirmation of being part of God, an aspect of God’s spirit temporarily housed inside a body. A miracle similar, in principle, to the one that had given human form to Jesus.
What a conversation…right? So many of my thoughts about prayer are echoed both in Grainger (my doubts about it) and in Peter (my belief in it). I love what Peter thinks but doesn’t say, there at the end. That prayer is a way of adding our energy to the vast and infinite energy of God’s love. Prayer is first and foremost a way to saying yes…yes to the miracle of being connected to this God of love. Saying yes to our belief that God’s spirit is indeed indwelling in each of us.
So, when we pray for others, we are doing two things (at least these two): first we are telling God that we care for someone else. We might not know the person we are praying for, but we do know and care about someone who does love this person. Praying for others is first and foremost a practice in caring for others. And second, when we pray for others, we are participating in a confession of faith…we are affirming that this God of love is miraculously moving and working through us.
I don’t know about you…but this reinvigorates my need and want to pray more. Take some time this week to put down some of the struggles you have with prayer. Send me a note. Take some time this week to put down some of the bottom-line beliefs you have about prayer. Send me a note.
Your friend and pastor, praying with and for you because I really do care, Brook