Good works

Faith in prayer

Put your hands together!

Put your hands together!

Due to circumstances somewhat beyond my control, this Filet of Soul comes to you from my blue suede loveseat at home, as I sit here waiting on the AT&T technician to repair my telephone and DSL internet connection. The technology went down five days ago, and this was the earliest slot the customer service-challenged company had to repair their own network and its link to my house. Do I sound irritated? I sort of am, in that I’ve been inconvenienced, but sort of not, in that the feeling of frustration and lack of control I have precisely mirrors the feeling I have regarding the topic of this essay: Faith in prayer.

I might as well come clean. I have little faith in prayer, but maybe I have more now than I had a few weeks ago before I had the opportunity to talk to Pastor Carl Wilfrid of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd at a wedding reception.

I wanted to get the pastor’s perspective on the “concept” of prayer, as I’d recently been to a church that had a sharp focus on prayer, and it left me a little cold. It left me cold because I’ve never had a prayer answered. I’ve had things turn out the way I was wishing they’d turn out, but I’ve never had a feeling attached to it that suggested the prayer itself influenced anything. And I have prayed ardently and sincerely, like when my mom was in the hospital dying from an aneurism.

Over the years, I’ve come to think that fervent prayer, like that espoused by some of these modern groups—The Secret comes to mind—may actually work against spirituality and making a better life on this world. It’s deeds that improve our lives and those of our neighbors and the less fortunate. It’s deeds that can ruin our own lives and those around us. Prayer has, in my personal experience, been no more effective than wishing on a star or calling the phone company and expecting good service—which I earned through my longtime commitment: I put money in their plate; I profess my involvement with their service; I believe in their ultimate benevolence to provide me with communications. And yet, when I petition them with a phone call (on my Verizon cell phone), I’m told they’ll fix it (or not) in their own time.

I think many mothers with starving babies fervently pray for their family’s most basic needs. But there are a lot of dying children in this world.

Yet, as Pastor Wilfrid reminded me, we know from a scientific, objective basis, that people who pray after surgery heal faster, and when large groups pray for a similar objective, outcomes appear affected. And the pastor recognized the frustration that comes from asking and not receiving. He’s got some experience with death and dying, and he suggested that sometimes, maybe often, we’re praying for the wrong thing, and that may be why prayers go unanswered. For example, in a case of terminal cancer, maybe the prayer should be that the person dies a good death rather than for a miracle recovery.

So then the question could become, what does the phrase, “prayer works,” mean? If prayer is not about outcome, “Please let it be sevens,” but about letting go, “Your will be done,” then that means prayer always works, if its purpose is to teach us humility and powerlessness.

Yet, why do we humans have a genetic hardwiring to hope for things, and in some cases, to compose our thoughts in such a way that they come out as words directed at some controlling intelligence, the first star I see tonight or an operator in India?

The answer may be that in desperate situations, without hope and without a prayer, we are in despair, and at that point, there’s not a lot of reason to continue striving.