Praying. Murmuring quietly with each other. Sipping stale, cold, acidic coffee.
Stomachs growl. Icy hands clasp and unclasp. Backs ache from painful chairs.
An exhausted, grey-faced doctor strides into the room.
“I’m sorry. We did everything we could.”
Where was God?
Was He not listening to the fervent prayers? Was He too busy in the Middle East? Did He not care?
Why even bother praying if He’s too preoccupied or callous to answer, to act, to intervene?
…if His mind’s already made up?
…if He’s just going to say, “NO”?
“The whole world groans as if in the pains of childbirth up til now…”
Most of us are quite content to live in our bubbles until the needle pricks of life abruptly burst them for us. No one goes out searching for pain and heartbreak. They come, nevertheless.
They come as inevitably as death itself.
Maybe it’s just because I’m in an ‘aging spurt,’ but trial and trouble appear more widespread than ever before. There seems to be an acceleration of evil and the tragedy that results from it. Almost every day, I hear fresh heartbreaking news.
Children with life-threatening illnesses. Cancer. Devastating accidents. Life-destroying injuries. Debilitating addictions. Financial meltdowns. Divorce. Mental illness. Plain old meanness. Families estranged. Maiming. Violent death. Death, death, and more death.
The naivety of youth always asserts that tragedy happens to someone else. Those other people. Not our kind of people.
But eventually, we all learn that no one escapes life unscathed.
This comes as quite a shock to some.
My father always said that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’ He spent quite a bit of time huddling in them all over Germany, so I assume his statement was authoritative. He also told me that there are few in hospital delivery rooms. He said he’d never heard the name of the Lord spoken so loudly, frequently, or creatively until he did an OB rotation at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in the early ‘50’s. I’ll spare you his imitation of some of the young mothers who came in too late for anesthesia. (You can thank me later.)
There are moments in life that bring us to our knees…to the end of our ropes…to the end of ourselves and our silly self-sufficiency. There are times when we just can’t fix it.
I think even agnostics must pray then…just in case.
But we don’t always get what we want.
Sometimes I wonder why God intervened in the natural order of things in Katherine’s case. More and more medical professionals have emphasized to us the complete improbability of anyone surviving what happened to Katherine. It cannot be explained in merely human terms.
Was God persuaded by the thousands of prayers bombarding Him to get up off the couch and do something about it? Did we talk Him into performing a miracle?
If so, why are there so many cases where it appears that He did not get up off the couch? Were there not enough prayers? Were they not fervent enough?
Were we just lucky He was in a good mood that day?
Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose and efficacy of prayer these days. My ‘mullings’ were inspired in part by an email Katherine received from a precious young mother who, tragically, lost twin baby girls. She wrote:
One topic i would love for you to talk about would be: what the purpose of prayer is and if you think prayer can change God's mind about something. i just know so many people who have lost children- both during pregnancy and after- and so many of them prayed for their children to make it...and God said no. Do you think God changes His mind as a result of prayer, or do you think prayer is our way of accepting God's will for our lives? Or do you think prayer has a completely different purpose- like to rally people together during times of trouble and lifting them up?
Wow. What great, but challenging, questions. I haven’t been able to get them off my mind. Although the questions were addressed to Katherine, I felt led to address them for myself, if no one else.
I guess the pivotal issue is this: If God is sovereign…if His plans and purposes have been ordained since before time…then what part do our prayers play in the grand scheme of things?
My questioning send me rushing out to research the sovereignty of God. It is easy to get bogged down in endless, unresolvable theological debates on the topic. Predestination? Free will? Calvinism vs. Arminianism?
I need to keep it simple.
One California pastor summed up the basic question:
“It is very easy to drift into thinking that prayer is a nice sentiment, but in the end, a waste of time because it doesn’t really make any difference anyway. For some people, this kind of dismissal arises from unbelief and doubt that God really can answer prayer. For others, however, the question that paralyzes their prayer life is this: If God is sovereign, why pray? In other words, if God will simply do what He wants to anyway, why offer prayers of petition and intercession? Why bother requesting that God do such and such when everything has been ordained by Him beforehand? If prayer consists of pleading with God to change His eternal purposes, isn’t such an undertaking feeble at best and arrogant at worst?” (Matt Waymeyer)
In thinking about it, I realize that I do pray fairly often. I pray inconsistently, but frequently. I pray formally and informally. I pray when I’m calm and peaceful, but I pray even more when I’m not. Prayer is an intrinsic part of my existence, my being. I think I have pretty much always prayed, even in the early 70’s when I doubted God’s existence. They were foxhole prayers, but I believe God heard them, nevertheless. He did not, however, always say “Yes.” (Thank God.)
So why do I pray?
(to be continued…)
(We made it back alive! Thanks to those who prayed...it was an ordeal. Working on a photo album, but I'm slow. Please bear with me!)