Frederick Buechner speaks about prayer in The Final Beast. He relates a story about his meeting with a faith healer, Agnes Sanford, and their conversation.
She gave Buechner an image of Jesus standing in the midst of all the Sunday church services... all over the world... with his hands tied behind his back. He wasn't able to do any of the mighty works we hear about in the Bible because the ministers and priests who led the services either didn't expect him to, or didn't dare ask him to do them out of fear— fear that if he couldn't or wouldn't, the faith of their congregations would be threatened — indeed, that their own faith would be threatened. I can relate to that. People ask me to pray for them or with them all the time. Sometimes I have a chance to listen to their story, and as I've been taught, I try to listen as much to what they don't say as to what they do.
A few weeks ago I was at a reception for a representative from GAIA, (Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance). The speaker was a Roman Catholic nun who was also the Project Director for a nursing program in Malawi. There was a young woman there who'd literally been hauled off the street by the host of the event, who had been waiting outside the church to direct his guests to the proper entrance. She had stopped by the church to pray, but it was already after 6:00 and the front doors were locked. He invited her to the reception and she came, and dutifully and politely sat through the presentation. When it was over and I was getting ready to leave, she stopped me and asked if I would pray with her.
It was good timing. I volunteer at that parish once a week and I had a key to my office. I took her there. She was a bright young woman, a student working on her Masters degree to be a teacher, trying to make ends meet in New York City, holding down a part time job at Starbucks and barely paying her rent on time. Personally she was in a place of overwhelm. Yet she'd just sat through a presentation about an entire population of people living with AIDS, thousands of orphans, not enough food or medicine or professional health care workers...
On the one hand was her own life, and she clearly needed some help and encouragement. On the other hand was the conflict over her obvious position of privilege in a world where most everyone has way less than she does. She was both confused and embarrassed, yet she was brave enough to ask.
She told me "I know I should be feeling grateful, and I do feel that. So many people are so much worse off than I am... I know that. But... but everything seems just so hard right now."
So we prayed. Or rather, I prayed. I can't tell you exactly what I said, I can never remember what comes out of my mouth when I pray. God knows. God knows, too, both what she needed to hear— and what she actually needed. And those are not always the same thing, are they?
So, here's my first point about prayer:
- You have to ask anyway. In that same conversation with Buechner, Agnes Sanford described prayer as a game. And we are to play the game. Why? Because Jesus told us to, and of all the ridiculous games we already play, most of them are not nearly as helpful.
The second point is equally important:
- Expect to receive. This one can be harder, and I think it's at the very center of why our prayers seem so hollow sometimes.
It's a game and it's a bargain. In places where Jesus was distrusted or misunderstood the healing works were few and far between.
So it is in our technologically advanced culture. We bet our lives on chemotherapy while we pray for mercy that it will kill the cancer without killing us in the process.
In this game of prayer, the voice of prayer competes with the voices of doubt. And those voices are devious indeed, drowning out our prayers even as we say them. But as Agnes Sanford advised Buechner, we are to pray down those voices for all we're worth.
The Celts called a certain kind of prayer "Calling Down the Power." It was not a request. It was a demand. Demanding God to act in the name of the Risen Christ, in the name of the Trinity, in the name of all that was Holy. They were on to something.
We, on the other hand, couch our prayers in very polite language most of the time... I know I do. I use words like if it be your will, or for the highest good. I can rationalize that those words are used so as not to place limits on God (as if I could) but are they not to carefully package whatever the results might be... so any blame for lack of results goes to God, and not my prayer? That helps no one. And it's not the game. It's a way to avoid the game.
So the rules of the game (as I see it) are this:
- You have to play. (Ask.)
- You have to expect to win. (Faith)
I think there's something else at work. I think God is on our side, if we're playing poker, our ace in the hole. The opponent is that shadowy figure, we, first of all don't understand, and much of the time don't really believe exists. You can name the opponent; death, sin, corruption, the dark side... all equally adequate titles for an entity, a force, that lies to us about the true nature of God, the Universe and ourselves. Why? Perhaps because he (or she or it) is the opponent.
I have conjecture, speculation, opinions... and those help me make some sense of it, but I won't really know until I'm dead. Until I've gone back to the heart of my creator. But not knowing why has never stopped us before, and it shouldn't stop us now. A liability to be sure, but maybe it's just one of the idiosyncrasies of the game.
I've had people tell me (and I've said it myself) "I prayed and prayed and prayed and God didn't answer. Back in the early nineties I was adrift. I had a history of two failed marriages—both for different reasons—yet failed nonetheless. I was in between careers, holding down a few part-time jobs, barely making it. I had a feeling something was about to happen, but I didn't know what. Here's one of the things I wanted (the things I prayed for):
- A Boyfriend.
- And not just any boyfriend. I had recently come back to the church after a thirteen year marriage to a cynic. He thought the institution of religion was a farce, and some days he wouldn't have been wrong. But for me, God—and the various institutions that represent Him— are not the same thing. I was tired of debate, of constantly having to defend my belief. I wanted a boyfriend who believed in God.
- And not just believed in God, but one who actually enjoyed church and church activities. I wanted a boyfriend to worship with. In all my prayers I never used the word "husband". I was done with husbands. So I prayed and prayed: "God, send me a boyfriend... and not just any boyfriend... and not just a boyfriend who believes in you... (You get the picture.)
In 1995 I moved to New York City. My Florida friends though I'd gone off the deep end, but it was a good move. I found a new church, one that had a strong homeless outreach. I started working in the shelter. Then one Lent I decided to take on the Sunday Breakfast Feeding program as a Lenten discipline. Easter came and went but I stayed on. And it was there I met THE NEW BOYFRIEND. He believed in God. He liked church, and was involved in a lot of church activities. We worshipped together. The answer to my prayers... I was ecstatic, right?
Wrong. Now that I'd finally met the guy I'd been praying for, I figured we should get married. I had received exactly what I'd asked for and I wasn't satisfied. So Point 3 in this game of prayer would have to be: Be careful what you ask for.
The irony of that situation was not lost on me. And I realized that even in my moments of strength, I had been conditioned to believe I was not whole unless I had a man in my life to complete me. Even when it came down to worshipping and serving God, I never even considered I could do it alone, or that there would be fulfillment in doing it alone.
Well, I didn't run off to the convent right away... that took awhile longer. But that tiny crack of understanding in my psyche let enough light for me to begin to question whether this particular rule from my childhood was valid: did I really need a man in my life to love and serve God?
So is there another point in all of this? Perhaps. Perhaps the game of prayer is like Uncle Wiggly, a meandering board game, that travels, not in a straight line, but in seemingly out-of-the-way directions. Our journeys on this twisty-turny-road gives us time. Time... to check the road signs, to change course, to enjoy the scenery, to ask ourselves: Is the destination I'm seeking really the destination I want? And is it really what's best for me?
It certainly doesn't hurt to ask for help. Ask God directly... but look around for the answers. Prayer is always answered. Sometimes the answer is "Not right now." Sometimes the answer is No." And sometimes the answer is "Yes! yes! yes!" but because it's smack dab in front of us... we can't see it.
So... Ask. Expect.