“Answered prayers,” reads an email I received from someone, who like me, didn’t suffer in the latest round of storms. Lately, my email box and Facebook pages abound with posts of thanks to God in regard to escaping the damage of Hurricane Sandy. I read these posts, consider the suffering and distress in the northeastern states and have to ask this: Do you think the residents in those locations didn’t pray? Surely, you do not think God listened to your prayers and not another's to the degree that he swung his cyclonic force into the path of those others.
Last night, I considered this with my husband, who read to me Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” which was initially censored from publication and finally printed posthumously in 1923. Mark Twain’s point, illustrated by a preacher leading his people to pray for victory and a man who rose to the pulpit to counter that prayer, was that one could be construed as unwittingly praying for the destruction of others and their property. I turn this over in my head and remember Katrina. There are stories of a family friend sheltering his daughter from the sight of bodies being retrieved from Lake Ponchartrain. Didn’t those people—drowning victims, the residents that suffered loss and damage, the men and women called in to provide relief—pray? My parents’ own home filled with turbid waters and was destroyed, yet we all prayed for that not to happen. Did someone's desperate prayers for safety send that storm to us and not the Carolinas? Aren't both sides in a battle praying for victory, saying, "If God be with us..."?
I appreciate prayers of gratitude, but I do not credit God for sparing me when there exists the suffering of another. I sometimes wonder, what the purpose is in prayer and God at all—not doubting the existence of the divine unnameable force that is the ultimate connection in all things living and not, but simply doubting why. I weigh what appears to be, depending on the situation at hand, God’s sense of humor, irony, grace, and karmic energy. These days, I pray differently than I did years before—before I watched Katrina’s flooding of my hometown while two blow-hards behind me said that New Orleans was Soddom and Gomorrah; before I divorced and had to decide which path was the right hardship to bear; before my first mother-in-law died of lung cancer within three months of diagnosis. These days I simply pray this when faced with the potential of blight: Please Lord, give me the wisdom to know what to do, and to have the courage to act upon it.
It’s a funny thing about prayer. It’s an innate reflex, something I draw upon frequently as a method of reflection and sourcing good will. Just when I think there is no purpose in it, I find myself humbled in the cool, grey thoughts of a soul’s private shared space with God. I find myself asking, but first seeking the right words in hopes I do not errantly pray selfishly. While I love the wonder that is God and the wisdom one finds in Biblical books, I wince at the thought that God listens to a chosen few in chosen moments. Yet I persist. Is that not faith?
A friend at work came to see me today with prayer requests, something that I find humbling and sweet—and they are the prayers I have an easier time making known to God—prayers for health, prayers to find the best way to diagnose a mystery pain. They are the things that don’t throw someone else under the bus, so to speak. When she came to me with her requests, I mentioned my questions about prayer. My friend, who just retired from years of serving in the music ministry of her church, said that what God really wants is for us to talk to Him, to have that relationship. She said, “He already knows what is in our hearts.”
The truth is that I think about God all the time. I wonder all the time and look for His guidance. I look for questions and answers alike, and ponder the mystery that some say is simply the most powerful love—love for all mankind, love as though you are one particle in an infinite solution of teeming life—rolling around and clicking, connecting, and bouncing off others in non-stop flow. I wondered recently if I should pray to feel that kind of transformative love for all people, something that would make me vulnerable. I started to pray for this and stopped. Perhaps, it is not my job to ask for a gift too big to bear. So instead, as I watch the world spin around me, with its hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, and human struggles, I will again say what I know to be true so far: Please Lord, give me the wisdom to know what to do, and to have the courage to act upon it.