What Shall I Pray? And For What?
My relationship with prayer in my christian tradition has long been as complex, if not more so, than my relationship with the church. The source of this complexity seems to always go back to the problem of theodicy and “God’s power.” Prayer became complex for me when I noticed christians often gave thanks for things that others don’t have. I soon bristled every time someone thanked “God” for sparing her/his own life amidst some tragic event while standing next to another person whose loved one was not spared. I still do.
One semester, my first year seminar on spirituality included a student whose mom had just died from breast cancer and another whose boyfriend had come out of what was expected to be a death-dealing coma (her interpretation of which was “prayer led to a miracle”). Let me tell you, this was, one of the most difficult classroom environments I’ve ever navigated. Many angry tears were shed.
I had worked out some of this by the time I completed my M.Div. Intellectually I came into a concept of the divine that most resembled a spider web. God as verb more than noun; divinity broken in a world of sin; infinite love called into being by loving, compassionate and courageous human action. A god of the in-between: beautiful, ornate, strong but fragile. We humans? Creatures of this web, living lives at the points where the threads intersect and connect us to one another. Our sacred work? Knitting the web back into wholeness, especially when the threads that connect us are torn asunder.
This god solved my prayer problem I thought. So much suffering (the kind I have tended to pay attention to anyway) is caused by human actions that prayer, for me, has mostly been prayer-in-motion. It’s meant participation in the sacred work of being-with-the-divine in our lives through responding to brokenness.
Middle age has come. And Facebook. (I’ll explain.) And with these two things my exposure to everyday suffering—suffering that just is—has increased exponentially. I’m talking about the kind of suffering that is uncaused. This is, by definition, suffering I can’t “participate in fixing.” My notion of knitting the divine back into wholeness and the prayer-as/prayer-in-action that has accompanied it has come up very, very short of late.
Part of this exposure to suffering is the inevitable result of getting older. Aging has meant progressing further into the cycle of life. Parents and grandparents and other loved ones get sick. Get older. Pass on. In the last two years, mortality has taken on a new life for me.
But some of this exposure has come because of Facebook. Yes, Facebook. Facebook has put me in contact with people who mattered to me deeply in some formative period in my life but who, at some point, simply fell of my radar. You can only write so many letters or make so many phone calls. But social media has made it possible for these kinds of folks to be suddenly back “in my life.” (I’m intentionally bracketing here important conversations about what such contact means or not for how we understand and experience relationality.)
Turns out, I have journeyed in person with lots of people who are currently experiencing profound suffering. Suffering I am now encountering from afar, but to which I feel connected given our shared histories. Of late, sick kids have dominated. Really sick kids. Struggling-for-life sick. One is the child of one of my closest high school friends. Nearly the exact age of one of my children, this child has spent more days of his two years of life in the hospital than out of it. He has endured more grueling medical procedures than most adults ever will. This week, a second relapse of leukemia after a failed transplant has brought his mother the worst news a parent can ever possibly hear.
And in that very strange dimension of relating that Facebook seems to invite(?), allow(?) falsely/authentically make available(?), I have found myself feeling truly bereft; grieving. (I also bracket here other knotty questions: the implications of identifying more strongly because of something shared—here, for me, parenting a toddler, the distinctions between compassion and voyeurism, and a host of other important queries related to what respectful, authentic response-at-a-distance to unspeakable suffering looks like.) It is precisely the strangeness of the type of relationship Facebook sometimes facilitates—one simultaneously so distant and so intimate—that has left me struggling to orient myself within my own response, let alone figure out how to honor it.
So, I have found myself returning to prayer. (Facebook of all things has compelled me to re-visit understandings I wrapped up a long time ago? An interesting possibility I’ll also bracket for now.) My prior theological solutions and academic orientation to my tradition have not equipped me to understand this. I don’t know what I am praying. I don’t know what I am praying for. I don’t know what it means to pray near and with that which is unfixable—i.e., does not revolve around human agency. And I don’t know what it means for this mother—who, despite her non-religious identification, has made clear that prayer is now the only thing those who care about her can “do”—and her son to be prayed for.
I don’t know.
Yet I am praying anyway. And I am grateful. For, much to my surprise, I feel like I am participating. Like I am somehow “being with.” Like I am being enabled to practice as much presence as this distant/intimate relationship can sustain with authenticity. Having no good responses for my “I don’t know” statements is not theological ground on which I usually stand comfortably. Meanwhile, I know there are academic resources out there and I find myself wanting to turn to the texts and problems my practial theology professors made me engage twenty years ago. But these are turns for later. The right now is me in the presence of something that demands a kind of sacred, quiet stillness as I try to just be with a broken heart.
There is ground in this place of prayer. And that ground is enough. It has to be. It is all there is for this particular brokenness. And in moments I have a flicker of knowing that if I can acknowledge my emerging discovery of that ground, I am likely to encounter other folks who are standing there too.