Today we entered colder waters with less wind, but deeper, longer swells out of the east that added a slight roll to the ship’s pitch because our heading is now a bit east by southeast. A touch queasy, and as I reflexively murmured a little prayer that it wouldn’t get to the mal de mer level.
The subject was still “heaven,” so it seemed a slight non sequitur when a American woman in her sixties, I would guess, took the mic and began a narrative that was a lengthy testimonial to the efficacy of prayer. It was a long and poignant story about her husband’s somewhat recent battle with cancer during which, she said, the doctors had given him only months to live. But, she alleged, prayer and strong faith pulled him through. She barely mentioned medicine or the treatment he got as having played a part. She went on at uncomfortable length about her love for her husband and for Jesus Christ, and her unshakable certainty that it was prayer that cured her husband. She was followed by an American man who had also not previously attended, but who told at almost equal length how he was also on death’s bed from an infection and, he too, was saved by prayer. His wife, who ws beside him, beamed and put his survival down to prayers of family and friends. It was a bit like those testimonials one hears on those evangelical television programs. No one commented or questioned these accounts. Then again, what could one say?
Efficacy of prayer stories always remind me of my mother, the lost keys, and St. Anthony. My mother prays to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost keys and other lost articles, when she loses something, but she will also pray for things that I have lost, or misplaced. Her version of the efficacy of prayer is a catch 22. If I find the keys she will say that I found them because she prayed to St. Anthony. If I am having trouble finding them it’s because we need to pray more. Sometimes St. Anthony is busy finding other things, like socks that seemingly disappear from the laundry, or luggage that gets routed to Chechnya. When the keys are found, we have obviously prayed enough and they are returned. How much we look for them, or just happen to remember where we left the keys (usually locked in the trunk) apparently has nothing to do with our finding them.
Prayer Circles are a new wrinkle. Apparently you can get yourself or your wish as the subject of one of these souped-up supplications. This is a variation of the chain-letter idea, where the power of the prayer is enhanced by overloading God’s email account. It’s a little scary; somebody might get a prayer circle going on you—“Oh Lord, please make Jim start growing hair again”—and I wake up some day looking like a werewolf.
I do not pray because I would feel like a hypocrite if I did. Worshipful prayer (“Oh, Lord, I love you above all Gods with all my heart, you are the best God there ever was, etc.”) seems to me like a lot of sucking up and groveling. Supplication prayer (“Oh, God, please let me win the lottery . . . and by the way, remember when I prayed how you were the best God ever . . .”) seems whiny and selfish. Prayer is a waste of time; want to let your God know that you respect him—get up off you knees and go do something nice for somebody. Do some good. I can think of about a zillion things you could do. But quit being a lazy ass who is trying to get into heaven by kissing holy butt so that later the Lord will pass you those winning lottery numbers.  Do some good. Wash my car.
I don’t say these things to the Bible group. If it makes people feel good to pray I have no trouble with that, but these stories of lives saved by prayer make me wonder why such people are not Christian Scientists (an ironic name for people who do not believe in medicine, only prayer). Once you take two aspirin, or chemo-therapy, and then pray, the question of the efficacy of prayer is confounded.
Still, it’s a bit of a problem when you don’t pray. When someone is ill and you write them or their loved ones it seems a bit odd to say that they are “in our thoughts” rather than “in our prayers,” does it not? Does it do any good? I don’t know. But if there is a God who cares about such things He will know of your concern and love for this person, He will say that it’s good that you care. He might even like it better if you showed your concern by voting against some damn politician who cares more about tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies than about people who need medicine, or if you send a contribution to some worthy medical research auspices (rather than the lottery), or even take a little better care of your own body. Put some faith in your fellow Man; we were provided with brains, not just “souls.”
I remember when I played sports. Our team chaplain used to assemble us to importune the Lord for victory. We were also asking Him to make our opponents lose, but never said it quite that way. Weren’t the other teams praying as well? I would make the sign of the cross before taking a foul shot in our basketball games. Was I expecting that the “Holy Ghost” didn’t have anything better to do than to tip my shot into the basket? Prayers of supplication are our attempt to tip the laws of randomness in our favor. Fate, Chance, Luck, and Destiny will all be a little more subject to our needs, desires, and wishes, if we can enlist the favor of the prime force behind it all.
Kent asked for the mic. He prays a lot, he said, and accepts the outcome of those prayers as “the will of the Lord.” Whether he gets what he is praying for, or not, he “knows” it is God’s will, and he accepts it and is happy with it. C’mon Kent, I think to myself, you would be happier if you got what you were praying for, why else would you be praying. But Kent maintains that God knows what’s best for you, even if you don’t (He apparently knows that you’ll only use those lottery winnings whoring and gambling). This leads to another one of those religious catch-22s: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” We hear this one a lot; it’s close to being a version of Fate or Destiny, but with a “purpose.” “It was meant to be; that child died because God must have wanted it to be with Him.” Right, and he wanted that child to be returned to Him by some crazed religious zealot who hacked it to death with a machete. Right,those mysterious “wonders.”
Does Kent realize that by praying for something but accepting the result as “God’s will” makes prayer a meaningless exercise? Let’s take not Kent’s prayer, but a well-known prayer, the most famous prayer in history. When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane that “his Father” might “lift this cup from me” but if it is his Father’s will that he die on the cross, then his Father’s will be done. So what Jesus was praying for is that—if his Father had already made his mind up—His “Father” might change His (the Father’s) mind. And, I am not even dealing with the problem of the fact that Jesus—as the Son of God—was one of the three persons of the Trinity, three persons in One God. So why didn’t He (Jesus, the Son) already know the answer to His prayer (to His Father, or Himself), which would have made his prayer superfluous. And by the way, how the hell did some gospel writer forty years after the night in Gethsemane knowthat Jesus was praying (and weren’t the disciples all asleep even if Jesus was praying aloud?). You know, if those apostles had not been goofing off by sleeping they could have gotten together a prayer circle and maybe got Jesus a reprieve.
Nah, that would have really screwed things up, wouldn’t it. Sometimes you have to be careful what you pray for.
©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.8.2007)
 By the way, the best way to win the lottery is to become a Filippino postal worker; they always win the lottery.