We prayed last weekend. It was a roller coaster of prayer, medical information, emotions, and prayer. On Friday, we prayed in the emergency room for a friend, then continued to pray in the ICU. When we were told he wouldn’t last the night, that there was nothing that could be done, we prayed: in anger, fear, hopelessness, and grief.
On Saturday, as they began weaning him off medications and his condition seemed to stabilize and improve, we prayed. We celebrated the Eucharist around his bed in the ICU, giving thanks for his faithful witness, a fierce and abiding love, for long and deep friendships, for a life well-lived. We prayed in tears, with faith and hope. We shared Christ’s body and blood around the bed. The altar was the bedside table.
On Sunday, after our 10:00 service, we gathered at the altar rail to pray. Were there forty, fifty of us? I didn’t count. Again we prayed. We prayed our emotions: anger, shock, fear, deep and abiding love, and faith. We prayed at Grace while a few blocks away we thought a conversation about hospice care was taking place in the room where we had been praying for two days. We gave thanks for a life committed to beautiful music and to Jesus Christ, we prayed for someone who had done so much to help the needy, here on Capitol Square and in Haiti. We prayed for strength for ourselves, for understanding.
Did we pray for healing? I don’t know. I do remember that in the face of the dire assessment of medical professionals, praying for health and recovery seemed pointless, the words a meaningless gesture. But later in the day, we learned that what the doctors had said seemed to have been incorrect; that the cancer was treatable, that there was hope for the future. Was it a miracle? I’ll let others decide.
I do know that our prayers were “desperate prayers.” Tom Long writes in the Christian Century about such desperate prayers:
Resurrection and prayer are not violations of the so-called laws of nature but are woven into God’s ongoing act of creation, as fully as gravity or the tides. Our intercessions, then, far from being naive, are a participation in the very life of the ever-creating God. God, as the psalmist says, is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” and sustains the world in part through the prayers of the faithful.
But what about foolish prayers, trivial prayers and selfish prayers? Karl Barth is comforting here. “We do not know what proper prayer is,” he admits, and it is actually a sign of our faith that we run to God in prayer with “haste and restlessness.” To do so reveals a trust that we are in communion with God, who intercedes for us with sighing too deep for words, who hears and answers prayers “quite apart from our weakness or strength, our ability or inability to pray.” In prayer, said Barth, we stand beside God as friends.
Foolish, trivial prayers? We prayed some of those this weekend as well. As I was leaving for the hospital to celebrate the Eucharist on Saturday, my wife was speaking on the phone with our vet, pleading with them to remain open long enough to see Margery, our 18-year old cat. There was some blood on her chin and we feared the worst. In the examination room a few minutes later, as the vet looked at her and did a few things, I thought about what was happening in the ICU a few blocks away, about the little group of people waiting for me, and anticipating a final Eucharist with a husband and friend. I felt guilt for sitting with a sick cat, for praying for a sick cat in the face of that other suffering, pain, and grief. But Margery is a creature of God, a beloved companion and friend. She has been a comfort in affliction. And so we prayed.
Anne Lamott writes about praying for a dying cat in a selection from her new book:
When I pray, which I do many times a day, I pray for a lot of things. I ask for health and happiness for my friends, and for their children. This is okay to do, to ask God to help them have a sense of peace, and for them to feel the love of God. I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better. I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes, natural and man-made. It is also okay to ask that my cat have an easy death. Some of my friends’ kids are broken and their parents are living in that, and other friends’ marriages are broken, and every family I love has serious problems involving someone’s health or finances. But we can be big in prayer, and trust that God won’t mind if we pray about the cat and Jax’s tender heart.