Prayer reveals character

coolhand How can journalists reveal the interior life of their characters or interview subjects? Tom Wolfe has long advocated using three techniques — in-depth interviewing, diaries, and letters.

Perhaps Wolfe should amend his first technique by specifying that reporters ask interview subjects about their prayer life. The questions can bear sweet fruit.

Take this story in The Los Angeles Times, the last installment in the paper’s occasional series on prayer.

Reporter K. Connie Kang wrote about the history and purpose of the psalms. Her thesis is that the psalms convey humans’ relationship to God in all their variety. As an example, she told the story of the Rev. John Goldingay, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary whose wife, stricken with multiple sclerosis, has been rendered mute and largely immobile. According to Kang, Goldingay prays and thinks of Psalms 22 and 23 while caring for his bride:

Yet Goldingay says that as he pushes his wife’s wheelchair to take her to events, he feels gratitude to God for the gift of her life and her love. To many of his friends and students, their example is a powerful ministry.

For several years she was in hospice care, but in November, Goldingay was told his wife could go home “because she is not deteriorating.”

His other favorite is the 23rd Psalm, ascribed to Israel’s King David and one of the best-known verses in Western literature, with its immortal opening “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The Psalm also contains these oft-quoted lines: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

In Goldingay’s interpretation, his enemy is his wife’s illness. Despite that, he says, God also anoints his head with oil, prepares a table before him and his cup runneth over when his wife is beside him in her wheelchair, in silent but complete understanding.

Kang’s anecdote revealed Goldingay’s humanity. To outsiders, Goldingay may appear to be suffering with his wife in silence. But she showed that Goldingay uses two psalms to deal with and overcome the pain.

Kang’s story reminded me of others I have come across. In Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman’s character prays to God frequently, including before what he knows will be his death. In The Big Test, Henry Chauncey prays before his decision to form what became the Educational Testing Service.

More reporters should follow their example.

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  • Jerry

    Mark,

    That’s an interesting point. People can pray in the sense of praising God, asking for something or from other motives. Knowing about a person’s prayers does tell you something important about him or her.

  • Eli

    Unfortunately I’m again having trouble agreeing with your basic premise, Mark. I’m not sure it’s even true, nevermind as simple, as: “Kang’s anecdote revealed Goldingay’s humanity” or that “prayer reveals character”. Seems that in each of the three cases of Goldingay, Cool Hand Luke and Chauncey’s that the characters are better revealed through their actions: Godingay staying with his wife through tough times, Cool Hand Luke refusing to follow the rules in prison (which led to him getting shot to death) and Chauncey actually forming the entity which became the ETS. If it *were* as simple as you contend then it would also be true that if wishes were fishes we’d all eat a whole lot more fish. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that our works are really the same thing as our prayers and that our intentions, or prayers, can only be known in retrospect through our works. Fair enough?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Eli,

    I disagree. In each of the cases I cited, the prayer was the father of the action.

  • Eric W

    If you like the Psalms as prayers, then hie thee hither to your nearest Orthodox Church for the various services – Divine Liturgy, Vigil, Vespers, etc. Your cup will surely runneth over. (However, that verse reads better in the Septuagint (Psalm 22). In fact, it’s downright intoxicating!)

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