The Power of Prayer, Part One.

A month or two after the David Koresh compound went up in smoke, my church got some horrible, horrible news. Our co-pastor had late-stage brain cancer.

Daniel was an awesome man (our sign-language ministry even had a sign for him–the “D” symbol run over the top of the head like a lion’s mane). His wife was the lead pastor’s daughter, a slender and beautiful young woman, and they had two generally fervent sons in their teens who didn’t show any signs of becoming stereotypically rebellious “preacher’s kids.” When our lead pastor began to feel like he was getting a bit old to be doing all-night prayer meetings, he asked Daniel to come in to help lessen the burden. He’d only been our co-pastor for a short while, maybe six months or a year, before out of nowhere we learned he had cancer. And it was that super-fast-moving sort too. Immediately he went into treatment, with surgery and all that, and just as immediately the “prayer wagon” got rolling.

Praying for magic. (Credit: US Army, CC license.)
Praying for magic. (Credit: US Army, CC license.)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people were praying for his recovery. As I’ve mentioned, our pastor was one of the Big Name Fans in our denomination; we had ties to mission churches all over the world as well. I was one of the people who spent quite some time on her knees praying for Daniel’s recovery. Even Biff, who very rarely prayed anywhere but in church, prayed for him. We were absolutely convinced that God would heal him. Why wouldn’t he? Daniel was doing marvelous things for God; he had a family to support; he was an amazing person in every single way.

C’mon. You don’t need to ask what happened next. Daniel died a miserable death from cancer. Of course he did. What were you expecting? If there’s any disease worse than cancer, if there’s any disease that proves there can’t possibly be a loving god in this universe with ultimate power, I don’t know what else it might be if it isn’t this one (well, okay, maybe filoviruses, but still, cancer is horrible). Daniel left behind a grieving widow and two confused sons, and a world full of fundamentalists scrambling to explain why God hadn’t answered our prayers. This scrambling for the contortions required to make it totally okay that God had let Daniel die so horribly was even worse for me  than the fear of his death, the crushing disappointment when he died, and the mourning for his remaining family and friends. I’d never lost anybody before, so Daniel’s death hit me hard. And I couldn’t accept the doublespeak. As Calvin said in Calvin and Hobbes, “Either it’s mean or it’s arbitrary, and either way, it gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

At this point I noticed something strange. I’d pretty much stopped asking God for anything. Anything at all. Until I was asked specifically to pray for Daniel, it’d been a long time since I’d actually petitioned or beseeched God for anything. I praised him, yes. I told him about my day and explored my thoughts with him. I thanked him for things I thought he’d done (a minister told me once that I had the most thankful and grateful spirit he’d ever encountered). I felt what I thought was his presence in me. But I did not usually ask him for anything. Why should I, I thought? Either what I wanted was God’s will anyway, in which case it was going to happen regardless of what I said about the matter, or else it wasn’t, in which case I sure wasn’t going to strong-arm God into doing something that wasn’t his will. I perceived that God didn’t care about popularity contests or even very sincere petitioning; he was going to do whatever he thought best anyway. And it seemed hugely immoral of a “parent” to demand his “children” ask him for the basics of their lives–what father demands his children beg him for dinner every day before they’re allowed food to eat? Or for healthcare? Or for their very lives or those of their own children? Or to spare them from car accidents or abuse? Any deity who values and encourages those sorts of supplications now seems downright malevolent to me. At the time it just seemed pointless at best and a setup for disappointment at worst. If God’s will was so totally unknowable and mysterious, there seemed to be no way whatsoever to know if a request was actually in his plan or not.

I’d begun to perceive that Christians tend to treat God like a combo ATM machine and errand boy, ordering him around and demanding stuff of him. Even worse, I’d begun to see how hugely impotent preachers looked when they triumphantly shouted “I claim a healing in the name of Jesus Christ!” when they didn’t know even the tiniest bit about whether or not that healing was going to happen at all. It sounded mighty fine, yes, but the results were decidedly not supernatural in the least. When the healing didn’t happen, or it only sort of half-happened if you squinted and tilted your head and looked at it just the right way, they either ignored that they’d ever made the claim, I mean completely ignored it like it never happened as the soul-sick bunnies at Strawberry’s warren did in Watership Down, or else blew it up into some huge evidence of their god’s “wonder-working” power. The whole predatory charade was starting to sicken me and make me question just how much else in this religion was a charade.

Right after Daniel’s death, Biff told me we were going to start attending another pastor’s church. Brother Gene had just gotten married for the first time rather late in life to a sweet older lady who’d also “saved herself” until rather late in life, and they’d decided to start a little storefront church. They needed parishioners, and Gene had asked my husband to please consider joining up. Their church was in our general stomping grounds and we were on friendly terms with both of them, so it seemed like a no-brainer. I was not consulted about this move, but I didn’t especially care where I went to church by this time. Plus, I really liked Gene and his wife, who were nice folks who were obviously in love. I was content to let Biff dictate this move.

It was a pretty little church. Obviously the pastor’s wife had decorated it; she’d used the most tasteful and popular hues of the day: dusty rose carpet, cream walls, and pink chairs, with periwinkle accents all over and artificial flowers everywhere. It looked a bit like a wedding reception hall. I don’t think the congregation got bigger than about 20 people all told in the year or two we attended, but I liked the place and the people involved with it.

About six months later, when Biff and I attended our original church for a revival, though, I got a big shock.

He was off doing his usual bombastic routine at the altar and I was in the pew clapping to the music and enjoying the wash of emotions and goodwill from all the people up at the front, when a woman came up to me. I vaguely knew her by sight; she was an older woman in the inner circle of the Cool Kids’ Club. She wasn’t someone I normally talked to because of our age difference and the simple fact that I didn’t think she approved of me much. She began to make friendly conversation with me about Gene’s church before dropping a bombshell.

“I guess I’m not surprised you two went there, after what Biff did at Daniel’s deathbed vigil.”

I stopped cold and stared at her. “What do you mean?” I asked, a lump forming in my stomach.

She looked surprised. “He didn’t tell you? He invaded Daniel’s hospital room with a bottle of oil and wanted to pray over him for healing the night he died.” She went on to share that Biff’s demands had really disturbed and rattled the lead pastor and his wife (Daniel’s in-laws, remember) and Daniel’s distraught family. They’d more or less thrown him out on his ear. That night Daniel had died. The very next Sunday we were at Gene’s church.

Somehow Biff hadn’t told me about this incident.

The world froze. We talk about it as a metaphor, but it really felt like the world froze right then as I absorbed her words.

I looked up toward the altar where Biff was praying with people and babbling in “tongues.” He was already glistening with sweat from his exertions as he rocked someone back and forth who was about to get “infilled” as dozens of Christians surrounded them both and prayed over Biff’s victim. This command performance was his favorite part of going to church, but he never got to do that at Gene’s church; everybody there was already Christian, and Gene wasn’t that kind of emotional pastor. Plus, the sort of emotional catharsis that feels wonderful in big crowds feels a bit bizarre in small ones. Biff also fancied himself a “youth minister,” but Gene’s church only had two kids in it. In a flash of insight I realized what a mismatch Biff was for Gene’s church, yet my husband never complained or suggested returning to our original church home. Now I understood why that might be.

Biff hadn’t told me about going to Daniel’s hospital room at all. He’d never even mentioned it. He hadn’t said a word. He’d gone to the church that night, he’d said, while I stayed home studying. He’d presented our move to Gene’s church as just a logical step to support our friends in their effort to plant a new church.

I wasn’t that angry about his deception–remember, I liked Gene and his wife and that little church, and I had known for quite some time that Biff was a deceiver and liar; it wasn’t shocking at all that he might omit important details if those details made him look really bad. But I was more disturbed than I could say about one thing that loomed in my mind above all else.

Of all people, the pastor and his wife, Daniel’s in-laws, Daniel’s wife, Daniel’s kids, they should have known that prayer worked. Of all people, they above all should have welcomed a man of deep faith and conviction coming in to anoint a sick man to heal him. Whatever else you could say about Biff, and believe me you could say a lot about him that wasn’t really complimentary, he was so far past “rock-solid” in this religion thing that he probably wouldn’t even register on the scales of sincerity. But the people in that room had thrown him out.

Now I see that of course they reacted that way. Biff’s behavior was hugely disrespectful at a time when they were trying to say goodbye in as dignified a manner as they could to a much-beloved friend and family member. I knew exactly how Biff would have stomped in there and how dramatically he’d have declared his intentions. It would have been a Hollywood-worthy scene. My “now” eye sees the scene and cringes, and I totally understand why they did what they did. But at the time, their reaction destroyed something I’d been clinging to very hard.

When push came to shove, the people who preached the most about the power of prayer didn’t really believe prayer worked. They knew Biff’s actions wouldn’t heal Daniel and they knew that Daniel was doomed despite all their prayers and “claims of healing” of God. Just as every other sane person in the world did, they lived their actual everyday lives with all the human assurances necessary to get through the day: insurance, medicine, jobs, etc. We all talked a really big game about prayer and what it could do, but none of us really believed it. Not even me; I hadn’t even bothered asking for some time. When people actually tried to live the words out by refusing medical care for themselves or something, we rightly called those people nutbars and made sure their kids at least weren’t suffering for their parents’ zealotry.

I saw these things in a split-second while the church lady prattled on in fake sympathy about how embarrassed everybody had been for Biff, and how happy they all were to see Biff back here to make up with Daniel’s family, and of course nobody held it against him that he’d tried his best to help. I don’t even remember what-all she said specifically. I was dazed–shell-shocked. I wonder today if she knows how much she had to do with my later deconversion; even today I have no idea whatsoever just what her goal was in telling me what she did. (If you have a reasonable guess, you’re welcome to comment it. You know as much about the situation now as I ever did.)

On the way home, I decided that it was high time I did a Bible study asking for discernment regarding prayer, and soon you will hear what led me to decide not to go back to church on that fateful morning not long after this day.

Oh, and I asked Biff about what’d happened at Daniel’s deathbed vigil, but I could tell this was a really tender, sore topic for my husband. I very quickly dropped it, and we never mentioned it again, not even in fights, not even at the peak of my apostasy. I understood completely and even today don’t hold against him that he didn’t want to discuss the matter.

Some stuff you just don’t talk about.

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