My wife is now at home, breathing all on her own, and very grateful that she’s no longer in the hospital or in need of being there. Yesterday was the 12th of January and the first time she’d been in her own bed in 2023.
I’ve been saying “Thank you” a lot lately. Said it to a host of nurses and techs and doctors at the hospital, and to all the various friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers who came by over the past two weeks with casseroles and lasagnas and hoagies. And I’ve been thanking all of the folks who have been earnestly praying for my wife.
Those pray-ers and their prayers represent a wide array of different religious perspectives, some of which are wholly incompatible with each other. It’s tempting to take that as an opportunity to ponder the divine reception of our pluralist porridge of prayers. Or to contemplate questions of the relative or cumulative efficacy of all of those prayers.
Those can be fascinating subjects for speculation. Working through what you think or want to be true to the answers to such questions can be a useful way of exploring what you think or want to be true about the character of God.
But none of that is the point when someone tells you that they’re praying for you. The point there is that someone is extending an expression of concern for your wellbeing. It is an expression of kindness and the proper response, from us, is gratitude and reciprocal kindness.
Their expression of kindness toward us is accompanied by an act of kindness conducted on our behalf. Parsing the tangible effects of that act or worrying about its quantifiable efficacy is not the point. The efficacy of their prayers is as pertinent as the efficacy of their casseroles. The “proper” formulation or direction or recitation of their prayers is also irrelevant. The main thing that should matter to us is that expression and act of kindness, and so the main thing that should elicit from us is genuine gratitude and our expression of thanks.
I suppose there are some wrinkles and exceptions to that. My triangular commute the past two weeks from the hospital to the Big Box took me past the retirement/nursing home where my wife’s Aunt Bernadette spent her final years. Aunt Bern was the kind of crabbily toxic old nun who made the sisters in the Blues Brothers seem saintly by contrast. Most of the sisters living there aren’t as awful as she was, of course, but the place is run these days by the disgraced former monsignor whose prison sentence for sheltering and enabling abusive priests was later overturned on a legal technicality. Driving past that site still feels like passing a haunted house or some other creepily accursed place.
Years ago, when my father-in-law was sick, Aunt Bern sternly warned us that she was praying for him. That never seemed to be an expression of kindness or of concern on her part. It was more like the passive-aggressive, sanctimoniously hostile way that some of her counterparts in my own evangelical tradition would inform you that “I’m praying for you” — suggesting that they were viciously interceding with their vicious idea of God to ensure that you got what you deserved for not being more like them.
Aunt Bern finally met her maker a few years ago. I imagine the encounter was mutually unpleasant.
You’ve probably met toxic religious folks like Aunt Bern but, again, those are exceptions. Most of the believers who offer to pray for you in your times of need intend that as an expression of love and concern, not as a threat of judgment. Our Very Catholic friends have offered their prayers and prayer cards over the past two weeks and we received them as they were offered — as genuine, unqualified expressions of concern and kindness and goodwill undiminished by my wife’s intimately personal history with the dark side of that tradition.
I’m also well-acquainted with the most toxic aspects of my own white evangelical tradition, but that didn’t taint the genuine expressions of concern we’ve received from our devoutly evangelical friends. We were moved and grateful to be included among the prayers at the local Saddleback-ish mega-church where, years ago — back when we could still run the bases — we’d been recruited as ringers for the softball team. And it meant a great deal to me that my very nice Pentecostal co-worker enlisted the “prayer warriors” at her church on our behalf.
I was also grateful that she baked us cookies. That’s what she does when someone she cares about gets sick or injured. She preheats the oven and calls the prayer chain.
They still call it that at her church — a prayer “chain,” even though it’s not so much a chain now as it is a group text. The name traces back to the 20th century when prayer chains began as phone chains — a kind of analog social media that consisted of an ordered list of names and telephone numbers. A calls B who then calls C who then calls D, etc. We used phone chains back then for all kinds of things — like letting all the parents know that the team was back from an away game and we were ready to be picked up at the school. Phone chains and phone circles and phone trees are still used, even now, by disaster response agencies and community organizers.
For the most part, though, we now use faster, more efficient options for quickly sharing news with groups of people. We can send group texts or post on social media, and that’s how the “prayer chain” mostly works now at my friend’s church. The use of the newer technology cuts down on the number of separate phone calls involved, but the purpose is the same — getting the word out to everyone on the list to get them started praying for whoever it is that needs prayer.
I don’t know anyone else who’s part of my co-worker’s prayer chain, but I know the type. My mom was part of our church’s prayer chain when I was a kid, and I’ve known dozens, maybe hundreds, of these folks at various churches wherever I’ve lived. So I know that when the ladies of a bona fide church prayer chain are alerted to offer prayers on behalf of your sick loved one then you can be sure that they’re going to do so. As hard as they can. Even if they don’t know you or your loved one or have any idea who you are other than that you’re someone who throws freight with one of the other ladies* on the chain.
That’s a beautiful thing and a beautiful, touching gift for which I’m deeply grateful.
That gratitude doesn’t require me to believe that those prayers affected or effected my wife’s recovery. It doesn’t supplant or eclipse the massive gratitude we now owe to the doctors and nurses and techs at the hospital. Or to the thanks I owe to people like Dr. Björn Jonson (pictured above), the Swedish physician who invented the machine that kept my wife breathing for a week when she couldn’t do it on her own. I am wholly certain that their impressive skills and their careful attention and brilliant technology are directly responsible for restoring my wife’s health. Their direct connection to that outcome is something I can see, something tangible and measurable and certain.
Did all of those prayers help too? Maybe. Could be. I know that most of those people praying for my wife were also praying for her doctors and nurses and caregivers, and maybe all of that helped all of those folks do such a very good job at their very difficult job. Maybe.
But what I can be sure of is that in addition to the medical professionals who were directly involved in my wife’s care, many others showed that they care for her (and for me) through whatever indirect means they had available. Some of them prepared food. Some of them covered our shifts at work. And some of them offered their prayers to their God or their Gods. We received all of that, and we felt it and benefitted from it, and it made a difference.
And so, for all of that, we are very grateful.
* For all of the technological changes that the new century has brought to church prayer chains, one thing that hasn’t changed about them is that they still seem to be — primarily, if not entirely — regarded as women’s work.
That’s interesting. Particularly in “complementarian” churches that insist on exclusively male leadership roles in the church. In those churches, women are not allowed to preach and men are not expected to pray. That seems to suggest something about what such churches actually believe about the significance and/or the efficacy of prayer.